Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

Backpacking in the Dominican Republic and Haiti

40 days itinerary from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince and back

In 2014 I traveled with my boyfriend to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As usual we left Italy without a defined itinerary in mind, we were ready to let our feelings guide us along the way.

We arrived in Santo Domingo after a long flight with a stop over in New York to save money, but that left us super tired.

Santo Domingo is a nice town with some beautiful colonial architecture. It can also be frightening in some areas, like around Parque Enriquillo, where most of the buses leave and arrive. It was scary at first for Luca, who had never been out of Europe and was not used to the chaos and crazy traffic.

Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo

From Santo Domingo we decided to go South-West, by the coast. Los Patos was recommended by the Lonely Planet as one of the best beaches of the South. So we went there, because the intention was to see as many different parts of the country as possible. We had a great time there. There were very few foreign tourists, many local tourists, so if this is what you are looking for, I recommend this part of the Republic instead of the North and East.

After Los Patos we went to Pedernales, right at the border with Haiti. From there we went to Bahia de Las Aguilas, a natural park with one of the most amazing beaches I’ve ever seen. We were near Haiti, but still couldn’t decide if we wanted to go or not. Everyone we talked to recommended not to go, because it was dangerous and expensive. Probably because we were advised not to, we went. And the true adventure started.

baia delle aquile
Bahia de las Aguilas

Adventurous backpacking in Haiti

Just after the border we had to take a boat in the night to take us to the nearest town, because going by land would have taken days.

Fist stop in Haiti was Jacmel, a lovely artists town in the Southern Coast, that still showed the many damages of the earthquake in 2010. We had the first glimpse of how Haiti would have been: dirty, chaotic, almost impossible to get money, but with sweet people (mostly).

This is how we were going to travel in Haiti

From Jacmel we took a tap-tap to Port au Prince and from there to Port Salut. It was the first of the many long journeys we had in Haiti. Traveling by local transportation is not easy at all in Haiti. Every time it took us many long hours to do just a few hundreds of kilometers. That was probably the worst part of backpacking in Haiti, because it was a huge waste of time and very tiring.

Port Salut is a pretty holiday resort, very quiet and relaxed. From there we went to Les Cayes one day, trying to go to the Ile de Vache, but the hours lost waiting for the tap-tap to fill up and finding a working ATM prevented us to go to the little island.

After Port Salut we went to Port au Prince, the capital. The first introduction wasn’t of the best, as we were approached by a guy who tried to steal from us. The town centre of Port au Prince is not bad, if you don’t mind the heat and dust, but out of the main roads and square it’s messy and not reassuring. We managed to see some voodoo art, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Haiti.

After Port au Prince another loooong and scary journey to go to Cap Haitien. Cap Haitien is actually pretty and clean, very different from the capital, even though it’s also a large city. But this in the town centre. Just out of the centre there’s a canal full of rubbish, a very bad sight.

cap haitien
Coming out of school in Cap Haitien

From Cap Haitien we crossed the border to the Dominican Republic (so basically we entered Haiti in the South and exited in the North; there’s another border crossing in the centre, between the two capitals).

A much easier backpacking in the Dominican Republic

It was very nice to be back in the Dominican Republic. We realized how difficult it was to travel in Haiti. The Dominican Republic was much cheaper, so much easier to travel, food and coffee available everywhere, easy to get money from the bank, hotels cleaner. Now, many years later, I’m glad I had that experience in Haiti, but I don’t know if I would be able to do it again, it was really tiring. It’s probably different if you have money and can rent your own car or driver. Cap Haitien was the best place, of all.

Once in the Dominican Republic we spent a few days in Monte Cristi, to recover and to eat some good food. From there we went to Santiago and then Constanza, in the mountains.

After that it was all beaches. And every place was pleasant and welcoming.

First one was Cabarete, a surfists spot. This was the first place where we met may foreign tourists, and all the Northern coast has many foreigners, mainly from the US (and many Italians and French living their their retirement years). In Cabarete I had the best breakfast ever.

rio san juan
Beach in Rio San Juan

We went East to Rio San Juan, where there’s not much to do nor to see, but that I loved, probably because of its relaxed atmosphere. After that it was the Semanà Peninsula, with Las Terrenas and Las Galeras. Pretty, touristy.

