My first impression of Yap was a great one; upon clearing immigration a topless woman (slightly covered by a grass and flower necklace) put a beautiful hand woven lei around my neck. Getting lei’d within ten minutes of arrival is definitely a first for me!
Yap is in the Western Carolines, half-way between Guam and Palau, and is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. Micronesia is an independent sovereign island nation and an Associated State of the US. Micronesia consists of four states including Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae while Yap is composed of the main islands of Yap, Gagil-Tomil, Map, and Rumung. The state stretches east for another ~1,200 kilometers and includes another 134 outer islands and low-lying atolls. Although Yap state covers a lot of territory, its land area is only 120 square kilometers. Yap is primarily known for its stone money and scuba diving, the highlight of which is their Manta Ray feeding area.
I had pre-booked a room at the E.S.A. Bay View Hotel which was one of the cheaper options in Colonia at $66 per night plus an early check-in the first night of $44. They included a free return transfer from/to the airport in that price and given the few budget options available in Colonia, it was a reasonable price to pay. Upon arriving and checking in I immediately crashed out with the plan to sleep in as late as possible. When I finally woke up, I was impressed to see a beautiful view of the bay from outside my room. The sky was blue, Yap’s hilltops were green, and I was excited to get out and explore. Unfortunately, by the time I was dressed and ready to go, a torrential rain storm began out of nowhere. I watched out the window while sheets of rain crashed into the bay even though it appeared like there were still blue skies everywhere except for right above me. Thankfully, the rain storm was short and I was soon on my way.
Yap reminds me of most other developing tropical countries. Buildings were either built out of timber, sticks, and leaves or shipping containers, lumber, and corrugated tin. One thing unique to Yap that I immediately appreciated was the stone money placed in front of many of the homes and businesses in Colonia. Stone money is essentially a historical currency, essentially large calcite rocks with a hole in the middle, which still holds value to the Yapese today. The value of each stone is based on both its size and history, with many of the stones having been brought from other islands as far away as New Guinea, but usually from Palau. Approximately 6,500 of them are scattered around the island and it was very cool to see, especially since I have a large interest in currencies and finance.
As I began walking towards town I found everything oddly quiet and I was disappointed that every shop I passed was closed. I later realized it was a Sunday, and from all of the churches and Jesus signage I saw around I assume missionaries arrived and declared Sunday a holy day long ago, thus the lack of action.
I walked to the Yap Pacific Divers Resort where the helpful receptionist agreed to arrange a dive trip for me the next day. Since the dive crew was currently out, I just gave her my room number and she said she would call me in the next morning. As the Tourism Bureau and all other shops were closed I also asked her if there were any activities I could do that afternoon and she suggested hiking to the radio towers for a view over the island. The hike goes up the hill from the Yap Pacific Divers Resort, veers right at the branch on the pavement, and then continues up a dirt road past a number of small villages to the radio towers. Because of the short but torrential rain earlier, the dirt road was extremely muddy and I was sweating buckets due to the heat and humidity. Wishing I had carried water with me, I finally made it to the top and was rewarded with nice views over Colonia and around the island. I also saw a relic from World War II, which I assume was a Japanese artillery canon. The vegetation and jungle is so dense on Yap that I imagine there are overgrown relics all over the island which are no longer visible. At one point on the road, I barely saw another artillery canon which was hidden due to the overgrowth.
Hot, sweaty, and desperate for water I returned to town and discovered a small mini-market which was open to provide me with water, snacks, and $5 WiFi cards for the FSTMC network, which provides internet access at $0.08/MB. Returning to my room at the E.S.A. Bay View Hotel, exhausted from walking in the heat, I checked my e-mail, did some work, watched some movies and generally relaxed, looking forward to my dive trip the next morning.
As promised, at 8am I received a phone call from Yap Pacific Dives advising that they would pick me up at 8:30am. Frankie, one of the boat crew, picked me up and took me to the dive shop where he got me sorted with my rental kit and we waited for the rest of the group. Frankie asked if I had tried the local betel nut yet and offered me a sample. He said there were a few different ways of doing it, but his way involved cracking the nut, putting lime (calcium hydroxide) and cigarette tobacco between the halves, then putting the nut back together and “chewing” it (I simply clenched it between my teeth). Although people often call the nut a betel but, it’s actually an areca nut (seed of the areca palm) which is often wrapped in betel leaves. It seems like in most of the world the preparation includes wrapping betel leaves around the areca nut so Frankie’s style was a little different, but since it was my first experience trying the areca nut it was all new to me. I was skeptical about putting powdered lime in my mouth but Frankie assured me that as long as I did not swallow any saliva and spat as often as I could I would be fine, so of course I had to give it a try. The flavour was that of tobacco and bitterness, but I could definitely feel a nicotine-like energy boost that reminded me of the effect Swedish snuss had on my mental state. For those who haven’t tried snuss the mental euphoria is similar to that of a strong cup of coffee. Although I would definitely still prefer a strong morning espresso, after chewing the betel nut I was definitely awake and eager to dive.
Our dive team included three friendly locals to operate the boat and guide, a German couple, a Danish family of which one dove and the rest snorkeled, and myself. It was a good group size for diving and I was happy that I would not have another bad dive experience due to huge groups and poor organization like I experienced on the Great Barrier Reef. After a long boat ride out through the mangroves we reached our first dive site, a Manta Cleaning Station in Miil Channel. The Manta Rays travel up and down the channel to be picked free of parasites by bi-color cleaner wrasse, Micronesian wrasse, and three-spot Dasycllus. We spent nearly an hour watching Mantas circle over the cleaning station, hiding behind tall coral whenever they approached to avoid scaring them away. There was a really funny fish with huge buck teeth that kept noisily chomping away on the corals in front of me the whole time so even when I could not see the Mantas I was still entertained.
