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Don't Overlook These Four Travel Destinations in the African Diaspora

by Malaika Jabali 

Black folk in the Americas have had a rough month. If you need to embrace some self care and would like a week to reset amid some familiar faces, set your sights on a few spots in the African Diaspora. Very often, countries with significant Afro-descendant populations fly under the radar when it comes to our travel planning. Western media tends to advance the idea that certain Latin American, Caribbean, and African countries are war-torn, chaotic, or otherwise less appealing than Asian and European locales. For those who want to veer from the usual tourist spots, check out these highlights on Panama, Ghana, Haiti, and Cuba. I’ve also gathered a couple of my adventurous friends to share their experiences beyond the beaten path in some of these countries.

1. Panama

I’m a little biased. Since half of my family has Panamanian roots and many family members still live there, I’ve been able to visit this Latin American country cheaply and experience more obscure attractions than what the guidebooks typically suggest. But whether or not you already have the hookup, Panama, like many other destinations listed here, has affordable flights and you won’t spend a fortune when you get there.

The country is among the most Westernized on on this list, with its capital Panama City encompassing the country’s developed urban center. One of the city’s several malls has offers both high end and affordable fashion. In addition to its assortment of nightlife, Panama’s Amador Causeway—a strip of land that juts out from the city—is great for taking in the night skyline. But if you want to experience life a bit more like a local, travel beyond the capital.

Cultural Attractions

For a taste of old Panama, visit the country’s historic district Casco Viejo. Blending modern amenities—an active nightlife and restaurant scene—and colonial architecture, Casco Viejo is a must-see.

Photo: Casa Antigua
For an even more historic experience, visit Portobello during the Black Christ Festival, when thousands of people descend on this village to venerate a statue of a black Christ believing it will cure them of various ills. While the Portobello National Park is an attraction that still boasts historic ruins during Spanish colonization, the bus ride getting to Portobelo is a highlight in itself. You can opt for modern transportation, but to really live like a local, catch one of the cheap long distance buses called diablos rojos, which are replete with colorful decor and reggaeton blasting through the speakers. If you take a trip to Portobello at night, the stars are freakishly bright, and the return trip to Panama City sits immediately next to the ocean. If you’re traveling back during the day, looking down from the bus window feels like you’re cruising right on the coast.

Natural Beauty Highlights

Far from the capital city is Bocas del Toro, a province on the opposite end of Panama. You have to be committed to making this trek, since traveling requires either a flight (approximately $200 round trip) from Panama City or bracing yourself for a much less expensive 10 hour bus ride. With either method, you still must take a water taxi to get to your final destination in Bocas. But it is worth it. The sandy beaches and crystal clear waters will immediately take your mind off the commute. While there, hop over to Isla Colon for the Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden and enjoy the lush flora and even more miles of the country’s serene beaches.

Photo: Visitpanama.com 
2. Ghana

My friend Ashleigh W. adored her stay in Ghana, noting that Accra is a fast-paced city and Ghanaians are “really kind and super hospitable.” Just east of Accra’s central business district is Osu, where Ashleigh loved the nightlife and restaurants. Timeout agrees, claiming that, “Osu is probably the most happening part of town. The busy Cantonments Road, known to virtually everyone as Oxford Street, is a hub of activity 24 hours a day. Many of Accra's best bars, restaurants and shops are in Osu.”

Cultural Attractions

If you’re thinking of making a trip to Accra this August, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival will provide a bevy of artistic inspiration. Okayafrica has pronounced it West Africa’s largest independent public arts festival. Join the 10,000 attendees the festival has historically attracted, and soak in the live music, art installations, graffiti murals, and more.

As an undergraduate obsessed with Pan-Africanism, I long wanted to visit the home of revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister after the country’s independence from its British colonizers. Visit the Dr. Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum to learn more about this courageous leader and pay respects to his life and legacy. And of course, those of us scattered throughout the Diaspora would be remiss to not venture out to the Cape Coast Castle, where many of our ancestors began the traumatic Middle Passage. Ashleigh said it was “profound” and gave a “sense of the village culture outside of the city.”

Natural Beauty Highlights

While you’re in the Cape Coast, head over to the Kakum National Park which offers adventurous hikes through its tree canopies. For those who prefer something closer to land (and sand), relax on one of Ghana’s numerous beaches. A bit removed from the packed beaches and closer to Accra is the beach at Ado Foah. While there, spend a night or two at the Maranatha Beach Camp, an eco hotel set on a strip of land at the Volta Estuary. In the first week of August, the town features its annual Ada Asafotufiami Festival, which celebrates the warriors who fought for a right to settle in the area.

Photo: Maranatha Beach Camp
3. Haiti

When envisioning Haiti, many people may only conjure images of disaster and a country wrecked by colonial exploitation. My friend Sharon O., however, was delighted by her experience in the Caribbean country. She says to “[w]ipe away your preconceived notions of Haiti and go visit.” Haiti has been steadily popping up as a vacation destination, and with its natural beauty and rich culture, it’s hard not to see why. While Port-au-Prince may be the most well-known city, Haiti features smaller towns with beautiful landscapes that are perhaps the country’s biggest draws.

