Haiti– its full of surprises

By | Category: Travel destinations
Citadelle Laferriere

Citadelle Laferriere

In downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, a garishly painted bus or tap-tap is emblazoned with the words ‘Merci Jesus’ – but looking round the rubble, dust and smoke of the city five years after a massive earthquake, I wonder what the Haitians have to thank God for.

But Haiti is full of surprises. Away from the city with its screeching traffic, rickety buildings, dirty streets and people selling cigarettes and gum from makeshift roadside stalls, this is a beautiful country with beaches and landscapes as lush as any you will find in the Caribbean.

And Haiti knows it. The Government here is undertaking giant steps to make this a tourist attraction again with moves underway to prepare Haiti for a new golden era. Even before the earthquake, decades of political unrest and disasters have meant the country has lagged behind its neighbours in the mass tourism market, but in its hey-day Haiti was the playground of Hollywood stars

I visited the recently opened Marriott hotel funded by Digicel which stands incongruously amid the debris of Port au Prince. Digicel’s Caribbean HQ is in the city and the telecommunications company’s boss, Denis O’Brien, has also invested in restoring the capitals’ historic Iron Market. Away from the capital Haiti’s most imposing attraction is Citadelle LaFerriere, the largest and oldest fortress in the Western hemisphere. The Citadelle is referred by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World and in 1982 it was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This massive stone fortification was built to demonstrate the power of the newly independent Haiti, one of the few nations in the world to overthrow slavery and proclaim independence. It became the world’s first black republic in 1804.

At the moment you make the steep climb (300 feet above sea level) on foot or on horseback, but the World Bank is investing US$45 million in redeveloping the Citadelle to make it a world-class tourist attraction and, some say, that new investment could make this the Haitian Machu Picchu.

the cathedral in Cap Haitien

the cathedral in Cap Haitien

The Citadelle is found near the town of Cap Haitien, a place with elegant colonial buildings. Improvements to the roads, also funded by the World Bank, have already made it more accessible to tourists who come to visit the beach hotels. All have the ambience of traditional Caribbean resort but here you also get offered voudou tours which explore Haiti’s mysterious spiritual side. The ceremonies include singing and dancing as well as cock fighting and although ,not to everyone’s taste, epitomise the African influence still intrinsic in Haitian culture.

The pretty seaside town of Jacmel is a former sugar and coffee port. That trading history is emphasised, for example, when you walk into the cool of   Hotel Florita. This is an 18th century warehouse furnished with old coffee processing equipment. Like everywhere else that you will see when you visit, it is decked out with papier mache, carnival costumes and elaborate metal work.   There is no escaping art in Haiti. Tiny Jacmel alone has 35 galleries and the walls and streets everywhere are awash with murals, mosaics, paintings and sculptures

bassin bleu

Bassin Bleu

Close to Jacmel is another of Haiti’s trump cards, the magical Bassins Bleu Hidden in the hills and made up of three deep, crystal blue pools of water this attraction is one that is on everyone’s visit list. I clambered down to the pools awkwardly using ropes but was rewarded with an exhilarating swim in a grotto Legend says that it is visited by nymphs.

Back in Port-au-Prince, I caught up with some of the haunts that celebrities had visited in times past. The 18th century Gothic Oloffson hotel with its white towers and gingerbread latticework welcomed Noel Coward in its heyday and Graham Greene based his novel The Comedians here. It survived the earthquake, and still attracts a handful of ex-patriots and visitors who come to admire the voud dou statues in the garden and to sand dance the night away to a vou dou pop band, RAM, who perform every Thursday. Located in the city’s genteel suburb of Petition Ville, it is a stone’s throw from the busy centre and the fascinating Musée du Panthéon National, where the anchor from Columbus’ Santa Maria is on display, among other things. The statue of “The Unknown Slave,” a monument to freedom fighters, reaches out nearby. In Port au Prince’s Iron Market voudou accessories and live turtles are for sale.

part of the fame of the Hotel O is due to Grahame Greene who set his novel, The Comedians here. ©Alec Polotsky

part of the fame of the Hotel Oloffson is due to Grahame Greene who set his novel, The Comedians here. ©Alec Polotsky

This is not the Caribbean I know, with its big resorts, swaying hammocks and reggae souvenirs, but Haiti is a tropical destination with a difference.

A unique history, friendly people unbowed by disaster and beautiful scenery guarantee that it will not remain undiscovered by the British tourist for long.

More’s the pity.

Getting there:

There are no direct flights from either the UK or Ireland to Port-au-Prince. A common method of entry is to fly to the Dominican Republic and then cross over into Haiti. You can also fly from Paris via Guadelope. An alternative is to fly be either Miami or New York using American Airlines or United.

For more about Haiti, click here.

All images © ExperienceHaiti.org

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