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Chan Cham Perou

Northern Haiti   —    There is true poetry in the conversation and the smiles. It is a fascinating, complex and mixed culture and history. Nature is at once rough, soft and full of colour here. There are fresh and sweet flavors. A trip to Haiti is surrounded with the sensation of emotions, admiration and even devotion. In the North, the cradle of the country, we find ourselves amid authenticity.

We will have a quick glance at Port-au-Prince and Pétionville before heading North, from Cap-Haïtien to Cormier, with Milot, Ouanaminthe, Limonade, Porto Real, Vertières, Baie de l’Acul, Choiseul, Foulon and Sainte-Suzanne on the way. This trip is for the curious, those who look for enriching and pleasant holidays along with contact with the local population. The trip can be done in a relaxing or a more active manner, or a mix of both. Ideally, it should be over two weeks: one dedicated to the cities and culture, the other to nature and beaches. 

The first day

Port-au-Prince, the feverish capital, is still being reconstructed after the terrible earthquake. It is highly recommended to start a visit at the MUPANAH, the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien. Located in Place des Héros de l’Indépendance, on Champ-de-Mars, it is an essential stop to learn about Haiti’s different phases of development – from Christopher Columbus’ arrival, the links to Napoléon, France and Louisiana, the slave trade, Toussaint Louverture, King Christophe and the Duvalier eras, etc. – to get a wide perspective and better understand Haitians, to appreciate their personality, their habits and traditions, their incredible resilience as well as their present-day lives. There’s no need to be a history enthusiast!

The two-hour guided visit starts with a silent gathering in front of the Mausolée des Pères de la Patrie. This proves to be instructive, surprising, lively and even terrifying with artifacts or photos that act as the many mementos to remember the physical abuse against slaves. We also learn why there are so few dogs on the island and the origin of the expression “poids 50” (weight of 50) used in the current vocabulary. A painting and sculpture exhibition from renowned Haitian artists completes the visit, showing other chapters of the country’s history.

A florid language

Later on, we enjoy the view of the colorful tap-taps overflowing with people and bags, used as public transportation even though they are private initiatives. There are only a few centimeters between horses, cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles!

Everywhere one has only to open their eyes to be in contact with the Haitian soul. On almost every vehicle, every wall and on signs, words rather than images testify to the humor of the people, their belief in God, fate and in the future. For example, the drugstore is “La délivrance,” (the deliverance), the bank: “La confiance” (the trust), the lotto kiosk: “Apothéose” (apotheosis), the barber: “Geste divin” (divine gesture)  and the tap-tap: “Vivre en paix pour mourir sans regret” (live in peace to die without any regrets).

Besides, Haitians always have an elegant way of qualifying people, situations or actions: “Les oiseaux de même plumage” (birds of a feather flock together), and another subtle one: “Faire pleurer sa tendresse”, to ask for a toilet break.

Many men and women carry on their backs or heads large, heavy loads of food or products, effectively sculpting their bodies, which are so strong despite their slimness. Our eyes are also wide open in front of so many small shops selling clothes, shoes, books, fresh food displayed as pyramids on the sidewalks. Others offer cooked dishes, dental services or washing machine repairs. Huge piles of construction materials are also waiting for those who need to repair or build a house (here, most citizens do it themselves).

We reach the lookout on Boutillier hill by an ascending road bordered by apricot, almond and mango trees. On a lovely terrace, under a very welcome mild wind and the sound of a kompa rhythm, an amazing view of the whole bay and Port-au-Prince city awaits us with our first plate of griot de porc and fried plantain accompanied by fresh yellow cherry juice and a sweet potato bread that is so consistent and unctuous.

Driving to the outskirts, we cannot miss the shantytown of “Jalousie”. The government supplied the 1,000 families living there with paints in varied pastel colors. It certainly improved the view; let’s hope it had the same effect on the spirits and pride of its residents!

All modern comfort

In the middle and high-class Pétionville, private villas and modern hotels stand side by side. Ours, with a name that is quite unexpected for Haiti –El Rancho – is new and its décor, installations, services, technology and menus offered in its restaurant and bar meet the most recent standards of modern luxury. Colors have been chosen to reflect a fresh ambiance: white, gray and apple green. The local and international clientele, who have good taste and good style, wakes up with a delicious cup of cinnamon hot chocolate.

Heading for the Cape

The choice is obvious: a five-hour drive or a 45-minute flight for $90US, one way and $160US return.

