Travel to Haiti: What to See in Cap Haïtien
After years of poor governing and earthquakes, what used to be called the “Paris of the Antilles” is now struggling to get back on its feet. Here’s a look at how it’s like to travel Haiti after the earthquake.
Cap Haïtien: from Riches to Rags
Located on the northern coast of Haiti, Cap Haïtien was historically nicknamed “The Paris of the Antilles” for its wealth and sophistication displayed through its beautiful architecture and artistic life. Having earned much of its wealth from sugar production, it was once the richest French colony in the Americas.
Cap Haïtien is a city with a history: it changed name several times: from Cap Français to Cap Henry, to be finally called Cap Haïtien – but many people refer to it as simply le Cap. It was an important city during the colonial period, serving as the capital of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue from the city’s formal foundation in 1711 until 1770 when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince.
After the Haitian Revolution, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti under King Henri Christophe until 1820. King Henri Christophe was a former slave of African descent, and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804.
A Look at Haiti’s History
In the early 19th century, Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state when it threw off French colonial control and slavery.
But independence came at a crippling cost, and the impact can be felt until today. The country had to pay reparations to France, which demanded compensation for former slave owners. The 19th century “independence debt” was not paid off until 1947. There have been recent calls for France to repay the money.
Chronic instability, dictatorships and natural disasters in recent decades have left it as the poorest nation in the Americas. An earthquake in 2010 killed more than 200,000 people and caused extensive damage to infrastructure and the economy. Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital, was severely destroyed by the earthquake — but Cap Haïtien’s infrastructure was safe from damages.
A UN peacekeeping force (MINUSTAH) has been in place since 2004 to help stabilize the country. They are working on recovery throughout the island.
But Cap Haïtien continues to fight hard for its own future. Even though the city was practically wiped out by the Haitian Revolution and the 1842 earthquake, King Henri Christophe rebuilt most of the French colonial architecture. Today, the buildings from yesteryears still stand strong and the beauty of the city is still evident from their aged facades and crumbling structures.
Featuring high-roofed houses with arched doors and overhanging balconies, the colonial area reminds me of what New Orleans could have been 60 years ago. Especially notable are the gingerbread houses lining the city’s older streets.
The reason for this resemblance is that many craftsmen from Cap Haïtien fled to French-controlled New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. As a result, the two cities share many similarities in styles of architecture.
Remnants of Cap Haïtien’s Past
One building that really stood out for me in Cap Haïtien was the Iron Market, or the Marche au Fer. It was first built in 1890 by the Haitian engineer Alexandre Bobo, at the initiative of President Florville Hyppolite. Made completely out of iron and cast iron, the market is named after the market in Port-au-Prince which is also under an iron pavilion.
The market is the 34th historical monument of Haiti to benefit from this status which places it under the high protection of the State. Its inscription on the list of the national historic heritage was carried out following a presidential decree dated May 11, 2010. In the 1960s, the Iron Market was a real attraction for tourists thanks to its beautiful architecture and the amount of handicrafts, above all, ritual objects of the vodou, sold here. Today, it’s a chaotic and rather dirty mess of food vendors and people selling all kinds of knick knacks.
Another architecture marvel in the city is a major landmark that dominates the central square: the Cap Haïtien Cathedral, or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, is a French-style building that featured a silvered dome and two cupolas. The present building dates from 1670, when Haiti was still colonized by France and it was a testimony of their presence in the Caribbean.
It was affected by an earthquake in 1842, and underwent considerable modifications between 1941 and 1942. In 2011 it was attacked by religious groups and the monument suffered internal wreckage in monuments. During our visit, the cathedral was closed for restoration work.
In front of the Cathedral is the Place d’Armes square, where the liberation of the slaves was proclaimed on 29 of August 1793. These days, the central square has become Cap Haïtien’s natural meeting place. Regardless of the time of the day, there are often lots of people gathering round the square, or just hanging out enjoying some shade.
In addition to the large Cathedral, the plaza is dominated by monuments to two other key revolutionary leaders: Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Toussaint was the leader in the initial slave revolt that ousted the French, but never declared independence, instead seeking a settlement with the French. When they French re-invaded and re-imposed slavery, it was Dessalines who led the Haitians to independence and freedom. He expelled the French for good in 1804, declaring independence and declaring himself Emperor at the same time.
Haiti’s Top Tourist Site: The Citadel
Beyond the beautiful architecture in the city, Cap Haïtien is most famous for the two historical monuments that stand outside of the city, high up on the mountains surrounding the cape. King Henri Christophe was actually responsible for the construction of the Citadel and Sans Souci Palace, two of the most impressive historic sites in the country.
