Few are the places in the world that will leave you searching for words from the moment you land until the moment you leave. Hiva Oa treats the few and adventurous visitors who make it out here to a show like they’ve never seen before. On this island, it’s all about being at one with nature and meeting the friendly islanders who welcome you to their paradise. So forget about recharging your batteries in Hiva Oa and saddle up, put your hiking shoes on or hop into a 4X4 – and with the help of this Hiva Oa Travel Guide, explore this majestic island at the end of the world.
About This Guide
I spent three months in French Polynesia, as part of a six month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands – with 5 days in Hiva Oa. This travel guide to Hiva Oa was written based on my experiences, and is meant to help you make the most of this destination. The Hiva Oa Travel Guide is geared towards independent travelers, but any visitor will find it useful.
Heading off to French Polynesia? Start your reading with French Polynesia Travel Guide, where you’ll also find similar travel guides to 11 islands in French Polynesia!
Why Should You Visit Hiva Oa?
Together with Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa is one of the archipelago’s islands that is ‘easy’ to explore. It would be a shame to pass on an opportunity to visit Hiva Oa, a dream that many Tahitians share. If you appreciate nature, history and the feeling of being remote – you will love Hiva Oa. The island offers incredibly diverse scenery, often resembling a tropical version of Europe in some parts. Hiking, riding on horseback, visiting tiny hamlets and discovering mysterious archaeological sites – are the top things to do around here. On top of that, enjoy the warm hospitality of the islanders, living life in the sweetest and simplest way.
Here’s a quick 90-second tour of Hiva Oa Island!
What’s Included In This Guide To Hiva Oa?
Hiva Oa Travel Guide Map
Click on the image to open in Google Maps. This map features all the highlights mentioned in this guide.
Facts & Brief History
The Marquesas Islands
Hiva Oa is part of the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia – one of the most islands chains you can visit on our planet. Visit the ‘facts & brief history’ section of the Nuku Hiva Travel Guide to learn more about this incredible part of the world.
Hiva Oa is the second largest island in the Marquesas archipelago, and the third largest in French Polynesia. It is the capital of the southern island group. As large as it is, less than 3,000 residents live on the island, mostly concentrated in Atuona. The most famous are no doubt Belgian singer Jacques Brel and French painter Paul Gauguin, who both lived out their final years in Hiva Oa.
Hiva Oa Island Travel Tips
Listed here are specific travel tips for Hiva Oa. Be sure to also read the French Polynesia Travel Guide, filled with general travel tips to paradise.
What Do You Want To Know?
- 1 Why Should You Visit Hiva Oa?
- 2 What’s Included In This Guide To Hiva Oa?
- 3 Hiva Oa Travel Guide Map
- 4 Facts & Brief History
- 5 The Marquesas Islands
- 6 Hiva Oa
- 7 Recommended Reading
- 8 How Many Days Do You Need In Hiva Oa?
- 9 Is Hiva Oa Worth Visiting?
- 10 When Is the Best Time To Visit Hiva Oa?
- 11 Time Difference
- 12 Language
- 13 What To Pack?
- 14 Money
- 15 Mobile Phone
- 16 Hiva Oa Average Costs
- 17 How To Get To Hiva Oa
- 18 Getting Around Hiva Oa
- 19 Where To Stay In Hiva Oa?
- 20 Diving In The Marquesas Islands
- 21 Hiking & Excursions In Hiva
- 22 Beaches
- 23 Drinking Water In Hiva Oa
- 24 Eating
- 25 Safety In Hiva Oa
- 26 What To Buy In Hiva Oa
- 27 Atuona
- 28 Catholic Church
- 29 Tohua Pepeu
- 30 Fae Artisanal
- 31 Espace Culturel Paul Gauguin
- 32 Centre Jacques Brel
- 33 Calvary Cemetery
- 34 Taaoa Bay
- 35 Tahuata Island Day Trip
- 36 Horseback Riding
- 37 The Smiling Tiki
- 38 Hanaiapa Bay
- 39 Hanatekuua Bay Hike
- 40 Hanapaaoa Bay
- 41 Puamau Scenic Drive
- 42 Lipona Archaeological Site
- 43 Places To Eat & Drink In Hiva Oa
- 44 Now It’s Your Turn
- The Island Where Time Stands StillThe Island Where Time Stands Still: personal account of my 5 days in Hiva Oa
- French Polynesia Travel Guide: everything you need to know before heading to paradise.
