The central reference point for visitors is the large, irregularly shaped park called the Champs de Mars which begins to the east of the commercial quarter. The northwest corner is dominated by the white, triple-domed presidential palace. It was built in 1918 on the site of a predecessor that was blown up in 1912 with its president inside.
In the 1991 coup, President Aristide made a stand inside the present building. Just to the northeast is the colonnaded, white and gold army high command building, where soldiers nearly lynched Aristide after dragging him out of the palace. (He was saved by the French ambassador, the American ambassador, or General Cedras, depending on whose story you believe.) Immediately behind the palace, to the south, is a large, mustard-yellow army garrison that was once the fief of the ill-famed Colonel Jean-Claude Paul, indicted in Miami in 1987 for drug smuggling and poisoned the following year.
Immediately to the east of the palace, on Place des Héros de l’Independence, the subterranean Musée du Panthéon National (MUPANAH), T2228337, houses historical relics, including the rusted anchor of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María. Don’t miss an 1818 oil painting of King Henri Christophe by Welshman Richard Evans, director of Christophe’s Fine Arts Academy at Sans Souci. Two blocks north and two west, at the corner of Avenue Mgr Guilloux and the busy Rue Pavée, the Sainte Trinité Episcopal Cathedral has astounding biblical murals by the greatest naive artists, including Philomé Obin, Castera Bazile and Riguaud Benoit. Done in 1949, they are well worth seeing. The adjoining complex has a gift shop and a school whose students give excellent choral and classical music concerts (details from Sister Anne-Marie, T2225638). The pink and white stone Catholic Cathedral is four blocks to the north.
At the intersection of Rues Capois and Champ de Mars, the Musée d’Art Haïtien has Haiti’s finest naive art collection, plus a craft shop and a small café in its garden. The collection is not large and there is no recent art, you will find that in the private galleries. (T2222510. US$0.50. From 1000). The Maison Défly, 7 Avenue John Paul II, built by an army commander in 1896, is in the Victorian ‘gingerbread’ style, characterized by steep roofs and gables, round turrets, high ceilings, balconies and rich fretwork embellishment. Not a distinguished example, it contains a museum with period furniture. (T2224081. 0900-1300 Monday to Saturday). The Rue Capois has several hotels, restaurants and shops. At he southern end of Rue Capois, 1 kilometre from the Champs de Mars, is the Hotel Oloffson, a much more imposing example of a gingerbread. West of Rue Capois are leafy neighbourhoods climbing into the foothills where the well-off built residences in the 19th century, and gingerbreads abound.
Several major Port-au-Prince thoroughfares have two names, the official one used for maps and the telephone book, and the one commonly used in speech. Often the taxi drivers only know the second. Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines is also known as Grand’ Rue (Créole: Gran Ri); Avenue Lamartinière is Bois Verna (Cr: Bwa Vèna); Avenue Jean Paul II is Turgeau (Cr: Tijo); Avenue John Brown is Lalue (Cr: Lali); Avenue Paul VI is Rue des Casernes (Cr: Ridekazèn); Avenue Martin Luther King is Nazon (Cr: Nazon).
The asphalt road to Kenscoff, in the mountains behind Port-au-Prince, starts just to the west of the Pétion-Ville police station, on the Place St-Pierre. After 10 minutes, there is a turnoff on the right at United Sculptors of Haiti, which sells good wood carvings. It skirts a huge quarry and climbs to Boutilliers, a peak topped by radio and television masts that dominates the city. Great view but lots of handicraft vendors, some good-natured pestering. In about 20 minutes, the main Kenscoff Road reaches Fermathe where the large Baptist Mission has a snack bar with fine views south, and a store selling handicraft and souvenirs (taptaps and camionettes from near the market in Pétion-Ville). There is also a museum of the ‘history of this land, of this people and of serving Satan’. Voodoo is seen as the cause of all poverty in Haiti. A turnoff near the Mission leads to Fort Jacques and Fort Alexandre (10 minutes by car or an easy 45 minutes walk), two forts on adjoining summits built after the defeat of Napoleon. The views north over the Cul de Sac plain are breathtaking. Fort Jacques is restored.
