Tag: Caribbean (Page 1 of 2)

Why Visit Puerto Rico: 4 Reasons This Island Is Calling Your Name

Why Visit Puerto Rico: More Than San Juan and the Beach

It’s a common theme in all of my Caribbean posts… countries in this region get constantly pigeon-holed by all-inclusive and cruise trips. If these companies had their way, there would be one thing that the Caribbean would be known for, its white sand beaches… because most Caribbean countries have them! This is good for mass tourism business, particularly in the case of cruise ships, because that means that different Caribbean countries won’t be able to negotiate for things like higher entrance fees. You can’t negotiate when you are interchangeable, and tourism can’t help local people if they can’t look out for their own interests. What does this have to do with the question: why visit Puerto Rico?

why visit Puerto Rico

A stream through the mountains near Toro Negro (c) ABR 2018

Because, it’s hardly any different for Puerto Rico. When most people visit they want to see 1-2 of three main things that get marketed for this island over and over again, Old Town San Juan, the beaches, and El Yunque. Now, don’t get me wrong, these are all absolutely worth seeing. San Juan is the most beautiful Caribbean colonial city that I have ever seen. The beaches are sublime, and El Yunque is a tropical, mountainous area that I would dare call magical. But Puerto Rico has SO MUCH more! If you want to experience a good chunk of things to do in Puerto Rico, this is a country deserving of a week or two (or more) of devoted exploration, not just a couple nights tacked on before a cruise ride.

why visit Puerto Rico

The mysterious 191, cut off by a landslide long ago (c) ABR 2018

But instead of listing a bunch of places for you to visit, I’m going to do this, I’m going to give you a bunch of reasons why you need to stay in Puerto Rico (and places like it) for longer than a few hours, or one day, if you have the means to visit the Caribbean. And if you are doing an all-inclusive, go out and meet the locals, experience the real country.

THE LIST

(1) Most people have a lot of misconceptions about Puerto Rico or just don’t know anything about the island and its people at all. Getting out and exploring will give you the opportunity to learn more about this beautiful country and its amazingly strong people.

why visit Puerto Rico

Agricultural tourism has huge potential on Puerto Rico (c) ABR 2018

(2) Every Caribbean island has things on it that you can see nowhere else in the world; things that belong in travel magazines along side of pictures of Thailand, India, and Peru. Puerto Rico has kaarst formations covered in tropical forests that will make you feel like you’re on another planet. Puerto Rico has rivers that run through caves big enough for you to float through. It has verdant mountains that touch the sky. Deserts, places to surf, rare birds, and beaches with tanks left abandoned. I could list a million things that make this island a special place. It’s a shame to not see at least one of these unique things. From the travel perspective, these are the many reasons why visiting Puerto Rico is perfect.

why visit Puerto Rico

Mangroves on the east (c) ABR 2018

(3) You exponentially lessen the good that you can do for communities by traveling when you just stay in high tourist areas, cruise-owned ports, and resorts. There are so many good people in Puerto Rico that are just dying to have the chance to make tourism work for their community. You can make a huge difference in a small community looking to host visitors and share the special things that their home has to offer.

why visit Puerto Rico

Hurricane damage on the coast (c) ABR 2018

(4) Puerto Rican culture is rich and unique and you won’t get a real taste of it from San Juan or an all-inclusive. There is an insane amount of delicious food all over the island. There are little restaurants and kiosks that specialize in succulent tastes that will blow your mind. Dance and music are big in Puerto Rico as well, like the rest of the Caribbean; eat good food and find a place to learn some moves or listen to the beats of the island. There is honestly an endless list of things to do in Puerto Rico.

why visit Puerto Rico

Lechones from the central region of Puerto Rico (c) ABR 2018

If you want to learn more about things to do in Puerto Rico be sure to visit our Guide to Puerto Rico.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Culture of Dominica

The Caribbean gets sold as a single location, especially  by the cruise industry, and this is a major disservice to the region and all its beautiful cultures. Dominica was the first place I ever traveled in the Caribbean, and as a hiker, it is my favorite island so far (although, they are all amazing!). This island nation is special for more than just its natural beauty, however, because its people are warm, artful, and part of a resilient society. Strap in and get ready to learn 10 things about the culture of Dominica that you didn’t know before.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

Dominican Culture and History

(1) Most people in Dominica are Roman Catholic, and a small number of people also have a unique set of beliefs called Obeah that is a mix of African, European, and Kalinago traditions.

(2) The national dress of Dominica is called wob dwiyet. Women primarily wear this during celebrations, and includes a colorful scarf worn on the head. The dress itself has a white, collared shirt with beautiful embroidery as decoration.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

(3) Dominica is serious about taking Sunday off. Almost everything on the island is closed on Sunday except for hotels. If you need to go grocery shopping for the weekend, be sure to go on Saturday, but go in knowing that the lines will be out of this world. The longest grocery lines I have ever seen were in Dominica.