Cultural Attractions

A trip to the Caribbean is incomplete without enjoying the region’s cuisine. Sharon recommends Au Coin des Artists, a casual restaurant in the Petion-Ville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince with fresh seafood and live jazz on select nights. While in the capital city, head to the artisans’ community along Grand Rue. This is the main avenue and boasts a vibrant metalworking community where, Sharon says, you can find “cool Vodou art and charismatic artists.” For your lodging, she suggests Hotel Oloffson, an architectural gem with a storied history, sweeping verandas, and antique decor.

Photo: Hotel Oloffson
In northern Haiti, include the Citadelle in your itinerary. The fortress—one of the first monuments constructed by Black people once they gained independence from French rule—is set atop Haiti’s mountans and quite a hike, but the history and views make the trip well worth it.

Natural Beauty Highlights

Sharon was particularly fond of the cities of Jacmel—a former port town—and Furcy, a mountain village south of Port-au-Prince. With its picturesque waterfalls and blue pools, one of the country’s biggest attractions is Bassin Bleu located in Jacmel. Access to Bassin Bleu is restricted to a certain number of people per day to preserve its integrity, so plan ahead to ensure you are able to visit.

Photo: Pinterest
If you want a reprieve from the capital city, head over to the Rustik lodge in Furcy for an overnight stay. The lodge is set among the mountain village’s rolling hills and offers captivating views of the Haitian landscape.

Photo: Rustik
4. Cuba

From relishing in its music, coastline, and colonial architecture, American tourists have found ways to appreciate Cuba long before the U.S. eased its travel restrictions to the island early this year. Though travel is easier, there are still certain limitations to visiting the island legally as a U.S. citizen. However, prospective travelers no longer need to apply for a license for approved travel activities, including for people-to-people travel. While you may travel to Cuba as a journalist, researcher, or any of the 12 restricted categories, a people-to-people exchange with a tour company is likely the most accessible form of travel to Cuba from the United States. This also makes Cuban travel the most expensive on this list. These exchanges are all-inclusive guided tours with hotel and flight accommodations, meals, attractions, and full itineraries all included. There’s a bit of free time in the mornings and evenings to explore on your own. Because the itineraries are strict, make sure you choose a tour company that covers the attractions you’re most interested in.

Cultural Attractions

A positive, and likely unintended, outcome of maintaining some restrictions, is that Americans may be exposed to a Cuba that is generally not proliferated in mass media: Cuba’s rich Afro-descendent traditions and black population. For a country that is majority Afro-descendent, its black citizens likely don’t register much in Westerner’s minds when they envision the island nation. Because people-to-people exchanges require guided tours that are often centered on learning about Cuba’s population, the African influence in Cuban culture will likely be a palpable and enriching introduction to the island.

Insight Travel, for instance, has a six day Jazz in Havana Tour, and the company’s winter itinerary includes a stop at the renowned Havana International Jazz Festival. The Smithsonian also offers a tour that includes exposure to Cuba’s history with African religious traditions, such as Santeria. The New York Times offers a solid roundup of popular tour companies from which to choose your desired itinerary.

Photo: Get In Travel
When you’re able to peel away from your tour group, enjoy a nightcap at Fabrica de Arta Cubana arts and music venue. The Spanish version of the venue’s website site has a full schedule of its live music events (for the Spanish disinclined, Google can translate the entire website for you). Those traveling to Cuba outside of people-to-people exchange have dozens of day tours to choose from if they want a day or two with a structured itinerary, including the Havana Tour Company Day Tour with themes ranging from architectural tours to those focusing on Cuban art.

Natural Beauty Highlights

Non-U.S. travelers are in luck, since they have the freedom to explore the country’s beautiful coastline and varied landscapes on their own. Varadero is a popular resort town for tourists, while Playa Ancon near the town of Trinidad offers coastal beauty in its own right with smaller crowds.

Cuba also features a number of mountains, lakes, and valleys for nature enthusiasts. Hikers may appreciate climbing Cuba’s highest peak, located in the Sierra Maestra mountains. On the other side of the island, immerse yourself in the wildlife in the lakes and swamps at the Peninsula de Zapata National Park. Further west, Viñales offers horseback riding, botanical gardens, and caves in Cuba’s stunning valleys.

Now that the wave of Middle East explorations has died down, it’s a great time to round up your crew, perfect those Solange-wedding-inspired photo shoots, and gain a moment of peace and enrichment in the myriad cultural attractions available throughout the Diaspora.

Photo: Shutterstock

Malaika Jabali is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a lawyer with a J.D. and M.S. from Columbia University. Her proclivity for advanced degrees does not preclude her from communicating with cleverly placed emojis and on Instagram @missjabali. She also pretends to know about music and culture on her personal blog, www.freshphiles.com.

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