Yap is one of four states in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean located between the Philippines and Hawaii and south of the island of Guam, a US Territory. It is also one of the least visited countries in the world. The FSM is part of the archipelago of the Caroline Islands, a scattered group of islands that were included in a UN Trust Territory under US protection after WWII. Whereas many of them are still US territories and protectorates, the four states of Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap and Kosrae form the FSM that drew a Constitution in 1979 and became an independent country in 1986.
Palau also decided to be an independent country and used to be the world’s youngest country until South Sudan was formed in 2011. Their remoteness and the limited amount of travelers who visit, is the reason why I am fascinated by this part of the world. After having traveled through the South Pacific extensively, from the Solomon Islands to Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, American Samoa, French Polynesia and The Cook Islands, I wanted to explore the North Pacific. Yap is the Micronesian state known for its culture and its traditions. It is believed to be mystical and to have the best preserved cultural values. Women walk around bare chested wearing grass skirts and traditional skills are all still very much part of Yapese life. A part of the main island even decided to remove the bridge connecting it to the rest of the land to limit any contact with civilization. Read on to find out what to do in Yap.
The history of Yap
It is believed that the earliest settlers to arrive in Yap came from Indonesia and the Philippines a few centuries BC although evidence suggests that the Outer Islands were instead populated by descendants from Melanesia or of Polynesian origin.
The Western world only discovered Yap in the 16th century when a Portuguese explorer stumbled upon it. Dutch, Spanish, American and British explorers, all of which claimed ownership, visited the islands afterwards but never dared interfere with the locals. After a massacred missionary group disappeared at the beginning of the 18th century, no other settlers established presence until a German expedition set up a trading station. Shortly after, an American of Irish descent, O’Keefe, was shipwrecked and rescued by the Yapese and began his famous trading of stone money for sea cucumber and other produce expanding commercial links between the islands.
In 1874, Spain claimed Yap and the following years were filled with disagreements between Germany and Spain which the Pope finally resolved granting ownership to Spain but commercial rights to Germany. But Spain finally sold Yap and the rest of the remaining Pacific colonies to Germany in 1899 who governed the area until WWI when the Japanese attacked and conquered Yap with the help of the British allies. The Treaty of Versailles gave Japan control over all the islands north of the Equator, including Yap. Japan maintained control until WWII and made Yap one of their naval bases in the Pacific.
When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the US took control over Yap and the island remained under a UN Trust government until the approval of a Constitution in 1978 and the final independence and the creation of the Federated States of Micronesia together with Kosrae, Chuuk and Pohnpei in 1986.
Yap’s Stone Money
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Yap is its Stone Money, or Ray (whale in Yapese). They are limestone disks with a hole in the middle that were quarried and carved in Palau centuries ago in sizes that range from seven centimeters to 12 feet in diameter and which are used as currency.
It is believed that a Yapese expedition found limestone in Palau in the 15th century. As this was a rock which they lacked and which they found very beautiful, it was found to be very valuable, so the expedition resorted to mining and carving it, first into whale shapes and then into more practical disks with a hole that was big enough for a pole to go through and facilitate transportation.
In exchange, Palau was paid in beads, coconut meal and copra or in the form of services. Once quarried, the stones had to be towed back to Yap on ancient canoes and rafts. The beauty, the time and effort invested into carving and transporting the stones, as well as the number of people who died in its creation, determined the value of each piece, and not its size. Local legend also holds that the Irish-American O’Keefe, who was shipwrecked near Yap, helped the locals acquire stones, but that the use of tools that he facilitated had an inflationary effect and the stones acquired after his arrival are of lower value.
Given the value of stone money, it is not used in day-to-day transactions. Instead, their ownership was, and still is, transferred as a result of large settlements such as dowries, disagreements between villages or land acquisition. As the stones are too heavy and delicate to move, ownership is agreed to be transferred and recorded in oral history, but the stones don’t change hands, much like moving balances in electronic bank statements. In fact, the most valuable of the stone money is a large and beautiful piece that ended up at the bottom of the ocean after the raft that was transporting it back had to be released when the boat hit a deadly storm. As the account of all the passengers reported and agreed to its value, the rest of the population did too, although nobody, not even its owner, ever saw it. Perhaps the Yapese already started to use the same virtual system used today in so many transactions, like stock ownership where a simple paper certifies we own something we have never seen. If only everyone believes in the existence and value of something, that suffices it as such.
