Except for Tortuga island and a coastal strip running east from Port-de-Paix, the northwest peninsula is Haiti’s driest, most barren region. In recent years, especially since the 1991 coup, it has teetered on the brink of famine and toppled over in 1997 when international agencies had to bring aid.
The 86-kilometre mountain road from Gonaïves to Port-de-Paix via Gros Morne fords several rivers and takes four hours in a four-wheel drive, needed for travel anywhere in the northwest. (Minibuses from Gonaïves, big buses from Port-au-Prince, leaving from beside the station Au Cap.) Port-de-Paix once made an honest living exporting coffee and bananas. Now it specializes in importing contraband goods from Miami. Vendors tout the wares on all its unpaved streets. In 1992-93, its small freighters also ferried illegal immigrants into Miami. Despite the smuggling, it is safe to spend a night (F Hotel Bienvenue, T2685138, basic, EP).
A coast road runs west from Port-de-Paix along the north coast of the peninsula as far as Môle St Nicolas and then returns to Gonaïves via the south coast. Jean Rabel is a tense town which was the site of a peasant massacre in July 1987. At least 150 died in the clash, said to have been engineered by local Duvalierist landlords seeking to crush the attempts of Catholic priests to organize landless peasants. From Jean Rabel round to Baie de Henne, the landscape is arid, windy and dusty. Old people say they can remember when it was still green and forested.
Columbus first set foot on the island of Hispaniola at Mole St Nicolas. It has several ruined forts built by the English and French. General Maitland’s surrender of Môle to Toussaint in 1798 marked the end of a five-year British bid to gain a toehold on this end of the island. Strategically located on the Windward Passage, just 120 kilometres from Cuba, Môle was long coveted as a naval base by the United States. The hinterland has Haiti’s lowest rainfall and little grows. The main occupation is making charcoal and shipping it to Port-au-Prince. Because few trees are left, charcoal makers now dig up roots. The peninsula’s south side, especially from Baie de Henne to Anse Rouge, is a mixture of barren rock and desert, but the sea is crystal clear. There are few inhabitants. With salt pans on either side, Anse Rouge ships sacks of salt instead of charcoal.
A 30-minute drive to the east of Port-de-Paix by a good, dirt road takes you to St Louis du Nord, a pretty coastal town from where sailing boats cross the 10-kilometre channel to Tortuga Island, the Caribbean’s biggest pirate base in the 17th century. Nearly 40 kilometres long, seven kilometres wide and 464 metres above the sea at its highest point, its smooth rounded shape reminded seafarers of the back of a turtle. (Tortuga in Spanish and La Tortue, its Haitian name, in French.)
Its present population of 30,000 is spread all over the island. The biggest South-coast villages, Cayonne and Basse-Terre, are less than one kilometre apart. A ferryboat leaves Cayonne for St Louis du Nord at 0800 and returns at about 1000, charging locals US$0.50 each way. Foreigners may have to pay up to US$10, depending on their negotiating skills. Boats crossing at other times charge more. From Cayonne there is a narrow cement road up to Palmiste serviced by a single taptap, one of the four or five cars on the island. From Palmiste, the biggest village on the rounded spine, there are spectacular views of the corniche coastline stretching from Cap to Jean Rabel, and the towering mountains behind. The best view is from the home of French Canadian priest Bruno Blondeau (T2685138/6709), the director of a Catholic Church mission who has effectively governed the island since 1977. He runs 35 schools and has built all 55 kilometres of its road. His order also operates a small, basic hotel (F, EP).
The best beach, two kilometres long, is at Pointe Saline, at the western tip (34 kilometres from Palmiste, two hours by car). This is also the driest part of the island and there is little shade. La Grotte au Bassin, six kilometres east of Palmiste, is a large cave with a 10-metre high precolumbian rock carving of a goddess. There are two other big caves: Trou d’Enfer, near La Rochelle ravine, and La Grotte de la Galerie, one kilometre east of Trou d’Enfer.
The largest historic ruin on the island is a 15-metre high lime kiln (four à chaux), built at the end of the 18th century. Fort de la Roche, 1639, was once Tortuga’s biggest fortress (70 metres high). Its masonry foundations can be seen at a spring where women wash clothes on the hillside above Basse-Terre. Three cannon and a bit of wall remain from Fort d’Ogeron, built in 1667.