A world traveler returns home to Haiti and discovers the beauty, history and warmth that the world overlooks.
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Haiti is a land of contradictions. Once considered the most lucrative colony in the world for its sugar and coffee, the country’s progress has been blocked by political instability and natural disasters. As headlines in the news highlight the country’s growing problems (such as the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and a devastator Magnitude 7.2 earthquake in the summer of 2021), I had the chance to see a different side of the Caribbean country. In recent years, I have been able to experience with my own eyes how beautiful Haiti is, exploring a country with picturesque beaches, rich culture and delicious cuisine.
I was born in the coastal town of Jeremiah, grew up in Canada, and moved to Florida as an adult, but hadn’t been back to the island since I was a kid and the first few times I was there. When I got back, I went back on a humanitarian trip to distribute clothes, paint houses and play with the children who followed us. As our service group spent time at local beaches after volunteering at rural clinics, I felt like I was missing a lot.
In 2017, with the help of Mennen’m La Tours, a Haitian-owned travel agency, I booked a trip with friends hoping to see a different side of my home, and I did. We divided our time between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, and I was able to hike in the mountains, take a speedboat to a private island, and grind fresh coffee beans on a coffee plantation.
On one of our last nights, we visited a salon in a suburb of Pétionville. Pulling into some nondescript building we weren’t sure what to expect but quickly indulged in the music of the DJ. Later that night we witnessed a rara group performance; we were mesmerized as their drums rocked the room and the horns echoed in the night air.
At that time, I felt so much pride for my country. I felt connected to the place I had left as a child, and seeing Haiti outside the prism of poverty helped me appreciate my homeland even more.
Haiti faces an uphill battle with its current economic and political problems. The country currently has no functioning government, and the US State Department issued a Level 4 warning (the most serious level) for all non-essential travel due to the ongoing civil unrest.
While things look bleak, I think it’s important for those who have never been to know that, like so many countries portrayed negatively in the news, Haiti is much more than what the headlines talk about. . It is a beautiful country with a lot to offer. In fact, Haiti has a long history as a destination for adventure seekers, and my own visits have revealed that there is still so much that I would love to see someday.
A captivating and complex story
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On my first humanitarian trips, I stayed near Port-au-Prince, but soon discovered that there are many destinations beyond the bustling capital. On my last visit, we drove to Jacmel, a seaside town on the south coast, once nicknamed the “City of Light” because it was the first city in the Caribbean to have electricity.
We visited Hotel Florita, a mansion built in 1888 that has been carefully preserved to include a collection of charming rooms fitted with four-poster beds and plantation shutters that open onto private balconies. We also wandered around Jacmel’s neighborhoods lined with colorful “gingerbread” Victorian houses, where wealthy Haitians lived. While many mansions had lost their former glory, it reminded me of the riches Haiti was known for – it was once called “the Pearl of the West Indies” because of its natural beauty and resources, such as the coffee and sugar cane.
During this same trip I also went to the Haitian National Pantheon Museum in Port-au-Prince, and the visit was a moving experience. Some of the artifacts trace the history of slavery to freedom: the anchor of the Sainte Marie ship that Christopher Columbus sailed when he landed in Haiti in 1492, the chains of African slaves bought and sold by Spanish and French colonizers in the early 17th century, and the bell that was used to ring the independence of Haiti in 1804, thus becoming the first black republic in the world. That afternoon I sat with the heaviness of learning about the legacy of slavery in Haiti and the price my ancestors paid to be free.
Secluded beaches, white sand and hidden waterfalls
It may surprise some people that Haiti has beaches and waterfalls that rival any island in the Caribbean. One of the highlights of the visit to Haiti was to make the trip to the Bassin Bleu, a collection of three natural waterfalls accessible only by local guides, like the ones we had with Mennen’m La Tours, who helped us rappelling down slippery rocks to get to completely secluded swimming holes. We spent the whole afternoon sunbathing on the rocks and watching the locals dive into the turquoise waters.
Most visitors to Haiti are familiar with Labadee, a private beach owned by Royal Caribbean for its cruise ship passengers, but beautiful beaches and resorts are scattered along the Haitian coast. Our guide, Ann-Sophie, took us by speedboat to Balanier Beach, a secluded spot where we ate fish and rice served on banana leaves. The waves licked the white sand beach, and as I took pictures with my iPhone, I remembered thinking people would never believe it was Haiti.
Mouth-watering street food and locally grown coffee
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As in other Caribbean countries, most meals in Haiti include a generous serving of rice and beans, freshly caught seafood or simmered chicken and plantains. While in Haiti one of my favorite snacks was pate kode, delicious street food that is made by rolling cabbage, onions, chicken or sliced hot dogs in thick batter and frying the stuffed patty until golden brown.
Another food I enjoyed was pikliz, a spicy blend of pickled cabbage, carrots and peppers. Pikliz is often served alongside griot (fried pork) or Cup (fried beef) and a cold bottle of Prestige, Haiti’s national beer.
Coffee is one of Haiti’s main exports, and the beans are grown and hand picked in the highest mountains. While visiting a coffee plantation, I sifted some freshly picked coffee beans through my fingers. The local coffee farmers also showed us how to grind the coffee beans with a giant mortar and pestle, and we took turns grinding the beans to the beat of a song sung by the farmers gathered around us. We later sat down and enjoyed our freshly brewed Haitian coffee with no cream or sugar needed.
I was impressed with the creative art I came across in Haiti’s markets and galleries, and much of it is made from limited resources. Over the years, I have brought back bracelets made by hand from brightly colored threads and necklaces made from strips of newspaper tightly rolled and painted to look like pearls.
In Port-au-Prince, I visited the crowded markets that surround the Champs de Mars public square where painted canvases are propped up against fences, turning the streets into outdoor galleries. Haitian art is alive and the artistic scenes generally represent everyday life: women carrying baskets on their heads and children playing in the rivers.
I have a collection of carved wooden vases and keepsake boxes from my various travels, and I have also framed artwork and hung them on my walls at home. When I walk past the paintings, I think of my past trips and my wish to continue to return to Haiti.
In the summer of 2020, I had planned to travel to Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city, which is full of cultural and historical attractions. I had scale projects The Citadel, the fortress designated by UNESCO located on the north coast of Haiti. Located 3,000 feet high on top of a mountain, the fortress is the largest in the Americas. I was also looking forward to visiting the hot spot of Cap-Haitien, Lakay, known for its savory dishes and live music, and for staying at the brand new Satama, which overlooks the bay of Cap-Haitien.
As we know, 2020 has put most people’s travel plans on hold, but even as other Caribbean islands are slowly starting to open up, the future of tourism in Haiti remains on hold until the country stabilizes further. The outlook is bleak, but those of us who have been there know the beauty of its borders and its potential to become a famous destination again. While the road ahead is uncertain, I hope for better days for Haiti, not only for tourism purposes, but also for those who have always taken up residence in the countryside.
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