The Marquesas, “the Land of Men”. For many, this name is known thanks to the French singer Jacques Brel and the painter Paul Gauguin. However, in reality, there are few people who even know how to locate the archipelago on a map! The Marquesas are part of the mysterious places lost somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Scientists are almost certain that the Marquesas could be the place of origin for some of the first civilizations in Oceania, and more specifically of Easter Island. In this article, I inform you of the different things to do in Hiva Oa, the island that for years hosted the renowned two characters mentioned above.
For some geographical context, the Marquesas is one of the five archipelagos of French Polynesia, located more than 1600 Km north of Tahiti, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. The island of Hiva Oa is located in the Southern Marquesas Islands, with the island of Tahuata and the island of Fatu Hiva. The island is a Polynesian volcanic island that I have had the opportunity to visit several times, both for personal and professional reasons. Moreover, if you are traveling with your family, visiting French Polynesia with a baby is child’s play! For all those in search of authenticity, of the “Polynesian dream”, it is in my opinion the perfect island. It is indeed paradisiacal, if you take the trouble to discover it. For those looking for lagoons, turquoise waters, bungalows on stilts, coral reefs, it is better to choose the Tuamotus or the Leeward Islands.
For fans of the Marquesas, I invite you to discover the island of Ua Pou, in the Northern Marquesas.
You reach Atuona, the capital of Hiva Oa Island, after 30 minutes of driving from the airport. You get to enjoy the breathtaking view of the bay upon arrival. About 2000 people live peacefully in this town that seems like a village. Everything can be done more or less by foot and you will never be too far from the center of the town. Take the time to stroll through the village and admire the amazing view from the foot of the highest point on the island, the magnificent Mount Temetiu (1213 m).
Of all the things to do in Hiva Oa, many come here to visit the graves of Brel and Gauguin, at the municipal cemetery. You just need to go for a walk and access it by walking along a road that starts just after the gendarmerie (it is indicated). Jacques Brel is buried in the marine cemetery and he was very well known locally for having helped build the airfield at the time… It was from here that he had the “Jojo” take off!
In the meantime, you can enjoy the discovery of the old pre-European cemetery (Teivitete), where the remains of the old tombs can still be found. Everything is quite well preserved given the age. Access to this cemetery is by walking along the main river of the village. You will see the cemetery on your left, follow the signs and admire the great view of the bay.
For fans of both of these characters, you can visit the cultural area in the city center. Atuona, the capital city, remains the starting point for your visits on the island.
We continue the walk by moving to the village of Taaoa, further west. It is preferable to rent a car for a few days to be able to move around the island in autonomy (see this with your pension). Take the opportunity to stop along the road to admire the breathtaking view of Atuona.
15 minutes by car from Atuona, the village of Taaoa is stuck at the foot of an impressive cliff. The main thing to do in the village is the visit of the famous Paepae “Upeke”, an archaeological site. The latter, which is the Tahitian equivalent of the Marae, are archaeological remains of ancient settlements on the island, which could have been areas of habitat, meeting or gathering.
After you have paid the 300 francs entrance fee to the artisanal fare (used for the maintenance of the site), take the time to discover this site where the scale of the life spent in these places is significant. Ideally, you can ask at the pension for a guide for a more precise explanation of the site.
After the walk around the site, it’s definitively worth a visit to the village church, made of stones and wood.
After visiting the villages of Atuona and Taaoa, take the road that leads up to the north of the island. It’s definitely one of the things to do in Hiva Oa. Ask at the guesthouse where you sleep to rent a 4×4 which is mandatory to discover the north of the island, including the villages of Hanaiapa, Hanapaoa, and the village at the end of the island, Puamau.
I advise to do the whole thing over 2 days because the road is long and bumpy. It is preferable to visit Hanaiapa initially in the morning or afternoon and come back the next day to visit the other villages and the tip of the island.
The road to Puamau is really beautiful and you will enjoy the cliffs jutting over the sea, the lush vegetation and the blue sea as far as the eye can see.
Over a day, discover the flowered valley of Hanaiapa, located about 20 km from Atuona (about an hour’s drive, a little more with photo stops). The latter has a certain charm, especially with these few houses lost at the end of the valley, not far from the small beach of the village (a nice walk to do).
The visit of the valley allows access to one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, Hanatekehua Beach, about an hour’s walk from the Hanaipa Valley. This superb white sandy beach is one of the must see on the island!
This valley is about an hour’s drive from Atuona on the road to the village of Puamau. Ask your pension to explain where to find a map of the island because access to the valley, which is not indicated, can be easily missed.
A dirt broken road at first allows access to this valley. Drive slowly. Upon arrival in the valley, you will see a very small valley nestled at the foot of the mountains. The latter is particularly well-known for its honey that you can buy by asking the residents of the village (if it is the season!).
A visit to the Paepae of Moeone with the presence of the crowned stone Tiki at its summit is worth a visit. There are no signs here to indicate you, so ask the locals.
When you travel up from the Hanapaooa valley, continue along the road towards the village of Puamau (so to speak as there is no sign). You get to drive along the edge of a cliff on a superb road. On the way you will cross the two small valleys of Motuua (first) and Nahoe (second). From the road, you get amazing views of these valleys.
There is nothing special to do here so you just get to enjoy the place with a walk on the beach. I also recommend a small meal break on the great beach of Nahoe, where it is easy to swim.
Here, we are at the end of the road and at the far east of the island. A superb view of the village can be observed from the top of the pass leading to it. It will take at least a 2h30/3h drive from Atuona, and maybe more if you are not used to driving a 4×4 on a rough road and want to stop and take pictures en route. Also make sure you know the weather forecast for the day beforehand as the road is known to be dangerous and slippery.
