Habitation-Jouissant, Cap-Haïtien, Haiti

Taking a Step Back in Time in Cap-Haïtien

“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.

Cap-Haïtien, Haiti

Cap-Haïtien, Haiti

Cap-Haïtien, Haiti

Rural Haiti

What it is Like to Drive Across Haiti: Our Drive from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien

“Sonja Lapli Ki Leve Mayo Ou”  (Remember the rain that made your corn grow) – Haitian Proverb

Driving in Haiti is not for the faint at heart. It takes a certain breed of traveler to come to Haiti and even a more particular kind of traveler to drive across the country. To say that the roads are treacherous would be an understatement. In all my travels to remote parts of the world where I deemed the roads to be bad, I have never ever experienced such potholed, rugged, rough and perilous roads as I have in Haiti.

What I found most shocking of all is that the roads in the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, are perhaps the worst. Getting around in the capital can take hours given all the washed out, rutted roads, the broken down cars left in the middle of the street, the congestion of way too many cars, people, motorcycles and trucks on the roads, and the chaos of it all. Hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy rain and other natural disasters have continued to wreak havoc on Haiti’s already overwhelmed infrastructure. So has poverty. Yet what makes matters worse is the fact that poor governance, bad management of international aid money, corruption and greed have not fixed the insanely bad infrastructure. Hopefully they will someday.

Needless to say, you must be mentally prepared to drive in Haiti. It takes patience, an open mind and a strong desire to see the real deal, the real Haiti. For my adventurous, curious soul, our drive across Haiti from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien was perhaps the most profoundly eye-opening experience of the entire trip. After two visits to Haiti, I felt like all the pieces finally come together and I understood her.

Hotel Montana Pétionville, Haiti

View from the Hotel Montana in Pétionville and overlooking Port-au-Prince

We rose early to prepare for our estimated 5 hour drive to Cap-Haïtien. We left just as the sun was rising over the valley below our hotel perched high up in the hills above Port-au-Prince. As we drove down the main road from Pétionville, the city began to come to life. Street vendors were out setting up their stands of everything you can possibly imagine to be for sale on the side of the street: Fresh produce, clean drinking water in tiny plastic bags, used clothing, tires, bicycles, mattresses, electronics, cellphone chips, shoes, electrical wires, books, pots and pans, and even TVs. I finally figured out where all my donated stuff to Goodwill ends up. On the streets of Port-au-Prince to be resold.

We left before 7 because if we left any later, it could take us over two hours to get down from the neighboring suburb of Pétionville to Port-au-Prince. It is the only road connecting this well-to-do, wealthy suburb of expats, government officials and businessman with the chaos of downtown Port-au-Prince where they work. If one car breaks down along the way, it is over.

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We passed through the center of town just as everyone was commuting to work. Lines and lines of people stood waiting along the roadside for their chance to get on an over-crowded tap-tap, Haiti’s decked out pickup trucks that provide transportation for the public. Sometimes there is an all out fight between two people trying to push their way on the last remaining spot on the tap tap especially since this is the only form of public transportation in the entire city.

Motorcycles pass by with three, four and even five people on. We even saw a man carrying a couple of live goats and another man with a generator on his back. The motorcycles are very dangerous as they zoom in and out of traffic with their life on the line. I am sure that motorcycle accidents are a daily occurrence in Haiti.

We finally made it out of the city without too much trouble. Just the usual broken down cars, traffic jams and rugged, potholed roads to slow us down but nothing major causing us delay. We had our driver Nixon bringing our group of four woman to Cap-Haïtien. Thankfully we had a nice air-conditioned van, filled with bottled water and a few snacks for our long drive ahead. We also had quirky Nixon who despite his questionable actions proved to be an excellent driver on such crazy roads.

Cap-Haïtien is only about 148 miles/239 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince but given the road conditions it can take anywhere from 4-6 hours. Little did we know that our adventurous ride would take us a whooping 8 1/2 hours with nowhere to stop for lunch and public toilets at a minimum. Like I said, it was a trip for the adventurous soul.

Google maps print out states that 148 mile/239 km drive should take roughly 6 hours.


Haiti Bound: A Week Exploring Culture and Adventure

“Dèyè mòn gen mòn” – Haitian proverb meaning “beyond mountains, more mountains”. 

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Haiti as part of a social good blogging trip to learn about the amazing artisan market that is helping put Haiti on the map. It was a life-changing trip that challenged a lot of misperceptions about this beautiful place. I wrote quite a lot about the trip and had always wanted to go back but the timing never seemed to work out. (To view all my posts on my past trip to Haiti, click here. There are a ton but these are some of my most favorite posts on my blog to date!).

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Our group, #Bloggers4Haiti

Fast forward, and I am now sitting in the Miami International Airport waiting to catch my flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I will once again be traveling with my Haitian-American friend Nathalie (Nat) Tancrede who at the time ran the artisan program in Haiti. But this time, I will be doing something completely different. I will be joining Nat on her first adventure and cultural tour for her new travel business, Explore with Nat, as her storyteller and social media companion. I can hardly wait!

I will be live blogging and social media sharing during the entire week in Haiti and it is my goal to show the world the beautiful, amazing parts of Haiti – not the sadness they read about and see in the media. As a dedicated writer, I did what I always do before going on a trip. I purchased a travel guide – or shall I say the only travel guide on the market. Haiti is not currently known as a tourist destination and only the most off the beaten path travelers seem to venture to the tiny nation. It is my aim to uncover the beauty and culture of this often misunderstood place, and I will have a week to do it.

During my past trip, I visited Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, a lovely coastal town a few hours away from the capital. This time I will be exploring a few new places such as Cap Haitien and a beach resort near Montrouis. I will be learning more about the historical and cultural side of Haiti which will be utterly fascinating.

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