Haiti has been rocked by disastrous earthquakes (the most recent in 2010) and beset by political turmoil in the last century, not to mention overshadowed by the nearby likes of Dominican Republic and Jamaica, meaning this half of Hispaniola Island remains largely undeveloped and untrodden.
However, those who do opt to head to this off-the-beaten-track section of the Greater Antilles are in for a real treat.
Soaring fortresses where slaves once stood strong against the colonial forces of Europe still crown the inland mountains; swathes of sugarcane and greenery sweep through the central Plaine de l’Artibonite, while the rugged peaks of the Chaine de la Selle loom nearly 3,000 meters above the Caribbean Sea.
And then – of course – there are the beaches.
These come fringed with coconut gardens and hammock-strung backpacker guesthouses at Jacamel, shimmering and shining and trodden by countless cruisers at Cap-Haitien, and shrouded by great peaks around pretty Chouchou Bay.
Yep, get here before everyone realises that Haiti’s back on the map folks! To get you started here’s our pick of the best things to do:
1. Scale the La Citadelle la Ferriere
Clinging like a great stone limpet to the ridges of Bonnet a L’Eveque mountain a short drive south out of Cap-Haitien, this colossal fortress (one of the largest in the entire Americas in fact) rarely fails to draw a gasp.
It was raised by the Haitian slave rebels in the early years of the 19th century, intended as a visible bulwark against French invasion in the wake of the country’s newfound independence.
Once upon a time the great crenulations and keeps were dotted with nearly 400 cannons, while today the castle is tagged as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It can be reached on an arduous mountain trail that goes for seven miles into the hills from the town of Milot.
2. Get your fix of art and craft at Jacmel
Sat on the south coast just a short drive from the capital at Port-au-Prince, pretty little Jacmel (a tentative addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list no less) is the reigning arts and crafts kingpin of all Haiti.
Boutique galleries and countless local souvenir emporiums line the tight-knit streets, and it’s possible to purchase the likes of multi-coloured fruit bowls carved out of coconut wood, eerie Voodoo-esque trinkets and reggae-flavored headgear.
Jacmel isn’t just about shopping though.
Not when the town’s got such a pretty municipal beach and promenade, fringed with palm trees and dotted with enticing seafood grills smelling of jerk and spices!
3. Go on Voodoo pilgrimage to Saut-d’Eau
Crashing in two mighty streams through the tropical greenery of central Haiti, the Saut-d’Eau are not only famed for their breath-taking natural beauty but also their religious significance.
Held in esteem by both local Voodooists and Catholics, the falls become the focus of a mass pilgrimage each July, when the Our Lady of Carmel festivities take place and Voodoo practitioners come to bathe in the cleansing streams.
The site is a wonder to behold no matter the month though, and offers a prime chance to swim and cool off after hiking through the jungles.
4. Tour the Sans-Souci Palace
Nestled in the northern hills close to the mighty Citadelle la Ferriere, which towers high on the mountaintops above, this crumbling palatial complex was once the home of Henri Christophe, the Haitian king and leader during the wars of independence against the French.
It was built atop an old plantation, mimicking the grandiose styles of European manor houses in a symbolic show of Haitian prowess and superiority.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its great halls and grounds can be toured on trips out of nearby Milot and Cap-Haitien.
Visitors can also see the spot where King Henri committed suicide, supposedly with a silver bullet, in 1820.
5. Hike the Furcy Forest
Adventure travelers heading to Haiti should be sure to make a beeline for the colossal Massif de la Selle, where the legendary Furcy Forest can be found cascading down the ridges and peaks which rise to more than 2,500 meters above the Caribbean Sea.
Famed for their pine forests, wooded trails, and breath-taking panoramas over the roaring waves of the southern coast, these sylvan hills are one of the best places to wax up the walking boots and take to the backcountry.
Popular routes run from the highland towns down to Jacmel, or over the cross-canyon paths to remote and charming Seguin.
6. Taste a famous export at the Barbancourt Distillery
With almost two centuries of trading history, the Barbancourt label is amongst the most iconic in all of Haiti.
Now sold all over the world, this Hispaniolan version of the Caribbean’s most famous liqueur is best sampled in its home: The Barbancourt Distillery in the district of Petionville, Port-au-Prince.
Visits include casual and informative walk-though tours that encompass the brewing rooms and barrel houses, and there’s also plenty of tasting opportunities along the way, not to mention a shop stocked with Barbancourt’s legendary 15-year-old aged rum and other well-known tipples from the brand.
Beware: it’s strong stuff!
7. Unwind in Labadee
Magnet for cruise ships and a favorite of beachcombers, little Labadee is a privately-owned enclave of sand, sea and sun that comes under the Royal Caribbean International banner.
It can be found cut-off form the north coast and Cap-Haitien by a ring of high mountains, separated from the rest of Haiti by a low fence.
Inside the area is where travelers can expect to find a taste of the more traditional Caribbean.
