Have you ever heard of the ancient ruins of Nan Madol? Neither did I until I booked my Aeroplan Miles to do the famous United Island hopper in the Pacific Ocean.
Brief history of Nan Madol
Nan Madol is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the eastern side of Pohnpei, the largest of the four islands/states of the Federated States of Micronesia.
The construction of this ancient site began sometime between 1180-1200 AD. The average weight of each stones used to construct this complex is roughly 5 tons with the heaviest being 25 tons.
According to research, the basalt stones were taken from a volcanic plug located on the other side of Pohnpei. No one knows exactly how the stones were moved but the theory is that the skilled builders from Micronesia’s other state, Kosrae, migrated to Pohnpei and began the construction of Nan Madol.
Today, if you ask the Pohnpei locals how Nan Madol was constructed, they will tell you it’s magic.
My experience exploring Nan Madol
When I redeemed my Aeroplan miles to go on vacation back in December 2018, it turns out that we were allowed to have several under 24 hour layover in between our stopovers. Always wanting to max out my travel experience, I found out that we can actually stay in Pohnpei for nearly 24 hours!
I was excited at the possibility of exploring the little known island nation of Micronesia. Immediately, I began doing my research on what I can see in Micronesia. Suddenly, I came across pictures of Nan Madol and my eyes widened.
“Holy crap, what is this place?!”, is the first thing I said to myself when I was looking at the pictures. The more I read about it, the more excited I became. Yes, definitely I will be checking out this ancient ruins!
Booking my trip
I began exploring my options to see this ancient ruins. Some website tells you that you can simply rent a car from the airport and drive there yourself. Other website say that you can join a tour where they will drive you to Nan Madol and show you around. Finally, the last option is to take a boat to this ruins in the east side of Pohnpei.
Looking at my schedule, I didn’t have that much time and I wasn’t sure if I would get lost if my girlfriend and I end up renting a car. If we had more than 24 hours, we would have certainly looked into this option.
We started inquiring to join tours but most companies quoted us anywhere between $80-$100 per person. Ouch, that’s quite pricey just to see this ancient ruins, I wasn’t sure if that’s worth it.
While booking my accommodation in Pohnpei (7 Stars Inn), the hotel emailed me and told me that they can get me a tour for $70 USD per person if we have two people.
Since that was the cheapest option that we can find, we agreed to it.
Arriving in Pohnpei
Upon arriving at Pohnpei (we arrived at around 1:30pm), our accommodation picked us up from the airport to drive us to our hotel. After arriving, we spoke to the front desk staff who then contacted the tour company owner to come speak to us. His name is Shawn and turns out he is the owner’s grandson. He told us that a vehicle would be ready at around 3pm to take us to Nan Madol. He then advised us relax until then.
Little did I know that things move a little bit slower and relaxed in Micronesia.
After 3pm, we were ready to go! Until Shawn told us that they couldn’t find any vehicle that can take us to the ruins on that day. Because we only had 24 hours in the island, we started to get a little bit worried. Shawn then told us that we would have to go early the next day when they have a vehicle ready.
We were a little uneasy with this sudden change because we didn’t want to rush going to the ruins the next morning. And more importantly, we didn’t want to miss our flight out of Pohnpei. Shawn assured us that it will be okay. He said that the round trip drive to the ruins only takes about 1 hour-1.5 hours with about 30-60 minutes to explore Nan Madol. With no other choice, we agreed at the tour schedule change.
Meeting a German couple and getting a tour discount
In the hotel lobby, we met a German couple who was also interested in taking the tour to Nan Madol. They told us that they originally wanted to rent a car from the airport; however, all cars have already been rented out. Good thing we decided to book a tour; otherwise, we would have missed going there.
They then asked Karen and myself if they can come with us. And so, I went and approached Shawn to get more information. Shawn agreed to take all four of us to the ruins. He also price dropped from $70 USD per person to $50 USD per person.
That’s perfect! I’m always down to pay less for tours.
Paying private owners to enter their land and access Nan Madol
The drive to Nan Madol is pretty scenic. You get to see local Micronesians live their daily life. At the same time, you also get to see the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean.
However, to enter Nan Madol, you need to go through three private properties. Now the owners of each properties won’t simply allow you to drive through. You must pay each of them a fee to drive through their property.
The first property charged us $3, the second $2, and the third $3 per person. In total, we paid $8 each.
Hiking to Nan Madol
As soon as we arrived at the third property,we disembarked from the vehicle and began hiking. The hike to Nan Madol takes about 10-15 minutes each way. You’ll be walking on corals and rocks with some of them being submerged under water. It’s highly recommended you wear flip flops or sandals for this hike.
We were lucky when we went because it was low tide so when it came time to cross the water towards Nan Madol, the water was only knee deep.
Apparently, during hide tide, the water can be as high as chest deep for many people.
Exploring Nan Madol
To be honest, Nan Madol was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Exploring the central area takes only 10-15 minutes. If you take your time taking pictures, you will probably only spend 30-45 minutes.
One of the reason the ruins appeared smaller is because most of it is submerged underwater. You would need to dive to actually explore the ruins in greater detail.
The guide will also take you the outer edge of the ruins after you had your fill of exploring the central area.
Regardless, I was satisfied with this mini-adventure and we headed back to our vehicle.
Don’t let the locals treat your wounds
On the way back, Karen stubbed her toe on a jagged coral and her feet started bleeding. The tour guide took some plant and spat on it then applied it all over Karen’s feet.
Karen immediately got paranoid that she contracted Hepatitis A or B from this obvious unsanitary way of treating her wounds.
When she came back to Canada, she got it checked by a doctor and it was okay, but it’s still scary for that to happen.
Don’t listen to the locals about airport departure time
Micronesians are very relaxed and chill people. This is mostly a good thing when you’re interacting with them. But, this is a very bad thing when getting their advice on what time you should be at the airport by.
With about 1 hour and 45 minutes before our flight leaves, we check in the airport and began going through immigration. As soon as we checked in, they closed the check in counter at 1 hour and 30 minutes before departure time. Originally, the tour company advised us that we can go to the airport 1 hour before our flight leaves.
If we listened to him, we would have been denied boarding for sure!
Make sure you don’t listen to locals about this and be at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight departs!
Key takeaway information
- 7 Stars Inn price for Deluxe Room – $99.75 USD tax included (highly recommended hotel, comfortable room and excellent restaurant food) Their website is at http://7starsinn.fm/ – you need to book by email.
- Nan Madol tour – $50 USD per person if you travel in 4’s. You can meet other travellers in the hotel lobby and ask them if you can book the tour together. Otherwise, it’s $70 USD per person for 2 people or $95 for one person. Water is included in the tour.
- Make sure you’re at the airport 2 hours before departure, don’t listen to the locals.
- Pohnpei departure tax is $20 USD
Overall, we had a great time in Pohnpei. I can actually see this place as a good place to stay for an entire week. Besides Nan Madol, you can do many hikes and see many World War 2 sites. The local food is also quite good and it has a nice relaxing vibe to it.
Travelling in Micronesia has been a neat adventure. I definitely love visiting places that doesn’t see much tourist. There’s something more raw and authentic about the experience and my inner adventurer loves every minute of it.