Freelance writer Joyce Dalton revisited Haiti recently for
the first time since 1983. Her report follows:
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Something's amiss in the world of
tourism when Barnes & Noble bookstores stock six guidebooks on
Cuba, which few Americans can visit legally, and no books at all on
Haiti, to me the Caribbean's most intriguing country.
Being addicted to sightseeing rather than sunbathing, I admit a
certain bias, but Haiti is a nation with world-class art collections;
attractions such as Citadelle Laferriere and the palace of Sans
Souci, and a rich cultural heritage as the world's first black
Of course, there's nothing like images of political unrest to
send tourists winging in the opposite direction, but things are
calmer now in Haiti. An elected president is in place, the
political situation is fairly stable and the government declared
tourism a priority.
Although Haiti has its share of beaches and sun worshippers,
it's more a destination for clients who do not fit the usual
Caribbean profile, who want to leave their own culture at home and
become immersed in a new one.
In 1983, I first succumbed to Haitian magic. In a battered
Volkswagen that died whenever I slowed down and required occasional
hot-wiring, I chugged from Jacmel in the south to Cap Haitien in
the north. I trekked the hills beyond Jacmel, accompanied by a
gentle teenage guide, to reach the hidden beauty spot of Bassin
Bleu, where waterfalls tumbled into crystal pools.
Along the then-lonely road north, I thought nothing of stopping
to inspect thatched huts and stilted storage bins from West Africa.
I often was surrounded by costumed groups, tooting homemade musical
instruments, on their way to pre-Easter festivities.
Would I feel equally comfortable doing this today? Yes and
The hectic pace of my press trip allowed little opportunity for
wandering off and, as agents well know, fam trips often mean a lot
of cocooning. Still, my gut feeling was that self-driving tours
would entail no personal safety risks.
On the other hand, many roads could vie for a pothole prize (at
one point, the scene ahead looked like a convoy of drunks, as
drivers swerved in unison to avoid being swallowed by the holes).
The number of vehicles, especially Mack trucks and overcrowded
buses, has multiplied drastically in the past decade.
Clients who venture beyond the perimeters of inclusive resorts
should not miss Haiti's three main tourist areas: the capital of
Port-au-Prince, Cap Haitien and Jacmel.
The claustrophobic had best avoid Port-au-Prince's Iron Market,
tightly packed with people, goods and brightly decorated tap taps
(trucks used for public transportation).
More easily viewed sights in the capital include St.-Trinitie
Cathedral, whose murals depict biblical tales set in the Haitian
countryside; the imposing white National Palace, whose surrounding
sidewalks were closed to pedestrians during the Duvalier
dictatorships from 1957 to 1986; the Centre d'Art, where Haitian
art received its first encouragement, and gingerbread mansions
dating to the turn of the century.
Most tours take visitors into the hills above Port-au-Prince to
visit Petion-Ville, the site of many upscale hotels and
restaurants; Kenscoff and its lively Friday market; the panorama
from Mount Boutilliers, and the castle-like Betencourt rum
Twice-daily flights on Caribintair operate between
Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, but the five-hour road trip passes
Cote des Arcadins, lined with beach resorts; voodoo temples,
identifiable by high-poled flags, and, sometimes, images of
Lottery stands bear names like Patience and New York Lottery.
Rice paddies, cactus-dotted plains, green mountains, and brightly
painted tombs almost big enough to live in fill the landscape.
Since President Rene Duval of Haiti and his entourage had
usurped our rooms in Cap Haitien, my group stayed at the
not-yet-officially opened Habitation Labadies, accessible only by
boat. The vote was unanimous -- we loved it.
Haiti's main northern attraction is Citadelle Laferriere,
sometimes billed as the eighth wonder of the world. The gigantic
stone fortress, perched at the peak of a mountain, beckoned as our
horses led us up a steep path. Once at the summit, we dismounted
and roamed a structure originally designed to hold 10,000
Although we did not visit Jacmel, we heard lots about it.
The artists' town, two hours south of Port-au-Prince by car, has
been targeted for major restoration work, ranging from port
improvement to architectural touch-ups. From my earlier trip 15
years ago, I had fond memories of Jacmel's pastel houses fronted by
Corinthian columns and wrought-iron balconies, a laid-back Iron
Market whose origins date to 1805 and nontouristy voodoo
On our homeward-bound flight, we juggled a collection of
paintings, sculptures, miniature iron tap taps and a collage of
memories that all bore testimony to the fact that visitors leave
Haiti with more than a tan and a T-shirt.