“Vanuatu is one of the few places on Earth where you can experience a very ancient living culture and contact your deepest roots and connections with the natural world and feel safe and comfortable at the same time.”
Vanuatu Yachting World
Vanuatu culture and heritage is thought to date back over 3,500 years (500 years older than ancient Egyptian civilisation). Successive waves of immigration by both Melanesian and Polynesian peoples has led to Vanuatu being hailed as one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth (84 different islands with over 113 distinct languages and countless local dialects). It also helps explain why Ni-Vans vary dramatically in their looks, size and skin colour!
The good news is that Vanuatu culture and Espiritu Santo’s incredible cultural history is still alive today (check out our “Adventure” page here). In fact, a trip to Espiritu Santo is not complete unless you experience some of the incredible dancing, rituals, festivals and ceremonies still practised every day by local “kastom villages“!
if you are staying at Turtle Bay Beach House, the first port of call to find out about any of Santo’s local culture is our very own taxi driver/guide Willie. Willie is actually from the nearby island of Malekula, known as the island of “kastom and adventure” and he can tell you stories of cannibal caves and coneheads and the incredible history of the Big Nambas and Small Nambas tribes. Read our blog about this here .He can also organise to take you to a couple of local “custom” villages nearby that don’t involve arduous hikes or long drives into the mountains! While some of these villages are a little touristy (often set up for cruise ship visitors) many are still worth a visit and the bonus is you get to try out the local drink – kava! . If you are not staying at Turtle Bay, the next best place to get information on cultural tours is Santo Travel in Luganville (click here to visit their website) or Wrecks to Rainforest (near the Espiritu Hotel). Vanuatu culture is fascinating and well worth the effort to discover.
As an interesting aside, all the wooden canoes featured at our Turtle Bay property are hand-carved locally while the black palm totems are a ritual of Ambrym Island (and make sure to ask Willie about the significance of the namale plants – very powerful ju ju!).
Listed below are some of our favourite Vanuatu culture tours.
Vil Vil Custom Village
Situated in Fanafo, in the mountains about an hour’s drive from the east coast of Santo, activities include the weaving of traditional baskets, mats and custom clothing by the women using the leaves of the Pandanus Palm, and the ancient art of sand drawing by the men. Chief Pulekon ensures his village is still very much living the traditional lifestyle – and this includes kava ceremonies and traditional dance.
Beterihi Cultural Activity Park
Located just outside of Luganville, the villagers perform traditional dances and ceremonies, wood carving and sand drawing, display WW2 memorabilia, conduct black magic demonstrations and talk about local medicine and healing plants.
Torgor Flower Garden & Water Music Tour
This one hour showcase of traditional custom dances from the Banks Islands starts with a display of Water Music, performed by the women of the group. Splashing with their hands, they recreate an incredible array of sounds ranging from rain falling to waterfalls and waves. This is followed by the men doing traditional dances from the northern end of the Banks Islands, then a kava ceremony and tasting, and finally a tour of the amazing flower garden. As part of the tour the group supply fresh fruits and refreshments and offer a display of unique handicrafts.
Ransuck Cultural Village
Also called the Fire Walk and Cultural Tour, this village is made up of people from nearby Pentecost Island. The tour includes fire walking, black magic demonstrations, sand drawing, basket weaving and more.
Leweton Cultural Village
This is our favourite cultural village, located near the Showgrounds just outside of Luganville. Fantastic dancing, kava ceremony, the famous water music by the ladies from the Banks Islands, a fire making ceremony and incredible costumes and tam tam drumming. The entire village has been constructed in the traditional way with no nails or other modern tools. They generally do two shows per day, one in the morning and one after lunch.
Pui Lodge and Cultural Tour
Located near the Showgrounds area, just near the cruise ship terminal, the cultural tour includes welcome warrior dance, tam tam drumming demonstration, story telling, traditional dances, introduction to local village wildlife (parrots, pigs, coconut crab, fish, fowl etc), natangora carving and more. (not sure if the show is still happening however the islands feast nights are – check with Santo Travel first).
Vunaspef Wild Food Tour
Operated and run by the same villagers who do the Millennium Caves tour, this 3 1/2 hr cultural tour begins with a 45 min drive up into the mountains to Vunaspef Village. Its about a 15 walk into the village, across bamboo bridges and through lush rainforest. A local guide then takes you for a walk through the surrounding natural bushland, pointing out some of the plants and their uses – either as food, medicine, or as tools. He will gather crops and fruit along the way which will go towards your wild food lunch. About 20 minutes in there’s a great lookout and this is immediately followed by a short descent to the river. You’ll experience waterfalls, a natural sand beach, shallow rapids and deep clear swimming holes. After a refreshing swim the guide shows you how to catch freshwater prawns from the river, teaches you some survival skills for life in the bush, and show you the many uses of the versatile bush knife. The prawns are cooked in bamboo and served with the other bush foods you have collected on your journey for an incredible bush tucker lunch Vanuatu style!
According to legend, the first people of Vanuatu culture on Santo were thought to be the Lysepsep, a small pygmy-like tribe who lived a reclusive life in large banyan trees and caves. They grew their hair long and wrapped it around their waist to hide their faces. Glen Russell of Butterfly Tours is adamant they still exist today in the deep bush and claims he saw them recently in a place called the Five Rivers in South Santo. He described them as “very short, long hair, long nail, can play magic, their villages or houses never been found”. Interesting…
DID YOU KNOW?
Espiritu Santo and its Vanuatu culture was “discovered” by Spanish explorer Pedro De Quiros in1606. His expedition thought they had discovered the fabled great southern land of Australia and named the island “Austrialia del Espiritu Santo” (The Australian Land of the Holy Spirit).