A large avenue bordered with lovely restaurants, bars and ocean-view hotels cuts across cap-Haïtien, the second largest city in the country. Shortly after our arrival and a short rest, an elegant night awaits us at the Auberge du Picolet. It is in fact a small boutique hotel that has been entirely refurbished and offers comfort in the garden, at the lounge and in the room with a large terrace overlooking the sea. Here, all is planned out with good taste for both the pleasure of the eyes and the palate.

Indelible footprints

The verdict is loud and clear. The African culture is much more predominant in Haiti than on any other island of the Caribbean. Take the pre-Colombian and native imprints, add the influence of the French, Spanish and American occupants inscribed in the genes, education and lifestyle, mix it with Creole and you have the Haitian people: in all of their beauty, tones and halftones. This also explains why we aren’t surprised to meet blond Haitians with blue eyes!

Many members of the Diaspora come back to the island, either to work or to visit their family and friends, bringing with them modern expressions, attitudes and habits that are typical of Montreal, Toronto, New York or Florida.

Traveling in Haiti also means talking about Haiti with the many academics, NGO representatives and humanitarian workers who have come to the island to initiate many projects.

Back to origins

Alfresco – in full heat that is sometimes heightened by a furnace – we meet artisans in full creative mode, using the same techniques they have been using for hundreds of years: the same manual processes, which are effective and require patience. The impact on the heart and the mind is strong from one workshop to the other.

Here, a donkey brings clay to be transformed and a man activates the millstone, while another skillfully crafts bricks, tiles and urns.

There, in a cassaverie, women work manioc roots until a paste can be cooked and turned over by men with a spectacular gesture to make delicious biscuits served natural or with coconut or cinnamon.

Elsewhere, in the guildiveries (rum fabric), which rapidly multiply along the country roads, sugar cane is transformed manually in clairin (eau de vie) or rum, among which is the most famous Barbancourt étoilé. Speaking of famous alcohols, a small detour takes us to the immense orange orchard that provides the feedstock for Grand Marnier.

We look, touch, taste and bow to all of the creativity and resourcefulness.

Finally, a stop at the Habitation Desglaireaux, which in the past was a plantation and sugar cane, coffee and cacao factory. Its vestiges are still solid and bode well for an envisioned project to make it into a museum and hotel.

Colors and lace

We drive through mountains embellished by terrace plantations. The North is surrounded by the blue sea, but it is also very green with many ecological nooks and three levels of forests. Hibiscus is so present that they have become the symbol of that part of the island.

A little further, small villas with colored curtains are protected from intruders by a palisade of high cactuses that grow tightly together.

After this first tour, through villages and driving to Le Cap, we cannot help but smile at the small houses with colored shutters and wooden laced ornaments in alleyways. And their second floor balconies, which evoke the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Hotel Mont-Joli

On a hill with a plunging view of the sea, a terrace and cocktail hour serve as a rendezvous for local and international gatherings. Its pool and dining room function as an oasis, very comfortable, where we can share many stories and fascinating experiences. It is almost agonizing to leave our chair or transat late at night under the starry sky!

A true institution, Hotel Mont-Joli opened in 1952, has expanded many times and is getting ready for another refurbishment. With its antique furniture and works of art, mahogany floors and ceilings, it is a real gem.

Sprightly evening at Lakay

Haiti rhymes with music and dance. At Le Cap, the best place to experience it is at Lakay. Facing the sea, this bar and restaurant, mainly open to the outdoors, allows visitors to mix with the locals along with the sounds of a DJ or a group of musicians. Before hitting the dance floor, it is recommended to taste the excellent local and international cuisine. A suggestion: pizza and a salad overflowing with appetizing lobster meat.

A dizzying citadel

We were lucky to be accompanied and guided by Eddy Lubin, the former Culture Minister of the country. His vast knowledge, enthusiasm and generosity – he even played flute for us in a magical moment – make a visit to La Citadelle and to the Palais Sans-Souci a real moment of beauty.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, La Citadelle is a fortress erected at the beginning of the 19th century. Fortunately, it never served any military purposes even though it was equipped with superb French and English cannons.

A stone mastodon that is easily seen from the air was built very high in the mountain and can be reached from a steep slope with a well-kept road that allows visitors to walk to the top if you are in good shape or to ride a small horse or be driven in a small 4x4 (whose brakes have been tested as safe) for the descent…

Important investments were made and more are to come to the Citadelle, a major part of the National Historical Park, in order to improve visits. Impressive artifacts and photos tell three centuries of stories and the view of the whole region is awesome!

