This is Haiti. (Thinkstock)
It’s been five years since a magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, since we watched heartbreaking images of rubble and broken bodies flash across our TV screens, since more than 220,000 people were killed and another 1.5 million were left homeless, living in tent cities across Port-au-Prince. Even before the earthquake hit — and most certainly after — it seemed the only Americans traveling to Haiti were doctors, do-gooders, missionaries, and the occasional celebrity trying to ease some of the suffering.
Over time, the country has tried to move forward. The emotional scars fade a bit more each year, and what little infrastructure the country had before 35 seconds of shaking leveled everything is slowly being rebuilt.
But Haiti has needed saving for decades — one of the poorest countries in the world, it’s long been crumbling, racked with devastating poverty, disease, and nearly constant political unrest. The disastrous “thing,” as Haitians often call it, was another catastrophic setback.
Now Haitian President Michel Martelly has a plan for the country to thrive: Attract more international tourists. Martelly wants to bring Haiti back to what it was in its heyday in the 1950s: With its beautiful beaches, art, and music scene at the time, it was the place to see and be seen in the Caribbean. “The role of tourism as a vehicle for job creation, poverty reduction, economic growth and development is undeniable,” Martelly has said.
Here comes tourism?
The needle does seem to be moving, if ever so slightly. Haiti is mentioned in countless “Where to Go in 2015” destination lists; popular tour company G Adventures is launching its first guided Haiti trips starting in February, as is CheapCaribbean.com. American Airlines and JetBlue have new regular direct routes from the U.S. Already the Haitian government has initiated myriad projects, and opened international tourism offices in the Dominican Republic and the United Kingdom, with plans for more in North America. Perhaps most impressively, the Inter-American Development Bank approved a $36 million grant last month “to foster tourism around Haitian historic, cultural, and natural resources,” according to an IDB statement.
But the country still has quite a long way to go.
Disapproval of Martelly, one of the architects of this Haitian revival, has sparked violent riots because of his failure to hold elections. Though a last-minute deal was struck on Jan. 11 to avoid Martelly dissolving Parliament to rule by decree, some fear it is just a Band-Aid, and more protests are expected.
Crime and incidents of kidnapping are down but not eliminated. And though the AIDS crisis in Haiti is out of the headlines, emergencies seem to unendingly pop up — like the cholera epidemic and, as of this summer, more than 68,000 infected with chikungunya, the newest of the many nasty mosquito-borne diseases affecting the Caribbean — taxing an almost nonexistent medical infrastructure.
So it begs the question: Is Haiti really ready for tourism?
Six days in Haiti
When I told people I was heading to Haiti for six days, “Wow. Why?” was the standard response. I was going to preview an abbreviated version of G Adventures’ upcoming 10-day “Highlights of Haiti” tour, and I was excited if not a tad apprehensive — what with all the Haitians that work at my father’s office telling him not to let me go and regaling him with tales of violence and mayhem. (Haitians who’ve left Haiti, it turns out, often don’t have a very positive opinion of their homeland.)
Going to Haiti takes some standard Third-World travel prep. Before leaving, I got my shots (the CDC recommends hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines for most travelers) and a prescription for an antimalarial. I stocked up on heavy-duty DEET bug spray (it’s toxic, but there’s no other real way to protect yourself against dengue fever and chikungunya) and 100+ SPF.
Getting there is easy — just a quick JetBlue flight (for less than $400) from JFK in New York, direct to Port-au-Prince. The airport there has been rebuilt since the earthquake and feels shiny and new. There was also no line at customs for visitors — probably because the approximately 400,000 overnight “tourists” that came to Haiti in 2014 were mostly emigrants with Haitian passports visiting family members, as well as some NGO (nongovernmental organization) workers and missionaries. Most of the airport employees were friendly but didn’t speak English (not that they should be expected to — “Kreyol,” as they spell it, is the national language). I could have gotten by with some French, if only I knew how to speak it.
