Last updated on March 9th, 2022
An incredible voyage to the far reaches of the globe is quickly coming to its end. As with any good story, the best was to be saved for last, with a trip to the distant Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. Known as ‘The Mysterious Islands’, forget about everything you’ve seen so far in previous weeks. The Marquesas Islands are dramatically wild beyond imagination. In this week’s update from the South Pacific Islands, we head to the island of Nuku Hiva. With a name like that, just imagine what you’re about to see!
Heading off to French Polynesia? In-depth island guides to all 5 archipelagos await you, including sample itineraries and essential travel tips & tricks.
One of the five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands are among the most remote in the entire world – lying over 1,000 km’s from Tahiti and over 4,500 km’s from the nearest continental land mass in Mexico. This isolation has led to the creation of a totally unique ancient culture, with its own language, religion, art and even a cannibalistic past. Evidence of such rich times await visitors who explore the islands, with mysterious ancient temples hiding deep in the lush valleys and up in the mountains.
Unlike the islands we’ve seen so far, like Maupiti in the Society Islands and Fakarava in the Tuamotus, the Marquesas Islands are high islands with no protective coral reef. The islands rise out of the deep blue ocean and climb into the clouds like natural skyscrapers with sharp basaltic teeth. Joining the mountains, are deep valleys that spill into beautiful bays of white or black sand and wild palm trees. Capping off this powerful scenery are 1000 foot waterfalls that splash down at almost every corner.
Strangely enough, the Marquesas Islands were the first to be colonized in what is today French Polynesia. This likely took place in the 11th and 12th centuries by arrivals from Samoa, after which islanders continued to the Society Islands. Though living in an isolated and challenging environment, islanders thrived in the Marquesas. The local population reached an estimated 100,000 – impressing even the first Western explorers with a rich culture and easy way of life. Unfortunately, Westerners brought with them diseases to which islanders had no immunity. By the start of the 20th century, a mere 4,000 had survived!
Today, islanders still live a peaceful life in the extra slow lane, making a living off copra production, farming, fishing and small-scale tourism. The islands still experience a population decline, but not because of diseases – rather because of a lack of employment opportunities, especially for youngsters. This led the government to practically lease farmland for free, in the hopes of stimulating local farming and income generation.
Our first stop in this magical island group is Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands and the second biggest in French Polynesia. Only the most curious travelers venture all the way out here… Are you sure you’re ready?
It takes over three hours of flying to get from Tahiti to Nuku Hiva. That’s how far the Marquesas are. In fact, there’s even a 30 minute time difference between the islands! On the way, we flew over the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago, like rings of gold appearing in the vast blue ocean. So pretty!
The scene dramatically changed as we approached Nuku Hiva, waking up all the sleepy passengers on board. My good God! Are we seriously landing down there? I think I’ve arrived in the real Jurassic Park… I just hope the dinosaurs are extinct over here too.
The plane finally touched down in a remote & dry part of the island called ‘desert land’. Though Nuku Hiva is huge, there was nowhere to build a runway other than here – well over an hour outside the main village. You’ll soon see why…
At the tiny airport, I met a lovely family from Tahiti who would be staying at the same pension as me. There was Francoise (Fanfan), Laurent and their son Cyril – who was ending a two month holiday before returning back to France. I didn’t know it at the time, but we would spend the family’s entire three-day visit to the island together (hope they didn’t mind).
The family and I squeezed into a Land Rover driven by our host Alvane, for the most scenic airport-to-town ride I’ve ever been on – over an hour of hair-razing climbs, mind-bending turns and breathtaking views. So Buckle up folks!
Our first stop was at the local version of the ‘grand canyon’, followed by a bird’s eye view of the Toovii Plateau. Miles and miles of lush and fertile land revealed themselves beneath our feet, resembling scenes from a fairytale. Are you sure we’re on the right island? This doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen so far in French Polynesia!
As we descended from the ridges of the former volcano down to the plateau, we passed by endless forests of pine trees as straight as rulers and as high as Manhattan skyscrapers. On the side of the road were fallen rocks, wild horses, lots of cattle and waterfalls from the recent rains. Wow!
