The Nerdy Nomad

Everything you need to know to visit Ile a Vache

WHY GO TO ILE A VACHE ?

It’s far, it’s hard to get to, and it’s in Haiti. Why bother to go there? Because Ile a Vache is hands down the most restful and beautiful place I have been to in Haiti. Due to its isolation, it is also very sparsely developed so it’s one of the rare beautiful places in the Caribbean where you can enjoy it “in the raw.” I don’t just mean that you can find spots for skinny dipping. I mean, within minutes of walking you can find a place that feels untouched (and unruined) by human civilisation and you can be truly alone and undisturbed – a rare feat in Haiti indeed.

Ile a Vache is in the South of Haiti…

…near the town of Les Cayes

Petite Anse Dufour, one of the pristine Ile a Vache beaches

If Cap Haitian is the place to go for the best of Haitian history and culture, Ile a Vache is where the best beaches are. The island’s remoteness, combined with Haiti’s reputation for upheaval and extreme poverty, have left it almost undeveloped. There are 2 resort hotels – Port Morgan and Abaka Bay – which have had a minimal impact on the communities living there and on the place’s natural beauty. As a result, there are many instances where you can find yourself alone on a pristine white sandy beach, with clear turquoise water as far as the eye can see. This is a major contrast with mainland Haiti, where you are never alone, and are in fact often irritatingly followed or surrounded by children and adults alike hoping for money, with varying degrees of friendliness. And if you’re anything like me, i.e. you manage to find a way to schlepp 2 hours or more to a beach after weeks or months of exhausting work in the dusty and stressful capital, the last thing you want is to have people coming up to you, disturbing  your rest and reminding you of your work during the week.

GETTING THERE

First things first – how can you even contemplate going to Ile a Vache if you don’t know where it is or how to get there? As I said it’s not the easiest place to get to, and unfortunately Tortugair, the local Haitian airline, has discontinued flights to the nearest city of Les Cayes. However, there are 3 other ways to get there:

ONE – Bus + Moto + Boat.

  • Price tag: $55-65 total per person (this assumes a 4-way split for taxi and boat). This breaks down to $10 each way for the bus, plus 50 HTG (around $1.20) for the moto each way in Les Cayes, per person. Additionally, taxi to the bus and boat to the island are each around $30-40 per 1-way trip. Obviously the price comes down significantly if you have an NGO car to drop you at the bus and have a larger group to share the boat.
  • Trip duration: Around 8 hours total each way. That breaks down to 1 hour to get to the bus station + 1 hour to buy your ticket and get on, 4 hours for the bus ride itself, 1 hour to get off and go to the port, and 1 more on the boat.

If you need a taxi to the bus, you can call Nick’s taxi service and extermination service, the quirky fleet of yellow cabs that serves the dual role of transportation and advertising for ridding your home of vermin (+509 2948 7777). Negotiate your fare on the phone while making the booking. It can get pricey: Pétion-ville to Porte-à-Léogâne can easily run you between $30 and $40. It starts to make sense if you’re a group and the fare is split between you.

The bus to Les Cayes leaves from Porte-à-Léogâne, a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince right near the stadium. There are several bus companies, with little shops where you can buy your ticket and wait. Just ask around for the 1st class bus, which is a small air-conditioned bus in good condition. I recommend the bus company called Transport Chic. If you want to leave on the earliest bus at 6 or 7am, you have to call ahead and make a reservation (Leopold +509 3670 9934).

Alternatively, you could take the larger repurposed school buses, recognizable by the bold colors and designs they are painted with, piled high with bags strapped precariously on the roof and so full they look like they might heave. I don’t recommend them. All buses follow the highway that passes through Léogâne and turns South at Miragoâne. Just stay on till the last stop.

This is the colorful tap tap, made from repurposed school buses. This is not the bus I am recommending, but they are rather striking! (photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you get there, hop a motorcycle taxi to the port. When you get there, you will find several small wooden fishing boats being loaded with more people than can comfortably fit. These are the public boats headed for Madame Bernard, a large town on Ile a Vache. A seat costs 100 gdes and you have to request for them to drop you at Kay Coq. If you have reserved with one of the resort hotels, they will send a motorboat to pick you up – they usually leave between noon and 1pm, so don’t miss the cutoff. Personally, after one very edifying cultural experience, I no longer take the public boats, because I have a morbid fear of the boat tipping and of some happless Haitian grabbing onto me and drowning both of us – most Haitians don’t know how to swim and they don’t distribute swimvests. So if you’re like me (with a rational fear of dying), you can call Capitaine Doudou (+509 3873 9799), who will come pick you up for a negotiated fee of somewhere between $30 and $40 per trip (for the whole boat).

