I’ll be very honest. The first time I came to Haiti I knew very little about its history. I knew there was a slave revolt and voodoo and that’s about it. When we came back for an extended period of time, I really did try to learn about the history and about the historical sites here. It turns out that Haiti is a gold mine for nerdy and somewhat adventurous travelers. The slave revolt is fascinating and the system of forts here is a historical-site-loving person’s dream.
In late January, Josh’s parents and sister, Casey, came for a visit. They decided to treat us to a trip to Cap Haitien. This town is up in the North near Labadee (where Royal Caribbean stops). It’s about a 5 and a half hour drive from where we live in Port-Au-Prince. The roads were great up to Gonaives and after that they were a bit pot-holey, but nothing too bad. The drive was gorgeous so we didn’t mind bumping our way along. One of the cool things about Haiti is how quickly the terrain changes. We passed the beach, dessert-like land with cacti, rice fields, and green mountains.
Cap Haitien is a really cool town. It’s a lot cleaner and calmer than Port-au-Prince (duh) and the roads are laid out in nice grids. There’s a little boulevard that runs next to the ocean downtown that has several nice looking restaurants. We drove up a hill that overlooks the town to our hotel. We stayed at a nice little boutique place called Habitation Jouissant. I can’t say enough wonderful things about the manager, Florence. She’s a delight. The staff was great and the rooms were nice – small – but nice. We had breath-taking views of Cap Haitien and the ocean.
We spent the afternoon reading and just enjoying hot water showers and air conditioners. The next morning, we headed to the Citadelle around 9:00am. When you get to the parking lot, there’s a booth to your right where you buy your tickets for $5 per person. If you want a guide you can hire one for $10 per person there as well. We immediately were overwhelmed with ladies wanting to sell us hats and a guy who REALLY wanted us to by a flute…which he played for us quite a bit. Who wants a used flute? Not this girl.
Right past the parking lot is San Souci palace. It was built by a guy named Henri Christophe. Haiti’s slave revolt was the world’s only successful slave army revolution. The first leader was Dessalines, who declared himself Emperor for Life. That didn’t go so well and that life was cut kinda short. After that, Haiti was divided into the North and South. Henri Christophe took over the North and established a sort of feudal system. Though Napoleon had given up on establishing France in the New World, Henri didn’t want to take chances so he built a really impressive system of forts with the Citadelle being the crown jewel. At the base of the mountain that hosts the Citadelle he built San Souci Palace. It was one of NINE palaces built by the guy! After Henri Christophe suffered from a stroke and committed suicide (supposedly with a silver bullet), the place fell into ruin.
We toured these ruins first where we picked up a few uninvited guides. I may not speak a ton of Creole, but they got the point that they weren’t wanted.
After walking around San Souci for awhile, we started up the mountain. Most people drive up to the second parking lot and hike from there. We are not most people. We are Tinii. One of our uninvited guides couldn’t believe we were walking and left us alone. The second guide hiked along with us…and a half dozen horses who WOULD NOT GET OUT OF OUR GRILLS. I mean, really. When you’re hiking straight up a mountain in the heat of a tropical country, the last thing you want is to be surrounded by janky looking horses. Our unofficial guide kept telling them to leave and finally they listened to him. From that moment on, I didn’t care how much money he weaseled out of us…it was worth it.
The guide ended up being helpful actually. I got a chance to practice Creole and he was pretty encouraging (he kept telling us we were strong people). He pointed out different fruit trees and was really shocked when I told him the price of avocados in America. I mean…he was flabbergasted.
Once we got to the second parking lot, the guide helped out again. We didn’t have our tickets with us and he talked the ticket booth into letting it slide. There are restrooms again, people selling drinks and souvenirs, and a little cafe at this parking lot. Our guide told us, “Soon you’ll see the Citadelle.” We asked him if that meant we were close. The answer was no.
At this point we were all pretty exhausted. All of us are strong hikers but that trek was legit. My butt and calves were on fire. Unless you are in good shape, drive up to the second parking lot FOR SURE and hike from there. This last part was the hardest but had some amazing views.
Once we finally made it to the Citadelle I was shocked by just how large it is. It’s over 100,000 square feet!
Because Haiti was never attacked all of the cannonballs are still lying in wait for Napoleon.
Our guide told us a lot of stories including one about the tomb on site. It’s apparently Henri Christophe’s brother-in-law who made the mistake of smoking in the gunpowder room. What was left of him ended up in the tomb. We also learned that Christophe is buried somewhere on the property but no one knows where and that Wyclef filmed a music video here.
Words can’t really do this place justice. It’s incredible and even if you don’t happen to find yourself in Haiti, it’s worth going to see. Cap-Haitien would be a really great vacation spot if you like this kind of thing and are a bit adventurous! One of the things I love about traveling in Haiti is that it really feels like a travel adventure! You have to be flexible and fly by the seat of your pants a lot. Plus, contributing to tourism here really does make a difference.
After the trip back down the mountain via moto (Which cost $10 and was totally worth it), we headed back to the hotel to recover. In fact, we spent the next day recovering at Cormier Plage – a hotel on a really pretty beach about 10 minutes from out hotel. The beach was in a little cove and we could see people para-sailing from the cruise ship at Labadee around the corner.
All in all, Cap Haitien was a breath of fresh air. Being there certainly makes you have a lot of hope for Haiti.