After about 90 minutes, our driver and pension owner Alvane parked the Land Rover at the edge of a cliff. Beneath our feet – the first signs of civilization. This is the village of Taiohae, where I’ll be spending the next 5 nights. I can’t wait to get down there but at the same time just want to stay up here for a little bit longer. This cannot be real! I feel like I’m on the set of some Hollywood movie, Jurassic Park perhaps. But this isn’t a movie, it’s the Marquesas Islands!
We finally arrived at Pension Koku’u, where we met Alvane’s wife Claudine. Together, they run an amazing little family pension with million-dollar views from the balcony, and roosters that ensure you wake up bright and early to make the most of your day in ‘Jurassic Park’.
Alvane’s family has a very interesting background. We’ll come back to this later so hold that thought.
With Fanfan and Cyril off to do some horseback riding, Laurent and I headed down the hill to check out the village of Taiohae – one of the most picturesque in the entire South Pacific. Less than 3,000 locals live in Nuku Hiva, most in the village that also doubles as the capital of the Marquesas Islands. It’s the kind of village that’s got everything, yet feels incredibly relaxed. Undoubtedly, it is its natural harbor that leaves a lasting impression, filling up the former crater of an extinct volcano. The harbor is a favorite spot for yachts, who park it here during the cyclone season as the Marquesas experience relatively calm & dry weather.
Village life is best described as ‘chill’. Locals fish off the docks for dinner every day, as children play round after round of volleyball by the seaside and fit men race across the harbor in their outrigger canoes. Along the streets are flowers in all colors of the rainbow, smelling and looking so damn good – which is a good thing with all the poop from the horses running around town.
Some houses keep it safe with the usual pack of dogs that you find in South Pacific islands, but others choose the traditional way, with a big Tiki statue ensuring bad spirits are kept out.
Tiki or not, Christianity rules this slice of land. In Taiohae, the Notre Dame Cathedral looks like it came straight out of King’s Landing. I think I just saw Tyrion Lannister drinking some Hinano beer!
Before grabbing a few of our own Hinano beers, Laurent and I paid a visit to the local artisan center. The Marquesas Islands are the best place in the country to see and buy wood and stonework. Local artists are among the best carvers, using anything from rosewood, the rare sandalwood, basaltic rock and even bones (relax… we’re talking about cow bones here).
Back at the pension, Claudine and Alvane treated us to a fantastic dinner together with their family. On the menu? Red tuna tartare, raw tuna salad and breadfruit french fries. Yummy! For dessert? How about millions of stars. There’s plenty for everyone in Nuku Hiva!
The next morning Alvane dropped us off at the pier, where Thierry greeted us on his small boat. Our mission? To visit one of the prettiest spots in the South Pacific – the Hakaui Valley, home to Vaipo Waterfall.
The trip started off with a ‘nice and easy’ 40-minute boat ride. Without a protective reef around you, even a calm day at sea requires you to hang on to the side of the boat. The boat ride gave us the chance to admire the village and the southern coastline while seeing from up close the scars left by centuries of ancient volcanic activity.
As scenic as the boat ride was, it couldn’t prepare us for what came into view as we entered Hakatea Bay. Immense basaltic cliffs surround the bay, with a valley extending deep into the lush mountains. Somewhere in there, lies a gorgeous waterfall – and that’s where we’re headed!
We made landfall on the beach for a brief stop, as fishermen were just coming back with the catch of the day. This is the beach where one of the tribes from Survivor Marquesas spent 40 days on. Lucky, or unlucky them. It’s gorgeous and all, but there are nasty sandflies lurking everywhere…
Surprisingly enough, there’s a small village just behind the beach. It’s home to just a few families, a lot of Tiki statues and even a payphone that looks like it hasn’t been used since the late 90s. Everything seems to gown here, and I mean EVERYTHING. That’s a good thing, because the nearest shop is a boat ride away.
In addition to the usual fruits and beautiful flowers, there’s even more exotic things growing on the trees out here, like noni fruit and tamanu nuts with their medicinal uses, jambolana beans that are the South Pacific’s equivalent of pistachio and even kapok nuts which house cotton-like fibers. Heck, there’s even chili peppers! So who needs a Kwik-E-Mart?
