The sounds of konpa, Haiti’s version of merengue meets jazz, floated from the kitchen to our spot on the front porch. We sat around a large wooden dining table, fleece jackets zipped up, our hands cupped around mugs of Haitian hot chocolate flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and Haitian bergamot lime rind. It was impossible not to be caught up in the unexpected moment. The crackling musical improvisations hearkened to a bygone era and punctuated the cool, dark stillness around us.
The men in the kitchen called it “ball” music – as in ballrooms where men and women dance close, and the woman who don’t want to dance close use special elbow moves to keep the men at bay. The music looped and time slowed, just as our sensations had throughout our four-day hike in the mountains just above the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
When I had imagined traveling in Haiti, this was not what I had envisioned. But when we reflect on our journey in the country, it’s this moment — the quiet punctuated by crackling tunes, the crispness of the air and the stillness of a Haitian night in the mountains – that really sticks with me.
Perhaps you ask, just as we did before our trip: is trekking in Haiti even a thing?
Yes, it is. And it probably ought to be for more travelers. But it takes a little effort to organize.
Here’s why it’s worth it, plus all you need to know to plan a trek in Haiti.
Why trek in Haiti? (Hint: It’s not just about the mountain scenery)
Mountain trekking in Haiti? In retrospect, this should not have come as a surprise considering the country takes its name from the indigenous Taino Ayiti, meaning “land of mountains.” Haiti is covered with layers of mountains, within which exist networks of walking paths intended to get locals from home to markets, schools and nearby villages.
Trekking in Haiti is not just about the landscape, but an unexpected natural beauty grounded by culture and complemented by people who live amidst it. Whether you’re en route in a truck or on foot in the hills, you have a chance to meet and engage with people — kids on their way home from school, market-goers, farmers working the fields, women washing herbal tea in the streams.
In contrast to that of its cities, Haiti’s mountain pace slows considerably. Open space and details emerge, like the color and texture of the hills, forest aromas, treetop winds, and the briskness of air. After spending time in the bustle of population centers like Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien, we welcomed the change and began to better process and reflect on all that we had experienced.
The challenge with trekking in Haiti is that information regarding routes and logistics can be difficult to find. In fact, when we searched on Google before our trip, we almost gave up on the idea as the photos and articles were neither inspiring nor useful. Additionally, limited road and accommodation infrastructure can make it relatively expensive. If you have more time and flexibility, you’ll find that you have more options.
So that’s why we are writing this. To share with you what we did, how we did it, and the various considerations and practical details. In other words: all that we had wanted to know about trekking in Haiti before our trip.
Our Haiti Trekking Itinerary and Route
Day 1: Jacmel to Mare Rouge by 4×4
Day 2: Climb to Pic la Selle, drive to Seguin in Parc National la Visite
Day 3: Climb Pic Cabayo and visit nearby waterfalls
Day 4: Walk from Seguin to outside of Port-au-Prince
Note: It’s also possible to take this route in the opposite direction, from outside Port-au-Prince to Seguin to Mare Rouge and then to Jacmel (or back to Port-au-Prince). We took the approach above as we’d come from Jacmel and wished to end up in Port-au-Prince without having to backtrack.
Jacmel to Mare Rouge
For most of our first day, we were in a jeep, climbing from the seaside at Jacmel into the mountains. We made stops in small villages and on random hillsides to enjoy the scenery and details — the drawings on a family gravesite, the stone walls built up on farms to prevent landslides, or the way the sun came through the occasional dark raincloud that passed. Roads were rough and we felt as though we were covering ground seen by few visitors.
We also noticed jagged rocks poking out of the ground across the hillsides we scaled. Thinking they were some sort of special geological rock formations, we asked what they were. They are called “dentelles”, jagged teeth in the local Crèole, and are the unfortunate manifestation of logging, deforestation and erosion. Indeed, those rock formations are a unique are part of the earth, but they really ought to be deep below the soil. Instead, they reveal themselves as scars born of human activity.
Once we reached our resting place for the night, Mare Rouge, we bundled up and took a walk out to a nearby hillside to lay in the grass and watch the sun set. Peace and serenity driven by the winds in treetops and interrupted only by the occasional voice from a distant farm.
