Vanuatu: Santo or Tanna?

I meet a French girl at my hostel who is also living in New Zealand on a Working Holiday Visa, and leaving on the same flight home as I am next week. We discuss our travel plans (or lack thereof) over breakfast.

Vanuatu has 83 islands, but domestic flights are expensive and not only am I time poor, I am also poor poor. So I have to make the choice to either go North to Espíritu Santo (better known as just Santo) or South to Tanna.

Santo: pristine beaches, the Millenium Cave, beautiful swimming holes, water dancing, proximity to smaller outer islands, including a place called Pentecost which is famous for the N’gol ritual – better known as land diving or the inspiration that lead to bungy jumping.

Tanna: an active and easily accessible volcano, the Blue Cave, rugged landscape, kustom (traditional) villages/culture, a cult dedicated to a guy named John Frum.

Choices, choices. What would you pick?

I’m most interested in Vanuatu for its culture, so I was leaning Tanna but made a last minute call to buy a return trip to Santo. I feel like it’s the right choice, but I will admit I’m being a lil risky…

The N’gol on Pentecost island is only on Saturdays. My flight outta here is on Sunday night from the main island, which would mean in order for me to see the ritual I’d have to catch 2 domestic flights within 24 hours and they’d both need to be on time. I have about 4 hours of wiggle room. We are on island time and I get the impression flights don’t always run to schedule, so I’m a little concerned, but also optimistic. I haven’t yet commit to seeing the N’gol but it seems silly to pass up. One bonus is that there’s a 20% domestic flight discount for anyone who has international flights also booked with Air Vanuatu, which fortunately I do.

Flights are still painfully expensive, and I pay 24,000VT ($315…. slightly less than my international flights) for a Port Vila – Santo return.

My new French mate, Elodie, decided on Tanna which maybe was the better choice, because she gets to sleep in and fly out at 10am while my flight tragically leaves at 6:30am tomorrow. This means an early morning journey to the airport that I am not looking forward to.

Now that flights are out of the way we can spend the day exploring Efate, the main island. We walk down to the local market and choose a delicious looking prawn & manioc dish wrapped in banana leaves for 200 vatu (VT) or $2.60NZD.

lunch is served!

We learn that the market is open 24 hour a day! Apparently the stall minders will sleep on the floor next to their goods. I can’t imagine anyone requiring a pineapple at 3am but who am I to say? They must make some profit or they wouldn’t do it. Surely. Right?

Next we try to head to the Blue Lagoon, which is the most popular tourist attraction on Efate according to everything I’ve read. Originally I had planned to rent a car here, as I did in Tonga, but the deposit is a whopping 100,000VT ($1,300), which is basically my budget for this entire trip…so scrap that idea.

We ask our hostel about how to get to the lagoon via bus and they advise it will cost around 650VT ($8.50) and require a transfer in town. They also prepare us for the 500VT ($6.50) entrance fee, which seems a little steep all in all, but sounds like it’s worth a visit.

Buses here are not really buses, they are 12 seater vans. The way you identify them is by the red “B” on their license plates, and you can just hail them from anywhere on the street. They don’t follow routes or timetables, they’ll just pull over and if they’re heading the direction you’re going, you can hop in. Seems easy enough!

We hail a “B” license plate and ask about the Blue Lagoon. The driver looks like he’s never heard of it before. Not promising. We’ll take the next one. But no no no he insists, and one of the passengers knows what we’re talking about so she explains it to him. After driving around in a couple circles we’re told it’s too far and they drop us at a supermarket/gas station/bus stop. We pay 150VT ($2) each for the ride. It sounds like we’ll be able to find our way more easily from here, and are waved over by various different drivers. First we’re told 4,000VT ($53) for a return trip. Hard no. Elodie and I are separated, bargaining with drivers and shouting prices at each other across the parking lot. What happened to the simple 500VT ($6.50) we were told by our hostel?! Someone says 3,000 for both of us one way. Someone else says 2,000 each. I hear 5,000 somewhere in there. Someone quotes us in $US. It’s incredibly hectic and I wasn’t prepared for this. I swear I read that bargaining is not part of the culture here.

When I explain that our hostel advised 500VT ($6.50), I’m told that’s only the price if we wait until 4:30 or 5pm when everyone is finished work. If the buses are full, everyone splits the cost and that is when it’s 500. Do we want to wait 4 hours to visit the lagoon and arrive just before the sun goes down?? Not really. We decide to just pay the wildly expensive 4,000VT ($50) bus ride. We’re splitting the cost, but this is surely the most I have ever paid for a “bus” in my life. I sort of understand why it’s expensive if it’s a 45 minute drive, we’re the only people in the van, and he’s going to wait for us there, but I’m still in shock.

Upon arrival at the lagoon it is not only raining, but there is a piece of masking tape over the listed price of 500VT, and 1,000VT ($13) has been written in. What the faaaaaaaaack. Our hostel told us 500. The internet says 500. How is it actually double? The woman behind the wooden desk shrugs, “it changed one month ago”.

I try to level with her because we are literally the only people here and it’s raining, but no dice. What are we going to do? Turn around? Ugh.