To get to the waterfall, we would have to cross four rivers and walk along the ancient ‘royal road’ – constructed over 1,000 years ago by the locals. The road is so well built, that engineers even accounted for elevation, dumping huge boulders into low-lying spots to keep things as leveled as possible.
Deep inside the valley lie millions of nasty mosquitos, but also signs of an ancient civilization that somehow managed to tolerate the bites and call this forest home. Thierry showed us the various structures. Some were for sacrifices, some were for ceremonies and some for homes. There were even small pits in the ground that ironically enough were not used for sacrifice – but rather for storing fermented breadfruit that could be used in years of drought. These days, the ancient villages are long gone, and it’s the giant mape trees that have taken over with their powerful roots.
As we made it into a clearing in the dense rainforest, the jagged cliffs that amazed us from the boat were finally within reach. I’ve never seen anything like this before.
A few more steps and out of those cliffs, the reason why we suffered all those mosquito bites – the 350-meter tall Vaipo Waterfall, the highest in French Polynesia!
As we crossed the fourth river, the cliffs started to close in on us. We must be close. This is the end of the valley, the end of the line. You can clearly hear the waterfall. A few more meters and we finally made it to a natural pool that’s fed by the waterfall. The fall itself is hidden behind the curving cliffs. You can only catch a glimpse of it unless you really don’t value your life. I guess it’s nature’s way of teasing you. You can come close… but not too close. Now it’s time to head back! Nasty mosquitos, here we come.
Such a memorable day must be celebrated with an ice-cold pint of Hinano beer, so our entire group headed to the only place open in Taiohae after 5 pm. Soon after, Claudine & Alvane joined and invited us for dinner instead of cooking back at the pension. An hour turned into two, two to three and bottles of wine quickly followed the pints of beer. There was lots of music, lots of dancing and a lot of talk about life. The band even played my all-time favorite Tahitian song! It was one of those nights you just didn’t want to end, and it ended quite late by local standards at 11 pm!
We’ve barely scratched the surface. Head over to the next page for more wonders from Nuku Hiva!
The next morning we all woke up with a slight hangover, but there’s no time to waste on Nuku Hiva. Alvane saddled up the Land Rover, Claudine packed some lunch for us, and off we went to explore one of the prettiest parts of Nuku Hiva. Riding through the village with Alvane is the perfect way to explain the meaning of ‘island life’. “Here’s my brother the cop. And this one is my brother. Oh, here’s my cousin the firemen”. Everybody knows everybody and there’s a good chance they’re somehow related. On this day, Alvane would be at his best, and he really grew on me from this day forward.
We ascended the steep mountains that shelter the village and made it once again to the Toovii Plateau, only to descend towards the breathtaking Taipivai Valley. The scenery we would see on this day will live so vividly in my memory forever.
After a few twists and turns, we made it to Controleur Bay. It felt like we’d just been teleported to the Norwegian Fiordland, but after a few spot checks, it was concluded that we’re still south of the equator. Such is Nuku Hiva – a diverse piece of land. The bay is so nice that even Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, decided to get off the ship and spend three weeks over here. His experiences turned into his first book – Typee, considered to be one of the first travel books.
Back on the road, we cruised along the slopes of the mountains, stopping occasionally as Alvane spotted a waterfall, wild pigs or a rare bird species. He really knows his island, like most local Marquesans.
A few hair razing turns later, the curvy green mountains rolled down to beautiful Hatiheu Bay. Down by the beach was a tiny village surrounded by the ocean on one side, and thousands of palms trees and giant peaks that resemble broken pieces of glass on the other.
I can only begin to imagine the feeling the first settlers had when they saw this site, after so many months at sea.
We made it down to Hatiheu village, where there wasn’t much happening on this Saturday morning. The village is as pretty from down here as it is from up there, with a black sand beach that glows in the sunlight and cliffs that somehow house a statue of the Virgin Mary since 1872!
We weren’t the only ones that fell in love with Hatiheu. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, spend some time here back in 1888. Life seems pretty simple here. When the locals aren’t at church or out at sea, they’re probably making copra. Like we saw back in Tahaa & Rangiroa, coconut flesh is set out to dry in the sun before it can be squeezed for its oil.
