PORT-AU-PRINCE — Pay no attention to the media stereotypes of disaster and the ridiculous utterings of a certain world leader. Known as the Pearl of the Caribbean, Haiti and its vibrant capital, Port-au-Prince, bursts with art and activity. With a culture steeped in creativity and hospitality, this under-the-radar island gem offers singular experiences that you will never find anywhere else.
Anticipation bubbled in my belly when I landed in Port-au- Prince. Growing up in Chicago, which was founded by Haitian explorer Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, I have always felt pride in Haiti as the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. I’ve long ignored the media portrayals of extreme poverty and devastation because people and places of colour are rarely portrayed fairly. So I felt excitement as I rolled through the bumpy streets of Port-au-Prince and I was not disappointed. Every building, wall and bus was covered in vivid paintings and illustrations. Art lined the sidewalks like an open air art gallery and locals filled the streets, some with pots on their heads, some in the latest fashions.
Above: The streets of Port-au-Prince are made more colourful by paintings like this.
Stepping into the Marriott Port-au-Prince, I was dazzled by even more art. Specially commissioned by Mr. Marriott himself, the hotel boasts 1,500 pieces by 22 local artists curated by noted Haitian artist Philippe Dodard. Sparkling vodou flags, a hand-wrought iron wall covered in mermaid scenes and innovative sculptures fill the space. The chic and inviting decor makes it the sort of hotel that you want to hole up in but Port-au-Prince beckons.
On Thursday nights, it is absolutely essential to head to the legendary Hotel Oloffson. As the setting of Graham Greene’s The Comedians novel as well as the headquarters for celebrity parties and journalist hangouts, Hotel Oloffson is iconic. Perched on a small hill, the white, gingerbread mansion is surrounded by towering palms and a rambling garden. It looks like something out of another time or dimension and it basically is. A statue of Baron Samedi, the top-hatted vodou loa of death and sexuality, greets visitors but I avert my eyes past his eerie image.
People are packed into the first floor and are dancing to the hypnotic sounds of RAM. The 16-piece band is also iconic, with the lead singer and Olafsson owner Richard Morse producing rasin music, which is a swirling blend of rock, reggae and funk, layered with vodou rhythms. On the floor in front of the stage, veves or symbols representing different loas are etched in chalk. Lunise, Morse’s wife and RAM’s second lead vocalist, sings with commanding beauty, waving her hands and dancing like she is holding a sacred ceremony. All around me, locals and tourists are dancing and revelling in the atmosphere. Goatskin drums and long tin horns called konet blast through the thick air and the song lyrics in Kreyol seem to transport me, even though I don’t understand them. In front of me, a local starts convulsing and her friends calmly sit her down, familiar with the spiritual trance that the music can inspire.
Above: Climbing to the top of La Citadelle La Ferriere rewards visitors an awesome view.
After recovering from the night of music and dancing which lasted until 4 a.m., I visit the Musee du Pantheon National Haitien the next day. Like most everything else in Haiti, this underground museum is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Tucked beneath a sculpture garden in downtown Port-au-Prince, the building is modelled after the circular shape of the homes of Haiti’s original Taino inhabitants.
The tombs of the Haiti’s founding fathers, Alexandre Sabès’ Pétion, the republic’s first president, Toussaint L’ouverture, general of the revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, general after L’ouverture’s capture and later emperor of Haiti, and Henri Christophe, general and later king, form one striking section of the museum. The other two focus on artifacts and art that reflect Haitian history. There’s the hulking, rusty anchor from Christopher Columbus’s ship, the Santa Maria, which landed in Haiti in 1492, elaborate robes and crowns from Haiti’s kings and even the top hat and gold-tipped cane from the notorious dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
Wandering into the sun-streaked streets filled with tap taps, or buses painted with ornate designs, I realize that bustling Port-au-Prince also offers a chance to sample Haitian cuisine. Street vendors sell griyo delicately seasoned fried pork, but I opt for a visit to the popular restaurant L’Observatoire, in the trendy Petion-ville neighbourhood. The cafe sits atop a hill and offers lovely views of the mountainous island as well as Kreyol cuisine. I dined on Kreyol grilled fish with pikliz, a spicy condiment of pickled veggies, while gazing at the dreamy vistas. Artists are lined up at the bottom of the restaurant and I found it difficult to leave without at least one, make that six, pieces of original art.
Above: The UNESCO World Heritage La Citadelle La Ferriere has some impressive ruins.
I joined up with Cyril of Tour Haiti to experience the ultimate Haitian adventure; a climb up to the UNESCO World Heritage site of La Citadelle La Ferriere, on the northern coast of the island. Accessing the fortress isn’t easy from Port-au- Prince so we took a small plane to Cap-Haitien, a charming small town with bougainvillea vines covering the walls and smiling children racing around. A quick drive to the town of Milot starts the journey.
The steep, 11-km trek is best made on horseback and a flurry of adolescent boys maneuver to guide your horse. Francois guided my horse up the long, hot path and when I glimpsed the top of La Citadelle, I gasped. Stretching across Bonnet a L’Eveque Mountain,with walls 41 metres high and three metres thick, viewing the fort rising over the island is a spectacular sight. Climbing off my horse, I strolled around the fort. Fortified with 365 cannons, the cannon balls still arranged in neat piles. As the largest fortress in the Americas and sometimes called the eighth wonder of the world, La Citadelle represents the Haitian people’s steadfast refusal to return to slavery.
There are no blind spots in the structure — if French soldiers ever returned, views from the fortress would reveal them.
Looking out at the rolling green hills, you can spot the remains of Sans Souci Palace a little northeast of the fort, which served as an amphitheatre and castle complex for King Henri Christophe.
Thanks to the 100 year debt that France forced Haiti to pay as compensation to slave owners for the loss of property, Haiti might not be a rich country but it is most certainly beautiful.
About the Author
With a love for travel passed down from her globe-trotting granny, Rosalind Cummings-Yeates has spent most of her journalism career exploring cultures and documenting arts history. A Chicago native who escapes the city's six months of cold by specializing in Caribbean and Latin American travel and culture, she loves climbing volcanoes, strolling cobblestone streets and trekking on pink-sand beaches. She's the author of Exploring Chicago Blues: Inside The Scene, Past & Present (History Press) and writes a bi-weekly travel column for Travel Pulse. Follow her adventures on her travel blog, Farsighted Fly Girl and @farsightedgirl on Twitter and Instagram.