It had an estimated population of 46,250 in 2013, making Mount Hagen the third-largest city in PNG. It is the retail and commercial hub of the entire Highlands region, as many large stores have moved into the area in the last few years and bringing with them boosted income, more jobs, and more tourists and expats.
Because explorers were told, "There's no one up there (in the Highlands)," Mount Hagen was unknown to everyone except the Melpa people and surrounding tribes for thousands of years. Then in 1933 the Leahy brothers, Mick and Dan, flew over the heavily populated and fertile area known as the Waghi Valley and then organized a foot patrol to explore further into the interior. They had discovered Mount Hagen.
The city takes its name from Mount Hagen, an extinct 3765-m-tall volcano 24 km (15 mi) to the northwest. The volcano takes its name from former German colonial official Curt von Hagen.
As recently as the 1990s, Mount Hagen was a fascinating and largely peaceful place to visit, with PNG Highlanders still walking around in traditional costumes. Now, it is radically different from the Mount Hagen of former years. While still interesting and exciting to visit, the traditional costumes are reserved for special occasions such as the Hagen Show (see right) and modernization has swept the city. Sure, you can still buy bilums, woven baskets, colorful artwork, and other local crafts, but these sellers are becoming fewer and further between. These changes are at the expense of more modern conveniences, stores, restaurants, and hotels. One can purchase relatively the same items (and even a few more) at stores in Mount Hagen in comparison with Lae, the largest seaport in Papua New Guinea at the beginning of the Highlands Highway on the Huon Gulf.
Mount Hagen has become rapidly urbanized, a number of nicer restaurants and stores have opened up since 2018. Nicer hotels, a nice Western medical clinic, and upgrading of existing infrastructure have brought a lot more people into Mount Hagen from several surrounding provinces and it continues to become the dominating force in the Highlands, as people come to shop, trade, sell, hang out, and work in the growing city.
The city sits at an elevation of 5,502 ft (1,677 m) above sea level with a pleasant climate year round, with temperatures between 75 and 85 °F year-round (24-29 °C) and rain most afternoons.
Mount Hagen's Kagamuga Airport (HGU) is an international airport, and is the second-busiest airport in Papua New Guinea behind Port Moresby's Jacksons International Airport. Papua New Guinea's two major airlines (Air Niugini and PNG Air) serve the airport, as do a few smaller carriers including MAF and Hevilift. These operate charter flights to cities such as Port Moresby, Goroka, Lae, Madang, or remote bush locations. There are no regular international flights to the airport. Port Moresby is the only airport in PNG with regular international flights.
Air Niugini connects Mount Hagen several times daily with Port Moresby. From here, Air Niugini flights can be taken all over the country anywhere that Air Niugini services. Air Niugini is the preferred airline for tourists travelling to and around PNG, as they follow strict schedules and are fairly reliable. They also have a broader network and wider fleet. Prices are a bit more expensive than PNG Air's prices, but definitely worth it. As of 2023, Air Niugini's planes are breaking down, and it is trying to fulfill its normal schedules with fewer planes until new aircraft arrive. In 2023 - 2024, cancellations are plaguing the entire network.
PNG Air flies domestically to Port Moresby and a couple of other towns. It is the only airline in PNG to offer routes between cities without going through Port Moresby. It has service from HGU to Goroka, Lae (Nadzab Airport), Madang, Tari, and Kiunga. Prices are cheap, but flights are not reliable. Delays and cancellations are frequent and abrupt. If flying with PNG Air, check for notifications about your flight, and inquire often as to the status of your flight (no flight board in Mount Hagen and the board in Port Moresby is not updated immediately). They won't tell you if you don't ask repeatedly. Not for the fussy or impatient!