Most tours stop here and head back to town – but not Alvane’s. We continued along a dirt track, where we ditched the car and began hiking through a forest of endless mango trees that could no longer bear the weight of the tropical fruit. Snack? Check!
Thirty minutes later, we made it to the top of the ridge and finally saw the reason for all the sweat and mosquito bites – Anaho Bay. The best way to describe the exhilarating beauty, is through Robert Louis Stevenson’s words:
“I have watched the morning break in many quarters of the world; the dawn that I saw with most emotion shown upon the Bay of Anaho”
Laurent even spotted a mountain goat hanging on for dear life just across from us. Such is the contrast in the Marquesas Islands – a tropical island with coconuts and…. mountain goats.
As pretty as this spot is, let’s get down there already and check out the beach! The Marquesas are not famous for their beaches, but there are a few surprises here in there. Anaho Beach is certainly one of them, right up there with Ofu Beach in American Samoa. The few families that somehow manage to live in this remote part of the island were chilling at the beach. This place is off the grid, and I mean OFF the grid.
We found a good spot for lunch, enjoyed Claudine’s sandwiches and went for a dip in the ocean. It’s weird swimming in a beach that’s unprotected by the reef, but at least you can ride the waves like back home in Israel.
Proving that he’s not only a great guide but also a meteorologist, Alvane noticed a few clouds getting too close and told us to pack up before the rain begins. Five minutes later, it was pouring rain, but there was no place to hide. We hiked all the way back to the jeep completely wet. I don’t know which was harder, getting back up to the ridge or sliding down in the mud to the parking lot…
On the way back to Taiohae, we stopped to have a look at ancient Polynesian temples that are scattered inside the jungle. These are some of the most impressive sites in French Polynesia and to think they were completely covered by the forest until just a few decades ago.
Alvane parked the Land Rover in the middle of the first complex, and we checked out the volcanic stone statues that depict polygamy and even human sacrifice. These statues are well over 1,000 years old!
Alvane then took us over to a flat-looking rock where the human sacrifices were made. Back in the day, a poor fellow would lose his head to the Gods and his body to the appetite of his fellow villagers. To really paint a picture of what it was like, a courageous volunteer (a.k.a me), got on the stone and Alvane showed us how it’s done.
This is when Alvane was at his best, and he followed the sacrifice demonstration with a traditional Marquesan haka dance. Sharp eyes may have noticed that Alvane knows his dancing (can you spot him here?). During the legendary Marquesan Arts Festival, he like many other fellow villagers, showcase Marquesan dance to the entire world. Impressive and scary – all at the same time!
We then drove to an eerie and much larger complex, completely taken over by the forest. There were tiki statues everywhere, underground food storage pits, huge banyan trees and dozens of loud crows making the roosters unrestful. It was a chilling experience walking through this huge complex pretty much on our own. This isn’t a place you want to camp out for the night…
The next morning was also sadly the time to say goodbye to Fanfan, Laurent & Cyril. We all decided to visit the church and wish for some sun before the family headed back to Tahiti and Alvane & I head to… hunt! With a rainbow appearing in the sky and the weather clearing up a bit – maybe someone was actually listening up there?
Since stepping a couple of days ago on the remote beach where Survivor was filmed, I was thinking: “wouldn’t it be cool to get lost somewhere on the island for a couple of days?” I heard that Marquesans are excellent hunters and had the bright idea of asking Alvane if he knew anyone that could take me hiking & hunting. Alvane reacted like most local men would… jumping on the opportunity to get lost for a few days and potentially come back with food for the next month. He happily saddled up the Land Rover with all the provisions we’d need and picked up a 12 gauge shotgun from his father’s house. The last tourist to go hunting with the locals never made it back, in one of the most bizarre stories this island has ever seen. I hope I’ll have better luck!
After a teary goodbye at the airport, Alvane and I headed to his family’s valley… that’s right, his private valley. It’s time to explain the story behind Alvane’s last name – Alvarado. Not exactly very South Pacific is it?
