Maewo Island sits like a slender green finger just to the northwest of Pentecost Island. It lays claim to having the highest rainfall in Vanuatu (over 2.5m per year) and the most waterfalls thanks to the rugged, steep mountains that dominate the interior of the island. It was actually named Aurora Island “the light of dawn” by Spanish explorer of Pedro Fernández de Quirós when he sailed through the area in 1606.

Maewo Island Vanuatu mountainsMeawo Island Vanuatu is only a short 25 minute flight away from Espiritu Santo island, so you should base yourself there first before hoppnig to Maewo (there are also a few local boats and ferries that visit Maewo but you need to check our Vanuatu Cruising page for more info on this). We recommend staying at Turtle Bay Beach House – its the best value accommodation on Santo and is located in one of the prettiest locations on the island. Despite Maewo’s relatively close proximity to Santo, it is rarely visited by tourists and is steeped in magic, kastom and mystery. We explored Maewo by mountain bike.

The logistics of having two mountain bikes transferred by plane to Maewo Island Vanuatu was relatively easy, a quick call to Air Vanuatu and a small payment of 1700vt for excess luggage. Maewo’s only airport is located on a plateau high up in the mountains on the NW side of the island, above Naone village. The short grass runway made for an exciting landing.

Airport/Island Transport on Maewo Island Vanautu

Maewo Island Vanuatu airport Maewo Island Vanuatu view

Transports (utes) regularly meet the plane on Maewo (there’s around 20 on the island) and it’s easy to share a 15 min ride with locals down to the west coast (generally between 500-1000vt).  Our mountain bike ride took around 30 mins and we were rewarded with spectacular views of nearby Ambae Island and the coastline of Maewo.

Map/Layout of Maewo Island Vanuatu

Most of the population of Maewo Island Vanuatu (approx. 4000) live on the west coast, which features a slim strip of flat, fertile land wedged between the mountains and the sea. Maewo is 47km long but only 6km wide at its widest point. For a detailed map of the island click HERE  and HERE Everyone is exceedingly friendly so be prepared to shake hands (a lot), yell out hello (a lot) and ask directions (a lot) as there are no signs and everyone just assumes you know where to go (Hot tip – take a dual Sim phone for both Digicel and Vodaphone as signal varies dramatically).

Bigwota Waterfall (Kwi-Lo-Rua)

maewo island vanuatu waterfall After reaching the coast road we turned south and rode for around 10 minutes (maybe 3-4 km) until we reached the Big River, home to Maewo’s largest and most spectacular waterfall. On the south side of the concrete causeway is a track to the left leading up to the waterfall (approx. 15 min walk – see main image photo). It meanders through rainforest and ancient terraced rock gardens full of water taro. The waterfall itself cascades over a series of smooth limestone flowstone terraces into a deep, blue swimming hole. Our guide Martin called this area “Kwi-lo-rua” or “Bigwota”. It’s possible to climb up to top of the waterfall using a track that winds its way to the left of the hut and jump off into the frothing water below.

North to Naomumu

Returning to Maewo’s main coast road, we turned north and rode past half a dozen picturesque villages (the biggest of which is Marino) until we reached the end of the coral road at Naomumu (a distance of some 12 kms). Moses has a basic guesthouse/bungalow right on the beach here for 2000vt per night per person including breakfast. There’s a white sand beach for swimming and some good coral to snorkel on and a small shop selling the usual tinned fish, rice, Coke and crackers. A track leads further north to a coastal cave (1-2 hrs walk away) which according to legend attracts sharks at high tide. It may or may not be the same cave the villagers walk to in order to smear charcoal on the walls so their ancestors can paint ‘magical’ pictures there. (Hot tip – Ask the locals at Naomumu prepare kava for you using the ancient coral stone method. It makes for incredibly powerful kava!

Maewo Island vanuatu bungalow Maewo Island riding Maewo Island vanuatu kava

South to Betarara

The next day we headed south again, the aim being to reach Beterara (some 24 kms away) to stay with Freddie Wilson, who is one of a small group of powerful “rasas”, chief of chiefs. Every kilometre or two, small clear freshwater streams flowed over the road and into the ocean. (Note – locals often dam the streams to create deep pools, perfect for cooling down in).

Maewo Island vanuatu accommodationAfter passing by the BigWota waterfall, we rode past Rembu and stopped at Kaiwo, to ask directions to the “famous’ Hantarora Hot Springs. There’s a large guesthouse at Kaiwo that can sleep around 6 people called Lua ete Salgolo (right next to the road), the owner/manager is Nathaniel. He speaks English.

Turns out the hot springs are only a 100m or so further on, there’s actually two sets of springs, about 25m apart, one slightly hotter than the other, best to visit them at low tide. Both are uhhh, underwhelming to say the least….literally a trickle coming out of the rocks.