Port-au-Prince is not for the faint of heart. Like many cities in dirt-poor countries, it’s more than rough around the edges. Our hotel there, Le Plaza, was hidden behind security gates in the heart of town. A serious-looking man with a very big gun was stationed near the entrance. The room was fairly clean, with local decorative touches, but not much worked properly — the toilet wouldn’t flush and the lock on the sliding door was broken. I switched to another. It was older and dirtier, and the window unit air conditioner was almost too loud to leave on, but I could use the bathroom and secure the door.
This is what my first room looked like (though the photo is a tad forgiving). But the bathroom and locks didn’t work. (Le Plaza/Facebook)
There are Western hotels in Port-au-Prince — there’s a Best Western in a nearby suburb, and Marriott International is opening the city’s first four-star property in March. But these places can be more expensive since they largely cater to well-paid NGO workers, diplomats, and government officials with expense accounts. Plus, staying at Le Plaza and other locally owned accommodations like Hotel Oloffson are a way to give back to the community.
The streets of Port-au-Prince are chaos. The first things I saw while exploring: a wheelbarrow piled with dead goats bound at the feet; a woman squatting in the middle of a crowded sidewalk urinating; and, most disturbingly, a fellow traveler being hit by a truck, practically at the door of the hotel, as she stepped onto the busy, traffic-light-less streets. Dozens of concerned locals rushed to her aid, and thankfully she was scratched and bruised but OK. Unfortunately, the incident was shocking but not all that uncommon or surprising: pedestrians are in a constant, precarious dance with brightly colored “tap taps” (pickup trucks that serve as share taxis), speeding motorcycles, and wildly decorated American school buses (used for long-distance public transport).
This is Haiti.
Street rum smells and tastes suspiciously like turpentine. And it’s made in used paint-thinner bottles. (Leah Ginsberg)
Amid the mayhem and oppressive heat, makeshift vendors line the roads and dot the public squares of the capital, selling everything from paintings to shoes to street rum. A swarm of mostly friendly but aggressively persistent merchants followed our group everywhere. It’s not common to see so many blancs (foreigners) wandering around the city, and the merchants know seven bucks for a souvenir means hardly anything to us, but to them, it is more than what some people make in a week.
There are still some signs of the earthquake. In the crowded, dilapidated downtown, stretches of red corrugated iron blanket the landscape — from a distance the city looks as if it is bleeding. But it’s just the opposite. Behind that scaffolding, structures pulverized by the earthquake are being rebuilt, largely funded by Caribbean wireless company Digicel Group and its billionaire chairman, Denis O’Brien.
The new Port-au-Prince Marche de Fer (Leah Ginsberg)
Though it will never be a tourist hub, there are sights to see in Port-au-Prince. The Marche de Fer (Iron Market, named for the style and materials used to create the structure) is almost startlingly new in comparison to the city that surrounds it. This is because the original was razed in the quake. The resurrection of the market remained true to the original 1890 edifice, but with additions like fans and electricity. Inside it’s a cacophony of sounds (the lilt of Kreyol) and smells (everything from locally made charcoal to spices infuses the humid air). Haitians hawk their wares, from turtles (for soup), goats’ heads, and rum to art, and Vodou (Haitian spelling) candles, dolls, and scarves.
One of the makeshift galleries of the Atis Rezistans on the Gran Rue (Leah Ginsberg)
One of the less disturbing sculptures (Leah Ginsberg)
If the streets and the market are the rhythm of Port-au-Prince, the art is its soul. On the south side of the Gran Rue in Port-au-Prince, buried amid a labyrinth of slums, trash, and car repair shops, lives the Atis Rezistans. The collective of artists was started by sculptors Jean Hérard Celeur, André Eugene, and Frantz Jacques (aka Guyodo). For a decade at least, these men have brought on assistants and apprentices to create a renaissance of sorts. The art that comes out of the haphazard galleries and workshops in the bowels of the ghetto is often inspired by Vodou, sex, and death. It’s at the same time fascinating and disturbing, but the artists are welcoming, eager to tell you about their work. As I make my way through one artist’s nook, a metal sculpture catches my pants and cuts my leg. I silently wish I had decided to get a tetanus shot with my other vaccines.
For all its rich culture, Port-au-Prince and its quirks can be a tough place to love.
