The island that made Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel stay, will win your heart from the moment you touch down in one of its deep valleys. Hiva Oa really feels like the end of the line, simple and beautiful as life should be. Saddle up on horseback, put on your hiking shoes or put that 4X4 into first gear – there are so many surprises just waiting for you to discover. I visited Hiva Oa while backpacking across the South Pacific Islands. Here’s a sample 5 days in Hiva Oa itinerary to help you plan your own adventure in paradise.
Here’s a 90-second tour of Hiva Oa to get you into the spirit!
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5 days in Hiva Oa itinerary map:
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Where To Stay In Hiva Oa?
I stayed in a lot of pensions in French Polynesia but few were as memorable as Pension Kanahau. Not only is the view from your bungalow breathtaking, but your host – Tania, will treat you like family, and to food you’ll be bragging about for months.
Quick note: I personally spent 5 days in Hiva Oa and this itinerary is based on that. If I had to absolutely scratch one day off my list, it would be the third day – but that’s up to you.
Day 1: Exploring Atuona
Hiva Oa’s only town is another beautiful South Pacific settlement that belongs in a Hollywood movie about paradise. Though its black sand beach is too rough for swimming, the cradling mountains provide the feeling of being in a much sweatier version of Switzerland. There’s nothing and everything happening in Atuona at the same time. Tropically scented flowers provide the town’s aroma, and the trees explode with fruit – just pick whatever you want.
Gauguin & Brel
Start your tour with a visit to the Paul Gauguin museum in the center of town. The famous post-impressionist French painter lived his final years in Atuona, and the museum offers the chance to learn about his turbulent life in French Polynesia. Though you won’t find here any original works, it’s still kind of a must for any art enthusiast. In the back of the museum, a replica of the artist’s home stands in the garden, complete with a super realistic statue of the man in action.
Fast forward almost 80 years, the legendary Belgian poet/singer/actor Jacques Brel settled in Atuona in search of a life away from the spotlight. Though arriving on his private yacht, he purchased a plane and name it Jojo. Adorned by locals, Brel was really immersed in village life, even using Jojo to perform medical evacuations to Tahiti, more than 3 hours away. The Jacques Brel museum sits in a large hangar just behind the Gauguin museum, and you can learn about his life while strolling around Jojo.
Church & Shopping
We’ll revisit the two celebrities in a bit, but now it’s on to check out the town’s Catholic church. It’s a charming open-air whitewashed house of worship, reminiscent of an old Mexican church. Behind it is a local school with a couple of impressive-looking trees.
A few steps away is the Tohua Pepeu, a restored ancient complex that’s used these days for the Marquesan Arts Festival. Behind the complex is the local arts & crafts center, a great place to buy exquisite Marquesan art if you haven’t already done so (prices are quite steep, cash only, see the Hiva Oa Travel Guide for a secret shopping tip).
Time for some lunch! Head to Snack Make Make for some grilled fish, chow mein or a burger. Wash it down with an ice-cold Hinano beer or a refreshing coconut. If you want some dessert (or just a sandwich), the Salon de The across the road will do just fine (and they have a WiFi).
To burn the calories, head up the hill to the Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire). This cemetery not only has amazing views, but it’s also the final resting place for locals, missionaries, Brel and Gauguin.
It’s Hiva Oa’s version of the celebrity cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris, with Gauguin and Brel’s graves adorned with flowers and notes from fans who made the pilgrimage.
If you want to walk a bit further, it’s another 15 minutes to the large cross for even better views!
With your pilgrimage complete, it’s back down to Atuona to buy a small snack, head back to your pension or relax on by the black sand beach to the sounds of the crashing waves. Welcome to paradise!
Day 2: Day Trip To Tahuata Island
Lying a few kilometers off the coast of Hiva Oa, Tahuata is the smallest inhabited island in the Marquesas archipelago. If you want to visit the island (and I highly recommend), you’ll do so on a day trip from Atuona. Since tours don’t go out every day, I recommend booking in advance.
I met my guide Pifa O’Connor bright and early for the departure (+689-87727633 | Facebook Page | 10,000F per person). Pifa is actually half Irish believe it or not. His great-great grandfather escaped the Irish famine and the rest is history.
