News: The UD Travel Blog

Posted: 13 December 2013

A blog from our travels in Haiti

As our flight descended for the approach to Port au Prince, the first thing that struck me was how mountainous Haiti was. We flew over huge cragged mountain ranges, with the occasional village scattered about and single dirt tracks slowly winding their way around the mountain sides. As we continued to descend, Port au Prince, Haiti’s chaotic, huge crowed capital lay sprawled out in front of us.

I do not want to linger too much on the past as this country has so much to offer, but it is impossible to talk or write about Haiti without mentioning tragic recent events and specifically the earthquake of January 2010, the effects of which are still clearly visible today throughout central and southern Haiti. Rebuilding any country where there has been such large scale death and destruction along with a huge percentage of the government buildings being destroyed is going to take time. In Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest nation, visitors should consider the work that has been done to get the country to where it is today and the resilience of the people. A lot of work is still to be done but Haitians are a proud and welcoming people, delighted that you have come to visit their country.

On arrival in Port au Prince, my expectation was that there would be huge lines of people, hot and sweaty immigration officials and stern looking security guards. I could not have been further from the truth. As we left the aircraft and entered the air-conditioned terminal building, we were met by a local band playing a welcome tune and a very well organised and efficient immigration system. I was through to the arrivals area and met by Geffrard, our driver, within thirty minutes of touchdown. New York JFK, you have a lot to learn.

It was at least 30’ and I immediately broke into a sweat as we walked towards the large Nissan Patrol that was waiting. Street sellers and market stalls all along the roadside, cattle and goats wandering the streets, motorbikes and cars coming head on towards you, deflected by a short sharp blast of the horn.

Welcome to the real Haiti.

As one of our well travelled clients on the tour said ‘This is not the Caribbean. This is a West African country that just happens to be in the Caribbean!’

It took about twenty minutes until the large Nissan pulled in to a small side street and entered through the large metal gates of La Plaza Hotel. An oasis of peace guarding against the hustle and bustle outside, La Plaza was a very pleasant surprise. An open plan dining area and bar, large swimming pool with loungers and well tended gardens and palm trees all added to the relaxed and informal feel. Entering the large air-conditioned room with cable TV and en-suite bathroom, I was soon changed, showered and fast asleep ready for the days ahead.

After Port au Prince, the next destination on our tour was Jacmel. A pleasant three hour drive on a tarmac road which was in reasonable condition and we were in this charming port town. We met up with our guide, Jean Michel, who was unmissable while wearing his bright orange ‘I love Jacmel’ t-shirt and a grin from ear to ear. Jean Michel led us on a walking tour through his home town, exploring sights such as the historic old Hotel Florita and meeting some of the artists and characters of Jacmel including the irrepressible Moro Baruk, whose art is shown and sold throughout the world. Laden with numerous souvenirs, our next stop on the tour was the town’s Iron Market.

Named not as we presumed , due to the selling of iron, but after the iron structure that the market resides in, this was a full on, crowded and busy local market selling everything from locally produced bananas to hair extensions and odd sized flip flops. Full of noise, smiles and shouting and laughter, I felt strangely comfortable as a local man tried to persuade me to take a photo of his wife ‘because she is the most beautiful woman in Jacmel’. I politely declined, not because I disagreed with his opinion, she may well have been as described, but the group was moving on to the next stall and I did not want to get left behind.

Leaving the market, we rejoined the vehicle and drove the fifteen minutes to our hotel for the evening. The Cyvadier is an excellent hotel, located on top of a beautiful cove and with a small beach. The room was air conditioned, clean and tidy with a double bed and a separate bathroom. Local fishermen were throwing their nets from the rocks and diving in to inspect their catch as I settled down at the bar to have a glass of the award winning local beer. Sitting there watching the sun set over the Caribbean and reflecting on the day, it began to dawn on me, that for an experienced traveller, looking for something completely different as well as pioneering, this was as good as it gets.

After a large buffet breakfast, we were to visit the local fort. Found at the end of a long, bumpy and winding dirt track, the panoramic views of Jacmel and the surrounding area from the top definitely made the journey worthwhile. A tour of the c18th fort by a local conservation guide and meeting the local school children whose classes where built next door made it a thoroughly enjoyable morning. Our descent along the track back to Jacmel allowed for a few stops and photographs before we had lunch and then rejoined the main highway back to Port au Prince.

