One of the highlights of our trip to Haiti was a visit to the lovely oceanside town of Jacmel which is known as one of Haiti’s main cultural and artistic meccas. Founded by the French in 1698, Jacmel is a lovely laid-back town of about 40,000 people with beautiful colonial architecture, white sand beaches and lots of colorful art. Once a prominent economic hub producing coffee and sugar, today Jacmel has become a must-see place for tourists and Haitians alike, wanting to experience its beauty, culture and arts especially during Carnival time. Jacmel is on the list of becoming a World Heritage Site which gives all the more reason to visit this lovely place.
The drive to Jacmel from Port-au-Prince is not long – perhaps three hours or so depending on traffic leaving the capital. It is a gorgeous drive bringing you through Haiti’s tropical coast, up and over the mountains and rural villages and back down to the beautiful Carribean Sea.
We went to Jacmel to see the incredible papier-mâché artisans who work around the clock to create products for Macy’s Heart of Haiti line, a “trade not aid program” developed by the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund and Willa Shalit in partnership with Macy’s to promote sustainable income in the arts for Haitians. Jacmel is known internationally for its vibrant arts and craft scene, including nearly 200 papier-mâché artisans, as well as a school of painting and a music and film school that is recognised among the best in Haiti.
We had just missed Jacmel’s famous Carnival celebration yet the town was still full of bright, colorful papier-mâché everywhere we looked. I can only imagine what it must be like during Carnival!
Our first stop was at the beach on the outskirts of town. We wanted to grab a few photos of our group and also see the ocean. It was a sultry, hot and humid day typical of February weather in the Caribbean. It was hard not to think about how wonderful a swim would feel after our long drive that morning but we had work to do. We were going to have lunch at the famous Hotel Florita and then spend the rest of the afternoon touring some of the various papier-mâché artisans in town. The ocean would have to wait.
As we drove into town, I noticed that lots of people were out and about. It was a Saturday and apparently that means “wash” day. The river flowing into town was filled with Haitians washing everything from their laundry to motorcycles, cars and even buses! It was really quite a sight to see.
Besides its incredible art, what makes Jacmel stand out is its gorgeous architecture. Many of Jacmel’s buildings are historic and date back to the early nineteenth century after it was founded by the French. The old part of Jacmel reminded me a lot of New Orleans with its French colonial buildings and large wrought-iron balconies overlooking cobblestone streets. Although Jacmel was devastated by the January 12, 2010 earthquake that ravaged Port-au-Prince and other parts of Haiti, thankfully much of the city has been repaired and restored due to the hard work and effort of this close-knit community.
I learned that Jacmel was also quite prosperous in colonial times as an important coffee port. The town was an early innovator being the first city in the Caribbean to have telephones, potable water, and electricity. In 1896, the town center was destroyed by a huge fire but it was later rebuilt in the Creole architectural style that is unique to Jacmel and can still be found today. This charming architectural style has been credited to having influenced the New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Old Town is quite charming. Layers of history and peeling paint remain on its walls and facades dating over hundreds of years. Here are only a few shots from the area. (I will dedicate an entire post to the architecture of Jacmel because I loved it so much).
Our first stop before lunch was at the FOSAJ Art Center and Gallery in the heart of Jacmel. The Gallerie FOSAJ (“Foyer d’orientation et de soutien aux artists Jacmeliens”), is a gallery and art center opened in 2003 by Haitian artist Patrick NarBal Boucard et South African artist Kate Tarrat Cross to help educate, train and support local artisans in Jacmel. It is a beautiful, colorful place filled with amazing, vibrant artwork on its walls and has been a huge artistic success story all across Haiti.
The inside of Gallerie FOSAJ was remarkable. The color, creativity and amount of art brought the building to life. It is no wonder that some of Haiti’s finest painters and artists have come from Jacmel and are world-renown.
After our tour of the gallery, we had a few minutes before our delightful lunch at the famous Hotel Florita which warrants its own post. We checked out our first papier-mâché shop and I was mesmerized. After lunch, we would see a dizzying array of papier-mâché shops!
Inside one of Jacmel’s papier-mâché shops where you can buy Carnival masks, home decor or anything your heart desires made out of paper.
I had to buy a few of these little ladies for my daughter but knew that I would be buying much more as the day progressed. We were in for a real treat! Stay tuned…
Want to learn more? Check out these great articles I found on Jacmel: