Ocean boardwalk at Lakou New York in Jacmel
Photo: Mikkel Ulriksen
City Guides: Jacmel
Whether you’re looking for adventure, nature, fast festival rhythms, rejuvenation on sandy beaches, or a cultural experience bringing you closer to the myths and folklore of the people of Haiti, Jacmel will slake your thirst and sate your curiosity.
City center of Jacmel
Photo: Anton Lau
Switch off in the City of Light
Once dubbed the “City of Light,” the seaside city of Jacmel was the first place in the Caribbean to get electricity back in the nineteenth century. These days, there’s something else unusual about Jacmel’s power use - it’s limited, meaning if you Airbnb here, you better be prepared with backup batteries for the daily ritual of switching off from the grid.
For many Americans power outages are rare, unpredictable, inconvenient and even spooky. They’re when you realise you forgot to put fresh batteries in your flashlights, and/or leave your flashlights where you can find them in the dark. For the residents of Jacmel, though, it’s part of the daily rhythm, and it doesn’t seem to phase the travellers who love coming back to Jacmel every year. Jacmel is famous for festivals, and in-between it’s a magical destination, well-equipped to help you switch-off and hit reset.
Stairs with mosaik art in Jacmel
Photo: Angelo Miramonti
Art & Culture
Known as the culture capital of Haiti, Jacmel is a hub for art, folklore, foodies, festivals and nightlife. Colorful paper-mache creations, often seen during Jacmel’s annual carnival, can be found and bought all year round. Many of the masks and paintings are reflective of Haiti’s deeply unique religion - the potent symbology of Haitian Vodou infuses the city streets.
Jacmel is a compact city, and easy to explore on foot. For a closer look, you can ask local guides Experience Jacmel to take you to visit a Vodou “peristyle” or help you make your own carnival mask.
Gaillard, Cayes Jacmel, Haiti
Photo: Anton Lau
A launchpad for mountain adventure
Are you more of an outdoorsy-type? Jacmel offers excellent proximity to many of Haiti’s most exciting al-fresco adventures. Reconnect with nature at La Vallée, Bassin Bleu, Marigot or Fort Ogè in Cap Rouge - all within a short drive or a sturdy hike.
The tropical sun will test your mettle, but for the brave and well-prepared there are caves waiting to be discovered, waterfalls waiting to be jumped off of and swam under, steep and shady jungle paths for you to leave footprints on, and crisp mountain air to reset your cortisol levels. You’ll find adventure itineraries suited to your level from novice hiker to hardened overland survivor.
La Saline Beach in Jacmel
Photo: Franck Fontain
If you’d rather hit the snooze button than the gym, no sweat! Beach bums can relax at one of Jacmel’s several stunning strips of paradisian sand, including Cyvadier, Raymond les Bains, L’Amitie and Kabic. Soak up the sun, catch some waves, sip on a coconut (would you like that with rum?), and lick your fingers after a plate of freshly caught and barbecued seafood.
Whether you’re hoping to realign your chakras or just happy to find inner peace in a succession of ice-cold rum cocktails, you’ll find bliss on the beaches of Jacmel.
Cafe Koze in Jacmel
Photo: Franck Fontain
Food, drink, street life and nightlife
The food culture in Jacmel is thriving, and published guides struggle to keep up with the pace of new hotels, bars and restaurants springing up all of the place.
Take to the mosaic boardwalk as you trace the coastline, by day a popular place for active types out jogging, and by night full of eclectically-clothed hipster students. Venture just a couple of streets inland from the boardwalk and you’ll find a mix of traditional and boutique hotels, restaurants and art galleries, with a few souvenir shops thrown into the mix.
Where to eat
If you’ve just arrived, settle in at the chilled-out Cafe Koze, where you can people-watch over their mouth-watering homemade rum-and-raisin ice-cream.
Hotel Florita, once the mansion of a coffee magnate, will appeal to fans of Graham Greene. Here you can sit in the sultry semi-open courtyard (the UNESCO-listed hotel has no air conditioners), and sip a traditional Haitian filter coffee - exceedingly sweet and rich, and every bit as addictive as Vietnamese coffee. The restaurant serves excellent Haitian food palatable for cautious Americans and Europeans, but be warned: waiting times can exceed an hour. You won’t mind though, because they also make delectable rum sours, and the first is on the house!
If what you’re after is exotic food and exquisite beachfront views, head to Hotel Cyvadier Plage. Their shrimp and chicken dishes are crowd pleasers, but their specialty is in brightly constructed plates based on seasonal catch. In fact, if you’re breakfasting in the courtyard (and know a little French), you’re so close to the lapping shore that you can chat with fisherman as they tie up their boats to deliver the catch of the day.
Where to drink
Start with La Taverne or Belle Epoque Barak. La Taverne is where you’ll find more rum sours, and occasionally salsa performances. Belle Epoque is where expats go to stay up late listening to hip hop and house. They also do pretty good wings - not a bad way to line your stomach before a long rum-fuelled night of dancing.
Carnival in Jacmel
Photo: Franck Fontain
Dance to your own beat
Jacmel is one of the friendliest and most tranquil cities in Haiti, but if you want to pack the most into a short break here, the best way to plug yourself into the pulse that feeds the city is to book in advance to stay during one of the festival weekends. Renowned DJs and artists will bring together hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, from all walks of life, to sing, dance, and celebrate. Whether your flavour of choice is rara or bachata, compa or salsa, house or tango, ask around on a holiday weekend, and you will find your party.
There’s too many festivals to list them all here, but briefly: Independence Day and New Years Day share January 1, and Carnival (think an Afro-Caribbean Mardi Gras) is held in the lead up to Shrove Tuesday. There’s also festivals that celebrate storytelling, rum, and the identity-affirming Rara.
Who should go?
Jacmel holds something for everyone. Whether you are looking for new adventure, to reconnect nature, to let your hair down surrounded by the pounding festival rhythms, or to rejuvenate on sandy beaches, or a cultural experience bringing you closer to the myths and folklore of the people of Haiti, Jacmel has something to slake your thirst and sate your curiosity.
One last thing before you head back up over the mountains: buy yourself a t-shirt that reads “Jacmel Mwen Fou Pou Ou” (Kreyol for “Jacmel, I’m Crazy For You”) and become part of the unofficial Jacmel fan club. Welcome to the gang.
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