Marquesas Islands-Polynesia Forgotten by Tourism

The Marquesas Islands, a group of sparsely populated volcanic islands, is one of the most isolated island archipelagos in the world. They are part of French Polynesia and the only way to reach them is via a very expensive and long 4-hour flight on a turbo prop plane from Papeete, Tahiti. Because of the extreme geographical isolation of the islands, few tourists visit the Marquesas Islands and the islands have kept a traditional and undeveloped feel to them. The people of the Marquesas’ have a proud warrior culture and still speak their own language.

 

 

Map showing location of Marquesas’ islands

Swimming with Humpback Whales in Moorea, Tahiti

October 2020/Day 1: During the pandemic most island nations of the pacific remained closed or had strict mandatory quarantine requirements in place. Tahiti and French Polynesia, at least for a little while anyways in Autumn re-opened and it was again possible to visit with a negative covid test before and taken again 4 days later after arriving.

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, my wife and I and a few friends booked the 8-hour flight from LAX to Papeete and the onward tickets to Nuku Hiva.

Only two airlines were still flying into Tahiti-United and Polynesian Airlines. other airlines like Air France cancelled their flights, so I was a little nervous about getting stuck not even getting to Tahiti in the first place. Then to add to the trouble, a typhoon formed off of Mexico along the flight path. In the end, our flight made it. It wasn’t as empty as most flights I experienced during the pandemic. We arrived at night and stayed at a hotel near the airport.

In Tahiti, we had two nights and one full day. I decided to book a 1/2-day humpback whale snorkeling trip for us off of Moorea Island.

Day 2: In the morning we took the public ferry to Moorea, 1.5 hours from Papeete. Moorea Island although close to Papeete seems to be a world away from the much busier and urbanized Papeete. In Moorea we spent a few hours relaxing at a hotel pool by the marina and then we set off in a speedboat with our guide and captain in a speedboat to the other side of the island where our guide said the whales have been spotted recently.

 

Moorea Island

Moorea Island

Tahitian girl dancing by herself 

We departed past the reef to the open ocean when in the distance our guide spotted the fluke of a whale. He explained that the flukes were from a mother and baby whale. We stopped the boat a thousand or so yards from the flukes and he hurried us into the water and in pursuit of the whales. The waves were rough, and my wife struggled with the snorkel and kept inhaling water. Snorkeling 1000 yards in the open ocean was not easy especially when we tried to stay together as a group.  The guide insisted we swim together to minimize the risk of a tiger shark attack.

Me Swimming with Whales

Humpback Whale

The visibility was endless and despite this the bottom was nowhere in sight. Tiger sharks could easily stalk and ambush us from below and I would be lying if I didn’t think about this possibility. We finally managed to arrive at the area where the mother and baby were spotted. Our guide motioned for us to stop and stay together. He didn’t want us separating or kicking our fins too much because he said it would scare the whales away. We waited and bobbed in the ocean from one wave to another until our guide excitedly pointed below us.

Mother and baby Whale 

In the distance a silhouette of two whales started to grow larger. It was deceiving to try and make sense of any direction in their movement with the vast infinite blueness of the ocean around them. The whales approached within 30 feet us and at one point I thought we would need to move out of the way but instead the whales veered off to the side.

We watched the whales come and go for the next 30 minutes but with the constant motion of the waves, we began to feel seasick. We also decided we didn’t want to crowd the whales any more than possible and we swam back to the boat.

After the whales, we went to an area that had lots of stingrays and swam with them. Then we went swam with black tip sharks.  When with the sharks, our guide said that whatever you do, just don’t reach your hands out to them.  Or they may bite you. While swimming with sharks we could hear the melodic singing of humpback whales in the distance.

Swimming with Black tip Sharks, Moorea Island

Nuku Hiva Island-Marquesas

Day 3: Our turbo prop plane left on time, and we were off on the long flight to Nuku Hiva. For most of the flight there was nothing out the window but the big blue of the ocean. The landed on the island of Nuku Hiva was rough and we battled severe turbulence from the strong winds that were blowing un-obstructed across the treeless rugged northwestern section of the island where the airport is located. 

 

Our Plane to Nuku Hiva

The airport is on the other side of the island from the only town on the island-Nuka Hiva because there are no other flat spots suitable for an airport on the mountainous island.

 

Arrival into Nuku Hiva from the hills above town

Map of Nuku Hiva-the airport is in the north and town of Nuka Hiva the south

Once we landed at the airport, we met our pre-arranged hotel transfer vehicle and we drove the windy but beautiful 2-hour drive to the town of Nuku Hiva through the island’s interior. Some areas of the highlands had pine forests. The southern part of the island was much greener with rainforest forest cover compared to the north.

Still recovering from the long international flight and subsequent long domestic flight, we stayed in our hotel for the night and opted not to explore the town. The hotel was perched on a hill overlooking the bay and anchored sailing boats at harbor.  I chose to stay in the infinity pool drinking a Nuku Hiva cocktail. We had individual thatched roof bungalows that had private patios overlooking the bay. I especially loved the view from the shower.