Weather moves through Mount Hagen every afternoon around 2-4PM, with rain usually accompanied by thunder and lightning. Planes in PNG are not allowed to land if there is thunder and lightning in the vicinity of the airport. It is best to book a flight as early in the morning as possible (there are plenty in the morning) from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen or vice versa. Afternoon flights run the risk of being delayed or cancelled, as they are taken on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes flights receive word at the last minute whether to take off or stay grounded. If your flight is scheduled for the afternoon, talk with your airline to try to switch to a better time.
In the event of a tribal fight (which occasionally occur), sabotage and/or closure of the airport (as occurred several times during the 2022 PNG General Election), or feuds with Puma (supplier of jet fuel to airlines in PNG) an alternative is to fly Air Niugini or PNG Air into Wapenamanda (WBM) (small incorporated place two hours to the northwest, in Enga Province) or Goroka (GKA) and either drive or request transportation into Mount Hagen. Flights to Wapenamanda are a bit more pricey, but worth it for an extra measure of safety. Goroka has more flights into and out of it, but is further away. Keep in mind that tribal fights or airport closure are very rare, and are not likely to impact your travel schedule.
Upon arrival at Mount Hagen Kagamuga Airport, there are (expensive) hire car options. These counters are to your right upon entrance into the baggage carousel. There are a few local options, but international hire car companies as Avis, Budget, and Hertz all have service in Mount Hagen.
The Highlands Highway runs roughly east–west through the center of town. This road forms the backbone of PNG's limited road network. To the west, the highway splits at Togoba Junction (12 minutes from Town) and goes southwest to Mendi (2½ hours), Nipa (4½ - 5 hours), and Tari (8 - 9 hours, the western terminus of the Highlands Highway). It goes northwest to Wapenamanda (1½ - 2 hours), Wabag (5 hours) and Porgera (8 hours). The road continues east from Mount Hagen to Banz (50 min - turn left off the Highlands Highway at Kudjip, site of a large Nazarene hospital, and continue for 7 km (4.35 mi) more), Kundiawa (1¾ hours), Goroka (4 hours) Kainantu (about 5½ hours) Ramu Highway (about 6½ hours), and Lae (about 9 hours, port city and eastern terminus). This road is very steep in many sections and has some harrowing curves. It goes nearly straight up from Lae and reaches its highest point at Daulo Pass Summit (2478 m above sea level) about half an hour north-northwest of Goroka. It remains between about 1500 m and 1700 m for the remainder of its length. The steep inclines and sharp curves make for prime theft locations, so always be prepared for a raskol (bandit) road block. These are often people stopping cars and asking for money for alcohol. Or they just spent time "fixing the road" and want money for your use of the road. They will recognize you are a foreigner and will ask for more money, often K20. K2 or K5 will get you through usually. Sometimes, however, the road will be blocked to everyone because of tribal fights or election drama. Nobody can get through these sections.
The driving is very challenging because at times you're flying along at 90 km/h with the road in great shape, but at other times you're crawling along at 20 km/h or less due to road construction, slow vehicles on long climbs, or sections of altogether missing pavement. The roads are also frequently washed out and riddled with potholes or just do not have pavement. Other times the road is muddy and slick. In these situations, 4-wheel drive is a necessity. Things also frequently cross in front of you, often without warning. If you hit a person, or a pig, do not stop if you can avoid it. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is for your own safety and the safety of your passengers. The locals will demand compensation, and if you do not leave the scene, they will use force to make you pay. Drive away from the scene as fast as you can (or as fast as the road will allow) and then inquire about the nearest police station. They will know what to do to settle down the tense situation.
The Ramu Highway (mentioned previously) is a major highway in PNG running through the Ramu Valley going north to Madang (a shipping port and resort town, 12 hours from Mount Hagen). At Madang, it becomes the North Coast Highway and runs along the coast of the Pacific Ocean (very stunning drive) to Bogia (three hours from Madang).