(4) Dominica is home to one of the large medical schools that US and Caribbean students alike attend. Traditional remedies are also still practiced by a few. These address the presence of evil spirits, called jombies, and makes use of medicinal plants.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

(5) Dominica was passed between France and Britain for a long time, and this struggle is evident in the mix of French and English names on the island. Shortly after Britain abolished slavery in 1834, Dominica was the first of its territories to have a black legislature. It goes without saying that African traditions and resilience have played a key role in the unique character and culture of Dominica.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

Kalinago Culture and History

(1) The Kalinago people once lived throughout the Caribbean, but retreated to Dominica when European colonization and war decimated their population. The mountains of Dominica protected them from the colonists for a long time and the island is now home to the world’s last community of Kalinago people. Although native cultures aren’t often acknowledged in outside materials about the Caribbean, the culture of Dominica and the region were founded on their civilizations.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

(2) The Kalinago people make up a little less than 1% of Dominica’s population, but they have their own region of the island. They offer some very genuine tourism experiences, as well as traditional handicrafts.

(3) Kalinago society was far more egalitarian than European culture. Women held as much power as men, and although both genders did different work within their civilization. In the past, they were governed by a chief, but they now have a council that helps run their communities.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

(4) The traditional Kalinago religion held the volcanic peaks of the Caribbean to be the source of life for the islands of the region. The people created statues out of stone and conch shells which were called zemis and represented the peaks. Volcanic peaks are, in fact, the heart of these islands, having formed them. The Kalinago people also believed that it was essential to maintain the balance between good and evil in the world, and maintain the close relationship between humans and nature.

(5) The Kalinago people were expert navigators on the water and originally colonized the Caribbean from the Orinoco River Basin of South America. They were also powerful warriors that fought against the Taino people that had built a civilization in the Caribbean before the Kalinago arrived. They also fought valiantly against European colonists, but they were greatly disadvantaged by smallpox and other “old world” diseases.

culture of Dominica

(c) ABR 2014

Learn More About Kalinago Culture

Experts on Kalinago Culture:

Karina Cultural Group

Karifuna Cultural Group

Lennox Honychurch

List of References for Further Reading

Chances for Travelers to Learn More From the Kalinago People:

Kalinago Homestay Programme

Experiential Learning

– Living Village Experience at Touna Kalinago Heritage Village

For more information on travel in Dominica, be sure to read through our guide.

Top 10 Things to Do in Haiti

  1. Le Citadelle
Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

This is the landmark that I wanted to see most in Haiti, and it was everything I hoped that it would be. Le Citadelle is the massive fort that was built overlooking Cap-Haitien by the Haitian army after France was defeated. It was meant to protect the north from any attempt by the French to take back the colony, but such an attack never came. Now Le Citadelle is a UNESCO World Heritage open for visitors to learn about the history and heritage of the Haitian people. In order to tour the fortress, you first need to hike or ride a mule up a steep, cobblestone path. People with mules will follow you up the trail if you opt to hike, just in case you get tired, but it is just fine to keep going on foot. The fortress itself is well worth the struggle up the hill, for those of you uncertain about hiking, and the views of the verdant, surrounding mountains definitely add to the appeal.

  1. San Souci Palace
San Souci Palace (c) ABR 2016

San Souci Palace (c) ABR 2016

San Souci Palace is just down the mountain from Le Citadelle, and it is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. However, this beautiful ruin wasn’t as developed or crowded as the fortress. Here, we were guided through the building by a guide from the nearby town, and the only other people there were a couple locals enjoying the views and shade of the high walls. We learned that San Souci Palace was the home of Henri Christophe, also known as King Henri I, after the country won its independence from France. When it was built, San Souci was said to rival Versailles, and after seeing Le Citadelle, I could imagine that this was true. Much like the fortress, this site tells an important story about the history of this often misunderstood Caribbean country.

  1. Grotto Marie-Jeanne
Grotto Marie-Jeanne (c) ABR 2016

Grotto Marie-Jeanne (c) ABR 2016

Ever since I first visited Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, I have been in love with caves, and so far, I have had the opportunity to visit some in almost every country that I have visited. Haiti was no exception, thanks to the itinerary that Tour Haiti put together, and the cavern that we visited was Grotto Marie-Jeanne west of Port Salut. This cave was not well developed compared to some others that I have visited, but that was honestly something that I found very attractive about it. One half of the cave was easily accessible to the whole tour group via some stone steps. The other part of the cave required that we crawl through some narrow spaces, and carefully climb down some steep and slippery inclines. I would only suggest this for people that are good hikers and sure on their feet, but it was really cool. It was a true caving experience, even though it was not technical, so that was quite unique.

