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Kastom is the beating heart of Vanuatu culture, passed down from generation to generation. It covers everything from art and mysticism to island economics.

You can’t really understand modern Ni-Vanuatu culture without understanding kastom. It’s a Bislama (local Pijin) word, derived from English and French, that once governed every aspect of traditional Melanesian life. Kastom was a big part of Vanuatu tradition before the Europeans arrived, but since then, on some parts of the islands, western lifestyle has started to mingle with older belief systems. Not all tribes and villages took on the missionary religions or Western culture, and you can still find pockets of traditional kastom life surviving on islands like Tanna, Efate and Santo. There are kastom trails and traditional villages, where visitors can get a glimpse into the past, free from touristy gimmicks or technology, and discover the special social magic of the Ni-Vanuatu people. 

Browse the Mamas Markets in Port Vila

The Port Vila Market House is not your typical fresh produce bazaar. It’s known as the Mamas Markets — named after the mamas behind the stalls, each dressed in eye-popping colours and calling out specials on coconuts, yams, tapioca, pineapples, raspberries, taro and bunches of crimson ginger flowers, all grown organically in the island’s rich, volcanic soil. The bazaar is buzzing with travellers, and the energy is pretty intense. After you’ve picked up some fresh fruit, head towards the rear of the market: you’ll see mamas grilling and frying kaikai (island food). Try hot, pork-filled tuluk or the famous laplap, made from yam paste, spinach and grated coconut.


VTO0049 Browse Mamas Market Port Vila


Shop Tanna’s Roadside Stalls

If you can’t make it to Tanna’s main markets in Lenakel, there are roadside stalls on most of the major roads around the island, stocked with pawpaws, copra (dried coconut meat)  and all sorts of fresh produce. If you’re hiring a private charter, just ask your driver to pull over. Most landowners with big gardens sell their seasonal produce by the roadside, and you haven’t tried real green coconut until you’ve seen a Tannese local hack off the top with a machete. Make sure to carry lots of small vatu notes and coins (local currency), as roadside vendors generally don’t have much change. 


VTO0049 Shop Tanna roadside stalls


Visit a Kastom Village

If you want to see real kastom in action, organise a trip to one of Vanuatu’s kastom villages. These are real, living settlements, without modern technology or any touristy gimmicks. They’re a chance to explore Vanuatu’s spiritual past. Yakel, on the island of Tanna, is one of the most famous kastom villages; it was the setting for the Oscar-nominated movie, Tanna. It’s a 30-minute drive into the hinterland, just south-east of Lenakel. If you’re visiting the volcanic adventure-island of Gaua, a trip to Leweton Village to hear the local ‘water music’ is also a must. For those staying at the major Vanuatu resorts around Port Vila, try the Ekasup Cultural Village. The local Chief will walk you through the compound, teaching you about traditional Vanuatu farming, medicine, kastom and even cannibalism. Don’t worry — that particular local custom has long been a thing of the past.



VTO0049 Visit kustom village


Watch Traditional Fire Dancing

Dancing is part of kastom. Villagers dance to welcome in the new yam harvest, to celebrate ritual circumcision, or as part of seasonal festivals. For a more traditional taste of Ni-Vanuatu dancing, try to visit Tanna during the nakwiari, when two regions exchange livestock and kava, and thousands of islanders dance long into the night, feasting in front of huge bonfires. The Nambas dances on Malekula and Ambrym’s mystic Rom ceremony are spectacular too. Speaking of fire, make sure you catch the weekly fire dancing at the Beach Bar on Mele Bay, Efate. Every Friday night, dancers take to the sands with flaming sticks and fire poi - a type of tethered weight the dancers twirl through the air.



VTO0049 Watch fire dance


Stay in a Local Bungalow

There are dozens of boutique resorts and hotels in Vanuatu (Eratap Beach Resort and The Havannah Vanuatu near Port Vila are two of our favourites), but for a proper kastom experience, consider a thatched island bungalow. Most of the bigger islands will have plenty of bungalow accommodation to pick from. On Tanna, you can stay near black sand beaches at Iwaru Beach Bungalows, or at the family-run Tanna Yasur Homestay Bungalows, close to local hot springs and Mt Yasur. On Pele, which is a little closer to Efate, there are now bungalows available in Worearu Village. You can check out the full range of traditional Vanuatu accommodation here.


VTO0049 Stay in local bungalow


Hike with a Local Guide

Vanuatu is easy enough to explore by yourself, but you’ll learn a lot more hiking with a local guide. Wild jungle trails criss-cross most of the major islands. The most famous treks are obviously the volcano tours, including Tanna’s crater rim walk on Mt Yasur and the Mt Garet volcano trek on Gaua. For something a bit different, head to Malekula, where you can walk the famous Dog's Head Trail — a three-day, coast-to-coast hike from Small Nambas to Big Nambas territory, passing through several tiny villages along the way. If you’re looking for a quiet weekend away from Port Vila, consider satellite islands like Nguna. Here you can hike to the crater of the now-extinct volcano, Mt Taputoara.



VTO0049 Hike with local guide


Take a Day-Trip and See Land Diving

Every year, between April and June, the young men of Pentecost Island climb wooden towers, 30 metres above the ground, then launch themselves off, head first, with nothing but two tree vines wrapped around their ankles. This is the phenomenon known as ‘land diving’ or ‘Nangol’, and it only happens in this one place at this one time of the year. This traditional Melanesian ritual, believed to usher in a good harvest, was the inspiration behind modern bungee jumping. Getting to Pentecost is pretty easy. Day-trips run from Port Vila, and there’s a range of bungalow accommodation on the island itself. Air Vanuatu also runs regular flights to Lonoroe Airport. 



VTO0049 Day trip land diving


Drink Kava at a Nakamal

A nakamal is a traditional Ni-Vanuatu meeting place - usually a forest clearing surrounded by banyan trees. Islanders still meet in nakamals to dance, trade goods and resolve tribal disputes, but they’re also where people go to drink kava (‘nakamal’ has come to mean ‘kava bar’ in Port Vila and other urban areas in Vanuatu). If you haven’t tried kava before, you won’t forget your first time. It’s made from the bitter pepper root, sometimes chewed or ground in a pestle, then mixed with water. Said to have sedative and euphoric properties, you can try kava at lots of bars in Port Vila or Lenakel, but for the real kastom experience, look out for guided nakamal tours.