Where the Power of the Earth and Cultures Meet
If culture is what you are looking for in the South Pacific, then Vanuatu is your match. With a rich history dating back to 2000 BC, Vanuatu has the most diverse concentration of different cultures and languages (115 to be exact). Many of the villages still stay true to their traditions, most famous of which is the land dive on the island of Pentecost, which is said to be the inspiration for the modern bungy jump invented in New Zealand.
Besides mingling with the locals, Vanuatu’s natural attractions have so much to offer backpackers, especially those who are coming from the diverse landscapes of New Zealand. Watch active volcanoes in action, trek in the dense rainforest, and dive in coral reefs or long-forgotten shipwrecks. There’s so much to do, your only worry is which of the 83 Vanuatu islands to go to!
Looking for other South Pacific backpacking destinations for when you leave New Zealand? Check out our guides for Fiji, Tonga and the Cook Islands.
Traveller’s Tips for Backpacking in Vanuatu
- In respect for local customs, wear modest clothing outside of public bathing areas and Port Vila
- Tipping and bartering are not accepted in Vanuatu
- The common way to get from island to island is taking domestic flights from Port Vila and Luganville
- Drive on the right-hand side of the road
- Pass through villages by the road. If you want to enter a village, wait outside until approached
- Outside of Port Vila, only men drink kava. Ask if it is acceptable for women to drink kava to cause offence
- Always carry a bit of extra cash on you. Some islands have a very limited number of ATMs
- Bring insect repellent!
Arriving in Vanuatu
Your South Pacific island adventure begins here, landing in Vanuatu. International flights land in Bauerfield on Efate, only 10 minutes away from Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu.
Entry Requirements to Vanuatu
Travellers who are citizens of the Commonwealth countries, EU countries, Fiji, Japan, Norway, Philippines, South Korea, Switzerland, China and USA can visit Vanuatu for up to 30 days without a visa. You will need a valid travel ticket out of Vanuatu and your passport must be valid for six months beyond your intended stay. Other nationalities will have to contact the Immigration Department.
The main island of Vanuatu, Efate, is home to the bustling city of Port Vila. As you can imagine from the name, it is a harbour city one that is a great base for activities that draw backpackers to the South Pacific islands in the first place: diving, snorkelling, kayaking and chilling on the beaches.
Wrecks, reefs, drop-offs and caves can all be explored by diving in Efate’s waters. Dive Hat Island, on the north side of Efate, has many tunnels and hidden places to see an array of colourful marine life. Do a wreck drive of the Star of Russia or Malapoa Point where there is discarded ammunition left by the US at the end of WW2. Take a boat tour to Moso Island to see a turtle sanctuary. See a clownfish colony at Hideaway Island. Oh yeah, and there is the world’s first Underwater Post Office! Because, of all the things anyone has dreamed about having underwater, a post office is definitely one of them.
Meanwhile, on land, you also have the wet options of going to Mele-Maat Cascades Waterfall. The 20-metre (65-foot) waterfall, at the bottom of Klem’s Hill, is a great place for a bushwalk and a swim. With some activity providers, you can also cascade over the waterfall yourself by abseiling. Alternatively, other activity providers can provide transport and a relaxing barbecue by the falls – find out more on Viator and Tripadvisor. Entry is for a small fee.
Of course, beach-lovers will not be disappointed. While Eton Beach is the most popular, there are more beaches to find at Takara, Undine Bay, Erakor Island and Mele Bay. It’s worth going to Lelepa Island for something a little more than beaches. There, explore Feles Cave and the coral gardens on the southeast coast.
Mountains, forest, dive sites and the vibrant Luganville, make up Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s largest island. Commonly known as Santo, it was a large US military base during WW2. Signs of this can be seen today, such as old airstrips and sunken war wrecks, which are now great dive spots. Check out Million Dollar Point to see a, what looks like, a whole world has forgotten underwater. Entry to the site is charged. SS President Coolidge is an easily accessible wreck dive in Segond Channel.
Inland at Santo, visit Five Rivers to see the Vanuatu imperial pigeon, a cascade waterfall and try a bit of prawn fishing. Millennium Cave is also worth visiting for the adventurous backpacker. The cave stretches 20 metres deep into the forest, filled with bats and swallows.