- Lonely Planet: ‘the bible’ for any independent traveler. For such a dreamy yet challenging destination, I recommend grabbing one of these for the road to go along with this travel guide. After all, it’s not only super useful but also makes for a great souvenir!
- Tahiti Tourisme: the official site of the local tourism office. You’ll find relevant information about Tahiti and the outer islands.
How Many Days Do You Need In Hiva Oa?
The Marquesas Islands are truly fairytale islands, far from Tahiti and expensive to get to. I would strongly advise spending 5 nights in Hiva Oa, which will allow you to see all the highlights but without much rest. If you’re planning to see more than one island in the archipelago (Nuku Hiva goes very well with Hiva Oa), plan for at least 10 days in the archipelago. If you absolutely don’t have time but still want to see Hiva Oa, 3 nights is the absolute minimum.
Is Hiva Oa Worth Visiting?
Honestly, if you have the chance to visit the Marquesas Islands, don’t miss it! I visited both Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa and was wowed by both. They are similar in terms of scenery and activities, but Nuku Hiva is slightly more dramatic if you had to choose just one island to visit.
When Is the Best Time To Visit Hiva Oa?
The closest islands in French Polynesia to the equator, Marquesas Islands climate is pretty much opposite to that of Tahiti and the Society Islands. The best time to visit the Marquesas Islands is between October to April, when the islands get less cloud cover and rain. From May to October, there’s a greater chance of storms and strong wind. I personally visited Hiva Oa at the end of February/start of March. The weather was mixed, with super sunny days and a couple of rainy days that never lasted for too long. Keep in mind that the peaks of this high island are almost always covered in clouds, but coastal areas stay sunny and cloud free!
There is one special event on the calendar that is worth planning around (if possible). Every four years, one of the islands in the archipelago hosts the Marquesas Arts Festival. It’s a weeklong celebration of the incredibly unique ancient culture of the islands. The next one is in 2019, but there’s a ‘mini festival’ planned for 2017 on one of the islands.
Yet another proof of the archipelago’s remoteness, the Marquesas Islands are 30 minutes ahead of Tahiti time. Don’t forget to adjust your watch!
Though mostly speaking French these days, the native language in the archipelago is Marquesan and not Tahitian. So replace ia orana with ka oha (hello) and manuia with maitai roa (cheers).
What To Pack?
Hiva Oa is a tropical destination, and as such – I recommend packing clothes that dry quickly and keep moisture (a.k.a sweat) out. Have a look at the X Days In Y Packing List for recommendations on what to pack for Hiva Oa based on my experience.
There is an ATM in Hiva Oa, in the main village of Atuona. Keep in mind that most ATM’s on the outer islands have daily/weekly cash withdrawal limits. Inquire with your hosts if they accept credit cards and factor in for excursions, transportation and shopping.
Free WiFi was available at my pension, though it was extremely slow. You can also get online at the Salon de The (Chez Eliane) in Atuona.
I highly recommend getting a Vini prepaid SIM card (see the French Polynesia Travel Guide for more information). If you just happened to get a Vodafone SIM card (like I did), be sure to have enough credit before leaving the Society Islands, as it’s impossible to find any shop that sells Vodafone top up cards in the Tuamotus and Marquesas Islands.
Hiva Oa Average Costs
Here’s a breakdown of costs during a my 5 days in Hiva Oa. I stayed half board at a pension, rented a 4X4 for one day, went horseback riding and joined a tour to Tahuata Island.
