Off the beaten track – Port au Prince, Haiti

Haiti didn’t have a wonderful tourist reputation before the earthquake, and sadly now there is probably even less reason to visit Haiti.   I wanted to check it out and see if it was as bad as people said.   Especially given I have spent a lot of time in Miami, where most people have a general aversion to Haitians.   Honestly my Miami experience of Haitians was limited to taxi drivers who weren’t great drivers who didn’t know how to indicate (not an issue limited to Haitians to be honest, I find Miami drivers to be among the worst in the world), and who tried to over charge me (again, an issue for all taxi drivers).

So, I booked a flight and a hotel and then valiantly tried to sort an itinerary to see the best of Haiti.  I eventually got a response from a local tour agent, and sorted out a driver for the day.  Given many of the ‘tourist sights’ were destroyed in the earthquake, there wasn’t actually that much to see.   Things to do:

Visit the museum du pantheon

A surprisingly well curated museum with some excellent exhibitions, including some great modern art – definitely exceeded my expectations.

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See the cathedral ruins

Very interesting to walk around, and as yet unclear as to whether or not they will be rebuilding it

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Visit the iron market.

Honest confession – I hated the iron market with its art displays and voodoo.  Not based on aversion to voodoo, but because there were way too many live animals tied up on short leads and obviously malnutritioned.   It was depressing, and even if I was someone who bought souvenirs (I am not), I wouldn’t buy from anyone who was maltreating an animal – which was everyone in the market

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See the wooden architecture

There are lots of ‘gingerbread houses’ dotted around port au prince.  Most notable is the Hotel Olofsson, which you can go and wander around even if you aren’t staying there.  It was made famous by Graham Greene is is novel the Comedians.

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So what was my verdict – honestly, not a country I would put at the top of my list of potential destinations.  Without question, in my opinion, I would visit every other country in the Caribbean before visiting Haiti.  However if you happen to be in town, it is an interesting place to visit.

 

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Additional info
  • I stayed at the holiday inn express – it was fine and had a pool.  You will appreciate the pool as it is swelteringly hot in Port au prince
  • Travel around town is slow and difficult, don’t assume a short journey will be quick, and make sure you leave plenty of time to get to the airport.  Traffic is nuts, and my driver was diligent in making sure our doors were always locked.  He didn’t have a great degree of confidence in his fellow Haitians not to rob us blind
  • Take USD cash in small denominations
  • I did not head out of Port au Prince, but apparently Cap Haitien and Jacmel are interesting

Off the Beaten Track – Guyana

Guyana – Not to be confused with French Guiana (its neighbour) is the least visited country in Latin America!  Neighbouring Suriname to the East and Venezuela to the West, it is most famous (at least to me) for the Jim Jones commune in Jonestown where 990 Americans died from cyanide poisoning.  It is also unusual as being the only South American Nation with English as an official language.  There aren’t many things to do, so don’t plan on spending a long time in country, but while you are there you can…

Wander around Georgetown

It takes no more than an hour to walk around the whole town, even with the oppressive heat that makes you want to melt into the pavement.   I really enjoyed the central market, but I suspect this was less about the quality of the retail outlets and more about the heady reggae beats and the retro smell of weed!  I also find it incredibly amusing when every man you walk by tries to pick you up, not in an offensive way but in a friendly, ‘why the hell not give it a try’ way.  I am pretty sure this is not because I am anything to look at, but more because there are very few tourists in this town!

Civic Building Georgetown
Civic Building Georgetown

While avoiding getting a contact high from the ganja, take a look at the lovely wooden architecture.  The civic buildings were nice, and the wooden cathedral is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world.

Georgetown Cathedral
Georgetown Cathedral
take a tour to the Kaieteur Falls

Full confession, I didn’t get to go!!!! There weren’t enough people in town to fill the plane and so the trip was cancelled!!!!.  It looks lovely, so I would give it a shot if you are in town

Kaietur Falls

ride a boat up the river to santa mission

Another confession, this was actually pretty boring and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a free day.  It was nice and relaxing to go up the river, but there was really nada to see at the ‘indigenous’ village.   Have low expectations and you will have a fine day