The story goes way back to Chile of 1850. Alvane’s great-great-grandfather got into a bit of trouble while protecting his beloved sister from her abusive husband. Instead of turning him over to the authorities, the local bishop remembered the good man that he was, and sent him on a ship heading west – never to return. When the great-great-grandfather saw Nuku Hiva’s beauty, he hopped off and lived in a valley, hiding from the locals who had the nasty habit of eating strangers. He was eventually found by a local princess, who took him and was impressed by his handy skills. They quickly fell in love and were awarded some land by the queen. This is how the Alvarado Valley came to be, and why you can find sooooo many Alvarados in Nuku Hiva.
The Alvarado Valley sits in the remotest part of Nuku Hiva. The valley begins where the high Toovii plateau ends and snakes its way via a thick rainforest down to a beautiful beach.
As for accommodation? Alvane built this small shack back in the days when he was a full-time hunter, long before Claudine rescued him and turned him into an honest man. Miraculously, there’s running water from a reservoir high in the hills, but no electricity at all. We are totally off the grid out here, and that’s a-OK!
Since hunting on a Sunday brings with it bad luck, we headed to the beach to hang out, nap and get to know each other. Alvane speaks a bit of English and I speak a bit of French. When he can’t find the English word he’s looking for, which happens a lot, he just makes sounds like “psshhh & pffffff”, while adding a few hand motions to fill in the blanks. He really grew on me and I think he kind of looks a bit like Hugo Chavez. In the hours we spent chilling together, Alvane explained that hunting is a way of life in the Marquesas. Think of it like American men and football. If we manage to catch something, it will feed his family for weeks. If not, it means a few extra trips to the supermarket…
The one thing Alvane didn’t want to talk about is his family. He said that it’s not good to think about your family when you’re hunting. Your mind needs to be focused on the hunt.
At dusk, Alvane woke me up from my nap and alerted me to the sounds of goats coming from the water reservoir up on the hill. He packed his leftover US Army WWII bag, grabbed the shotgun and off we went.
We hiked up the hill and got within about 20 or 30 meters from a family of goats. Alvane hid behind the boulder, hoping to draw the animals closer, without luck. With a shotgun, this is a difficult shot to make without much natural light. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have more luck…
It was back to the shack for some ramen noodles and millions of stars just above the valley, before crawling into my suspended hammock for the night. In between dreams, I would hear wild pigs coming to check out our camp, rain occasionally pounding the tin roof, and Alvane snoring… of course.
In the morning, the skies really opened up with a thunderous pour, or as Alvane puts it “it’s psssshhhhh’ing and pffffffff’ing”. Alvane put a fresh pot of coffee on the gas and treated us to a bowl of coffee with some crackers inside, and a side of baked beans and corned beef. Essential hunting food – he says.
Despite the heavy rain, we headed into the valley. The plan was to walk along the dry river which runs all the way from the mountains to the beach. It was super slippery and full of, I mean FULL OF mosquitos. If you stopped for a few minutes, and in hunting, you have to – hundreds of hungry mosquitos would gather around and pierce through any piece of clothing. Hunting is difficult as is, but even more so on a tropical island.
Hunting is no good when it rains out here. The rain just causes the animals to escape the valley into the highlands. We heard a few goats, found a few pig dwellings – but never got close enough for a single shot.
We walked and walked and walked, and even lost each other at some point. Completely wet and itchy with bites, Alvane was still totally in his own zone: stalking, sneaking through the forest and completely silent. About 4 km’s into the valley, we turned around, hoping to spot something on the return but ‘no cigar.’ I’m kind of glad we came up empty-handed. I didn’t kill an animal and still got the experience of being with a local Marquesan hunter in the middle of nowhere. Alvane says it can take a few days to catch something out here, but I have a flight to catch tomorrow. So it’s back to civilization, driving back through the clouds!
Five days in Nuku Hiva were just enough to scratch the surface of one of the most interesting islands in the South Pacific. Nuku Hiva is just so drop-dead gorgeous. Period. I’m now off to the second island in the Marquesas and the final island on this six-month voyage to the South Pacific. Next up – Hiva Oa Island. Home to Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel, I guarantee I saved the best for last!
Heading off to French Polynesia? In-depth island guides to all 5 archipelagos await you, including sample itineraries and essential travel tips & tricks.