Papua New Guinea and its offshore islands evoke a sense of wonder, just by the very nature of their remote location. Situated in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, the country shares the world’s second largest island with Indonesia. There’s no other place on the planet where you can so completely immerse yourself in isolated wilderness and diverse indigenous cultures.
The islands that make up New Guinea are believed to have been settled over 40,000 years ago by the Melanesians, and boast more than 700 different tribes and native tongues. The majority of the population live in rural, isolated regions without contact between one another or the outside world. Without modern infrastructure, they largely depend on subsistence agriculture.
Despite this disconnect, the people of Papua New Guinea are notoriously hospitable. They welcome visitors with traditional singing and dancing and open up their homes, eager to share their culture and natural wonders with the rest of the world.
Whether you’re interested in trekking through rugged mountain ranges, bird watching in the cloud forests, cruising tropical fjords, or getting up-close to far-flung communities, the island offers a diverse array of activities for nature lovers. Check out our suggestions for the top 10 things to do in Papua New Guinea.
1) Stay in Port Moresby
As both the capital and the largest city in PNG, Port Moresby (a.k.a. Pom City) has a great deal to offer. As the entry point to the country, it’s the perfect gateway to the rest of the island, with a vibrant art scene and active nightlife. Set on the outskirts of the city, the Port Moresby Nature Park (formerly known as the National Capital Botanical Gardens) showcases numerous plant species, including 11,000 native orchids. There’s also an aviary featuring diverse birds of paradise within a former WWII military storage structure, and wildlife including wallabies and tree kangaroos.
2) Visit PNG’s First National Park
On a day trip from Port Moresby, explore Varirata National Park via a bush walk or birdwatching tour. This mountainous region sits approximately 2600 feet above sea level and offers opportunities to spot feathered beauties such as kingfishers and Raggiana bird of paradise. You may also see animals such as wallabies and deer on the park’s six well-marked hiking trails. Enjoy breathtaking views from the steep slopes of the Laloki River Valley and see the nearby Rouna Falls, which thunder down into the gorge.
3) Hike the Kokoda Trail
The remoteness of the island hasn’t spared Papua New Guinea from the ravages of war. The Battle for the Pacific between the Allied forces and the Japanese raged here during World War II. The iconic Kokoda Trail marks the site of a four-month struggle that ultimately claimed the lives of 600 Australian servicemen. The challenging hiking trail is not for the faint-hearted. The hike through the densely forested Owen Stanley Range takes 7-10 days to complete, with an elevation of 7,000 feet over 60 miles. But it’s well-worth it for the incredible views and diverse wildlife.
4) Explore the Karawari River
Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Karawari River– a tributary of the immense Sepik River– and get acquainted with the people who live in villages on the edge of the waterways in “Arambak” country. The main mode of transportation here is the dugout canoe, and there are no roads, shops, or phones to be found. The Sepik people live completely off-the-grid, weaving baskets, catching fish, cooking sago, and gathering for traditional ceremonies. Cruising down the Karawari presents views of basking crocodiles and locals paddling by with long, curved oars. Staying at the eco-friendly Karawari Lodge, which sits 300 feet above the river and is only accessible by air or water, you can admire the beautiful Sepik blue orchid along the trails.
5) Relax in Rabaul Hot Springs
Papua New Guinea is part of the Ring of Fire, a zone prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The imposing Rabaul volcano in the township of New Britain, an island off the northeastern coast, is one of the most active in the country. Inside the caldera lies the town of Rabaul, where visitors can enjoy bubbling hot springs and take in magnificent views of Blanche Bay from the observatory. Rabaul is also popular among divers, with 30 year-round scuba sites where you can see a myriad of marine life and WWII wrecks. The surrounding mountains are home to the Baining people, whose ritualistic tribal fire dances are a must-see. Wearing elaborately decorated masks, they leap and prance over crackling coals to the beat of a bamboo band to honor the deity spirits.
6) Admire Tribal Dancing on the Trobriand Islands
The Trobriand Islands are coral atolls (chain islands) off the east coast in the Milne Bay Province. In this, the world’s first polyamorous community, men and women take many lovers, giving the archipelago the nickname, “The Islands of Love.” The islanders are known for their exquisite ebony wood carvings, which are decorated with mother-of-pearl shell inlays. They also partake in energetic dances that celebrate fishing and the yam harvest season. A walk among the villages is sure to greet you with smiling faces and disputes being settled over cricket matches.
7) Discover Tufi Fjords
Sheer cliffs blanketed in lush foliage welcome visitors in the rarely visited Tufi Fjords. Known as the “Scandinavia of the Tropics,” these inlets located on the eastern shores of Papua New Guinea were formed by ancient volcanic eruptions. The fjords are surrounded by a scattered network of 250 square miles of coral reefs on one side and the Owen Stanley mountain range on the other. Soak up stunning views on a cruise through the fjords, and take time to snorkel or dive the reef to find a kaleidoscope of coral fans, barrel sponges, barracudas, parrotfish, and triggerfish.
8) Visit Local Markets in Madang
The town of Madang is situated against a backdrop of dramatic mountains (including Mount Wilhelm, the country’s tallest mountain) and surrounded by uninhabited islands on the northeast coast of PNG. Known as “the Prettiest Town in the Pacific,” Madang offers a beautiful waterfront setting. The streets are lined with casuarina trees (which are home to flying foxes), and the warm waters of the Bismarck Sea invite divers to their coral-encrusted WWII planes and shipwrecks. Art collectors can rejoice in the large selection of artifacts from the Sepik River region, which are sold at the local markets.
9) Meet the Highland Tribes of Wahgi Valley
The Leahy Brothers of Australia first made contact with the highland tribes of Wahgi Valley while prospecting for gold there in the 1930s. The Melpa people, who call these highlands home, developed advanced farming practices some 30,000 years ago. They still rely on horticultural practices passed down from past generations, and live in much the same way as their ancestors. Today, sweet potato gardening is the basis for trade in the area. On a journey to this fertile land, visitors can get to know the indigenous tribe and take a closer look at their lifestyle.
10) Learn about Conservation on Lababia Island
Lababia, an island in the Southern Huon Gulf, is a gateway to one of the most important conservation areas in PNG: the Kamiali Wildlife Management Area. The reserve was established in order to protect the natural resources of the region. It stretches for approximately 10 miles along the coastline and is comprised of pristine forests, mangroves, sandy beaches, coral reefs, and waterfalls. Leatherback turtles often come ashore to dig nests and lay eggs. The waters surrounding the island have some of the region’s most pristine marine habitats. There, you can spot massive tridacna clams and huge schools of colorful fish swimming among the vibrant coral reefs. –Lavanya Sunkara
BIO: Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and responsible traveler based in New York City. Her love of nature and adventure has taken her all over the globe. Her freelance writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Fodor’s Travel, The Dodo, and Green Global Travel. Follow her adventures on her blog, Nature Traveler.
Before an adventure in one of the world's wildest regions, it's essential that you prepare for your trip. Arguably the most important step of planning any good expedition is knowing which items to take with you and which to leave at home. With great explorers in mind, we've put together the ultimate Papua New Guinea packing guide to help you plan ahead.