The Highlands Highway through Mount Hagen is a four-lane road with stoplights, street lamps, turn lanes, sidewalks, and a median in town. The updated highway runs from Kaiwe (a market and the recognized west end of town) through the central business district, and through Dobel and Tega (settlements along the highway with stores and industry) before ending at Mount Hagen Kagamuga Airport. Travel time to the airport is roughly 15 minutes from downtown, and travel time to Kudjip Nazarene Hospital (best large hospital in the region) is 45 minutes over a nicely paved road.
This is a tricky topic to cover because, there is not much to cover! Besides the Highlands Highway and Kum Road (major road south of the Highlands Highway) there are not really road names in the city. Sure, all of the roads have names, but there are no street signs saying which road is which (except along the highway) and nobody knows the names of the roads. To make matters worse, Google Maps (which has the names of all the roads) is not accurate a lot of the time. Don't rely on Google Maps to give you directions to a restaurant or hotel, it will make you get lost, if anything!
The easiest way to get directions to where you are going is to ask the locals. When they give you directions, listen carefully. The directions are based on landmarks, so always pay attention when listening (to know what the landmark is) and when driving to your destination (to look for the landmark and make your turn). The town isn't that big (only about 4.0 mi (6.5 km) from west to east, and only about a mile (1.6 km) wide, and there aren't many businesses or attractions in the countryside, so it's relatively hard to get lost. The Highlands Highway roughly bisects the town, so you can always ask which side of the Highway your destination is on. Most businesses are on the north side of the highway and most residences and guesthouses are on the south side of the Highway.
The Public Motor Vehicles (PMVs) deserve a mention here. Most guidebooks for Papua New Guinea (especially Lonely Planet) heavily rely on and promote the use of PMVs to navigate around the country on its limited road network. Do not follow that advice: no matter where you are, PMVs are not safe to ride in, particularly in the Highlands. Do not hop on one of these (that is, large Hino trucks with tarps over the bed and sides, the large, 27-seater Toyota Coaster minibuses, or smaller 15-passenger Toyota HiAce vans) on your own, and only with a local you can absolutely trust - which is very few. Arrange transportation with your hotel before you go anywhere - they will usually arrange transport for a fee - and have someone to help escort you and keep you safe. The only safe PMVs are chartered PMVs, so if you must transport a group of people, charter a PMV. Also, if you are driving, pay attention to the PMVs. They like to drive wherever and however they want, and very fast. Through town, they stop across the street from Chinatown (the long row of stores along the Highway in the center of town) and that can make for some slow going traffic. Things get clogged up quickly, especially on Mondays and Fridays, which are the busiest days in town.
While Mount Hagen is PNG's third-largest city, there isn't really much here to see. However, these items following are the most interesting if you're looking for entertainment.
- 1 Mount Hagen Market, intersection of Kum Road and Highlands Highway (off Highlands Highway, just east of town.). This is the main produce market in town, but also sells some local crafts. Local fruits and vegetables, some of the best and freshest in the world, are sold here. Common produce sold here includes: sweet potatoes, local greens, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, pineapple, papaya, cucumber, bananas, oranges, green onions, peanuts, corn, pumpkin, potatoes, strawberries, capsicum, tomatoes, watermelon, taro, broccoli, and more. These vegetables come right out of the garden and are brought to market. The land is also very fertile and makes for some large and tasty fruits and vegetables.
- 2 Hagen Show, 58H4+C23, Korn (head east toward the airport; turn left at the stoplight toward the airport, then turn left at the end of the road; go around the end of the runway and pass the golf course), ☏ . The star attraction of the area. This iconic cultural show is where Highlanders from around the area come to show their traditional dress, dance to the rhythm of kundu drums, and perform a stellar traditional sing-sing dance. Held in August or September annually. Most hotels in town offer transportation to and from the Hagen Show. A truly authentic PNG cultural experience.
- 1 Kuk Early Agricultural Site (Kuk Swamp), Mount Ambra (follow the Highlands Highway east out of town, toward the airport; turn left at the first road on your left, about 2 km after the airport access road; you will come to a fork - keep right; another fork after that - keep right).