Yap stone money has been a fascinating topic for economists around the world given its parallelisms with modern day virtual currency use. Economist and Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman wrote a famous book “Money Mischief” in 1992 which opens with “Yap’s Stone Money” example and which was based on Furness’s book from 1910 titled “The island of the stone money”. In it, the importance that stone money had and still has in Yap as well as the irrelevance of its physical ownership are best expressed with an example from the German colonialism times, after they acquired the islands from the Spanish in 1898.
Here’s an extract: “There are no wheeled vehicles on Yap and, consequently, no cart roads; but there have always been clearly defined paths communicating with the different settlements. When the German Government assumed the ownership of the Caroline Islands, after the purchase of them from Spain in 1898, many of these paths or highways were in bad condition. The chiefs of the several districts were told that they must have them re-paired and put in good order. The roughly dressed blocks of coral were, however, quite good enough for the bare feet of the natives; and many were the repetitions of the command, which still remained unheeded”.
“At last it was decided to impose a fine for disobedience on the chiefs of the districts. In what shape was the fine to be levied? At last, by a happy thought, the fine was exacted by sending a man to every failu and pabai throughout the disobedient districts, where he simply marked a certain number of the most valuable fei [stone money] with a cross in black paint to show that the stones were claimed by the government. This instantly worked like a charm; the people, thus dolefully impoverished, turned to and repaired the highways to such good effect from one end of the island to the other, that they are now like park drives. Then the government dispatched its agents and erased the crosses. Presto! The fine was paid, the happy failus resumed possession of their capital stock, and rolled in wealth” (pp. 93, 96-100).
In modern day Yap, stone money is usually placed around the village’s Meeting House or along pathways as a symbol of pride and wealth. No new stones have been carved since the beginning of the 20th century when this practice was abandoned as extraction and transport became easy and the value of the stones decreased until they were not valuable anymore. The Japanese occupation, after they acquired the Caroline Islands from the Germans, meant that a lot of the remaining stones were used as anchors for boats, for construction or destroyed, especially during WWII when Yap was repeatedly bombed by the American Allied Forces for almost a year.
Yap today and its tourism industry
The main island of Yap where most of the 4,500 visitors stay is made of four islands interconnected by boat or bridges, but there are another 130 islands to be explored. Most of the roads in Yap are in good shape but a lot of coral top roads still remain and the continuous rains in this tropical nation make for muddy paths away from the main two roads. One of the four islands, Rumung, has decided to cut all contact with Western civilisation and have even removed the bridge that connected them to the rest of Yap.
Tourism infrastructure and businesses are mostly limited to the diving industry and well-marked WWII relics. There are no other tours available and, at present, no cultural center where one can watch the traditional dance or local skills although this may change in the near future. The vast majority of the visitors will have a schedule packed full with dives and relax by the pool or bar otherwise. If you want to explore the island, your resort might offer a two or four hour tour of the main sights, or you can rent a car and DIY, which is what I did. As there are no real guides on Yap, a tour will consist of a driver rather than someone able to share any knowledge.
The Tourism Office is located above O’Keefe’s and Manta Ray Bay Hotel and you can pop by to learn more about WWII as there is an expert on the team, or find out about any local events.
The Federated States of Micronesia’s most mystical and traditional island comes alive during the island festivals when colourful grass skirts and flower head pieces adorn the locals as they dance to the beat of the music. If you are not visiting during the festivals your discoveries about local culture will be limited to what you can find out from the locals who are friendly enough.
Seeing bare chested women walking the streets or welcoming visitors at the airport is not a strange sight and during my short four day stay I saw them a couple of times. In case you were wondering, nobody cares to stare.
