As part of his famous 1492 expedition, Christopher Colombus landed on an island he christened Hispaniola in tribute to his expedition’s sponsors. This island became an important staging point for the Spanish Colonial mission in South America, and hundreds of thousands of African Slaves were imported to work on its mines. The Spanish activity became concentrated in the east of the island, and the west attracted the interest of French colonialists, who eventually claimed it in 1697. The island of Hispaniola thus was separated in to the Spanish west, which today is the Dominican Republic, and the French west, which is Haiti.
The island is a historical and cultural pivot. It was the first black country to throw off it’s European slave masters and claim independence, which it did in 1804. This was history’s only successful large-scale slave revolt. This revolution acted as a catalyst for the independence of other parts of the Caribbean and South America, and the ideas of liberty spread through the enslaved peoples of the world.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the Haitan people’s troubles. The 200 years of government since independence have been interspersed with corrupt presidencies, intervention from the USA, and a succession of military coups, the last of which deposed President Aristide in 2004. A UN stabilisation force is still present in the country, and it is worth checking the Foreign Office travel guidelines to see how the situation stands before your visit.
This political instability, coupled with the poverty of the island, has deterred tourists who favour the safer Caribbean islands. However, there is a great deal to be discovered by the adventurous traveller, including the fascinating art, music and religion of the Creole people, and some areas of outstanding natural beauty.
As a result of the occupation, French is one of the official languages if Haiti, but you will find it more useful to learn a few phrases of Creole, the lingua franca. Some English is spoken in Port Au Prince, the capital.
Wi – YesNon - NoBonjou - Good morningBonswa - Good afternoonMesi- Thanks Souple - PleaseAnmwe! - Help!Eskize mwen - Excuse meMwen regret sa - I'm sorry
The Haitan Gourde is the unit of currency. As of 25th October 06, 1 USD buys 40 HTG, 1 GBP buys 75 HTG, and 1 Euro buys 50 HTG. You will find that in Port Au Prince and tourist areas, US dollars are accepted.
Being a tropical island, Haiti is subject to the whims of the seasonal rains. The wet season is between June and October; during this time Hurricane warnings are not uncommon, and the lowland coastal areas may experience flooding. The average temperature is 28 degrees Celsius.
Port Au Prince is the capital city and home to over a million Haitians. It was founded by the French in 1742, and the French influence on the city’s architecture is still obvious, especially in the National Palace and the Basilica of Notre Dame. The National Museum contains an interesting set of memorabilia from the country’s turbulent history, including the pistol that King Chritophe shot himself with during one of the island’s mainly military coups, and the anchor from Colombus’s flagship, the Santa Maria.
Petionville is a district of Port Au Prince that has managed to isolate itself from the violent unrest that plagues the rest of the city. It contains the popular Hotel Oloffson, which was originally a presidential home, but now attracts the more moneyed visitors to Port Au Prince. It offers luxuries not found elsewhere in Haiti, such as satin bed sheets and a personal masseuse. The district also contains a set of good quality restaurants and bars.
Cap Haitien is one of the most popular areas for visitors to Haiti. This is where Colombus celebrated his first Christmas in the Caribbean, and became a favourite town for the explorer. Although it is fairly small, with a population of around 100,000, there is a great deal of culture, including colonial buildings such as the Cathderal du Cap, and many small art galleries. This is one of Haiti’s most picturesque and peaceful towns, and is seemingly removed from the political troubles in the rest of the country.
Cormeir and Labadie beaches are close by, and are some of Hispaniola’s most beautiful. They have white sand and clear water, and are excellent spots to try scuba diving or snorkelling. You can hire equipment and tutelage cheaply.
Port Au Prince frequently experiences massive traffic jams, known locally as blockus, which may last for hours. If you are lucky enough to get moving, look out for stray pedestrians, livestock and street merchants. There is no pavement at the side of the road, so you are likely to experience all kinds of traffic, not just vehicles. Outside of the towns, you are unlikely to come across any paved road. The dirt tracks are likely to be full of potholes, barely signposted and during the summer months, waterlogged. A 4x4 would come in useful at this time.
Food and Drink
Haitian Creole food is definitely worth investigating. It blends African methods with flavours from the French palette, to great effect. A national dish called Kibrit is roasted goat served with rice and raisins. Another national dish that you won’t find outside Haiti is Rice Djon Djon. The stems of a locally grown mushroom are blended with the rice, which turns black. The cap of the mushroom is combined with lentils to make the sauce.
The countries selection of fruit groves means that you are never far from a refreshing glass of tropical fruit juice, whether it is made with guava, mango or pineapple.
Tourist InfoCaribbean Tourism Organisation in the UK22 The Quadrant, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1BP, UK
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