How To Get To Hiva Oa
By Air: by far the most convenient way to get to Hiva Oa, with direct flights from Tahiti (~3 hours). Hiva Oa is also connected with Nuku Hiva (~30 mins), making the two islands worthwhile to explore on a single trip. You can also fly from Hiva Oa to some of the smaller islands. I recommend visiting Hiva Oa prior to Nuku Hiva, as the latter is a slightly more dramatic. Flights to any island in the Marquesas are expensive, but if you’re visiting multiple islands in French Polynesia, consider buying one of the Air Tahiti Passes and adding on the ‘Marquesas extension’. Bring something warm for the plane and as always, be sure to grab a window seat for the memorable views!
Pro Tip: if you have to catch a flight (domestic or international) or a boat to Moorea, give yourself a buffer and take into account delays. Weather can be foggy and flights delayed for hours.
By Boat: the luxury liner / cargo ship – The Aranui, visits pretty much all of the Marquesas Islands as it resupplies the locals and picks up exports back to Tahiti. Trips aren’t cheap but you’ll spend the day on each island. The ship also stops in Rangiroa and another atoll in the Tuamotus. I personally would not enjoy this, as you have such little time on such gorgeous islands. Nonetheless, the Aranui usually books out very quickly.
Fatu Hiva: the southernmost island in the Marquesas archipelago is also said to be the most beautiful. The problem? The only way to get there is by boat. Unless you own a yacht, you can charter one for 60,000F each way (makes sense if you’re in a group), or try and book a spot on the weekly trip the local administration makes every Tuesday (5,000-10,000F each way). The last option is trying your luck with the Aranui, which may or may not have a spot for you (~8,000 including food, sails at night and arrives in the morning).
Getting Around Hiva Oa
Pop by the tourist office in ‘downtown’ Atuona, and pick up free a map of the island.
To/from airport: the Hiva Oa airport is miraculously built on a small plateau in the mountains surrounding Atuona. Unlike neighboring Nuku Hiva, it’s a quick 10-15 minute ride to the village, and accommodations will either pick you up for free or for ~3000F.
To/from Atuona: most accommodations are never too far from the main village, and in fact, it makes for a scenic walk. Some pensions also offer free rides to and from Atuona.
By Car: if you’re not joining an island tour, you can rent your own 4X4 and explore the island. In fact, I highly recommend doing so. You can rent a Suzuki Jimny from Make Make Car Rental (not to be confused with Snack Make Make) from as low as 6,000F for 6 hours, 10,000F if you return by 7pm and 12,000F for 24 hours (cash only at the time of writing this guide). Discounts available on longer rentals. They’ll drop / pickup the car from your pension. Call +689-87797718, 87-757400.
Advice: roads in the eastern part of the island, which is also the prettiest, are not sealed and can be challenging, especially with a manual transmission car. Drive with extra care, look out for falling rocks and make sure you have enough phone credit in case of emergency. That said, a road trip in Hiva Oa is something you’ll never forget, and I highly recommend it!
Where To Stay In Hiva Oa?
All accommodations in Hiva Oa are located in and around Atuona. My stay on the island would not have been as memorable as it was if it weren’t for my spot on choice of staying at Pension Kanahau (Chez Tania). This has to be one of the best pensions in all of French Polynesia, and much of that is due to its owner – Tania.
It all starts at the airport, where Tania greets you with a huge smile and a traditional flower necklace. She’s one of those people that lights up the room with her smile, plus she knows everybody on the island. She’ll give you a ride to the pension and help you sort out your itinerary (may or may not charge 3000F for airport transfer). In fact, it’s thanks to her that I got to see so much of the island and avoided making costly mistakes of time and money.
Pension Kanahau is located about a 20 minute walk outside Atuona Village. Perched on a hill overlooking the sleepy port in Tahauku Bay, the pension has four bungalows set in a lush tropical garden, all with breathtaking views. Each unit is equipped with a (fantastic) hot shower, mini fridge, mosquito net, TV, coffee/tea and a balcony. A couple of units also have a kitchenette.
The pension’s common area is beautifully decorated with traditional Marquesan art and its walls are covered with exquisite tapa. There’s a TV, filtered water, free (but slow) WiFi and you can get your laundry done up here. The real draw however, is the exterior balcony where you’ll be dining.
It wouldn’t be a top notch pension without great food and Tania’s cooking really hits all the right taste buds. I highly recommend going half board here, but in any case, she’ll drive you to the village whenever you want for free.
