How to Plan a Trip to Pukapuka
The remotest of all of the Cook Islands, Pukapuka is as far as you can get from Rarotonga. It’s closer, in fact, to its South Pacific cousins of Tokelau and Samoa whose cultures have an influence. The result is an interesting way of life with the island having its own unique language, as well as a much stronger sense of community than in the rest of the Cook Islands. On Pukapuka, you won’t just be looked after by your host; you’ll be looked after by everyone.
The nature of Pukapuka astounds any who comes here with three gorgeous islands surrounding a shallow azure lagoon of only around 5km² (3mi²). What makes it more special is that the locals look after it too, living on different islands for two to three months at a time in order for nature to recover.
So how can you visit Pukapuka? Find out about how to get there, where to stay, what/how to eat and things to do, in this complete travel guide to Pukapuka.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pukapuka
We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about Pukapuka in the Cook Islands, so we won’t waste any time in this Pukapuka travel guide giving you the answers to the questions that most travellers have about visiting.
Where is Pukapuka?
Pukapuka is located in the Northern Group of the Cook Islands, approximately 1,324km (823 miles) northwest of the nation’s capital, Rarotonga. The Cook Islands is located in the South Pacific, which you can learn more about in Where are the Cook Islands Located?
What is Pukapuka Famous For?
Pukapuka is famous for being an atoll so remote that it has its own language called Pukapukan, distinct from Cook Islands Maori which is spoken across the rest of the Cook Islands. Historically, the islands here were legendary among sailors for their “beautiful women”.
What Language Does Pukapuka Speak?
The language of Pukapuka is “Pukapukan” locally known as “Te Leo Wale” meaning “the language of home”. Although it’s still up for debate where Pukapukan originates, the language is thought to have influences from Kiribati, Tokelau, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and even the Takuu Atoll in Papua New Guinea. Pukapukan has minor intelligibility with Cook Islands Maori. Learn more about the language in What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?
What is the Population of Pukapuka?
The population of Pukapuka is around 475 people.
Why is Pukapuka Called Danger Island?
Pukapuka was called “Danger Island” after two British ships, one containing the famous navigator John Byron, sighted the atoll but couldn’t land on the islands due to the high surf. He named the atoll the “Islands of Danger”, which stuck with still some calling it “Danger Island”.
How to Get to Pukapuka
Pukapuka has an airstrip on one of the islands, Motu Ko, receiving infrequent flights from Rarotonga. The atoll is also visited by an even less frequent cargo boat, also from Rarotonga.
Flights to Pukapuka
Flights to Pukapuka are available with the sole domestic airline of the Cook Islands. Although there are no scheduled flights to Pukapuka, travellers can arrange private charters to Pukapuka or as part of Northern Group tour packages where you’ll stay one night on each island visited. Flights in propeller planes take approximately 4h30mins from Rarotonga, while private charter flights typically take 2h30mins. Find out more about flying in the Cook Islands with our guide, Domestic Flights in the Cook Islands: Your Guide to Interisland Flights.
Cargo Ships to Pukapuka
Very patient travellers with a lot of time on their hands can take the arduous journey from Rarotonga to Pukapuka via a cargo ship. Cargo ships depart for the island once every 2.5 months but are often delayed and impossible to plan around. Voyages take several days, depending on which islands are visited first. Find out more about cargo ships in our Cook Islands Cargo Ship Guide: How to Use the Ferry for Interisland Travel in the Cook Islands.
Getting Around Pukapuka
Getting around Pukapuka solely relies on what your host can organise. There is no public transport or taxis. Your host will meet you at the airport on Motu Ko and transfer you to your accommodation via boat, taking approximately 45 minutes to reach Wale, the main island of Pukapuka.
Wale is the only island large enough to perhaps need transport. Your host can organise a scooter or bicycle to get around if needed. Otherwise, the other islands (and Wale, to be fair) are small enough to explore on foot.
Getting between islands requires boat transport, which can, again, be organised by your host. Local guides can be arranged to give you an informal tour of the lagoon, or they can operate similar to a water taxi, giving you all the time you want on an island or at a snorkelling spot before moving onto the next spot.
For more advice on planning your travels to Pukapuka, check out the Northern Cook Islands Transport Guide: 9 Ways to Get to (& Around) the Northern Group.
Where to Stay on Pukapuka
Visitors to Pukapuka usually stay in the island’s guesthouse. If there are more people on the island than the guesthouse can facilitate, then the nearby Island Administration building is opened up for guests.
There is one guesthouse on the island of Wale that is set aside for visitors. It sits in the village of Ngake close to a lagoon-facing beach. The guesthouse is, understandably, basic in its facilities but comfortable enough. Each of the four guest rooms has twin single beds, sleeping up to eight people in total. Guests share communal areas, such as a bathroom with cold water, a lounge and a kitchen. While you will have access to electricity, note that there is no WiFi (see notes on WiFi in the “Information, Services and Shops on Pukapuka” section below).
Eating and Drinking on Pukapuka + The Cost of Accommodation
All meals are provided for guests, where the local community come together to provide you with a buffet of local dishes, as well as drinking coconuts (nu). Drinking water is available via filtered rainwater, but it’s best to take the precautions noted in our guide, Is the Water Safe to Drink in the Cook Islands?