To be fair, the lagoon is stunning. Even with cloudy skies the water is crystal clear and vibrant blue. The rain calms to a drizzle and we decide it’s time to rope swing. I go first and I’m not gonna lie to you, I absolutely face plant. It’s shameful (ok, and hilarious), but I am so lucky no one is here. Not sure exactly how I did it, but I also managed to bite my tongue in the process. Not a great success. Water’s warm though!

A giant branch over bright blue water
a girl rope swings into an empty lagoon
boutta face plant

Our driver is really gunning for us to pay 5,000VT ($65) and I think he’s hoping to up the price by showing us more things in our way back. He keeps offering to stop at waterfalls, beaches, the supermarket; anything he can to justify a higher price. But we agreed on 4,000VT ($50).

He also offers to take us to a beach where we can see turtles, but I read someone’s blog on this before I got here and apparently it’s awful. The turtles are netted in so it looks like they’re free but they can’t actually escape, and tourists pay to pick them up and shit. Not cool.

He insists on stopping at a road side stall for us to try kava. Elodie has never had it, and I tried it in Tonga and found it lacklustre. People talk about feeling super relaxed or even going numb, but I didn’t have anything of that. He’s raving about the health benefits, and says “drinking kava will make you not fat!” And turns around to slap my knee. I was not expecting to feel so attacked, but okay.

Kava definitely seems to be more of a thing here than in Tonga. In Tonga we had to search for it. Here, there are tons of road-side stalls with blue lights hanging at the entrance from a post. If the light is on it means the kava is ready. A big cup sells for 150 and a small for 100VT ($1.30). We get one small to share. Elodie is pretty skeptical, but I can’t blame her. Our driver didn’t exactly sell it when he described the taste as “dirty water” and “terrible”.

I’m also happy to have her with me totally sober and alert, though based on my experience in Tonga I’m not expecting this kava will mess me up either.

We watch two guys drink a cup each ahead of us and it’s definitely not like what we did in Tonga. We took sips out of a coconut shell bowl over a prolonged period of time. These dudes just necked their entire cups in one go and spat out the bad taste. Elodie has a sip just to try it, hates it, and gives me the rest. I follow by example and drink it all in one go. I’m not sure how I feel about all these drivers pulling over for a quick kava fix and then getting back on the road….relaxed and possibly numb? Again don’t feel much.

We cave a little bit and agree to pay more for our driver to bring us to a beach. It’s not even 4 in the afternoon yet and we didn’t get the vibe there was a lot to do in the centre of Port Vila. We agree to another 500VT to go to Hideaway Beach but will arrange for our own transport back. We get out of the car, hand him 4,500VT, and head to the beach. He shouts after us to come back. Apparently we’ve accidentally given him a 200 note instead of 1,000. *Insert a giant eye roll emoji* because nah. These situations piss me off for so many reasons.

1. We agreed to 4,000
2. Rude
3. Impossible to prove
4. Sneaky
5. Feeling stupid. Why didn’t we count it in front of him to avoid this?
6. Is it really worth a major argument?
7. I hate when people think they can trick me
8. I was told no bargaining in Vanuatu!
9. We told him that we’re on a budget about 10 times
10. I should know better by now

It’s extremely frustrating to say the least. I want to put up more of a fight, but don’t see it ever working out in our favour. We give him the stupid money and watch him leave. Not so funny that he called me fat now – was easy to laugh at when I didn’t think he was piece of shit. Was the kava some scheme to have us relax and fall for his stupid scam? So disheartened.

Everyone we spoke to at the market this morning was helpful, honest, and friendly, so I don’t expect this to be a theme in all my future interactions, but it’s shit. We have WAY over spent today. I have paid double my target budget. Painful.

At least Hideaway beach is nice and very quiet, which helps zen me out after that unfortunate encounter. Maybe it’s the kava, who knows. I play around and test my new drone but it’s still very grey out.

Drone pic
Another drone pic

We stay until almost sunset but it’s so cloudy there is no sunset to see. We find another bus and go back to town for the agreed upon price of 300VT per person, which is in line with what we expected to pay. Phew.

We go back to the 24hr market for another cheap meal, but the food stalls are closed – it’s just fruit available all day and night. After biting both sides of my own tongue at the lagoon today, the idea of acidic fruit is rough. We try to find an affordable restaurant but everything is at least 1,000VT ($13) which after our wildly expensive day, and compared to our 200VT ($3) lunch, we cannot accept. Finally we find a little burger joint and while I know it’s lame to eat a burger when you only have a week in Vanuatu, it’s 500VT ($6.50) so sue me.

Walking back to the hostel feels totally safe until a wild dog comes running at us just outside the gate to our accom. In the scramble to get inside without catching rabies, Elodie scratches her leg on the metal fence. So, she def won’t get rabies but maybe tetanus. I escaped unscathed and also don’t think the dog was actually going to attack but WHO. KNOWS. Wild dogs are lawless.

I’m in bed and asleep by 10, with an alarm set for 4am to catch my flight to Santo.

2 thoughts on “Vanuatu: Santo or Tanna?

  1. Ummm I’m a bit put off by the ease of which your new French Mate was mentioned …. I guess there’s a bias in actually being with you vs just vicariously in order to get a name drop. That may be fair- which also irritates me haha. Enjoy Fav. Thanks for the morning read xxoo


  2. Rough first day! You are out of practice, defences down from living in NZ and a relaxed trip to Tonga . Just draw on the traveling skills developed in Asia. You got this!


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