Far above Haiti’s creviced island landscape, a magnificent architectural wonder balances atop a hill almost as if hovering in the heavens. The Citadelle Laferrière is a fortress so grand that it earns a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage site list.
My travel in Haiti primarily involved studying and documenting small cities near Fort-Liberté and coastal stretches of the northeast in 2012. But it was my time at the Citadelle that left me with a perspective on Haiti that dramatically contrasted with the post-2010 earthquake imagery seen by much of the world.
Perched high above the fertile coastal hillsides lush with sugarcane plants and coffee trees, the Citadelle sits like a ship sailing away. But unlike a ship that gets lost at sea, this monument has endured as a proud symbol of Haiti’s independence since Haitian Army Gen. Henri Christophe directed its construction in the early 1800s to help defend the country from French resettlement.
Although weathered by nature and neglect, the Citadelle still offers glimpses of the Spanish and French influence that colors the contemporary look of Haiti. The Citadelle, perhaps the country’s greatest national treasure, remains a destination well worth the toil involved in reaching it.
There is only one way to reach the Citadelle, and those accustomed to the convenience of made-for-tourist attractions will either admire the monument from afar or embrace the undeveloped nature of the attraction with enthusiasm.
Even the journey by tap-tap (bus), from Cap-Haïtien – northern Haiti’s largest city – is a rocky ride, so difficult by Western standards that the major cruiseline that owns a private island 22 miles away cannot risk bringing passengers to the Citadelle for day trips. But that is due to change.
With support from the Haiti Ministry of Tourism, the World Bank and the Clinton Foundation, local roadways are undergoing renovations to improve accessibility. Although there are perils involved in exploiting national treasures – as proven with the Taj Mahal in India, which faces closure due to natural and tourist-induced erosion – preserving the Citadelle could provide much-needed economic stimulus for the Haitian economy.
A visitor’s journey to the Citadelle begins in the small town of Milot, where the Sans-Souci Palace beckons. First-time visitors may mistakenly believe that Christophe’s former residence is the final destination. Unlike the Citadelle, which survived the 1842 earthquake, the palace suffered damage, as evidenced by the cracks and rubble. Even so, the inviting formal staircase, tall arches and marble statues lure visitors into the inner terraces. Sans-Souci Palace may have a reputation as the “Versailles of the Caribbean,” but its scale and architecture pale in comparison to the mystery that awaits visitors uphill.
The route to the Citadelle officially begins at the palace, where a small ticket station offers admission for $5. Physically fit visitors equipped with water and walking sticks disembark for the 8-mile uphill climb from the palace. Many visitors opt to catch a ride to the end of the access road, where only a few miles of hiking remain.
By foot, visitors must navigate a narrow and steep meandering cobblestone pathway that hugs the hillside as it wends past colorful dwellings and affords striking views into green valleys.
As the higher altitude takes effect, legs may begin to fatigue, but the reward at the journey’s finish propels climbers upward. The final inclines of the ascent are the most exhausting yet exhilarating moments of the climb.
If you haven’t already succumbed to the services of a local touting a horse for hire, this is the point where you might hand over $12 for a creature comfort. Spotting the fort’s solid walls of rock rising above like a ship’s bow will make your heart race.
The massive walls that extend 130 feet high make visitors feel small. An estimated 20,000 slaves built the structure, which seems realistic when surveying the scale and complexity of the structure.
There is no formal path or tour through the fort. This is a particular luxury for historians, photographers or artists who enjoy viewing at their own pace and letting their imaginations run wild. They can poke into dark spaces, now overgrown with moss and plants, and envision them as they were in days when Christophe and 5,000 defenders occupied the Citadelle.
Entering through a giant wooden door with metal bolts, visitors step into a mazelike series of interior and exterior spaces, passing across cisterns and through dungeons and other storage rooms filled with cannons as if ready for battle.
A favorite lookout is positioned atop the building. There are no guardrails to protect tourists from the vertical drop. Proceed at your own risk – there is no safety net.
From 3,000 feet above sea level, you can take in the trail of tourists arriving and departing the Citadelle and admire the view of Haiti’s northern coast as it touches the Atlantic Ocean.
By late afternoon, clouds obscure the warm light of the sun and whispering winds make already dark corridors appear even eerier. The cool air against your back is a refreshing treat as you descend the dusty roads that lead back to the traffic jams of Cap-Haïtien.
• Regular flights travel from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to
Cap-Haïtien for approximately $200 round-trip. During the
25-minute flight, the planes fly low, offering panoramic vistas of the
Haitian landscape and even the Citadelle on clear days. A word of
warning: Travel light, as luggage space is limited.
• The best lodging in northern Haiti can be found in and around Cap-Haïtien. Hotel Mont Joli (hotelmontjoli.net) is a solid urban choice featuring a pool, restaurant and magnificent views of the city in all directions. For a more isolated beachside experience, consider Cormier Plage Resort (cormierhaiti.com).
• In addition to indulging in the local freshly caught fish, sample the native Tasso et Banane Pézé – fried goat and plantains. For an extra kick of spice, enjoy the plantains with pickled vegetables.
• For an interesting day trip, hire a car to visit the city of Fort-Liberté, northern Haiti’s administrative capital and home to much original French architecture. Although not as polished as some tourist destinations, Fort-Liberté boasts a seaside fort, the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Fort Dauphin and picturesque fishing boats.