Looking for a travel guide to Vanuatu? Not even sure where Vanuatu is? Vanuatu is a Pacific island nation 1,090 mi east of northern Australia. If you like beaches or volcanoes, this is the place for you!
Hi! I’m Gaea. I spent three years in the Peace Corps on the stunning islands of Vanuatu. I lived on two of the islands and visited as many of the other 80 as I could. I documented my adventures here.
To really experience the diversity of life on these tiny islands you need to taste fresh baked laplap, hike a volcano, watch coconut-hatted dancers and drink a few shells of kava. Though each piece of this country has a unique culture and language, the things they share are broad smiles and bright laughter.
Must Go in Vanuatu
The Outer Islands
Port Vila, the capital city and main international airport, was born from the blending of hundreds of culturally distinct groups who live on the outer islands. Head out of town and stay at a bungalow on the outer islands.
Spend your evenings drinking kava with the papas or storian (chatting) with the mamas. You’ll be treated like family and bungalows are great launching points for hikes, swimming or cultural experiences like gardening and dancing.
Mt. Yasur on Tanna Island is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Listen to the rumbling of the volcano as you hike three hours to the rim where the eruptions happen in front of your toes. Stay until Friday to visit the Jon Frum cargo cult, a religion that bridges the divide between Christianity and traditional beliefs.
The land divers of Pentecost bless each yam harvest by leaping from a tower of lashed together branches with vines tied to their ankles. After two Kiwi travelers watched them dive, they created the watered-down version we know as bungee jumping.
This ceremony only happens between April and June when the vines are the right, so time your trip appropriately. While you are there, enjoy the Jurassic Park feeling of Pentecost Island by hiking through the jungle to crystalline waterfalls.
The coral reefs surrounding the islands of Vanuatu are home to world-class diving and snorkeling. If you’re a first time diver, get your feet wet with a single dive. For experienced divers, head to one of the many wrecks or look for sea turtles and dugongs among the coral bommies.
Almost every island has a cultural festival to celebrate and share their dances, arts, language, and history. Spend a weekend sleeping in a bungalow, eating food fresh from the garden and learning about the complex culture of one corner of the country.
Whether you head to a kava bar in town or drink in a traditional nakamal on the island, the kava experience is not to be missed. Kava is made from the root of the kava plant and tastes much like the ground it’s grown in.
Knock back your half a coconut shell quickly and then enjoy the view or the conversation.
The national dish of Vanuatu is rarely a favorite with visitors, but it is worth tasting once. This starchy meal is made by baking mashed bananas, manioc or taro in a ground oven. For fancy meals, the laplap is covered in coconut milk or meat.
The more palatable option is laplap simboro, a version made by rolling the starch into “burritos” of island cabbage and boiling them in coconut milk.
Pineapples in Vanuatu are what the Greek gods dreamed of when they asked for nectar. Visit the Mama’s market in downtown Port Vila in January for the best selection.
Cultural Tips for traveling in Vanuatu
Smile. Everyone smiles and laughs at everything. Join in the merriment and be part of the fun.
The standard of dress in Vanuatu stopped with the missionaries. Men and women wear clothes that cover their knees and women are expected to wear skirts outside of town. Though men can go shirtless in informal environments, women should avoid wearing strappy tank tops or shirts that show their bellies.
Saying no to someone is rude. Instead, people will tell you what you want to hear, even if it lacks accuracy.
Cheap travel tips for Vanuatu
There are two ways to get places in Vanuatu: quickly or cheaply. In town, the buses (16 passenger vans) have no set routes and will drop you where you are going in the order they picked you up. The taxis will take you directly there, but over charge you for the pleasure.
When traveling to other islands, planes are usually reliable but very expensive. Ships are cheap but may take a few days to reach your destination. If you have the time, bring a jar of peanut butter and some bread and make the ship ride part of the experience. Most importantly, be flexible in your travel plans.
Set up your return to be back in Port Vila a few days ahead of your international flight and then go with the flow. Whatever happens, there will be an adventure to go with it.