Haiti is full of amazing things to see, some of which are found far, far underground. While Port Salut’s beaches were calling for me sit undisturbed on the endless white sand, my trip was meant to be adventurous. After a terrific breakfast, my group headed over to Port-à-Piment to hike up volcanic rock and descend into the extraordinary caves of Grotte Marie-Jeanne.
Relatively unexplored, the caves of Grotte Marie-Jeanne are an exciting adventure that could stretch several kilometres underground with the right equipment. Before heading in, be prepared. This is serious adventuring and gear is essential for comfort and safety.
- Footwear: Sturdy. Trail shoes, solid sneakers, even hiking sandals with a toe cap, there’s a fair amount of scrambling, so you’ll want to make sure you feet are well covered.
- Clothing: Wear stretchy, sporty clothing you won’t mind getting dirty. At a minimum, there’s a lot of bat guano on the floor of the caves, but once you start shimmying and climbing over rocks, you’re going to be covered in cave dust. The caves are surprisingly hot, so breathable fabrics will help wick the sweat away. Since there’s a fair amount of crawling and kneeling, wear pants or shorts that cover your knees.
- Head lamp: A head lamp will leave your hands free for climbing over the rocks, though some of my group had hand-held flashlights.
- Water: Take enough water for a couple of hours of exploring. I carried a 500mL flat plastic water bottle and that was sufficient.
- Other stuff: A light bag or backpack you won’t mind getting dirty, camera (trust me, it’s glorious), tissues, hand sanitizer or baby wipes for cleaning up, and small first aid kit for scrapes.
Hiking to the caves
After the short drive from Port Salut to Port-à-Piment, we picked up official guide Jean-Baptiste in downtown Port-à-Piment, then continued on to the park entrance, where there is a small building housing an impressive interpretive display. We were greeted by a vanload of nuns who had just finished the trek. I have no idea how they did it. They were way too clean!
The climb to the entry of the caves is a pleasant 15-minute hike through a lush cloud forest. The trek is steep, and the rock forming the trail is volcanic (and looks like the surface of the moon). I wore sturdy sneakers and found some of the footing a little challenging, but some local kids joined us and skipped up the hill in flip-flops. It’s a pretty walk, with panoramic views of the sea behind you and lots of bright pink flowers, tiny goats, and little butterflies along the trail.
Grotte Marie-Jeanne: heading underground
At the entry to the caves, there is a small seating area with more interpretative panels. Jean-Baptiste went over the cave rules and safety reminders with us, then he opened the padlocked gate (word is he has the only key) and we descended the narrow metals stairs into the unknown below.
There’s short walk through some jungle-like greenery and one more descent. We arrived on the pinkish-red floor of the first gallery, looking up. The first cave is open to the sky, the “roof” collapsing at some point a few thousand years ago. The effect is ethereal, and the view is called the “suspended garden,” with greenery from the top of the mountain growing down into the cave below.
Our exploration began with Jean-Baptiste explaining cave formation over tens of thousands of years, pointing out some of the more noteworthy stalactites and stalagmites, crystal formations, and a little bit of graffiti. We explored the nooks and crannies of the first cave – suitable for beginner spelunkers with basic equipment – which involved scrambling and some butt-sliding down the smoother rocks, for maximum safety and getting-dirty-ness.
Jean-Baptiste’s knowledge of the caves is extensive – he’s been involved in the mapping of the caves with visiting scientists. In addition to the science of the rock formations, he also told us about the creatures who lived in the caves, like small bats and tarantulas.
Over time, the parts of the cave and its formations have acquired descriptive ames. We started in “The Cathedral,” where there’s a statue of a saint, candle formations, as well as Marie-Jeanne’s wedding dress. Moving through the first and second galleries, we met the elephant, the puppy, the dental clinic and the bake shop.
Just past the bake shop and through a tight opening in the rock, we descended, one by one, into third gallery, the furthest point of this part of the “beginner” section of the caves. On the count of three, everyone shut off their headlamps and flashlights and we quietly experienced the darkness, the weight of it. Sound, density, texture, it was so dark I couldn’t even feel my hands and I swiped in front of my face.
This was a physically challenging experience, with the climbs and descents, the places where I had haul myself up or scramble up over rocks. Tough, but so worth it. I’ve been very few places so … unexplored. A true novelty in this day and age, and just one more reason Haiti remains the most unexpected and enchanting place I’ve visited yet.
All about my trip to Haiti
For more about my G Adventures trip to Haiti, check out my Haiti travel section:
If you’re extra curious, explore my detailed Google Map of everywhere I visited in Haiti:
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