11 of the Best Experiences in Haiti

12390393872?profile=RESIZE_930xSPC Gibran Torres


Haiti, really? You´re no doubt wondering. Well, yes, the Americas´ most impoverished country has been an abject basket case for many years, and its current tragic vicissitudes with violence and instability approaching near collapse make it seem unlikely to recover any time soon. But here´s a reminder of what a fundamentally beautiful country this is, how rich is its history, how vibrant its culture, and how friendly its people – as I can attest when I visited way back in 26 years ago. This, then, is the best of what Haiti has to offer:

Laferrière Citadel

Located up north just 17 miles (27 kilometers) from the city of Cap-Haïtien, the country´s most iconic landmark is a massive stone fortress – the largest in the Americas, in fact – rising 130 feet (39 meters) atop Bonnet à l’Evèque mountain, which is itself 3,000 ft. (914m) above sea level. Commissioned by Henri Christophe, a key leader of the revolution which won Haiti´s independence in 1804 and who later created a kingdom in the north (1811-1820), it was completed in the last year of his reign before he committed suicide to avoid being overthrown or assassinated.  Its ramparts, barracks, courtyards, panoramic views, and other features are accessible to visitors who brave the seven-mile, uphill approach – first by 4x4, then on foot or horseback. It´s also part of Hait´s single UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with the nearby Sans Souci Palace (see below) and a residential complex called  Ramiers.

 
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Sans-Souci Palace

Built at the base of the mountain on which the Citadelle Laferrière perches, in the same period and for the same Henri Christophe, the opulent pile once known as the Versailles of the Caribbean was devastated by an earthquake in 1842 and never rebuilt. Also a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the Citadelle, what’s left to see today is a shell – but an evocative one.

 
12390395057?profile=RESIZE_930xRoosevelt Skerritt


Port-au-Prince
 

Despite its dilapidation, earthquake damage, and high crime rate (especially petty crime like pickpocketing), I´m told the capital (pop. 1.2 million) is doable and even reasonably safe if you take common-sense precautions. Highlights include the Iron Market, one of those colorful Caribbean covered marketplace with all sorts of stalls produce, spices, and handicrafts, and the Champ de Mars, a big public park which besides its trees and other greenery is notable for its statues of Haitian historical figures as well as performers and street food and handicraft vendors. There´s a big open space where the once grandiose neoclassical National Palace, home to the country´s president, once stood before it was so damaged in the 2010 earthquake that it had to be torn down (plans are afoot to build a faithful though modernized recreation in the coming years).  And fronting the park is perhaps Port-au-Prince´s single most compelling attraction: the Musée Du Panthéon National Haïtien (above), a museum (built partly underground, by the way, which saved it from the 2010 quake) with an impressive collection of Haitian art and artifacts dating back to the pre-settlement Taíno people and ranging up to recent history, with a good bit devoted to the slave revolution, and the country's struggle to become the first European colony to gain independence, in 1804.


12390395078?profile=RESIZE_930xWikitravel


Cap-Haïtien


The streets of the country´s second-largest city, on its north coast, are lined with colonial houses – including a good deal of “gingerbread” architecture – testament to a history stretching back to 1711, when it was founded as the capital of the French colony of Saint Domingue until it was moved to Port-au-Prince 59 years laters. Cap also served as the capital of the Kingdom of Haiti, which lasted from independence in 1804 until 1820. These days it has a population of around 190,000, and apart from historic sites and monuments such as Place d´Armes square and the 354-year-old Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral, with its iconic tiled dome, nearby hills and beaches (such as Cormier and Labadie, the famous enclave used by cruise ships) are popular as a getaway for more well-heeled Haitians. The city also makes a good base for day trips to La Ferrière Citadel and Sans Souci. And though there´s poverty here as elsewhere in the country, the city and region have been able to keep themselves apart from the higher crime and instability in the country´s south.


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Jacmel

On the south coast a bit over an hour southwest of capital Port-au-Prince, this city of 40,000 was founded by the Spanish in 1504, with the French moving in 194 years later. Its old quarter is renowned for its cobblestone streets and French colonial architecture – particularly the charming “gingerbread”-style houses of the early 19th century (it´s on UNESCO´s tentative World Heritage Site list), and Jacmel´s larer claim to fame is as Haiti´s cultural/artistic capital. It´s also known for its annual Carnaval (with dates in February and/or March, depending on the year).


