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|Introduction to Haiti
Haiti is a poverty-stricken land of urban overpopulation, denuded hillsides and a people suffering the wounds of civil strife and oppression. It is also a vibrant country of colourful art, fantastic music, cloud forests and an intensely spiritual people whose humour and passion are legendary.
The modern world's first black-led republic, it boasts a unique culture and an incredible artistic tradition. The language, dance and music of the Haitian people reflect a syncopation between the spiritual and material worlds that shouldn't be missed.
Vodou, long misunderstood, is a richly textured religion smuggled from Africa and hidden among the Catholic rituals of European missionaries. Haiti's colonial architecture, all gingerbread and plazas, is alive with the music of Africa. Its surprisingly fine cuisine, of Caribbean ingredients prepared according to classical French methods, attracts gourmets from the other side of the island. And, though human need has torn down much of Haiti's forests and jungles, there is still unspoiled nature that ecotourism can preserve. Haiti is not yet set up for the Club Med crowd, but the open-minded adventurer will find a country whose contradictions will linger in mind, heart and spirit.
The presence of a UN stabilisation force is intended to strengthen Haiti's longterm security. However, the security situation is still volatile and Haiti remains an unsafe place to visit.
Two foreign nationals - a Russian and an Indian - were kidnapped in Haiti recently, raising concerns for foreigners travelling in the country. Though there have been a spate of similar kidnappings of late, this is the first time foreigners have been targeted. Travellers are warned to use caution and common sense in Haiti and advised to monitor consular advice regarding unsafe areas.
Full country name: Republic of Haiti
Area: 27,750 sq km
Population: 7 million
Capital City: Port-au-Prince
People: 95% African descent, 5% mulatto and European descent
Religion: 80% Catholic, 16% Protestant (an estimated 50% of Haitians also practice Vodou)
Head of State: Interim President Alexandre Boniface
Head of Government: Prime Minister Gerard Latortue
GDP: US$8.9 billion
GDP per capita: US$1,300
Annual Growth: 3%
Major Industries: Sugar refining, cement, textiles, tourism
Major Trading Partners: USA, EU
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Visas: All visitors require a valid passport; citizens of Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Monaco, South Korea, Switzerland, UK and USA do not require visas. Others must have a three-month tourist visa, which can be obtained upon arrival with a completed application (provided by an embassy or consulate), two passport-size photos and a fee of 5.40. Check with any Haitian embassy for the latest requirements.
Health risks: malaria, hepatitis, tuberculosis, dengue fever, sunburn
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4
Dialling Code: 509
Electricity: 110V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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It's worth planning your visit to coincide with Haiti's special events. Carnival, or Mardi Gras, cranks up the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, with Port-au-Prince as ground zero for the festivities. Haiti's top bands load up floats with massive sound systems and cruise streets that are packed with people dancing, singing and blowing off steam.
Carnival precedes Rara, dubbed the 'rural Carnival.' The week leading up to Easter is alive with an African beat as roads all over Haiti swell with bands of revelers, percussionists and the music of bamboo-and-tin trumpets. It's easy to become immersed in the music as the Rara band moves slowly down the road. Before you know it, you'll find you've followed the festivities for miles.
Two major Vodou pilgrimages take place each year. Saut d'Eau happens July 16 in the village of Ville-Bonheur, when pilgrims make their way to bathe in the sacred waterfall and visit a church built on the spot where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared in 1884. On July 25, Plaine du Nord celebrates the day of St James, associated with the Vodou spirit Ogou Ferraille. Pilgrims come from all over the country dressed in red-and-blue garb for the ceremonies. On July 26, many celebrants move on to the town of Limonade, where the feast day of St Anne doubles as a day of respect for Erzulie, another Vodou spirit.
Gede, or fétdemó takes place November 1 and 2, and is well worth catching. People pile into the cemeteries to pour libations for Baron Samedi around crosses festooned with candles, skulls and marigolds. The uniform of a Gede, the guardians of the cemetery and lords of the erotic, is made up of black and purple clothes, a top hat and mirrored shades. If someone posessed by the Gede acts lasciviously toward you, go with it.
January 1 - Independence Day (Jou d'lan)
January 2 - Ancestry Day
April 7 - Death of Toussaint Louverture
August 15 - Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
October 17 - Death of Jean-Jacques Dessalines
November 1 - All Saints
November 2 - All Souls
November 18 - Vertières Day
December 5 - Discovery of Haiti
December 25 - Christmas Day
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|Best time to Visit
Haiti has two rainy seasons, from April to May and from September to October, with most rain falling in the mountains. If you plan to do much hiking, trekking or even driving, these might be months to avoid. The June-to-September hurricane season might be worth missing as well; though the chances of one blowing through are miniscule, remember that one little hurricane can wreck your whole holiday. The temperature is fairly constant year-round, with highs averaging around 34°C (95°F) in the summer and 30°C (85°F) in the winter. There isn't currently a peak tourist season, making Haiti an ideal destination during the Northern Hemisphere's winter, when most Caribbean isles are packed with snowbirds slurping umbrella-laden beverages and raising the prices of food, accommodations and everything else.
