February 2015: I visited Benin in 2014 to investigate the growth of Voodoo tourism for Condé Nast Traveller Magazine. It was a fascinating trip that profoundly affected me.
As well as learning about the religion, I learnt about the horrific history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the region. It made me think about how this ancient faith, born in West Africa thousands of years ago, travelled with those so brutally torn from their families and taken to the Americas.
Some of those people were Christians, some were Muslims, but the majority followed traditional religions, including Voodoo. Those traditional religions provided a critical cultural link to the countries they had been taken from – and went on to play a central role in how resistance and rebellion were organised.
Nowhere is that more true than in Haiti, where the world’s only successful slave revolution took place and where Vodou – as it is called here – remains the dominant faith. The island is steeped in Vodou culture and I wanted to see how it differed from what I’d experienced in Benin.
I travelled with Elizabeth – my sister and journalistic collaborator – to Port-au-Prince, the capital, to Jacmel on the south coast and to Cap-Haitien in the north.
Thanks to expert guidance from Jean-Daniel Lafontant – a Vodou priest himself, and a brilliant guide, fixer and translator – we were lucky enough to meet practitioners, visit shrines and attend ceremonies that we couldn’t possibly have accessed without him.​​​​​​​

Port-au-Prince, Haiti's coastal capital city, with an estimated population of around 2.5m

According to the World Bank, Haiti is the poorest country in the Latin America and Caribbean region – and one of the poorest countries in the world

Port-au-Prince and the Gulf of Gonâve, dusk

Jean-Daniel Lafontant, our fixer and guide, at the Temple Na-Ri-VéH in Port-au-Prince, where he is co-founder and guardian 

The gathering we were invited to here was a prayer for all spirits and an opportunity for people to communicate with them. Lafontant explained that the temple's central column is a conduit for energy from above and a channel for the spirits 

Our trip coincided with Haiti's annual Carnival season, when hundreds of thousands of people join the party in Port-au-Prince

In the afternoon, before the procession began, we explored the route. The security became ever more heavily armed, before we realised why. In the yellow T-shirt above is President Michel Martelly

A father holds up his daughter for a better view of the President. You can just about spot the back of his head in this shot

Carnival in Haiti is as loud, colourful and fun as you'd expect it to be - but what was particularly interesting was how full of Vodou symbolism it was, and how many political and historical references there were in the incredible costumes 

As darkness fell, the procession began and we were able to tag along with it

This is an adaptation of a Chaloska costume, which mocks General Charles Oscar Etienne. He massacred 167 political prisoners in Port-au-Prince in 1915, but was then killed himself, alongside the President, by an angry mob

The atmosphere was incredible and it was amazing being part of the procession. But as the evening unfolded, both my sister and I were repeatedly targeted by a pair of pickpockets when the crowd was at its most dense, and we lost our phones, wallets, keys - even my lipsalve! We were unable to escape as we were hemmed in by the stands which formed a continuous wall on both sides. As soon as a gap appeared, we managed to get away on motorbike taxis – thankfully before my camera bag could be taken. We were naive. We were the only tourists not in the stands or on floats, and because we hadn't planned to end up as part of the procession, we hadn't taken the precautions we normally would for a very crowded event. My advice to anyone coming to carnival would be to secure yourself a place in a stand or in a float

Determined not to be put off by a couple of thieves, I returned the following evening for the second day of the parade – but this time Lafontant had arranged for me to join one of the soundsystem floats

On the top deck of the float

It turned out to be an evening of tragedy. At about 2am, a singer on another float touched an overhead electricity pylon, which caused a stampede. In the end, 17 people were killed and dozens were injured. The final day of the carnival was cancelled 

Vodou shrine, Port-au-Prince

Market trader with Vodou paraphernalia, Port-au-Prince

It was noticeable, both in the markets and in several of the temples we visited, that Christian iconography would sit alongside Vodou objects and artwork in a way that I didn't see in Benin

Frantz Jacques Guido, a professional footballer-turned-artist, who teaches children art as well as making and selling his own. He specialises in working with waste materials, making inventive and original sculptural pieces from other people's junk

Celaine has been working as an artist for 20 years, also working with scrap metal and wood. His work has been influenced by Vodou since 1998 and he describes his style as international, intellectual, political and cultural. 

