Jacmel, Haiti

It may be most famous for its Carnival celebrations, but idyllic Jacmel on Haiti’s south coast is also home to treasures of historic architecture, art, and crafts

Photo by Georgia PopplewellPhoto by Corbis ImagesPhoto by Corbis ImagesPhoto by Georgia PopplewellA pharmacy in Jacmel offers cures for whatever ails your bones. Photo by Nicholas Laughlin

Streetscape

On the eastern side of sheltered Jacmel Bay, the town stretches back from a shingly beach to a steep escarpment above Rue Seymour Pradel, with the town square, Place Toussaint Louverture, perched atop a ridge overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Both the cathedral and Jacmel’s unique iron market (with its four corner towers and red-tiled roof) await major repairs to damage done by the 2010 earthquake.

Some of the best examples of Jacmel’s historic architecture are the former merchants’ houses on Rue du Commerce: three- and four-storey buildings which once featured coffee warehouses on their ground floors and elegant salons higher up. The Hotel Florita is one of the best preserved, and guests enjoy its wide upper balconies, high-ceilinged rooms, and magnificent staircase. Some of its neighbours are in less promising shape, but their street façades remain stately, and dozens of historic buildings have been recognised and earmarked for restoration.

Along the seafront, a relatively new promenade is decorated with colourful tile mosaics and benches featuring the words of well-known local writers, cut out in sheet metal.

 

Venturing out

Though some people do swim in Jacmel Bay, the best sea-bathing is further along the coast, east of the town. Raymond Les Bains and Ti Mouillage, both popular with locals, are respectively a thirty- and forty-minute drive out of town; vendors offer grilled seafood, cold drinks, and tables right on the sand.

In the hills above Jacmel, Bassin Bleu (right) is one of Haiti’s natural wonders, a series of deep river pools connected by waterfalls, approached through a narrow gorge. From the village of Grand Fond, the journey is made half walking, half climbing. The highest of the pools, Bassin Clair, is a magical spot, its clear blue water surrounded by boulders and trees — you’ll understand why locals tell stories about mermaids hiding in its depths.

 

Souvenir

Jacmel is famous across Haiti — and around the Caribbean — for its papier-mâché craft, especially the spectacular masks worn by Carnival revellers. Dozens of small ateliers — concentrated on Rue du Commerce and Rue St Anne — sell these and other papier-mâché objects, ranging from small pieces of jewellery to gigantic wall sculptures, with animal and flower subjects in profusion. Wood carvings, paintings on canvas, and elaborately sequined vodou flags, all typical Haitian crafts, are also easy to find. Les Créations Moro — founded by an Egyptian couple who settled in Haiti decades ago — is noted for the quality of its crafts, and the nearby Fosaj Gallery sells art and crafts made by a collective of artisans, with sales supporting classes for young artists.

 

Read

Jacmel’s most famous literary son is poet and novelist René Depestre, born in 1926, a former resident of Cuba (where he helped found the Casa de las Américas), and living since the 1980s in France. He published his first book of poems at age nineteen, and is known also as an important essayist, often writing on the theme of Négritude. But Depestre’s best known and probably best loved book is the novel Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (Hadriana in All My Dreams), published in 1988, a magical realist love story that records the life and culture of Jacmel in the 1930s and 40s.

The Manoir Alexandre, a stately brick townhouse looking over Place Louverture, surrounded by cascading gardens, is the original of Hadriana’s family house in the novel; it’s currently under restoration. Two flights of steps along the steep cliff that bisects the old town have recently been decorated with mosaics that allow pedestrians to read excerpts from Hadriana as they ascend. The steps that start on Avenue de la Liberté next to the bank (right) offer the opening passage of the novel.

 

History

Jacmel was officially founded in 1698, as part of the French colony of Saint-Domingue, but the name is derived from the indigenous Taíno who once lived here. The town was the site of the infamous War of the Knives in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, and later in the nineteenth century became a wealthy port for shipping the coffee grown in the surrounding mountains. Jacmel was the first town in the whole Caribbean to be electrified, and its merchants competed to build impressive townhouses. A catastrophic fire in 1896 destroyed many of its buildings, but Jacmeliens soon rebuilt in a distinctive French creole style, with townhouses of brick, imported cast-iron pillars, and shady balconies.

The January 2010 earthquake killed hundreds and damaged many of Jacmel’s houses and historic buildings, with restoration still in progress. The town remains one of Haiti’s most popular destinations for foreign tourists, with its charming architecture, quiet location far from the bustle of Port-au-Prince, and famous craft ateliers.

 

Carnival

Jacmel’s annual pre-Lenten Carnival is reputed to be Haiti’s most colourful and creative, drawing thousands of visitors from across the country. It’s become so popular, in fact, that Carnival is now held here two weeks before Ash Wednesday, so as not to compete with celebrations in Port-au-Prince and other cities. Masqueraders and rara bands wind through the streets of the old town, jammed with spectators dancing along. The best views are from the upper balconies of older houses, and many allow visitors inside, for a modest fee, with bleachers also lining the streets.

It’s the elaborate and often enormous papier-mâché masks that make Jacmel Carnival famous — each troupe has a theme, which can vary from current Haitian or international politics to history, mythology, and fauna. Other traditional masquerades include bat-winged Maturin devils, and the intimidating Lanset Kod, covered with oil, molasses, or charcoal, wearing real cow horns, and wielding ropes — a reminder of the horrors of slavery which shaped Haiti’s past.

 

Co-ordinates

18.23º N 72.53ºW
Sea level