It's worth planning a visit to Haiti around Carnival (the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday) or Rara (the week leading up to Easter), when music and dancing seem to erupt spontaneously. Avoid the weeks leading up to an election, including the presidential election in December 2000, when less pleasant but equally spontaneous eruptions of passion tend to make their mark.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
The official currency is the gourde, which is divided into 100 centimes. In the past, the gourde was fixed to the US dollar at a rate of 5 gourdes to the dollar, and the 5-gourde bill is still sometimes referred to as one Haitian dollar. (The exchange rate is no longer fixed; one US dollar bought 19 gourdes in July 2000.) This can be confusing; when you are buying something the price may be quoted in gourdes, Haitian dollars or even US dollars.
You will need gourdes almost immediately upon arrival, and there are no bank exchange desks at the Port-au-Prince airport. Porters and taxi drivers at the airport should accept US dollars, but exchange some money as soon as possible. There are plenty of banks in Port-au-Prince, and a thriving black market allows you to change money in the street (at only slightly worse rates). Hotels exchange money at terrible rates. Both Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most car rental places, as well as at nicer restaurants and hotels.
Haiti can be a perplexing country when it comes to costs. The true cost of everything, if there is one, may seem to the average blan (foreigner) like the best-kept secret in the country. You can pay US$1 for a huge meal at a streetside cafe or US$50 in a Pétionville restaurant, so the cost of a visit can vary hugely according to your standards. Decent hotels tend to be quite expensive (US$70 per night), while budget places (US$8 per night) can be quite rough and not very secure.
A 10% tip is normal in restaurants, and a small tip for bar staff is expected. Porters at the hotel and airport also expect tips. If you park your car in an urban area, you may be asked if you want someone to watch it. Pick one person, ask his or her name to avoid argument later on, and pay 5 gourdes when you return. Bartering is a way of life in Haiti, so don't be put off by the first priced offered even if it's wildly high. Some artisans have fixed prices, but a little negotiation can take place.
Most of the larger hotels charge a 10% sales tax, and many also tack on a daily energy charge of US$3-5. Smaller hotels and guesthouses tend to offer an all-inclusive price. A departure tax of US$25 (which must be paid in US dollars) plus 10 gourdes is charged at the airport.
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Gingerbread trim and a view of the harbour are about all Port-au-Prince has in common with other Caribbean capitals. It's crammed with people soldiering on amidst rundown buildings, open sewers, brightly coloured murals and taptaps, public buses emblazoned with fine art and Creole sayings.
Much of the activity is centred on the Marché de Fer (the Iron Market), a 19th-century iron and tin mix of Parisian class and African style. It's chaos inside, packed with stalls, vendors and piles of fruit, baskets, soap, religious totems and toys. It's hot, noisy and overwhelming.
Haiti's second city, with a population of around 100,000, has more of a Latin feel than the capital. The Spanish-influenced architecture has bestowed on Haiti's former capital, once called the 'Paris of the Antilles,' a grid of shady streets that are easy to navigate and pleasant to stroll.
The tropical air has a lazy citrus aroma from orange peels sunning their way into Grand Marnier and Cointreau bottles. If you'd like to do the same, somewhere sandy in the sun, some of the country's best beaches are along Rue 21, winding into the hills northwest of the cape.
This old coffee port was once the jewel of the southern coast, decorated in French colonial architecture and fringed with black-sand beaches. Duvalier cut off trade to the city in the 1950s and sent the town into a decades-long decline, which ironically now adds to the town's charms.
Though it's a little shabby, it's much calmer than Port-au-Prince and the 19th-century buildings are better preserved. A recent renaissance has attracted artists from all over Haiti, Europe and the USA. Many of Jacmel's Victorian gingerbread homes now house galleries and shops.
In the hills to the southeast of Port-au-Prince, Pétionville is as close as the country comes to quintessential Caribbean resort culture. Though linked to the capital by three throughways, it's a different world. Glittering shops, clubs and restaurants cater to the country's elite classes.
It is generally cooler and breezier in the hills, making for welcome respite from a day in the city. Galleries sell Haitian art and restaurants serve some of the best French cuisine in the country. The Jane Barbancourt Distillery in Boutiller, east of Port-au-Prince.
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