After a few days in Port-au-Prince we took a bus to Jacmel, a beautiful coastal town on the south coast famous for arts and crafts

Beach, Jacmel

The view from Jacmel harbour

In Jacmel, we were looked after by Emile Pierre Toto, another Vodou priest – here with his wife Rose and niece Paula at his home

On our first evening, Emile took us to a village called Meyer for a large ceremony with around 60-70 people in what appeared to be the back garden of a derelict house. There was chanting and dancing, plus two wheelbarrows selling drinks. It was a great party! 

The next day, Emile took us to Jacmel market to buy a chicken for another ceremony. This time, it was for something a little more intimate at his home

Emile explained that this ceremony was a general invocation, calling all the spirits together, which is often held for social reasons. We were joined by some of his friends and family

On the left is Mesis Adan, another priest. We drank rum with pepper, which burnt my lips!

Emile, 58, is a very senior priest. He told us that he was born into Vodou but didn't become a priest until 1998. His grandfather was also a priest, but not at the level Emile has reached today. He told me that when it comes to Vodou, you can train or be chosen. He was chosen, because his mother always knew he was meant for the priesthood

When, as a tourist, you're asked for a donation for the spirits, you might assume that it's actually for the priest and the upkeep of the temple, no different from the collection plate in a church. But in this case, the money was burnt in front of us – no small thing in a country as poor as Haiti

As with what I saw in Benin, there is no waste from sacrifices. Everything is eaten or used

Back in Port-au-Prince, Lafontant took us to the city's legendary cemetery, which is filled with shrines. This one belongs to Roland, who has been a priest since 1989

Shrine inside a tomb

Edner Pierre Junior at his family's Baron Samedi shrine

That night, Lafontant took us to a large ceremony in Bel Air, one of the slum areas on the outskirts of the city. We parked in the UN compound then walked down in the dark into the "red zone" – what Lafontant described as one of the most dangerous areas in the country, in terms of gang violence and kidnappings. We couldn't possibly have visited without him, day or night

As we walked through the pitch black, maze-like passageways between shacks we could hear drums and chanting, getting louder as we approached. We arrived just before midnight and walked into a large temple, which was a bit like a community hall covered in colourful drapes. Around 80-90 people were singing, dancing and praying

This was a "Feeding the Necklace" ceremony, in which necklaces made of beads and snake bones were given to voodoo initiates to give them power

The energy was amazing and everyone was clearly having a great time. We left shortly after 2am, but Lafontant said that it would carry on until dawn

The following day, we flew north with Lafontant to Cap Haitien where we met Frantz Jean Francois, a priest in Bois Cayman

We then visited a Vodou school where we witnessed a ceremony officiated by Aida, a priestess and teacher

The most famous landmark in northern Haiti is the Citadelle Laferriere, the largest fort in the country. We took motorbike taxis all the way to the top, only for the view to be completely obscured by low clouds! This was the best view we got, further down the hill

By the time we reached the top, this was about as much as we could see

Our motorbike taxi drivers then took us down – a steep and pretty hair-raising experience over slippery cobbles – to the ruins of the Sans Souci palace. This, at least, was below the cloud line

We then flew back to Port-au-Prince for our last 24 hours in Haiti

On our last day, Lafontant took us to Cité Soleil, one of the poorest, and most dangerous, areas in Port-au-Prince – another "red zone". It began as a shanty town but has expanded to a population of around 400,000. We had to change our route on the way because of a gunfight we could hear taking place between two gangs ahead of us

Sakala is Cité Soleil's youth centre, which describes itself as a safe space for young people to grow, learn and play

In Cité Soleil, we met this priest who runs the Bois Neuf neighborhood. He was happy to be photographed but asked that I didn't publish his name

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