  1. Bassin Bleu
Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016

Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016

Bassin Bleu is one of the most popular, natural attractions in Haiti, and it is essentially a waterfall and a deep, stone swimming hole. Getting here is difficult, as the road to the trailhead passes through the river, and is quite steep. There is also a bit of a hike from the parking area to Bassin Bleu, which isn’t all that difficult for hikers, but might be hard for people not used it. The walk is quite beautiful, however. There are several pools below Bassin Bleu, as well as the river, which you cross on the walk there. Bleu itself, as its name suggests, has blue water, and it is deep enough to jump from the rocks into the water (but follow guide instructions for safety). There is also a lovely waterfall here that has a little nook behind it, where you can relax and enjoy this little, tropical oasis. It is a bit busy here, however, so it is good to go as early as you can.

  1. Beaches (Cap-Haitien, Jacmel-area, and Port Salut)
Coast near Cap-Haitien (c) ABR 2016

Coast near Cap-Haitien (c) ABR 2016

The Caribbean is known for its beaches, and Haiti is no exception, so it only makes sense to experience some of the country’s coasts. My favorite beach was north of Cap-Haitian, because it was very unique. The sand was dark here, and there were cacti growing on the coast; it was unlike any other beach that I have seen in the region. Alternatively, the beaches of Port Salut were nice, white sand that was fun to stroll along. Sadly, this area was hit quite hard by the recent hurricane, so I am not sure what the current state of this place was. However, there are many beautiful beaches in Haiti for the ocean-lover.

  1. The Observatoire
The view of Port-au-Prince from the Observatoire (c) ABR 2016

The view of Port-au-Prince from the Observatoire (c) ABR 2016

In the mountains above Port-au-Prince is a little bar that sits on the one of the best views of the city that you can get as a tourist. Catching a sunset here should be a priority if you are spending any time in Port-au-Prince. This viewpoint reveals the city’s beautiful side, and getting to see the surrounding mountains and the coast all at once really paints the perfect picture of just what a dynamic area Port-au-Prince sits in. The drive up here is beautiful, if steep and sometimes crowded, and the restaurant itself is a wonderful place to relax in the open air and take it all in.

  1. Jacmel
Jacmel (c) ABR 2016

Jacmel (c) ABR 2016

This little coastal town is a well-known tourist destination in Haiti. Besides its historic marketplace near the port, the mosaic along the shore is a common sight in pictures of the town. However, a good guide will show you the city’s other works of art as well. There are mosaics all over the city, and all but the one on the beach were done by the town’s own artists, many of them children. Jacmel is also the perfect place to buy paper mache, which is a true art form in Haiti. When I initially heard about it, I was imagining that stuff we all made in elementary school, but this is some real sturdy and beautiful paper mache, a must-buy in Haiti.

  1. Explore Port-au-Prince
The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016

The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016

This is low down on my list, just above two things that I wanted to do, but wasn’t able to, because Port-au-Prince actually kind of scares me. I have just heard so many bad things about this city through the media, and through some of my contacts in Haiti as well. That being said, I’m not sure a trip to Haiti would be complete without seeing some of the capital, and if you go with a good guide, it is no problem. The iron market in Port-au-Prince is really amazing, and has been rebuilt since the earthquake; it is also a great place to pick up souvenirs. Hotel Olofson is a wonderful stop, because of its historic and beautiful architecture, and Petion-Ville has some nice restaurants and bars to check out as well.

  1. Ile-a-Vache

I haven’t actually been to this location (or the next), but if I ever had the chance to travel back to Haiti, this is one of the places that would be at the top of my list of places to see. Ile-a-Vache is a small island off of the southern coast of Haiti, which is known for its pristine beaches. Based on what I have heard, I actually think that this may be one of the most untouched coastal areas of the Caribbean, but that is changing rapidly. Resorts and cruise ships have set their sights on this little slice of paradise, so if you visit here in the future, please be sure to support local people- find out what hotels and restaurants are owned by Haitians (and are safe) and give them a try. Anything owned by a large company is almost guaranteed to send most of your money out of the country.

For more information on this stop, check out Nerdy Nomad’s Post on Ile-a-Vache

  1. Pic la Selle: The Highest Peak in Haiti

Hiking is probably my favorite thing, period. So, while I had an amazing time in Haiti, I really missed it. Some of my fellows on the tour that I took to explore the country would consider the walk up to Le Citadelle to be a hike, but it was paved and it wasn’t all that long of a walk. So, for people like me, I would suggest trying something a little harder. Here I have listed Pic la Selle, the highest mountain in Haiti, because I love bagging high points (but I am no mountaineer). That being said, this isn’t actually a hike that I have done, and I am sure that there are alternative options for hiking in Haiti as well. I am listing some resources below for further info:

Summit Post Entry on Pic la Selle

Trekking in Haiti

Adventuring in Haiti: A Photo Essay

 

As I have mentioned previously, Haiti has alot of bad press that it really doesn’t deserve. I think one of the best ways to share the reality of traveling to this amazing country is through photos, so I wanted to try my hand at a photo essay covering my journey to and from the Land of Many Mountains.

