Haiti is home to spectacular beaches, bright green mountains, and lively towns. It has a captivating blend of cultures and a unique history: the independent country of Haiti was founded as a result of the only successful slave revolt in world history. It's truly unique amongst its Caribbean neighbors, and the Haitian people have maintained a proud, positive identity.
Yet despite everything the country has going for it, most people associate Haiti with the poverty and struggle it has faced since the devastating 2010 earthquake. Even before this, Haiti was already amongst the least-developed countries in Central America. Most visitors to the country come as volunteers with organizations that are still trying to clear up the rubble and help displaced locals.
If you are looking for a chance to help those in need while learning about one of the most fascinating cultures in America, then Haiti might be the ideal place for your gap year.
Given the amount of poverty and destruction that remains throughout the country, the most common way to spend a gap year in Haiti is as a volunteer. If volunteering isn’t your only objective, you can combine charitable work with some incredible travel opportunities throughout the country.
Fun Activities to Do in Haiti
Haiti has stunning beaches that rival any Caribbean island paradise: head to the coast around Jacmel for powder-soft sand, delicious seaside grub, and great surfing and snorkeling. For nature lovers, Parc National La Visite offers incredible hiking, filled with views of green mountains and clear blue sea.
Haiti is also home to several fascinating festivals, which are wonderful opportunities to observe and absorb Haitian culture at its liveliest. The annual Fet Gede held in November is a riotous voodoo celebration of the dead unlike any other in the world, while the carnival festivities in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel are some of the largest and most extravagant in the Caribbean.
Work/Intern Opportunities in Haiti During Your Gap Year
There is little opportunity for paid work in Haiti: it is the poorest country in the Americas, and has the lowest Human Development Index. Unemployment is high, and foreigners have little chance of securing a work permit or any sort of permanent job. Your best chance for working in Haiti is to find a paid role within an NGO, which is possible if you have relevant professional experience.
Volunteer Opportunities in Haiti During Your Gap Year
Those doing a gap year in Haiti will most likely be volunteering for at least a portion of their time. Volunteering in Haiti can take many forms, from building houses and infrastructure to distributing food and medicine, working in an orphanage, or teaching. There is more demand for skilled workers, whether it be manual or administrative, but volunteers with little to no experience can still be useful for things like clean-up projects.
A word of warning: several charitable organizations came under fire in the years following the earthquake due to reports that their work in Haiti had been at best sub-par and, at worst, actively damaging. Make sure to only volunteer through reputable charities with a clean track record in order to ensure you are truly making a difference.
Tips on Living & Traveling in Haiti During Your Gap Year
- Haitians are incredibly friendly people. A smile and a few words of local Creole will go a long way, and greeting strangers in the street is common. Start with the basics: “Bonjou!” is hello, “Souple” is please, and “Mersi” is thank you.
- If you want to take photos of people, always ask. Haiti has seen a seemingly endless stream of journalists and volunteers eager to capture the country’s poverty and disrepair, and locals are wary of this.
- Practice responsible and ethical travel: try to buy things from local merchants and shop around as much as you can.
- Be respectful of the locals. Haitians live in very different conditions from what you are probably used to, but they don’t really need to hear about it. They also may not be eager to talk about their experiences with the earthquake, so don’t try to force this on them.
- Money can be a bit confusing in Haiti: the local currency is the gourde (GDE), but they mostly use the Haitian dollar. There are five gourdes to each Haitian dollar. Bartering is the norm, so make sure you are talking about the same currency before shaking on it.
Cost of Living in Haiti
Living in Haiti is not particularly expensive for foreign visitors, for obvious reasons. If you are visiting with a volunteer organization, your accommodation will most likely be included in the price of the program, meaning prices and quality will vary. If not, expect to pay at least $300 a month for a studio flat.
Food is cheap and delicious, and you can eat for $10 a day if you use street food stalls and local markets to buy your ingredients. A meal in a local restaurant will run you $20-$40. Food could also be included in your volunteering program.
Housing in Haiti
If you are visiting with a volunteer organization, your accommodation will probably be arranged for you. If this is not the case, they should be able to help you find long-term accommodation. If you are traveling independently, sites like Airbnb are your best bet at first, although you may be able to rent something directly from a local by checking listings.
Travel to Haiti does not require a visa for visits under 90 days, although few exceptions apply for nationals of certain countries. A $10 fee is applicable upon arrival.
If you are planning on spending the whole year there, you will need to get a visa from your nearest Haitian embassy, which can take several months. You will also need to be sponsored by an employer (one of the many reasons why travel with an organization is recommended) or local resident.
Haiti is very warm year-round. Pack comfortable, loose-fitting clothing in breathable fabrics, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Both men and women tend to dress modestly, so avoid anything too skimpy, too short, or too tight.
A money belt or other hidden compartment for your cash is a good idea. Credit cards are rarely accepted throughout the country, so you need cash, but pickpockets and muggers will take note if you start waving a wad of it around. Make sure you have a plan for discreetly carrying around money and valuables, and leave them in a safe at your accommodation if you can.
Electricity is famously unreliable, so battery-powered items like a flashlight, small fan, and phone battery pack could come in handy.
Haiti has a reputation for being unsafe, and it is true that some parts of the country can be dangerous. However, being smart goes a long way when it comes to staying safe, and many visitors do not encounter any issues.
The main issue that travelers to Haiti need to worry about is contaminated food and water. For the most part, these will only lead to some food poisoning and unpleasant diarrhea, but more serious illnesses such as dysentery and hepatitis can also be transmitted in this way. Only drink sealed bottled water, and rely on recommendations from locals and other foreigners when choosing where to eat.
You should also take every precaution to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, as there is a risk of malaria and dengue. Don’t forget your insect repellent, and you may want to invest in a mosquito net as well.
Finally, you should visit your doctor a few months ahead of departure to make sure you are up-to-date on all your vaccinations, and to give you time to take new ones if necessary.
Avoid attracting the attention of would-be pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and muggers by being careful of what you carry with you. Nice jewelry is out of the question, and you should make sure that any electronic valuables such as your laptop, mobile phone, and camera are concealed and difficult to access. If you can, avoid bringing them out with you altogether.
Make sure your travel insurance covers theft in case something does happen, and that all your valuables are registered on it.
Certain areas of Port-au-Prince, such as the slums, are not advisable for foreigners unless you are with a trustworthy local guide. Additionally, avoid walking around at night, particularly around Champ de Mars and Petionville.