Haiti occupies around a third of Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean, sharing it with the prosperous Dominican Republic, just some of the reasons that the country hasn’t quite made it onto the tourist map.
As a result it retains a unique culture almost a different continent with a glorious coastline the largest fortress in the Americas and the vibrant capital of Port au Prince completely recovered.
I leave Dajabón in the Dominican Republic and cross the Massacre River to Ouanaminthe in Haiti, on the other side. It’s chaotic as it’s market day here – Haitians grabbing a bargain on the DR side, queues of ramshackle pickups piled high with sacks of rice, chickens and chairs on the bridge. I keep my hand on my wallet and hang on to my belongings. Fortunately I have a guide who helps me with the formalities and smooths my crossing.
Compared to the Dominican Republic, it’s like going back in time. The 90-minute drive North West passes through flat lands, populated by sparse shrub, with bags of charcoal by the side of the road. I can’t believe the number of makeshift wooden shacks running their own private lotteries, and there are certainly more of them than the small stalls selling baskets of fruit.
I’m soon by the sea in Cap-Haitien, originally Cap-Francais, and the second largest city in Haiti. Apart from the plastic garbage littering the beach, it’s an attractive place, stuffed with colourful late 19th century buildings, all balconies and tall shuttered doors in the colonial style. Motorbike taxis ply the narrow streets and kids, in their impressive starched uniforms, are just leaving school.
The Place d’Armes, the main square, has the Cathédrale Notre Dame on one side and the de Ville on the other. The Roi Christophe University is in one corner and students are eating their lunch, under the statue of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the hero of the Haitian Revolution. There’s also a memorial to the slave leaders who were executed by the French here in the 18th century.
As I take the coast road out of town, alongside a deeply turquoise sea, I reflect that this has the potential to be one of the world’s great destinations. Security is still a potential problem and the beach needs a clean but it’s a beautiful spot. Cormier Plage, an attractive seafront, has belonged to the same French family for a couple of generations and it makes a good base to explore further.
Next day I set out for the UNESCO World Heritage of the Royal Palace and Citadelle in Milot, around 30km inland. We climb gradually through lush tropical vegetation, on a narrow road which abruptly comes to an end. In front of me are the impressive ruins of the San-Souci Palace.
Henri Christophe, King of North, built this palace and it was designed to impress. He wanted to show foreigners that black people were as civilised as whites. It all ended badly, after suffering a stroke, with his approaching. The palace lay empty until the finished it off.