Getting there: The roads go from “not great” leaving Jacmel to almost non-existent on this route. You need a really sturdy 4×4 jeep or ATV (all-terrain vehicle) and an experienced driver, as we had. Alternatively, you could do this on the back of a motorbike (i.e., hire a motorbike driver), but make certain your rear-end is steel-reinforced as the road contours make for a bouncy, lively ride.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Helvetas/MARNDR NGO guesthouse, the Mare Rouge forestry center that was built to accommodate park rangers and staff. They occasionally have extra room for travelers. You or your tour company will need to contact them in advance to determine if there is space available. Cost: $40/person including room and 3 meals. Note that you’ll also need to pay this fee for your guide and/or driver.
Pic la Selle
Pic la Selle is Haiti’s highest peak at 2,680m (8,793ft), and is located in Forêts des Pins (literally “pine forest”). From Helvetas, the hike to the peak takes a couple of hours at a leisurely pace from a drop off point in the forest. As you make your way up in elevation, you’ll register subtle changes in landscape and vegetation. The surprising smell of fresh pine might motivate you to question whether you are actually in the Caribbean.
As with any trek, it’s worth moving slowly, taking time to hop off the trail for views that will cut right across Haiti to the coast. Look away from the coast and you’ll take in even more mountains in the direction of the Dominican Republic. Set off early in the day to avoid haze.
Pic la Selle logistics: The head of the forestry district drove us to a drop off spot (a sort of makeshift trail head) to begin our climb to Pic la Selle. We also had a park ranger with us as a guide. He simultaneously kept an eye on the forest and phoned in information regarding locals chopping at the trunks of trees to harvest sap-heavy wood chips used to start cooking fires. Cost: $45/group for the transport and guide.
Mare Rouge to Seguin transport: This is another route with a rough road so you’ll need a sturdy 4×4, ATV or strong motorbike. If you’re not pressed for time, you can also walk this route. We spoke with one of the park rangers who walks the route in three or four hours. For ordinary folks looking to take in the scenery, plan on approximately six to seven hours.
Pic Cabayo and Parc National la Visite
The day we walked from Auberge La Visite to Pic Cabayo in the national park proved our favorite day of trekking. The clear skies certainly had something to do with it. Regardless, we were blown away by the expansive, breath-taking views at the top of Pic Cabayo. Mountainous layers that roll for as far as the eye can see. This is a Haiti we certainly never knew.
Accommodation: In Seguin, we stayed at Auberge La Visite, a small bed and breakfast with a large porch, rocking chairs and a very relaxed vibe. The food is all made from local ingredients, including an incredible salad sourced from locally grown vegetables, edible flowers and watercress from the base of one of the waterfalls we visited. There are only a couple of rooms available so try to email or call ahead. Cost: $80/person for a room, including 3 meals. It’s also possible to sleep in an air mattress-outfitted tent in the garden, but you’ll have to check on the price of this yourself. Disclosure: We received a 50% press discount during our stay.
Trekking logistics: Although you can probably find your own way around the national park, we asked one of the staff at Auberge La Visite to be our guide to Pic Cabayo and the nearby waterfalls. Along the way, we harvested watercress and went chanterelle forest mushroom hunting. It’s an absolutely terrific day out, provided the weather cooperates. Cost: Around $25 for the group
Seguin to Port-au-Prince Area
“Are you sure we can’t get lost?” we asked, knowing our propensity to lose our way just about everywhere. Our final day in Haiti’s mountains involved walking, guide free, on our own towards Port-au-Prince.
“Don’t worry, there’s only one road to Port-au-Prince. Even you can’t get lost. You’ll know you’re close to the pickup point because there will be one last BIG hill,” our guide, Cyril, advised us before leaving Seguin the day before.
Famous last words.
We did find the one path leading from Seguin to Port-au-Prince and followed the steady stream of people walking in both directions. Many women, on their way to and from the market, balanced baskets full of vegetables or fruit on their heads. The road was rubbled, inconsistent and steep, making their posture and ability all the more impressive.
Together with Barbara, a German journalist trekking with us, we challenged ourselves to greet everyone we saw with a “bon jou!” and polite nod. Often, people would smile and laugh, amused to see three white people wandering randomly along this road in the middle of nowhere Haiti.
