Set off on the Route Nationale 2, the highway heading west toward Les Cayes. The lush, densely populated coastal Léogâne Plain, 45 minutes west of the capital, offers a look at rural life. East and west of the town of Léogâne, the plain is dotted with small villages and criss-crossed by bumpy lanes. After Léogâne at the Dufort junction fork left. The road climbs steeply, winding through the mountains with good views.
The port of Jacmel is Haiti’s prettiest, but run down, city. Its name derives from an Indian word meaning ‘rich land’. Quiet, Jacmel has changed little since the late 19th century when it was a booming coffee port and its wealthy merchants built New Orleans-style mansions using cast iron pillars and balconies imported from France or the United States. The charm of its Victorian architecture is matched by a setting at the head of a three kilometre wide horseshoe bay, with streets winding down three small hills to a palm-fringed, black-sand beach. A hurricane swallowed up most of Jacmel’s beach and what is left is dirty with pigs rooting around in the debris.
The best views can be had from the south-facing upper veranda of the Manoir Alexandre, a turn-of-the-century patrician home that is now a guest house. The main square is pleasant and busy with vendors; the Hôtel de la Place restaurant is a good place to have lunch and watch the world go by. One block to the east opposite the church is an iron market built in 1895. (Saturday is market day.) The street below the Manoir Alexandre, Rue Seymour Pradel, has another old residence, now an art gallery called Salubria-Brictson Galleries. Owner Bob Brictson is in residence only a few months of the year, but if you knock you will be shown his collection of worldwide art. Closer to the beach, on Rue Commerce, more 19th century homes have been turned into galleries or handicraft stores. The Boucard family residence at the corner of Grand’ Rue and Commerce, is especially fine. At the other end of Commerce, near the wharf, note the Vital family warehouse dating from 1865. The nearby prison was built in the 18th century. Jacmel’s handicraft speciality is boxes, trays, place mats and other objects covered with parrots or flowers, hand-painted in bright colours.
A 12-kilometre track into the hills west of Jacmel leads to Bassin Bleu, a series of natural pools and waterfalls descending a limestone gorge in tiers. The biggest, deep, blue-green pool is framed by smooth rocks and draped with creeper and maidenhair fern. Jump in for a cool swim. It takes one and a half to two hours each way on foot or horseback (horses for hire in Jacmel or in the village up the hill on the other side of the river from Jacmel, about US$6-7, depending on the quality). Take a guide, fixing a price in advance, and water to drink. There are excellent views over Jacmel bay on the way. If it has not rained, the road is fine for a four-wheel drive three quarters of the way. The Jacmel guide hands over to a local guide for the last kilometre which is a rough path and, at one point, requires the aid of a rope. This means an additional small fee. Guides here can be a problem, only one with the rope is needed, but you will find that you may be accompanied by others who will later demand payment. Gilbert is charming and helpful over the slippery rocks.