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Môle Saint-Nicolas: First Impressions

March 19, 2013

My trip to Môle Saint-Nicolas, Haiti’s oldest city, at the extreme northwest tip of the country’s northern arm, had been in the works for some time.  But gathering information had been difficult, and frustrated at not being able to find details of transportation to the town, I decided to make the journey flying by the seat of my pants.

The road from Gonaïves to Môle is a sinuous thin line scratched in the stony earth and over the rocks along the north coast of the Gulf of Gonaïves.  It rises and falls through a sun-baked semi-desert of ancient rolling mountains covered with forests of cacti of several varieties, some reaching over 6 meters, as well as giant agave, aloes and other thorny plants.  In places where there is water oases of palms and lush vegetation erupt.

Cactus country

Cactus country

Cactus "trees"

Cactus “trees”

The towns along the road are impoverished, and more so the outlying areas.  The people who call home the thatched hovels fenced with loose wattle eke out their living fishing from tiny boats, making charcoal for the Port-au-Prince market, farming as best the desolate area will allow,  or transporting goods in crude boats and barges.

Fisherman's hut

Fisherman’s hut

This was one of the better boats.

This was one of the better boats.

Charcoal packed for shipment.

Charcoal packed for shipment.

Although my moto-taxi chauffeur was excellent, the 5-hour trip was punishing both to man and machine.  Stopping at intervals to rest our weary bodies, the driver would check to make sure nothing had shaken loose on the bike, and would oil the dust-caked drive chain.  The two hour and 15 minute driving time posted on the Internet was obviously arrived at by someone who had never attempted this roughshod journey.

Along the way we came face to face with one of the grim realities of traveling Haiti’s twisting, gutted byways.  Amidst a crowd of onlookers, a large truck lay toppled on its side down an embankment, the sacks of rice it carried strewn about.  Nearby, haphazardly covered with tarps, lay the lifeless bodies of three men who had likely been riding atop the load.

We made the last third of the journey in a fine, warm rain.  My chauffeur had had the foresight to pack rain gear; I had not.  Checking into the Beau Rivage Hotel Eco-resort was a unique experience.  The manager just asked me to pick a room and sent the lone staff person for linens.  I chose the second-storey room with the best view, and it was immediately swept out and the bed made with sheets smelling like they had been dried outdoors.  The hotel is new, in fact not totally finished, the decor white-on-white with gleaming ceramic tiled floors and the Haitian standard concrete walls.  There was an air conditioner, but I didn’t need it; the fan sufficed until the cool of the night was comfortable.  For most of my stay I was the sole guest.  The staff left at night and I had the entire hotel to myself.  When I was ready to pay my bill I was a bit concerned; the manager was nowhere to be found, and I had to wait a couple of hours for him to appear.

Beau Rivage Hotel Eco-Resort

Beau Rivage Hotel Eco-Resort

View from hotel

View from hotel

Môle Saint-Nicolas, although poor, is abounding in natural beauty.  The powdery white sand beach slipping beneath the warm turquoise water of its bay could well grace the glossiest of travel brochures.  This is the very place where Christopher Columbus, sailing across the Windward Passage from Cuba, landed on December 6, 1492.  And this is the very place I sit in one of the comfortable plastic Adirondack chairs in a rainbow of bright tropical colours on my hotel balcony, luxuriating in the cool breeze whispering through the palm leaves, as I lazily watch the waves at the mouth of the bay crash into towering sprays.

White sand beach

White sand beach

Columbus named the bay for Saint Nicolas, whose feast day it was, and claimed the island for Spain, calling it La Española, ‘little Spain’, later Latinized to Hispaniola.  Môle, meaning ‘breakwater’ was added to the town’s name when it was realized what an effective natural shelter from the tumultuous Windward Passage the bay was.

In 1764, 400 Acadians, originally from Nova Scotia, were enticed to settle at Môle.  Forced to work at building the port by Haiti’s governor, provided with meager provisions and scant shelter, many died of malnutrition and tropical diseases.  Those who survived and could afford passage later sought refuge in Louisiana.  Those who could not settled in other parts of Haiti.