The Citadelle Laferrière or simply the Citadel, is a large fortress located on top of the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque, approximately 17 miles (27 km) south of the city of Cap-Haïtien. The massive stone structure was built by up to 20,000 workers between 1805 and 1820 as part of a system of fortifications. The Citadel was built several miles inland, and on a mountaintop, to deter attacks and to provide a lookout into the nearby valleys. Cap-Haïtien and the adjoining Atlantic Ocean are visible from the roof of the fortress.
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 construction is the largest fortress in the Americas. Built to demonstrate the power of the newly independent Haiti, the Citadelle Laferrière was essential for the security of Haiti’s newly formed state.
The fortress has an angular structure, thanks to which its appearance has different forms based on the viewer’s location. Some of the angles have protective character and were designed to deviate the enemy’s cannonballs. This mountaintop fortress includes fortification walls, large storages of food and water, royal mansions, dungeons, bathing quarters, etc.This astonishingly huge structure was created by war and for war, but fortunately the attack of French army never came and this amazing fortress survived up to today almost unchanged.
Getting to the Citadel isn’t an easy feat though: you’ll have to catch a taxi first to the town of Milot (an hour away), then hire a motorcycle or a horse for the steep rocky climb up to the fortress. The motorcycle is a faster method, but it only takes you halfway up and you’ll still need to hike the rest of the way. It’s not too difficult, but as we were with our 2-year-old daughter, we decided to take the horse all the way. She surprisingly did very well on the horse, even though it took almost two hours to get up there.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Sans-Souci Palace
Standing at the foot of the Citadel is the Sans-Souci Palace. Completed in 1913, Sans Souci was King Henri Christophe’s primary palace, where he held opulent feasts and dances. It was the most important of nine palaces built by the king, as well as fifteen châteaux, numerous forts, and sprawling summer homes on his twenty plantations. Construction of the palace started in 1810 and was completed in 1813. Its name translated from French means “carefree”.
Sans-Souci had immense gardens, artificial springs, and a system of waterworks, and was dubbed the “Versailles of the Caribbean.” The impressiveness of Sans-Souci was part of Henri Christophe’s program to demonstrate to foreigners, particularly Europeans and Americans, the power and capability of the black race.
The African pride in the construction of the king’s palace was captured by the comment of his advisor, Pompée Valentin Vastey, who said that the palace and its nearby church, “erected by descendants of Africans, show that we have not lost the architectural taste and genius of our ancestors who covered Ethiopia, Egypt, Carthage, and old Spain with their superb monuments.”
Sadly it stood only 30 years, as it was reduced to ruins by the 1842 earthquake that also destroyed most of Cap Haitian, including the cathedral, and killed around 10,000 people. Today, its crumbling structure still stands and it’s easy to imagine how big and impressive it must have been during its heydays.
Is It Safe to Travel Haiti?
Safety is often most people’s concern when traveling Haiti. There’s no denying Haiti has historically experienced its share of instability over the decades, with the occurrence of earthquakes and kidnapping.
These days, Cap Haïtien is relative safe for travelers, as it has been isolated from the political instability and earthquake in the south of the island. It is also easy to get to from the Dominican Republic (just a 5-hour bus journey from Santiago) and Miami (a 1.5-hour flight), and yet receives only a handful of travelers each year.
We traveled to Cap Haïtien independently with our two-year-old daughter and never felt unsafe at any time – neither in the chaos of the city nor hiking in the mountains. I’ll admit that Cap Haïtien is not the best place for kids; The streets were rough and grimy, with mounts of trash everywhere: on walkways, in the middle of the road, and all along the beach (everything from TV to computers and plastics were strewn on the beaches that line the city).
But it was an insightful experience and we loved it. Cap Haïtien is complicated, full of history, and truly fascinating. Even Kaleya loved it. Sure it has its problems, but it’s the phenomenal architecture, interesting locals and hilltop fortresses that left an impression on us.
If you pack some common travel sense, you’ll likely find yourself warming up to Haiti and its people.
How to Get to Cap Haïtien
Flights to Haiti can be expensive, even from nearby Dominican Republic or Miami. The cheapest way to get in by bus from the Domincan Republic. We traveled by bus with our two-year-old daughter to Cap Haïtien and it was relatively pain-free, easy and affordable.
The most popular bus company in Dominican Republic, Caribe Tours, runs a daily service from Santiago in the north to Cap Haitien, the second biggest city in Haiti. The journey takes around five hours from start to end: first 2.5 hours from Santiago to Dajabon, the Dominican border town, then an hour from the Haitian border town Ouathamije to Cap Haïtien. The return ticket costs $20 for ticket per person, but you’ll need to pay an additional $25 for entry/exit fee. Crossing the border is relatively easy and doesn’t take too long.
Source: Wild Junket