I’m freshly returned from 11 days in Haiti with G Adventures and I had a completely unforgettable time in this completely amazing country. My time in Haiti has totally changed the way I think about travel, and how I will approach every other place in the world. It’s a country where it’s easy to think you know what to expect, but I’m here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth.
I arrived in Port-au-Prince mid-afternoon and quickly made my way through immigration. After navigating through luggage handlers and taxi drivers offering drives into the city, I was directed outside of the airport building, where the pre-arranged drives wait behind barrier. I was greeted with a smile and friendly handshake by Jean-Jacques and we set off for Port-au-Prince proper.
Arriving in Port-au-Prince throws you into a loud, hot swirl of activity. Traffic goes where it needs to, on both sides of the vehicle with a vigourous honk of the horn as notice. Flamboyantly-decorated tap-taps form the scenery, with campaign posters and billboards for no fewer than 54 presidential candidates filling in what space remains in the background. Schoolkids in smart uniforms walk by women and men carrying baskets of goods on their heads. People are shouting and laughing. Or both? No doubt about it, this place is ALIVE. And, somehow, it all works.
Fun fact: You drive by the Prestige brewery on the way into the city from the airport (about 2 minutes outside of the airport). It’s not marked, but if you’re lucky, your driver will point it out to you because it’s behind a very high wall. Tip: If you want to obtain a Prestige beer t-shirt, start working on it as soon as you arrive because they’re not easy to find. I waited too late to start asking around, couldn’t find one anywhere, and I’m officially sad about it. Guess I’ll have to go back. Also, they give brewery tours on Wednesdays.
MUPANAH: Haiti’s history come to life
My first day in Port-au-Prince was spent with some of my fellow G Adventurers getting a feel for the city.
Our plan was simple: find either the national museum or the art museum. We got directions from our hotel, which were mainly, “Head that way” with a wave. Our route was meandering, which was fine, because none of the streets in the area had any signs.
While we were out looking for a museum, we passed a small grocery store, Roi des Rois Market (39 rue Capois), that looked promising for picking up snacks, beer, and changing some money (IT WAS). [Money-changing tip: Roi des Rois gave a great rate on changing US dollars to Haitian gourdes, better than my bank did at the bank machine. If you have the US cash, try grocery stores for changing over banks and hotels.]
Cutting through Place Jean-Jacques Dessalines, we saw people playing games of chance, ice cream sellers galore, and folks selling various concoctions featuring Haiti’s famous rum. We also got lots of navigational help from people trying to sell us prints and paintings.
Heading toward the towering Bicentennial monument, we got the sense we were on the right track.
A visit to MUPANAH (Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien), Haiti’s National History Museum and pantheon starts outside. The building is actually submerged, with these peaks serving as skylights for the exhibits below and the larger cone lighting the pantheon at the centre of the museum. It’s a magnificent sight, with the mountains around Port-au-Prince framing the view – this design actually mitigated the damage from the 2010 earthquake.
We paid the USD$5 tourist entry fee, and met our guide, who gave us a detailed guided tour, in English, of Haiti’s incredible history. The museum is modest in size, but exceptionally well curated and well worth a visitor’s time in the city.
The story of Haiti starts with three groups of indigenous peoples sharing the island when is was known as Quisqueya. From there, the museum moves swiftly through European contact, first with Christopher Columbus (displaying what is believed to be the anchor of Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria) who claimed the island for Spain and renamed Hispaniola, followed by the eradication of all three indigenous groups by disease, war, and genocide.
Moving on to the arrival of the French and the founding of Saint-Domingue, and with it, the introduction of slavery. The exhibits contain terrifying accounts of slavery and artifacts demonstrating the unrelenting harshness of life for slaves in the French colony. These conditions ultimately inspired a revolt by the slaves, a revolutionary war and declaration of the first independent black republic in the world, to be known as Haiti, in 1804. Leadership struggles, more battles, and periods of relative peace ensued, illustrated with many of the incredible artifacts that have been saved and preserved over the years. Finally, Haiti’s modern history is considered, including the American occupation of the early 20th century and the economically crippling rule of the Duvaliers.
There are also original documents and personal artifacts from Haiti’s four founders – Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri-Christophe and Alexandre Pétion – all of whom are buried in the pantheon in the centre of the building. The pantheon is what first greets visitors, but the circular layout of the exhibits gives visitors an opportunity to consider the gravity of their presence again after learning the history.
Spending my early hours in the country getting a thorough introduction to its history helped me understand its modern situation and laid a wonderful foundation for the experiences that followed over the next 10 days. But first, we had to eat.
Jazz Night in Pétion-Ville
The formal tour part of my trip kicked off later that evening when my group met for the first time. Everyone went through their abbreviated biographies and talked about their reasons for visiting Haiti. Two things: this was a delightfully well-traveled group and everyone was pretty equally curious about Haiti.
Our guide had a suggestion for our first night together: dinner and jazz up in Pétion-Ville. Our destination, Presse Café (28 rue Rigaud, Pétion-Ville) which had a nice introductory menu of delicious Haitian cuisine (get the griot, fried pork, and the lambi, conch!) serenaded by a live band playing jazz classics.
Next stop: Heading up north to Cap-Haïtien!
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