Much to Love About Haiti
Few people imagine mountains when they think of Haiti. When it comes to the Caribbean, it’s mainly beaches and rum cocktails that come to mind. But, as Jean Cyril tells me, “Haiti is almost all mountains. Of all the Caribbean islands, it’s the most mountainous. Ayiti, the Kreyòl spelling of Haiti, means ‘land of mountains’. It comes from the Tainos, the indigenous Indians, who lived here before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.”
There’s a popular saying in this predominantly black Francophone country, which covers half an island shared with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic: “Dèyè mòn gen mòn”, meaning “Beyond the mountains, there are mountains.” It can be taken literally, Jean Cyril explains as we make our way to the summit, but it’s also a fitting metaphor for a country with hidden depths and plenty to discover beyond the obvious. Haiti, a country known mainly for its troubled history and the devastating 2010 earthquake, isn’t on many adventure travellers’ radars, but there’s much to find here, from the very hikeable mountains and the national vodou (voodoo) culture to artist communities, traditional music and food. Not to mention sunshine, beaches and rum.
I’d flown into the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and set out immediately with Jean Cyril for the mist-covered hills beyond the sprawling metropolis, heading for La Visite National Park. The four-wheel drive drops us at the hilltop marketplace of Carrefour Badio and we hike up a rolling road into the mountain villages. There’s plenty to take in, with open views of green hills on either side. It’s a Sunday and locals are making their way home from church, the men in suits, girls in best dresses. Women carry heavy loads of mountain-grown carrots and onions down to the market in town. Dogs, pigs, chickens and horses are all part of the flowing traffic. “Hiking is the perfect pace to soak in this country,” Jean Cyril says as the hours pass. “You hear things and smell things you wouldn’t get from travelling in a van.” I have to agree.
After getting the painful hill slog out of the way, we find the evening filled with the sound of crickets and the smell of smoke from kitchen fires. There’s a fiery Caribbean sunset as we make our way through a pine forest to our lodge, Kay Winnie, where there’s lively kompa (traditional Haitian music), local mint tea and a couple of friendly old dogs to welcome us.
We’d set out from Port-au-Prince with the hope of hiking Haiti’s highest mountain, Pic La Selle, but it’s soon clear this isn’t going to happen. It rains heavily through the night, an unseasonable tropical storm, and our plan to ride a motorbike taxi (three men, one bike) for two hours on difficult terrain that’s now a muddy wash-out feels like an accident waiting to happen. Instead, we select nearby Pic Cabaio and, fuelled by Haitian coffee, climb up through the forest.
At the summit, we’re lucky to get a break in the mist for a brief but impressive vista over the island. To our right is the shining blue of Lac Azuéi. “The lake is in Haiti,” Jean Cyril tells me, “but it marks the border with the Dominican Republic. A lot of what we’re seeing from up here, over to the east, is in the Dominican Republic.”
It starts to rain hard again as we make our way down. There’s nothing to do back at the lodge but wait for the storm to blow through with a bottle of good Haitian rum. Sometimes it’s a tough life. The skies clear by morning and we make our way back down the mountain road. We’re rarely alone, with more local women carrying vegetables to market (it seems they do most of the heavy lifting around here). Some seem bemused that anyone would walk these hills for fun, but they’re always friendly, exchanging welcoming ‘bonjous’ (creole for hello).
These women are a good symbol for Haiti, a country that, like them, has had to be tough and resilient, keeping going no matter how difficult or rocky the road. Haiti has had more than its share of hard times. The arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish was catastrophic for the indigenous Indians, who were wiped out. Slaves were then shipped in from Africa to work on the new French sugar plantations. When the black population fought for and won independence (Haiti was the world’s first black republic), they were ostracised and punished internationally, considered a dangerous example to other slave-run economies.
More recently, the country suffered the murderous dictatorship of Papa Doc (François Duvalier) and his feared security forces, the Tonton Macoutes, who were the subject of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. Then came the January 2010 earthquake, which killed an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people, led to an outbreak of cholera and worsened poverty in a country that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. It’s not surprising that Haiti doesn’t top travellers’ to-do lists.
Problems are still clear to see, especially the poverty in Port-au-Prince, but Haitians don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves and the country feels like it’s on the up. “There’s something happening right now where people are starting to rediscover Haiti,” says Jean Cyril as we drive through the lively and colourful capital, with its brightly painted buildings and local tap-tap taxis decorated with evangelical Christian messages and paintings of pop stars. Many of the buildings have been rebuilt since the earthquake, including the destroyed Marché en Fer (Iron Market). This is the place to pick up vodou dolls, metre-long machetes, paintings and, if you’re eating ‘local’, a tubful of turtles or a cat.
From the market, I head to Atis Rezistans, an artist community that takes discarded materials from the street – car parts, bottle tops, shoes – and turns them into strange sculptures heavy with images of sex and death. Human skulls have also been incorporated in the artworks. “When you start to really think about death, you start to really understand life,” says artist Romel Jean-Pierre, explaining the positive meaning behind the imagery. “Knowing about death makes me want to live my life fully every day.”