Expect the price of accommodation on Pukapuka to be around NZ$150 per night including all meals.
Island Administration Accommodation
If there are more guests on the island, a building is opened at the Island Administration where guests will receive the same treatment of being well-fed and cared for while on the island.
See how the accommodations compare to some of the guesthouses in the other outer islands in the 5 Best Guesthouses in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Things to Do on Pukapuka
For such small islands and lagoon, Pukapuka has a ton of amazing landscapes to explore. Culture and nature blend together quite nicely and is all part of the Pukapukan experience.
10 Best Things to Do on Pukapuka
- Walk along the reef between Wale and Motu Ko
- Relax on Wale’s Sandbank
- Experience an island church service
- Visit the bird island of Motu Kotawa
- Snorkel among colourful coral banks
- Take a trip to the Toka Sandbank
- Visit the local school, Pukapuka’s Niua School
- Try some of the sweetest taro in the South Pacific
- Learn about “Ra’ui” which allows sustainable living on the island
- Visit the island of Nassau.
1. Walk Along the Reef Between Wale and Motu Ko
The waters on the reef between Wale in the north and Motu Ko in the south are extremely shallow at low tide, making for a fun walk with appropriate reef shoes. Hell, sometimes even the island’s bulldozers use the reef to get between islands! The walk is approximately 4.5km (2.8 miles) and passes the wreck of an old Chilean container ship.
2. Relax on Wale’s Sandbank
Just off the northern tip of Wale is a gorgeous sandbank with just a few palm trees. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset.
3. Experience a Church Service
Like all of the inhabited islands in the Cook Islands, Pukapuka has a selection of Christian denomination churches where the singing on a Sunday (or Saturday for Seventh-Day Adventists) is a wonderful experience. There’s the CICC Church near the jetty on Wale, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church on the way to Ngake and the Catholic Church on the southern road through Ngake.
4. Visit the Bird Island of Motu Kotawa
Motu Kotawa is a bird nesting site and a stunning place to explore white-sand beaches. Where the boat docks, you’ll notice a few thatched huts where islanders live when there isn’t a “Ra’ui” protection in place.
5. Snorkel Among Colourful Coral Banks
Pukapuka offers fantastic snorkelling, where locals with boats are happy to take you out. They’ll often take you to coral banks along the edge of the lagoon’s reef, as well as that run through the lagoon. With the locals having a good understanding of conservation, the coral and abundance of fish are colourful and thriving.
6. Take a Trip to the Toka Sandbank
A gem in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Toka is a sandbank that lies outside of the Pukapuka Lagoon. If the weather conditions are right, local boaties can take you out to discover this tranquil patch of sand. The journey is an approximately 30-minute boat ride from Wale.
7. Visit the Local School
Children on Pukapuka are always excited to have visitors on the island. The local school is Pukapuka Niua School where school visits can be arranged by your host. Gifts of stationery supplies are always appreciated.
8. Try the Sweetest Taro in the South Pacific
Pukapukans pride themselves on the crops grown on the islands, especially taro that locals claim are the sweetest in the South Pacific due to the special way they store them. You’ll likely have a taste during the meals at your accommodation.
9. Learn How the Locals Live Sustainably (and Liberally)
The people of Pukapuka are fascinating to learn from as their culture and sense of community is much different from the other islands in the Cook Islands. Plus, they have a sustainable ethos to make sure that the islands keep on providing. This is done by establishing nature protection periods on the islands, called “ra’ui” to allow nature to recover.
10. Visit the Island of Nassau
Another one of the Cook Islands, Nassau, can only be visited via boat from Pukapuka. Check out The Complete Travel Guide to Nassau for more details on what this adventure entails!
Information, Services and Shops on Pukapuka
It’s important to know what Pukapuka does (and doesn’t) have so that you come fully prepared.
What Pukapuka doesn’t have are shops and ATMs. The locals get supplies out of shipping containers, so should there be anything that you really need, you can ask your host who could possibly source it for you. But when it comes to personal items, cash (bring plenty with you in New Zealand Dollars), medication, hygiene products, your favourite snack, snorkelling gear, sunscreen, etc. etc. it’s best to bring it with you.
WiFi and Post Office on Pukapuka
There are two WiFi hotspots, one by the Island Administration area in Ngake village (Wale) and one at the Vodafone and post office, further inland. Learn more about connecting to Vodafone hotspots using How to Get Internet & WiFi in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Hospital on Pukapuka
Pukapuka has a hospital/medical centre that is soon to be (if not already) newly renovated. Opening hours for doctor’s appointments are from Monday to Friday, 9am to 12pm and 1pm to 4pm. You can find the hospital, like most of the island’s limited services, in the administration centre in Ngake village, Wale.
More About Pukapuka and the Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete travel guide to Pukapuka in the Cook Islands. For more less-explored islands to visit, check out the following guides:
- The Complete Travel Guide to Manihiki
- The Complete Travel Guide to Penrhyn
- The Complete Travel Guide to Rakahanga
- The Complete Travel Guide to Nassau
- The Complete Travel Guide to Suwarrow
- The Complete Travel Guide to the Southern Cook Islands
Finally, plan the rest of your Cook Islands expedition using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide and the 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.