From there we crossed the country to go to the Southern coast; we also thought of going to the Eastern coast, maybe pay 80 dollars for an all-included resort and spend a day or two just sunbathing and eating (there’s a lot of chicken involved when you travel in the Dominican Republic, and at one point you crave for something different), but we hadn’t a lot of time left so we decided to go directly South.

Boca de Yuma was pretty but Luca wasn’t feeling well so we didn’t really enjoy it. From there to Juan Dolio, the last stop. We stayed in this little town by the sea until our flight back to Italy, and went on a day trip to Santo Domingo where people were celebrating Easter. When we had landed in the Dominican Republic we didn’t spend much time in Santo Domingo because we thought we would be there again before departing. But once in Juan Dolio we were suggested not to go to Santo Domingo before flying back, because it was easier to get to the airport from Juan Dolio and it was nicer to stay in Juan Dolio. It was a good idea.

Would I go back to the Dominican Republic and Haiti? Yes, and I would probably do a similar itinerary. I know that Haiti was a nightmare, but I would like to see if things have improved now.

The long journey to Cap Haitien

The long journey to Cap Haitien

March 24, 2014

6.30 am. This morning they told us that breakfast is included in the room price. So breakfast, and we go. Stuffed. A nice cheese omelette.

7.35am Will we arrive when it’s dark today too? We are stuck in the traffic, it looks like Arzignano at 8am, blocked by mothers cars taking the kids to school. At 6am it was hard to wake up, but I could hear the noise from the city already wide awake. They definitely wake up early in this country, there’s no time to waste!

Stuck in the traffic while we go to the centre of Port au Prince

American school buses and other buses with a French plate: probably the Western Countries instead of throwing their old broken buses to the bin, they send them here, as a nice donation.

Two things are definitely bigger than in Italy: cars and music speakers. The few cars I’ve seen are mainly big pick-ups, Cherokee or Jeep, and even the most broken stall has huge speakers, old and broken where the sound is terrible, but the music must be really loud.


9 They are so honest I am impressed. On the tap-tap to the town centre we asked other passengers how we could get to Estacion O’Cap, where the buses leave to Cap Haitien. The lady in front of us asked the driver, and he said he could take us there. Good. Luckily the same lady asked how much that was going to cost. 500 HTG. What? 8 euro?? The other passengers got outraged. Another man told us we could get off at Grand Rue (the road of the Marché de Fer, from the regal name but actually the dirtiest and most chaotic of PAP) and take another tap-tap that would take us to the station for 10HTG. Ok. So this is what we do, we take the other tap-tap, and when it’s time to pay, I give the driver 30HTG (we’ve always paid 15 each on public buses so far), but he gave me back 20HTG, because it was only 5 each. Well, with 20 HTG he wasn’t going to become rich, but he was honest.

At the station we soon find a very old bus super full of people; they let us in from the back, because the front is so full you can’t pass, and it’s time to pay. The ticket reads 200. 200 what? Gourde, I think. It can’t be 20 USD I hope! No. We show 500 HTG and it’s not enough. It’s 1000 HTG. Ok, so it was 200 Haitian dollars. Ufff… It’s so confusing! They have a double currency (plus the American dollar that is used at hotels and at the border). At one point in the history of Haiti the American dollar was worth 5 HTG. It became so common to speak and count in dollars that they keep the same name and exchange rate even though the dollar now is 44 HTG. It became an Haitian dollar. It’s not a different bancknote, you use the same old bancknotes as usual, but instead of saying 1000 HTG they say 200 dolars. For example in Port Salut we had to pay 700. The waitress didn’t have the change (300 HTG), so she asked the owner if he had 60 dolars.

The guy that got us on the bus, one of the many that survive helping the buses to get passengers at the stations, came back to ask for more money, but the people around us helped send him away.

Corriera super piena

From the speakers of the bus comes a music so loud it’s breaking my eardrums. I hope we will leave soon because we have a long journey ahead of us.

