Battered by natural disasters, poverty, and environmental degradation, Haiti remains proud and unbowed. In the wake of the devastating 2010 Port au Prince earthquake, a nationwide effort is underway to rebuild tourism infrastructure and reintroduce international visitors to this once-popular Caribbean travel destination.
Haiti's rich history includes the most successful slave revolt in the New World, which led directly to the establishment of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804. Jean-Jacques Dessallines, the leader of the revolt, was named emperor of the new nation and ordered construction of a vast fort on atop the Pic Laferrière, near the town of Milot. The sturdy construction survives largely intact and, along with the nearby Sans Souci Palace, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can tour the defensive works and see hundreds of cannons and cannonballs, still seemingly ready for action against an attempt by the French to retake the island. Tours can be arranged out of Milot or with a group like Destination North Haiti.
Located in Milot in northern Haiti (near Cap Hatien), Sans Souci was the most elaborate of the many homes and palaces built by Haiti's first king, Henri Christophe. Seen as a symbol of black power, the opulent palace completed in 1813 was inspired by European designs and played host to elaborate balls attended by foreign dignitaries. However, it was also the place where King Henri killed himself after suffering a stroke, and where his son and heir was murdered during a coup in 1820. The palace was heavily damaged in an earthquake in 1842, but the ruins hint at the past glory of a palace favorably compared to Versailles in its heyday.
Founded in 1698, the southern port city of Jacmel is a time capsule of a town from the turn of the 20th century, with impressive mansions and urban architecture little altered in the past 100-plus years. Many of these buildings have been turned into galleries and workshops by the city's large population of artists and craftspeople; the Hotel Florita is also little-changed since its construction in 1888, yet is the top-rated hotel in all of Haiti. The city's annual Carnival and film festival attract an international crowd, and as one of the safest places in Haiti, Jacmel has been at the forefront of Haiti's tourism revival. The legendary Bassin Bleu waterfall is just outside town and a popular destination for daytrippers.
Massif de la Hotte/Pic Macaya National Park
Named for the second-highest (7,700 feet) mountain in Haiti, Pic Macaya National Park is centered in the Massif de la Hotte mountain range. In a nation that has largely been deforested in the past century, this park in the southwestern part of the country contains one of the few remaining cloud forests in Haiti and provided sanctuary for a wide variety of flowering tropical plants and the world's largest population of endangered species, notably endemic birds and amphibians.
Port au Prince
Port au Prince is Haiti's capital and, for better or worse, most responsible for the public image of Haiti as a tourist destination. Thousands of city residents died in the 2010 earthquake, and rebuilding from that calamity has not yet been completed. Crime is a serious problem in Port au Prince, as well. Yet the city also holds many charms for visitors, such as the National Museum of Haiti, the Musée du Panthéon National Haitien (a tribute to Haiti's national heroes), and the National Museum of Art. The upscale Petionville neighborhood is a hillside sanctuary and home to many of the city's better hotels and restaurants. The historic Iron Market has been rebuilt and is once again a bustling center of commerce in Port au Prince.
Labadee is undoubtedly the place in Haiti seen by more international travelers than any other, thanks to the establishment of a private resort here by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in 1986. Cruise passengers come onshore via a huge concrete pier and can lounge on the beach, ride waterslides or snorkel in the ocean, do activities like ziplining, or shop from (carefully vetted) local merchants. But, they cannot leave the property to explore elsewhere in Haiti, and nor are most ordinary Haitians allowed in.
Founded in Port au Prince in 1862, the double-distilled Barbancourt Rum is world-famous and possibly Haiti's most prominent export. The estate where the sugar cane is grown and the rum is distilled is now located about 10 miles outside the city in the town of Damiens; it's open to visitors Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for tours and tastings, and you can buy their aged and reserve rums at bargain prices here.
Located on Haiti's north coast, Cap Hatien was not only the first capital of French Haiti but also the government seat for the Kingdom of Northern Haiti, led by King Henri Christophe, the country's first independent leader. The city is home to many historic French colonial buildings, including the restored Cathedral Notre Dame. The beaches of Labadee and the National History Park are both nearby.