Known in French as Isles Marquises and in the local dialects as Te Henua Enata and Te Henua Enana (literally, Land of Men), the Marquesas Islands are a 350km-long (214-mile) chain about 1,400km (850 miles) northeast of Tahiti and some 500km (305 miles) beyond the Tuamotu Archipelago. These distances alone make them seem as if you are visiting another country. In fact, they are farther away from Tahiti than the Cook Islands, the neighboring nation to the west.
The 10 main islands are all high, mountainous, and extremely rugged. They are the tops of extinct volcanoes whose ancient craters are clearly visible on topographic maps. The eroding caldera form high plateaus on some islands, and dramatic ridges fan out like spokes from the craters to form steep valleys on all of them. Black basaltic cliffs, buttresses, and stovepipe peaks seem to leap from the sea in many places.
The islands are administratively divided into northern and southern groups. Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, and Ua Huka are the inhabited islands of the northern group. A deep ocean channel and about 80km (50 miles) separate them from the inhabited southern islands of Hiva Oa, Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva.
Nuku Hiva is the administrative center of both the archipelago and the northern group, while Hiva Oa is the capital of the southern islands. They are the only islands that are relatively easy to visit -- unless you're on a cruise -- and the only two with international-level accommodations.
About 9,000 people live in the Marquesas today. There were many times that number when Europeans first arrived, beginning in 1595 with the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña, who named the group for Marques Don Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza de Canete, wife of Peru's reigning viceroy. When de Mendaña departed, the population had been reduced by 200 Marquesans killed in a skirmish on Tahuata. English Capt. James Cook dropped by in 1774 and estimated 100,000 people lived on the islands. Thanks to disease, a brief Chilean slave trade, and economic opportunities elsewhere, only 2,225 people lived here in 1926. The population has been increasing thanks to a high birthrate and the Marquesas' awakening to the modern world during the 1990s.
In the absence of coastal plains, more ancient Marquesans lived up in the valleys than down by the ocean. Compared to their seaside relatives in the Society Islands and the Tuamotus, they were mountaineers, and their descendants carry an independent mountaineer streak to this day. Seeing themselves as modern stepchildren of Tahiti, many would like to separate from the rest of French Polynesia and have their own political relationship with France.
Given the steep terrain and no shortage of boulders, the ancients built platforms of stone to make both their maraes (me'aes up here) and their houses level. Their me'aes dwarfed most maraes in the Society Islands and contained even larger tohuas, or meeting areas paved with stones. Human sacrifices were made at the me'aes, for the Marquesans lived an often violent, brutal life that included frequent wars between tribes followed by cannibalistic rituals. (The last known victim on Nuku Hiva was a 10- or 11-year-old girl eaten in 1924; her skull is in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.)
Stylized stone tikis representing ancestors and tribal gods adorned the me'aes. (Tiki is spelled and pronounced ti'i up here, but I'll keep the k in it for simplicity's sake.) The remaining tikis are the largest examples of the Marquesans' extraordinary skills as stone carvers and woodcarvers. Unlike the puritanical 19th-century Protestant missionaries in the Society Islands, who made the Tahitians destroy their idolatrous stone tikis, the Catholic missionaries had more faith in the heathens up here. The priests let them keep most of their tikis, but made them break off the genitalia. The castrated tikis add a delightfully ancient aspect to many Marquesan me'aes.
While some paepaes (stone housing platforms) are still in use, you will see hundreds of them deserted and overgrown up in the valleys. Coupled with the breadfruit, pandanus, and other trees the ancients planted near their platform homes, these depopulated valleys make the Marquesas Islands seem mysteriously haunted.
In the Middle of Nowhere -- The Marquesas' nearest neighbors to the east are the Galápagos Islands, approximately 3,400 nautical miles away. When you're on a yacht halfway between the two, you are as far away from dry land as you can possibly be on the face of the earth.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.