Once in the spot, a visit to the Paepae of IIpona is a must. The site is not free of charge due to maintenance fees; there is a sign that indicates this at the entrance of the village. Take the time to stroll around this old site and enjoy the surroundings.
Then you can end-up your afternoon by the sea and enjoy the black sandy beach of the village to swim around in front of this splendid landscape.
The Marquesas are also famous for their wild horses that are found all over the island. This is one of the things to do in Hiva Oa. To my knowledge, two service providers offer horse rides in the neighborhood of the village. There is the equestrian center, which you can see from the exit of the airport, (Hamau Ranch), run by Lucien (known as Paco) and another center run in the city center by Jéremie. Prices vary around 7000fr (55€) for a 3h walk.
I haven’t personally tested it but apparently it’s a very nice experience. According to the information I have received, Lucien can organize hikes around Atuona as well.
I have to tell you about this one seeing as I didn’t know about it until I went there last time. You don’t find these kinds of recommendations in a guide! You can rent a small local boat (“bonitier”) or a speedboat from several people in the village to get there. We rented one for the day (25000 fr or about 200€) with the bonitier Léo Rohi. Ask your pension, they know about it.
The trip is really worth the detour and there are almost no tourists that attempt the adventure. It is not openly advertised as far as I know. But it’s clearly a day worth a visit.
You will leave in the early morning and follow the west and north coast of Hiva Oa, getting amazing views of the cliffs and some lost valleys, now uninhabited. After one hour of navigation the two bays come into view. You first see the great Tanaeka Bay with its white sandy beach and then Hanamenu Bay.
You won’t have anything special to do on this daytrip, except to enjoy the two valleys. Remains of dwellings (Paepae) from a long time ago can be found in both valleys. You will appreciate the fruits of the valleys and especially the mangoes and papayas, which are easily found. You can simply ask the sailor to accompany you on both trips. A small trail allows you to access the ridge in 30 minutes that separates the two bays and offers an amazing panorama.
You will hardly meet anyone here except a few locals who have come to make copra. A very good daytrip, without tourists, as we like it, that is definitely among the things to do in Hiva Oa
Last thing to do when visiting the island of Hiva Oa, in my opinion, is a day trip to the island of Tahuata. The pension where we stayed, and that I would recommend with my eyes closed, offers this excursion.
The day ranges from a stroll on the beautiful beaches of Tahuata Island, a boat trip around the island to observe the relief and a great local meal on the beach. All this is combined with a small workshop to learn how to braid, open coconuts and learn Marquesan dance. It is a great day that I would recommend to everyone.
So, these were my top 10 things to do in Hiva Oa. You can easily spend the week there without getting bored! To find your way around, here is a map of Hiva Oa.
If you are arriving from abroad (except within French Polynesia) you will have to take one of the international flights arriving on Tahiti Island. I wrote a full article on the different possibilities to go to French Polynesia from the main access points.
- From USA, the easiest solution will be to take a flight from any town in USA to San Francisco and then another flight from SF to Papeete with Frenchbee. If you have flexible dates, you can find cheap flights from 550$. The same applies if your departure point is from Canada, a flight from a town to Canada to San Francisco and then a SF – Papeete flight. It will cost you around the same (700/800 Canadian $) for a SF-Tahiti Flight.
I have maybe found some cheap flights to French Polynesia!
- From Tahiti: Like all the other Polynesian islands (Tahaa, Maupiti, Tikehau, Gambier, etc.), the easiest way to get to the island is to arrive by plane with the local airline Air Tahiti on a Papeete Hiva Oa flight. Count 70 000 fr (560€) approximately (yes, it is not cheap)!
One of the tricks to save money in French Polynesia, and for those who will travel to all the Polynesian archipelagos, is to buy the company’s Pass for 5 archipelagos. If you visit the other 4 archipelagos (Society, Tuamotu, Gambier and Australes), the flight to the Marquesas will be free (except taxes).
- From the other Marquesas Islands: Even if this blog is more focused on low budget trips, you can also go by boat with the famous Aranui (1 every 3 weeks), for a cruise around the Marquesas Islands in 7 days for a modest sum of around 3000€…
There are a large number of boarding houses and a “top-of-the-range” hotel (Hanakee Hiva Oa Pearl) on the island. For travellers wishing to limit their budget, the pension option will be “the cheapest”.
I personally advise the Kanahau guesthouse, run by Tania where I spent the week when I stayed there on holiday. It has superb large bungalows, all with views of the valley or bay of Atuona. Tania’s meals and her stories on the island will make you love her character and the pension.
I have not personally tested the other pensions on the island, but there are of course others (Relais Moehau, Temetiu Village, etc.).
For those who will sleep in a boarding house, the cheapest option to consider is to go through “sejour dans les iles” which offers flights + accommodation packages, in any case it is cheaper than to organize everything by yourself (I did the math).
If you sleep in a guesthouse, you will not have any worries for breakfast and dinner, which will be taken care of by the place. Otherwise, there are several shops in the city center of Atuona. Namely also that there is one in the village of Puamau, at the end of the island. Globally, all necessities are available.
For trips on the island, I recommend renting a car, preferably a 4×4, to be able to travel to all the valleys and villages that are at the other end of the island. There is no need to rent one for the days staying in Atuona, where everything can be done on foot without any worries. You can inquire at the pension for the different rental companies.
I hope you liked the article on Hiva Oa and that you now have a better idea for planning your trip to French Polynesia. If you are in the process of preparing your trip, Lonely Planet offers a complete guide. If you have any questions about your visit to Hiva Oa, feel free to leave me a comment at the bottom of the article! By the way, do you want to know how to get to the Marquesas Islands?
I’ll see you soon,