I won’t lie, life here has been an adventure filled with a fair share of challenging days. However, as I am about to leave the country I called home for the past two years, I cannot help but reflect on the most fascinating stories and places I discovered during my island life. Get ready to see the zesty sides of Haiti that are often overlooked. While this country is in no way your typical touristy Caribbean destination nor does it correspond to the imagery of an idyllic tropical island, Haiti can be a unique, off-beat vacation destination. For intrepid travelers and curious adventure seekers who wish to get away from the usual Caribbean haunts Haiti definitely offers an edge of rustic, exotic, unexplored and mystical.
“The best thing about Haiti is sitting on the verandah… drinking rum and making lists of all the people to whom you could never possibly recommend Haiti because they wouldn’t appreciate it.” Journalist Shelly Rolfe, 1974
Crowded and vibrant, culturally diverse, and socially deprived, concrete-grey and colorful, the country’s capital is a juxtaposition of opposite concepts and is your primary spot for immersing into the soul of Haiti. While imagery of Haitian poverty and post-earthquake devastation strikes the moment you set foot in the airport, the chaotic capital has a few gems hidden among the debris and rubble for those in pursuit of the compelling, the quirky and the mysterious. You just need to be ready to go outside your comfort zone to find them – like a treasure hunt…
The Hotel Oloffson
One of the most fascinating hidden gems of Port-au-Prince and my personal favorite is the iconic Hotel Oloffson. Take a trip back to the colonial times of Haiti as you explore one of the oldest and, in my opinion, the loveliest inns in the capital. With its elaborate latticework, Gothic spires, vibrant Vodou patterns and decorative wooden shutters, this elegant 19th-century Gothic gingerbread mansion set in a lush tropical garden serves as a faded reminder of more prosperous times. To this day Port-au-Prince’s 120-year-old grand Hotel Oloffson remains the intellectual and artistic center of the city filled with writers, journalists, music lovers as well as aid workers and politicians.
Immortalized as the Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, it remains amazingly unchanged, given its location in a country that has seen so much turmoil and destruction.
It was built in the late 1800s in the French Victorian style for the ruling Sam family, which included two former presidents of Haiti. Throughout the tumultuous decades of coups, insurrections and dictatorship, the Oloffson was an oasis of art and intellectual banter, a gathering place with a whisper of intrigue, gossip and danger. During the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti, the American army used it as a hospital, and their extension to the property is still called the “maternity wing”.
It became a hotel just before World War II, when in 1935 Werner Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, and his wife took over the lease. Being always at sea Mrs. Oloffson (whose name no one recalls) took over the ownership of the mansion and decided to transform former military quarters into a grand lodging accommodation. Rumor has it that mysterious Mrs. Oloffson lived out her days in seclusion in an upstairs bedroom.
Afterwards, it passed to Roger Coster, a French photographer, and again in 1960 to Al Seitz, an American. Under them the Oloffson enjoyed a golden era, attracting a Hollywood clientele keen on escaping the McCarthy-era cultural witch hunts. Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Truman Capote were among the first wave of glitterati to frequent the little-known oasis of 1950s Haiti, enraptured by the vibrant dance rhythms and verdant surroundings. Currently, the hotel’s proprietor is Richard A. Morse, a Puerto-Rican-born Haitian-American. Besides being a hotel manager, Mr. Morse is also the founder of a mizik rasin band RAM (named after his initials) as well as a Vodou priest known as an Houngan.
Upon arrival to the hotel you are greeted by a statue of the top-hatted Baron Samedi, the Vodou (Vodou) spirit of sex, death and resurrection.
The interior is further tricked out with paintings, sequined flags, old distressed mirrors, vintage ceramic chandeliers, Vodou flags and doilies. Luckily it was not crowded when I visited, so I had an opportunity to explore all the nooks and crevices of this century-old mansion.
A slightly eerie feeling sets in as you wonder the empty corridors. Spacious suites a dilapidated shadow of their heyday, the original old wooden floors that creek with every step, dusty fretwork, the hotel is as replete with mystery as it is with mildew. I have a sneaking suspicion if the walls of the Hotel Oloffson could talk, they would have to be silenced.
There’s a sociable bar where you absolutely have to try their signature rhum punch!
