Haiti, on its way back

A papier-mache carnival mask in Jacmel.
A papier-mache carnival mask in Jacmel. Photo Credit: Anne Majumdar

Picture this: a towel laid out on an icing-sugar stretch of sand, the sweet juice of a green coconut, an aquamarine sea gently lapping the horizon. It's the perfect Caribbean stereotype, but despite the picture-postcard nature of this idyllic stretch of beach, there's only a handful of other tourists in sight. Because this isn't Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Barbados. This is Haiti.

For many, the country's name summons thoughts of earthquake destruction, a seemingly endless plague of political instability and intense poverty. Planes to Port-au-Prince from the U.S. are filled with more religious philanthropists than tourists. Nonetheless, tourism here is growing, and a number of operators are catching on.

I visited the country on G Adventures' Highlights of Haiti tour, which launched this year. The nine-night exploration calls at sights that include the beaches of Port Salut, the cascades of Bassin-Bleu, the artistic hub of Jacmel and the Unesco World Heritage-listed Citadelle Laferriere, hailed as the next Machu Picchu for intrepid travelers with an interest in history.

Cannons at the Citadelle Laferriere, a Unesco World Heritage site.
Cannons at the Citadelle Laferriere, a Unesco World Heritage site. Photo Credit: Anne Majumdar

Sherard, a member of my tour group, was one such traveler. The country's struggle to become the first black-led republic in the world and the first independent Caribbean state was the drawing card for the former history student from New Jersey. The highlight of the trip for him was exploring the Citadelle Laferriere; this fortress, considered cutting edge in its day, was built in the early 19th century by King Henri Christophe, shortly after independence was won, to protect the newly liberated slaves from the potential return of the French. Now it towers over the lush, green hills of Cap Haitien in the country's north, filled with cannons and cannonballs that were never actually used. 

A deep interest in the rituals of voodoo, a practice that is still highly prevalent here, was the motivation for Louisa, a British teacher traveling solo. During a tour of the artist community of Noailles in the capital of Port-au-Prince, we met acclaimed voodoo flag artist and part-time voodoo priest Jean-Baptiste Jean Joseph, who first pours rum on the ground as an offering to the spirits before guiding us into his two temples. The menagerie of bottles stuffed with happy-faced plastic dolls in the dim, candlelit room might seem eerie to some, but Jean Joseph explains the positive nature of the practice he says is used to overcome sorcery and illness. His painstakingly crafted flags, each adorned with thousands of sequins and representing different aspects of the belief system, are beautiful.

Despite various negative preconceptions, we were all struck by how safe and welcomed we felt as we made our way around the country, which is nonetheless still very much in recovery mode from the devastating earthquake of 2010.

The beach at Port Salut.
The beach at Port Salut. Photo Credit: Anne Majumdar

In the town of Jacmel, we wandered streets where many houses destroyed by the quake still lay in ruins. But far from being wiped out, it was a hub of activity. Tourists are returning, lured by the town's vibrant art scene, which includes a series of new mosaics created by the Art Creation Foundation for Children; the group helps disadvantaged kids by giving them regular meals and a creative outlet for their energy. The vast artworks, interpreting aspects of local life, are sprinkled around town.

We wandered down the backstreets where we found art galleries alternating with the workshops of artists whose colorful papier-mache displays of bull heads and golden-maned lions will become part of the carnival celebrations for which the city is known.

Art is also thriving in Port-au-Prince. After exploring the workshops of Noailles, where craftsmen hammer old steel drums into imaginative sculptures, we arrived at Atis Rezistans, a collective of sculptors tucked away in a maze of alleys off the city's Grand Rue. Once a workshop for handicrafts for the tourism market, it has evolved into a futuristic, innovative studio where items such as TVs, dolls, wheels and even engines are rescued from the scrap heap and turned into powerful pieces of art. There must be thousands of artworks nailed to the walls, each one vying for our attention with its dystopic vision.

While the legacy of the earthquake is clear here in the capital and elsewhere, there is so much more to this destination that merits our attention.

The end of the day was marked with a wincingly sweet rum punch accompanied by live kompa music at one of the many bars in the hillside suburb of Petionville, where couples spun and twirled on the dance floor in perfect syncopated rhythm. It was definitely the Caribbean, but with a most distinct twist.

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