“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!