Paradise at Turtle Bay
Turtle Bay Beach House
Holiday House Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
A Local’s Guide to Trekking And Hiking Espiritu Santo
Trekking and hiking Espiritu Santo is an incredible experience thanks to the fact the island is the largest in the archipelago and has some of the most diverse scenery as well as the highest mountains in Vanuatu and the south Pacific. From the rugged and isolated west coast to the flatter palm and beach covered east coast to the canyons, caves and rainforest in the centre and north of the island, Espiritu Santo hiking and trekking offers something for everyone.
There’s no official trail network here, unless you discount the hiking and adventure day tours in the rainforest hinterland along the east coast, For the rest of Santo, it’s simply a case of heading out to a rural village and finding a local guide to take you where you want to go. There are trails everywhere leading to remote communities that feel like you’ve stepped back in time a thousand years. And in most places you’ll be welcomed by the chief and offered a place to sleep and something to eat. Vanuatu is a very friendly country like that. Click here for an incredible travel blog about a hike to the interior of Espiritu Santo by adventurer Eddy Adrian-Vallance. It will make you laugh, cry and wish you were following in his footsteps.
And if you plan on trekking around Santo the best place to base yourself is Turtle Bay Beach House on the east coast. It’s halfway to everything and has a laundry to clean all your dirty clothes. Plus all the rooms are self-contained so you can make up food and drink packs for your day or overnight excursions. Book HERE
Wrecks to Rainforest
The leading tour agency for commercial hiking and trekking adventures in Santo is Wrecks to Rainforest. You can choose from a trek to a custom village to scaling the highest mountain in Vanuatu (Mt. Tabwemasana) to doing Millennium Caves or the Water Cave (see below). They also have a limited amount of camping equipment, The Jaramaja Village 2 Day Adventure Tour is a particularly good hiking tour to experience a real custom village. It’s a 3 hour trek and an hour’s drive to a remote village on the top of a mountain ridge in south Santo. The people there are still living in full custom, mostly self sufficient and live in beautiful traditionally made longhouses. The chief usually welcomes you with a kava ceremony, local Kai Kai (food from their gardens) and sometimes custom dancing and singing. You eat and sleep as a guest of the village. There are treks to nearby rivers and waterfalls but it’s all about experiencing the culture first-hand.
Millennium Caves Adventure
This has to be one of the most incredible tours for trekking and hiking Santo. It’s locally owned and combines walking, culture, caving, canyoning, bouldering and climbing though some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. It’s like experiencing a 3D National Geographic documentary and rates as one of our top 10 trekking and hiking trails Espiritu Santo! Please note however this tour is not designed for small children, the unfit or the unadventurous – it’s definitely a workout and gets the adrenaline pumping! For more details check out Millennium Cave’s facebook page here .
Other treks in the same area include the blue pool adventure trek, based out of Vunaspef village, It’s about an hour’s walk from the village to the first blue pool in the river, where you can swim and relax. From there you follow the river down using a bamboo raft and explore more blue pools and another two different rivers, including one with a natural sand beach full of fossil shells from ancient times. For more information click here . Finally another fascinating and beautiful trek based out of Vunaspef village is the bamboo forest and river trek. The highlight is a leisurely walk through the rainforest to a massive bamboo forest. The hike includes a swim in the river and a hunt for sweet freshwater prawns. Suitable for most ages. The tour lasts for about 5-6 hours, including the drive up and back.
Vatthe Conservation Area, Big Bay
The Vatthe Conservation Area at Big Bay (in the middle of the north end of Espiritu Santo) is the only gazetted National Park in Vanuatu and is home to some great wildlife and natural rainforest. It’s an ideal destination for trekking and hiking Espiritu Santo. Big Bay itself is stunning in its own way, with its black sand beaches and crystal clear rivers running into the ocean from lush green mountains. It’s a mission to get to, the road there is 4WD only and it takes about 2 hrs to reach Big Bay from the east coast but its worth it if you enjoy nature in all its glory. You can stay overnight in the Bay of Illusions bungalows or the nearby village of Mantantas. You can also organise taxi boats from here to other more isolated parts of the bay. And you can walk to the mouth of the Jordan River and follow it upstream to check out ancient taro rock terraces built hundreds of years ago. Click HERE for more information on the Vatthe Consveration Area. There are local truck transports that service this area regularly – check at the Pacific Petrol Station in town for more info. Or ask about a tour with Wrecks to Rainforest.
Loru Conservation Area, Big Bay
The Loru Conservation Area is one of the last sections of coastal rainforest on the east coast that has not succumbed to logging. It spans more than 200 hectares and includes a bat cave, coconut crab habitat, flying fox sanctuary and a variety of endemic birds including the megapod bird. With the help of carbon credits, the Serakar Clan the traditional custodians of this area, have been working hard to prevent deforestation. There are several excellent nature walks through the rainforest, including one to a bat cave, which the villagers use as a cyclone shelter. The community conversation area is located about 15 kms past Turtle Bay Beach House on the east coast, turn left at the signpost to Kole 1 Village and drive along the dirt road for around 4km until you come to the first village. Ask for Kal or Caleb. Cost is around 1000vt pp but its worth it for a trekking and hiking Espiritu Santo adventure.
