Exploring the Marquesas Islands: Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa

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When I went to French Polynesia I didn’t plan on visiting the Marquesas. While they looked amazing, I was already spending a month island-hopping across the islands of Tahiti which, if you didn’t already know, definitely did not come cheap. But, the longer I spent in French Polynesia the more I fell in love. And the more people I met the more I heard incredible things about the Marquesas. So, I changed my flights home and extended my French Polynesia trip by another week so that I could visit the Marquesas. It was the best decision and I’m so thankful I went because these islands are so different from anywhere I’ve ever been. So if you are thinking of planning a trip to the Marquesas islands, here is what you need to know and what to see and do in Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa.

Viewpoint in Nuku Hiva

A Little Bit About the Marquesas

The Marquesas, known locally as the “Land of Men” are a chain of islands to the far North of Tahiti. They are considered by many to be some of the most remote yet accessible islands in the entire world, and if you go, you’ll see why.

These islands are unlike anywhere I have ever seen before. Towering cliffs plunge straight down into the depths of the ocean. Tiny roads zigzag through hills, down into lush valleys, and across cliff tops. There are hiking and horseback trails through jungle-like settings where you will find hidden tikis and petroglyphs from an ancient culture. The ocean is strong, with no protective lagoon, yet filled with incredible sea life from manta rays to hammerhead sharks. The people, many of which are covered in tattoos, are some of the warmest and most welcoming you will find.

Despite being a chain of 12 islands, only 6 of the islands are actually inhabited and the Marquesans themselves number only about 10,000 after a violent history that saw the vast majority of these people killed. However, despite their small numbers, the Marquesans are a mighty people with a different language and culture from that of Tahiti. Fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and tattooing are a part of everyday life here.

How to Get to the Marquesas

There are a couple of options for getting to the Marquesas. Most travellers here are actually sailors but, don’t worry, you don’t need a sailboat or a catamaran to visit. There are also regular flights from Tahiti to both Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa with Tahiti Air. If you plan on visiting both islands, your best bet is to buy the Tahiti Air Pass. That being said, it’s still quite pricey. My ticket ended up costing over $1200 CAD. You can also take a boat, there are cargo ships the depart Tahiti and offer rides to passengers on certain days of the week. However, this is also pretty pricey and takes much longer so if you aren’t sailing I highly recommend you fly.

When to Go to the Marquesas

Beach in Hiva Oa

You can visit the Marquesas year round but for the best exploring, you’ll want to visit during the dry season which is November to April. This is opposite to the dry season in the other island chains of French Polynesia so keep that in mind when planning. We lucked in by going to French Polynesia in October and early November because we hit the tail end of the dry season in the Society and Tuamotu islands and the beginning of the dry season in the Marquesas.

How to Get Around the Marquesas

Historical site in Hiva Oa

Like the other islands in French Polynesia, public transportation doesn’t really exist. So to get around you will need to either take tours or rent a car. Based on my experience, I suggest doing both. Take some guided tours with locals to learn more about the island and the culture and then rent a car for a day to see a bit more on your own.

Keep in mind that when renting a car in the Marquesas you want a 4×4. Also, like elsewhere in French Polynesia, rental cars are all standard so make sure you can drive that. I would also like to add that driving here is not for the faint of heart. Hiva Oa in particular had some of the worst and scariest roads I have ever seen so if you are a nervous driver then skip renting a car altogether. 

How Long to Spend in The Marquesas

I spent 8 nights in the Marquesas and it was perfect for exploring Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa without feeling rushed. You could probably do it with 7 nights but I wouldn’t suggest anything less. These are big islands and things run at slow speeds. While there isn’t necessarily a ton to do tour wise in comparison to some of the other islands in French Polynesia, there is still a lot to see and explore. Plus, these islands aren’t very touristic at all which make them a great place to relax a bit too. 

Things to do in Nuku Hiva

Taiohae, Nuku Hiva

Nuku Hiva is the biggest of the Marquesas and was my favourite. I absolutely loved my time here and felt comfortable and safe the entire time. It’s absolutely stunning as well with some of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen spread across the entire island. We drove past flat plains, pine forests, past a deep gorge which our host jokingly told us was the Grand Canyon’s little brother, and of course lush jungle-type landscape and beaches.

The main town is Taiohae, this is where I suggest you stay. It’s located in a crescent shaped bay and is where you will find everything you need from grocery stores to ATMs, restaurants, the tourist office and more. Accommodation options are mostly guest house type places but there is one resort. For ideas on where to stay in Nuku Hiva take a look at:

We spent 4 days in Nuku Hiva which was perfect for exploring and relaxing. I recommend making sure that you add the following things to do in Nuku Hiva to your itinerary:

Explore Taiohae

Marquesan wood carvings

Taiohae is the main town and while it is small it is worth a walk around to see and explore. A couple of highlights include the giant tiki statue at the top of the hill overlooking the bay- you can’t miss it! Below, by the docks, you will also find the fishermen. If you visit early in the morning, you’ll see them cleaning their catches right there on the docks and throwing the scraps into sharks and rays. It’s kinda cool to see the frenzy. Also, make sure to visit the local artisan market. If you are looking for an authentic souvenir from the Marquesas, this is the best (and cheapest) place to buy wooden carvings. I got a beautiful wooden manta ray.

Join an Island Tour with a Local

Jumping on a 4×4 guided tour with a local has a lot of perks and benefits and makes it easy to see the highlights. From stunning viewpoints to the local artisan market to historical ceremonial sites, all while learning the stories and histories of the islands and culture along the way. Combining this tour with your drive from the airport will allow you to see the main highlights and scenic spots of the island. To book a tour, go visit the tourism office in town and ask about an island tour. Colette (or whoever is working that day) will have a list of which tours are going when and be able to get you on one that fits your schedule.