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Bassin Bleu

Up in the mountains several miles outside Jacmel, this trio of stunning, azure-blue pools is tucked amidst lush vegetation. Reached via a 20-minute hike through the forest, it´s a fantastic spot for a bit of refreshing swimming.
12390410294?profile=RESIZE_930xMari-Chantalle

Île-à-Vache/Lilavach

Off the southern coast, “Cow Island,” eight miles long by two miles wide and with a population of around 14,000, is known for its stunning beaches, unspoiled natural beauty, and tranquility – although the government has been trying to expand tourist development beyond the three existing resort hotels, Abaka Bay, and Port Morgan – and provoking some backlash from locals. In any case, it´s great for swimming, snorkeling, diving, hiking, and exploring villages.

 

12390410879?profile=RESIZE_930xVisit Haiti


Grotte Marie Jeanne

Also out on the southern coast, four hours from Port-au-Prince outside the town of Port-a-Piment, one of Haiti´s largest cave systems – some some 56 chambers on three levels stretching nearly 3⅓ mi. (5.3km) – is home to impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and Taíno pictographs. It´s truly one of the Caribbean´s unsung eco treasures!


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Saut-d’Eau Waterfall

A charming cascade in the country´s central region, 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince, it´s a pilgrimage site for both Catholics and practitioners of Vodou (see below), who come to bathe in its waters, believed to have healing properties, and petition the Virgin Mary and her Vodou counterpart, Erzulie Danto. The highlight of the year is the three-day religious festival that takes place July 13-16. And no matter the time of year, Saut-d´Eau and the beautiful area surrounding it provide a serene and spiritual atmosphere, along with the natural beauty of the cascading waters.


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Beauteous Beaches

This country boasts strands that are equal in appeal to many of the Caribbean’s finest, with some notables including stretches along the 12-mi. (19km) Côtes des Arcadins, along the north coast of Port-au-Prince Bay, and site of a number of resorts (including the Haiti´s most notable, the Royal Decameron Indigo Beach); Abaka Bay on Île-des-Vaches (see above; this beach once made CNN´s list of the world´s best); 1¼ -mi. (2km) Point Sable on the south coast (three hours from Port-au-Prince and fairly close to Grotte Marie Jeanne); Raymond les Bains, not far from Jacmel, and of course the aforementioned Labadee near Cap-Haitien (above)..


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Vodou for You, Too


Never mind the simplistic, sensationalized stories of zombies, this hybrid of the West and Central African religions of the slaves brought here beginning in the 15th century and the Roman Catholicism of the French colonizers is a complex, fascinating, and largely benevolent faith. It includes a pantheon of iwas (gods with Catholic-saint counterparts, such as Papa Legba, associated with St. Peter) and practices featuring singing, drumming, dancing, spirit possession, and animal sacrifice. And of course the most sensationalized aspect is its zombis - which of course have been turned into a major pop-culture phenomenon but seem to be much less of a big deal in Haiti itself. Another interesting thing about voudon is its welcoming of women and homosexuals on an equal basis with heterosexual men. Visit Haiti provides a more detailed intro, and in order to attend ceremonies you can ask your guides and staffers at hotels and guesthouses for suggestions. I vividly remember attending one near the city of Saint-Marc as an excursion offered by the local Club Med, about which I´d been sent by my magazine to write (and which is now the Royal Decameron Indigo Beach); it was a mesmerizing experience – chicken sacrifice and all. Some of these are oriented more toward tourists (though the one I witnessed seemed pretty darn raw), but you can also seek out the more “authentic” real deal with a little asking around (one good example is the visit run by the Cap-Haïtien school/hostelry École Les Poupon).




For more information, check out VisitHaiti.com.

 

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Comments

  • Very impressive...and what a sad waste of potential.

  • I'm so hoping that with the help of the international community that this beautiful country can finally recover from its tragic history - mostly for its own sake but also to allow the rest of the world to discover these wonders and the others it has to offer.

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