Breakfast consists of an assortment of breads, donuts, fresh fruit and a huge selection of homemade jams. As good as breakfast is, the real magic happens at dinnertime. Elegantly decorated traditional fish dishes are usually on the menu with: red tuna taking center stage, Tania’s famous poisson cru and even lobster if she really likes you (ask for the incredible story of how they’re caught). Yummy desserts are never forgotten, followed by lots of chit chatting about island life and star gazing!
Tania will go above and beyond for you, and you’ll be bragging about her for months. Cash only, inquire about discounts on stays over 3 nights and don’t forget to buy a few flowery Tahitian dresses before you leave.
Diving In The Marquesas Islands
The Marquesas Islands have no protective lagoon. It is possible to scuba dive here, but expect challenging conditions and poor visibility due to the currents and plankton. That said, you might get to see whales, dolphins and sharks. In Hiva Oa, get in touch with SubAtuona which offers day trips that combine a visit to Tahuata Island with diving and a picnic lunch. They may or may not be available when you’re in Hiva so it’s best not to count on this option too much. UPDATE: as of 2018, there is a new dive center in operation in Hiva Oa (perhaps instead of SubAtuona) called Marquises Diving. They apparently also do trips to the neighboring island of Tahuata.
Hiking & Excursions In Hiva
Hiva Oa is all about exploring the magnificent nature of the island. When it comes to hiking, Hanatekuua Bay can be done on your own but that’s about it. All other hikes, including the cross island trek will require a guide and can be very expensive.
As far as excursions, the day trip to neighboring Tahuata Island is not to be missed and you can also join a 4X4 island tour of Hiva Oa. I highly recommend making arrangement for either of these as early as possible since: there aren’t that many guides available on the island, tours require a minimum amount of passengers, poor weather can lead to cancellations and lastly, when the Aranui is in town – all guides are fully booked. Contact Pifa O’Connor (+689-87727633 | Facebook Page), who speaks excellent English (super rare around here) and can take you hiking, to Tahuata Island and around Hiva Oa. He also works as a fireman so not always available. Horseback riding should not be a problem to book.
See the ‘things to do’ section for lots more information.
Hiva Oa has amazing beaches that you’ll likely have all to yourself. Keep in mind that swimming is possible but usually rough due to the lack of protective reef. While the sand is beautifully golden, it is home to millions of the infamous sand flies of the Marquesas Islands. Known as nono, they are not native to the islands but their bite will itch for days and might leave a mark. It’s best to rub on some citronella scented monoi oil when hitting the beach.
Drinking Water In Hiva Oa
Do not drink tap water in Hiva Oa! If your pension does not offer filtered water, you’ll have to stock up on bottled water.
It makes sense to stay half board at your pension, especially if the cooking is to your liking. In any case, Atuona has a couple of grocery shops, snacks a cafe. Whenever you’re heading out on a hike or road trip, take food with you.
See the ‘places to eat & drink’ section for specific recommendations.
Safety In Hiva Oa
For general safety tips in French Polynesia, have a look at the ‘safety’ section of the French Polynesia Travel Guide.
As for Hiva Oa specific safety tips:
- Bring comfortable hiking gear.
- If you’ll be heading out to Tahuata Island and tend to get sea sick, have some pills ready.
- If you’re renting a car, drive with extra care, especially on the unsealed roads of the northeastern side of the island. It’s best to ensure you have enough phone credit to make any emergency calls. In the evening hours, watch out for locals who for some reason do not turn their lights on…
- Be prepared for the nono. These are tiny black or white sand flies that are actually not native to the islands. They leave a nasty bite that itches for days, and if scratched – can leave a lasting mark. The best way to avoid getting bitten is by applying layers of monoi oil (the citronelle kind).
- Be mentally prepared for a lot of bugs at night. It’s best to leave the light on outside your bungalow and keep it dark inside, until going to bed.