Things to do in Yap
Almost all visitors to Yap will come for diving and, in particular, for the mantas. As one of the top manta diving destinations in the world, Yap provides almost guaranteed sightings in the calm and easy waters inside the reef. Boat rides to the manta point are a short 15-20min through mangroves and quiet waters and the sightings happen just above you so it is a good place for the most novice of divers. Despite diving, which is the number one and exclusive reason most of the 4,500 visitors come to Yap, the island is well known in Micronesia for being the most mystical and culturally rich of the four states. Stone money and bare chested women roaming the streets are a fascinating reminder of Micronesia’s tribal past.
Diving in Yap
The majority of the visitors to Yap will spend their time exclusively underwater. Yap’s main appeal are the mantas and the sharks but watching mating Mandarin fish is also very popular.
A large group of mantas amounting 60-70 are seen in Yap’s waters almost every day making sightings practically guaranteed even if you are visiting on the shortest of trips (3 nights). The manta cleaning station lies just off the northern west part of the island and is accessed from Colonia by boat through the lush mangroves. Once you get to the point, dive guides will place each diver at a specific spot from which you won’t move for the entire bottom time. Mantas come by, swim above you, dance under water and get cleaned at the cleaning station. Photos of divers just under large 2-3 meter mantas are the most recognizable image of Yap.
Aside from manta rays, which can be seen year round, the sheer vertical reef drops just outside the main reef provide great opportunities for shark action. Vertigo point is a famous dive site where dozens of black and grey tip reef sharks swim around the boat as soon as divers arrive and stay under water for as long as the bottom time lasts. I spent almost an hour there swimming with small 1-2m reef sharks that were not shy or scared of humans and provided a very relaxing and soothing company and many photograph opportunities. Visibility at Vertigo is incredibly good with crystal clear waters even when the surface waves reach 1-2 meters high and the seas are rough.
Other large pelagic fish and marine life can also be spotted in Yap including turtles, lots of sharks and even a whale shark which we saw from the boats as we were returning from Vertigo. The rich reefs are also great dive spots.
In season, evening dives at sunset are a great chance to see the mating Mandarin fish. These colorful small fish mate in the evening several times every night just for a few seconds, a spectacle of nature.
Yap has practically no beaches, instead, lush and thick protected mangroves offer a great opportunity for kayaking. This is a good way to have a different perspective on the island on a non-diving afternoon or a departure day. As there is minimal boat traffic, the mangroves are in excellent state and have sometimes grown into beautiful tunnels.
If there is someone in your party who does not dive, snorkeling is also possible on Yap. The reefs are shallow and the waters inside the reef are quiet enough for swimming.
Trekking the cross-island Tamilyong trail
This is a 5,5km long trail that crosses the island east to west. It is easily walked and even ran but beware of the muddy and slippery terrain. The trail has a lookout point up hill, which provides views over the island, although the hilly terrain prevents you from seeing the sea. You will most likely find yourself alone through the overgrown jungle. A good reminder that Yap is an almost pristine and untouched island with little development and a population of less than 10,000.
Road tripping around the island’s sightseeing sites
The best way to explore the island is by renting a car and getting a map from either your resort of the Tourism Office, above O’Keefe’s and Manta Ray Bay Resort. The speed limit on the entire Yap is only 25 miles/h so you will be driving at a very leisurely pace. Although this may seem incredibly slow, outside of the main road, this speed is almost unavoidable as the roads are coral top and muddy and you won’t be able to drive faster anyway. You will be best off renting a 4×4 although we had a simple small Toyota car and were just fine.
Driving along all the roads and paths in Yap should take you less than a day. Get a packed lunch from the hotel and your swimming suit and head north to the only part of Yap with a narrow beach by the now defunct Village View Resort. As all the land in Yap is privately owned, make sure to request access to the locals if you are entering private property. You can also get a tour from Manta Ray Bay Resort that could cover all the below, it is customized so just let them know where you would like to go. My experience is that you just get a driver, not a guide, that is, the person taking you around cannot tell you much about the places so the decision should just be on whether you want to drive or be driven. Driving is very easy as the speed limit is 25km/h or even 10km/h in the villages so it is like a leisurely tour.
