Battered by political and geological instability, Haiti is more than just a grim history of trouble, as Caroline Eden discovered
By: Caroline Eden
Rain lashed the tropical forest and thundered off the cobblestone track. A group of four of us had been embroiled in an animated discussion with a posse of local horsemen for the past half-an-hour.
Above us, shrouded in raincloud, was Haiti’s – and possibly the Caribbean’s – most staggering landmark: the mountain-top fortress of Citadelle Laferrière. The track was now too slippery for the horses – the standard tourist taxi – to make it the final few hundred metres up to the fort. Instead our guide, Pierre Chauvet, had conjured up open-top motorised buggies to get us to the top. This did not please the horsemen.
“Take a horse. Those buggies are not safe. Better you take a horse,” one man said. You couldn’t blame him for trying. Despite a few short-lived flourishes in the 1980s, Haiti has struggled to attract tourists. Change, though, is coming.
Five years after the devastating earthquake that killed 250,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more, tourism is returning, cautiously. The northern city of Cap Haitien, gateway to the gargantuan Citadelle, has a new international airport and hotels in the capital Port-au-Prince include a new Best Western and a soon-to-open Marriott. Tour operators are coming back, too, while a tourist office recently launched to promote Haiti in Europe.
I was part of Exodus’s first ever trip to this fragile fragment of the Caribbean. It is one of a small handful of UK operators that has been encouraged to introduce or reintroduce trips to Haiti by increasing stability and new infrastructure. My group of 11 had chosen to holiday in what is often cruelly dismissed as “the basket-case of the Caribbean” for a number of reasons. One had come to explore family roots, another had come to seek out an alternative to the Caribbean of honeymoon clichés, while a well-travelled couple simply said: “Why not?”
At last, the red buggy turned a corner. Standing on the back, I gripped the handrail. We bounced over the cobbles, my knuckles turning white while an end-of-days-rain lashed my face – a bizarre sensation not unlike surfing.
Fifteen minutes later, we had climbed 900 metres and were at the top. Soaked through, I gawped upwards as slices of the Caribbean’s largest fortress appeared through shifting clouds.
Conceived by slave-turned-self-proclaimed-king Henri Christophe in 1805 after he had defeated the French, the Citadelle was built by 20,000 newly freed slaves. Its 40-metre high walls were built to defend against a potential return of the French army, which Haiti’s new rulers feared had ambitions to re-capture the country. Their fears were unfounded, however, and not one of the 50,000 cannonballs – still piled in pyramids today – was fired in battle.
Once inside the ramparts we weaved past burnt-orange, lichen-plastered walls and dripping drawbridges. Colossal, ghostly wood-beamed galleries and mossy stone arches towered around us. Pallid light filtered through arrow-slits, shining on to the cannons and illuminating the grotesque human faces engraved on the end of their barrels. One, decorated with the coat of arms of George I, had belonged to the Duke of Marlborough. The eerie atmosphere was intensified by a silence punctuated only by the pouring rain.
Anywhere else in the world, this phenomenal military spectacle might have been overrun with tourists. But here, even on sunny days, there are few visitors. I left in awe of the engineering as we trundled 27km southwest to Cap Haitien – the richest city in the Caribbean during the French colonial era – passing girls wearing shower caps to protect against the rain.
That night, on the black-and-white tiled terrace of the Hotel Roi Christophe, waiters in bow-ties served us divine fish with thyme and pirate quantities of local Barbancourt rum. The torrential rain continued to provide a thumping drumbeat on the canopy above the dining tables.
The following day we dropped down to the coast to the capital, Port-au-Prince, described as “a kind of slum Venice” by travel writer Norman Lewis in 1959. Today the city appears to have retained at least some of this forlorn air. The streets and canals are part-theatre, part horror-show. The newly rebuilt Iron Market marks the city’s resurgence, but tented camps still dot the parched city limits, a grim reminder of the 2010 earthquake. Around 85,000 Haitians still live in makeshift settlements, but even before the tragedy up to 70 per cent of people in the capital lived in slums.
Haiti – especially its capital – has historically suffered a hard-boiled mix of slavery, dictatorships, occupation, political instability and natural disasters. The Haitian proverb “dèyè mòn, gen mòn” which means “after the mountains, more mountains” is not just a geographical reference. Its hardships seem all the more poignant when you consider that it makes up a third of old Hispaniola, the island it shares with the relatively prosperous Dominican Republic. However, there is more to Haiti than its troubles; after just a day in Port-au-Prince, it was hard not to succumb to its infectious charms.
Rap Kreyol music blares from cafés and the brightly painted lottery stands squat next to barbershops with names like Baby Chop. In the bustling streets, a shipping container becomes a shop and artists prop paintings against railings. I wanted to see more. Come sundown, it was time to go out.
Sedate Petionville was originally a separate city, but is now merged with Port-au-Prince proper. This smart-ish area, up on a hill, is where anyone who had the means fled to after the earthquake. “You can only talk about what downtown used to be,” Pierre explained, referring to the flattened banks and office buildings in the former business district, still waiting to be rebuilt.
Brasserie Quartier Latin, in the heart of Petionville, was full of couples waltzing to a live jazz band. After filling up on plates of fried plantain and pikliz – an innocuous looking coleslaw laced with volcano-hot scotch bonnet chillies, we joined in with the dancing.
Just before midnight, we decided to move on. It was a Thursday and downtown, at the Hotel Oloffson, the resident “vodou rock” band RAM promised to be in full flow. A virile soundbed of maracas and tambours (hand-drums) played by a dozen musicians greeted us as we climbed the stairs.
Inside, in front of the stage, a hard-dancing, sweaty, half-way-down-the-bottle crowd bounced to reeling basslines that shook the walls. Men in sharp suits looked on as women wound up and down to the boom of the drums. Punchy rum sours made time elastic. By 3am, everyone cleared out and headed on to the next place.
The next few days were filled with more surprising encounters. On the Côte des Arcadins, an hour’s drive from Port-au-Prince, the Ouanga Bay hotel served sublime fresh lobster and rum punch as we were serenaded by the sound of waves lapping at the shore.
A classic Caribbean scene, yet my guidebook informed me that this azure-blue seascape holds a tantalising secret. Submerged in the ocean is the wreck of the Mary Celeste “ghost ship”, deliberately abandoned here in 1872. Discovered in 2001 by a team led by the author and marine archaeologist Clive Cussler, it is hoped that one day the wreck might become a magnet for divers. Just as the island hopes to become a magnet for tourists once again, too.
Caroline Eden travelled with Exodus. Its 12-day Haiti Revealed group tour to Haiti costs from £2,499 including return flights from Heathrow (0845 287 3752; exodus.co.uk/haiti-holidays). Departures this year in March, May, November and December.
Haiti, by Paul Clammer, published by Bradt (2012), is an excellent guidebook (£16.99).