Around the bus there are stalls selling cosmetics, drinks and some fried food. A lady seeing that from the bus I was looking for drinks, called the seller for me. One 7up and one water 6 dolars. I give him 100 HTG. He doesn’t have the change (here they never have the change, can’t understand why). “Wait”, he says. He leaves. He could never come back and keep the change, the bus is leaving soon and nevermind the change, plus in some restaurants we paid 100 HTG for one drink only. But he comes back, with my money.

Sellers at the Estacion O’Cap

It’s been 30 minutes and we are still here, hotter and clumped as ever. When we got in I thought the bus was full, but they actually sat a third person every two seats. The seats are movable (= detached), so when needed they can move towards the aisle and let a third person sit. Half butt on the aisle at the right, half butt on the left near the window, and a full one at the centre.

From time to time someone gets on the bus and gives a long speech to describe what he is selling. Everyone listens with attention. A girl managed to earn 20 HTG and thanked us with a song (today is the day against? I don’t know, I didn’t understand). Another one sold an inhaler. The tiger balm is not that popular.

Here comes the sacred music. From Les Cayes to PAP we spent 12 hours listening to religious music (I could hear Dieu every other word), with the boy collecting the money that stopped to sing along and mimic the words, so much he was captured by the moment.

10am. We left 15 minutes ago and the police stopped us. Why? Do you think we are over-crowded with too much weight on the top, on a bus that is falling apart and that runs too fast???

Breathing some air during a stop to inflate the wheel

12.35pm Ok, I officially have diarrhea. We stopped again for an unknown problem. Since we left PAP a guy spent about 2 hours explaining the properties of his products and he did manage to sell something. Than we stopped to pee (and in the meantime they inflated one wheel), I had the first diarrhea attacks while everyone looked at me squatting (there wasn’t one single tree to hide behind) and we left with the music. Now we are stopped again. First they need to understand what the problem is. It’s impossible to sleep on this bus. I don’t understand why they have to run so fast. And the horn is always on to advise “we are arriving, so better you give us way or we are going so fast that we will come straight into you and we will both die”. They only slow down if from the other side there’s a truck or tank coming. I’m worried my diarrhea might be coming down right now, it was very liquid. We stopped two more times to inflate the central wheel. From the fear of overturning, the effort to keep myself tight with all the jumps and the strain of keeping my muscles tight so that I won’t shit myself, this journey is a nightmare.

The only solace is the view from the window: nice dry landscape, palm trees and cactus 6 meters tall.

8.35pm Cap Haitien. I thought I was going to die today. They almost got me swear. Crazy chauffeur. On wrecked roads, on a wrecked bus with a hold less than zero and a deflated wheel, he was driving like crazy, with precipice on one side of the road. Even without a precipice, it would have been easy to overturn. Some passengers trusted the driver and were quiet, others complained from time to time, to no avail.

From the road I saw that in the river they wash themselves, wash the car, wash the clothes that they later dry on the stones on the dry part of the riverbed, on the grass in front of their house, on the house roof or on the cactus hedge.

I’m glad to be in Cap Haitien and to have easily found the hotel. Cap Haitien seems nice, clean and tidy compared to PAP. The hotel is cheap, but it’s horrible, it’s used per hour by lovers, the room is tiny, noisy and smelly, but after such a journey I feel like I am in paradise.

Dirty feet in Port-au-Prince

Dirty feet in Port-au-Prince

March 23, 2014

Petionville, 11.17am

It almost feels like the States. There are many “blancs” (white people), the buildings are taller than one store, shops are on two floors, there are clothes stores and working ATM machines! We had breakfast at the patisserie francaise of the supermarket. A pastry and a coffee that cost us more than in Italy, but we deserved it!

patisserie francaise port au prince
The patisserie at the supermarket

Here in Petionville it’s really quiet. It’s the neighborhood where live expats and the most wealthy Haitians. It’s also the area where you can find the best hotels. Now we’re going to the town centre, I’m curious.

Petionville – retail

3.30pm Hotel Oloffson.

We are here to rest after a long walk around PAP. It’s super hot and our feet are black with dust. The Oloffson is an institution in Port-au-Prince, an old hotel in gingerbread style. It’s out of our reach, for sleeping, but we can afford a cold drink to catch our breath. Inside there’s a beautiful wall painting and an area where bands can play their music. Outside it’s painted in white, with small tables in the porch and a nice garden with a swimming pool.