As I set out from my hotel to explore the town, I was greeted by a young man who spoke a fair bit of English.  He and his younger friend accompanied me, directing me to the town’s only “real” restaurant (by Canadian standards).  There I enjoyed a ambrosial meal of fish and plantains, elegantly presented, for a ridiculously low price.

My guides, Saint Jean and his friend

My guides, Saint Jean and his friend, Mesiline

Upon leaving the restaurant I found the pair were waiting for me at some distance.  Saint Jean, the older of the two, undertook to show me the notable sites of his home.  He was a wealth of knowledge, although some of it I knew to be inaccurate:  in keeping with the folklore of the area, he attributed a great deal to Columbus, though according to the explorer’s journals, he only made a one-day stop here.  (He was not alone in his delusions; much of the information I turned up on the Internet was ridiculous.)  Môle features a quite picturesque Catholic church, built not long ago, and across the square the ruins of the old church, destroyed by a hurricane.  I had seen pictures of it on the Internet, and noted that it has significantly deteriorated in the last several years, losing some of its most interesting architectural details, among them decorative carvings in a nautical motif.

Môl Saint-Nicolas Catholic Church

Môle Saint-Nicolas Catholic Church

The old church

The old church

Intricate detailing

Intricate detailing

A variety of materials used to good effect.

A variety of materials used to good effect.

Môle Saint-Nicolas is a remarkable town.  The streets are laid out in a grid, making finding things and following directions quite easy.  There are some street sign, but not many.  The main street is in the process of being paved, complete with curbing and drainage.  What struck me most is the cleanliness of the town; there was little  garbage anywhere.

The people were very friendly and polite.  I was greeted wherever I went, and many engaged me in conversation.  They wanted to tell me about their town and to hear about Canada.  They expressed their feelings of abandonment, far from the national capital and lacking in educational and employment opportunities.  What was very clear is that they were proud of Môle, and despite its drawbacks, loved living there.  Many asked if I would be willing to move to their town to live among them.

As I was led on a circuitous route back toward my hotel, I was surprised to find myself at one of the forts I had come to see.  This was Batterie d’Orléans, later renamed Fort George.  The fort is crumbling into the sea, having been cannonaded in a 3 year siege during the Haitian civil war of the early 19th century.  [I will describe the forts in more detail in later posts.]

Later that evening, as I sat on the balcony outside my room, watching the tropical sun sink into the Caribbean while soaking in all the beauty around me, I was in total agreement with Columbus’ assessment of this area, “Maravillosa!”  Wonderful!

Sunset

Sunset

As the upturned horns of the thin crescent moon appeared high in the evening sky, the horizon still washed in pink, I decided to slip between my crisp white sheets rather than await the deep blackness of the tropical night.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2015 6:47 pm

    Hello,

    We are a couple from Montreal, currently in Cap-Haitien and looking to go to Mole St Nicolas. Loved your first impressions blog post. Do you have contact information for your hotel, Beau Rivage Hotel Eco-resort? Or suggestions on how we might get to Mole from Cap-Haitien?

    Thanks!

    Andrew (+509-3183-6159)

    • December 21, 2015 7:02 pm

      Andrew

      When I stayed at Beau Rivage there was only skeleton staff. A couple of guys were around a few hours a day. They went home for the night, leaving the hotel entirely unstaffed. There was no telephone or email aside from the guys’ personal cell phones. According to current on line info, a double room is about $60 a night, but I easily negotiated this down considerably (I was the only guest for part of my stay). Rooms are clean and comfortable, although a little rough by Canadian standards. Shower is cold water only, but in the Haitian climate this is not so bad. Absolutely no food or beverages available on site.

      I pulled this number off the internet, but can’t verify it: +509 37 74 08 25

      Mole was wonderful, but don’t expect any touristy stuff. There is almost no commercial development, just a couple of small cafes (great food, low prices). I found the locals very friendly and helpful. Getting there is not easy. I went there via motorbike taxi (a brutal ride) and returned on the local bus to Gonaives. There is likely a bus from Cap, but the buses only run once or twice a week. Passengers were packed like sardines into an old school bus for the very long trip. I am not aware of any other way to get to the city other than making the drive yourself and risking damaging your vehicle on what they call a road.

      However, I would not have missed the experience for anything.

      Hope this helps. If you need more, contact me by email brprocter@gmail.com.

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