Every Thursday you can watch weekly ‘Voudou rock’ concerts of the band RAM, which combines elements of traditional vodou ceremonial and folkloric music with the beat of American rock and roll. The band plays up a storm until the wee hours of the night featuring rara horns, petwo drums, guitar and keyboards.
Unfortunately, despite its historic significance and enchanting ambiance, neither accommodation conditions nor quality of food in the restaurant or overall service make it worth staying at the hotel.
To take in the best of Caribbean curiosities and oddities meander through the overwhelming maze of vendors at the iconic Iron Market (Marché en Fer) in Port-au-Prince. Its tall, impressive red iron frame and a center clock tower somehow blend in with the grit and noise outside of its gates.
Built in France, the main structure was originally destined to be a railway station in Cairo, but the deal fell through and so the President of Haiti Florvil Hyppolite had it shipped over in 1891, and there it had been standing until it was destroyed by the earthquake of 2010 and later restored in 2011.
Be prepared for a sensory overload of wonderful, bizarre and really revolting. The characters, the smells, the sounds and diverse visuals make up a truly exotic experience.
The place is certainly not for the faint hearted as you are bound to see a lot of Vodou artifacts as well as live turtles and leashed cats on sale for the ceremonies.
Part of the experience is to hire one of the locals who acts as your guide/protector, shows you around, bargains for you, and keeps more aggressive vendors at bay. Do a walk around first to see what you are interested in and who has the best examples. Then be sure to haggle! It is part of the cultural experience and you can get some wonderful deals on great pieces of tourist art and souvenirs.
During one of the diplomatic receptions I recently attended the Minister of Health of Haiti quoted a famous Haitian saying – “Haiti est trop riche pour etre pouvre” which translates as “Haiti is too rich to be poor.” Indeed, the depth and multiple facets of Haiti’s history and cultural heritage make this country one of the Caribbean’s most interesting nations and intrigues the most adventurous of travelers.
Haiti’s art scene is arguably the region’s one of the richest and most productive, and certainly inspiring. The culture of Haiti is an eclectic mix of African, French, Taino and Spanish aesthetic and religious influences. Bright colors, naïve perspective, and sly humor are all common characteristic of hybrid Haitian artistic traditions.
Every day in the nearby suburb of Petionville and numerous other locations around the country, street vendors set out an incredible array of artwork. The range of talent is overwhelming. Art enthusiasts traveling to Haiti will encounter everything from paintings and tapestries to handmade, decorative items, wood, stone, and metal handicrafts.
Artisanal work in Haiti is a way of life, and at the heart of Haitian culture. To explore the diverse art scene visit Port-au-Prince’s iron-working community of Croix-des-Bouquets where talented metalwork artists endlessly tap on recycled oil drums to create some of the country’s most beautiful home decor items and wall art packed with intricate details.
For a unique experience head to Grand Rue in Port-au-Prince where you will have an introduction to a community of eccentric Haitian sculptors who call themselves Atis Rezistans, translated as Resistance Artists.
Contemporary Haitian artists work together in a warren of cinderblock car-repair shops that supply the material for their art: rusted chassis, scrap metal, steering wheels, cast-off oil filters, discarded TV frames, plastic trash and wood. With the help of young assistants, they turn this industrial junk into gaudy and at times demonic sculptures with giant bodies topped by plastic doll heads or even human skulls. Their art is a direct reflection of the extreme environment they all live in. Sculptures produced by several of the artists are in private collections and museums around the world.
The truth is, the vibrant artistic spirit of Haitians seems to shine through everything they put their hands on. As you walk (or in our case drive) through the streets of Port-au-Prince you notice the fondness for graphic arts which finds its way through colorful wall murals. Even the iconic small enclosed pickup trucks called taptap are often pimped and decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels.
Ancient Fortress in Cap-Haitien
Dive deeper into Haiti’s past with a visit to Cap-Haitien, a colonial port city on the north coast that’s brimming with history. Haiti’s most popular attraction, Citadelle Laferrière was built in the early 1800s atop a mountain seventeen miles south of Cap-Haitien in the town of Milot. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Citadelle Laferrière is one of the largest fortresses in the Americas, and the biggest in the Caribbean.