River boat ride
River boat ride
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Santa Mission Village
Additional tips
  • I stayed at Cara Lodge which was one of the nicer places in George town and an easy walk to everywhere
  • I tried and failed to sort a few tours out remotely and as such didn’t make it to Kaieteur falls.  But I did find the guys at Wonderland tours helpful when I got there and they sort out my trip up the river
  • Don’t wander around town at night, as quite a few of the streets are dodgy, and the canals/open sewers would be easy to fall into as there isn’t much in the way of street lighting

 

Places to Return to – Guatemala

I was quite torn about visiting Guatemala! While the pictures looked beguiling, I was taking my mum, dad and husband on a trip around central America, and was worried about their safety.   A legitimate concern given the violent crime rates are the highest in Latin America (which is a high bar to begin with).  My dad too is a stubborn hardy kiwi bloke who contrarily seeks out dangerous situations.  Case in point, when I asked him not to walk up Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua (as apparently it was a hot spot for tourist muggings).  He promptly went up there the next morning before breakfast.  I told him he might have been robbed, and he proudly told me he took no money so they couldn’t rob him.  Note to non frequent travellers – you really want to make sure you have some money for people to steal from you, at least $20 if not $50!  I am not joking!….. better they steal $50 from you than get pissed off and shoot you as you have nothing for them.   Anyway, parental frustrations and concerns aside, Guatemala was the highlight of that trip for us all.   The only other thing to note is there are more gringos here than I typically like to see on holiday, so make sure you time your visits to places to avoid them as much as possible!
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Visiting the villages around Atitlan
Be smart, as there are quite a few tourists in Panajachel, so go and find the villages which are less visited.  There are lovely places to eat, and hugely photogenic local ladies to take pictures of.  The air is clean and it is is stunningly beautiful on the lake.  We went to Santa Cruz, San Marcos and San Pedro and enjoyed wandering around.
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Buys carrying a heavy load in Atitlan
Stayed at Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo in Panajachel, but there are tonnes of good options in Atitlan, eat anywhere as it is a bit of a gringo paradise
Head to Tikal to see the ruins
Make sure you stay the night, as the flights from Guatemala city land en masse in the morning and then there are swarms of people all over the ruins (we made the mistake of being on the plane with the swarms).  Frances Ford Coppola has a famous hotel nearby if you feel like going glam https://www.thefamilycoppolaresorts.com/en/la-lancha/location.
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Ruins of Tikal
The ruins are amazing, and if you are fit and ok with ditching your guide there is some terrific hiking.    While you are out there definitely pop over the border to Belize and see the ruins of Caracol and Xunantunich (a regret of mine that we didn’t as I ended up flying in 3 years later to see these)
go to the market in chichicastenango
Yes this was a tourist nightmare, overrun with gringos by 10 am.  However, if you want to see the locals, then stay the night, get up at 6am to watch them set up and get the hell out before the hordes arrive at 10 am on their buses.  We really enjoyed having breakfast at one of the stalls and chatting with the locals
Dad bargaining at the market
Hang out with the gringos in Antigua
Antigua really is lovely!  There is really nothing to do here except eat!  We whiled away plenty of hours drinking decent coffee and eating cake…. it is just one of those things you do when you have been travelling and haven’t had a decent coffee or anything yummy to eat for a few weeks.  Thats why places like Antigua suck you in and you get stuck doing nothing but energetically finding new coffee and cake places every day :-).  There are some nice things to see between the cake shops, so take your camera with you.  The plaza Mayor, Arco de Santa Catalina, Cathedral San Jose and Convento de las Capuchinas are all lovely!
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Stayed at the uber luxurious Palacio de Dona Leonor.  It was beautiful and enormous.  Not my normal travelling style, but it was a gift for Ma and Pa for their 60th birthdays.  Eat anywhere with cake!
Additional tips
  • Reading back on this post it seems that visiting Guatemala is a bit like going on safari.  You want to be up and out between 6-10am and then again perhaps in the late afternoon.  But you want to avoid the middle of the day, when the gringos are at their most active.   It really is worth the early mornings
  • I prebooked almost everything in Guatemala as was keen to look after Ma and Pa.   Elizabeth Bell came highly recommended, but charged a premium.   Things did work like clock work.   You can contact her at www.antiguatours.net. If I was going by myself I would probably use local buses
  • Guatemala City is one of the dodgiest places in Latin America.  Antigua is less than an hour from the airport in a car, so there is no reason to stay in the City.  We were amused by how many carpet and plastic stores had armed guards!

Visited December 2011