Vanuatu is one of the few places left on earth where you can still experience an ancient Pacific culture that is still very much alive today and practised by local Ni-Vanuatu in traditional villages on the outer islands (they call it living in “kastom”).
The annual Vanuatu festivals, rituals and dances they celebrate are not only spectacular to watch but also give you a chance to participate in feasts, learn weaving, paddle outrigger canoes, drink kava and generally become part of the villager’s daily life (click here for an extensive list of Vanuatu cultural festivals and here for general information on Vanuatu culture and Espiritu Santo kastom villages).
Best of all, many of the festivals, cultural events and activities are off the beaten track on islands and in areas where there is amazing scenery and stunning photo ops, so your journey there is almost as much of an adventure as the actual festival itself. Here are our top 10 picks for yearly “must see” Vanuatu festivals and cultural events. (please check with local tour operators or Tourism Vanuatu for exact dates by clicking here).
1. Nagol Land Diving (Pentecost Island, April to June)
A incredible rite-of-passage ceremony held during the yam harvest season (and inspiration for today’s “Bungee Jumping”). Initiates dive off tall, elaborate stick towers 20-30m high with only vines tied to their ankles. The towers take almost 5 weeks to build using only materials collected from the surrounding forest.
The idea is the land divers must lightly touch the soil with the chest or head at the moment the vine “catches” the fall to prove their bravery to the Gods and gain their fertility rites. The vine then springs them back into the air before the impact kills them. No words can express the feeling of the ground vibrating under the dancing and stomping feet of villages and the excitement of sitting beneath the tower waiting with unease for the diver to jump safely to ground.
2. Toka Festival (Tanna, October)
A 3 day extravaganza that takes place only every few years when the paramount chief deems conditions favourable. Tribes from all over Tanna meet to feast and dance. Women paint their faces with brilliant designs and hundreds of them dance for 24 hrs non-stop, followed by a massive traditional village feast.
Not only are the rituals and dancing amazing at this festival but you have the added bonus of exploring Tanna’s incredible volcano and scenery while you are there! Of all the Vanuatu festivals, this is one not to miss! Check with the Tanna Tourism Council for exact dates.
3. Rom Dance (Ambrym Island, late July)
This amazing dance festival is held at Fanla Village on North Ambrym – it goes for 2 days non-stop and is basically one huge community party centred around an ancestral, mysterious dance called Rom. Fanla village is one of the best places to see this incredible dance as they feature very elaborate costumes and it is the oldest village in Ambrym – the people there continue to follow ancient customs.
Enjoy bamboo flute playing, traditional drumming, magic, wood and lava stone carving (which you can purchase during the festival), weaving and more. Ambrym is also home to an incredible active volcano and spectacular scenery so take some time out exploring the island as well. Contact Ambrym Travel and Tourism for exact dates. One of the best Vanuatu festivals for dancing!
4. Maskelyne Canoe Race and Festival (Maskelyne Islands, Malekula. late July)
The Maskelyne Islands off of Malekula are a stunningly beautiful island chain with fringing reef, white sand beaches and palm trees leaning out over the water. It’s your picture perfect island paradise, but it is not easy or cheap to get to. So best to go when the festival is on, as you can connect with Malekula Island Tourism and they can organise boats and transport.
The 2 day cultural event features kastom dancing, canoe-making, kava tasting, shared local meals and of course the famous canoe race, which you can participate in, finishing with a huge “island night” celebration. PS the best way to get to Malekula is to fly from Santo, its about a 15 min flight. You can go via ferry but this is not recommended.
5. St Andrew’s Day Festival (Rah and Mota Lava Island, November)
For more than 100 years, the people of these islands have been coming together to celebrate the life of Saint Andrew. During this fascinating cultural festival, they draw on ancient traditions and rituals going back thousands of years including traditional fishing using a giant traditional coconut leaves fishing net, cooking “volcano baked” food and performing the famed Sea Snake dances.
Both Rah and Mota Lava are amazingly beautiful and remote islands at the northern end of the Vanuatu island chain and its worth spending time trekking up the Rock of Rah or visiting the Sleeping Giant mount.
6. Back To My Roots Festival (North Ambrym Island, late August)
One of the bigger Vanuatu Festivals not to be missed. Held at Olal Village, on Ambrym Island, this features 3 days of tam tam drumming, black magic shows, Yeng Dances, women’s custom dancing, the famous Namangi ceremony (highlight), flute demonstrations, sand drawings and of course the world renown Rom custom dance.
7. The Lakona Bay Kastom Festival (Gaua Island, August)
Hosted by Chief John Star, Father Levi (local Anglican minister) and the villages of the Lakona Bay region, this Vanuatu cultural festivals includes music, food, wood/stone carving, water music (where women make “music” using only the still water of river pools as their instrument), and of course the famous Snake Dance where men and boys paint themselves in black and white bands like the poisonous sea snake to try to evoke its spiritual power.
8. South West Bay Nalawan Festival (Malekula. late August)
A spectacular 2 day cultural festival celebration at Fire Beach, Lebo Village and Lawa, in South West Bay on the island of Malekula. This is one of the Vanuatu festivals celebrated every year since time immemorial, with the kastom of worshipping the gods of their ancestors just prior to the harvest of their crops. Unique activities are performed such as spectacular custom dances and authentic grade-taking ceremonies.
The best way to get there is to fly from Espiritu Santo or you can hook up with the local Vanuatu Cruising Yacht Club in Port Vila who time a yacht race to the island to link up with the festival.
9. Circumcision Ceremonies (Tanna Island, July/August)
Planning for these elaborate and colourful ceremonies can starts months ahead however notice of the actual time of each festival is random and only occurs a few days in advance, so it’s vital you stay in touch with the local Tanna Tourism Council to ensure your timing is right.
The ceremonies revolve around the boys in the village being turned into young men (traditionally with a piece of sharp bamboo). The women paint their faces and dress in colourful costumes, there’s lots of feet stamping, clapping, singing and dancing, mountains of food including whole pigs and traditional bush foods and plenty of kava!
10. Port Sandwich Art and Cultural Festival (Lamap, South Malekula, early August)
The local community of Lamap celebrate their culture, traditions and unique way of life with a two-day art and cultural festival. Authentic pig exchange ceremony, skill displays, custom dance and stories, traditional island feasts, local string bands, kava tastings, traditional sand drawing.
A unique village stay option is available for those guests who wish to gain a truly personal cultural experience. You can also combine this with a spot of dugong watching at nearby Caspa Bay. Wrecks to Rainforest on Espiritu Santo organise tours to this festival.
Honorary Mention – Twin Waterfall Festival (Vanua Lava Island, September)
This is not so much about the festival as it is about the location – beautiful Waterfall Bay on Vanua Lava Island. Twin waterfalls actually fall from the cliffs directly into the sea! Vanua Lava is the second largest of the Banks Islands, and is located about 120 km north-east of Espiritu Santo. There are mountains, a volcano and some spectacular rivers to explore.
This festival is renown for its poems, songs, exhibitions of house building and canoe building, dancing, feasting and much more. Off the beaten track but well worth making the effort to see – one of the more traditional Vanuatu Festivals and cultural events. Fly from Espiritu Santo or book a tour through Wrecks to Rainforest.