 

img_2120-copyThis is me when I first got to Haiti. The bus ride was so stressful, but the hotel in Port-au-Prince was a little paradise, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually there, in the country I had read about for so long.

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My first dinner in Haiti. This fish was unbelievable; and the plantains were the best I have ever had.

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The tiny plane that we took to Cap-Haitien. I love tiny planes.

Port-au-Prince from the air (c) ABR 2016

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My first introduction to Cap-Haitien, and the realization that Haiti has so much to offer, if only the government services and infrastructure were improved for the locals.

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Once known as the Venice of the Caribbean, Cap-Haitien has lost some of its flare, but there was still something elegant and beautiful about the way it stretched over the hills.

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There was intricate art everywhere in Cap-Haitien (and all around Haiti).

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You rarely see pictures of Haiti’s beaches, but they are just as much “paradise” as anywhere else in the Caribbean.

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Of course, there were reality checks while we were there. Unfortunately, Haiti’s government wasn’t taking care of the trash in Cap-Haitien. The Haitian people deserve better, and so does their lovely country.

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I had dreamed about seeing Le Citadelle ever since I read about it, and there it was, standing watch over the coast from out of the mist.

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Few people ever mention that Haiti is home to come of the most spectacular historic structures in the region. Here is San Souci Palace; its beauty once rivaled Versailles. Personally, I think it maintains its mystique and charm.

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Some of the best rum in the world comes from Haiti, and much of it in small places similar to this.

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This beautiful mosaic was made by the local kids!

 

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A post office in Jacmel!

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Bassin Bleu! One of the top attractions in the Land of Many Mountains. It did get busy here, so I had to snap this picture from around the corner before people jumped in.

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Heading out from Bassin Bleu, we had to drive through the river, following the precise directions of our guide. Unfortunately, Creole and Spanish are similar in that their terms for “right” and “straight” sound alike.

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The gate protecting the Grotto of Marie-Jeanne.

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Climbing down into the cavern. Alot of caves on Hispanola have openings like this one.

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The menu at a Haitian fast food restaurant in Port-au-Prince, complete with an add for the national beer, Prestige.

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I captured this beautiful scene in Port-au-Prince from inside a gallery that we visited on our last day.

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The beautiful Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. Supposedly, this is called gingerbread architecture- I’ll buy it.

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The city from the observatoire in Port-au-Prince.

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Driving back over the border into the Dominican Republic; these pictures stress me out because I hated the border so much.

Good-bye, Haiti!
Note: All pictures above (c) ABR (Nightborn Travels), please do not use without permission.

Tips for Travel To and Through Haiti

haiti_blog_2

Getting There

There are three obvious ways to get to Haiti, by cruise, by air, and by bus from the Dominican Republic. More and more tourists are coming to Haiti via cruise, and I am not 100% supportive of this mode of travel, due to the behavior of many cruise companies. If this is the only way that you can visit Haiti, any support and good experiences are better than none, but just be aware that most, if not all of the money you spend will stay with the foreign company that owns the line.

First view of Haiti on the bus ride to Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016

First view of Haiti on the bus ride to Port-au-Prince (c) ABR 2016

Since I was living in the Dominican Republic for the summer, I opted for the bus route from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince because it was very affordable (only $70.00 USD round trip when I went in the summer of 2016 with Capital Coach Line). The ride from one city to the other took about 7-8 hours, and there were trips that left either 2-3 times a day. The buses are also not what comes to most people’s mind when I tell them that I did this; they are standard public touring bases, with AC, nice seats, and even movies that play. While you are riding in relative luxury, however, this can be a stressful way to travel, because getting through the border is no walk in the park, especially if your Spanish or Haitian Creole isn’t all that good. If you do travel this way, expect to be stopped on both sides. From Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince, you will get out on the DR side without your luggage and get your passport examined, and on the Haiti side they may or may not examine your baggage and they will need to stamp your passport. From Port-au-Prince you will need to get your bag and passport checked on both sides. It is likely that the bus company will collect your passport from you before you leave, so you will get it back during this time.

The being said do NOT give your passport to ANYONE except the bus company employees or the officials behind the passport windows. There are people that will insist on seeing your passport on the way up to the windows, and they may even flash forms at you to confuse you into thinking that you don’t have what you need. But if your bus line didn’t give it to you, you don’t need it, and if you do, let the official at the window tell you. You never want to let anyone get a hold of your documents. You will also have people try to take your bags from you. For the most part, they are not trying to steal from you, and just want to make money by carrying things for you, but I would suggest not allowing them to take anything from you. I just sternly told people no and kept my bag close, and that worked well enough. If you struggle with anxiety, I might suggest another route into Haiti, but I can say from experience that this is do-able, and I think that the bus-line that I went with knew what they were doing.