TWO – Car + Boat.

  • Price tag: Depends on how many are sharing the boat, the cost of gasoline and the driver’s per diem. For a 4-way split on the boat, estimate $15 per person for the round trip.
  • Trip duration: 5 hours each way. This breaks down as 4 hours in the car and 1 hour on the boat.

Obviously if you have your own car, this is the fastest and most convenient option. You could rent one, but you would have to pay for it for the entirety of your trip and you would not use it while on the island. Les Cayes is a quiet enough town but I don’t know enough about where you could park it. I would imagine if you get there and ask in a restaurant they could recommend a spot. The resorts can also organize a car to pick you up at the airport and drive you straight down, for around $150-200 I think. When you get there, follow my above instructions for the boat.

THREE – Helicopter.

  • Price tag: a lot. Way beyond my budget.
  • Trip duration: not sure, but my best estimate based on the average speed of a helicopter and the distance from PAP to IAV is 40 minutes.

I’m serious, it is possible to go straight from Port-au-Prince to either of the two resorts I mentioned on Ile à Vache by helicopter. Each of the resorts has their very own helipad, and I’m sure they will be happy to organize the whole thing for a small chunk of change.

RESORT HOTELS

As I mentioned, there are two resort hotels in Ile a Vache: Port Morgan and Abaka Bay. They are among the few hotels in this country that have websites, which you can visit by  following the links provided here. Unlike many resorts in the Caribbean, these are not surrounded by walls, disconnected from the realities around. They are located very near each other on the northwestern side of the island, on opposite ends of the small village of Kay Coq.

Abaka Bay has a little mooring. The advantage of being on the beach here is that there are parasols, deck chairs, and even a hammock… The downside is that is is much busier, or at least it was over Easter when many people came to stay in the beachfront bungalows with with their families.

In a nutshell, Abaka Bay has the better location, right on a beautiful beach, but it is more expensive and I’ve heard unpleasant things from friends who’ve stayed there. I went there for drinks at their fun beachfront tiki bar, and the service was friendly but the management was infuriating (they tried to charge me an extra 15% for paying for paying for some drinks with a credit card – when I argued with them they agreed to 5%… go figure). I’m told they charge extra for everything you eat, drink, or do. I am also told that they will pick you up with their snazzy motorboat, but then once you’ve paid, they might send you back to Les Cayes in a fisherman’s boat, which costs less to run. They have also built two large cement helipads with fluorescent paint, which somewhat mar the splendid beach right behind them. All that said, I have not personally stayed there, so I cannot say whether waking up directly on the beach makes up for the rest. They really do have the best location on the island.

The sun sets dramatically over the beach in front of Abaka Bay.

In contrast, I did stay at Port Morgan for a night, and I had a very good experience. Named after the pirate Morgan who used to stay in this part of the island, the hotel is located on a hill inside a bay. It is run by a French gentleman called Didier, who fell in love with Haiti about 30 years ago and moved there with his wife Françoise. They have developed it very tastefully as a series of bungalows with Haitian vernacular detailing, tucked behind the trees. I slept in a beautiful room for around $100, which included 3 set meals. They have a gorgeous swimming  pool – the cleanest I’ve ever seen in Haiti – which was nestled at the top of the hill with sweeping views of the bay. The service was excellent – the Maitre D’, who spoke fluent French and English, bent over backwards to make my stay enjoyable. They have a small beach around the back, but they can give you a map to find the best beaches, which are a little walk away. They also own the Petite Anse Dufour, just behind the larger beach where Abaka Bay is located. They can take you there by boat or if you are adventurous, you can walk there in about 45 min to an hour.

The bungalows, decorated with traditional Haitian detailing, hug the hillside at Port Morgan

The pool at Port Morgan.

Aside from the beaches (which I describe in a section further down), there are also a few other places to explore. There is a rock not far off from Port Morgan which supposedly has great snorkeling. For a fee, both of the hotels rents out all the gear to go both snorkeling and scuba diving. They also organize boat trips, rent out kayaks, and organize horse treks around the island.

CHEAPER DIGS

There are several budget-conscious options for staying on Ile a Vache. My personal favorite is to stay with a fisherman and his family in the village of Kay Coq. There are several who take in guests, but I only know one – Gerôme (+509 3868 4056). The house is 10 feet away from the water in the bay of Kay Coq.They have 3 bedrooms, which they vacate whenever guests come and they sleep on the floor in the kitchen and living room. Two of the bedrooms have 1 double bed, and one of them has 2 double beds. The beds all have mosquito nets, which you will appreciate. The rooms are small and very modest. If you are there on a busy weekend and the rooms are all taken, then Gerôme has some tents, which he will put up for you.