Cap Haitien was once called ‘the Paris of the Antilles’
The streets of Cap Haitien (Leah Ginsberg)
On the north coast of Haiti, just a 30-minute flight away (on a shabby Tortuga Air 18-seater), the country’s second-largest city, Cap Haitien, is a little better suited for tourism. It is a quieter, easier place to visit: The streets are less crowded and cleaner, if not clean, full stop. The French Colonial architecture is painted in bright, typically Caribbean colors. Women walk with baskets, filled with everything from fruit to laundry, on their heads. Go on a Sunday and you’ll see all the locals dressed in their prettiest white dresses and best suits for church, wandering around the city square, Place d’Armes.
The Marche de Fer here is much older and more worn than the Port-au-Prince rebuild (though this market was inspired by the PAP original). The hordes of goods in the cramped stalls are much less organized, a layer of God-knows-what-kind of sludge covers the floor, and the air is hotter, smellier, and more stagnant. All this somehow makes the market feel more interesting and authentic. My fellow travelers and I weaved through the aisles, and in the Vodou section, taken in by the dark allure of the Haitian religion, we excitedly bargained for ceremonial bowls and knickknacks. But walking away with our purchases, we suddenly wondered whether we’d be allowed to leave the country with these artifacts, and if so, was it bad luck?
There is an oceanfront road leading to the port in Cap Haitien that is lovely, yet strewn with trash. Of course, this is a common problem in poor nations — nothing anyone who’s traveled to India, for example, hasn’t experienced before. But it is something it would behoove the government to fix. Boats with sails made from stitched-together found fabric float in the Atlantic Ocean, and bright red, blue, and green wooden fishing boats sit empty on the shore.
Looking out the window from a room at Habitation Jouissant (Leah Ginsberg)
Cap Haitien also has some charming hotels compared to Port-au-Prince. There is Auberge du Picolet, a nice guesthouse that sits back from the waterfront. As we passed by, another writer on the trip pointed it out — he had stayed there a few years earlier and was quite taken with it. But most beautiful was Habitation Jouissant, a boutique hotel situated up a winding road in the lush green hills. (This is where President Martelly stays when in town.) The views of the ocean are so spectacular, and everything is so clean and modern. And Habitation Jouissant is getting ready for more visitors: Though the place mostly caters to diplomats and NGOs, like other expensive Haitian hotels, plans to add 37 more rooms (for a total of 50) are underway.
Less than 20 miles south of Cap Haitien are probably the closest things to tourist attractions you can find in Haiti. First, there is the Citadelle la Ferrière. It sits on a hill nearly 3,000 feet above sea level and is the biggest fortress in the Caribbean. Haitians are quite proud of it (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and it’s true, the views of the green mountains are impressive, and it houses a unique cache of cannons and weaponry nicked from the British, Spanish, and French, as each occupied the island. Safety railings and informational plaques are recent additions as the government spit shines such gems and gets them ready for international tourists.
The horses that take you up to the Citadelle (Leah Ginsberg)
To get up there, it takes a good hike or a hot, dirty horse ride on a ratty saddle. On my ride up, as one man (sinewy from multiple daily trips up the mountain) barked commands and guided the animal, a younger boy whipped the small horse. Animal rights, well, aren’t in Haiti, and it made me almost as uncomfortable as the constant bouncing. But however you trek, along the way expect a chorus of hostile “blanc!” calls. Here it seems the (mostly young male) locals cannot hide their disdain for outsiders.
From the Citadelle, if you squint through the blazing sun, you can see where Labadee sits in the distance. It’s a pristine beach leased out by Royal Caribbean. Labadee saw more than 600,000 tourists in 2014, all cruisers who disembarked from the ship for the day to frolic at the private resort. You won't find many Haitians there. Now the government would like to build a paved, easily accessible road from Labadee to the Citadelle to lure the cruise ship tourists to the fort.
Sans Souci (Leah Ginsberg)
Below the Citadelle is the other potential attraction: Sans Souci. The Citadelle is supposed to be the star of the show, but I found the abandoned, moss-covered ruins of the old royal palace — which was toppled in an earthquake in 1842 — to be quite beautiful.
Exploring a faded port city
On the other side of Haiti, on the Caribbean coast, is the former port city of Jacmel. It’s only a three-hour drive from Port-au-Prince, but it feels like a different world.