Getting Around in Haiti

The drive to Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016

The drive to Bassin Bleu (c) ABR 2016

Before I left for Haiti, I saw a lot of discussions about renting cars on Tripadvisor. While I love roadtrips and really enjoy driving in other countries, I would NOT suggest getting your own car. There are very few clear street signs or lights in Haiti, and the roads can be in sub-par condition. There was even one instance in which I thought there might have been people trying to build a roadblock on the highway, and we had a day where we got two flat tires in a row. The driver that we had on our tour, as well as the taxi driver that I had in Port-au-Prince, knew how to deal with all of these things in a safe and confident manner. Furthermore, you are supporting legitimate business in Haiti by hiring a driver, so it is good for your own sanity and good for the hard working people of this little country.

Port-au-Prince from the air (c) ABR 2016

Port-au-Prince from the air (c) ABR 2016

Besides driving, we also took a plane from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien, so while I don’t have experience with Port-au-Prince’s major airport, I can say a few things about flying here. First of all, if you fly into the country, expect to have people trying to grab your bags from you at the airport. Again, it is likely that they are just trying to get some money for carrying your things, but be wary. I would highly suggest flying in-country especially if you want to see the north and south of Haiti. The smaller airports aren’t stressful at all, and seeing the country from the air is really lovely. Just know that you don’t have assigned seats on in-country flights, even though your ticket will have a number. Just sit where-ever you can find space.

Quick Note About Haitian Currency

I had a hell of a time trying to get Haitian gourdes. My bank wouldn’t order any for me ahead of time, and the Miami airport had none available for exchange when I was there (not sure if they had just run out or what). People do take USD is many places in Haiti, but it is overall easier to use the national currency. I would highly suggest that you do try the above two options just to see if they will work for you, but they may not. So, travel to Haiti will small USD bills, that you can trade at the airport in Haiti (some larger hotels might also be able to help you, but don’t count on it if possible), or for use while traveling. 1s, 5s, and 10s are preferable because if you have to use your USD you will want to tip people, and buy snacks and drinks and this will be nearly impossible with big bills. I was also warned by a friend’s family from Haiti to avoid trying to get money from the bank. As a foreigner, it will be obvious what you are doing and it might make you a target.

Check out Tour Haiti and Port-au-Prince Taxi and Tours for resources for travel to Haiti.

Also, since I am in the middle of writing about Haiti, here are two links for some great organizations that you can donate to if you would like to help the Haitian people.

100k Jobs in Haiti

Konbit Mizik

Have any other tips on traveling to Haiti? Or questions about my experience? Comment below!

True Haiti: Truth and Lies about The Land of High Mountains

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Before I started my PhD, and started to learn more about the Caribbean and its many, colorful nations, I didn’t know much about Haiti. For the most part, American media focused on negative aspects of the country that shares the island of Hispanola with the Dominican Republic. I knew about the earthquake there, which shattered Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and brought the world, or so I thought, to their aid. Besides poverty and natural disasters, my time as an ecology student also taught me that Haiti had major problems with deforestation since they were said to only have 2% of their forests left (in reality this is likely to be closer to 20%). These weren’t fair depictions of the True Haiti, however.

A Fascinating History

Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

Le Citadelle, Haiti (c) ABR 2016

When I began my research, I started reading more about the history of Haiti. In 1803, the country’s people (many of whom were enslaved) freed themselves from France. Haiti was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to do so, and it has a proud heritage of freedom and resilience. The massive fortress of Le Citadelle is a testament to the perseverance of the Haitian people. And while most still associate the French language with Haiti, it is really Haitian Creole, a language unique to the country, that most people speak (although many Haitian’s speak two or more languages).

Religion in Haiti

Another special aspect of true Haiti is the religion of Vodou (or Voodoo). Although many American movies have painted Vodou as a form of witchcraft with curses, Voodoo dolls, and even zombies, doing some reading on the topic reveals that this is a gross misrepresentation of the religion. In fact, Vodou is a mix of European, African, and native beliefs. Practitioners believe in a single, creator god or the Good God, who is sometimes seen as sharing an identity with the Roman Catholic deity. Like many religions in Africa, particularly on the Guinea Coast where many of the people brought to Haiti as slaves came from, Vodou holds that there are many spirits, good and bad. These spirits are more involved in the lives of regular people than the Good God, and the primary ones among them are often associated with Catholic saints. Like any religion, it has good and bad, as a reflection of humans themselves, but it is not the boogie monster that movies make it out to be.

The coast (c) ABR 2016

The coast (c) ABR 2016

Learning On the Go

Of course, without visiting a place, it is hard to really get a sense for what it’s like. So, when I had the opportunity, I took a tour of the country to learn more. I picked up a few interesting things, although this merely scratches the surface of true Haiti.