The trip starts with a 40-minute scenic boat ride, accompanied by manta rays as you leave the port. The voyage offers fantastic views of Hiva Oa’s rugged coastline and Tahuata’s more gently sloping hills.
Your first stop will be at Hapatoni Village, home to about 100 residents. ‘Main street’ is actually known as the ancient royal road, commissioned by a former queen and lined with tamanu, noni and other fruit-bearing trees.
You’ll probably bump into a local artist along the royal road, carving something beautiful out of sandalwood, rosewood or even animal bone. Pifa will then take you to the local artisan market that’s likely open just for you. Though the merchandise on sale is incredibly beautiful and authentic, I found the prices to be quite expensive (better to buy in Nuku Hiva).
After a bit of window shopping, head inland to check out the ancient temple. There’s a large stone that seems perfect for laying down on, and that’s exactly what it was used for. Except whoever laid down here, never got back up… at least not with their head.
Before leaving Hapatoni, don’t forget to check out the charming Catholic church, complete with impressive stained glass windows that wouldn’t shame the best Parisian churches.
Lunch In Hanamoenoa Bay
It’s back on the boat and a quick trip to beautiful Hanamoenoa Bay. Wave hello to the yachties anchored at its entrance and somehow swap over to a tiny rowboat that’ll take you to the beach. I promise it’s all worth it.
As Pifa and the crew prepare a BBQ lunch, go for a stroll along the beach and a dip in the waters. The views don’t get better than this folks!
The relaxing ambiance is just perfect, as you’ll definitely be in need of a nap after Pifa’s incredible BBQ lunch. Grilled tuna, sashimi, poisson cru and even brownies! After lunch, find a comfy spot and recharge your batteries as Pifa serenades you with traditional classics on his ukelele.
Back To Town
Back in Hiva Oa, you’ll return to the port just in time to watch the local fishermen busy at work. They’re actually out to catch small fish. Those will be sold in bulk to the yachties, who will use them as bait for catching the big fish out in the ocean.
Day 3: Horseback Riding & Taaoa Bay
Riding With Paco
After breakfast with a view in Pension Kanahau, go for some horseback riding with Paco from Hamau Ranch, one of the premier horsemen in French Polynesia. Horseback riding in the Marquesas Islands is a great way to explore the countryside.
Paco will lead you through the thick rainforest, climbing to beautiful panoramic views of Atuona and the valley (4 hours, free transfers, 7,000F).
SCUBA DIVING: If horses aren’t your forte, perhaps scuba diving is. As of 2018, there is a new dive center in operation in Hiva Oa called Marquises Diving. Get in touch or inquire via your hosts. Scuba diving in the Marquesas Islands is a unique experience and you’ll likely encounter large fish including sharks, dolphins ad the likes (if the visibility is decent).
Back in Atuona, head out on the short scenic drive to neighboring Taaoa Bay, filling up a massive extinct volcano. Stop at the wild beach and admire the church – one of the most photographed in the archipelago.
From the small hamlet, drive up the valley to the Upeke archeological site and locate the tiki statue hiding amongst the giant banyan trees.
Day 4: Hanaiapa Bay & Hanatekuua Bay Hike
This day is perfect if you’re up for some hiking! A thirty-minute drive from Atuona will bring you to the picturesque Hanaiapa Bay. Spot the small cliff rising from the water and see if you can make out the head of an African man and the head of a woman?
Hiking To Hanatekuua Bay
Ask the locals for the trailhead, and begin the 2-hour hike (one way, including stops) to Hanatekuua Bay. Before you reach the pass which then drops to the bay, take a moment to enjoy the breathtaking views from up here. Back towards Hanaiapa Bay, there might be a waterfall splashing straight into the ocean, and out in the far distance, the uninhabited island of Fatu Huku.
A few more steps will reveal Hanatekuua Bay, one of the most beautiful places in the Marquesas Islands. The bay shelters turquoise waters that splash onto a white sand beach that’s backed by coconut plantations.
Walk down to the beach, go for a splash and chat with the locals if they just happen to be taking a break from tending to their copra.
To get back to the starting point, return on the same trail that brought you here or if you’re lucky, the locals might offer you a ride on their small boat. Use the rest of the day to relax and watch the stars!
