If Port au Prince provided the buzzing chaos of a capital city, and Kenskoff afforded a sleepy idyllic view of Haitian rural life, Jacmel certainly delivers on the cultural front. As soon as you start walking around the town – which by the way is perfectly safe to do both day and night, you really get the feeling that this is a town with artists and musicians at its heart. In fact I arrived from walking through the mountains into the middle of a buzzing music festival with events spread all over the town.
Apart from the obvious draw of the music festival, I was looking forward to the opportunity to explore an urban area in Haiti that wasn’t smacking me in the face with noise and activity. Like some areas of the capital, there are quite a few buildings in Jacmel that are still teetering from the effects of various natural disasters, with some balconies supported with no more than a single withered timber column. While they are still standing, there is certainly a charm to the buildings in the town, most of them a hangover from french colonial times. It’s the sort of town that’s full of buildings I would love to refurbishment and bring back into use (like these ones).
Thankfully we did meet one man doing just that, a Cuban artist exhibiting his fascinating work on the African celebrations of all saints all souls, in a building he had bought and refurbished. Here in Latin America it is best known as Día de Muertos or day of the dead, where families visit loved ones passed away in cemeteries all over the country. The slight difference here in Haiti, like some parts of Africa, is that the practice of Vodou is still very much alive.
So alive in fact that one evening while strolling around the town we were invited down a dark backstreet to an even darker shack light only by candle light. We were introduced to a Vodou priest who proceeded to give us an in depth lecture on the practices, traditions and ceremonies of Vodou culture. Some of the demons present in the shack included the somewhat infamous dolls, various crosses and powders and finally, the human skull of a past priest kept for special ceremonies. The people here are desperate for tourists to come and see the diversity and uniqueness of Haiti, and the priest was adamant we take photos and videos to share with people and help get the story out that Haiti has more to offer than the stories told of disaster and poverty.
Although there are many in Haiti, the Bassin Bleu on the outskirts of Jacmel is probably the most famous, and the journey to and from was worth the effort alone. For some background, the cost of living in Haiti is low, as you would expect from a country where the average income is less a couple of dollars a day. Accommodation on the other hand is expensive, with not a great deal of tourist infrastructure it can be difficult to find somewhere not asking for more than $50 a day, which on a backpacker budget is scary. Thankfully travelling in a group of three opened up the world of Airbnb which proved to be the best option. So with that in mind we were saving costs wherever possible, resulting in us all getting on the same bike. Although four full grown adults on the back of a bike here is not an uncommon site, trying to drive that bike up ridiculously steep gradients on fragmented roads is hair raising. Huge respect to the the driver who managed to eek out every last horse power at just the right time. Having experienced rains in the last few days the basin itself was less blue and more mauve, but we did find a really nice pool with blue waters and some mammoth spots to jump in from. There are plenty of really peaceful bars in Jacmel and we spent a few hours back in town with a nice cold prestige, enjoying being surrounded by the garden and more local works of art.
A really great town to explore and learn more about the culture, art and music of Haiti. Yes, lots of these cultural offerings are from old colonial french organisations, but most of the work exhibited is by talented Haitians trying to make a name for themselves. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to see more than just the highlights of the country. From here we take the bus to Les Cayes and an onwards boat to the remote Island of Ile a Vache.