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Tuvalu – Guide for Backpackers

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Travelling to Tuvalu.

The world’s smallest country is the destination for free-spirited traveller! Made up of nine islands, Tuvalu is located just below the equator between the island nations of Fiji and Kiribati. Flights operate to Tuvalu twice a week from Fiji to this stunning South Pacific island nation with paradise coastlines and lagoons. You’ll learn the basics of travelling to Tuvalu in this Tuvalu guide.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Tuvalu was the least visited country in the world in 2016, making it a seriously off-the-beaten track location for tourists! In turn, the island does not have organised activities like you’re usual tourist destination, however there are hotels and lodges to help organise your stay once you arrive. For that reason, Tuvalu is best visited by travellers who are up for spontaneous adventures!

For more islands to visit, see our 5 South Pacific Islands That Are Awesome for Backpackers.

Know before you go to Tuvalu

  • Visa – Visitors get a free 30-day tourist visa on arrival.
  • Currency – Australian Dollar. Use cash to pay for things as there are no ATMs or credit cards accepted anywhere.
  • Language – Tuvaluan and English. English is widely spoken and signs are in English. However, learn how to say hello “talofa” and thank you “fafetai”.
  • Climate – The year-round average temperature is 30°C with the average annual rainfall being 3,000mm. Expect more wind and rain between November and April.
  • Dangers – There are no dangerous animals or diseases that you will need injections for on the islands, however there are mosquitos and flies. While there’s little crime on the islands, be mindful where you store your cash. Ask your accommodation provider where are the safest swimming spots due to strong currents and coral reefs off the islands.
  • WiFi – When you are able to purchase WiFi in Funafuti, don’t expect it to be fast. It’s best to stay disconnected while on the islands.
  • Religion – Christianity is popular in Tuvalu meaning that shops are closed on Sundays.
  • Food – Popular food to expect is fresh fish, fried chicken, coconuts, papaya, pork and taro with some imported goods like soft drinks and beers.
  • Electricity – The power outlets are type 1, the same used in New Zealand and Australia, and the standard voltage and frequency are 220V and 50Hz.
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How to Get around Tuvalu

Getting around by motorbike

The best and most common way to get around Funafuti is by motorbike, which are readily available and reasonably priced (around AU$10 a day). Don’t worry if you have never rode a motorbike before, they are easy to learn how to operate!

We recommend hiring a bike as soon as possible after you arrive! With so few tourists, sometimes the island runs out of bikes for hire. Some accommodation providers have their own bikes to hire, so considering looking there too.

Note that helmets are not commonly worn in Tuvalu, and you are unlikely to find helmets to rent. Fortunately, there is not much traffic and people drive slowly.

Finally, remember to drive on the left side of the road!

Visiting the outer islands

To reach the outer islands of Tuvalu you will need to take the passenger ferry from Funafuti, which is run by the local government. For an up-to-date shipping schedule, check with the government shipping office on the ground floor of the Government House.

These trips are long and tend to only take place once every two weeks. For instance, the ferry to the southern islands of Nukulaelae and Niulakita takes about three days and the northern voyage stops at three or four different islands depending on the tide. The ferry stops at each destination for a an hour or so, but if you want to stay on the outer islands, it could be two weeks before you can make the return journey.

A popular shorter-voyage option, however, is the overnight return trip to Vaitupu, a stunning island with lush forest. These trips usually occur once a month, taking 6-8 hours one way making it a p possible to do some island hopping in Tuvalu even during shorter stays.

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Scuba diving and snorkelling in Tuvalu

Although there are no dive shops in Tuvalu, if you are an experienced scuba diving with your own gear then you are in for treat with Tuvalu’s amazing dive sites! One of the popular sites is the Funafuti Conservation Area covering 33²km of land, water and six uninhabited coral islets. See coral, coconut crabs, a wide range of seabird and fish species, as well as shellfish and turtles in this amazing scuba and snorkelling area.

Trips to the Funafuti Conservation Area must be organised with the Conservation Office in the Funafuti Council Building. They have a boat available to hire, as foreign vessels are forbidden to anchor in the conservation area.

For other snorkelling and scuba areas and how to get to them, your best bet is to inquire with your accommodation provider, who are usually happy to assist.

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Where to experience culture in Tuvalu

By exploring the island and talking to the locals, you’ll get a rich cultural experience. However, if you’re looking for something more, a good place to go is the Tefota Beer Garden (locally known as “The Nightclub”) which is located across the street from the Town Council building.

Additionally, Friday afternoons are a great time to meet people and hang out on the airport runway. It’s a half-day for government employees, so everyone dresses in flowers and finery and gathers there to participate in group sport and activities.

Otherwise, timing your visit with one of the annual events is a good way to see traditional styles of dance like fatele, or popular styles like Gilbetese dancing or American Wild West dancing called “The Twist”. Events are  often held at the various Maneapa (local town hall). Ask your accommodation provider if there are any upcoming events during your stay or time your visit with one of the following:

  • New Year’s Eve/Day – December 31 and January 1, Tuvalu is one of the first countries to see the New Year due to its position on the International Date Line.
  • Bomb Day – April 23, commemorate the day a Japanese bomb fell through Funafuti’s church roof in 1943. An American soldier evacuated and save 680 church-goers before the bomb fell.
  • Tuvalu Days – October 1, Tuvalu’s independence day. Head to the Funafuti Airstrip for dancing and a parade.
  • Hurricane Day – October 21, commemorates the day when Hurricane Bebe killed 18 people and injured hundreds in 1972. Each island and atoll has their own activities to commemorate this day.

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Visit Historical sites in Tuvalu

World War 2 Plane Wreckage Sites

During World War 2, American soldiers and air bases were stationed here by Allied forces as a strategical location to combat enemy forces in Kiribati. Funafuti was one of the main bases during this time and debris is visible along Fongafale. There is also a well-preserved bunker on the island of Tepuka, just across the lagoon from Funafuti.

When travelling to the outer islands, visit an old airstrip in Nanumea where plane wreckages are visible in the surrounding vegetation. There is also a wreck of an aircraft on a nearby reef to Nanumea Village (one of the northern atolls about 465km away from Funafuti). Another airstrip is found on Motulalo in Nukufetau (about 96km north of Funafuti) complete with wrecks.

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Final Tips for backpacking in Tuvalu

  • Plan to start your days early. By 7am life on Funafuti is in full swing, because the sun and heat are ferocious by mid morning. People emerge again around 4pm for athletics and activities on the runway.
  • Bring any medicine you may need (even simple things like painkillers) and an extra supply of sunscreen, as these items are not readily available in any of the shops.
  • If coming from New Zealand; no jet lag! You’re in the same time zone as New Zealand.
  • The whole country runs on collected rainwater, so plan to either treat or boil it before drinking. Bottled water is cheap and readily available from shops.
  • Shell necklaces sold from racks in front of the airport on flight days make cheap and popular souvenirs. They normally sell out, so buy yours early to avoid disappointment.
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Where to stay in Tuvalu?

  • L’s Lodge, Fongafale
  • Esfam Lodge, Fongafale
  • Hideaway Guesthouse, Fongafale
  • Hotel Filamona, Fongafale
  • Vailuatai Lodge, Fongafale
  • Funafuti Lagoon Hotel, Fongafale
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