As troubled Haiti recovers from earthquake, could its Citadelle become the Caribbean’s Machu Picchu? Judith Baker reports.
In the 1700s The French called it the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’ and napoleon valued it as one of his favourite colonies, but in recent times Haiti is more famous for disasters and dictators than it is for being a tourist trap. Now, five years after a devastating earthquake, Haiti is trying to put itself back on the map, and the key attraction could be the country’s La Citadelle la Ferriere, the largest and oldest fortress in the Western hemisphere. The Citadelle is referred by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World and in 1982 it was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This massive stone fortification was built to demonstrate the power of the newly independent Haiti, and with improvements to access some are saying this could be the next Micchu Picchu and attract thousands of tourists.
Haiti is one of the few nations in the world to overthrow slavery and proclaim independence. It became the world’s first black republic in 1804.
The Citadelle Henri Christophe, known as Citadelle Laferrière is a large mountaintop fortress. It was built by Henri Christophe after Haiti gained independence from France The massive stone structure was built by up to 20,000 enslaved workers between 1805 and 1820 as part of a system of fortifications designed to keep the newly-independent nation of Haiti safe from French incursions. It was outfitted with 365 cannons of varying size and an enormous stockpile of cannon balls can still be seen in different corners of the Citadelle even today. Today the iron and bronze cannons are still pointing out of the Citadelle’s windows and the visitors of the Citadelle can still see the royal crests of famous European monarchs of 18th century on the cannons.
This mountaintop fortress includes fortification walls, large storages for food, dungeons and bathing quarters with most of the fortress open to the sky.
Fortunately the attack of French army never came and this amazing fortress survived up to today almost unchanged.
The Sans-Souci Palace was the royal residence of King Henri I (better known as Henri Christophe, of Haiti and its remains can also be seen in the vicinity of the Citadelle
At the moment visitors can access the Citadelle up a steep path on foot, or on horseback. Friendly local boys are on hand to assist, and the traveller is rewarded with fantastic views across Haiti which is surprisingly lush and beautiful, despite its well-documented problems. A good local guide, such as Maurice Etienne, is well worth the small fee as he can point out all the nooks and crannies in the fortress and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Haiti’s fascinating history.
There are no audio guides, souvenir shops or guide books for sale and on the way down, you pass musicians playing pipes to make the journey bearable.
But all this could change. Carnival is investing US $70 million at Ile de la Tortue in the north of Haiti near the Citadelle and Royal Caribbean, which brings 600,000 day visitors a year to the country, is going to start excursions next year to the Citadelle.The World Bank is investing $45million in the re-development of the Citadelle which could make it into a world class tourist attraction
In fact, the earthquake of 2010 has given Haiti a new beginning. Tourism is a priority of the government and moves are underway to prepare Haiti for a new golden era. A brand new Marriott hotel funded by Digicel stands amid the debris of the capital and landmarks such as the Iron Market which sells Haiti’s famous artworks have been restored.
Elsewhere in Haiti
Port au Prince
In the city, the Musée du Panthéon National, where the anchor from Columbus’ Santa Maria is on display, tells the story of Haiti’s early history and its amazing defeat of the French through to the many leaders of recent years including the notorious Papa Doc Duvalier and his son baby Doc. Outside the imposing statue of “The Unknown Slave,” a monument to freedom fighters, reaches out across the square.
The 18th century Gothic Oloffson hotel with its white towers and gingerbread latticework welcomed Noel Coward in its heyday and Graham Greene based his novel The Comedians here. Today a bust of Jean Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s founding fathers, looks down on just a handful of curious tourists who have come to watch a voudou pop band.
This area near the town of Cap Haitien, with its elegant colonial buildings, is one of the most rapidly developing. Improvements to roads, funded by the World Bank, have already made it accessible to tourists visiting beach hotels such as Cormier Plage which has the ambience of a traditional Caribbean resort as well as offering voudou tours which explore Haiti’s mysterious spiritual side.
Jacmel was a coffee and sugar port, and its quiet streets and colourful clapboard houses are an oasis of calm after Port au Prince. Step into the cool of Hotel Florita, an 18th century warehouse furnished with old coffee processing equipment. Like everywhere, it is decked out with papier mache, carnival costumes and elaborate metal work.
For more information visit www.experiencehaiti.org
How to get there
Haiti makes up the western part of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with The Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has daily flights from the UK and the journey across the border can be made by road or plane.
Air France flies to Haiti via Paris, Copa flies via Panama, American Airlines, Delta and Jet Blue via New York and Miami.
Eight UK tour operators run trips to Haiti. A good example is Exodus who offer Haiti Revealed, a 12 day group trip exploring Haiti’s highlights from £2,499pp www.exodus.co.uk