There aren't many things to do in town, but some attractions in the area include:
Mount Hagen has a wide range of stores in town and local vendors selling the work of their hands.
- Local Crafts, including Sepik carvings, traditional necklaces, baskets, figurines, and various ornaments can be found at some of the larger hotels, including Hotel Poroman, Rondon Ridge Lodge, Highlander Hotel. Buy from the gift shops, or local sellers who set up stalls within the hotel courtyards. Just ask at the hotel entrances. Crafts can also be found from sellers outside Best Buy Supermarket in town. "Bilum Boulevard" (not a recognized name) located along the airport properties has hundreds of bilums for sale, as well as fresh produce and sometimes local art. Be sure to shop around before you buy, as prices can be extremely variable. Sellers will also raise the price for tourists, especially from Europe and North America. Bargaining to bring down the price is okay (especially if it is higher than you expect to pay) but it may drive the seller away.
- Tininga is the largest store chain in town, operating several grocery stores, a restaurant, butchery, bakery, and two hardware stores. These stores are the place to get your basic food needs met and other items. Hagen Central is the largest store and has a very wide variety of food and ingredients (anything from Indian to Thai to Mexican or American, and even Greek sometimes). There are also other stores in the complex as well.
With more modernization comes more nice restaurants. There are a handful of good spots in and around town. The list below showcases some of the best.
- Banz Kofi Kave is located a few hundred meters south of Kagamuga Airport. Home to Banz Kofi roasters (best local coffee), DHL, and a nice restaurant. Calm and relaxing atmosphere (except when a helicopter lands just across the road) inside the stone walls. A shaded outdoor seating area has a fish pond, small waterfall, and greenery, while a cool inside features products. Frequented by local politicians, business owners, wealthy expats, and missionaries. Open mainly for breakfast and lunch, with dishes ranging from K25 to K40. Smoothies, milkshakes, fresh juices, and coffee ranges from K8 to K20. A variety of soft drinks are available. Inside a secure fenced area.
- Kofi Kai is Tininga's restaurant and coffee shop. Located inside Hagen Central shopping center, it is the quickest sit-down restaurant in town. Open breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Mains range from K25 to K55, and there are frequent specials or events. Coffee and juices cost between K8 and K12, many dessert options available (including Mount Hagen's only soft-serve ice cream distributor - when the machine works, that is). Nachos, fish and chips, surf-n-turf, garlic prawns, chicken parm, and their signature kai bowls are some of the best choices. Also has a kids' menu. Seating outside, inside, or upstairs.
- Keta Kai Restaurant located inside the Hagen Club (near the market) is an original Mount Hagen favorite. Prices are low (K25 to K50 for a large meal) service is friendly, and the food is very tasty. Fish and chips, nasi goreng, chicken schnitzel, KKR burger, and steak sandwiches are some of the best choices. Wide range of soft drinks (as welll as SP Lager beer) available.
- Signature Epicure is by far the nicest restaurant in town. Located inside Sir Mara Haus, secure parking next to the Highway. Strict dress code. Men must wear a collared shirt and long pants and women must wear a skirt in order to be seated inside. Waiters place white napkins on your laps, and the atmosphere is very classy. Mains range from K40 to K80, though some items, such as larger steaks, can go for K100 to K120. The food is very good. Complementary bread baskets are served as well. If you are with a large group (more than ten or so people) your food may take awhile (up to an hour or more). Build your own pasta, fajitas (brought out on a sizzling wood plate), nasi goreng, wok chili pork (order to your level of spicyness), chicken parm, and pizza are some of their best choices. Kids menu available. Best pizza in town (many kinds, very large, offers takeaway).
- Rondon Ridge Lodge also has a restaurant on site. Because of the breathtaking views, the prices are expensive, but the food is good. Mains are between K55 and K80, and features scotch filet, fish and chips, Cajun chicken, Rondon burger, and others. Same dress code as Signature Epicure.
