Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 6, 2014

Jacmel: New Orleans in the Caribbean

Judging from the post about Port-au-Prince, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Haiti’s no place for enjoying character-soaked streets and eye-catching architecture, unless hastily-built cinder block walls strike your fancy.

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Well, Jacmel, a historical coffee trading port on the southern coast, offers a completely different vibe.

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Of course, if you want to enjoy Jacmel, first you’ve gotta get there. Which means a visit to Port-au-Prince’s bus station.

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Honestly, it’s not really all that bad of a place. Just make sure to ask your moto taxi to take you to the exact bus you need to be on, ask about five people to make sure you’re getting on the right/best bus, and get ready to pay double the local price to sit up in the front seat (and make sure to pay the chauffeur directly). Our view out the front of the bus, as we endured long-winded arguments between our bus driver and a host of other people, which seemed to involve us. (Maybe the middleman wanted too big of a cut for our fare? Maybe the middleman didn’t fleece us quite enough? Tough to say.)

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An overloaded taptap on the way our of PaP.

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After an hour or so of sitting and waiting, and a good 45 minutes grinding our way through the potholed suburbs of PaP, we were finally out on the open road.

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Haiti is a lot of things, but it’s definitely NOT spacious. Every inch of land, pavement, bus seat, and storage area is accounted for and used as intensively as imaginable.

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Boxes vs pipes: a race.

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The road eventually turns up into high mountains, and offers spectacular scenery.

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Thank goodness there was scenery, because it sure took a heck of a long time to get to Jacmel. From when we left our hotel in PaP to when we arrived in Jacmel, we were looking at well over 3 hours. This isn’t some crazy distance, either: if Port-au-Prince were Atlanta, Jacmel would be a suburb. It’s 25 miles as the crow flies, downtown-to-downtown. Granted, there’s a lot of winding around in the mountains between the two places, but still…

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Finally, the road sunk down to the coast and we reached the (considerably more sedate) bus station in Jacmel. Not much of a bus station, hoestly–all it really offers is taptaps to and from PaP, the looming capital.

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Worth the journey. Jacmel is awesome.

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Most notably, Jacmel offers an impressive historic district, which, with a little TLC, could rival some of the famous colonial cities throughout Latin America, except with a New Orleans style…

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…and mystifying culture to boot.

The city is famous for its carnival, which occurs a week earlier than the rest of the country’s carnival in order to allow a massive crowd to descend on town from PaP for the party. Descriptions of the experience are so insane that I’m tempted to book a trip to Haiti next February!

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On top of all that, Jacmel has got a pleasant waterfront that’s super accessible–just a few blocks from the center of town. Something of rarity among fragile, colonial cities, which are usually tucked safely inland or have grown awkwardly into major trading ports.

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No, Jacmel’s beach is black-sand and definitely not swimmable, but the waterfront makes a great place to while away time, thanks largely to a major promenade project that established a seawall and expansive walkways (a rarity in this crowded country!).

My only complaint was the lack of any vendors, which deprived us of one of our favorite things about Labadie village a couple years prior (so close, but yet so incredibly far away, on the north coast of the country, 100-odd miles away). The guidebook talked about a beachside cluster of food and drink vendors, which we couldn’t seem to find.

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On the last night there we finally found them. Apparently they were relocated by the beachfront improvement project to the block closest to the polluted river, in an area with a lot more trash and grit. You can see the cleanliness and order of the beachfront area on the left compared with the barren lot set aside for vendors, where we didn’t feel entirely comfortable relaxing into the evening. I’d encourage whoever manages the beachfront to license some food and drink vendors right on the beach–something the Dominican Republic has a lot of success doing. Gringos (or blancs, as the case may be) love that kind of stuff.

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Jacmel’s market, a steel, Belgian-imported affair from the 1800s, in full use.

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The market streets have lots of historic interest to them, but are a lot more trying to tour than the less hectic areas closer to the beach.

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Caroline’s favorite bar resto in town–La Belle Esther–where we had some nice banter with locals. It’s a block north of the main crossroads in town, and far enough from the water that no one expects to find a foreigner there.

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And they happen to serve Haitian dishes more involved than fried chicken with rice and beans–a big plus!

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  1. […] scene reminded me strangely of the gingerbread architecture for which Haiti is […]


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