Day 5: Road Trip To Puamau
The final day of this 5 days in Hiva Oa itinerary will be the busiest one, so I suggest starting early. You’ll drive from Atuona to Puamau, a total distance of only 98 kilometers that will take you the entire day. Roads are challenging – so you’ll be driving slowly, and views are breathtaking – so you’ll be stopping frequently. You can do this on an organized tour or rent your own 4X4, which I highly recommend. Have a look at the Hiva Oa Travel Guide for more info.
The Smiling Tiki
Your first stop will be just before the airport. Look for the sign to the ‘smiling tiki’ (tiki souriant), park the car and walk down for about 400 meters to see this cute (and lonely) little statue.
Back in the car, take a right at the roundabout past the airport. You’ll be driving on dirt roads for the better part of what’s to come. Stop wherever you feel like on the plateau for sweeping views of Atuona Bay and Tahuata Island in the far distance.
Motuua, Nahoe and Eiaone Bay
As you descend from the plateau to the northern side of the island, this is where things really start to get interesting. How about this view for starters?
Your entire time on this side of the island will be spent winding your way along the sea cliff, coming down only to pass through the tiny hamlets of Motuua, Nahoe and Eiaone Bay.
Absolutely nothing happens here but that’s part of the appeal. Each settlement sits at the mouth of a lush valley, with a black sand beach meeting the open ocean. It’s a tough drive out here, rarely passing second gear. Watch out for fallen rocks but don’t let that discourage you from stopping every single time you feel like it. The views really don’t get ANY better than this!
The coastal ‘road’ ends in the village of Puamau, looking like paradise from atop. The village is tiny, yet feels like Manhattan after what you’ve driven by for the last three hours. Cradled by high peaks, its beach is pounded by strong waves. Puamau Bay is all that remains of the second largest caldera on the island. It’s one of the most impressive spots in the Marquesas Islands, especially as you approach from atop.
The main reason to come all the way out here is the Lipona Archeological site, one of the best in French Polynesia and a place that should not be missed.
Lipona Archaeological Site
Adorning ancient stone platforms, are the most impressive (and largest) tiki statues you’ll come across in French Polynesia. For anything bigger, you’ll have to visit Easter Island, some 3,600 km’s away!
One of the statues is over 2.5 meters tall, while another has six fingers! Why would the ancient islanders carve these incredibly heavy statues? Who or what do they depict?
You’ll now begin to head back towards Atuona, but there’s one final stop to make if you’re up for the challenge. Just passed Motuua, take a right after the post office building instead of continuing straight on the road back to Atuona. The partially paved one-lane road will snake its way along the mountain and lead you to Hanapaaoa Bay, where you’ll finish off the day.
It’s another gorgeous hamlet, very similar to the ones you already have seen today. The reason for the detour to Hanapaaoa, aside from curiosity, is the Tiki Moe One. The bizarre statue lies hidden somewhere in the forest. Drive past the cemetery, park the car and ask one of the locals to take you because there’s no way you’ll find it on your own (500F should do the trick).
The tiki lies in an ancient temple that has yet to be excavated. You’ll definitely feel walking on the smooth rocks of the ancient complex, and even see human bones scattered on the ground.
Tiki Moe One
Your guide will then reveal the small statue, ‘enjoying’ centuries of incredible views! It is believed that this tiki used to be taken down to the beach on a particular time of the year, to be bathed and pampered before returning to its favorite spot. Nobody really knows why definitely not the locals who have lost most of their ancient religious ways.
Back To Atuona
You be the judge if it’s worth the detour to Hanapaaoa, but in any case, it’s back to Atuona to wrap up this incredible day. To sum up: 98 kilometers, challenging drive, lots of stops, bring everything you need for the day. More info on this day in the Hiva Oa Travel Guide.
Lots More Information Awaits You
This sample 5 days in Hiva Oa itinerary is action-packed, but so is Hiva Oa. As mentioned, If I had to take one day out, it would probably the third day.
For more information, tips and tricks about Hiva Oa – check out the complete Hiva Oa Travel Guide. Traveling to other islands in French Polynesia? Start your reading with French Polynesia Travel Guide, where you’ll also find similar travel guides to 11 islands in French Polynesia!