Infinity Pool at Our Hotel in Nuku Hiva

Day 4: The next day, we woke up in our beautiful hotel and packed for our journey to a remote village in the Hukaui Valley where we would camp for a few nights with a Marquesan family. First we needed to take a self adminsitered covid test and drop it off with the hotel. They would send it to Papeete to have it analyzed. We figured that by the time it arrived in Papeete we would be back  in California. I figured that Paula would be gentle since she was performing the test but she was just as rough as the rest of em. This was definitely one of the trips where we were constantly being pricked by covid swabs.

Paula doing a covid test on Wes

Paula Standing on the Balcony of our Bungalow

Hakaui Valley-Valley of the Kings

The boat we took to arrive to Hakaui Vallley from Nuka Hiva.

The population of the Marquesas dwindled from 100,000 down to 9000 people after the arrival of Europeans. The Marquesan’s were a proud and fierce tribe of warrior people, that often fought each other in combat. They are traditionally adorned in full body tattoos and engaged in cannibalism of their captured enemies in order to consume the mana or individuals power or that individuals soul. By doing so one acquires the other individuals strength and wisdom and this was common practise among warriors. 

 

The arrival beach at Hukaui Valley because of its calm bay

The beach you walk to for 30 minutes from the arrival beach- Hukaui Valley

View of the lagoon and magical valley behind

The Hakaui Valley was once a center of one of the largest kingdoms of the Marquesas’ Islands where thousands of people including a royal family lived. Nowadays, the royal family is long gone, only 10-20 people live in the family in a few scattered ramshackle houses that do not have electricity or plumbing. The ceremonial temples, and buildings from the previous kingdom have been vanquished by the jungle.  Beneath the vines, and foliage lies buried ceremonial temples where offerings were once presented to family spirits and tribal Gods. In some places there are pits where prisoners of war were kept and altars where warriors were gruesomely executed.

Visiting the valley is like going to a ghost town. The area feels like a ghost kingdom. Everywhere you turn you are reminded of what was once a great kingdom. There are no roads leading to the valley. The only access is via a long day hike over multiple mountain ranges or via a 2-hour boat ride through really rough seas.

 

Traditional stone paths leading through the valley

Stone tiki along the path with ancestorial powers

Ancient stone paths still lead from the beach into the village and deeper into the jungle interior. In some areas are stone mounds with small tikis perched on top. The stone paths may be hundreds of years old, and many are overgrown by the jungle while the main ones are maintained by the villagers and still used by them when traveling into the jungle’s interior. The giant stone paths covered by entangled vines and tropical flowers was a beautiful sight to see and it was a magical feeling to walk the paths of the Marquesan warriors of past.

A broken down vehicle bandoned in the village. The villagers transported it by boat to the village in the hopes that it could be used to transport goods from the beach down the long path to village houses. The idea didn’t work as the vehicle ended up breaking down. 

The house where our homestay was located.

Vaipu Falls

The tallest waterfalls in Polynesia, Vaipu Falls is located deep inside the Hukaui Valley.  To reach the falls, you need to hike through the rainforest and cross multiple streams eventually climbing into the canyon leading up to the falls. As you near the falls, the canyon walls narrow and tower above you. Our guide warned up not to enter because of the risk of falling rocks which in case reportedly killed some in the canyon once. A pool of water stands before the falls, but the actual falls are blocked by a group of giant boulders. We took a quick swim in the pool but didn’t linger.

Cliffs Around Vaipu Falls

Vaipu Falls-The water has been severely reduced due a lack of rain

Richard walking through the jungle

Rare Rainforest Tree Endemic to the Marquesas Islands

Vaipu Falls-The water has been severely reduced due a lack of rain

Walking through Vaipu Falls Canyon

Vaipu Falls Pool

Our Homestay

Before the trip, I found a website selling traditional Marquesan woodcrafts. I saw that the family making the woodcrafts was a family living on Nuka Hiva Island in a remote valley. The man-Tangy owns a plot of land in the valley where he currently lives, and he is descended from Marquesan royalty. His fiancé Anna is from Croatia, and she is an awesome world traveler, who hitchhiked around the worked all the way to Nuka Hiva and to the valley where Tangy lived. They met when she showed up to the village and they have been together since. I reached out to them on Messenger and did not hear a reply for weeks. When I finally made contact with them, we corresponded, and I discovered that they would accommodate us for a few days and show us the valley.