Gerôme’s wife, daughters, and mother cook the delicious meals, consisting of fish, conch, lobster, or chicken if the catch is bad that day. You have to ask in advance for the conch {“lambi”} or lobster (“langouste”) because Gerôme goes out to buy it fresh from the fishermen that day. Breakfast is a very filling omelet with fresh fruit, rolls and coffee. All of the meals take place out in their garden. The atmosphere is like staying in a youth hostel, with friendly groups of NGO folks hanging out, playing guitar, drinking copious amounts of beer and rum, and talking into the night.

There is also the relatively new beachfront hotel of Village Vacances (+509 3637 4391), which is around $70 per person per night, with all 3 meals included. They offer bungalows with proper bathrooms. The atmosphere is apparently lovely, and the owners are very environmentally and socially conscious. I don’t know much more about them, but I will do more research and update this soon.

BEACHES

My favorite beaches are Anse à l’Eau and Petite Anse Dufour. If you ask around, it is not hard to get there, but they are both approximately 45 min to 1 hour from Kay Coq on foot. These walks are not arduous and are very enjoyable. Wear comfortable sandals, a hat, and a shirt that covers your shoulders, and bring lots of water and snacks. When the sun starts to go down, you have just about enough time to hoof it back to the hotel before dusk settles.

As I said earlier, Abaka Bay is located right on the beach of Grande Anse Dufour, and is a short walk from Petite Anse Dufour. The walk from Kay Coq to Grande Anse Dufour goes through the village – you will pass a Digicel-sponsored solar-powered phone charging station – and over a hill with mango trees and lush greenery. People are very friendly and will not bother you. Just say “bonjour” or “salut” as you pass people on the path. Some people might ask you if you need a guide, but you don’t because it’s impossible to get lost. At the top of the hill is a view of a lagoon filled with mangroves. At the bottom you reach the infamous helipads, the beach, and to the left, Abaka Bay resort. To follow on to Petite Anse Dufour, a completely secluded beach, you have to turn left at the helipads and follow a winding path first through some thick mangroves, and then through a forest. There is a cave to the right of Petite Anse Dufour, under the cliff. I was too nervous to get smashed against the rocks by the waves, but my 3 friends lived to tell the tale.

Another shot of Petite Anse Dufour, the secluded beach just past Abaka Bay

To get to Anse à l’Eau, another completely secluded beach on the northwestern tip of the island, you just have to follow the coastline from the inside of the Kay Coq bay. At a certain point, you will reach the end of the village and a fence. Follow the path up the stairs to the left, go around the dispensary. You will reach another fence; this is a B&B so just go through it and keep walking up the hill. At the top, you should just go through what looks like the foundations for a new house, down the other side through some trees, and you’re there! It is a large C-shaped beach that goes around a small peninsula. Someone very lucky has built a large villa right above it on the hillside. Other than that, you can be completely alone.

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This entry was published on June 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm. It’s filed under Haiti and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “Everything you need to know to visit Ile a Vache

  1. Melissa Sanon on said:

    Very helpful information. I am planning to go there with my bf in June, so we still haven;t decided if we want to stay with a local family or at one of the resorts. I definitely would like to experience both.

    • Have fun! There are a lot of differences between a hotel/resort and a homestay. The latter is obviously a fraction of the price, and you get fewer of the amenities such as flushing toilet, wifi, bar, swimming pool… You are in the house, with the family, which is really nice because there is a level of warmth and friendliness that you just won’t get at a resort. You can also quite easily stay with a family and go to the hotel for a meal or a cocktail and lounge by their pool. They charge a fee for swimming in the pool, but not for hanging out next to it!

  2. J. Lundre on said:

    These suggestions are wonderful. We have traveled to Il-au-Vache in the past and the family would like to go back. I would not recommend Abaka Bay Resort. This establishment is way over-priced and run by not so friendly people. They charge you $10 to use the bug spray, and on check-out the hotel bill will shock you!

  3. Christozoid on said:

    Very encouraging info. I’m thinking of “camping” at a fisherman place there soon.

  4. I am planning to go in february, can anyone give me some adresses of those places of families? I already stayed at Cap with a family and in Port au Prince.

  5. Thank you for the insightful info. I’m planning on going with my friend this August. you’ve provided a wealth of info . Merci!!

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