Kenscoff is a hill resort where, 30 minutes (15 kilometres) from Pétion-Ville, but 1,500 metres above sea level, members of the élite retire to their country homes in July and August to escape the heat. (Camionette from Pétion-Ville US$0.30. D Hotel Florville for refreshments or meals, nice dining room but fairly basic and not especially friendly.) Market on Friday. Hike via Furcy to the summit above Kenscoff that is topped by a radio mast (about one hour), or the summit just to the west, called Morne Zombi. The ridge just to the east of the radio mast can be reached by a surfaced road in poor condition. It offers views south over a rugged, dark massif that boasts Haiti’s highest peak, the 2,674-metre La Selle. It can get cold at the top if it is cloudy.
From the ridge, a five-hour hike (guide required) along a trail heading towards the village of Seguin brings you to Parc La Visite, a nature park covering part of the massif. It has pine woods, montane cloud forest at higher altitudes, dozens of big limestone caves (one 10 kilometres long), and strange karst-formation rocks locals call ‘broken teeth’ (Cr: kase dan). See under Flora and fauna for wildlife. Camp at a disused saw mill (Cr: siri) by the trail, where water is available from a fountain. Bring thick clothes and sleeping bags; temperatures can fall to freezing at night. A waterfall is a short hike away. For longer hikes and fine views, head east with a guide and climb the 2,282-metre Pic Cabaio or the 2,100-metre Pic La Visite (another camping site). The park keeper, Jean-Claude, rents horses. Seguin lies on a sloping plateau on the massif’s southern face, about one hour beyond the park. From Seguin, a five-hour hike gets you to the south-coast village of Marigot, from where you can bus back to Port-au-Prince via Jacmel in 4 hours.
Wildlife enthusiasts should visit Lake Saumâtre (see Flora & Fauna), at the eastern end of the Cul de Sac plain near the Dominican border. The newly improved road from Croix-des-Bouquets to the border crossing at Malpasse skirts the lake’s southern side. The northern side offers more chance of seeing its wildlife. On Route Nationale 3 heading northeast from Port-au-Prince towards Mirebalais, fork right at the Thomazeau turnoff to the lakeside villages of Manneville and Fond Pite. It takes 90 minutes.
Fortresse des Platons, a huge ruined fortress on a 600-metre summit overlooking the coastal plain, can be visited in a one day excursion from Les Cayes. It was built in 1804 at Dessalines’ behest. Take the coast road southwest out of the city. Just after Torbeck, a rough road heads inland up a river valley via Ducis to the village of Dubreuil (trucks from Les Cayes). From Dubreuil, the fortress is a 2-3 hour hike up a steep trail with great views. Carry on the same trail via Formond to enter the Macaya National Park, which has Haiti’s last virgin cloud forest surrounding the 2,347 metres Pic Macaya. See under Flora and fauna for the park’s vegetation and wildlife. A University of Florida base at Plaine Durand (two hours beyond the fortress) has basic camping facilities. Hire guides for hikes into the lower montane rain forest. Only the very fit should attempt the hike to the top of the Pic Macaya. It entails climbing a 2,100-metre ridge and then descending to 1,000 metres before tackling the peak itself. Allow at least two days each way and take a guide.
Beyond Torbeck, the coast road goes as far as St Jean du Sud where a small off-shore cay is suitable for camping. Before St Jean du Sud, fork right at L’Acul for Port Salut, a 90-minute drive from Les Cayes (two buses a day, also some trucks). This small village (birthplace of ex-president Aristide) has a wild, 800 metre-long, palm-lined beach with fine, white sand that is one of the most beautiful in Haiti. The town is a haven of paved roads and laid back people who do not hassle. The beaches are beautiful and totally empty. There is a pleasant waterfall, 10 minutes’ drive, 30 minutes’ walk, where you can swim. Ask locals for directions.