Vaipo Waterfall

landscape in Nuku Hiva

This 4-hour hike makes for a fun adventure day and is one of the top things to do in Nuku Hiva. You’ll take a boat from the docks in Taiohae to another bay with a beautiful black sand beach where you will start the trek. The journey is not steep but it is incredibly uneven so wear good shoes, watch your footing, and bring lots of drinking water! The waterfall, when I went, was more of a ‘wet mountain’ as it was the dry season and there hadn’t been any rain for a while. But it was a fun journey and we got to swim in the cave and do a bit of cliff jumping inside which was fun! Just don’t stay too still in the water, there seemed to be tiny shrimp that liked to pinch! If you like, you can order lunch and fresh juice from a local family at an additional cost. Your guide will ask you if you want to order before you start. Again, to book this tour speak to Colette at the Tourism office in town.

Swim at Colette’s Bay

At the right side of the bay in which Taiohae is located, there is a path that leads you over the hill to Colette’s Bay, a nice beach for swimming. If you talk to the locals, they will tell you it’s a ‘walk’ but it’s definitely more of a hike. The roads are STEEP to get there and it gets hot. Really hot. We, stupidly, decided to go in the middle of the day and were close to dead by the time we actually arrived at the bay. Which was really nice and swimming felt amazing after being drenched in sweat. However, I would only recommend this so-called walk if you are in pretty good shape. If not, consider renting a car. We lucked out and a local family let us ride back in their truck with them. I’ve never been so thankful in my life.

If you have more time or are looking for other ideas of things to do in Nuku Hiva consider:

  • Horseback riding
  • Hiring a local to take you hiking (or even hunting)
  • Renting a car and driving around the island yourself
  • Scuba diving (there is 1 dive shop at the pier. Ask the locals to point you in the right direction)

Things to do in Hiva Oa

Beach sunset  in Hiva Oa

Hiva Oa is the second island that most people visit when they go to the Marquesas. While not quite as dramatic as Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa is still beautiful and has enough to keep you busy for a few days.

Again, I recommend making sure you stay in the main town, Atuona, close to stores and restaurants so that you can easily walk for food, water, and any other supplies. We stayed in a cute Airbnb but it was a 30 minute walk to town which wasn’t ideal during the day or the night. 

My suggestions for things to do in Nuku Hiva include the following:

Explore Atuona

Atuona is the main town of Hiva Oa and there is a fair amount to see and do here to keep you busy for a good chunk of the day. If you are a museum enthusiast, you can check out the Jacques Brel and Paul Gaugin museums. You can also find their graves in the Calvary Cemetary which also offers a beautiful view over Atuona. For souvenirs, make sure to head to the Artisan market. I picked up some beautiful artwork of manta rays here (cash only!).

Join an Island Tour in Search of Tikis

Hannah Logan and the smiling Tiki in Hiva Oa

Hiva Oa is famous for its tiki statues, many of which are located at Te L’ipona which includes the biggest tiki in French Polynesia. I highly suggest doing a tour for this. We rented a car and drove and, quite honestly, it was terrifying. I actually searched ‘how many tourists died driving in Hiva Oa’ when we returned. On top of not having to worry about the drive, a tour will also give you the history and the stories which we missed by doing it on our own. Also, your tour should include a visit to the smiling tiki or Tiki Souriant which is, in my opinion, the best tiki.

Rent a Car and Explore

The drive to Te L’ipona is insane, but the rest of the island isn’t too bad. So you can rent a car for a day and do a bit of leisurely exploring on your own. The island is not very big and most of it doesn’t even have road access so there is no rush. You can take your time. We went up to Hanaipa, which is actually the start of a big hike to the famous Hanatekuua Beach (which we did not do), and over to Taaoa to see the historical sites and beach over there.

Join a Day Trip to Tahuata Island

Done shot of a beach in the Marquesas

Tahuata island is the smallest inhabited island in the Marquesas and an easy boat ride from Hiva Oa. If you are lucky, you’ll even spot some manta rays along the way. Join a local guide who will take you over and show you the artisan village, a historical site where you can learn about the history of human sacrifices, and more. You’ll finish the day at a pristine beach perfect for swimming and relaxing before you head back to Hiva Oa. For an English tour guide (for both Tahuata Island and Island tour of Hiva Oa) get in touch with Bryan at this email address: munevatetoa@gmail.com and tell him Hannah from Canada sent you.

Final Tips for Travelling to The Marquesas

Lookout view in Nuku Hiva

The Marquesas were one of my favourite parts of my trip to French Polynesia and despite being so expensive, to me, it was worth it. I’m so glad I got to experience this chain of islands and I really do recommend them to any other adventurous travellers out there.

On top of the tips listed above, here are a few other things to be mindful of and know before you go.

First off, bring bug spray. You’ll hear the locals talk about no-nos which are tiny sandflies with truly horrible bites. Unfortunately, they tend to be found at the nicer beaches and often chase tourists away. So pack lots of bug spray.

Secondly, there is very little English in the Marquesas. In fact, we only came across 2 local men who spoke English during our entire time in Hiva Oa. Even the tourist office was French only. So make sure to brush up on your French skills before you visit and learn some basics.

Thirdly, when it comes to accommodation unless you are renting a car be sure to stay in the main towns so you can walk to and from grocery stores and restaurants. You can’t drink tap water in the Marquesas so at the very least you want to make sure it’s easy to find fresh drinking water.

Finally, know before you go, cell phone reception and wifi are pretty terrible in these islands. Your best bet is to try to download some offline maps ahead of time and visit the tourism office for a paper map for any navigation.

A Note on Travel Insurance in French Polynesia            

Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.

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