What To Buy In Hiva Oa
While Papeete is the place to buy black pearls, the Marquesas Islands are the place to buy authentic arts and crafts. Marquesans are considered to be among the best wood and stone carvers in the South Pacific. Highlights include: tiki statues fashioned from wood or volcanic rock (~3000-10,000F), wooden bowls (~5000-10,000F), sandalwood ornaments (~5000+F), bracelets, bone carved weapons and plenty more. Tapa can also be found, but it is super expensive. The best place to buy tapa is in Samoa.
You’ll find a covered artisan market (fae artisanal) in Atuona right behind the Tohua Pepeu archeological site, that should be open every day but Sunday. I’m glad I bought most of my Marquesan crafts in Nuku Hiva, as prices here were quite on the steep side.
Another option is to get in touch directly with an artist. Call Laina Taiaaput (+689-87212375), a local artist living in a simple home with a million dollar view. Laina and husband are expert woodcarvers and invite you to visit their shop. Prices here are so much cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen.
Note that it shouldn’t be a problem bringing Marquesan crafts through customs. I passed through New Zealand, Australian and Canadian customs with: wood & stone carvings, (dried) vanilla, monoi oil and jam.
Hiva Oa is also a good place to get a tattoo. Marquesans aren’t only exceptional at carving rock and wood, but also skin. A large tattoo on your arm or leg should cost between 20-40,0000F.
Things To Do In & Around Atuona
Check out this 5 days in Hiva Oa sample itinerary to see how to divide your days on the island
The only ‘town’ in Hiva Oa and the capital of the southern group of the Marquesas Islands. Atuona does not seem to know the meaning of stress. Nestled at the mouth of a deep valley, the town is cradled by cloud covered peaks and fronted by a black sand beach that’s too rough for swimming.
It’s easy to understand why Gauguin and Brel feel in love with this place, but more on those two soon. Like Taiohae on Nuku Hiva and Fare in Huahine Island, 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.
Here are a few of the town’s main highlights. For recommended food options, see the ‘places to eat’ section.
There are a couple of churches in town, but the Catholic church is the most charming. It looks different than any church I’ve seen in French Polynesia, reminding of something out of 19th century Mexico.
In the back of the church, there’s a pretty large school with two very impressive looking trees in its front garden. After school, children love to hang around the church’s steps, waiting for their parents to pick them up. What a life!
The main ‘town square’ was restored for one of the installments of the legendary Marquesas Arts Festival. The complex resembles an ancient ceremonial complex, lined with stone statues.
In the back of the Tohua Pepeu, a small arts and crafts market should be open every day but Sunday (it will definitely be open when the Aranui is in town). The Marquesas Islands are a unique place to buy authentic souvenirs that will last a lifetime. Specialties include: jewelry, wood & stone carvings, therapeutic oils and even exquisite tapa cloth. I personally found the prices here a bit on the steep side, and happy to have done my shopping in Nuku Hiva. Visit the ‘what to buy’ section for a secret tip!
Espace Culturel Paul Gauguin
Legendary post impressionist French painter Paul Gauguin arrived in Hiva Oa in the late 19th century. He had already spent considerable time in Tahiti and his paintings from an exotic land at the end of the world, would later create a fascination with the islands. Gauguin was looking to escape the stress of Western life. He embraced island life which allowed him to focus on art and somewhat aid with his constant depression. A visit to his museum in Atuona is a must for any art lover (open every day but Sunday, 600F per adult).
While there are no original paintings in the museum, visitors can learn in great detail the history of the man, including original letters he wrote to his family and fellow artists on the other side of the world. In the back of the museum, a replica of his simple home stands in the garden. Climb the steps and head inside for an all too real scaled statue of him in action!
Centre Jacques Brel
The island’s other famous resident is Belgian poet, singer and actor – Jacques Brel. Seeking to escape the pressures of celebrity life, he sailed around the world and simply stayed in Hiva Oa after arriving in 1976. Brel was adorned by the locals, who were unfamiliar with his celebrity status. An avid pilot, Brel would use his plane – ‘Jojo’, in medical evacuations to Tahiti when locals were in need. The plane has recently been restored, put on display in a hangar just behind the Gauguin museum (400F if there’s someone manning the booth). Circle the plane to the sounds of his greatest hits and if you can read French, learn about the legendary man.
