Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 4, 2014

Port-au-Prince: A Tourist’s Perspective

The drama of entering Haiti aside, Caroline and I spent a few nights as tourists in as unlikely a place as any: Port-au-Prince.


The focus of Port-au-Prince’s modern tourism industry, to the extent there is one, is an area called Champs de Mars (or “Chanmas“, as it’s called in Creole).


The area is a leafy cluster of parks right downtown, interspersed with monuments and points of interest. This half-finished landmark was erected by the deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former populist president, to celebrate Haiti’s bicentennial. Closed permanently and fenced off–nothing to see here.


The site of the former presidential palace, an iconic bleach-white building famously destroyed by the earthquake and subsequently cleared away. Nothing to see save for an opaque fence and manned guard posts, which serve to discourage lingering.


The Constitution Monument, with a bit of the life of the park on display. Food and drink vendors everywhere, with tons of people milling about in all the open spaces.


My favorite part of the park was this art installation–the crass irony of the t-shirts caused us to do a legit double-take. The art worked, in other words. In a country so well-known for its traditional and folk art, Port-au-Prince is home to a starkly different dynamic if you’re willing to look for it: thought-provoking if sometimes tongue-in-cheek installations and murals created by a restless and forward-thinking urban youth. Stumbling upon this sort of thing is an occasional delight of being in PaP.


Due north of Champ-de-Mars is PaP’s oldest neighborhood: Bel-Air. An important historic district and center of Vodou spirituality, we treaded lightly. The area was a no-go zone back during the lawless instability of 2006 and again in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, and is only recently safe for visitors–safe in the relative, uncertain sense that things in PaP are safe at all.


We wandered the streets a bit looking for the supposedly-picturesque ruins of PaP’s old cathedral–also destroyed by the 2010 quake–and eventually gave up. We could see the ruins from afar, but would have to navigate a maze of corrugated tin barriers to get a better look. It didn’t seem prudent to explore further. We instead hopped on a moto taxi to take us away.


The entrance to PaP’s main cemetery, purportedly a distinctive, mysterious, and moving place. We didn’t get to find out for ourselves: entrance to the cemetery was quoted at 500 Gourdes (about $11) per person by the guards. A ludicrous amount by any standard to enter a cemetery, especially which the guidebook said was free of charge. And we had Haitians we knew and trusted negotiating this for us in Creole–we wouldn’t even have been able to get this far using just English. I sincerely hope that Haiti’s tourism ministry looks into this nonsense; the cemetery should be one of the city’s prime surviving tourist attractions–a place unique of the world for its cultural interest and Vodou traditions–and essentially closing it off from foreigners for the gain of a few guards is travesty. So I regret I have no pictures of the inside of the cemetery to share.

So far, you might be noticing that basically every tourist attraction we went to was a disappointment. Unfortunately, we found this is largely the case in PaP. Tourist accessibility requires precious investment and, perhaps rightly, has fallen low on the priority list at present.

So what about the less formal tourist attractions in the city? After all, this is Cape to Milan’s bread and butter: finding the small, rewarding nuggets that speak to a place’s history and culture.


We were pleased to find that PaP does better in this regard. One crowd-pleasing example: gingerbread architecture.


This whimsical, Seuss-like style of construction was pioneered in PaP, and remains on display in several neighborhoods. Granted, these houses are woven coarsely into the frenetic urban fabric of modern PaP, meaning that viewing them from the sidewalk is a best-case scenario. Still cool.


New overpowering old.


Despite the difficulty of actually seeing these houses up close, it’s surreal to see their richly-detailed towers sticking up out of the haphazard jumble of concrete and steel that typifies PaP.



A tourist attraction in itself, if you’re ever in PaP, you should stay nowhere besides the iconic Hotel Oloffson, a gingerbread masterpiece. As this writeup in The Economist suggests, the hotel is many things, among them the setting of a notable book (Graham Greene’s The Comedians) and the weekly venue for a genre-defining and sometimes politically-acerbic band (RAM) that incorporates Vodou heavily into its music and has been subject to political bans over the years. It has accommodated guests such as Mick Jagger and Jackie Kennedy. It’s also the ongoing labor of love of a famous Haitian-American who is (1) lead singer for the aforementioned band, (2) a Vodou Priest, and (3) cousin of the current president of Haiti. The personal details of his life are the subject of constant wonder and intrigue among locals, and it just so happens that he wanders the bar and lobby regularly throughout the day–you’ll most likely come across him should you choose to stay here.


The place is steeped in Caribbean kitsch, with endless character.


An old advertisement for the place.


This back room is where the Thursday night RAM performances occur to this day.


Caroline happy to be taking a break from the chaotic streets!


Meanwhile, back on the chaotic streets, some low-to-the-ground commerce. I loved the shoelaces!


We went to Haiti during the buildup to the World Cup. Brazil is supposed to be the most soccer-obsessed place on the planet, but Haiti’s surely not far behind. Almost every moto taxi was adorned with a flag of the driver’s favorite team (typically Brazil, Germany, or Argentina). This chalkboard, among the forlorn sprawl of development on the highway out of town, advertises matches for customers to watch for a modest fee (2 Haitian dollars, or about 25 cents).


The most colorful public transport in the world!



Lionel Messi is something of a deity here.


An art deco theater, looking totally out of context.


Caroline 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 helpful.


We all took in a sunset soccer match together.


We took a day trip to nearby Petionville. Step one: jam into a taptap with 40-odd other souls.


Petionville is a suburb of PaP where the wealthy live and the NGO crowd hangs out. It’s thought to be safer, cleaner, and less crowded than PaP proper. You can judge for yourself, but I personally wasn’t that impressed with Petionville.


Petionville basically just looks like a normal part of a normal Latin American city. The market’s a bit nicer, the streetscapes and sidewalks are a bit nicer, and a better range of businesses is on offer. But I personally wouldn’t bend over backwards to stay there for a short trip. It’s only 5 miles away from downtown, but takes a good 30 minutes to make the journey. More in traffic.


The pharmacy in PV where I bought some Chloroquine tablets on the cheap. It’s definitely way easier to stumble upon useful businesses here than it is downtown.


Caroline struggling to keep up with the openings and closings of restaurants. The Brazilian joint we had picked out (the green building on the left) turned out to be closed.


No problem–some good Jamaican food was right down the street!


PV’s main park.


If I were actually living in PaP, I might choose PV over downtown…and I have a well-documented love for downtowns everywhere. But an American-style spin and yoga combo class is just something you’d never, ever seen in downtown PaP. Of course, you’ll be forced to pay the full brunt of American prices for these luxuries, but that’s just part of the deal living in Haiti.


What? A Malian Consulate??


A touch of historic architecture in PV.

Our goal was to continue up in to the mountains and enjoy some nice, cool air and Caribbean forts, but it was getting late on a Sunday afternoon and the transport was difficult. Oh well…maybe next time!


  1. This has served me well in my morning work procrastination. The rainbow public transit looks awesome, wish we had that here. Also, the Hotel Oloffson really caught my eye. I Googled some more images of it.

  2. Interesting views and I had forgotten about the earthquake of 2010. Enjoyed it again. Fran

  3. […] from the post about Port-au-Prince, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Haiti’s no place for enjoying character-soaked […]

  4. It seems like you didn’t go in all parts of Petionville. there’s another nice parc calls Place Boyer it seems like you didn’t go there. There are some nice hotels there etc

  5. […] place we’ve ever stayed. We’ve stayed in some pretty cool places before (and the Hotel Oloffson in PaP is up there, too), but this one takes the […]

  6. […] scene reminded me strangely of the gingerbread architecture for which Haiti is […]

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