One of those magical places is the Blue Holes. Unique to Vanuatu, they are fed by a freshwater spring and are a great place to swim and snorkel. Entry to these is charged. Chasing blue holes might also take you to Malo Island, with its very own stunning Blue Hole and Malo River. Relax on the white sand beaches or take part in fish feeding and turtle spotting.
Finally, escape to an offshore island, such as Aore, Tutuba and Bokissa, which are covered in coconut palm trees and beaches: a paradise.
Tanna is where the earth is most lively in Vanuatu, as is the culture. The fiery and always active Mt Yasur gives breathtaking displays of lava, which you can see for yourself from the crater rim. The best time to go is late afternoon/evening to see the change of light between daylight and nighttime. More particularly, go in the wet season (November-April) for something truly spectacular.
Discover more of this amazing Tanna landscape by walking the White Grass Plains, with a view of the Pacific Ocean and hundreds of wild horses. In the rich forests, you’ll notice the giant banyan trees with their unbelievable root systems.
To get a taste of the many the different cultures and cults of Vanuatu, the John Frum cult in John Frum Village has Friday night celebrations with dancing and music in anticipation for the return of, you guessed it, John Frum. Visitors are welcome to join in the celebrations.
Don’t worry, there’s still water adventures to be had in Tanna. At White Grass, there is a coral hole spanning 100 metres (328 feet) wide and 2/3 metres (7-10 feet) deep. Lemnap Cave is also a cool and intriguing place to discover. A boat tour can take you to the hidden entrance where you will need to duck dive under the cliff wall or swim to it in low tide.
Malekula and Ambrym
If culture is what fuels you as a traveller, then Malekula and Ambrym should be your top travel destinations in Vanuatu, if not the world. Malekulais home to the Big Nambas and Small Nambas tribes; tribes who were previously known to be warriors and cannibals.
There are many hands-on tours and activities to experience the culture of the Big Nambas and Small Nambas. Visit cannibal sites (don’t worry, this is purely a historic site), take a traditional canoe trip, stay in a village on one of the outer islands, or take a guided bushwalk, staying in hidden villages along the way. You’ll get to witness village celebrations where women wear woven pandanus skirts and men wear “nambas” that’s a woven penis sheath. You can even get an insight into the working life in Vanuatu by visiting a coconut producer and exporter.
Not so far over the water, Ambrym sits with Mt Benbow and Mt Marum in its centre showing bubbling lakes of lava in their craters. To visit them, you’ll need an experienced guide not only for safety but because they are very sacred. Ambrym is also where you can see one of the most striking performances in Vanuatu, the Rom dance. Spectacularcloaked outfits are worn by the men, then once the dance is complete the cloaks are destroyed to ward off spirits from haunting the dancers. Originally, this tradition involved a pig-killing ceremony here and there.
Before you leave Ambrym, don’t miss the sand drawings and carved tam-tams (or slit gongs) used as an instrument for singing and dancing in ceremonial rituals.
The Outer Islands of Vanuatu
There are so many islands in Vanuatu, we can’t fit them all into this tiny guide. But if you do get the chance, visit some of these:
- Ambae – Most famous for its sand drawings, the island is covered in thick rainforest and a semi-active volcano with three thermal crater lakes
- Aneityum – Mountainous, forested, beach-covered, waterfalls, surrounded by coral reefs: Aneityum has every natural aspect you could want from a South Pacific paradise
- Banks Banks is made up of Vanua Lava, Gaua and Moto Lava. Local culture is still very much alive in this jungle-clad island group
- Torres – The most isolated group in the far north of Vanuatu has some stunning white sand beaches
- Epi – A peaceful island with lakes to swim or fish, some inshore coral reefs, and Lamen Bay where you can see dugongs. The smoking volcanic Lopevi Island is nearby providing hot springs near the village of Votlo
- Erromango – Scarcely populated, this is a haven for bushwalkers. Explore the ancient carvings in Suvu Beach’s caves
- Maewo – The island receives the most rainfall resulting in epic waterfalls
- Pentecost – Most famous for its land diving ritual (Nagol) see men dive off platforms with vines tied around their ankles between April-June.