Should you be adventurous, try these options:
- Chetty's Restaurant east of the market, is usually empty, but has some good curries.
- Big Rooster is an Australian fried chicken restaurant, and the only restaurant in town with a drive-thru. East of the market and just next door to Chetty's Restaurant. Be prepared to wait a good 45 minutes for fried chicken and fries (not so fast "fast" food).
- Kai Bars are scattered around the country but you'll need an iron stomach to process their food. The food is very greasy. The best (and safest) kai bar in town is Super7 Kai Bar, located inside the Puma gas station on the west side of town, just past Bulldog Supplies and at the same intersection as the Highalnder Hotel. The best food to order is chicken and chips. Both are cooked well (and thoroughly) and seasoned very well.
SP Lager beer is the primary alcohol in Mount Hagen, though such brands as Niugini Ice or Pacific Lager can be found. SP can be bought at a few restaurants, including the Hagen Club. The Hagen Club, as well as Rondon Ridge Lodge, also has a bar with more options. The largest bar is located at Signature Epicure (inside the big red and blue high rises) and has many beers, wines, whiskeys, and other spirits. The minimum legal drinking age in PNG is 18 (sorry for French teenagers, lucky for underage Americans). These are safe to drink if you so choose. Do not drink alcohol locally brewed: the alcohol content is extremely high and is harmful to your health. If you see someone roaming the streets in a drunken stupor, that would be why. And remember, "keep your cool, don't drink like a fool (SP billboard in town)."
- Fispool Guest House (Red Corner, Newtown -Opposite WR Carpenters Flats), ☏ . 10 minutes walk from town centre. This guesthouse is popular with PNG nationals. Suitable for backpackers, not for the fussy. Very cheap at K30 for a double room.
- Highlander Hotel, Hagen Drive Wahghi Parade, ☏ . The city's major hotel, where visiting politicians, government officials, etc. stay. Nice gardens and adequate rooms. Food can be a bit dodgy.
- Kagamuga Lodge (to the east of the town near the airport), ☏ , fax: , email@example.com.
PNG's three major phone providers (Digicel, B-Mobile, and Vodafone) serve the city. A SIM card with a PNG number needs to be bought and put in your phone in order to make calls or send texts to PNG phone numbers. These providers sell units to make calls and texts. Data is also available. There are numerous top up stations for each provider scattered throughout the city. FoneHaus, PNG's largest phone seller has two branches in Mount Hagen (located in Hagen Central shopping center and Hagen Plaza center in downtown) that sell cheap, unlocked smartphones. The Digicel store is located in Hagen Plaza in downtown and the Vodafone store is located in Hagen Central.
The country code is +675 which is followed by an eight digit phone number. Landlines have a +675 country code with a seven digit phone number following.
Because Mount Hagen is situated in the heart of the country, there are many interesting places to go after your stay.
- Goroka in the Eastern Highlands province is another major town (and Eastern Highlands provincial capital) on the Highlands Highway east towards Lae and Madang. While nicer than Mount Hagen many years ago, it has since deteriorated. The town has a few stores, one halfway decent hotel, and is centered around a busy airport. JK Macarthy Museum has some interesting colonial and World War II artifacts and information.
- Baiyer River Wildlife Sanctuary is north of Mount Hagen. It covers an area of 740 ha, and has 185 bird species, including species of the national bird, the bird of paradise, and 8 mammals. Head north out of town and drive for about two hours (there is a misleading fork in the road, where the road turns to the left, but also goes straight. Turn to the left, about 6 km north of town, to get to Baiyer Sanctuary)
- Kuk UNESCO World Heritage Site is located just northeast of the airport. This is the site of a swamp that has been continually farmed for between 7000 - 10,000 years, and provides a glimpse into early farming methods. This site is "off the beaten path" so to speak, and is not very widely known or visited. Discover your inner Indiana Jones!