Palais Sans-Souci

King Christophe, an emblematic figure in the country, commissioned the building of a fabulous palace before committing suicide in it with a golden bullet. His influence in Haiti, as told on this mythical site, is touching. The beauty of it overall and the varied angles offered by the site and the building could make it ideal for a sound-and-light show or large public events… to be continued.

Authentic and hypnotic Voodoo

Believe it or not, one cannot travel to Haiti without taking part in a Voodoo ritual ceremony while respecting the beliefs of its practitioners. Depending on the time of the year, there are official regular ceremonies, funerals or dances that are more accessible, more frequent and less intense. In the city, in the country, afternoon or night, it’s your pick!

If visitors are looking for an experience that is more than touristic, be sure to spend more than one hour there; even four or more. Priestess, music, drums, songs, drawings on the ground, flower offerings, food and alcohol on the altar, colors of the honored divinity worn by the initiates, incantations coming from dozens of men and women from 2 to one hundred years old dancing in a trance and with spasms that vary as per the personality of the divinity that is being celebrated on that day.

Shaken up is what would best describe our state of mind at the end. We highly recommend being accompanied by an experienced guide to benefit from his/her explanations before and after the ceremony and dance.

The Société Legphibao in Bambara organized the dance we attended on the road to Cormier. The priestess was Marie Carmele Mentor Lubin. The divinity honored Erzulie Dantor, the warrior goddess of force and fire and protector of women and children.

Mystical site

Basin Wakka is a natural gathering site for Haitians – where a mermaid would swim – and is accessible once we cross a pond full of mini crabs and climb a mountain, being careful of sharp and jagged rocks. A laguna with transparent turquoise water is our reward. Some local people pray, burn incense and offer perfume to gods. One must be discreet and permission has to be obtained before taking photos.

The Gorges de Foulon constitutes an archeological site that dates back 6,000 years with native petroglyphs painted on immense rocks near a beautiful river. If it’s your lucky day, you could even meet Alcide Hilaire, who discovered them in 2004.

Lucky or not, an intense physical effort is required. With the help of non-slippery water shoes and a walking stick, it is quite doable. The effort is quickly forgotten amongst the beauty and the serenity of this mystical site.

Lodging and beaches

The very charming hotel complex Cormier-Plage welcomed us for a few days of rest on a magnificent white sandy beach that stretches out against a blazing orchid garden. Owned by Haitians of French origin who came to Haiti a few dozens years ago, they provide a choice of both French and Haitian cuisine. We particularly enjoyed the Creole broth and lime Queen conch ceviche.

In the circular dining room, which is open to the wind from the sea, the tables, painted with Haitian scenes and the lamps with seashell shades are real works of art that showcase local artists. It goes without saying that the ironwork murals, traditional to that part of the island, decorate the reception hall and the rooms.

Local and international guests play tennis, enjoy a massage under the tent, lay down on lovely white benches or on superb precious wood sunbeds or smoke a cigar in the lounge, which opens to the beach.

The Cormier-Plage is already a nice choice of accommodation but the owners are planning to add more rooms and to modernize the place while keeping the authenticity of the site.

On the sea or under the sea

Close to Cormier-Plage, one can take a two-hour tour on board Conrad Shutt’s Big Blue boat, in the Baie de l’Acul, where Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria sank, towards the Baie de Kadras and the Baie Paradis for a snorkeling safari, a deep sea fishing experience or a picnic on the quaint Arat island.

The end of the trip was spent surrounded by the atmosphere of the deep blue sea!

A guided tour?

The itinerary we just described was both interesting and well balanced. Of course, there could be others. But to fully appreciate the northern part of Haiti, and all of its various aspects and nooks, a guided tour is most certainly worth it and is even quite affordable.

L’Organisation de gestion de la destination Nord, the Haiti Department of Tourism and the tourism private sector work closely together to develop a variety of tours and stays.

One can, however, travel safely in that part of the island, choose to rent a car or a small van, or hire the services of a private guide and chauffeur.

Sylvie Berthiaume

Our thanks go to the Organisation de gestion de la destination du Nord d’Haïti, to CECI and our accomplished guide, Eddy Lubin, for this inspiring and delightful stay.

A wedding

 FIFA feaver on a tap-tap

Shantytown of "Jalousie"

In a middle-class area

Hotel El Rancho

Colors at Cap Haïtien

Auberge du Picolet

At a brick factory

At the rum fabric

Cut iron

Hand chiseled 

Typical house at Cap Haïtien

Laced balcony

Hotel Mont-Joli

Lobster at Lakay

The Citadelle

At Palais Sans-Souci

Vaudou ritual

 At Basin Wakka

Petroglyphes 

Cormier-Plage hotel 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


  

 

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