Ruins - The rich, alluvial plain to the south and east of Cap boasted a thousand plantation houses during the last years of the colonial period. ISPAN (T2622459), Rue 15 and Rue B in Cap, is a good source of information on these nearby colonial ruins, as well as Sans Souci and the Citadelle.
The massive, mountain-top fortress of La Citadelle was built by King Henri Christophe between 1805 and 1820 to deter any French reinvasion (see under History). With walls up to 40 metres high and four metres thick, and covering 10,000 square metres, 20,000 people were pressed into its construction. It is dizzily perched atop the 900-metre high Pic La Ferrière, overlooking Cap and the entire northern plain, and controlling access to the Central Plateau. Its garrison of 5,000 soldiers (plus the royal family and its retinue) could have held out for a year. Haitians call it the eighth wonder of the world. It is indeed impressive, and has breathtaking views. Restoration work has been under way for years and is well advanced. Behind the fortress, at the end of a 1.5-kilometre level ridge with sheer drops on both sides, is the Site des Ramiers, a complex of four small forts which controlled the rear access. Worth visiting just for the views. (Getting there: take the 25-kilometre asphalt road south from Cap to the village of Milot in a publique (US$1) or taptap (US$0.30). Taptaps leave Cap in the morning. In both directions you may be asked to pay more than the locals but they will usually be happy with the ‘correct’ fare. Hotels like the Mont Joli offer jeep tours for about US$60 per person, but don’t count on the guide’s information being correct. From Milot it is a steep five-kilometre hike through lush countryside up to the fortress (about one and a half hours, start early to avoid the heat; to find the road up to the Citadelle you need to walk through Sans Souci Palace). Wear stout shoes and be protected from the sun. Horses can be rented for about US$7 plus a tip for the man who leads the horse (dangerous in wet weather). Hire a guide even if you don’t want one, just to stop others importuning and to make you feel safer (fix the fee in advance, US$10 for two, or more, for the walk). Several speak fluent French and English and will make the visit more interesting, helping you buy mangoes or coconuts on the way. Prices of refreshments at the Citadelle are higher than elsewhere (US$0.80 for a coke), but someone has had to carry them up there. Those with their own vehicle drive to a car park two thirds of the way up, reducing the walk to one and a half kilometres. Horses available here too, US$3.50 plus tip, can be a good idea as the last part is the hardest. Admission is US$5 to the Citadelle and Sans Souci, but they will try and sell it to you for more including guide).
At Milot itself are the ruins of Christophe’s royal palace, Sans Souci. More than a palace, it was an embryo administrative capital ranging over eight hectares in the foothills beneath the Citadelle. Christophe sited his capital inland because of the difficulty of defending coastal cities against the overwhelming naval might of France and Britain. It included a printing shop, garment factory, distillery, schools, hospital, medical faculty, chapel and military barracks. Begun in 1810, inaugurated in 1813, ransacked after Christophe shot himself in the heart with a silver bullet in 1820, it was finally ruined by the 1842 earthquake that destroyed Cap. The admission to the Citadelle covers Sans Souci. Try not to go any day there are cruise ships at Cap or the nearby beaches. If planning to visit both sites, arrive before 1300 to have enough time, as they close at 1700. There are no buses or taptaps back to Cap after 1700.
Morne Rouge, eight kilometres southwest of Cap, is the site of Habitation Le Normand de Mezy, a sugar plantation that spawned several famous rebel slaves. (Leave Cap by the RN1 and take a dirt road running north from a point about 75 metres west of the turnoff to the town of Plaine du Nord.) Its ruins include two aqueducts and bits of walls. Voodoo ceremonies are held under a giant tree in the village. Among its rebel progeny was Mackandal, an African chief’s son who ran away, became a prophetic oungan and led a maroon band. After terrorizing the entire northern plain by poisoning food and water supplies, he was captured and burned alive in January 1758. Bois Caiman was the wood where slaves met secretly on the night of 14 August 1791 to hold a Voodoo ceremony and plan an uprising. (It is near the Plaine du Nord Road, about three kilometres south of the RN1. Ask locals to guide you once you are in the area.) Their leader was an oungan and slave foreman from Le Normand de Mezy called Boukman. The uprising a week later was the Haitian equivalent of the storming of the Bastille. Slaves put plantation houses and cane fields to the torch and massacred hundreds of French settlers. It began the only successful slave revolt in history and led to Haiti’s independence. Little is left of the wood now except a giant ficus tree overgrowing a colonial well credited with mystic properties.