The Gauguin & Brel pilgrimage wraps up with a short hike to the Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire), Hiva Oa’s version of the celebrity cemetery of Pere Lachaise in Paris. Like everything in Hiva Oa, even the deceased are rewarded with breathtaking views. The cemetery is not only the final resting stop for Brel & Gauguin, but also to local residents and former missionaries.
A further 15-minute hike towards the large cross will reward you with even finer vistas!
A ten minute drive from Atuona to the small hamlet of Taaoa will surely take more than double that. The paved road offers sweeping views of Atuona and the southern coastline of Hiva Oa. If you’re smelling something rotten, it might be a dead animal but it might also be sulphur, emerging from deep underground, as the bay actually fills a massive former volcano!
Taaoa itself makes for just a quick stop. The main draw is its wild beach (way too rough for swimming) and the Catholic church, which is one of the most photographed images in Hiva Oa.
From the beach, take the paved road that heads up the jungle covered valley to the Tohua Upeke archeological site. This large complex was excavated not that long ago but these days is not that well maintained – only further adding to the mystery of this place. The challenge here is pinpointing the large tiki, looking inconspicuous and hiding among the massive banyan trees.
Note that the only other major (and top) archaeological site in Hiva Oa is in Lipona, quite a long distance away. If you won’t be heading there on a memorable road trip (which I highly recommend), do not miss the Upeke site. Otherwise, don’t stress too much if you can’t easily make it here.
Things To Do & Places To See In Hiva Oa
Listed here the top things to see in Hiva Oa outside the town of Atuona
Tahuata Island Day Trip
Tahuata is the smallest of the inhabited islands of the Marquesas group, lying just a few kilometers off the coast of Hiva Oa. You’ll likely visit the island as part of a day trip from Hiva Oa, seeing how the ferry has long been out of service. Organized tours are not as frequent as you think so I highly recommend to inquire with your hosts in advance, and planning on visiting the island during your first days. I was fortunate enough that Pifa O’Conner, a fireman that also doubles as a guide, chartered a boat to take a few tourists with a spot open for me.
Wait a minute… O’Connor ain’t exactly a Marquesan sounding name. Turns out that Pifa’s great great grandfather escaped the great Irish famine and somehow ended up in Hiva Oa, marrying a local islander … and the rest is history!
You’ll start off with a very scenic 40-minute boat ride to our first port of call – the tiny village of Hapatoni. Much like the trip to Hakatea Bay in Nuku Hiva, you’ll be treated to sublime views of the dramatic coastlines of Hiva Oa and Tahuata.
Hapatoni really feels like the end of the line, with only 100 people living in 20 or so homes. They primarily live off copra production, fishing, hunting and making traditional Marquesan art (more on that shortly). The main attraction is walking along the ancient royal road which slices through the village. On one side is the beach – lined with century-old tamanu trees, while on the other – wild hibiscus, noni, gardenia and other things which we normally have to buy in a shop.
Along the pleasant little stroll, you’ll likely bump into a local artist carving away on a piece of rosewood, animal bone or even rare sandalwood. In any case, local villagers will surely have the small artisan ‘market’ open for your visit, a good chance to do some shopping though I found everything here to be way too overpriced (cash only, of course).
Somewhere along the royal road, you’ll venture a bit inland and visit the ancient temple, known in the Marquesas as me’ae (marae in the other archipelagos). Like the timeless performance of Alvane back in Nuku Hiva, Pifa will show you how humans were sacrificed here centuries ago, swapping the machete with a ukelele.
The Hapatoni tour will end with a visit to the picturesque local church, built in 1877 and by far the prettiest building in the village. Have a look inside the stone chapel, decorated with painted glass windows a la Paris style.
It’s back on the boat and a quick trip to Hanamoenoa Bay, where you’ll transfer to a tiny rowboat and land on the dreamy beach. Your crew will prepare a delicious BBQ lunch as you go for a dip in the ocean. Don’t expect much in terms of snorkeling, as visibility is very poor and you’ll be lucky to spot a few fish here and there.
