Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second city, has a dramatic location on the sheltered, southeast side of an 824m high cape, from which it gets its name. It was the capital in colonial times, when it was called Cap-Français. Nowadays it usually referred to simply as Cap, or Okap in Créole.
Its wealth and sophistication earned it the title of ‘Paris of the Antilles’. The colony’s biggest port, it was also the commercial centre of the northern plain, the biggest sugar producing region. It was burned to the ground three times, in 1734, 1798 and 1802, the last time by Christophe to prevent it falling intact into the hands of the French. It was destroyed again by an 1842 earthquake that killed half the population. The historic centre’s architecture is now Spanish influenced, with barrel-tile roofs, porches, arcades and interior courtyards.
Vertières, an outlying district on the Port-au-Prince Road, is the site of the battle at which Dessalines’s army definitively routed the French on 18 November 1803, forcing them to leave the island for good 12 days later. There is a roadside monument.
Cap appears to be more relaxed than Port-au-Prince and you will see people out on the streets at night. It is well worth visiting for its buildings and its surroundings but the people are not accustomed to tourists (blancs). The streets are filthy and streams of foul-smelling water run down them. The municipal government functions rarely and its services, such as street cleaning, are moribund. Do not drink the water, nor even use it to clean your teeth.