One of the gems of Cap Haïtien, Haiti is Fort Picolet. It is one of the most interesting and lesser-known sites that are important to Haitian heritage. It is also one of the many little fortifications that Roi Christophe, the self-proclaimed King of Haiti, built during his reign from 1811 to 1820. It has fallen into disrepair over the decades but, just like the magnificent Citadelle Laferrière-the largest fortress in the western hemisphere only just 20 kilometres south, it was built with thick walls, elaborate turrets, hidden passageways and on a hard to access location on a headland. Even today there is only one way to get there by foot from the city.
It takes 15-20 minutes to get to Fort Picolet depending on how slow your Caribbean pace is. You need to walk west of the relatively posh Carenage neighbourhood of Cap Haïtien. Fort Picolet is actually the city limits, if you look at the original colonial plans of the city. But, true to the spirit of brutal and exclusionary colonial exploitation and not long after, unplanned city immigration, there are clusters of houses on the left hand side of the path along the steep and rugged coastline towards the fort. And they are stacked like Jenga blocks due to this lack of space. Most are incomplete so on Sundays you see families lounging in the incomplete room. Hair braiding, playing dominos, sipping soft drinks, enjoying the sea spray and listening to the lapping waves of the Atlantic waters are the order of the day. The Sunday experience lends itself to a rather romantic setting, but I can only recommend experiencing the ebb and flow of life during the work week in order to get that vivid experience of day-to-day life in Cap Haïtien along the way to Fort Picolet.
Most of the path is dirt track. A striking observation on the left side at the beginning of the walk is a plot of used land fenced out with thick and elaborate concrete, with quality plaster patterns and what looked like molded Romanesque jugs. Within the plot, just wild grass, a scattering of rocks and broken cinder blocks. A tale of two sides of the road. Outraged at such a waste of effort, someone explained to me that a wealthy musician had attempted to build a mansion there but simply just stopped. The jury is out on why that was so. The best guess is that he had to flee Haiti, money run out or there was an issue with the local authority. Otherwise it looks like squatters delight, if it was accessible. This is actually one of the many tales of the promise of fortune and disastrous fall to wastage and despair I have heard in Haiti.
The dirt path does a sharp wind to the left as it hugs the remains of another fortification that complements Picolet. The canons remain, of the short variety, designed for high trajectory shots on invading ships. It is a perfect location to have them. Being on the highest point on the coastline with a fantastic view of Cap Haïtien port, makes it easy to pick out targets. A far cry from it now, and most pertinent in peacetime, I saw an old man enjoying a nap inside one of them. And before you start thinking mischievously, the canons are inoperable. Some are stuffed with concrete.
Dotted along the way are original fortification walls made of a combination of what looks like coral and limestone. In fact, right at the bottom of the incline one sees a small box shaped rampart reclaimed by some squatter providing reclusive shelter from the seawater and maybe anything that would tumble down the hill. I have done this route many times but each time I see something new. One has to be weary of the silent motorbikes. To save fuel people coast down the downhill section, and you have to watch out for them. Other than that it's just "out of town" stares from local folks and wandering goats looking for succulent fodder.
Just before the Fort, there are some little hotels, private and exclusive looking houses, and a public beach. People come here to unwind from the madness of the paper chase in the City. Groups of friends and lovers come to chill out. The beachfront suffers from a backwash of plastic bottles and pretty much all things plastic. All the crap washing out of the dumpsites and big creek further east in Okap (the affectionate local name of Cap Haïtien) into the bay gets washed up onto random locations during storms and especially high tides.
The next challenge is past the end of the beach. One has to time the arrival at the fort really well; when the tide is about to get to its lowest. There was an all-tide all-weather stone path from the beach onwards, but erosion and destruction by falling cliff rocks happen during the hurricane season and heavy rains so at some points you have the option of getting wet or getting pricked by a thorn bush. And then you have all those plastic bottles to walk over. And don't get me wrong, despite the plastic eyesore the water is pleasant to swim in. But do use your own judgment, and engage the locals if still unsure. Some rocks are laid out in the water to barricade any large debris. Though a thorough shower later is recommended, just in case. If you have seen the things floating on Okap creek, around the Petit Ince slum area, before heading to the Fort I can understand if you do not want to swim in the sea anymore...
Typically I always mistimed the tides. Also if there has been a rainstorm the night before the water levels will be even higher and rougher (the rising sea levels from climate change in the coming years may make Fort Picolet completely inaccessible by foot). So stone skipping and waterlogged shoes guaranteed. A final climb up to the fort. At high tide, the only way out is bushwhacking up the hill to who knows where or taking a plunge into the rough Atlantic. If you don't think those are good enough options, there is always the old rusty steel, abandoned lighthouse to send an SOS out to sea, that's if it doesn't collapse or if the ship captain out at sea would answer it. But you will be fine as long as you go on the morning low tide. Like the other major sites, there are some traces of its original use, a spattering of unused, worn out canon balls.
On one occasion I went on my own and just sat on one of the outer walls, legs dangling over the rocks getting constantly battered by invading waves. I looked out at sea, contemplating life in Haiti. The ship traffic into Cap Haïtien port is not of Rotterdam or Shanghai proportions but it's always fascinating seeing a freight liner depart slowly across the bay and get smaller and smaller on the horizon. The channel between southern Cuba and northern Haiti is relatively busy with freight traffic and cruise liners. The largest cruise ship in the world at the time I was in Haiti (in 2009), the "Oasis of the Seas" made a ceremonial arrival in a exclusive tourism enclave called Labadie a couple of kilometres west of Fort Picolet as the crow flies. A flash-in-the pan, edifice of human consumer capitalism with the backdrop of an enduring, historically significant monument that is Fort Picolet.