Haiti unfortunately doesn’t have a great reputation for American tourists. True, parts of the country are fairly lawless and crime happens regularly to outsiders, in particular white people. I even had my own possible brush with Haitian pirates that you can read about in Cops and Robbers. But this is an unfair stereotype as I learned during my few days at Ile A Vache.
Updated with new photos from my second trip in 2015
Ile A Vache
Ile A Vache is a small island on the south coast with a population of about 10,000. As a side note, it was also the hideout of pirate Henry Morgan in the 17th century. I looked all over the island for cases of my favorite rum with his namesake but couldn’t find any stashed anywhere.
The locals harvest bananas, coconut, potatoes, and fish. The fishermen build their own boats out of timber harvested on the mainland. Their other source of income is from the sailboats that stop there, since it really is the only safe haven for cruisers.
Upon entering the harbor, I was greeted by boys in dugout canoes directing me to good spots to anchor. As I was anchoring, even more boys and young men approached, asking me if I needed food, water, diesel, projects completed on the boat, etc. I was overwhelmed and even irritated – all I wanted to do was secure the anchor and sleep. The next day all the same guys came back.
They know that Americans have money (also an unfair stereotype as in my case), but none of them asked for a handout – they all wanted to earn it. I was agreeable to this, so I employed some of them to polish my stainless steel, give me a walking tour of the island, take me to the market on market day, and cook dinner for me two nights. Most speak decent English and they all seem to enjoy going to school for the promise that education can provide.
It was a treat having dinner with the locals, in their small cement homes surrounded by palm-thatch fencing. There is no electricity on the island and so dinner – rice and beans with fish – was by lamplight. They also led me through the village pathways with the lights from their cell phones, a situation I found comical (their cell tower is powered by solar panels).
Crime is almost non-existent there, and when mischievous boys steal dinghy oars, the entire village knows about it and corrects the situation so that cruisers will keep coming back.
The market was a wild experience. A heavy rain came through the night before, and the ground was saturated. Thousands of people crammed their way through narrow muddy pathways between wooden huts where vendors sold vegetables, bread, and other sundries.
Some of these pedestrians were carrying goats, chickens, pig’s heads, and bags of flour and rice balanced on their heads. Some vendors had cooking fires going, and these muddy, crowded alleyways were also filled with smoke.
Shoreside, dozens of Haitian “bois fouilles” sailboats waited with their captains. These small boats transport goods and people between the island and the mainland, and also serve as taxis for the locals when they need transportation from the market back to their village. “Bois fouilles” loosely translates into “excavated tree”. I had the privilege of taking one back to my own boat after stocking up on fresh vegetables and bread. In true Haitian style, they crammed as many people as they could on this boat, along with cargo including two goats and a pig. It was still as stable as my own boat and its simplicity made me jealous.
If You Go
I easily could have stayed longer, but I was running out of my own resources and needed to get going. It was very humbling to spend time here. And it was good to see such a hospitable village exist in a country with an inhospitable reputation. If you ever end up there, here are a few things to remember:
- If you plan on employing the locals to fetch water, do laundry, clean the boat, etc., you’ll need to carry plenty of small bills. There is nowhere on the island to get change or money of any other sort. They prefer American dollars.
- The local kids are in desperate need of basic supplies like pens, paper, shoes, and soccer balls. Donations go a long way and they’ll bring coconuts and bananas out to your boat in return.
- There is also a crowded orphanage on the island, which I didn’t have time to visit due to a late notification about the orphanage. They are also in need of donations.
- Look for “Davy” to guide you around the island & to the market. He speaks good English, is very polite, and is otherwise busy helping his disabled father run their family farm.
- Carma & Makendy expertly & efficiently clean boats, and they also cook up a mean conch chowder with rice and beans. Their service is first-rate and I enjoyed dinner at their place along with seven French cruisers I had recently met.
- If you just want to go without sailing there, and don’t want to dish out the money to stay at the expensive hotels, the locals also have tents set up on their property in which you can camp out for less than $20/night.
Gallery (click to open in a new window)