“Citadelle Henry is a living testimony of the determination of the people to consolidate their right to be sovereign and free, and to decide their own destiny. It is a place of remembrance and reflection, a symbol of dignity and freedom”. – Transcription on a plaque posted at the entrance to Citadelle Henry
Perched high above the ocean within the lush green confines of the mountain Bonnet-à-L’évêque that surround the small farming community of Milot are two of Haiti’s most prized possessions and symbols of freedom, Citadelle Henry and the Palais Sans Souci. Both built in the early 1800s during the reign of Henry Christophe, an important leader of the slave rebellion that led to Haiti’s independence, these two UNESCO World Heritage sites are perhaps the most impressive and iconic monuments in all of Haiti. They are definitely worth a visit to grasp an understanding of Haiti’s tumultuous, heroic past which enabled this tiny nation to become the first free black nation in the world.
We set off after breakfast from our hotel in Cap-Haïtien towards Milot. Although Milot is only about 17 miles south of Cap-Haïtien, it of course took an hour to navigate through the swarms of pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, and rough roads to reach Milot, a small town located at the base of the mountain and the entry point for Citadelle Henry and the Palais Sans Souci. Thankfully we had our trusted driver Nixon at the wheel of our six-passenger van steering the way through the madness. Yet of course it didn’t fail that we got lost trying to get our of town and had to hire another motorcyclist to show us the way. It was becoming a common trend!
While the Palais Sans Sousi is located within the folds of the Bonnet-à-L’évêque mountain on the edge of town, the Citadelle Henry is perched high above Milot (over five miles up) on top of the mountain and requires quite an effort to get there. Given the heat and the potential for crowds, we decided to visit the Citadelle Henry first.
Reaching the Citadelle Henry is not for the faint at heart. There are basically two ways you can do it: On foot or on horse. If you go on foot, it is requires a couple of hours to reach the top depending upon your fitness level and the heat. If you go on horse, it is quite easy and only requires your patience dealing with squabbling horse handlers trying to continually negotiate a higher tip for the 30 minute ride up. We opted to ride the horses which ended up being a great decision given the hot and humid weather.
We met our horse handlers at the “second” parking lot located in the village of Choiseul, about a twenty minute drive up a steep cobbled road past the “first” parking lot below at the Palais Sans Souci. I was relieved to get out of the van as I was beginning to feel a bit carsick. Yet little did I know what a hysterical adventure was in store for us.
As soon as our group of four stepped out of the van, we were swarmed by eager horse handlers hoping to make a buck for the day. Thankfully our tour guide Nat had already set up our excursion so we didn’t have to barter over the price. For roughly $10 plus tip, you can “ride” a horse to the top. When I first heard we were riding horses to the top, I envisioned a beautiful, peaceful ride up the lush green mountainside affording fantastic views. While the views were wonderful, the ride was not. We did not truly ride our own horse. Instead, we each had two horse handlers assigned: One as a driver who pulled our horses up the mountain and the other to encourage the horse to make the ascent. I felt like I was a kid at one of those $5 pony rides where they lead you around in a circle. It was not at all what I had expected and I felt bad for the overly thin horses.
As we went up the mountain, we passed through tiny little mountainside villages with the locals all going about their day to day activities. Wash was hung out on the trees and scrubs to dry, produce stands and art stalls were awaiting customers, and local musicians played music alongside the road as we passed them by hoping to earn a few bucks.
Ironically it was only our tiny group of four tourists that morning. We didn’t realize how incredibly lucky we were to have the entire place to ourselves. Apparently on weekends and during Haitian holidays there can be in the thousands of tourists each day. Our good luck helped explain the overwhelmingly large amount of horse handlers hassling us at the parking lot. They had expected more customers and each had to fight for our business.
As we approached the top, we got our first glimpse of the Citadelle Henry and it was magical. There atop the mountain at 3,000 feet above sea level she sat, the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Taking over 14 years to build by a labor of over 20,000 people, the Citadelle Henry is a testament of the Haiti’s fight for freedom. I could hardly wait to reach the top as I knew it would be breathtaking.
As we approached the thick walls of the fortress, it was time to dismount our horses and say goodbye to our handlers. We met our Haitian guide, Mr. Charlot, who would take us through the fortress and tell us about the history behind it.
We entered through a small gate which brought us into a lovely courtyard where we could get a sense of the massive size and scope of the fortress. The Citadelle Henry was constructed between 1806 and 1820 using cutting edge military architecture at the time. It was built on the perfect strategic location, high above the ocean where the military could be on the watch for potential French invaders trying to reclaim Haiti. The fortress was built to hold up to 5,000 people within its immense 10,000 square meters of size. No attack ever came and the fortress never fired a single cannon. It was abandoned shortly after it was completed, and remains an iconic symbol of Haitian independence today.
In the courtyard, you can see for miles upon miles of beautiful green countryside and on a clear day, all the way out to the sea. It is utterly breathtaking.
Original cannons and cannon balls line the courtyard.
Once inside the fortress, I was amazed at the size of the place. Every single stone had to be carried up the mountain by hand and the walls were all built without cement. Instead, per our tour guide, they used a mixture of dirt, sugarcane, limestone and animal blood to keep it all in place. Thousands of workers died during the 14 year construction due to exhaustion from the heat and the heavy manual labor. What a price to pay.
Inside the fortress, each window has its own cannon facing out. All the cannons are the originals from 1804 and each one is unique in its design. After our tour, it was time to head back down the mountain and visit the Palais Sans Souci. I opted to avoid the horseback adventure and walked on down. I am glad I did as my friend was accosted the entire thirty minute ride down by her horse handler trying to get an extra tip. It was nice to have some peace and quiet.
I arrived at the bottom just a few minutes after the horseback riders. Unlike the Citadelle Henry, you can not go inside the Palais Sans Souci. You can only explore the outskirts of the ruins (The palace was toppled after an earthquake in 1842). Once again, I was overwhelmed at the mere size of the structure. It is immense and I can only imagine how incredibly beautiful it was before it was destroyed.
Construction of the palace began only days after Henry Christophe declared himself King of Haiti in 1811. The palace was built with all the splendor fit for an ambitious king and unfortunately Christophe did not get much time to enjoy it. Fearing a coup, suffering poor health and unpopularity, Christophe killed himself in 1820. Then only 24 years later came the earthquake that leveled a lot of the palace to the ground.
As we left Milot, I reflected on what a powerful symbol of freedom I’d seen and of all the hopes and dreams for a better life that were built upon Haiti’s independence and birth of a nation. Hundreds of years later, the people of Haiti continue to fight for their dignity, their sense of self and ability to survive. What a pity.