To outsiders, Haitian people often seem straight-faced and serious until you smile at them. Being friendly,  genuine, and respectful is the way to see how kind the people of Haiti really are. They are also just as resilient as their ancestors, finding ways to survive and thrive even while the rest of the world seems to work against them. Many of them are artists, capturing beauty in unique ways that can’t be found anywhere else. Their food reflects their creativity, rich in flavor and hearty in nature (and their plantains are superior to the Dominican Republic recipe, I had to say it!).

true haitiFinally, I discovered that the misinformation about Haiti can haunt you if you decide to travel to this Caribbean nation. Before I left, I made my mother very nervous by discussing my trip there, and when I arrived, there were people that scoffed at me for my decision. Even now that I have returned home, people are incensed by the idea that I went there just to explore. But the key to seeing Haiti safely is going with a tour company or someone who knows how to drive, respect local customs, and stay safe in the country. Other than that, true Haiti is a place rich in history and culture, and well-deserving of the attentions of adventurous travelers.

Safety and Respectful Travel Tips

true haiti(1) Do not attempt to drive yourself in Haiti; hire a driver. Visitors will have no idea what the traffic rules are, and local drivers/guides are better equipped for the road conditions.

(2) Be aware of volatile areas (especially in Port-au-Prince) and stay away from them. Again, going with a guide will make this much easier and safer.

(3) Do NOT take pictures of people without their permission. This is a general rule of thumb, but often visitors seem to forget this when visiting Haiti. No one wants their picture taken without their knowledge. If you do ask, be prepared to offer a little money.

(4) While tempting, try not to give money to people begging. It is far better to support Haitian businesses by buying food at local restaurants, buying arts and handicrafts from artisans, staying in hotels run by local people, and supporting local guides. Bring your business and a better image to Haiti. There are so many amazing, talented, innovative people there, looking for the resources to support their career and their country.

true haiti(5) Learn a few words in Haitian Creole. French may be the language of the cities, but everyone knows Haitian Creole and its the really heart and soul of true Haiti.

(6) Go with the right attitude. Haiti is not an easy place to go, and you will see hard things, but remember, everyone already knows about Haiti’s struggles. Look for the story few people are telling, and see the potential in this country. It’s time to shine a light on all the good things that Haitians are doing to build their country up.

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Dominica and Hurricane Erika: Help Needed

Scott's Head (c) AB Raschke

Scott’s Head (c) AB Raschke

I just want to pause the normal programming here, and alert everyone to the fact that Dominica was hit very hard by Hurricane Erika at the end of August. This would be a tragedy anywhere, but Dominica has a very small economy, and it will be quite a challenge for them to repair all of the damage that has been done. Besides the infrastructural destruction that has been done, at least 20 people are known to be dead from the storm as of September 7th, as I write this. More are missing. The people of Dominica are suffering from the sorrow of lost loved ones, the destruction of their homes, and changed landscapes that may never be the same again. It will be a lasting scar for this little country that so few American’s know about.

We can’t help heal the emotional trauma that this disaster has imparted on Dominicans, but we can help with the relief effort. If you have the means, please consider donating to a reputable organization like the Red Cross in Dominica (link here for donating). If you don’t have the means, please help raise awareness for Dominica- not only for the disaster itself, but for this island as a travel destination as well. As mentioned in one of my links below, it would be a very hard hit for Dominca’s tourism industry to collapse due to the storm. I have several blog entries about this little island paradise for anyone interested (Morne Trios Piton, Roseau). It would be great for us to support our neighbor in any way that we can.

Here are some links with information on the storm and the aftermath in Dominica for anyone interested in learning more:

Dominica Asks for Aid

Dominica is Down But Not Out After Erika

Dominica and Hurricane Erika

 

El Yunque Y San Juan!

There are two big attractions in Puerto Rico that I knew about long before I got there- Old San Juan, and El Yunque, representing the rich history and natural beauty that La Isla del Encanto has in spades. For anyone staying in San Juan, they are both very accessible as well, since El Yunque is only about an hour away and there are plenty of tours to get you there if you don’t have a car. Both are expansive enough to spend an entire day, depending on what you like doing, so research both and plan accordingly.

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Castillo del San Felipe del Morro (c) AB Raschke

Old San Juan is home to two major forts that are part of the US National Park system- Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal (as well as Fort San Juan de Cruz across the bay). These were our first stops during our visit to the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. It can be a little tricky to find parking in this area, so I would highly suggest trying to get there a little early in the day. Also, if you park in a parking garage and happen to come out and find a car parked behind yours, just look for a parking attendant. They really make good use of all the space they have in those parking structures, but from what I saw, I don’t think they will leave you penned in by other parked cars. Both of the main forts are covered by a single ticket, and have a tram that runs between them and into the city for anyone who needs a lift.

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Casa Blanca (c) AB Raschke

While I am not a huge history buff myself, both Castillos were so well maintained, expansive, and all-encompassing that I really found myself feeling like I had been teleported back in time. This is a truly inspiring place, and it is just amazing to see what was built to protect Puerto Rico’s main port in the days of European powers scrambling for footholds in the New World. The views of the city, the ocean, and the island itself are also just breathtaking from the National Park. It was more spectacular than I could have guessed, even though this was something that I have been looking forward to seeing for a long time.