The town of Plaine du Nord, 12 kilometres southwest of Cap, is a pilgrimage centre every year on 24-25 July, the Catholic festival of St James, who is identified with the Voodoo spirit Ogou. Voodoo societies come from all over Haiti, camp in the streets and spend the two days in non-stop drumming and dancing. Many are possessed by Ogou and wallow in a much-photographed mud pool in one of its streets. On 26 July, the feast day of St Anne, most of the Voodoo societies at Plaine du Nord decamp to nearby Limonade, 15 kilometres southeast of Cap, for another day and night of celebrations. A dirt road on the northwest side of Limonade leads to Bord De Mer De Limonade, a fishing village where Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, struck a reef and sank on Christmas Day, 1492. Columbus used wood from the wreck to build a settlement, La Navidad, which was wiped out by Taino Indians after he left. Its location was discovered by American archaeologist William Hodges while digging at the site of Puerto Real, a city founded years later on the same spot. The untrained eye will detect nothing of either settlement now, but the Hodges museum in Limbé, 20 kilometres southwest of Cap, has relics.
Fort Liberté, 56 kilometres east of Cap, is a picturesque, French-designed town on a large bay with a narrow entrance. It is dotted with French forts that can be reached by boat. The best is Fort Dauphin, built in 1732. The bay was the site of the Caribbean’s largest sisal plantation until nylon was invented. There are direct taptaps Cap-Fort Liberté, but it may be easier to return to Cap from the main road, which is four kilometres from the centre of Fort Liberté. D Bayaha, Rue des Bourbons, by the sea, great view, terrace, quiet, good food, evening meal included in price, basic rooms, no a/c, cold water.
Ounaminthe (Hotel Paradis, basic, on main street) is northern Haiti’s chief border crossing. (Taptaps for US$2 from the station nordest in Cap; US$1.10 from Fort Liberté.) The Dominican frontier town, Dajabón, is just two kilometres from the Ounaminthe taptap station. The crossing is straightforward and the Haitain border office is very helpful. Buses leave Dajabón for many Dominican cities. The river Massacre, which forms the border, had this name long before the massacre of thousands of Haitians in the neighbouring part of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo in 1937, when the river was said to have been red with blood for days. The bridge across the river is packed with money changers and motoconchos (not necessary for transport to Haitian border post, which is about one kilometre from Dominican side). The Dominican side of the border has been described as an armed camp, with heavy military presence controlling the flow of Haitian labour. The Haitian side, on the other hand, is more like a gypsy camp, with a thicket of tents, lean-tos and a crowd of money changers and ‘guides’.
For the rugged, the dirt road forking left five kilometres before Milot could be an alternative route back to Port-au-Prince via Hinche and the Central Plateau (see Northeast of Port-au-Prince). A four-wheel drive is needed. It takes two to three hours. By public transport it takes much longer, up to two days to the capital. Vehicles tend to be old, it is very dusty and the worst stretch is from near Milot to Hinche. The first town is Grand Rivière du Nord, where another of Christophe’s fortresses, Fort Rivière, sits atop a ridge to the east. It was used by the Cacos guerrillas who fought the US occupation from 1918 to 1920. The Americans captured the Cacos leader Charlemagne Peralte near here. Dondon has caves inhabited by bats. One is close to the town. The other, 90 minutes on foot or horseback up a river bed to the west of the village, has heads carved in relief on its walls, presumably by the original Indian inhabitants. In the rainy season, cars cannot ford the river near St Raphaël, but you can walk, with locals helping for a small fee.