Water Cave Trekking Adventure
“The Water Cave” is in the same area as the Millennium Cave, about an hour west of Luganville but it is not as long or as strenuous as the Millennium trel. Starting from the beautiful Nembel village, you follow a river bed through a beautiful limestone canyon until you reach a narrow cave filled with bats, swallows and water. You are given flashlights and walk through the cave for about 20 mins until at the end you climb out on a series of bamboo ladders and make your way back to the village. At one point the tour was being organised by the same village that runs Millennium Cave Tours however not sure that is still the case. Best talk to Vanuatu Tourism Office/ Sanma Travel in Luganville or Wrecks to Rainforest to get a contact number for the cave tour.
West Santo (the wild west)
Rugged rainforest-covered mountains, countless wild rivers and ancient stands of giant Kauri pines are all on offer on the west coast of Santo but its not easy to get there. There is an airstrip at the top end of the west coast but not sure if its still in use. Check with Air Vanuatu or Air Taxi. Otherwise its a long and adventurous boat trip from Big Bay in the north or Tassiriki in the south.
For information on conservation areas and guided walks try hooking up with the Santo Sunset Environment Network – an Indigenous led Network of community Environmental Champions, working together for the protection of biodiversity, sustainable development, customary governance and climate/disaster resilience within the Santo Mountain Chain Key Biodiversity Area. You can check out their Facebook page HERE . You can also try the community at Eden Hope Nature Preserve they have eco-cabins they rent out as well as food/guides and resources to act as a base for longer hikes into the area.
Jordan River Canyon (Central Santo)
This is probably the most amazing trekking and hiking Espiritu Santo adventure you can do on the island but it’s very difficult to get to and can only be done if there is good weather and no rain as it involves two river crossings by car and an additional 24 river crossings by foot (return journey). From the east coast it’s a 3 hr 4WD drive to Ankoru Village where you can contact Chief Paul and grab a guide and then its approx. a 9km hike up the gorge. As you trek up the gorge you go past several stunning waterfalls, the most impressive of which is Chinjala Falls (90m high!). Possibly the most stunning waterfall on Santo.
Then its onto the gorge and canyon itself – towering limestone cliffs, extraordinary geographic formations made of limestone flowstone, waterfalls cascading from the top into the river, as the canyon gets narrower and narrower. Read more about it HERE. A final waterfall at the end of the canyon signifies the turnaround point for a day hike (its approx 4 – 5 hr return journey). It’s possible to shortcut your return journey by floating back down the river on a tyre tube if you bring one along!! Or you can continue to follow the river up the valley (for another 2 hrs) until you reach a traditional village where you can stay overnight as a guest of the chief (there’s also a second village another 1.5 hrs up the valley that’s even prettier!). Read my blog about the Jordon River HERE .
Atchion River Canoe & Rainforest Walk
Officially the highest mountain in Vanuatu, and one of the highest in the south Pacific at nearly 1900m high, the trek to the summit of Mt Tabwemasana is an epic adventure (just getting to the start of the trail is an adventure in itself). Vanuatu Tourism has put a lot of time money and effort into creating a trail, training guides and building tourist bungalows in Kerepua to ensure the expedition goes smoothly. Best way to get there is to catch a local transport from Luganville to Tassiriki in south Santo (about 2 hrs down a rough dirt road) and from there get a local boat to Kerepua. Pick up your guides in the village. It’s generally a 2-3 day trek up the mountain depending on weather and you need to be very fit as it is steep and arduous climbing. Is it worth it? Yes, if you are all about the journey and not the destination. Why? Because the top of Mt Tabwemasana is a cloud forest and there is a good chance it will either be raining or the view with be obscured by cloud and mist when you eventually reach the top. But if you do get lucky and it’s a clear day you will see the entire archipelago of Vanuatu spread out before you like an emerald green necklace. For more information about Mt Tabwemasana trekking check out my blog HERE. Or check out Vanuatu Tourism’s Great Hikes of Vanuatu
Butmas and Funafus Cave Systems
Butmas is a small village high up on the limestone plateau about half way up the east coast of Santo. It’s a rough 4WD track west to get there via Fanafo and then through Stone Hill that takes at least an hour or more to drive. Only go if it’s not raining as the road can be tricky to negotiate when wet. Butmas is home to the families of six local clan lineages. There’s also a health clinic up there run by some missionaries and they would be good source of information for the caves and hikes (in fact there’s a small cave right near the clinic). The community is composed of around 100 villagers, 50 of which are children attending the local primary school and the village speaks a local dialect, Butmas-Tur (one of 5 East Santo languages).
What makes Butmas special is that it is surrounded by massive cave systems and beautiful rainforest – some of these can be accessed without ropes and ladders while others have to be abseiled into. The largest cave of the area (Fapon Cave) hosts a rich and original fauna in its dark passages as well as in its deep dolines which open out into a subterranean stream. The upstream entrance to Fapon Cave is a narrow passage, where a small stream sinks among blocks. The subsequent galleries are moderate in size, some well decorated, and connect three successive deep dolines. Another cave in the Mba Aven area accesses a large river leading upstream to a waterfall, and downstream to a long winding, low ceiling passage. Ask the locals to show you the caves and maybe take you on some walks to waterfalls, wild rivers and blue holes.
There are similar cave systems in and around the village of Funafus in the hills above south Santo. There are at least six large caves belonging to this complex: Amont Cave (length: 259 m northwestern part of the system, Kafae Aven (length: 3702 m), Streamsink and Tarius Caves and the Kafae and Tarius shafts. Some of these passages reach up to 15 m wide by 15 m high with huge underground streams. Again talk to the locals about exploring the caves and the surroundnig forest.