Port-au-Prince, meaning Port with Prince (Potoprens in Creole, the local language) is the capital and largest city of Haiti, and literally signifies the landing of a captain in his boat called Le Prince. Located on a bay off the Gulf of La Gonave, the city’s layout resembles that of an amphitheatre; commercial districts are near the water, while residential neighborhoods are located on the hills above.
Port-au-Prince exudes a small town feel even though it has more than one million inhabitants and it’s by far the largest city of the country. However, the city is notorious for its high crime rate with kidnappings, and frequent exchanges of fire between police and United Nations troops or criminal gangs. But with some caution and understanding of the situation, it is a beautiful region to be explored and its people, you will wind, are some of the friendliest and liveliest of all, not to mention the most colorful.
The country’s chief exports are mainly coffee and sugar. It was founded in 1749 by French sugar planters. The region has tropical climate with high humidity. There is intermittent rain throughout the year but through the months of June to October, it can get quite wet and hurricanes can also be expected. Hill resorts are a good option to stay at since they are much cooler.
Before Christopher Columbus stepped foot here, the region was virtually isolated and devoid of any permanent human settlement. At the end of the 15th century, the region was under the control of an Amerindian ruler by the name of Bohechio, who preferred to settle away from the coast as the coasts would have proven to be tempting targets for the Caribs, who lived on neighboring islands. Instead, they used the area as a hunting ground.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Amerindians were forced to become a Spanish colony. Bohechio was succeeded by his sister, Anacaona, who tried to maintain cordial relations with the Spaniards, who were overcome by greed for larger tributes and territory. In 1503, Nicolas Ovando, then governor, set about to put an end to the regime headed by Anacaona so that the Spanish colonial administration could rule directly. He invited her and other tribal leaders to a feast and got them all very drunk, while remaining sober themselves, then ordered most of the guests killed. Through violence and disease, the Spanish settlers decimated the native population.
The Spanish founded a settlement not far from the coast named Santa Maria de la Paz Verdadera and later Santa Maria del Puerto. The latter was first burned by French explorers in 1535, then again in 1592 by the English. The Spaniards proved to be no match for them, and tired of these assaults, it decided to abandon the region in 1606.
For more than 50 years, the area was used for different purposes by different people. Dutch merchants came here frequently in search of leather as game was abundant there. Then around 1650, French pirates began to arrive on the coast and managed to establish a colony and even set up a hospital not far from the coast. This led to the region being known as Hopital.
Spain tried to retain its formal claim to the territory, and the growing French presence provoked the Spanish crown to dispatch soldiers to reclaim the land. The Spanish were outnumbered and outgunned, and failed miserably. In 1697, the Spanish government signed the Treaty of Ryswick, renouncing any claims to Hopital.
In order to protect the area, in 1706 a captain named de Saint-Andre sailed into the bay just below the hospital, in a ship named Le Prince and people believed that is how the port and its surrounding areas got its present name.
In 1749 the city of Port-au-Prince was founded and in 1770, it replaced Cap-Francais as capital of the colony of Saint-Domingue, and then in 1804, it became the capital of newly-independent Haiti.
Places to see:
There are beautiful spots scattered around this small town that are well worth a visit. The National Museum or the Musee du Pantheon National Haitien has in its collection Haitian relics, early costumes, paintings and historic documents set in a splendid hilltop mansion. The museum educates visitors about the range of influential experiences occurring in the area over time, describing the history of Haiti from the time of the Arawak and Taino Indians to the 1940’s. The roof has some unique mosaic work and cones. It offers visitors a great view of the Port-au-Prince from above the hilltop. Nearby you will be able to see the National Palace.
The Delfly Mansion, designed by a Haitian architect, is an impressive example of 19th-century French style. The Cathedral of St. Trinity, with its huge paintings and murals of the local voodoo and Catholic spiritualism is one of the most popular sights around town. One of the paintings here is a Biblical scene reminiscent of the wedding at Cana although the setting is a Haitian village…making it a unique work of art.
Speaking of art, don’t forget to visit the Museum of Haitian Art that displays the country’s best collection of local art characterized by bold color and by the depiction of plants animals and people.
Then there is the Iron Market which strangely enough the Iron market sells not iron but food and various other consumer goods. It is a lively place where you can experience the colors and flavors of local life. Another shopping area is the Tuesday market in nearby Kenscoff from where you will also get great views of the harbor and city.
Do take some time and make a trip into the hills behind Port-au-Prince to the suburb of Petionville, which is also a good place to stay if you are touring the region. Located high above the city, it has some of Haiti’s loveliest hotels as well as a casino, a 9-hole golf course and tennis courts. There are also many boutiques, art galleries and some of the capital’s best restaurants. You can also take a tour of the Jane Barbancourt Rum distillery. This is a safer neighborhood with a vibrant nightlife.
One of the official languages of Haiti is French, although not many locals speak it. The language is generally associated with the local elite. Another official language is a local mix of French and African languages called Haitian Creole is the language of the masses. The Haitian gourde, pronounced good, is the local currency divided into 100 centimes.
For the foodie:
Haitian cuisine is a flavorful mix of Carribean and African preferences. Try the roasted goat called kabrit, poultry with a Creole sauce called poulet creole, and rice with wild mushroom called du ri jonjon, which are all local favorites. Seafood like fish, lobster and conch are readily available. While you are in town, don’t hesitate to try out some of the wide variety of fruits available including guava, pineapple, mango, banana, melons, breadfruit, and sugarcane. And when bottled or boiled water is not available, a freshly opened coconut is a great alternative providing hydration and electrolytes with minimal health risk.
Haitian rum is well-known and the Barbancourt 5 Star brand is the preferred choice. Clairin is a local firewater made from sugarcane often flavored with various herbs that you ought to try. Other local drinks include the Papye drink, a papaya milk shake and Cremas, an alcoholic beverage made of coconut and vanilla.
The Guy Malary International Airport, but better known as Port-au-Prince International Airport is Haiti’s sole international airport and is served by several major airlines.