Another relaxing evening at La Plaza was followed by a trip to Saut-d'Eau. Its name is French for 'waterfall', named after a large waterfall called 'Le Saut' and the area holds cultural significance in Haiti, to both Catholic and Vodou practitioners. Having taken our photos and declined to take a paddle in the stream (I was wearing jeans) we returned to our Nissan and headed for Croix des Bouquets. I had been looking forward to visiting this craft village having read about the sculptures and metal work that took place there and I am glad to say that I was not disappointed. There are about twenty small workshops in a street, each with a unique style of sculpture and design, ranging from Vodou and Christian styles to tourist buses and sculptures made from recycled material. The rhythmic banging and tapping coming from the workshops can be hypnotic and seeing these artists transform old barrels in to works of art was a highlight of my trip.

The next day we had a long drive to the north of the country, through mountain passes and towns and villages, passing everyday life in Haiti. Stopping off for a mountain top photo opportunity, our driver was approached by a smiling old lady who offered to sell him a goats head (fully intact minus its body) that she was holding by it horns. He gently explained that we had a few more hours to go and that the people with him may not appreciate the extra passenger before we continued our journey, getting held up in one town as a huge parade filled the streets. It was the end of term and the schools children all marched through the town, smartly dressed in their uniforms, playing instruments and marching in time. Our entourage, parked at the side of the road as they passed, was waved at, pointed at and made fun of in much the same way as school children do anywhere in the world. I’m not sure who found it the most fun, us or them.

On arrival in Cap-Haïtien, it was immediately obvious that the area was largely untouched by the 2010 earthquake and this can be seen in the number of historic buildings still intact in the city. It has a more laid back feel then Port au Prince although the hustle and bustle and crazy driving is still eminent. After a good night’s rest, we set off on the short journey to Milot, about 8 miles to the south west of Cap-Haïtien, and the capitol of Haiti’s first self-proclaimed King Henri Christophe. Our reason for visiting was the hugely impressive Citadelle Laferrière, commonly known just as the Citadelle, a large mountaintop fortress, the largest fortress in the Americas and designated as a World Heritage Site in 1982 along with the nearby Sans-Souci Palace. The massive stone structure was built between 1805 and 1820 as part of a system of fortifications designed to keep the newly-independent nation of Haiti safe from French incursions.

After taking the rather touristy horse ride to the top of the mountain, the sight that awaits you is truly breathtaking. There are stunning views out over Cap-Haïtien and apparently on a clear day it is possible to see the eastern coast of Cuba. Even more stunning is the actual fortress itself. It is hard to imagine how this immense and imposing structure was built in such a location and our guide, Wilfred, explained that up to 20,000 men had died in its construction. The huge array of cannon and cannon balls stored in and around the fortress all had to be carried up the mountain and Wilfred’s descriptions of the conditions at the time for the people involved really was terrifying.

Our horse and guides take us back down to our waiting vehicle and we take the short drive over to Milot and the Sans-Souci Palace which rises majestically above the town. I try to imagine the Palace in its heyday, with the beautiful gardens and pools, and despite the building now being little more than a ruin, it is easy to drift away to the early 18th century. Wilfred explains the history of the building and the events leading up to the death of Henri Christophe before we head in to town for a lovely al fresco lunch and drinks at the local community centre.

Leaving Milot behind we drive back in to Cap-Haïtien to pick up a few more gifts and souvenirs, trying not to worry whether it will all fit in the checked baggage, before heading out to the delightful Cormier Plage Resort. With a golden sand beach and large rooms looking out over the ocean, I can see why the resort is full of UN and NGO staff on R&R leave. The mix of American, Canadian, Italian and French accents around the bar that evening talk about training the local police, rebuilding sewer systems, immunisation programmes and a host of other problems that afflict this land. I wonder to myself if the negative attitudes of the country that pervade these conversations are part of a self fulfilling prophecy, as the side of Haiti that I have seen certainly does have its problems but they are definitely not insurmountable. I finish my G&T (my excuse is that the quinine in the tonic is a good prophylactic against malaria) and head off to bed with more questions than answers.

An early wake-up call and the half hour drive to the airport for a domestic flight to Port au Prince and check-in for my onward flight to Miami with American Airlines. I should have known what to expect after a week in Haiti, but the airport and Tortug’ Air experience that morning will always be one of my travelling highlights. Despite arriving at 0600 for a flight scheduled to depart at 0650, the airport was closed, locked up and there were no lights on. Mild panic set in and I checked with the driver that I was at the right airport (there is only one in Cap-Haïtien) and that my ticket was correct.

Staff eventually arrived and opened up at 0615 with the delayed flight leaving at 0810 and I just about made the connecting flight to Miami. Tortug’ Air check in involved a young lady with her mobile phone and laptop, hand writing boarding cards and the reassuring sight of the pilot making pre-flight checks of the aircraft which involved kicking the tyres and banging the engine casing. As an American Haitian on the same flight said to me ‘I love my country but sometimes....’.

Aled Evans visited Haiti in December 2013. Feel free to give him a call on 0191 296 2674 to discuss our tours in Haiti.

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