He pours rum on the ground for the spirits. There’s food on altars left out for them, too. The idea is if you treat the spirits well they will reciprocate.
In another district, Noailles, local artists work with steel recycled from oil drums. Vodou flag maker and priest Jean-Baptiste Jean-Joseph has a studio here, where his meticulously beaded flags sell for up to AU$8000. Vodou is a central part of Haitian culture, brought here from Africa by the slaves. But Haitians are frustrated by Hollywood’s version of ‘voodoo’. “When I see people use vodou for evil, it doesn’t make me happy because that isn’t the purpose of vodou,” Jean-Joseph says, as he shows me around the temple behind his studio, knocking on doors to announce himself to loa (spirits) before entering. “Vodou is good, wise, pure. It helps you go forward. It helps you heal, to work, to prosper.” He pours rum on the ground for the spirits. There’s food on altars left out for them, too. The idea is if you treat the spirits well they will reciprocate.
A short flight takes us to Cap-Haïtien in the north, where Christopher Columbus established a settlement and where much of the French sugar industry was based. I hike up a steep path to the mountaintop fortress La Citadelle Henri Christophe – also known as La Citadelle Laferrière – in the afternoon heat with a group of local students. We end up discussing the merits of Ronaldo and Messi, as you do when you’re at a UNESCO World Heritage site in a region rich with history.
Built between 1804 and 1820 by former slave and revolution leader Henri Christophe, the citadelle is the largest of 22 mountaintop forts, part of a plan by Haiti’s first independence leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to repel the French if they tried to regain control of the country. It has huge symbolic importance in a nation that suffered so much under colonial rule; the forts weren’t designed to guard ports or cities, but “to protect the idea of freedom, to never go back to slavery”, explains Jean Cyril. The defensive hilltop position of the citadelle affords views of green peaks on three sides and, to the north, the town of Cap-Haïtien.
After stopping in – and sampling the goods – at a local rum distillery, I spend a morning walking around Cap-Haïtien – its mellow streets lined with colourful lottery shops, watch menders and men playing dice – before flying south to spend a few days in the arty coastal town of Jacmel and the waterfalls and rock pools of Bassin-Bleu.
Haiti isn’t a country you’d travel to purely for beach time (there are cheaper, easier spots for that), but there are good beaches here. I make my way to Moulin Sur Mer, a resort on the west coast near Montrouis, built on an eighteenth-century sugar plantation. I explore the villages around Montrouis, where trees and the local water pool are decorated with vodou symbols. “Vodou is part of life here,” says local guide Jean-Roger Dorsainvil. We pass the local disco-cum-brothel, then talk our way into a small vodou ‘temple’, where a table in the back room is loaded with maracas, a deck of cards, bottles and other tools used to call the spirits. In another room there is a small coffin, a warning to people who enter without the priest’s permission.
The rest of the day’s spent on a seahawk boat, scuba diving in largely unexplored waters mostly used by fishermen and traditional sailing boats carrying salt up the coast. We drop anchor near La Gônave, the largest island off Haiti’s coast, to a soundtrack of tunes from national kompa star Sweet Micky, now the Haitian President Michel Martelly. “Haiti is a land of extremes,” divemaster Jeff Kirzner says, talking about everything from the president’s career choices to the difference between perceptions of Haiti and the reality of the island’s natural beauty.
During a mellow day of diving, I don’t see any big creatures, like turtles, sharks or mantas, or huge numbers of fish. But it’s fun swimming over landscapes of elephant ear sponges and vase and fan corals, spotting balloonfish, Caribbean stingrays and lionfish. Between dives, we explore the coast, swimming ashore to a white-sand beach, then on to the Iles des Arcadins islands that give this coast (Côte des Arcadins) its name.
I finish my time here with an early morning hike to the village of Kay Piat, halfway up the mountains that rise above the ocean. Paths are busy with villagers carrying loads of breadfruit down to the market. A hillside house has a cross outside, a vodou sign of protection. “In Haiti, when people come into an area and see the signs, they understand what it means,” says Jean-Roger.
For such a short and easy – if hot and sweaty – hike, the views are remarkable, constantly changing with the twists of the road to take in small villages, sugar plantations, palm trees, mountains and the Caribbean ocean. We stop at a local school and orphanage, where friendly kids clamour to greet us. At the end of their lessons, they sing uplifting songs. Jean-Roger and I sit outside in the sun and wait for the van to pick us up and take us back to the coast as the children’s voices ring out across the land of mountains.
United Airlines has return flights from Melbourne to Port-au-Prince (via LA and Panama City).
For more information about Haiti visit the official tourism website. experiencehaiti.org
G Adventures offers 10-day Highlights of Haiti tours, including Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haïtien, Jacmel and Bassin-Bleu, from about US$1725.
Tour Haiti offers various trips and packages to Palais Sans Souci and La Visite National Park.
Moulin Sur Mer and Marina Blue have two-night stay-and-dive packages, including two dives and the Kay Piat hike, from US$440.