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Travel: Haiti’s forgotten fortress

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island Hispaniola. In the 1950s, the iron fist of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo meant that tourists went to Haiti. Under the control of the dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti was a stable country with an exciting mix of African and French culture.

Today, the tourist situation is reversed. The Dominican Republic is a prosperous tourist-friendly nation, while for most people, Haiti conjures up poverty, voodoo, AIDS and general misery. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise ships stop there, but the passengers stay inside the gated compound of Labadie.

Yet, there’s a lot to appreciate about Haiti. A product of the most successful slave revolt in history, when a bloody uprising in the 1790s drove out the French planters, Haiti has its own unique heritage. Native paintings are bright and bold, and iron wall hangings made from oil drums are becoming very popular. It may be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but its culture has influenced the world.

In August, I was in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. Wanting to see Haiti for myself, I found there was a direct bus to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s earthquake-ravaged capital. Another option was a bus to Cap-Hatien, the nation’s second city. I took that one.


Most of the passengers were Haitians who had emigrated to America, and the bus was loaded with housewares they were taking to relatives. We climbed over the Dominican highlands to the north coast and then headed inland to the stream that marks the border. Traders and money changers wandered back and forth across a bridge.

Cap-Hatien, the old French capital, has a population of about 200,000. There’s a cathedral in the town square, surrounded by sprawling blocks of tin-roofed buildings. East-west streets are numbered, north-south ones lettered. This is a legacy from the early 20th century, when the U.S. occupied Haiti for 19 years.

In the quiet morning, you can stand on a balcony and watch the women bring food to the market. Evenings and nights are noisy with celebrations.

With its history and seaside location, this could be an interesting city to tour, but today most visitors are in uniform. Since 2004, Haiti has been occupied again, this time by the United Nations, another force brought in to keep order. On the road from the border, we passed at least three U.N. compounds.

With their presence, and using reasonable care, tourists can navigate Cap-Hatien safely enough. But all visitors can expect to be followed by a crowd of aggressively begging boys.


What I really came to see was the treasure of the north coast, the Citadel — Citadelle Laferrière — outside the town of Milot, 12 miles south of Cap-Hatien. You can take a taxi, but a tap-tap is more interesting and a lot more fun.

A dozen or more people sit in an enclosed, brightly painted pick-up truck. The driver is in a cage while his assistant hangs off the back. When he sees that somebody wants to get on or off he taps loudly on the truck’s side. The trip to Milot took an hour and cost 20 cents.

From Milot, I entered the grounds of the Sans-Souci Palace. Built from 1810 to 1813 by the Haitian King Henri Christophe, his dream was to rival French King Louis XIV’s Versailles. According to contemporary accounts, he succeeded. But after Christophe’s death in 1820, the palace fell into ruin and was soon destroyed by an earthquake. Today only high walls and empty courtyards remain.

From the palace, it’s a steep road up to the Citadel, Christophe’s great fort. Under the hot tropical sun, it was a tough climb. Two men with a horse insisted on following me, and I finally gave them $20 and climbed aboard while they ran behind me for five miles to the top.

France tried once to take its rich colony back. But between disease and guerilla war, Napoleon’s invasion was a failure. In 1805, fearing another attempt, Christophe ordered the fort built. Under his brutal command, it took 20,000 men 15 years to do it.

Going up the mountain, the view expanded into a lush green tropical landscape. Looking up, the Citadel slowly appeared deceptively close, until I realized how big it is. With walls 13 stories high, the main courtyard is stunning. The total area of the Citadel is 108,000 square feet. By comparison, the Metrodome’s playing field is 142,000.

Climbing the handrail-free stairs to the ramparts, visitors see cannons and more cannons. There are 365 of them, with the barrels showing crests of 18th-century French, Spanish and English kings. Along the walls and lower roofs, 50,000 cannonballs are stacked neatly in pyramids. More cannons are perched on the surrounding hills. For two centuries, they have rusted in place.

On my visit, I had been followed by a self-appointed guide. He knew the building and gave a good lecture, whether or not I wanted it. Bowing to the inevitable, I hired him for $15, throwing in a soft drink as a tip. He did take me to a place where most visitors don’t go: the dungeon. Under the main wall, we crawled through a narrow passage and entered a room so cold, damp and dark that the only thing missing was a hanging skeleton.


There are real bodies in the Citadel. During construction, Christophe’s brother-in-law was blown up when the gunpowder room exploded. He rests in a huge blank white sarcophagus.

As for King Henri, after he had a stroke, his men mutinied and the king shot himself. His body was doused in quicklime and buried somewhere on the grounds.

With his death, the fortress was abandoned and the Citadel was left as a monument to one man’s megalomania. One of the grandest sites in the Caribbean, it is now one of the least visited.


– U.S. citizens need only passports to visit Haiti. The cholera epidemic is over, but malaria is a problem. Tap water is unsafe.

– Haiti and the Dominican Republic have little in common. But for $60 round-trip, there are comfortable daily buses from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s earthquake-ravaged capital, and north to Cap-Hatien. The trip takes about eight hours. Labadie is close to the Citadel, but there are no regular connections.

– Hotels range from $20 to $100, and reservations are strongly recommended. A guide is about $40 a day. Pastries reminiscent of France are a local specialty. Milot can be reached by taxi for about $50 or by tap-tap for 20 cents. Entry to the grounds of Sans-Souci and the Citadel is $5.


Category: DR Living |

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Last updated January 14, 2018 at 12:43 AM
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