The second-most-populous Caribbean nation is changing its stripes. With a revitalized UNESCO World Heritage Site, enticing architecture and a renewal in cuisine and tourism, adventure awaits in Haiti.
Mist morphs into drizzle this morning. As I tie my hiking shoes, the drizzle clatters into a downpour. Today is my only day to get to the top of the Citadelle Laferrière. I’ve longed to stand on the walls of Haiti’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site since I volunteered in this Caribbean nation in 2000. Back then, I was looking through the lens of widespread poverty. Though that hasn’t really disappeared, I’m now drawn by both the beautiful landscape and the heartfelt hospitality that endure in hope — the transformation is undeniable. The elephant-ear-size leaves that are spreading outside of my room reflect the beauty of a nation too often headlined as the poorest country in the Americas. The view through the telescope on my balcony at the Habitation Jouissant Hôtel stretches all the way from Cap-Haïtien to the Citadelle. Today, the largest fortress in the Americas is shrouded in clouds. Not promising, to be sure, but this is the tropics. Rain is always expected here but often fleeting. I’ve come to Cap-Haïtien (a city not far from where Christopher Columbus landed on Christmas Eve in 1492) to immerse myself in the cultural heritage of the world’s first black republic (after the U.S., the second independent nation in the New World).
I settle into a well-used 4WD and greet my driver, Dan Joseph. He’s placed a fresh pineapple between us to serve as an air freshener. I glimpse the noteworthy French Colonial architecture when we round the cathedral square in a city once called the Paris of the Antilles. It’s unwise to estimate our travel time to Milot, the gateway town to the National History Park that includes the Citadelle Laferrière, the Palais Sans Souci and the Site des Ramiers. We negotiate hubcap-high mud puddles as we pass clusters of children in immaculate school uniforms and women balancing baskets of fresh bread on their heads. Once we’re on the occasionally crumbling national highway, we pass by plush green fields of corn, plantains, sugar cane and oranges. We pull over to make a quick stop for a crispy cassava snack shaped like a toaster pastry. Cassava is the root we call yucca, and the pineapple filling in the pastry is sweet.
We also pass patched-together shacks of scrap metal and old boards next to cinder-block homes, most of them within a few feet of the road. Busy markets bustle as we cruise past men lined up beside motorcycles, an alternate transport option if you don’t care for a helmet and can hang on to a stranger. I’ll stick with Dan Joseph, because in less than an hour, we make it to the park.
“Bonjou!” is my Creole greeting for guides Wilfred and Jacklin Jean, whom I meet under dry skies just below the massive white stone gates that lead to the ruins of the Palais Sans Souci. Begun in 1807, three years after Haiti’s slaves freed themselves and defeated Napoleon’s army, this is the centerpiece of a royal compound conceived by King Henri Christophe. Then leader of the nation’s northern region, he sent Haitians abroad to bring back knowledge on various subjects, including architecture. His palace, now a shell of its former self, is evidence of the king’s vision as we walk up the broad entry reserved only for the self-declared monarch. Wilfred explains that the palace, which was once graced with a fountain, a massive mirror and a sculpture, was felled by an earthquake in 1842, after Henri Christophe, too ill to ride his horse and fearing a revolt, died in 1820 by his own hand.
As if recounting a personal loss, Wilfred sighs, “He wanted to die as a king.”
Moving through the thick archways, we emerge onto a large open terrace overlooking the 19th-century gardens that are slowly being restored. To the left, Wilfred points out the remains of an iron foundry. He says we’ll see the two-and-a-half-ton cannons forged here up at the Citadelle. Both historic sites are in the park that was listed by UNESCO in 1982.