Although the visibility was low due to all of the floating plankton, I still loved seeing the majestic mantas slowly circle around. Upon returning to the boat we asked our dive crew if they had documented or named the Mantas and they said they had not but Manta Ray Bay Resort had. Manta Rays have unique markings on their undersides which can be used for identification, almost like human thumb prints. Later, the German couple mentioned to me they wish they had stayed and dove with Manta Ray Bay Resort rather than Yap Pacific Divers Resort for both the quality of the diver operation and quality of the hotel. I just mention this as their review and comparison may help you, my reader, in deciding on your own dive resort or hotel on Yap (I will also personally recommend the ESA Bay View Hotel if you’re looking for a more budget option).
Our next dive site was called Vertigo, a shallow dive with a huge cliff drop. The water was a beautiful blue colour and the visibility was fantastic, offering the perfect opportunity for viewing Black Tip Reef Sharks. I really enjoyed the Vertigo dive and saw lots of beautiful fish and sharks, many of which seemed curious of us and swam very close.
In total, the two tank dives cost $120 plus $30 for the gear rental. As is common in the Pacific Islands, a 3% surcharge was applied for using a visa which brought the grand total of my two dives to $154.50. That is much more than I’d usually pay for two dives but given the quality of the scuba diving in Yap I certainly do not mind paying for it!
The Germans on my boat recommended Oasis Restaurant for dinner so that is where I walked that evening for dinner. Unfortunately, the Oasis Restaurant was closed due to a gas shortage on the island so I continued on to their next recommendation, Manta Ray Bay Resort’s MNUW Crow’s Nest bar and restaurant. MNUW is cool because it is actually located on a boat behind the Manta Ray Bay dive resort. I started with a couple pints of their local Stone Money Brewing Company tap beer and then enjoyed their wonderful “fish of the day” for dinner. The meal was delicious and filling but after a couple more beers I was hungry again and also ordered a couple of fish tacos which were both delicious and great value.
While seated at the bar I met a nice American family who were on holiday from a naval base in Japan. We had a short but interesting chat about some of the islands in the pacific and their military history but before long the Dive Resort started a documentary film, projected on to a screen mounted on the MNUW’s mast, all about manta rays. The documentary was definitely interesting, especially since I had just seen Manta Rays that morning, but I was tired and ready for sleep so before long I paid my bill and walked back to my ESA Hotel room for some much needed rest.
On my last day in Yap I was interested in doing some sort of cultural tour. I walked to the tourist office, hoping it was open, to ask them about if they could recommend any sorts of island tours or cultural activities. I expected them to offer some sort of expensive private tour to me but instead, they seemed surprised by my question. I’m not sure what sort of tourist office has no suggestions or offerings for tourists, but they simply directed me to the Manta Ray Bay Resort to enquire with them about tours. As directed, I walked to the Manta Ray Bay Resort Hotel and once again asked the receptionist about tours but unfortunately she also told me they did not have any tours that day. Disappointed that I would not have an opportunity to learn more about Yap and its stone money, I set out on a long walk around Colonia. Before long it started to get very hot and I was not finding much of interest so I returned to the ESA Hotel for a nap and to watch a movie in my room. Apparently, scuba diving is the main tourist activity on the island, though I suspect with some advanced arrangement the Manta Ray Bay Resort or Tourist Office would be able to line-up some sort of private tour.
That afternoon, I returned to the MNUW’s “Crow’s Nest” bar for some more delicious Stone Money beers. Luckily, several staff from the dive resort, including the owner, Bill, were seated at the bar and I had some great conversation to go along with my delicious beers. I learned that Bill set-up a 600 liter microbrewery at the Manta Ray Bay Hotel which is operated by a Swiss brewmaster named Freddy. Apparently, they import their grains and hops from the Czech Republic and Germany and the beers definitely have a nice European Lager flavor. I tried a few pints of the Stone Money Brewing Company’s “Hammerhead Amber” and “Manta Gold” as well as a combination of the two which they call a “Texas Two Step” (I suspect Bill is originally from Texas). The island talk included speculation as to when the gas supplies were going to arrive as well as what type of boat engines they should purchase to reduce fuel consumption.
As the night progressed I met a number of interesting people including an American fellow who normally lived in Indonesia but had just returned from a three week adventure where he helped install communications equipment on a small island near Yap. He and his colleague quickly dug into a burger and several beers which suggests to me they had been living on rice, beans, and whatever they could catch from their boat for the last several weeks. One of the things I love about traveling to remote, unique destinations is that you usually meet some unique and interesting characters!
I enjoyed a plate full of delicious fish tacos at the MNUW, said my good-byes to the many wonderful people I met, and then walked over to O’Keefe’s for a quick drink and some live music which I had seen advertised the day before. The live music was definitely happening but the bar was empty so after my gin and tonic (which was poured as a gin & Fanta, presumably because they had no tonic) I returned to my hotel for a few hours of sleep before my early morning flight.
My shuttle to the airport, arranged through the ESA Hotel, was waiting in the parking lot at the time I was told and clearing customs and security was a breeze. The Yap airport does not have an x-ray machine so they actually had to open and manually search my backpack. I’ve had my bag searched before, but this was the first time they had to do so because the airport did not have an x-ray machine! Having been disappointed by the fact I was unable to do a cultural tour, I was happy to see that the departures waiting area contained a large wooden story board depicting many aspect of Yapese culture, including their stone money.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed my trip to Yap, especially the scuba diving and food / beers at the Manta Ray Bay Resort. Three days was enough time for me on the island as a solo backpacker, but I imagine if I was with some other divers or friends I could easily spend more time on Yap scuba diving and sightseeing.