Another 3km on from Kaiwo is the village of Gambule, home to the biggest school on the island and a small guest house. It’s also the centre for the annual Yam Festival celebrations in May.  This is the best time to experience kastom dancing and ceremonies on Maewo.

Maewo Island vanuatu beachWe reached Betarara (1km on) at lunchtime after a beautiful ride. The village is dominated by Maewo’s highest peak, Mount Tagutgagaro (811m high). There’s a track you can climb to the top of the mountain (it takes about half a day). Guides can be arranged at Qwatiawol Village half way up the mountain range (see below). There is a guesthouse at Betarara in an annex next to the community hall. It has four bedrooms. Three have bunk beds (two singles) and one has both a double bed and a single bed. BYO mosquito net. Freddie Wilson and his wife Leanne also rent out rooms for travellers (Leanne is an amazing cook!) and I would highly recommend this. They are also a fantastic source of information about the island,

Kerepei and the Wotari (women chiefs)

Maewo Island vanuatu women chiefsWe spent the afternoon exploring the nearby villages, including Kerepei (where there’s a beautiful river and freshwater swimming pool next to the beach). This area is also home to some ‘ng-wotari’ which loosely translates to ‘female custom leader’ or ‘chief.’ Maewo Island Vanuatu is one of the few islands in Vanuatu to recognise these amazing women. Every August, the ng-wotari of Maewo Island hold a multi-day Banganvanua Arts Festival to celebrate their culture. There’s sand drawing, water music, bird calling, constellation naming, and days of kastom song and dance. Kerepei has a community market house which sells produce every Friday as well as a guesthouse which can accommodate up to 7 people.

The Road to Naviso

The road next to the market leads to the only village on the east coast of Maewo called Naviso. It’s a hell of a road, straight up and straight down a huge mountain range, very rough in places and not suitable for mountain biking (unless you are a masochist or a very good bike rider). When we were there, a landslide had cut off the road halfway. Apparently somewhere near the village of Qwatiawol/Ngwatiakwoli (half way) is a sacred water cave that may be worth checking out (but you must gain the trust and respect of the local villagers first). A return trip to Naviso will take you around 2.5hrs depending on the weather and the state of the road. Share transports are the way to go and they make daily trips, usually in the morning or afternoon.

Betarara to Narovorovo

The next day we set off for Narovorovo, about 12 km south of Betarara. This is the start of the best (and apparently) shortest walk to Naviso. The coastal road is stunning and passes through the gorgeous hilltop village of Navenevene (with spectacular views of Ambae) before plunging into hidden valleys carved by waterfalls and crystal clear streams. Some parts of this road are a little rough and deteriorated and you definitely would not want to attempt it with heavy rain (too many river crossings) however most of it is very pleasant to ride on. It’s worth stopping at Talise to check out the hydro project on the river there. Talise and the next two villages (Narovorovo and Nasawa) all have electricity, Samuel Guesthouse, in Talise offers 4 rooms and can accommodate up to 5 guests. There is apparently a trail from Talise to Naviso but it’s supposed to be much harder. In Narovorovo, ask for Lindsay and Naomi, they run the Co-operative store and Pelsa Bungalow. Or ask for Walter, his bungalow is the last house to the north of the village but it’s quite run down.

The Walk to Naviso

Maewo island vanuatu mountain viewOK, about the walk to Naviso. It starts just behind Narovorovo village and you definitely need a guide. The locals will tell you it’s a “2hr walk, flat with one small hill”.  It’s not….it took us over 5hrs to reach Naviso and it was a challenge to say the least. The first third of the walk is flat and meanders across streams, through rainforest and ancient “rock terrace” taro gardens. It’s amazing and beautiful. Kava is everywhere. The next third of the walk climbs steadily uphill until you reach a mountainous cliff high above the east coast with spectacular views north. From here it’s a very steep scramble down the side of the mountain to the black sand beach below. Make sure to time it so the tide is out as for the next 5kms or so you will be walking mostly along the rocks or the beach at the base of the cliffs. It’s very hard work. When you turn the corner past the giant pyramid rock, you’re about half way

maewo island hikingNow about Naviso. Pretty much as close to paradise as you’re going to get anywhere on earth. Incredibly friendly people, very traditional village, twin waterfalls falling off the steep mountains encircling the village, palm trees, rainforest and beautiful crystal clear freshwater swimming holes right on the beach (one for men, one for women). We stayed at Chief Benson’s hut, who went out of his way to make us feel welcome and at home. We were the first white people to visit the village in three years. We stayed one night but in hindsight we should have stayed a few days to really make the visit worthwhile.