Lunch is served buffet style and delicious as always. On the menu: grilled tuna, poisson cru, sashimi, salads and maybe even brownies for dessert! After a brief nap and some ukelele tunes, it’s back on the big boat and back to Hiva Oa, just in time to watch the locals doing a bit of fishing!
Logistics: you’ll depart from the port at 8:30am and return before 4pm. Bring beach gear, pills if you get sick on boats, cash if you want to do a bit of shopping and monoi oil to keep the sand flies away. Cost is 10,000F per person, call Pifa: +689-87727633 or inquire with your hosts.
Horses in the South Pacific? In the Marquesas Islands, the answer to that is ‘yes’! It’s one of the best ways to explore the Hiva Oa countryside, definitely for someone who enjoys riding horses (I’m not one of them but I still took one for the team).
If you haven’t already done so in Nuku Hiva, you’ll get one final chance to go horseback riding in Hiva Oa. The best place for that is at Hamau Ranch, where Paco will pair you up with a horse and take you on a half day tour. Paco is a legendary horseman in French Polynesia, knowing everything there is to know about horses. You’ll ride inside the rainforest around the ranch and the airport, going up and down hills and stopping at beautiful vistas.
Logistics: no previous experience necessary, free pickup and drop off from your pension, approx. 4 hours, 7,000F per person. Wear long pants, bring sunscreen and water. Though you do stop a couple of times, don’t count on snapping many photos on this tour so come with the mindset of truly horseback riding.
The Smiling Tiki
Of all the tiki statues you’ll come across in French Polynesia (and there are a lot), none are as cute as the ‘smiling tiki’, locally known as tiki souriant. Hiding in a lonely spot in the rainforest, head towards the airport from Atuona and look for the small white plaque on the right side of the road. Park the car and follow the sketched map on the plaque for about 400 meters.
Take a left at the traffic circle passed the airport to reach Hanaiapa Village. Likely the way Atuona used to look like centuries ago, not much is happening in the village, at least not on land. Out in the bay, a small rock rises from the water, resembling that of ‘James Bond Island’. If the lighting is just right, one side of the rock looks like the head of an African man, while the other of a woman. Further on the left, the bay’s enclosing cliff sometimes resembles a giant moray eel. With so much time on their hands, it’s no wonder locals have figured these out…
Hanatekuua Bay Hike
One of the best hikes I’ve done in French Polynesia and one that does not require a guide. Once you get to Hanaiapa Village, ask the locals to show you the trail head. The trail is clearly visible and you’ll be sharing it with wild mountain goats.
After a quick ascent, you’ll reach incredible panoramic views of Hanaiapa Bay. Look out for the waterfall cascading straight into the ocean in the far distance. You’ll seriously want to ‘park it’ here for a while, so just grab some shade and a snack. Such a beautiful spot, and you’ll have it all to yourself!
Continue along the trail until you reach a metal gate. Pass through and just stick to your left at the fork. You’re now on the Hanahaoe Pass, right in between the two bays. Out in the horizon, you’ll see Fatu Huku on a clear day – some 37 kilometers away.
A few more steps will bring you to the top of Hanatekuua Bay, one of the most beautiful places in the Marquesas Islands. The bay shelters turquoise waters, splashing onto a white sand beach that’s backed by coconut plantations. Let’s head down, shall we?
Hanatekuua beach is even prettier from level ground as it is from up on the ridgeline. There is one guy permanently living here and a couple of other families from Hanaiapa who spend a few days each week tending to their copra plantation. I met these friendly locals as I landed on the beach, just in time to watch them catch small crabs washed ashore by the waves.
It was a memorable encounter, giving me the chance to get to know real islanders and practice my French (and my coconut cracking skills). They even made room for me on their tiny boat back to the village, saving the effort of walking back and having more time to spend on this paradise of a beach.
Logistics: the Hanatekuua Bay Hike can be done on your own, starting from Hanaiapa. It’s a relatively easy 2 hour hike including stops (each way). Bring plenty of water, beach gear, food and citronel monoi oil against the sandflies (nono).