If you follow the map you are given and use Google maps as a contrasting source (you can download them to be used offline) you should check out all the marked places. You should look out for the sightseeing spots mentioned here.
Stone Money bank
This is not a building or a place where the stone money is safely locked but an area next to a village with one of the highest concentration of stone money. You will find stone banks across the island, basically every time that you see an accumulation of stone disks, but the typical one the locals will refer you to is a coral-top paths that is lined up with all the stone money belonging to the xxx village. They come in all sizes and the path is surrounded by a very thick jungle, palm trees, coconut trees and vegetation making it a very photogenic and beautiful place.
These are located around the island and every village will have their own. The meeting houses are for making decisions and getting together as a whole. Inside, the village chief has a sort of throne to sit at and an area in front of him for offerings. The Meeting houses are usually surrounded by oval shaped stones which were used by people to rest on while standing.
Men’s Houses or Faluws
They are usually located along the sea shore so they could be close to canoe users and to arriving guests by sea. They serve as a port, a place for the men to work and a meeting place for them to learn new skills. The Men’s Houses are obviously just for the men to meet to discuss issues, dance, practice male ceremonies and even sleep when they are unmarried. Traditionally, the older men would come every morning to meet with the younger ones and decide the day’s work. Women are not allowed in the men’s houses and you will be able to differentiate them from the village’s Meeting Houses because they have closed walls so you can’t see in from the outside.
WWII wrecks in Yap
The island of Yap suffered a year long attack by the US and Allied Forces during WWII as they were trying to contain the Japanese forces in the Pacific and so it is dotted with plane wrecks. Despite the continuous attacks on Yap, most of the wrecks were undocumented and unearthed until Patrick Ranfranz started to investigate the disappearance and death of his uncle, missing in action in 1944. Since then, he started the Missing Aircrew website and project where he documents all the American lives lost during the WWII in Yap. In coordination with the Yap Tourism Bureau, the main wrecks on land are marked on the Yap map for visitors to see and you can grab a copy of the brochure that has details on each of them from them too.
There are signs on the roads marking the road turns and commemorative plaques remembering the people who died on them. You will find mostly planes, Hellcats, Avengers, Corsairs, Helldivers and Liberators in various stages of wreckage. Over 40 of them have been found by Patrick and the team. It is an interesting if sober example of what is left from WWII in Yap.
The following are some of the best documented and easier to reach wrecks on land. The Japanese tried to build a second airfield at Gagil-Tamil but the constant bombings made it impossible so it was never completed. The original Japanese airstrip is still full of wreckages from all the planes that were shot and can easily be seen. Some were pushed into the jungle and others are still where they were left 70 years ago. Anti-arcraft guns can be found around Colonia. Although many were dismantled and destroyed, a few are still visible, look out in the hills. An F8 Corsair off Wuluu can be reached by following the turn off the main road and then driving on a narrow path that is surrounded by water and mangroves. You will have to reverse out of the path as there is no space to make a u-turn. Look out for the wooden platform that takes you all the way to the remaining wreck, there is a plaque next to it. An easy to spot one is the Ens. Cox Hellcat Site which is near Colonia and lies by the side of the road on the grounds of the Department of Public Works and Transportation
Sunset beach point
A pretty grass stretch by a mangrove in a protected area from fishing that is a good picnic spot. Great for a lazy lunch under the shaded palm trees in a very eerie and beautiful spot.
There is a Yapese proverb: “If you whisper, people will strain their ears to listen but if you shout people will shut their ears in annoyance” so when you are touring the island, respect the locals, wave, greet and be quiet.
How to get to Yap
Like with the rest of the north Pacific islands, the key airline pledging the routes is United Airlines. Yap is connected to Guam and Palau twice weekly with the flight covering the loop route between the three, thus making a combination trip between Yap and Palau a convenient option for divers. You should book ahead as the flights are always full as they are the only way for the island to be connected with the rest of the world.
Where to stay
There are only a handful of places to stay in Yap and the best two are O’Keefe’s and Manta Ray Bay resort, they both have a dive center but Manta Ray Bay is the only one with a 5 Star PADI certification.
