A rocky headland divides the town of Atuona, on the northern shore of Traitors Bay, into two parts. Cargo ships and cruising yachts put into Tahauku Bay, a narrow cove on the east of the headland. Other than the black-sand beach and a freshwater faucet emerging from a cliff, there was little there when I sailed into the harbor back in 1977. Today, a man-made breakwater protects the concrete town dock and small boat marina. From the black-sand beach, the Faakua Valley goes off to the northeast.

On the western side of the headland, the original village borders another curving black-sand beach and follows the Vaioa River up into a valley. Unlike Taiohae on Nuku Hiva, where the main road follows the shoreline, here the main street is a block inland, separated from the beach by houses, churches, and parks. Sunset comes early to Atuona, for to the west looms the pointed peak of Mount Temetiu, tallest in the Marquesas at 1,190m (3,927 ft.). Atuona's other key landmark is the gendarmerie, at the center of town. Two blocks west on the main road is the town's Tohua Pepeu, a restored ancient meeting ground where locals stage dance shows and sell handicrafts to visiting cruise-ship passengers.

Tehueto Petroglyphs

Reaching northeastward from Traitors Bay, the Faakua Valley is known for its Tehueto Petroglyphs, or stone carvings in basaltic rock. Done eons ago, these figures depict human beings with their arms in the air. The site is within hiking distance of Atuona, but the road is so rough that I do not recommend the walk. You can see it on a tour, but your time will be better spent at Puamau.

Paumau & Te Me'ae Teiipona

Like an excursion to Hatiheu on Nuku Hiva, seeing Puamau and its archaeological site is the top trip to make on Hiva Oa. Be prepared for a long day, for it takes 2 1/2 hours to get here from Atuona. The road is paved from town past the airport onto the Tepuna plateau, a cool region with ferns and pines and wild orchids, but it soon turns to gravel and gradually descends to the north shore, where it is literally blasted into cliffs above the serrated coastline. The views are spectacular on this winding road, but it is the most dangerous stretch on Hiva Oa, especially during or just after rain. For this reason, I highly recommend taking an organized tour to Puamau.

On the northeastern side of the island, picturesque Puamau village sits beside a black-sand beach and is surrounded on three sides by the steep walls of an extinct volcanic crater. The beach is good for swimming on its eastern side.

You may meet some of Paul Gauguin's descendants here, but Puamau's highlight is the restored Te Me'ae Teiipona. One of the most significant ancient temples in French Polynesia, it is famous for the largest stone tiki in all of Polynesia other than the mysterious figures on Easter Island, far off in the eastern South Pacific between here and Chile. In fact, some anthropologists believe the Polynesians who first settled Easter Island came from Puamau. The tallest figure here, a rendition of a Polynesian chief named Taka'i'i, is much smaller than those on Easter Island, but still stands 2.4m (8 ft.) tall. The most unusual is of a woman lying on her stomach with her hands lifted skyward behind her back, said to be the likeness of a woman giving birth.

Taaoa Valley

About 7km (4 1/4 miles) by dirt road southwest of Atuona, the Taaoa Valley has the largest concentration of ceremonial sites in all of French Polynesia. Some of the more than 1,000 paepaes (stone platforms) have been restored, but many more still lie in the jungle. Archaeologists believe one of the stone tikis here was used to prepare humans to be sacrificed. Although you can find your way to Taaoa easily enough, the remains occupy most of the valley, so a tour is the best way to see it all.


The paved cross-island road from Atuona descends through the narrow Vaipeehia River valley and terminates at the beach in the pleasant north coast village of Hanaiapa. You can swim in the bay off the canoe shed near the river's mouth, and if the sea is calm, snorkel off the concrete dock (bring your own gear). Residents of Atuona like to escape to Hanaiapa on the weekends, for in addition to the beach, a plethora of fruit trees and flowers make this one of the more attractive villages in the Marquesas. There are no restaurants or other facilities, but a handicrafts shop opens when cruise ships are here.

A Debt Left Unpaid -- Magasin Gauguin, an old clapboard general store beside a huge mango tree near the Gauguin Cultural Center on Atuona's main street, is a relic of the days when Paul Gauguin lived here. In those days it was owned by American merchant Ben Varney, himself the founder of a large mixed-race family. The painter bought his supplies here, including bottles of liquor that he kept cool in a well beside his house (he would fetch them with a long bamboo pole). It is said that when Gauguin died on May 8, 1903, he owed Varney a considerable debt.

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