One of the main tourist attractions on the Caribbean island of Haiti is the Citadelle Laferriere which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982.
Located 3,000 feet at the top of Bonnet a L’Eveque mountain, the Citadelle Laferriere is an enormous fortress built in the early 19th century to protect the newly independent Haiti from its former colonizers, France. An icon of the Haitian slave revolution, the Citadelle Laferriere is one of the first monuments to be constructed by freed black slaves and is the largest fortress in the Americas. It is situated in the north of the country at the National History Park amidst the picturesque landscape of lush, green mountains overlooking the valleys below.
The massive stone structure is believed to have been constructed between 1805 and 1813 to hold as much as 5,000 men in the event of an attack by the French. Henri Christophe, an army general who played a key role in the revolution, commissioned the fortress in 1805 with plans for the military to retreat there in case of an invasion and set up ambush attacks along the mountainside path.
Citadelle Laferriere: On the citadel’s rooftops, a view of the hilltops on the North, Cap-Haitien and its peninsula on the left, Millot and Grande Rivière du Nord on the right. Photo credit: ©Flickr/Rémi Kaupp.
The design includes impenetrable stone walls, built by the labor of about 20,000 workers using a mixture of quicklime, molasses, and blood from local cows and goats. To strengthen the mortar, cow hooves cooked to a glue-like consistency was also added. An elaborate water system consisting of several large cisterns was built with massive food storehouses that could supply the occupants for up to a year.
On the interior of the fortress palace quarters were set aside to accommodate the king and his family if necessary, as well as dungeons, bathing quarters and bakery ovens. Facilities also existed to accommodate large amounts of artillery. More than 300 cannons were stockpiled and still sit at the structure today, some bearing insignia of 18th-century royalty. The French never did attack the Citadelle Laferriere, but the formidable structure has fought off many of nature’s onslaughts over the years, including hurricanes and earthquakes.
Citadelle Laferriere in Haiti: Inside the citadel, access towards all the buildings: a true maze. Photo credit: ©Flickr/Rémi Kaupp.
In 1820, some of Christophe’s troops rebelled when he suffered a stroke and he committed suicide by shooting himself shortly afterward. His body was covered in quicklime and entombed in one of the Citadelle Laferriere’s interior courtyards where it remains today. The tomb of Christophe’s brother-in-law, who was killed by an explosion in gunpowder room, is also visible on the property.
Today, the Citadelle Laferriere is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Haiti, attracting crowds of visitors each year. Political instability in the capital Port-au-Prince has not affected the ability to travel to the relatively peaceful regions of the north where the Citadelle Laferriere is located. It is situated approximately 17 miles (27 km) south of the city of Cap-Haïtien and five miles (8 km) uphill from the town of Milot, where local guides eagerly point the way to the monument.
At the back of the citadel, a reserve of gun bullets and some howitzers protect the South entrance. Photo: ©Flickr/Rémi Kaupp.
The seven-mile trail starts near the entrance to Sans-Souci Palace, where visitors may be asked to pay a fee for entry. A horse may be needed for the uphill trek, although an all-wheel drive vehicle should be able to navigate most of the way. The stone paved trail is in fairly good condition however, the final part of the journey must be completed on foot or horseback. It is highly recommended that visitors carry plenty of water to maintain hydration in the tropical sun, and a variety of drinks and the juice of fresh coconuts can be purchased from local vendors along the way.
Once there, visitors can explore most of the interior of the Citadelle Laferriere fortress and make their way up numerous staircases to the roof of the colossal structure where, on a clear day, the city of Cap-Haïtien and the Atlantic Ocean can be seen to the north. The iconic structure is still the pride of the Haitian people and a national symbol featured on currency, stamps, and posters of the country.
Rear view of the citadel. Photo: ©Flickr/Rémi Kaupp.
Top photo: Aerial view of the Citadelle Laferrière. Photo credit: ©SPC Gibran Torres, US Army.