Haiti Travel Guide – Paul Clammer

Author Paul Clammer has just released the Bradt Guide to Haiti, the most in-depth travel guide ever published on the country.  He is a close friend of MTB Ayiti, and accompanied us on a scouting trip to the north part of the country.   As the leading authority, we asked him to give our participants a taste of what you will experience during the 5-day cultural immersion experience.

*All participants will receive a complimentary copy of the book

Port au Prince
Some two million Haitians call Port-au-Prince home, and the Haiti Ascent Race starts at its very centre. The wide-open plazas of Champs de Mars form the heart of the city – home to the National Palace (tragically ruined in the earthquake), statues of the four great heroes of the Haitian Revolution, and the iconic sculpture of the Neg Nawon (unknown slave), with his broken chains and conch shell being blown for freedom. Champs de Mars was a large tent city for two years after the earthquake, but has now been cleared. Although this area contains many badly-damaged buildings, contrary to popular expectations, Port-au-Prince isn’t one big rubble pile, and everywhere you like life continues as it always has.

Port-au-Prince sits in a wide bay at the foot of the mountains, and from the relative flat of the downtown area, all roads lead uphill – and the challenge of the race really begins.

Pétionville
High on the slopes above the heart of Port-au-Prince, Pétionville is the city’s upscale suburb. It was once a separate town but has long been swallowed up by the capital’s urban sprawl. It’s where you’ll find Haiti’s best restaurants and shops. Its centre – which the bike ascent will pass through – is Place St. Pierre, with its charming cathedral and park that was home to a large tent camp after the earthquake, but has since been restored to a green space. Opposite is the Kinam Hotel, built in the famous gingerbread style of Haitian architecture; its walls daily turn into an open-air art gallery with bright paintings for sale.

Kenscoff and Furcy
After leaving Pétionville, the road heads sharply into the mountains, winding through the towns of Kenscoff and Furcy. The cooler climate and rich soil of the area make for amazingly productive agricultural land – even the steepest slopes seem heavily planted with onions, carrots, cabbage and other produce, and both towns have important markets, supplying Port-au-Prince with fresh vegetables. As the road climbs higher, the pine trees appear on the landscape for the first time – as well as the evidence of the deforestation that troubles Haiti.

Seguin and La Visite National Park
Furcy is the entry point to La Visite National Park, and the heart of the Massif La Selle mountain range. In every direction you’re surrounded by dramatic ridges and ravines in dusty reds and rich greens, like so many folds in a uncrumpled ball of paper. If you’re looking for a literal representation of the Haitian proverb Dèyè mon gen mon (‘Beyond the mountains there are more mountains’), La Visite is the place. The paths are mostly too tough or narrow for motor vehicles, but you’ll frequently be sharing the route with locals heading to and from market on foot. Most of the route is uphill, and is the toughest part of the course.

Much of the landscape has sadly been cleared of its original pine trees, but at Seguin the forest is not only largely intact, but there are active reforestation programs underway to further protect the landscape and its important watersheds. From Seguin, the ascent race finally becomes a descent, as the route begins to head down towards the Caribbean sea. Look out in particular for the jagged kraze dan (broken teeth) limestone formations that poke out of the landscape.

Jacmel
The final leg of the race follows the stunning Caribbean coast towards Jacmel, arriving just in time for its famous Carnival celebrations. The town was an important coffee port, and its historic centre is full of old trading houses with high balconies and wide verandas, somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans.
Jacmel confidently claims the best spectacle in the nation’s Carnival celebrations.

The town is famous as an artists’ centre, and much work goes into producing the huge papier-mâché sculptures that form the centre piece of its parade, which takes several hours to pass. Anything and everything seems to be on show here, from colourful birds, dragons and giant rum bottles, to figures from the Bible and Haitian history. Weirder yet are the street theatre troupes, like the devils with wooden bat wings that clack together, and the body builders covered in sugar syrup, charcoal and oil, who threaten to capture people from the crowds with their ropes. The procession typically starts in the middle of the day and goes on until nearly dusk, at which point the sound systems take over and the whole town parties until dawn. It’s a joyful, rum-fuelled celebration, and an undoubted highlight of any trip to Haiti.

 

For more information on the Bradt Guide to Haiti, visit the book’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/haititravelguide, or order it direct at http://www.bradtguides.com/Book/578/Haiti.htm

*All participants will receive a complimentary copy of the book