Only 21 kilometers from Atuona but requiring at least an hour of driving on mostly unpaved roads, Hanapaaoa is another sleepy village lying at the mouth of yet another deep valley. Such is the scenery in Hiva Oa, similar but always drop dead gorgeous.
The main reason to visit Hanapaaoa, aside from curiosity, is Tiki Moe One – a small statue shrouded in mystery! It’s very tricky to locate and you’ll need the help of a local. Basically, head up the hill passed the cemetery and park your car near the houses overlooking the bay. Find a local and offer 500F to take you to see the tiki.
You’ll veer off the trail in the coconut grove and walk up the hill until entering thick shrubs. A few steps later, you’ll notice you’re actually walking on smooth rocks. This is no coincidence, but an ancient temple that has yet to be excavated, complete with elaborate rock carvings and untouched human remains!!!
Continue walking a few more slippery steps and your guide will show you the tiki. This little statue has the best panoramic view out of all the tiki I came across. It is believed that locals would carry the statue down to the beach once a year in a ceremony that involved its bathing. Unfortunately, ancient religion is not the strong suit of today’s average Marquesan, so it was difficult to obtain more information.
Puamau Scenic Drive
The challenging drive from Atuona to Puamau should not be missed! Whether as part of a tour or an even better road trip, this 40-kilometer trip will take you the entire day. Have a look at the 5 day Hiva Oa sample itinerary for more detailed information.
At the traffic circle passed the airport, you’ll take a right and begin driving on the dirt road. You’re now on a plateau that separates the south side of the island with its wild northeast. Stop along the way and enjoy fine panoramic views of Atuona, the surrounding peaks and even Tahuata Island.
As you begin your descent to the northern side of the island, the memorable views that will accompany you throughout this scenic drive will begin. What to expect? Bay after bay of blue ocean and rugged cliffs hiding small hamlets where time really stands still.
Continue along the dirt road, now becoming quite challenging as it winds its way on the cliffside. Watch out for falling rocks and don’t expect to dive more than 20 km/h.
The road will offer exceptional views that will surely blow your mind, and you’ll rarely pass any other cars!
You’ll pass through Motuua, Nahoe and Eianoe Bay, tiny hamlets where just a few families live. They have a mighty long commute to buy groceries, but also incredible views and a black sand beach all to themselves.
The coastal road ends at Puamau, the largest settlement on this side of the island. The view from atop is reminiscent to that of Hatieu back in Nuku Hiva, majestic and Jurassic Park like.
The village is home to a grocery shop, an impressive wild beach and the small tomb of the last valley chief known as Tohua Pehe Kua. The main attraction however, is the Lipona archeological site.
Lipona Archaeological Site
The best archaeological site in French Polynesia is definitely worth the arduous trip from Atuona. Easily eclipsing anything you have seen so far in any of the island guides, the Lipona site mysterious as it is impressive.
Tucked in a clearing at the edge of the rainforest, I was the only person in this remote site, only further amplifying the eerie feeling that always accompanies you in such ancient Polynesian temples.
The main attractions in Lipona are the enormous tiki statues, so well preserved. One of them measures well over 2.5 meters! Just imagine how difficult it was to carve these out, and to have done so centuries ago!
Pay close attention to the features on these statues. You’ll notice that some clearly depict females, while one of them has six fingers on each hand. Who, or what does this tiki depict?
It technically costs 300F to visit the site, payable to anyone who comes to ask or at the village shop. When I visited, nobody came to ask and the shop was closed…
Places To Eat & Drink In Hiva Oa
If you’re staying at Pension Kanahau, Tania will feed you exceptional well during breakfast and dinner. Here are a few lunch options:
Snack Make Make: fish dishes along with Asian and western favorites. Mains are between 1000-2000F. Wash everything down with a fresh coconut!
Salon de The: a relatively new place right by the Gauguin center. Salads and sandwiches go for 300-1000F, but come here if you’re craving a sweet crepe. Free WiFi when ordering food.
Now It’s Your Turn
I hope you’ve found this Hiva Oa Travel Guide useful. If you have any questions or your own Hiva Oa travel tips, leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation started!