maewo island vanuatu Naviso Ask Chief Benson to organise a guide to take you to the top of the twin waterfalls. Along the way you’ll walk through the village’s extensive garden of Eden complete with rock terraces similar to the rice terraces of Bali. Allow at least two hours for the return walk. Because of the landslide we had to walk up the road to the village of Ngota and catch a transport down from there to the west coast (about 30 mins – 4000vt). The transport cost from Kerepei to Narovorovo was about the same – 4000vt

Boat Ride to the Moon Cave

Maewo Island blue caveAfter returning to Narovorovo via Kerepei and collecting our bikes we organised for a boat to take us to Asanvari at the south end of the island (cost 10,000vt ask for Walter). Basil also has a boat which is apparently cheaper. Option 2 is to continue down to Nasawa (the end of the road) and catch a boat from there. We rode this section and it was about a 15 min ride from Narovorovo. Ask for Kevery, the local guide (speaks good English) or Chief Jonah or Justin Ihu (boat owner). The number one thing to do on the way to Asanvari is to visit the famous Moon Cave (about 10 mins boat ride past Nasawa) at Sanasom. You can actually drive the boat right inside the cave, which is huge – it’s worth a snorkel in the magical, turquoise waters inside.  There’s a second cave nearby which is a short walk back from the beach, it’s long and shallow and filled with rock carvings. Locals have piled flat stones on top of one another which have been transformed by limestone into bizarre sculptures. You will need permission from Chief Jonah to enter this cave.

Asanvari

The remaining boatride to Asanvari takes around 30 minutes (on a flat day). Asanvari is nestled into the side a peninsula jutting out from the side of Maewo like a fishhook. It’s a fantastic yacht anchorage, very protected and calm. On the NE side of the bay is a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole (Wai lavoa cascades). You can either swim to it or walk to it (around 15 mins). Make sure to do the loop walk to the top of the waterfall and back down to the village – great views back to Asanvari! Some OK snorkelling in the bay, along the coast towards the waterfall.

Accommodation at Asanvari is pitiful – there’s either the “Yacht Club” which is in a state of sad disrepair (perhaps as a result of Cyclone Harold) or Mule Ocean View Guest House, run by Erica and her husband Marsden (ph. 5321229). Ocean View has 3 tiny, basic rooms and we were charged 4000vt to share one room with two single beds in it  (ridiculously overpriced, given it only included a very basic breakfast). All extra meals were 500vt each. I would suggest asking around for other options. Trying contacting Carl (54344950) from Mangas Cave Tour. He may be able to help. There are a number of transport boats based at Asanvari and they come and go from Pentecost, Ambae and Nasawa on almost a daily basis. Ask for Colombus to take you for a ride to a remote village or to his place across the bay. Richard is the chief of Asanvari village. Marsden from Ocean View has the fastest boat in the village with a 50hp motor.

One of the highlights of our stay at Asanvari was the walk to the south side of the peninsula (approx. 10 minutes) and a swim with Carl as part of his Manga (Maga?) Underwater Cave Tour. Carl is knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic. Snorkelling through his underwater cave from the ocean to the bush is an experience not to be missed, and the coral here is amazing. 1500vt per person including refreshments. There’s also some great snorkelling off the nearby white sand beach and out towards the point to the west.

For serious trekkers, there are endless paths going up to remote villages in the mountains above Asanvari (Arvanua, Dumdumi, Avanbati) as well as along the coast. One of the walks apparently takes you to some “wet” caves filled with bats and swifts on a ridge above the waterfall. It’s called Waisale Bat Cave. Ask the locals for directions and advice.

Where to from Asanvari?

maewo island canoeFrom Asanvari you can chose to continue on to Pentecost or fly out of Ambae. A boat trip to Ambae will set you back 10,000vt and takes around 30 min. in good weather. The boat trip to Pentecost takes around 15-20 mins (on a good day) and costs around 6000vt. The only larger boat to regularly visit Maewo is the Makila owned by Keith Wilson, brother of Freddie Wilson. It may be possible to hitch a ride on this as well.

Summary of Maewo Island Vanuatu Experience

So overall impression of Maewo Island Vanuatu…a beautiful island worthy of a visit but be prepared to pay some seriously high prices for boat and land transport if you’re on limited time (best to share with locals if possible or go with a larger group). Accommodation in general is very basic, the average cost being around 2000vt pp per night regardless of the standard or cleanliness of the room or if you are sharing with other people. The island is ideal for mountain biking, especially when combined with some daily or overnight treks/walks (of which there are many) and the people are super friendly. Take the time to talk to them and earn their trust (they are often a little shy) and in return they will tell you stories and show you beautiful places not on the tourist map.