Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 23, 2012

Haiti’s Second City: Cap Haitien

For years, I’ve wanted to go to Haiti. For whatever reason, it’s always been a country that’s fascinated me. Obviously, on any pan-Caribbean adventure, Haiti is an obligatory stop. So, here we are.

Sadly, Haiti’s recent history has been especially tragic. In 2004, president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from office in a coup-d’etat. In the years thereafter, kidnapping–especially of foreigners–was unacceptably common.

In the wake of the 2004 coup, after which the country fell into near anarchy for a while, the UN started a mission here called MINUSTAH, with the objective of stabilizing the country. By 2008, things were stable enough that travel seemed possible.

However, in 2008, the hurricane season was particularly devastating. Many of Haiti’s roads and bridges were knocked out. Then, in January 2010, the big one: a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, the capital, changing the course of the already-struggling country forever. Even in 2012, travel to the capital seems ill-advised. Many of the city’s former common areas are covered with temporary tent cities, and former neighborhoods remain rubble.

But now, in 2012, travel to the northern part of the country seems possible.

Cap Haitien–Haiti’s second city, and rival to Port-au-Prince–is doing fine. The disasters and unrest that have plagued the capital have largely spared the north.

And that’s not to say the north is second best or anything. With a more relaxed vibe and no shortage of French-style architecture, the north has plenty going for it. The north also boasts some of Haiti’s best tourist treasures–and I’m not just saying that, these are legitimately world-class tourist attractions that one would think foreigners would flock to. You’ll see what I mean in the coming posts.

But for now, let’s stay focused on Cap Haitien itself.

If you squint your eyes hard enough, it almost feels like you’re in a really colorful version of New Orleans.

One thing Cap Haitien definitely has going for it is navigability. When US Marines ran the country for 20-odd years back in the early 1900s, they got sick of Cap Haitien’s French street names. They decided to rename the streets Rue 1…2…3… and A…B…C… That, coupled with the very small blocks (you can easily walk a block in 30 seconds), means finding anything in the city is a breeze.

Something is located at 18C? No need to look at a map. you already know exactly where it is.

Of course, the beautiful old French street names were a casualty of all this. You can still see them all over–it’s an easy way to tell if a building is actually really old, or just looks old.

Historic buildings, by the way, are subject to some shades of grey here. This building has a real historic first floor, but is being added onto in the modern way. Which means cheap, ugly cinder blocks. Sadly, when finished, the whole thing will probably just get covered up with plaster and painted, so you won’t even be able to tell it’s 150 years old, except by the arched doorways.

I’m sorry to say that the same construction practices that failed so catastrophically during the earthquake in 2010 still appear commonplace. Cheap concrete blocks. Patchy mortar. A rebar-supported column every 8 or so feet. And new construction is everywhere–the living chaos that is Port-au-Prince these days has sent a lot of economic activity up north. People are buildings things everywhere (hotels are accordingly expensive–touring Norway would probably hit the wallet about the same).

To focus on things that are a bit more positive for a moment, here’s Cap Haitien’s pleasant central square.

The main church.

Caroline looking at the port at dusk. We called this area–the part of Blvd de Mer that is scenic rather than sketchy–the Malecon, as it would be called in any Spanish-speaking country, although I have no idea what the French would call it.

The main marche, south of the square. I’ve been to a lot of markets, and I can say that this one is the most dirty, hectic, and chaotic I’ve seen. It makes Maputo’s chicken market seem tolerable. When open sewers meet unpaved market streets, it’s a very rough situation indeed. Every sense is assaulted. Never sketchy or unsafe feeling, though.

A bit further south–still in the market chaos–is the bridge over Cap Haitien’s main river, just before it meets the sea. Since this is where the roads come together, this is where the tap-taps (minibuses, sort of) leave from. I wish I had more pictures of this area–it’s an incredible, unforgettable sort of place–but alas, you are in a column of people and if you stop for more than two seconds people get antsy.

I’ll try to snap a few more next time. Au revoir!


  1. Totally awesome guys!!! Glad your having a blast!

  2. […] and I even got to meet up with our friend Markenley, who came down from Cap Haitien! He and his cousin Sarah showed us around town one afternoon, which was super […]

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