Yap island, though largely unknown, is one of the most unique and interesting islands in Micronesia. The traditional Micronesian culture and customs are better preserved on Yap than anywhere else in the region, a fact that is the source of immense pride among her people. This pride is reflected in the care taken by locals to keep Yap pristine; it may lack white sand beaches, but this little island glimmers in the tropical sun. While diving with reef sharks and giant manta rays is the main tourist attraction, the island offers visitors some really unique experiences out of the water as well. Here is my guide for the best things to do in Yap.
It was Easter Sunday and while my coworker was obsessed with staying indoors to watch the Final Four, I needed exercise and fresh air. The inn keeper suggested the Tamilyog Trail, which is really the only hiking path on Yap, but one with historical significance. He drove me to the trail head just outside Colonia, with instructions to call him when I reached the other end. As with most things in FSM, that didn’t exactly go to plan.
The Tamilyog Trail was historically the main pedestrian path from Weloy in the west to the capital Colonia, and portions of the trail still feature the “stone paths” which connected villages across the island and often lead to important meeting houses or the men’s houses called faluw. The trail is generally easy, with a few steep inclines across the peaks. Having arrived just a few days after Super Typhoon Maysak passed by, I frequently had to scramble through and over fallen trees, but none were impassable.
Over the course of the approximately 3 mile hike, the topography and vegetation change drastically. The trail features flora typical to tropical rainforests, savannah grasslands and bamboo forests. The latter is near the end of the trail at Weloy and, in my opinion, is the most beautiful and interesting section of the hike.
When I exited on the road in Weloy I discovered my phone inexplicably no longer had service. I looked at the map and concluded the walk back to Colonia was approximately two miles, so I took off on foot. It turns out it was closer to three miles, but luckily I did pass the Cox Memorial, which I failed to find on my previous visit. Like many WWII relics scattered throughout FSM, the F6F-5 Hellcat flown by Ens. Joseph E. Cox is situated prominently on the side of the road in what appears to be someone’s front yard. To Yap’s credit, the plane is nicely preserved and displayed and there is a marker explaining the history.
Yap Day Celebration
If you’re going to plan a trip to Yap, you should heavily consider being there on March 1st. This is Yap Day, a cultural experience like no other. Thousands of Micronesians and others descend on the tiny island for the festival, so do note the hotels and flights fill up quickly, but the experience is one not to be missed. Artisans showcase traditional crafts, local foods are cooked all day, women dance in their bright grass skirts during the day and the men dance at night, complete with fire twirling and flame throwing. Yap Day provides an intimate look at this beautiful and unique culture.
It’s important to note that during certain dances traditional dress is required, so women will be topless. Visitors to Yap are greeted by women in traditional grass skirts, leis and bare breasts at the airport, so you’ll be accustomed to it by the time you get to the festival. Just don’t be surprised if visitors are required to comply with the dress code in order to watch the dances!
Historical and Cultural Tours
If you can’t attend Yap Day, hire a local guide to take you on a full or half-day cultural tour. You’ll take a walk along the stone paths through the villages to see local life first hand. You’ll learn about the tribal history and customs, and get to stand next to towering stone money. Yap’s moniker is “The Land of Stone Money”, and these ubiquitous disks of limestone can be found across the island, but nowhere else on earth. The stones were quarried and brought by bamboo canoe to Yap from Palau and other islands possibly as early as 500 CE. They have been and remain important currency in the negotiation of marriages, land ownership, alliances and many more dealings. The value of each stone has been decided by tribal leaders, and while the larger stones may never be moved from one location to another, changes in ownership are well understood by the locals.
If you don’t have time for a half-day tour, visit the Living History Museum in Colonia for a curated display of traditional architecture and handicrafts.
Official tours can be arranged with the Manta Ray Bay resort, and Beyond the Reef dive operation, among others. The inn keepers at O’Keefe’s Waterfront Inn can also connect you with a local guide. The village of Kaday in particular showcases traditional dances, and other skills such as lava-lava weaving can be seen throughout the villages.
Sail an Outrigger Canoe
Take your cultural tour a step farther with an hour long sail through the mangrove channels into Tamil Harbor on a handcrafted outrigger canoe. The Yapese have been navigating the open oceans on handmade outrigger canoes, directed only by the stars, for ages. Yap boasts an impressive school for traditional navigation, maintaining the ancient skill for the next generations. You can visit the Yap Traditional Navigation Society (YTNS) for a hands-on introduction to canoe building, and learn the art of star navigation from the master navigators themselves. If you visit in November, be sure to attend the annual Canoe Festival to celebrate the skills of the master navigators and their students from across the Micronesian islands.
Have your hotel staff contact Larry Raigetal, the founder of a non-profit called Waa’gey, to arrange a canoe ride. Waa’gey, like the YNTS, aims to confront societal, economic and environmental challenges on Yap by engaging and educating the youth on traditional skills and ecological conservation. Mr. Raigetal is also passionate about teaching visitors to Yap about the history and culture of the island. You’ll walk with him through his village, meeting his elders and talking about their way of life, before climbing through dense a mangrove to board the outrigger. He’ll leave you in the hands of his young apprentices, who will sail you out of the mangroves and through the harbor to Chamorro Bay.
Like the rest of the Micronesian islands, most of the land is privately owned, so be sure to check with a local before exploring stone trails and villages on your own. Local guides are readily available and can be arranged by your hotel staff, if they don’t offer to escort you themselves. Yap also has a wonderful tourist center with a few brochures to help you plan your trip.
Interested in visiting the Federated States of Micronesia? Leave a comment and tell me where you’d like to go!