We’ve done a nice tour so far. We took a tap-tap that took us to the centre. We visited the ruins of the Notre Dame cathedral, and in the middle of it there was a ceremony taking place.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Port au Prince
Ruins of the Notre Dame cathedral in Port au Prince

To get to the Marché de Fer, the old market, less crowded and messy than the one in Jacmel, we got lost in a not really reassuring area. Well, all PAP out of the main roads and square is not reassuring. At the Marché de Fer they sold shoes and cosmetics, faux hair and real turtles, voodoo dolls, yogurt fermenting in the sun, car spare parts (winter tires, engine pieces, etc). There is a covered area, made of two specular buildings with an iron roof, and thousands of stalls (or simply boxes on display) in the surrounding streets, with cloth hanging above the stalls to protect the dozing sellers; to get to the covered area you have to walk under these sheets, bending in half because they are only one and a half meter from the pavement.

Once we left the market, we walked South along the Boulevard Jean-Jacque Dessalines, one of the main roads of Port-au-Prince. Along the road we could see mechanics, tire specialists, sellers of all kinds (drinks, cosmetics, tables and chairs). It was all quiet enough, but very hot and dirty. It’s less scary to walk around in plain daylight and with no bags around. Plus I only had a small pocket camera that I took out rarely.

Driver/mechanic working along Boulevard Jean-Jacque Dessalines

We went to the artist centre with their voodoo pieces. “Why are they all so scary?” I asked André Eugéene, the founder/teacher of the centre. “Which one scares you?” he replied, as if they were regular pieces of art to display on the wall at home, as if a doll pierced in the stomach or with sticks in the eyes was a nice ornament. These creations should keep the devil away, but it seems to me that they bring nightmares.

We wanted to see the cemetery, but it was closed.

port au prince

We leave this oasis of quiet and breeze, where three lemonades cost us 9 euro, a bit too much for us that we have little money (but I also used the wifi), and go back to the crowds and dust.

4.45pm We are in the main park at Port-au-Prince. It’s nice now, it’s a bit cooler, there’s a nice breeze that doesn’t smell of plastic (we are not far from the sea, but during the central hours of the day you can’t feel it). Not far from us there’s a crowd gathered around a speaker, from time to time they exult and clap. On the other side there are two toilet boxes: if you only pee, it’s 5 gourde, if you need to poop, the cost is the double. I wonder who checks what you do to charge the right amount of money?

Poop or pee?

11pm Tomorrow we leave. I must say I am also tired from all these long journeys, I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to travel here, and I am a bit scared of what we have to do tomorrow. Apparently it’s 7 hours drive, to Cap Haitien.

There’s a band in the street. It seems the right time to play trumpets and drums and singing in the street. What are they celebrating this time of the night? I don’t know and I can’t get any info, I’m in my room, on the third floor.

I had a pretty emotional moment earlier today, while we were walking to Petionville. It was 6pm and from a nearby pub, where they were dancing, suddenly the radio plays “Un’estate Italiana”, with the real Bennato and Nannini (I thought it was a remake). I have always loved this song, it reminds me of the beautiful moments of the football World championship in Italy in 1990. I start singing while walking, a bit touched, slowing my pace to enjoy the song as long as possible, and opposite me comes an Haitian guy singing loud. It gave me the goosebumps.

Bennato and Nannini in Port-au-Prince:

From Port Salut to Port Au Prince

From Port Salut to Port Au Prince

14 hours to drive 219 kilometers

March 22, 2014

6.32 am, Les Cayes

My hair is a bit messy. Today we started our journey on a truck. One of those trucks open at the back, where they let good and people on. We had the last space on some wood benches. The others were sleeping on piles of brooms made with palm leaves that the truck was carrying. Luckily here they don’t drive as fast as in other places that I visited.

