Exploring the Other Side of Haiti

A world traveler returns home to Haiti and finds the beauty, history, and warmth that the world is overlooking.

Exploring the Other Side of Haiti

Haiti’s beaches rival any in the Caribbean.

Photo by Brian Finke

Haiti is a country of contradictions. Once considered the most lucrative colony in the world for its sugar and coffee, the country’s progress has been stymied by political instability and natural disasters. While recent news headlines highlight the country’s mounting problems (like the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake in summer 2021), I’ve had the chance to see another side of the Caribbean country. In recent years, I’ve been able to discover firsthand how beautiful Haiti is, exploring a country with scenic beaches, rich culture, and delicious cuisine.

I was born in the coastal city of Jeremie, raised in Canada, and moved to Florida when I was an adult, but I hadn’t been back to the island since I was a child—and the first few times I returned, I went back on humanitarian trips to hand out clothing, paint homes, and play with the children who followed us around. While our service group spent some time at local beaches after volunteering in the rural clinics, I felt like there was a lot that I was missing out on.

In 2017, with the help of Mennen’m La Tours, a Haitian-owned tour company, I booked a trip with some friends hoping to see another side of my home—and I did. We split our time between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, and I got to hike mountains, take a speedboat to a private island, and grind fresh coffee beans on a coffee farm.

On one of our last nights, we visited a lounge in a Petionville suburb. Pulling up to a nondescript building, we weren’t sure what to expect—but we were soon swaying to the DJ’s music. Later that night, we witnessed a spontaneous rara band performance; we were mesmerized as their drums shook the room and horns echoed into the night air.

At that moment, I felt so much pride in my country. I felt connected to the place I had left as a child, and seeing Haiti outside of the lens of poverty helped me appreciate my home country even more.

Haiti faces an uphill battle with its current economic and political problems. The country currently has no functioning government, and the U.S. Department of State has issued a Level 4 warning (the most serious level) for any nonessential travel due to the ongoing civil unrest.

While things look bleak, I think it’s important for those who have never been there to know that, like so many countries depicted negatively in the news, Haiti is much more than what’s talked about in headlines. It’s a beautiful country with a lot to offer. In fact, Haiti has a long history as a destination for travelers looking for adventure, and my own visits have revealed there’s still so much I’d like to see someday.

A compelling and complex history

On my first few humanitarian trips, I stayed close to Port-au-Prince, but I soon found out that there are many destinations beyond the busy capital. During 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 lovingly preserved to include a collection of charming guest rooms outfitted with four-poster beds and plantation shutters that open onto private balconies. We also strolled through Jacmel’s neighborhoods lined with colorful Victorian “gingerbread” homes, in which wealthy Haitians used to dwell. While many of the mansions had faded from their former glory, it reminded me of the riches that Haiti used to be known for—it was once called “The Pearl of the Antilles” because of its natural beauty and resources, like coffee and sugarcane.

On that same trip, I also went to the Museum of the Haitian National Pantheon in Port-au-Prince, and the visit was an emotional experience. Some of the artifacts trace the story from slavery to freedom: the anchor from the Santa Maria ship that Christopher Columbus sailed when he landed in Haiti in 1492, shackles from enslaved Africans bought and sold by Spanish and French colonizers in the early 17th century, and the bell that was used to ring out Haiti’s independence in 1804, 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 sands, 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 visiting Haiti was making the trek to Bassin Bleu, a collection of three natural waterfalls only accessible by local guides, like the ones we had through Mennen’m La Tours, who helped us rappel down slippery rocks to get to the completely secluded swimming holes. We spent the whole afternoon sunning on rocks and watching 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 beachfront resorts are scattered along Haiti’s coast. Our tour 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 lapped the white-sand beach, and as I snapped pictures on my iPhone, I remembered thinking that people would never believe this was Haiti.

Mouthwatering street food and locally farmed coffee

Like other Caribbean countries, most meals in Haiti include a heaping serving of rice and beans, freshly caught seafood or stewed chicken, and plantains. While I was in Haiti, one of my favorite snacks was pate kode, a delicious street food that’s made by rolling cabbage, onions, chicken, or sliced hot dogs into a thick dough and deep-frying the stuffed pattie to a golden crisp.

Another food I enjoyed was pikliz, a spicy mixture of pickled cabbage, carrots, and peppers. Pikliz is often served alongside griot (fried pork) or tassot (fried beef) and a cold bottle of Prestige, Haiti’s national beer.

Coffee is one of Haiti’s main exports, and the beans are farmed and handpicked in the highest mountains. On a tour of a coffee plantation, I sifted freshly picked coffee beans through my fingers. The local coffee farmers also showed us how to grind coffee beans with a giant mortar and pestle, and we each took turns grinding the beans to the beat of a song sung by the farmers gathered around us. Later we sat around and enjoyed our freshly brewed Haitian coffee, no cream or sugar needed.

Vibrant art

I’ve been impressed by the creative art I’ve stumbled on in markets and galleries in Haiti, and much of it is made from limited resources. Over the years I’ve brought back handmade bracelets made from brightly colored yarn and necklaces fashioned from tightly rolled newspaper strips painted to resemble beads.

In Port-au-Prince, I visited the packed markets that surround the Champs de Mars public square where painted canvases are propped up against fences, turning streets into outdoor galleries. Haitian art is vibrant, and art scenes usually depict everyday life—women carrying baskets on their heads and children playing in rivers.

I have a collection of carved wooden vases and keepsake boxes from my various trips, and I’ve also framed art pieces and hung them on my walls at home. When I pass the paintings, I think about my past travels and my vow to keep going back to Haiti.

African-descended Haitians built La Citadelle Laferrière in the early 1800s, after winning independence from French colonizers.

African-descended Haitians built La Citadelle Laferrière in the early 1800s, after winning independence from French colonizers.

Photo by Rotorhead 30A Productions/Shutterstock

What’s next

In the summer of 2020, I had plans to travel to Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, which is full of cultural and historical attractions. I had plans to scale La Citadelle, the UNESCO-designated fortress located on Haiti’s northern coast. Sitting 3,000 feet high on a mountaintop, the fortress is the largest in the Americas. I was also looking forward to visiting Cap-Haitien’s food hot spot, Lakay, known for its savory dishes and live music, and to staying at the newly opened Satama, which overlooks the bay of Cap-Haitien.

As we know, 2020 put most people’s travel plans on hold, but even as other Caribbean islands begin to slowly open, the future of tourism in Haiti remains up in the air until the country becomes more stabilized. The outlook is grim, but those of us who have been there know the beauty within its borders and its potential to be a celebrated destination once again. While the road ahead is uncertain, I hope for better days for Haiti, not just for the purpose of tourism but also for those who have always called the country home.

>> Next: Hawai‘i Is Not Our Playground

Mariette Williams is a freelance writer living in south Florida, and when she’s not traveling, she’s lost in a good book. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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