The day’s most memorable reaction was courtesy of a little girl of about five years old who decided to have a dance-off with Dan. She would shake her hips and jump around in front of her house, and Dan would copy her — dancing his way up and down hill as we continued our walk. This lasted for about three to four hills until we were out of sight, but we could still hear her giggles echoing across the hilltops long after we could no longer see her. Oh, if only you could include experiences like this on an itinerary.
After several hours of up and down, passing homes and villages perched on the top of hills, breaking sweats across steep terraced farmlands, we were certain we must be close. A big hill appeared, so big that the local municipality had built cement steps to help people navigate it, especially in the rain.
“The big hill. Finally, we’re here,” we thought.
Proud of our efforts, we turned the corner expecting to see the jeep waiting for us. Instead, there was another big hill, perhaps even more imposing than the first.
We remembered the Haitian proverb:
“Dèyè mon gen mon.” Behind the mountain, there are mountains.
That’s trekking in Haiti for you.
You will need to arrange a pickup on the side of the road near one of the villages on the approach to Port-au-Prince, as we did. Alternatively, find a motorbike driver that can take you to the nearest town to hop on a bus or tap-tap to take you into Port-au-Prince.
Trekking in Haiti: Other Considerations
Other treks in Haiti
To expand your trekking options in the hills above Port-au-Prince, ask your guide or tour company about trails around Furcy or Kenscoff. You can also do the route that we did from Port-au-Prince to Seguin to Mare Rouge by foot. If you have your own camping gear, the options become even greater for the routes you can take.
Additionally, the Bradt Guide to Haiti by Paul Clammer has advice on different trekking routes and options around the country. It’s also just a great guide for general travel in Haiti.
Best time to trek in Haiti
While trekking in Haiti is technically possible year-round, the best times are December to March when there is no rain. We trekked in late November and lucked out on weather, but a colleague took a similar route the week before and had to cut back some of his plans because of downpours. We have also been advised that July to August can also be good.
Haiti’s deforestation problems
When we mention trekking in Haiti, we’re often asked about the environmental situation. Many people have seen this dramatic aerial photo showing the border between Haiti and Dominican Republic.
Sadly, deforestation is a real and significant problem. Its history began with French colonists who cleared land for plantations. The problem has worsened in the last century due to a growing population needing to feed itself and that uses charcoal to cook. The accommodation providers we used on this trip all work in some capacity to reforest and educate local communities on the benefits of planting trees and using alternative cooking fuels. So the money you spend with them and on official local guides supports programs attempting to address these environmental problems.
What to bring with you
To avoid repetition, we suggest you check out our Ultimate Trekking Packing List for suggestions of what to bring with you. As food and shelter is provided everywhere in the route we cover above, you don’t need to pack much outside of good hiking shoes, some cold weather gear (e.g., fleece, waterproof/windproof jacket, hat), refillable water bottle, sunscreen, and snacks.
Note: During the time of year we hiked it gets chilly in the mountains, especially at night. So it’s worth carrying a few layers to ensure you are comfortable.
Trekking in Haiti independently or with a guide?
Trekking in Haiti, because of road infrastructure, infrequency of public transport in outlying areas, and limited accommodation options, is not something you just pick up and do on a whim. Unless, that is, you carry your own camping gear, have unlimited time on your hands and fluently speak the local language, Créole.
We met some Haitian people and long-term expats living in Haiti who opted to trek without a guide. However, if you are just visiting Haiti for a short time, we recommend you consider very seriously having a Créole-speaking guide so you can ask questions, engage in meaningful conversations with local people, have context regarding what you are seeing and experiencing, and avoid getting lost.
We coordinated our trek with Jean Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haiti, a local tour operator that also works with G Adventures. Cyril is quite passionate about Haiti in general, and especially about trekking in the country. We also used local guides at Mare Rouge and Seguin.
Tour Haiti also provided us with the 4×4 transport we needed to get from Jacmel to Mare Rouge to Seguin. This isn’t inexpensive, so it helps to pull in other travelers to help share the cost.
For more photos from our trekking in Haiti, check out our photo essay.
Any other questions about trekking in Haiti, just ask below in the comments!