Manta Ray Bay Resort
Manta Ray Bay Hotel is on the waterfront in the center of Colonia town and a couple of meters away from O’Keefe’s. The most memorable aspect of the hotel is Mnuw, a 55m Phinisi schooner from Indonesia with 3 dining decks, 2 bars and a kitchen that serves as a restaurant and bar. It is anchored in front of the hotel but still floating. Inside, the walls are completely covered with signed notes, stickers from all diving centers and groups in the world and flags from pretty much every country.
The hotel also has a swimming pool right by the water and a restaurant, a good place to relax outside of diving times. The owner, Bill Acker, is credited with starting and promoting diving in Yap since the beginning. He also built a micro-brewery on site which produces a dark and a light beer. Manta Ray Bay can organise a sightseeing tour of the island, help you rent a car or drop you off at their private beach which is at the northeastern tip of the island.
I stayed at Manta Ray Bay and found it to be comfortable but dated. We booked the highest category room which is one of only two ground level pools with a pavilion and a small dip pool right by the water. We paid USD400+ per night for something that was barely three star so it would be fair to say that we felt taken advantage of as this is pretty much the best and only alternative if you are looking for the best diving place.
I have stayed at many remote places, for starters, Chuuk is even more remote and has a very similar profile of visitors: divers. There, we paid less than a third for a nicer location and a similar room quality, minus the pavilion and the pool. If you stay at Manta Ray Bay, skip the lower level higher category rooms, they are not worth it. Their small garden is sparse with several of the flowers and plants not very well taken care of. The pavilion means you can’t suntan. There was only one lounger to lay on and the wooden benches around the pool are very uncomfortable. In the room, we saw several cockroaches and when I pointed out to the reception that we would like some insect spray, the answers was “Oh yeah, we have a problem with cockroaches”, not particularly what I would like to hear, ever, but less so when I was paying USD400 a night (plus diving and food).
The restaurant was nice and the food pleasant with a large selection of cocktails and dishes including pizzas but it was a pity that none of the dishes were local and that the only Yapese food you could have was a pre-ordered meal of crab with local vegetables. I would have liked to enjoy the local food more often. The restaurant is also out of beef, another strange warning we were given by the restaurant Manager. Understandably, cows do not exist in Yap, but neither do they exist on Chuuk and we still could get a steak. Breakfast was adequate with eggs made to order but if you were a bit later a lot of the items were gone.
There is internet in the lobby and the restaurant, although very slow (we were there while they were upgrading the fiber cable so it could be better in normal times) but the hotel provides wifi hotspots for the room for only USD5 so that was good value. The dive center is managed by John, who is clearly knowledgeable and has been doing this for decades. As there are only two flights a week to Yap, the hotel is organized accordingly and so you will be offered a late check out rate to stay in your room until the late night flights. Service was friendly but quite hit and miss. We organized an excursion and a car rental with the front desk and the next day when the car was supposed to be there, the person at the reception we had talked to had completely forgotten about it.
O’Keefe’s Waterfront Inn
Named after the famous explorer that changed Yap forever, O’Keefe’s is a colonially-inspired waterfront hotel with only eight rooms. It has an old feel to it, with antique looking furniture and decoration. As it is right next to Manta Ray Bay, diving with their dive shop is easy and convenient. O’Keefe’s has a heritage canteen that was opened by the famous explorer and trader right across the road from the Inn. The verandah overlooks the road and the sea in the distance and it is a good place for a drink or dinner.
Oceania Hotel is the only traditional hotel where you can still sleep in the Yapese huts on stilts which you will see in the villages and coastal areas across Yap. The hotel is up in the hill in a tropical environment that will make you feel like you are in the jungle.
Yap Pacific resort
The Yap Pacific Resort is another mid range hotel that has its own dive center. This is the second one after Manta Ray. It might be slightly nicer than Manta Ray but it is less convenient as it is not by the water. Also, technically speaking, its dive resort is not as awarded as the Manta Ray one. However, this is a much more affordable option so if you don’t feel like spending USD400 a night then this is a good alternative.