Tangy, a direct descendant from Marquesan royalty and his wife to be Ana ,were our hosts in the Hakaui Valley-only reachable by boat and truly one of the most beautiful places on the planet

Paula reading at the house of our homestay 

Dining area of our homestay

The Cursed Tiki Stone

Main Road Along Fagaloa Bay to Uafato Village

Cursed Tiki

 
In the isolated Hakaui Valley, once the home to a kingdom of thousands of people, is now a ghost of its former self with only 11 people remaining in a small beachside village only accessible by boat. The Valley is surrounded by towering thousand feet high volcanic cliffs and is as close as you get to paradise on Earth. Remnants of the old civilizations have been reclaimed by the jungle but can still be found everywhere such as ancient stone paths connecting villages, burial sites of kings and queens high in the cliffs, religious platforms and execution stones. Also still found are some stone tikis-small statues resembling ancestors, Gods that embody mana or what is believed to be the power of an ancestor’s soul. Sadly, most of the tikis were destroyed by missionaries and invading foreign armies of the past.
 
This is one of the few remaining ones. Tangy led us bushwhacking through the jungle to the secret location of this tiki. The tiki- a small 3-foot-tall looking alien man- was located near a ceremonial platform and pit that Tangy said was used to keep prisoners of war that were once killed and eaten for their mana. The tiki Tangy said was ancient from an unknown era and the legend is that it was once stolen by a French sailor. From the moment that it was stolen, the French sailor found himself afflicted with unrelenting bad luck; his boat sank, his wife died… illness….
 
Once the man realized that the stolen tiki was the source of his ill fortunes, he returned it to its origin and his streak of bad luck came to an end.

Paula and I in front of the Cursed Tiki

Tangy said that the jungle is a spiritual place to him and that at night it is a place where the spirits of his ancestor’s wander. he takes the rituals and ancestorial ceremonies very seriously as do many other Marquesan’s. Tangy is passionate about his culture, practices traditional beliefs disappear for days at a time with his family to hunt dangerous wild pigs and goats in the jungle with his dogs. In the absence of fighting rival tribes these days, instead descendants of warriors like Tangy appeal to their warrior side by hunting the ferocious pigs, which are invasive anyways and killing off native vegetation.

The Battle of the Sacred Valley

The Entrance to the Sacred Valley

Wes Admiring Hakaui Valley

Tangy took us to a valley that he considers to be the most sacred place. A narrow keyhole canyon across the main river is the location of a great battle between Marquesan kingdoms hundreds of years ago. An attacking band of warrior descended into the valley and the warriors of the valley hid the women and children inside the keyhole valley and they stood in the front guarding the entrance.  A great battle was fought in the area and the marauding warriors were defeated. This was not a place that many outsiders visit if any and Tangy made sure to express this to us. It was a real honor to be able to visit this sacred place.

Day 5: On our last day in the valley Tangy showed us more sights and he and Anna shared more of their life with us. Eventually they walked us back to the beach to wait for our boat pick up, which we hoped would remember to pick us up. Then we returned across the high waves to Nuka Hiva and back to our hotel perched on the hillside.

Bay of Anaho

Day 6: On our last day, we hired a car and driver at the hotel to take us to the remote Bay of Anaho in northeast of the island. To get to the bay, we had to drive down a windy single lane road through the mountains until we arrived in a remote dirt parking lot. Then we parked and walked up to the top of a mountain where we could look down on the Bay of Anaho. From there we descended down to the beach where a small village was located. The beach has no road access and the only way to reach it is by foot or boat. The hike over a steep hill took a few hours each way. Once on the beach, we lounged around all day on the beach and snorkeled its reefs and drank coconuts. There were also a few sail boats anchored off the beach of families traveling the world and living in their boats. One family with a couple of young sun -bleached hair was on a year-long trip and the parents were home schooling their kids during the journey. 

View from hill of Bay of Anaho

Bay of Anaho

Bay of Anaho

Abandoned Village

On our drive back to Nuka Hiva we stopped at a abandoned village in a jungle canyon off of the side of the road. We explored the ruins which were covered in huge banyan trees. There were ancient carvings of figures on the rocks and huge boulders with rock outcroppings that were part of the structures used by Marquesan royalty that once lived here. Rare Marquesan Pigeons squawked at us from above in the trees while we explored. The best was venturing into the cannibal pits where warriors from opposing tribes were imprisoned until they were cannibalized. 

 

Me inside a pit used to keep captured warriors until they were cannabilized.

The critically endangered Marquesan Pigeon only found in the wild on Nuku Hiva seems like less of a pigeon and more like a mix of crow and hawk. it is huge like a raptor with a fierce countenance, and it sounds like a crow when it calls out.

The Marquesan Pigeon like many of the native animals of the islands are disappearing because of the introduction of feral invasive species like rats, cats and pigs from European settlers that have arrived by boat in the past. These animals are ravaging natural populations of native animals sadly.

 

Marquesan Pigeon 

Day 7: I normally am anxious to return home at the end of a trip, but I did not want to leave Nuka Hiva. It really was paradise and it pained me to leave. Our last day was extremely long, we drove the two-hour long road across the island to the airport, flew 4 hours domestically back to Papeete and then 8 hours to Los Angeles before driving to San Diego. It was a very long day to get back home. 

 

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