Outside of the national park, Old San Juan has a variety of museums, historic buildings, shopping, and delicious dinning opportunities. Like I said, it is the kind of place where you could spend all day. We stopped at a little Jamaican restaurant on a side street for lunch, and enjoyed a large, Caribbean lunch in a cramped, but welcoming little building who’s age I could only guess at. Afterwards, we wandered

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Old San Juan (c) AB Raschke

around, enjoying the architecture of this part of the city. The buildings here are not only beautiful in a way that only historic buildings can achieve, but they were all the colors of the rainbow, and a clear inspiration for the setting of Pirates of the Caribbean. During our time exploring, we happened upon Casa Blanca, the first fortification on the San Juan islet according to Wikipedia, and one of the oldest, still-standing buildings in the Americas. Entry was free, and the area was tucked away enough that most of the crowds appeared to be elsewhere. We took our time exploring the rooms, and looking at the colonial furniture and technology… imagining life in another time. Despite its age, it would still be an enviable house today, as it has remained lovely and airy, and has some fantastic views of the bay.

Besides Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital has other great places to visit, including beautiful beaches, modern shopping and dinning areas (including Plaza Las Americas the 13th largest mall in the US), and some great cultural experiences like bomba dancing in Loiza. To top it all off, the public transit in the city is fairly expansive and easy to use, and San Juan even has a very nice train that runs through the center of the city. While it doesn’t currently connect to Old San Juan, it does have an extensive bus network that it can get visitors to.

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La Coca (c) AB Raschke

Finally, last but certainly not least, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Puerto Rico is El Yunque, the great rainforest of the eastern side of the island. The visitor center here, as a gateway into the park, made me feel like I was entering Jurassic Park (can you tell I am a nerd yet from this entry?). The forest is dense and feels like the setting of a movie, rather than reality. It is just that beautiful. The buildings of the visitor center kind of play into the whole Jurassic Park feel as well, but that is neither here nor there. The main attractions of El Yunque are up from the visitor center in the mountains. There is enough hiking here to spend the whole day exploring, and trails for all different skill levels. There are also two main waterfalls – La Coca and La Mina, and a historic observation tower to explore. There are also restaurants and little places to buy snacks and refreshments along the road, that shouldn’t serve as your primary source of water while exploring, but are wonderful places and recharge and cool down after hiking in the heat and humidity.

My sole complaint about El Yunque is its popularity. It

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La Mina (c) AB Raschke

is out of this world, so as soon as you get there, you can understand why it is so crowded, but some of the more popular areas can be a drag to negotiate. First, parking can be a real problem. In order to hike to La Mina, we had to park about 0.5 miles away and walk up the road to the trailhead. The trail itself was so busy that sometimes it felt like we were waiting in line, and once we got to the waterfall, we didn’t even bother staying because it was swarming with people. I was happy to be there, and it is definitely a place that I would suggest to anyone who likes hiking and natural beauty, but it is good to go with some expectation for how crowded it can be there. If you would like to avoid the crowds, come during Puerto Rico’s slow season, arrive at the park early, or drive up to the very top of the road and explore one of the more difficult and remote trails.

Culture Highlight: The Kalinago of Dominica

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Karina Cultural Group (c) kalinagoterritory.com

Culture: Kalinago

Other Names: Carib

Resident Area: Dominica (Current)

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Map of Kalinago Territory (c) kalinagoterritory.com

Population: ~2,208[3]

Language: Kalinago [4]

Religion: The historical Kalinago religion is believed to have stressed the importance of balancing good and evil in the world, as well as maintaining close, healthy relationships between people and the natural world. [5]

Volcanic Peaks: The Kalinago people once believed that the volcanic peaks of the Caribbean gave life to this islands. Beautifully carved conch shells and stone statues called “zemis” were made by the Kalinago to represent these peaks, and they represented the spirit of fertility. Some of the small zemis were buried in fields in order to help crops grow [5].

Yearly Cycle: Unlike the Western world view, which emphasizes four seasons, the ancestral Kalinago people, like many people living in tropical areas, followed a yearly cycle with only two seasons- the dry and wet seasons that characterize the tropical world. The wet season is represented by the Frog Woman, and the dry season was represented by the Bat Man [5].

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(c) Lennox Honychurch

Culture: Historically, the Carib people had standard gender roles, but the women of their society were highly revered, and held as much socio-economic power as males [1]. They had a fairly egalitarian society, and their government consisted of a chieftain who consulted with a tribal council [1]. They were skilled at fishing, hunting, and farming, and their ability to the navigate the Caribbean Ocean on their canoes allowed them to explore many of the islands in the Caribbean, long before the arrival of the Europeans [3].

Examples of Kalinago Myths

Government: The Kalinago Territory is governed by the Carib Council. This council is tasked with managing the territory, and settling disputes between residents. Currently, there are five members of the council, and elections are held every five years. [2]

History: The Carib people originated in the Orinoco River Basin of South America, and eventually explored and settled the southern Caribbean islands. During the process of colonizing, the Caribs fought with the Taino people, and eventually displaced many of the older Arawak communities [1].