We woke up at 4.45 am. The owner last night told us they always wake up at 4-4.30. At 5 we were calling and knocking everywhere, but nobody came to open the gate for us. So we had to climb a 2 meters tall gate (not easy for me) and as soon as we got on the road the truck picked us up. It’s not extremely comfortable, but better than a motorbike. People wake up really early here. At 5 am, when it was still dark, there were people carrying brooms, carrying wood, going to work.

Outside the larger towns there are no gas stations; so along the road you can see kids with oil, gasoline and diesel jugs. If by the road you see a bottle of rum, it’s a different type of fuel they are selling. At 6.45 the sun rises.

Larger towns are also the only chance for foreigners to get money. Out of Port-au-Prince banks are few and even if there is an ATM, it doesn’t take foreign cards. Your only hope is if the bank has a POS from where you can get money advance on your card. But they only take Visa and with a chip. So out of my 3 cards only one works. I hope I won’t finish the money in that card before we leave of Haiti.

The truck left us in Les Cayes, where we are now waiting for a bus to Port-au-Prince. The bus is here already, actually. The driver was sleeping on his seat, but he opened the door for us so that we could drop our bags. Then we went to have breakfast with other drivers and desperate souls. A nice sandwich with spicy peanut butter and coffee tasting like honey. There’s a bus nearby with very loud music, at 7 am. The drivers must keep awake, but what about the passengers? I get they don’t need to sleep. At one point everyone starts to dance. The lady while pouring coffee, the 6 year old kid helping her before he goes to school, the other guy with his sandwich in his mouth. A nice funny scene.

I’ve already seen two limousines this morning. Probably there was a government meeting in some luxurious hotel of Port Salut. One of these passed by a man walking without shoes. The gap.

I hope we won’t have to wait for 4 hours. It would be nice to arrive in PAP at a decent time, and being able to see something. Fun thing, after being here Luca won’t be scared of Santo Domingo anymore.

It’s 10 am and we are still waiting. They are fighting with other buses (the falling down ones, ours is one of the few with air conditioning) to steal passengers one to the other. They take bags and sacks from running bikes to force the passenger to get off the bike and get on the bus with us. It would have been a dream to leave early. Why does everybody get on other buses? Maybe we should also change? Are they cheaper? Do they leave earlier? But I’m worried the other buses stop before Pap, so it’s better if we wait here. I reckon there are enough passengers now, can’t we leave?

9.50pm We are finally in Port-au-Prince. What a journey! At the end the bus left at midday, after 6 hours of wait. As if we weren’t late enought, along the way there was a rally and we waited two more hours. While the others were getting off the bus to find shelter from the heat and chat under the rare trees, Luca was restless, smoking a sigarette after the other. There was someone traveling in a more unfortunate way though, as you can see from the picture. Poor hens!

Furthermore, when we arrived in Port-au-Prince all passengers got off, with their hundreds of bags, and the procedure required some time. At 7pm we were still in town, and it was getting dark. But the wait gifted me with a nice view: the sun setting all yellow behind a wall of dust, people, and the mess of Port-au-Prince. Luckily the bus dropped us off at the stop for the tap-tap to Petionville, the most touristic and decent neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, where our hotel is. I’m curious to see this city. It scared me less than the first time we saw it, when we came here to take a tap-tap to Port Salut from Jacmel.

We arrived in Petionville that it was dark. We had to walk through the market, and a guy first tried to put his hands inside Luca’s pockets, then he almost caught me from behind, but Luca stopped him. We had no idea where the hotel was, there were no road signs. A deaf-mute boy took us to a luxurious hotel at the end of a long road, but it wasn’t ours. He was very kind. The guards at the hotel told us where our hotel was, and 15 minutes later we were there. How good the welcome sprite tasted! We had dinner at the hotel, we were scared of going out in the night in a place that we don’t know, and we went soon to bad, super tired. The room is tiny at costs 60 dollars per night, but at least we can sleep in a safe place.

Because we arrived so late and are so tired, we will stay here two nights, so we have the whole day tomorrow to visit the capital city of Haiti.



First day in Haiti

March 18, 2014. 12h43.