Close to the Citadelle lies another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains of Sans Souci Palace, once considered the “Versailles of the Caribbean.” The towering Sans Souci Palace was home to Haiti’s self-proclaimed King Henri Christophe after it opened in 1813. Unfortunately, the palace was damaged and abandoned after an earthquake in 1842, but now serves as an important reminder of the nation’s prosperous past.
Cap-Haitien Lodging Tip: If you want to combine your history tour with some beach time, stay at Cormier Plage, a resort that’s just outside Cap-Haitien on a secluded palm-tree lined golden beach.
Undeveloped Beaches, Centuries-old Towns, Hidden Lagoons & Secluded Islands
If luxury and comfort is not your thing, then undeveloped and rustic Haitian beaches surrounded by rugged mountains will be an ideal place for you. Whether you decide to stay closer to the capital or venture out to other coastal cities, you will be guaranteed a healthy dose of sun, sand, year-round warm temperatures, fresh-off-the-boat seafood and lots of refreshing coconut water!
A 3-hour drive to the South will bring you to a charming town Jacmel, a sleepy seaside town known for its shabby yet colorful colonial streets, Victorian-era buildings from the city’s coffee days, as well as distinctive and imaginative art scene.
Get the best rhum sour of your life at iconic Hotel Florita, a turn-of-the-century coffee-plantation home that was converted into a hotel in 1999. Set in a Victorian mansion, the damaged and rebuilt Hôtel Florita evokes a century-old vibe, with its intriguing local art, vintage furniture and filigreed metal balconies.
A visit to Jacmel wouldn’t be complete without seeing one of the most hidden gems in Haiti, Bassin Bleu, a grotto of cascades and cobalt-blue lagoons nestled in the town’s lush hills.
It took us a bumpy ride through palm-tree lined dirt roads and a short hike to get to the Bassin Bleu’s highest waterfall. Floating onto lagoon was one of the most peaceful and relaxing experiences I had in Haiti.
Last but not least, a long trip to the south-west part of the country to the city Les-Cayes followed by a short boat ride will bring you to the secluded unspoiled island called Ile-a-Vache with pristine turquoise-blue waters, white sand and lush vegetation. It was a buccaneer and pirate base in the mid-1600s.
Tip: Stay at the cozy Abaka Bay Resort (http://www.abakabay.com/) which is right on the beachfront offering stunning views and great service.
- Hotels in Port-au-Prince: there are two outstanding luxury chain hotels in town Best Western and Marriott. Both offer upscale comfortable accommodations and feature island style and local Haitian flair by incorporating beautiful pieces of Haitian art in their stylish interior design.
- Restaurants: you will be pleasantly surprised with an abundance of great places to eat in Port-au-Prince. Read my post about local must-eats and list of my favorite restaurants which I recently posted.
- Cultural intricacies: Haitians are not at all fond of having their photos taken; Haitian time and world time significantly differs – locals are notorious for being late everywhere all the time; a smile, polite bonjour and merci will do miracles when communicating with locals.
- Tours: Use services of an experienced tour guide (e.g. Jean Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haiti, +509 2257 1926, or Jacqualine Labrom of Voyages Lumière Haiti, +509 2249 6177) who will guide you through the chaotic and overwhelming maze of Haiti and provide quality information. Small towns like Aquin, Les Cayes, and Jacmel have vibrant downtown life; without a guide you could miss the domino games in the central square, merengue dance clubs, voudo services, and the best fried pork.
- Money: bring U.S. dollars for street spending; most hotels in the capital will take credit cards, but out of town it’s hit-or-miss.
- Things To Take: bug spray and sun screen are the absolute musts!
- Expectations: in no way should you expect the comfort of a developed country when traveling to Haiti. This is not a place for everyone and certainly not for pleasure seeking lot who crave typical idyllic luxury of the Caribbean. The limited infrastructure and means of transportation, stringent security measures, little to no customer service and high prices everywhere else will all be part of your agenda. Independent travelers should maintain caution and stay vigilant when exploring.
Having said all that, if you are up for the challenge and yearn for adventure and authentic experiences, book a flight – Ayiti Cherie is calling!
Have you ever visited Haiti? What is the most memorable moments from your trip? If not, how does your perception of this island nation differ from the descriptions above?