The Caribs were well known for their skill in warfare, and when the European people invaded the Caribbean islands, the two fought eachother, although the Carib people were disadvantaged by the Smallpox infections that the European people brought with them [1]. Despite this, there were able to hold Dominica from both the French and British forces for nearly two centuries. Eventually, however, the island was taken by the British, and the Kalinago people were relegated to 232 acres of eastern Dominica. In 1903, this area was expanded to 3700 acres and would become the Carib Reserves that is still home to the Kalinago people today [3].

Experts on Kalinago Culture:

Karina Cultural Group 

Karifuna Cultural Group

Lennox Honychurch

Further Reading

Chances for Travelers to Learn More From the Kalinago People:

Kalinago Homestay Programme 

Experiential Learning

Living Village Experience at Touna Kalinago Heritage Village

References:

[1] http://www.avirtualdominica.com/caribs3.htm

[2] http://kalinagoterritory.com/the-territory/the-carib-council/

[3] http://kalinagoterritory.com/the-territory/history/

[4] http://kalinagoterritory.com/culture/language/

[5] http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/article.cfm?id=388

[Map] (c) Kalinago Territory Website (http://kalinagoterritory.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Dominica_Kalinago_Territory_Map.jpg)

[Seasonal Image] from Lennox Honychurch’s website (http://www.lennoxhonychurch.com/article.cfm?id=388)

Disclaimer: One of the reasons that I love traveling is that I get to learn about other ways of life, and new ways of seeing the world. I feel that my spirituality and understanding of the Earth has much to gain from other cultures, and I definitely think that my own culture can only provide me with a very limited view of the universe around me. Due to this, I think it’s appropriate for my blog to not only showcase my travels, but some of the cultures that I come in contact with along the way. That being said, before I post the first of these, that I am no expert about any of the cultures that I am posting about. I will do my best to provide links and references to actual experts, and places to learn more. I am also hoping to promote any efforts that people from the cultures that I am discussing to preserve their way of life, as well as share it with others. In any case, I am open to suggestions for improving these highlights, as well as any concerns about misrepresentation.

What to do in Dominica: Cabrits and the Road to Scott’s Head

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the beautiful country of Dominica, and may not to know what there is to do there. Dominica is, I dare say, the hiking capital of the Caribbean (and if it isn’t, it should be). And there is far more to do here besides wandering about in nature, because the island also has some beautiful places to snorkel and learn about the history of the country and the Caribbean. Cabrits and Scott’s Head are two great places to do just that.

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Trail to Champagne Beach (c) AB Raschke

After a morning spent driving through Morne Trois, we headed down to Scott’s Head on the southern end of the island. Between there and Roseau, we stopped at Champagne Beach, which is named for the ribbons of bubbles that stream up from the sea floor here. These are a sign of Dominica’s active volcanic nature, as well as a good reason to snorkel in the bay.

You have to pay for a ticket to go down on the beach, regardless of whether or not you are snorkeling, and once you have your ticket there is a nice place to rent gear, change, or just relax. I was unprepared to swim when I visited, so while I think this would be a great place to visit based on other people’s experiences, it isn’t a great place to go if you aren’t going to get in the water. The beach is very narrow and rocky, and there are some better locations for relaxing near the water (here is a good resource for finding a beach that fits your needs if you are looking to lounge on the shore).

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Scott’s Head (c) AB Raschke

Scott’s Head is a colorful little town on the southern tip of Dominica. We weren’t able to spend a lot of time here, but it made for some beautiful pictures, due to the thin peninsula that arches off the main beach. If you take the time to hike the hill at the end of this peninsula there are some wonderful views of the town, and both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic. Interestingly enough, the difference between the two water bodies was apparent at a glance here. The Caribbean side being a calm, welcoming blue, while the Atlantic side was choppy and grey.

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Cabrit’s National Park (c) AB Raschke

Cabrits National Park in Portsmouth was the last major place that I was able to visit on my trip. The main attraction here is Fort Shirley, but the park actually protects a wide range of environments as well, including forests, wetlands, and some marine areas. I spent most of my time here exploring the old English fort, which has been beautifully restored by none other than Dominica’s resident historian, Lennox Honychurch (I would highly suggest looking up some of his books). The restored section of Fort Shirley looks out over the bay and Portsmouth. It really is an idyllic place, and significant in its representation of the Caribbean’s history.

For people looking to do some more exploring, there are also a variety of trails in the park, and a few of these showcase what the fort looked like before Honychurch revived the main portion. In disrepair, most of these remnants look more like ancient ruins than a strong gesture of English power. Juxtaposed with the forest, however, they were beautiful relics of the past, and certainly spoke to the knowledge and passion that went into restoring some of the buildings.

If you would like to learn more about what to do in Dominica, please visit Nightborn Travel’s Guide to Dominica.

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