1. Haiti’s capital has a thriving cultural scene
Haiti’s capital is colourful, chaotic and totally intoxicating. Get your bearings in the Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince’s main square. Here you’ll find the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien, which tells the story of the country, from the days of the native Amerindians through Spanish and French colonialism to the brutal dictatorships of the recent past.
The city also has a buzzing and resourceful arts scene. In the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets, artists sculpt birds, animals and vodou deities from recycled oil drums. Meanwhile in the neighbourhood of Grand Rue, home to handicrafts hub the Iron Market, an underground collective known as Atis Rezistans craft gritty masterpieces from all manner of debris – even from a few bones.
As you explore the city, look out for “gingerbread houses”. These tumbledown mansions, with their rickety verandahs and yards of elaborate woodwork, are icons of Haitian architecture. The Hotel Oloffson is the most famous of them all, known for its staring role in The Comedians, Graham Greene’s novel about Haiti. Every Thursday night, the hotel plays host to an energetic live show from one of Haiti’s best loved groups, the vodou rock and roots band RAM.
2. You can explore a vast mountain fortress
Haitians take huge pride in their history, above all the revolution of 1791–1804, when Haitian slaves rose up to defeat their French colonial masters and proclaim the world’s first black republic. To safeguard their independence and prove to the world what slaves could do, they built Citadelle Laferrière, one of the largest fortresses in the Americas, in the mountains above the northern city of Cap-Haïtien. Bristling with canons stolen from English, French and Spanish frigates and offering panoramic views over the northern plains, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Also not to be missed are the nearby ruins of Sans-Souci, a palace complex crippled by the earthquake of 1842. If you’re pushed for time, Haiti’s Sunrise Airways operate flights between Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince (around 20 minutes each way).
3. Jacmel is home to Haiti’s best carnival and nearby adventures
This laidback town on Haiti’s southern coast is known for its elegant colonial architecture, mosaic-adorned streets and public squares, and for its many artisans workshops. Each year, in the run-up to Shrove Tuesday, it becomes the setting for Haiti’s most famous carnival, when marching bands playing raucous rara street music and revellers in magnificent papier-mâché animal masks fill the town.
If you’re driving to Jacmel (around three hours from Port-au-Prince) be sure to stop for a swim at Bassin-Bleu, where a waterfall framed by jungle-swathed cliffs feeds a chain of exquisite turquoise pools. There’s also a spectacular two-day hike between Jacmel and Furcy, in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, through the Parc Nationale La Visite.
4. You can uncover the truth about vodou
Demonised by missionaries and distorted by Hollywood, vodou epitomises the misconceptions many people have about Haiti. Vodou is a way of life as much as a religion, with a strong community ethos, and it provides the key to understanding much of Haitian culture – everything from art to music.
The Bureau National d’Ethnologie, in the centre of Port-au-Prince, will teach you the basics. If you’re lucky, you might catch charismatic museum director Erol Josué, a vodou priest (houngan), singer, dancer and passionate defender of the faith. Look out for performances of traditional vodou music, characterised by hypnotic drums and vocals, which often take place in the grounds.
Of the country’s many sacred sites, the most spectacular is Saut-d’Eau, a plunging, 100ft cataract associated with the spirit Erzulie. Each July, hundreds of worshippers gather here to take part in vodou baptism ceremonies.
Visit Haiti in November and you might catch Fête Gede, the vodou equivalent of Mexico’s Day of The Dead.
Erol Josué by Thomas Rees