Luca has nausea from the boat last night. At the end we had to jump on some guys’ shoulders to get on the boat. And the same to get off in Marigot. At the beginning it seemed nice: we were comfortably laying on the bags, hugged under the stars, rocked by the sea… Then the boat filled up, there were feet and elbows everywhere, smells and talks, complaints against “le blancs” that were in the wrong position, 5 boxes full of chickens with everything that comes with them, and when the boat left it got cold and we were scared of falling off the boat when it bended against a high wave. But we arrived. At 4am the first thing I did was pee behind a boat, then we took the first gua-gua to Jacmel. I don’t know how fast it was going, but the road was all straight and there was no traffic. We were sitting on the truck behind, all open, with the cold night wind hitting our faces… And I managed to sleep, I don’t know how. It was hard, but we made it.

We arrived in Jacmel at about 6am. We immediately found the hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet. Even though there was a girl coming in and out, we didn’t get in immediately because we didn’t want to pay for an extra night just because it was early. And she told us it’s 70 dollars. Or maybe 50? I don’t know, I can’t really understand them. Anyway, while we were waiting we looked at the town waiking up. Well, it was actually well awake already, everyone asking us Port-au-Prince? Taxi? Moto? And little by little the women started coming out of their homes, the children at 6.30am were running to their buses wearing their uniform, the elderly were doing their selling tours.

At 7am we decided to go in. At Guys Hotel the room doesn’t have air conditioning, the window is tiny and up on the wall, you can’t walk around the bed and the bathroom is shared with I don’t know how many people. It feels like India, but in India you would pay 5 dollars for a room like this, not 50. We rested for a bit, then we spent one and a half hour at the bank trying to get some money. The only ATM in town was not working and to get an “advance payment” on my Visa I had to wait for the clerk to finish with a client; after one and a half hours she was not over yet, but she was kind enough to come to us, pass the card on a POS, give us the money and in 5 minutes we were out.

Jacmel has 40,000 inhabitants but seems smaller than Arzignano, my hometown.

Our heads twist, maybe because of the boat or because we are so tired. I think that the Hotel Florita is one of the few places in town with internet. There are some young locals with their notebook, they are probably students. It’s very nice, in an old building that seen from outside seems to be falling down, the restaurant-bar is a huge room with a tree in the middle that exits the roof from a hole.

Hotel de la place Jacmel

17h13 Place Toussaint de l’Ouverture. It’s hot. Luckily Jacmel is small because we went back to the hotel and we stayed there until 3pm. And we are still tired. Now we are at the Hotel de la Place drinking a banana-strawberry juice and watching people walking in the street (as the Lonely Planet suggests).

We walked by the chaos and flies of the Marché de Fer, the local market, closed on Sundays only, where people go to buy everything they need (I haven’t seen other shops around, not even the tiny shops selling sigarettes, rhum and little more; only a few art galleries: Jacmel is an artists town, so everyone is an artists, willing or not).

I think that half of the 40,000 inhabitants of Jacmel are at the market now, to sell, buy, chat, look, steal, nose around. And it looks like all the rubbish of the world is here to be resold. Old car pieces, old radios, old shoes, old iron.

Nevertheless Jacmel is pretty. It’s a bit shanty, it suffered a lot from the earthquake and you can still see a lot of debris around. But some buildings are really nice and unique.

Luca doesn’t want to go to the Ile-à-Vache (the Cow Island) because he is afraid he might have to sleep on the floor (in Ile-à-Vache there are two resorts where a room costs 200 dollars, or you can stay with a local family for about 10 dollars; of course I opted for the second choice). I feel sorry for him, you can tell he’s not feeling well and he’s looking forward to go back to the Dominican Republic. I was also happier there, the hotels were luxurious compared to the places here and cost half the price; but I am ready to spend a few difficult days, I’ll have 3-4 more weeks to relax after Haiti.

They sell water in small plastic bags that contain the amount of water that is in a glass. They drink from small holes and toss the bag to the floor. So of course there’s plastic everywhere.

8.42pm We’ve been at the hotel for about one hour already. We are really tired. There’s a mass nearby, I can hear singing. I came to Haiti to see some Voodoo and the first thing we hear is a Christian celebration.

Earlier at the beach there were some girls aged 5-7 practicing a dance. They were really good shaking their bottom and clapping their feet on the floor.