What to bring to Yap
Yap is a tropical destination and even in the dry season, frequent showers are common. If you are going diving most of the days, your clothing should be limited to comfortable shorts and t-shirts for in between dives and long pants and long sleeves for the evening if you want to have a sunset drink and not be eaten by the mosquitoes. Flip flops will do.
On the boat, you will be fully kitted with your wet suit on so you won’t even wear any clothes and, since you will most likely be back at the resort (especially if you stay at Manta Ray Bay) in between every dive, you don’t even have to bring anything onboard. I highly recommend bringing your own wet suit because you will paying for it in rental anyway. For swimming suits, the best ones are the nice but supporting ones from Rip Curl or from Roxy that won’t come off when you pull down your wet suit. If that ever happened to you (like it has to me), you will know how embarrassing that can be. I put my bikini on, walked bare feet to the dive center, put my wet suit that was hanging to dry on and jumped on the boat.
Other items that you should pack for diving are diving gloves so you can hold yourself when you go down to the manta viewing points without scratching yourself on the corals. A neoprene hat or bandana to make sure your hair does not get stuck in the corals and so you are warmer. I used to have so many issues with that and also, I was always cold. Since I bought my little hat all those issues went away. The one I suggest also has a leash to attach it to your suit in case you are not using it or if you are afraid of losing it. A dive computer is always handy. Nonetheless, the way the dives work, you are unlikely to have issues with surface interval times as there is always enough time between dives. There are countless types of dive computers but I prefer not to spend too much money on them as I only dive for fun so the basic functionalities are good. Suunto and Mares are both reputed brands.
A waterproof camera to record or take photos of those amazing mantas and sharks. If you don’t have the advanced and very professional cameras with underwater cases, lights and flashes that most of the more dedicated divers have, a GoPro will suffice, or you can get one of the iPhone 6 waterproof cases that can go down to over 40m and are a great low cost option. I found that using the red color correction filter on the GoPro will work fine as visibility is pretty good.
As a tropical vacation, other common suspects like mosquito repellent. Beware of the one I suggest because it has 40% DEET so it is highly toxic. Do not put your hands in your mouth without washing properly. This should only be used if there are a lot of mosquitoes that don’t leave you alone. Zika virus is present in Yap so that is also to be considered. I did not see a lot of mosquitoes, and I am usually bitten if there is just a stray one, so a regular repellent would do in those cases. Waterproof sunscreen and after sun should all go into your suitcase, they are a must even when you are diving all day and when the sky is cloudy. I prefer spray on sunscreen so that it is easier and faster to apply and you can ask someone else, even someone you just met, to do it for you. Hair conditioner and face moisturizer are essential for the harsh sun, sand, sea combo. If you plan to go on other trips than just diving, a dry bag will keep water off your stuff on the boats. Remember that even in the dry season it rains a lot in Yap. For the sightseeing around the islands, flip-flops or easy waterproof sandals are good. A simple pair of the Teva sandals are pretty useful and use up little space in your bag, I have had a pair for years and they are pretty sturdy and durable, and don’t look like those chunky horrible ones, no need to look ugly!
When to go
It is very important to visit Yap at the right time for various reasons. Firstly, the weather is key to your ability to dive. Although the situation under water does not relate to the weather outside, bad weather will reduce your chances of diving outside of the lagoon areas and hence, limit your chance to see the sharks and other life beyond the mantas. Even the mantas may not be so easily spotted if the weather is bad. The right month is also key if you are interested in understanding more about Yapese culture.
If you visit at any time of the year, seeing any of the dances, cultural performances or even the local skills is practically impossible, at least until the Culture Village reopens, so timing your visit with one of the country’s festivals is worth it. However, there is no perfect month to visit where the sun is shining, the wind is not blowing and the rain is appeased. I would recommend March as the best month. It is dry, the winds slow down, the humidity is low so you are not sweating, and Yap Day is in this month so you get it all. For more details on the best time to visit Yap, head over to the Manta Ray Bay website where they have a month by month guide on temperatures, weather and events. Beyond March, the rain takes over from the wind so from May to September it is rainy but the seas are calmer so if you are going to Yap for diving, these are the best months, don’t expect to do much more than that as the weather will not allow.
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