That was near the end of the era when Haiti welcomed travelers as diverse as Mick Jagger, English novelist Graham Greene and Jackie Onassis. Soon after that, tourism collapsed under the weight of tyranny and instability. More recently, the devastating 2010 earthquake near Port-au-Prince brought the likes of Sean Penn, Donna Karan and Anthony Bourdain to the island. Even though I’ve worked here in an orphanage for children affected by AIDS and assisted art therapists in a post-quake relief camp, I’m not fluent in Creole, and this is my first foray into the North. So, I’m using Belle Vue Tours, a cultural-heritage travel and tour company that specializes in showcasing historical sites. “We serve as a catalyst for new images of Haiti,” Managing Director Guerline Emmanuel says.
I’m seeing those new images, which I’m quite impressed by, at Bois Caïman, once a secluded forest where slaves conceived their revolt in 1791. It concluded a dozen years later at a spot in Cap-Haïtien marked by Vertières, a monument depicting heroes such as General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s founding fathers. Though the rain has gently returned, it’s time to see more history. We head for the acutely angled, rock-encrusted lane that leads to the Citadelle — definitely a challenge. I tell myself that two centuries ago, men and animals hauled cannons to the fortress during construction on the summit, but my confidence diminishes when the tires start spinning. The guides and I ease the load by walking 100 yards ahead. While we wait, two men with horses and a half-dozen with motorcycles gather in hopes that we’ll turn to them for the 3,000-foot ride up. A few minutes later, a clearly frustrated Dan Joseph joins us on foot.
Decision time: quest versus caution. Must I defer my dream or take a riskier ride? There’s an appropriate Haitian proverb for every situation. This time, Dan Joseph says, “If it’s not all good, it’s bad.” At the moment, our status is “not all good.”
We’ll hold off to see if the weather improves. As we wait under a tall mango tree, Wilfred explains that families cultivate grapefruit, coffee, plantains and cassava in narrow strips of soil all the way up the hill. While Dan Joseph dispatches a motorcyclist to check the upper road, I reminisce about my sunny-water adventure in nearby Labadee that I had experienced a few days before. Big cruise ships anchor there, but I’d climbed aboard a brightly painted wooden water taxi owned by a 20-year-old boatman. After tying on the small dayglow-orange life vest, we glided over rolling swells while reading the painted mottos such as “One for all” or “Practice is very hard, but the sound of the flute is sweet,” decorating the boat’s roof overhead. Like a Technicolor coat, the boat’s vivid art reflects the fusion of faith and philosophy worn with pride by Haitians. Soon we reach a picnic-perfect palm-tree refuge. For this boat ride, I recommend going “port out, starboard home” to view the fluffy cloud parade over the mountains and little landlocked enclaves along the bay.
My friend Amber Walsh, who started in the Peace Corps in Haiti and now works for an in-country education nonprofit, stays at Norm’s Place, a waterfront bed-and-breakfast. When I pull up there, owner Angelique Zarchin points out the double hammocks beside her seven neat, comfy, stone-walled rooms in a restored French fort. “It’s a simpler way of life,” Amber says.
Our mountaintop goal is not simple on this drenched day, but when the roads are reported dry, we agree to try again. At times I wonder if the ascent is worth the anxiety, but Dan Joseph keeps us on track, steering clear of sheer drop-offs. I see no guardrails. The car is wheezing like an asthmatic as we crawl into the empty Citadelle parking lot.
The rain is pelting now, and although there’s a walkway, I ride a horse on the last leg of this journey. Did I mention my only other day in the saddle was six months ago on a trail ride in the Grand Canyon? Fortunately, there’s a convenient wall for mounting the silver gray equine named Panama, but since I find no horn, I grab the blue fabric wrapped around the saddle. I’m glad that two boys wearing flip-flops accompany me up the 4-foot-wide pathway — one leading and the other occasionally coaxing my mount with a thin switch. The path is stony and slick, but the horse rarely slips. My fingers hold on tightly despite the gradually increasing rainfall. I try not to think death grip.
