Also known as Waterfall Island, Maewo Island in Vanuatu’s Outer Islands is naturally lush and culturally rich. Here’s what to expect when you visit.
I stand before the people of Hanare Kastom Village, tears in my eyes.
‘I’ve never experienced such hospitality before’ I say, clutching the three hand woven bags I’ve been gifted, inside, a bottle of coconut oil made by the local women.
‘You’ve walked for upwards of three hours to treat us to the most incredible cultural experience. You showed us how you catch prawns, farm water taro, cook over an open fire. You showed us your dances, your watering holes…’
I pause while my words are translated to the people of Hanare Kastom Village. By the end of the speech I am crying, the men are laughing, and the women are looking at me like mothers do, with love in their eyes.
Surrounded by black-sand beaches and famous for its ancient cultures, traditional dancing and waterfalls, the small island of Maewo is about 150km east of Santo, and populated with kind, generous people. It is not to be missed.
There’s only one flight per week from Santo, which means you have to time your visit well if you aren’t spending a lot of time in Vanuatu. But it’s worth it. Here are a few things you need to know if you’re planning a trip.
It’s not called ‘Waterfall Island’ for nothing!
Maewo is fondly known as Waterfall Island, and they’re not exaggerating. Within 20 minutes of landing in Maewo, we were climbing off a ute and on our way by foot to Naone Waterfall.
You can climb up and jump off this cascading waterfall, and if you’ve organised a tour, you’ll be treated to quite a banquet of fruit at the base.
Along the coastline, as we made our way up to the Mulé Ocean View Guest House by boat, we could see a number of waterfalls tumbling down the mountainous central chain. Maewo sees the highest rainfall in Vanuatu, which explains not only the number of waterfalls, but just how lush and green it is.
It also explains why so much of the food culture centres around water. Freshwater prawns and water taro are a huge staple in the local diet. Make sure you do the all-day cultural tour of Hanare, they’ll show you how they catch the prawns by hand.
Maewo’s Hospitality is Boundless
Maewo was my final destination in Vanuatu, and I was instantly overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality I received.
Upon arrival, the people of Naone, one of the island’s villages, had taken the entire day off work to welcome us with food, kava, and stories (some of which they asked us not to write publicly; they didn’t want neighbouring islands to discover their secrets).
They took us to the waterfalls, held our hands as we crossed precarious paths and wrapped our necks in flowers. What a treat.
It’s common in most places around Vanuatu to say a small speech of thanks after each activity – to your guides, to the dancers, and the cooks. Both parties say a few words and share hugs. I was so unfamiliar with this kind of intimacy.
In so many other places I’ve travelled, a tour is transactional, stripped of emotion. You’re just another tourist in a line. I never once felt like this in Maewo, or anywhere in Vanuatu’s outer islands. Each handshake, each hug, was full of genuine warmth and thankfulness.
You probably won’t come across any tourists…
Maewo sees less than 100 tourists a year, and most of these are yachties that just swing through for a peek, bringing little revenue to the local providers.
On an island so remote, so rugged and so small, there aren’t many thriving industries. Tourism is one of the only ways to bring money into the local economy.
This means that when you’re there, it’s highly unlikely you’ll run into anyone else. How good! Just don’t forget that there are no ATMs either, so you’ll need to bring cash!
Kastom (Cultural) Stories and History of Sorcery
Knut Rio, an Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, says that sorcery is ‘a domain of cultural heritage in Vanuatu, that people often do not want to preserve or protect, but that they often cannot get rid of’.
The fears hidden in this social environment are not usually apparent to tourists, but an awareness of them is important to understanding, for example, the stories that the Naone people want kept within their village.
The kastom stories aren’t always driven by fear or black powers. In the case of the Maewo Moon Cave and the God of the Sea Tagaro, the moon was thrown from the cave and into the sky so that people could see in the night, thus creating the canals in the cave which you can swim through.
Read more: Discover the Magic of Maewo Moon Cave
Make sure you add the Moon Cave Tour onto your itinerary – you’ll hear the story first-hand. The Vanuatu Cultural Centre is a great place to learn more.
Ni-Vanuatu (the Vanuatu people) are so willing to sit on the beach with a coconut and share stories of their villages. Oral traditions are still very much alive. In fact it’s often said that to ‘storian’ (share a yarn) is the national pastime. So if you’re planning a trip, make sure you’re just as willing to sit and listen.
Handy Tips and Tricks
There are only a few flights a week to Maewo from Port Vila and depending on the season, sometimes only one a week. It’s also a destination that can see changes to flights, so get on the Air Vanuatu site to check schedules, and once you’re booked, keep the Air Vanuatu phone number handy (+678 20200).
When you’re on the island and ready to get home, get to the airport early. When the plane comes, even if it’s earlier than its scheduled time, it won’t wait, it’ll pick up passengers who are ready and take off!
As Maewo is so off the beaten track, there’s not really established tour companies or the usual tourism infrastructure, like restaurants and public transport. So expect to live like a local – think boats over buses! Bananas over Big Macs.
Before you go, connect with the nearby Santo Travel Centre for accommodation ideas and phone numbers. Once you arrive, trust the people – talk to locals about what you’re interested in, be patient, and don’t worry, you’ll be well taken care of.
Bring snacks, charge your devices and prepare to receive a big Melanesian welcome wherever you go.