A gorgeous curve of white sand and tropical flower beds and palms all coalesce around the turquoise-blue sea.
Little beach bars bustle with life, and snorkelers bob next to boats along the shore.
Gorgeous? Every inch!
8. Taste that Creole kitchen at Lakay
Set to the sounds of reggaeton and samba (played only by local bands, of course), little Lakay is a charming and earthy eatery in Cap-Haitien that’s famed for its mastery of the Creole kitchen.
Ignore the smattering of Italian pizzas on the menu and go for that spiced chicken or the lobster salad topped with cashews – regional favorites.
Dessert wise there’s a medley of chocolate sundaes and brownies, while fruity cocktails like the in-house pina colada are just the perfect accompaniment to sunset sessions on the seafront seats!
9. Cool off in the Bassin Bleu
Just a short jaunt away from the elegant Victorian mansions and old coffee depots of Jacmel, the Bassin Bleu sits concealed in the rocky hills of Haiti.
Gushing and shooting in jets of water, the cataract is a part of the Petite Riviere that runs through the mountains of the south.
Visitors are limited to just a few tour groups per day, but those who do make the journey can wonder at the glimmering plunge pools, which sparkle a deep night-blue thanks to the curious concoction of dissolved minerals within.
There are also oodles of little grottos and caves to see, and – of course – a chance to swim in the midst of the tropical jungle that looms all around in beds of ferns and orchids!
10. Stroll the Grand Rue Musee d’Art
The so-called Grand Rue Musee d’Art can be found sandwiched in the midst of Port-au-Prince’s urban sprawl by a colossal auto repair shop on one side and a junkyard on the other.
Its grandiose name might suggest something regal and historic, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, Grand Rue is a haphazard and makeshift conglomeration of sculptures and carvings, mechanical figures and art installations made from found materials.
There are human figures created from the gnarled remains of automobile engines.
There are metallic sci-fi productions wrought from axels, and Voodoo effigies with a motorbike edge.
Take a stroll to witness this curious array of homegrown Haitian creativity.
11. Whiz up on local history at the Musee du Pantheon National Haitien
If you only intend on hitting one museum when in Haiti, make it the acclaimed Musee du Pantheon National Haitien.
This large concrete building in Port-au-Prince is topped with white cones and mosaic decorations, and houses the country’s most in-depth collections pertaining to national history.
There are exhibitions dedicated to the native Tainos tribes of the island, rooms that unravel stories of the Spanish and French invasions, and other sections that reveal the plight of Haitian independence in the 1800s.
Two real pulls are the silver gun used by Henri Christophe to commit suicide in 1820, and the anchor from Christopher Columbus’ exploring ship!
12. Explore Fort Jacques
Although smaller than its big brother, the colossal La Citadelle la Ferriere, Fort Jacques remains a striking remnant of the great castle building age of Haiti.
Like its compadre on the hill, it was raised by the nationalist powers of the country to fend of French attack in the first decade of the 19th century.
However, Jacques is shrouded by the forests around Port-au-Prince and is less trodden and less busy than Ferriere.
Visitors can tour the crumbling remains of powder houses and arms depots, see rusting cannons and cannon balls on the bulwarks, and enjoy sweeping panoramas over the country’s central plains.
13. Conquer the Pic la Selle
Clocking up a whopping 2,680 meters above sea level, the Pic la Selle is the highest point in Haiti’s Chaine de la Selle, and one of the highest in the entire Caribbean region to boot.
It looms and towers close to the border with the Dominican Republic, and comes crisscrossed by a series of surprisingly accessible tracks and trekking trails.
The most popular route to the top starts at the town of Mare Rouge, weaves through some thinning pine forests and past a series of rustic little farming hamlets before hitting the summit.
The trip affords sweeping panoramic views over the southern ranges, not to mention the cooling breezes of the Haitian highlands along the way!
14. Grab a bite on Gelee Beach
Gelee Beach (known locally as Les Cayes) is best-known for the rambunctious meringue music festival that erupts between its lawns and beaches each year, drawing in kompas bands and dancers aplenty.
However, the little spot on the southern shore is a real treat no matter the month, largely thanks to the smattering of conch and seafood eateries that ring its sands.
Head down and settle in one of the beachside restaurants where the smells of Creole barbeque and spices issue from the kitchens, and lobster dishes meet mouth-watering breadfruit platters and tonm-tonm on the menus – perfect for the foodies!
15. Haggle around the Marche an Fer
Rising in a mass of red and green iron in the very midst of the Haitian capital, the historic Marche an Fer still pulses with local life and produce throughout the week.
Now considered something of a national symbol, this colossal bazaar was first raised in the 1890s (notice the curious oriental architectural style – the building was originally intended for Cairo, Egypt!). Since then it’s hosted some of the best craft and food stalls on the island.
Head down to haggle your way through Voodoo trinkets and stacks of jackfruit, fresh fish and curious artistic carvings alike!