In a sea crisscrossed by cruise lines and luxury resorts, Haiti promises something different from the tropical paradise cliche of the Caribbean. Tourists flock to surrounding destinations like the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos in search of a little piece of heaven. The international media advertises Haiti as some kind of hell.
My first trip to the Caribbean had to be here.
There were many naysayers.
I was told that Haiti is something like Somalia, that I could expect to be kidnapped, tortured, ransomed, that I had to be out of my mind to go there. My Dominican Uber driver in Miami cringed when I even mentioned the word Haiti. The Dominican consulate in Miami, which I visited in person, urged me to go anywhere else, but please, for gods sake, not Haiti.
My travel style tends to be minimalist, but given Haiti’s bleak reputation, I decided to reserve a hotel for the first time in my life, hoping that would maximize my chance of surviving Haiti unscathed. The place wasn’t cheap, but I did get this incredible view of the city.
Yet, it was all hot air. Presumably none of the dire warnings or horror stories I read on the internet were written by people who had been to the north of Haiti, which is generally safer than many parts of the US. Why slander an entire country when you could just write off part of it?
And the north, I might add, is the beautiful part. Specifically, the area around Cap Haïten boasts the lion’s share of Haiti’s architectural and natural richness. There are more French colonial facades to be found here than in tourist-heavy New Orleans.
Haiti’s poverty has been a perverse boon to historic preservation. When you can’t afford to tear historic buildings down, you maintain them. Many facades have weathered centuries unchanged, save for changed color schemes.
I was quite intimidated my first day in the country. The atmosphere is tense. The people of Cap Haïten are not a cheerful bunch. They stare at foreigners, but it’s not the countenance of curiosity or amusement one finds in parts of Africa and Asia. It looks something like hostility or disapproval.
But none of the foreign expats in Cap Haïten I spoke to have ever been assaulted. By all accounts of people experienced there, Cap Haïten is extremely safe. If the locals seemed unfriendly, I learned, it’s only because they have a different way of carrying themselves. They mean well.
Haitians usually hate to be photographed by strangers, though. Some people got angry at me for capturing them in my frame even when I was just trying to take pictures of architecture.
The most interesting sites in Haiti are clustered around a village in the mountains twenty kilometers south of Cap Haiten called Milot. Here, after the French colonials were overthrown and massacred in a mass slave revolt, Haiti’s first king went to work building the institutions of a new nation.
The Royal Chapel of Milot is not much to look at today. It was set ablaze by drunk teenagers one night in 2020, reducing one of Haiti’s oldest and most exquisite structures to the fate of Notre Dame.
Then, adjacent, are the ruins of Sans Souci Palace, which alone makes Haiti worth the visit. This I add to the ranks of Angkor Watt and Machu Picchu.
Constructed from 1810 to 1813 by Haiti’s first king, Henri Christophe, the palace grounds embody European ideas of opulence and aristocracy that were quickly embraced by the black revolutionary elite of newly independent Haiti. In 1841, the palace was destroyed by an earthquake.
There are a lot of contradictions to untangle about Haiti’s early history. The country was born from a successful slave revolt, but once victorious, Henri and others among the revolutionary elite forced the former slaves back into the fields to labor under slave-like conditions.
As much as the revolutionaries despised the French and celebrated their African roots, they quickly reconstructed a class-based aristocratic society modeled after the French in which an elite few enjoyed lives of opulence and grandeur at the expense of the toiling masses.
This is my ride-or-die travel buddy, John, with a guide we were encouraged to hire, Keto, who was entirely unknowledgeable about the sites he was meant to inform us about. Luckily we know how to educate ourselves with Wikipedia.
Keto rushed us out of the palace as quickly as possible to ditch us and avoid having to do any actual work. We drove and then hiked up the mountain for several more kilometers to reach the Citadelle.
A massive stone fortress built to ward off a French invasion that never came, Citadelle Laferrière is the largest fortification ever built in the Western Hemisphere. It took 200,000 people and 13 years to complete construction.
I can’t wrap my head around the idea that former slaves deprived of education and expertise had the genius to design and construct something that, by my own estimate, embodies centuries of architectural and military learning. Why can’t I find an explanation of this?
Every school in Haiti has its own distinctive uniform with unique patterns and colors.
The cannons and cannon balls lay in exactly the same place as they were kept two centuries ago, still waiting for the slaving French invaders to show.
Up in the mountains, the crowded, polluted, chronically unstable idea of Haiti is replaced by a lush, tropical paradise on par with anywhere in the Caribbean.
Haiti is one of those destination that are mildly frustrating and uncomfortable while you’re there it but rewarding and worthwhile upon reflection once you’re gone. I have not dwelled on the fact that there is open sewage everywhere in Cap Haïten, and virtually no infrastructure or formal economy to speak of because this is neither surprising nor inconsistent with what one might rudely imagine of the country.
Yet I did find two common assumptions about Haiti completely untrue. First, while I would never personally step foot in the capital Port-au-Prince, it is wrong to call Haiti as a whole dangerous to visit. It is certainly not. This is fake news. Visit Cap Haïten.
Second, whether or not people are aware of it, Haiti has world-class sites to visit. Yes, there are heaps of trash and poverty, but there’s also the the largest concentration of French colonial architecture in the world, the largest and most impressive fortress ever built in the western hemisphere, breathtaking palatial ruins, and a tantalizing history as the first and only country to gain independence from a successful slave revolt.