This once wealthy enclave is probably best known for its annual spring Carnival. Yet in this winter month, there was something haunting about Jacmel. Also heavily hit by the 2010 earthquake, the streets are empty, and the fading façades of the lonely buildings look as if they could turn to dust in a strong wind. There is talk of turning Jacmel into a Caribbean version of the New Orleans French Quarter — it has similarly intricate and beautiful French Colonial architecture — but for now it waits.
The empty streets of Jacmel (Leah Ginsberg)
As with Port-au-Prince, Jacmel has an art scene — but here the artisans handcraft giant painted papier-mâché masks and sculptures.
There are quaint businesses here — the Hotel Florita, where we had lunch, is cozy, but we couldn’t use the bathrooms until someone had been sent to clean some sort of mishap. As we walked along another waterfront, this one perhaps a little cleaner than Cap Haitien’s, we passed the murals local children created with bits of tile and imagination, and stopped for rest near a lone poster advertising Bassin Bleu to no one in particular.
High above Jacmel, Bassin Bleu is beautiful. As with many things in Haiti, this picturesque series of natural pools linked by waterfalls is not easy to get to. We climbed into the back of two small pickup trucks (known as “mules”) that most certainly had seen thousands of dusty miles. Looking at the steep pitch of the winding, gravelly mountain roads we were about to drive, I began to brace myself. (I’m not at all a fan of heights. Or rusty pickup trucks.) It is a hot, rocky ride, but the view of the green hills opening up into a turquoise ocean made every heart-pounding minute (about 30, I’d say) totally worth it.
Once we arrived, a fairly uneventful hike led to a scary descent down a slippery rock into thigh-high water. We waded through to get to the cove that is Bassin Bleu. Normally it is pure turquoise — at least according to the pictures I saw and my guide — but this day, rains have turned the water a murky, dark greenish blue. As I climb into the basin, the bottom is soft and slimy and squishes between my toes and covers my feet. I don’t want to know what it’s made of.
Bassin Bleu (Leah Ginsberg)
I swim out to watch others climb an even steeper, slipperier rock to jump off a waterfall. Many of the daredevils are Haitian teenagers off from school for a local holiday. One or two of the travelers in my group give it a go. I decide against it when I hear my guide tell the story of a former client who misjudged, shattered her kneecap, and had to be airlifted out.
On the way out of the pool, I hit a rock and scrape my knee. I obsessively clean my scrape with a stack of antibacterial wipes and cover it in Purell.
Though there are places to stay in Jacmel (like the Hotel Florita), we headed to the out-of-the-way La Colline Enchantee. Enchantee indeed — it was probably my favorite place we stayed. We each had a sweet little one-room bungalow with quaint porches and ceiling fans. I did have a run-in with a rat-size bug that appeared to be some sort of beetle or roach, but I considered myself lucky — one of my fellow travelers said he had a cat skeleton in his bathroom.
Salted fish drying in the sun along the side of the road (Leah Ginsberg)
On the drive to Port-au-Prince airport the next day, I popped some Dramamine and looked out the window. In the mountains you can smell burning mahogany that the locals are making into charcoal. By the coast the air is alternately fresh like the ocean and foul from men salt-drying fish in the sun.
Once we hit the highway it was dusty and bleak, but there are traffic lights here. In front of us, locals jumped onto moving school buses to sit on the roof, to precariously climb along the sides to squeeze through a window, or to just hang on. When we stopped at a gas station, my guide checked out the bathroom and then advised us against using it.
Sitting in the airport waiting to go home felt different than when I came. The air was thick and hot. I was nervous to eat the food.
As I reflected on the trip, I was conflicted. I was leaving Haiti with some amazing memories, one-of-a-kind art, and unfortunately some cuts, bruises, and a nasty intestinal infection.
So is Haiti ready for tourism? For now, I wouldn’t advise going without a group tour or a guide. But I think the best way to sum it up is something I saw on something promoting G Adventures’ upcoming “Highlights of Haiti” trip. To paraphrase: Haiti is for travelers, for explorers, for adventurers. But it’s not for tourists. At least not yet.