Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 30, 2014

The Plunge into Port-au-Prince

Border crossings always have an adventurous feel about them–the romance and intrigue of passing from one set of laws and culture into another. But a handful of time’s we’ve traversed borders that feel not so much like a crossing, but a plunge. Going from the order and calm of Malawi into post-collapse Zimbabwe certainly felt like one; the short bus trip from sedate Macedonia to shambolic Kosovo was another.

For our latest trip, we had about the biggest plunge a three hour nonstop flight from Atlanta could possibly entail: Port-au-Prince.


The contrast between the comfortable, quiet, spacious life in the US and the crammed, noisy, and often trying streets of Port-au-Prince is as stark as it gets.


Street life in PaP, with a well-intentioned but apparently ignored pedestrian overpass. Sorry, that’s just not how Haiti rolls.


We were met on arrival by our guesthouse and promptly whisked up the (steep!) hills south of town into one of PaP’s wealthy neighborhoods, called Pacot.


Pacot isn’t quite as wealthy or famous as Petionville, which lies further east and higher up the mountain, but it offers a leafy, historic quality, a laid-back feel, and the ability to walk downtown–for the adventurous.


On the subject of walking around, we quickly confronted the question of safety. That ever-pressing issue in places like Haiti or a dozen other countries we’ve visited. Is Port-au-Prince safe?

Honestly, I really don’t know if there’s a simple answer to that question. Judging by homicide rate–the usual measuring stick of crime and danger–Haiti is “safer” than Georgia. But amidst the grinding poverty, patchy police presence, and legacy of powerful chimeres–politically-motivated street gangs–it would be reasonable to ask how in the world could Port-au-Prince possibly be safe?


First, the bad. Locals constantly warn that this or that is safe or unsafe, to guard your belongings, and so forth. For instance, in Bel-Air, a dicey but historic area, a warning might go, “You’ll be fine as long as you don’t go north or west of the cathedral.” Not the most reassuring sort of advice when you’re wandering around a congested labyrinth of a city. Worse, while Caroline and I were sitting at a sidewalk cafe not far from where the above picture was taken (Avenue Lamartiniere, for those on Google Earth), we saw a motorcyclist speeding along firing a pistol into the sky, as he was being pursued by the National Police. It was one of the more outlandish things we’ve ever seen anywhere, just a few hours after touching down in the country!

But still, I wouldn’t write off safety in PaP entirely. One place we stayed was a guesthouse high up on the hills south of town. We actually walked from this guesthouse all the way to the center of the city–a couple miles through a variety of neighborhoods–several times. In Brazil, this would be unthinkable. We probably logged 10 miles on foot in PaP, all told, and were never threatened in any real way. I’d rank Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, among other countries, as more dangerous than this.

No, we actually didn’t feel incredibly threatened in any physical way once we got used to the place. But there were two major hazards that left me cringing: open sewer grates and moto taxis.

Open sewers are everywhere. The are generally two-foot square holes in the sidewalk with missing grates, maybe 5 to 10 feet deep and full of trash and sewage at best, chunks of concrete and discarded razor wire at worst. If falling in one of these simply ruined your day, you’d have to count yourself as extremely lucky. There are generally a couple of these on every block. You’ve gotta look down when you walk (I stupidly started walking once without looking down and stubbed my sandaled toe on the bottom of on old, broken off signpost. Ouch.)

Moto taxis are a graver concern. They zip through traffic all over town and have terrible accidents regularly. Each one has an ultra-hot muffler, unprotected and burning instantly any skin that touches it (more on this later, unfortunately). Worst of all, “regular” taxis–automobiles–largely don’t exist. There just isn’t much of a market for them in the traffic-choked city.


PaP’s hillsides are a checkerboard of wealthy enclaves and crowded, desperate slums. No matter where you are, slums are never far.


The streets of Pacot are similar to rich areas in many other developing countries–houses ranging from comfortable to ostentatious fortified from the dangers of the outside with high, ugly walls.

rich quake

Sadly, in PaP, another dynamic is clearly at play: the January 2010 earthquake which ravaged the city. Rich and poor, hillside and lowland, it didn’t matter: the earthquake was completely devastating, and left a quarter million people dead. It’s offensive (not to mention pointless) to fixate on the disaster with which PaP has become synonymous, but it also cannot be ignored: the map of PaP was literally redrawn by the quake, and many landmarks and important buildings are lost and, hopefully, rebuilt elsewhere. This picture would have been of a large house pre-quake; the only evidence left of the house is its swimming pool.


Earthquake damage remains ubiquitous. Many buildings remain hybrids of damaged and undamaged areas, and have found a new, improvised existence post-quake.


Indeed, general poverty is also extreme–at a level we’ve not witnessed anywhere. I don’t want to fixate on this particular aspect of Haiti in general and PaP specifically, so this is the one picture I’ll show like this. But, fellow travelers, I would caution anyone planning on visiting Haiti that you’re in for an intense journey, despite how straightforward things may sound on paper, and I offer this picture just to illustrate the types of conditions you’ll come across regularly in the course of your travels. I would probably plan as little time as possible in PaP: both Cap Haitien and Jacmel are far more approachable Haitian cities. Sadly, PaP cannot be considered a tourist destination at this point in time. (I made the same recommendation about Managua a couple years ago, but we’re talking about a horse of a different color here.)

Nonetheless, this is Cape to Milan, and we go to the most unconventional places this planet has to offer and attempt to find the tourist value in them. So we spent a few nights in PaP and got to know the place. It was often adventurous, uncomfortable, and confusing. Always a bit dangerous. But and extremely memorable and, at times, pretty fun.

Stay tuned for the touristy stuff.


  1. I always enjoy reading and seeing your travels. Thanks for the post. Fran

  2. […] drama of entering Haiti aside, Caroline and I spent a few nights as tourists in as unlikely a place as any: […]

  3. […] this blog is no stranger to wonton exploration of random capital cities; why not take in another in the form of Romania’s capital, […]

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