Cap-Haïtien: Haiti’s history at La Citadelle and Sans-Souci Palace

My G Adventures trip to Haiti promised highlights, and my second day in the north was definitely a highlight of the trip. After our start in Haiti’s colonial capital, we headed into the mountains to the town of Milot to see the results of the revolution. The mountain fortress of Citadelle Laferrière and Sans-Souci Palace are UNESCO World Heritage Sites sites today, and it’s easy to see why.

Hiking to Citadelle Laferrière

I refer to this part of the trip as “character building.”

Billed as a hike of “about 30 minutes or so,” it is really something that feels like a great life accomplishment when it’s over. I estimate the trip from the parking lot to the front gates of the Citadelle is approximately 1km, up a twisty mountain path, with little to no shade cover. I calculated the elevation climbed at only 250m or so, which is a massive disappointment, because it felt I scaled one of the smaller highest mountains in the world while wrapped in a desert.

Setting off, our group of 12 was more like 30 by the time you counted kids, guides, extra horses, and whoever else was around that day. The local guides offered their services and taunted our stamina by walking in flip-flops. Despite the grimness of the task, the route is quite lovely, with all kinds of things to look at, like bananas, cocoa, and coffee beans. The Citadelle itself is always in view. The path is well-built, but very rocky terrain. I wore sneakers, but wished I had a sturdier hiking or trail shoe. Do not wear flip-flops or sandals.

Note: If you engage and chat with the guides as you go up the mountain, it is customary to offer a tip. If, in your opinion, this kind of hike is for fools, you can take a horse, just be sure to negotiate the rate before you set off and pay at bottom when you are done. Horse guides will also walk up the trail with you just in case you change your mind and wish to engage their services. I have no idea what the horse costs, because I forgot to ask.

The hike up the mountain was steep, but that wasn’t the problem. After all, just a year earlier, I had walked 330km across Spain and tackled similar climbs wearing a backpack. In this case, the lack of shade plus clear, sunny skies, and 25C heat on a windless day led me to stop frequently and think, “Oof, sure could go for a barf right now.” I was rewarded with shade and cool drinks at the top of the hill at the Citadelle’s entrance. It was time to go back in time.

Haiti Citadelle hike path

Related: If you want to learn more about  doing proper hiking in Haiti, Uncornered Market visited Haiti with G Adventures, then stayed on for some trekking after.

Exploring Citadelle Laferrière

Citadelle Laferrière is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen and earns its reputation as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Construction started in 1804 at the insistence of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s founding fathers, and was built by 20,000 men on top of a 900m mountain, without modern construction or transportation equipment. Having seen the end result with my own eyes, I have no idea how that was possible. In its day, Citadelle Laferrière was the critical component of the young Haitian Republic’s defensive infrastructure, serving as a lookout for invading forces and, should the need arise, helping the local population escape to safety through the mountain trails few European invaders would dare to tackle.

The fortress went through a thorough restoration in the 1980s and 1990s and the result is extraordinary and well worth a trip up north to see it. It is well-maintained, with a lot of updated interpretative signs that explain the role of each component of the massive structure. The level of innovation in its construction is remarkable and noteworthy, including water collection and sanitation, and virtually impregnable walls.

Haiti Citadelle travel battery fortress

For me, the real treat was the battery, which contained cannons from myriad European countries representing the dominant forces of the day, mostly French and Spanish, and hauled from the Cap-Haïtien to the fortress, some 15km away. The French cannons are particularly interesting, because at least one cast in pre-revolutionary France was later “altered” to remove the markings of the monarchy. Today, it sits in a quiet battery on top of a mountain in Haiti.

Finally, for what it’s worth, the Citadelle has the nicest, cleanest, best public washrooms I’ve ever seen in a national historic site. ANYWHERE.

What could have been: Sans-Souci Palace

I wanted to visit the Sans-Souci ruins since I learned they exist a few months before my trip. Given the scarcity of travel information about Haiti, I didn’t know about the practicality of a visit, how close it was to the Citadelle, or whether it would be possible to get close to the ruins. Luckily for me, on the road up to the Citadelle’s parking lot, you pass the crumbling ruins of Sans-Souci Palace. Spooky, even in blinding sunshine, it sits as a testament to what might have been in northern Haiti.

Haiti Citadelle Sans Souci Palace fortress

After visiting the Citadelle, our group stopped at Sans-Souci Palace to get up close and personal with the brief reign of King Henri Christophe. Shortly after its founding, Haiti separated into two territories, the Republic of Haiti in the south, and the Kingdom of Haiti in the north, with Henri Christophe as its self-declared king. Henri Christophe set about building a country that would show the Europeans Haiti was a sophisticated, powerful country to be reckoned with at their peril. Part of this effort was constructing a European-style palace, Sans-Souci, from 1811 to 1814.

Unfortunately for Henri Christophe, his reign was brief. He killed himself after suffering a stroke in 1820, and the palace was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1842. Today, it sits quiet, empty, and in ruins.

Haiti Sans Souci palace Citadelle Cap Haitien

What remains is well maintained, all things considered, and is both easy and safe to explore. We were the only visitors there during our visit, though there were a few students hanging out in the windows, catching up on their studies and taking in the din of the town of Milot below.

On the way back to Cap-Haïtien, we stopped at a small, family-run distillery, which was interesting and a lot of fun, especially when we got to sample the goods!

We even caught the attention of this little goat who lived there.

Haiti Cap Haitien goat
“Hey! There’s more than rum to see at this distillery!”

My time in the north was far too short, but confirmed what I suspected before arriving: whatever expectations I had about the country were going to be wildly surpassed.

All about my trip to Haiti

For more about my G Adventures trip to Haiti, check out my Haiti travel section:

Krista Spurr bitesized travel Haiti travel blog posts

If you’re extra curious, explore my detailed Google Map of everywhere I visited in Haiti:

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