Wrapped in more than mist, the Citadelle rises above us as we turn a sharp corner. Shaped like the prow of
a ship, the walls range from 80 to 130 feet. Around another corner, we dismount by stepping on one of several black iron cannons. Huddling under the high stone-arched entrance, marchands — think entrepreneurs with coolers — sell bottled water, soda and fruit. I await my companions still climbing the path. How different this space is from my visit to the Musée de Guahaba in Limbé — a compact circular building inspired by the huts where the indigenous pre-Columbian Taíno and Arawak people lived. These are the people who named their land Ayiti, meaning mountainous land. Though the Spanish named this island Hispaniola and the French called their colony Saint Dominigue, we now call the mountainous western portion of this Caribbean isle Haiti. The Musée de Guahaba, built by missionary doctor William Hodges and maintained by the museum’s caretaker, Pierre Andre Genty, traces this multilayered history with artifacts, dioramas, maps and art. Mr. Genty gives me a rare glimpse into the complex depth of his homeland.
Dan Joseph and the guides arrive, bringing dry skies. Dwarfed by the stone walls, Wilfred and Jacklin Jean lead me past one of the three original powder magazines intended to preserve the foundling Haitian nation. Pyramid stacks of cannonballs wait where they will never be used. These fortifications were brought here between 1805 and 1820.
The French forts, I’m told, lined the coast to protect the plantations, including the sugar-cane plantations that made this their richest colony. The Citadelle is one in a series of mountain-high lookouts established as part of then-General Henri Christophe’s strategy to protect his country from a feared return of Napoleon’s forces and invasion by opposition leaders from the new nation’s south. According to Wilfred, Henri Christophe enlisted about 20,000 people to create these defensive bases.
“Does that mean that almost everyone here in the North has ancestors who helped build the Citadelle?” I ask. Wilfred and Jacklin Jean nod yes. No wonder they’re willing to toil up here in the rain. As stakeholders in a world-class site, they want the outside world to experience its magnificence.
The fortress once housed 365 cannons, salvaged from Spanish and French munitions. There are also the two-ton models made down below. None were ever used for defense.
“Come,” Wilfred says, “I will show you the dungeon and the king’s living room.” Soon we stand in front of massive wooden doors with bright yellow guard posts on either side. Then Wilfred points to a dark slit beneath the stairs. That’s the dungeon, waiting for anyone deserving of punishment.
Originally intended as a garrison for 10,000 to 15,000, there are bake ovens and an ingeniously engineered water cistern ready to support a military force. Wilfred also points to a protruding rock, indicating the Citadelle’s tenacious hold on the top of the mountain. It reminds me of the Haitians I know who endure — and often innovate — by holding on in the face of misfortune.
We head for the parapets. Built to provide a 360-degree outlook for defense, they now draw international visitors with cameras at the ready. Atop an edifice many sources dub the Eighth Wonder of the World, some say the view west extends to Cuba.
In fairy tales and fiction, the sun would now break through, revealing the Atlantic Ocean straight ahead and Cap-Haïtien in sight. However, this is the real world, and clouds cling to the hills around me. I snatch a slightly obscured peek at another fort, Site des Ramiers. I’m sorry this is not the day for a bucket-list panorama, but my takeaway is what I came for: a deeper connection to a nation rising despite a complicated history with people who have the strength and patience to prevail even on an arduous path. Wilfred concludes our visit saying, “Until you have been to the Citadelle, you have not been to Haiti.”
I smile in agreement. For newcomers or old hands like me, Haiti has much to teach us.
I’ll come back to the Citadelle Laferrière. I hope it’s soon. On a sunny day.
If You Go
Tourism is re-emerging, so best access to the following is often through social media and by phone.
Norm’s Place Labadee
[Facebook.com/pages/Norms-Place-Labadee/ 174282389274500](http://Facebook.com/pages/Norms-Place-Labadee/ 174282389274500)
Superior Haitian cuisine; best to call a day in advance
Auberge du Picolet
Favorite food equals okra coated in yucca.
Kokiyaj Market Bar & Grill
Crisp fried goat with Prestige beer, plus water view
Universal Hotel Boutique Bar and Grill
Exceptional fruit punch includes carrot.