SIGHTSEEING IN CAP
Walking around Cap Haitian is wonderful, especially after living in Port-au-Prince, where you take your life in your hands anytime you want to go for a stroll. The historic district of Cap Haitian doesn’t have much traffic, there are well-kept sidewalks, and people are very friendly. You don’t have to worry about falling into potholes, so you are free to look up and enjoy the historic architecture that dates back to the 19th century. And my favorite part of Cap is how easy it is to orient yourself. It’s like Manhattan except even easier: all streets parallel to the sea are called A, B, C, D… and all streets perpendicular to it are named 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…. Then again, I recently learned that the street names are a vestige of the American occupation, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, so maybe I’m not as big of fan anymore.
Within Cap Haitian, don’t miss the beautiful historic market building, sadly with a filthy market inside, the very Spanish-colonial cathedral square, and a series of little plazas with benches and trees that seem straight out of small town France.
SIGHTSEEING NEAR CAP
Just outside of Cap Haitian are the Citadel and Sans Souci Palace, two of the most famous tourist and historic sites in the country. They were built by Henri Christophe, a former slave and a key leader during the Haitian revolution. After Haiti declared its independence in 1804, he and the other surviving leader Alexandre Pétion divided the nation in two. Shortly afterwards, Henri Christophe, who was president of the northern half, declared himself king. He also created the policy of “corvée,” or forced labor, which enabled him to build a network of forts and chateaux in a semi-paranoid attempt to fend off a future attack from the French.
Sans Souci, completed in 1913, was his primary palace, where he held opulent feasts and dances. It had immense gardens, artificial springs, and a system of waterworks, and was dubbed the “Versailles of the Caribbean.” Its gradior was intended to prove to Europeans the abilities and culture of the black people. One of his advisors said that the palace and gardens, “erected by descendants of Africans, show that we have not lost the architectural taste and genius of our ancestors who covered Ethiopia, Egypt, Carthage, and old Spain with their superb monuments.” Sadly it stood only 30 years, as it was reduced to ruins by the 1842 earthquake that also destroyed most of Cap Haitian, including the cathedral, and killed around 10,000 people.
Both Sans Souci and the Citadel are UNESCO world heritage sites. Unfortunately there are no written guides, no brochures to help you orient yourself, and neither site has panels or plaques to give it context and bring it to life, so I have to wonder what real measurable impact the designation by UNESCO has had. There are young men who will offer to serve as guides and accompagny you, but I don’t know how reliable their historic information is. Both sites are about 30 minutes outside of Cap Haitian in a town called Milot. Actually, the Citadel is a few hours hike up from Milot, and you can go up by horseback as well. There’s also a possibility of getting a car or motorcycle to a mid-way point and hike for the rest.
Although Cap Haitian is right on the coast, there are no beaches directly in the city. However, even in cities like Jacmel that do have beaches, they tend to be covered in trash as the waste collection system in Haiti is extremely lacking. If you are hankering for a breath of sea air, take a walk along the Boulevard, a wide road along the waterfront, boasting the abovementioned restaurants Lakay and Coquillage and the hotel Auberge du Picolet.
There is a beach hotel about 20 minutes away called Cormier Plage (+509 3702 0210). It costs $5 to spend the day on their private beach, and staying the night is probably just under $100. The dramatic landscape of wooded hillsides, jagged cliffs, and waves crashing is a a welcome respite from the naked and eroded mountains that overlook the beaches on the Côte des Arcadins an hour north of Port-au-Prince. However I was disappointed with the trash strewn about just to the sides of the little stretch of beach directly in front of the hotel.
Slightly further away are the paradisic beaches of Labadie. To get there, take a motorcycle taxi to the Labadie boat launch, and then a short ferry ride to the village. The taxi is $5, and the ferry 100 gdes. According to a friend, Norm’s Place is a beautiful and serene guesthouse in a restored fort in Labadie, and is a very reasonable $40 a night including breakfast.
There are several beautiful higher end hotels in the $100-150 range, including Auberge du Picolet (+509 2438 6357) and the Hotel du Roi Christophe (+509 3687 8915 / +509 2813 8123). They are both lovely. The former is more of a charming boutique hotel and located on the waterfront. The latter has a spacious courtyard and restaurant, and is in the heart of the historic district.
In addition, there is a cheaper place called COOP Guesthouse (+509 3754 5743 / +509 3790-2810), which has a room with a double bed for $40 and a smaller room with an air mattress for $20. They charge $10 per additional person in each room.
Lakay and Coquillage are right on the Boulevard, which is the road along the seaside. They both have good food at reasonable prices. Coquillage also has a small supermarket on the ground floor in case you need anything last minute. I got the lobster at Coquillage and it was huge and delicious. Lakay has excellent “poulet pays,” which is Haitian chicken (it’s much more flavorful and leaner than American chicken).
The Hotel du Roi Christophe has a reasonably priced breakfast menu. It’s also a nice place to chill with a fresh squeezed chadeque juice after a day of sightseeing.
A taxi from the airport should cost no more than $10. There are at least a dozen waiting outside so if one comes up to you asking for $25, offer him $10 and just walk away if he won’t budge. Believe me within a few seconds he will change his mind.
Inside Cap Haitian, you can walk most anywhere, but motorcycle taxis are a dime a dozen and will get you out to Milot or Labadie for cheap, and back to your hotel from your restaurant if it’s late and you’re not in the mood to walk. I really liked Dieuseul who was reliable and polite and took us everywhere without complaint or last-minute renegotiations (+509 4430 6223). Moto trips inside the city should run you between 25 and 50 gdes.
The cheapest way to get to Milot is to take a moto to the tap-tap station, and then a tap-tap to Milot. It costs 25 gdes per person each way. They can get a bit crowded and they like to blare kompa music, but it’s probably the most typically Haitian thing you will have done on your whole trip! The good thing is that Milot is the last stop, so as long as you get on the right tap-tap, you will go to the right place.
The tourist option for Citadel is to get a car. It will run you about $100 for the day.
Go to Tortugair.com. You can book flights online with a credit card, but you still have too pay for them when you arrive at the airport. The flight takes about 30 minutes. You have to get to the airport at least 30 minutes before (a little more if you are buying the ticket with a credit card). The planes are small, and I’ve been warned that they can be overbooked, so if you are worried about waiting around at the airport then show up with plenty of time. Haiti is not known for smooth travel. When you leave Cap Haitian back to Port-au-Prince, don’t forget to look out your window as you fly over the mountains. You might catch a glimpse of the Citadelle fortress from above, perched atop the highest point on a striking mountain ridge. It’s a breathtaking sight.