“Sonja Lapli Ki Leve Mayi Ou” – Haitian Proverb meaning “Remember the Rain that Made your Corn Grow”
After an eight and a half hour treacherous drive, our van finally arrived into the outskirts of Cap-Haïtien. Once the richest and grandest city in the entire Caribbean, due to a powerful sugar and coffee industry built on slavery, Cap-Haïtien’s history is long, violent and heroic. It was here under French colonial rule that Haiti won its independence in 1804 after a bloody revolution and became the first free black republic in the world.
Today, the remains of a once grand city whose history can be seen in the layers of peeling paint and the crumbling of its French colonial architecture is a reminder of the poverty, hardship and natural disasters that have continued to devastate Haiti since the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. While greed, violence, and corruption are a common thread throughout this impoverished island nation’s history, there is also a rich cultural heritage that goes back for centuries. There is no better place to learn about Haiti’s past than by spending a few days visiting Cap-Haïtien.
As we entered the town, I noticed a slight resemblance to the colorful run-down streets of Havana. Just like Havana, if I closed my eyes I could almost picture the once remarkable beauty of the place before its demise. Layers of pastel-hued walls gave the city an ironically cheerful feel despite the piles of uncollected trash, the mismatch of junk sold along the street and the darn right brutal shape of some of the roads and buildings. The corniche which is the long boardwalk that lines the sea was probably the place to be and be seen years ago yet now it is filled with congestion, garbage and dirt. Off in the distance as far as the eye can see lay some of Haiti’s most beautiful beaches with perhaps one of the most lovely ones of all being open only to the foreign cruise ship passengers spending the day in Haiti’s luxurious, private and exclusive Labadie. Directly south in the lush green mountains lies the famous fortress, Citadelle Henry, which is one of the primary reasons for visiting Cap-Haïtien besides the beaches.
For me, I wanted to visit Cap-Haïtien for the culture and history. I had never been to the northern side of Haiti and knew that it was blessed with a rich heritage and was once known as the “Paris of the Antilles”. Unfortunately two days would not be nearly enough time to explore the city and its surroundings. But it did give me a different experience in Haiti.
Just like rest of country the roads in Cap-Haïtien are in a state of disrepair making travel throughout town a bit tiresome but nothing like the chaotic nature of driving in Port-au-Prince. In fact, the atmosphere in Cap-Haïtien almost felt relaxed compared with Port-au-Prince. Once again we were lost finding the right road that meanders up the hillside to our hotel and we had to hire a local on a motorcycle to show us the way. Getting lost became a common theme of the trip despite having a driver.
Perched high above the bustle and commotion of Cap-Haïtien sat our hotel, the Habitation Jouissant, perfectly nestled within the lush green landscape. After eight and a half hours of driving across Haiti and seeing destitute poverty, our accommodations for the night felt like a dream. Despite being in the middle of a huge renovation (there was a large hole in the ground where the construction of a new hotel will take place), it was still a beautiful place to stay with stunning views of the town below and the sea. The contrast between the luxury and poverty of the city below made it at times difficult to comprehend and accept. But that is Haiti.
Given our long day, we chose to eat dinner outside on the terrace for the first night. The prices were American style which I found a bit annoying especially given the fact that the only bottle of wine they had for sale was an extravagant $45 which is way more than I would ever spend at home. But there were few options as getting back down to the city would require our driver and he was fast asleep after a long day of travel. The next evening we went down to one of the popular local restaurants along the corniche and had a delicious Haitian meal for half the price.
The following morning we were up early for our big day ahead of sightseeing. We were off to see the Citadelle Henry and a few other historic sites in and around the area. We first made a quick stop at the beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption which dates back to 1670 when Cap-Haïtien was a French colony. The french architecture of the church and the surrounding square was quite lovely.
Inside the cathedral, there were rows and rows of school children dressed in uniforms and a sea of blue hair bows. It was quite the sight to see! The children were practicing communion as it was nearing time of the annual confirmations at the Catholic church and since Haiti is a Catholic country all school children go through this rite of passage.
We left the church and headed back into the van for our drive to Citadelle Henry where we would ride horses to the top for a morning tour of the historical ruins. It was going to be another fascinating day!
Love the color contrast in each photo! A great tour:)
Thank you so much!
Thanks Heather! It was such a fascinating trip.
Such a lovely account of your visit to Cap-Haïtien, Nicole. The view from the hotel is marvelous! Especially with clear blue skies over the city just like in your photos. Of course you didn’t have any problem with the language during your travel in Haiti, did you?
Thanks Bama. Haiti is such a fascinating place. They speak mostly Creole there and French too. I was with my friend who is Haitian American so she was our translator. Glad you liked the photos! Hope all is well. 🙂
Your writing and photos deserve to be published in a travel magazine. I love how you peel back the layers of places, deftly showing us the people and culture that make your travels so special. Thank you for another wonderful post!
Oh thank you so much for such a beautiful, lovely comment! I am smiling now. Haiti is such a fascinating place. I’m really glad you enjoyed the photos.
Wonderful photos Nicole, especially the first one. Amazing contrast between the ordinary streets and the hotel where you stayed. We saw much the same kind of thing in Havana, as you know.
Thank you Alison! I like that one too. Yes the crumbling state of paint and the building did remind me a bit of Havana. Yet the poverty in Haiti is much greater and deeper. It has quite a fascinating culture and history.
Thank you for sharing your adventure, Nicole!
Haiti offers so much to those willing to keep an open mind. So glad we got the opportunity to share some of island’s beauty with you in Cap Haitien.
Me too Nat! I loved the trip. Would love to go back again someday but I will only go with your capable knowledge and expertise as you are the best!
The views are beautiful, Nicole. And there’s an obvious resemblance to Havana. It has character which I imagine will take many years to eliminate. 🙂
Thank you Jo! Yes it is quite a fascinating place. I can only imagine what it all looked like in the colonial times when it was built.
Beautiful images and interesting post, Nicole. Such vibrant colors. I love your lead photo. 🙂
Thank you Jane! I appreciate your comments. I like that photo too. The first ones were taken from a moving car through the windshield so I’m glad they turned out!
Tolle Impressionen, danke !
Thank you so much! 🙂
What a great experience this must have been ~ always a marvel to see your travel writings and especially your photographs. A wonderful view into a fascinating place. Thank you.
Thank you so much for the wonderful comment. You know how much I love your writing and your photography so this means a lot! Haiti is quite an experience. It is a fascinating place. I’m fortunate to have been there twice.
Cap-Haïtien seems to be rich in both culture and history. Your photos from the city are gorgeous.
Thank you so much Otto!
What an amazing place and such a city of contrasts. Thanks for taking me there virtually Nicole. You paint such a vivid picture.
Thanks Miriam! Appreciate the comment!