My Personal Experience with Taking the Bus in Tahiti

"How hard can it be to take the bus in Tahiti?" I thought to myself. The catamaran that I was going to stay in was not anchored at Pape'ete marina. Instead, it was in the lagoon off a place called Vaira'o, in the southern part of Tahiti island. My host told me I could take the bus to Vaira'o, and he would pick me up with a dinghy.

I was not deterred even when an online search failed to reveal more information on the Tahiti bus system. I couldn't find a schedule or a route map. But hey, maybe I didn't know the right words to search with, because it would understandably be in French. Still, there wasn't even a blog article...

But, I have been in big cities where I don't speak the language, and I still managed to decipher complicated train maps. Surely, the bus map of Tahiti couldn't possibly be more complex?

The Polynesian Bus System

Out of nowhere, coffee appeared in front of me.

For a second, I stared at it, wondering how my wish for coffee could have come true while seated at the bus stop waiting for the bus to Teahupo'o. The coffee moved left, and around the side of the bus shelter emerged Jon, smiling.

"I owed you a coffee," he said, by way of explanation. He was referring to a promise he made me the previous day, but forgot to do. I took the mug happily. The coffee was no longer hot, as he had walked with it from his hostel. But coffee is coffee. I sipped gratefully.

I met Jon only a couple of days earlier, having previously agreed on the Couchsurfing site to look for Pape'ete street art together.

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What I associate the most with French Polynesia is colour. The sky was colourful with rainbows, the coral reef was colourful with life, even their pearls were colourful. Most of all, their people were surprisingly diverse, Polynesian, French, Filipino, and Chinese. They dressed in colour, and were open to outsiders with a beautiful, colourful heart. #tejainpolynesia #traveltuesday #tahiti #tahititourisme #frenchpolynesia #streetartpapeete #streetartwork #streetartandgraffiti #streetarteverywhere #streetartoftheday #colourfulart #colourfulworldpictures #colourfulworld #colourfulpeople #landofcolor #diversityisbeautiful #ilovediversity #diversityrocks #kepelbagaian #cintaiperbedaan #internationalpeople #sailorswelcome #visitorswelcome #interracial #muralsofinstagram #wordoftravel #asianabroad #mengembaralintasbenua #pengembaraan #bangsapelaut

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Over dinner, he invited me on an excursion to look around Tahiti, but I reminded him that I only had a day left before I had to go to Vaira'o.

That was when he suggested we go by bus. That way, we could kill two birds with one stone. I could find out how to get the bus to Vaira'o, and then we could go look for a waterfall he had heard of on the other side of the island.

It also meant I would have a French speaker while I tried to figure out Tahiti's bus system. Adventure + interpreter? It was a no-brainer.

Pape'ete bus information counter

You'd think that the bus station of a fairly small city like Pape'ete, would be obvious. But it wasn't. I was really lucky to have met Jon, since his French made it a lot easier to ask around for the bus station. We eventually found it, located somewhere between Pape'ete market and the City Hall (Mairie de Pape'ete).

It was really a bus information counter, rather than a central bus station. Maybe it's indicative of Tahiti's more relaxed pace of life, but the information counter is only open every other day. Not only that, even when it's open, it's only for a couple of hours!

Bus information counter in Pape'ete showing opening days and times
  1. Opening Days of Pape'ete Bus Information Counter

    Monday, Wednesday, Friday

  2. Opening Times of Pape'ete Bus Information Counter

    5-7AM, and 3-5PM

Taking the bus to the other side of Tahiti

Pape'ete, the capital of French Polynesia, lies on the northwest side of Tahiti. The island of Tahiti actually pinches at the southeast, so that there are two parts: a larger one and a smaller one. (In reality, the two parts are two separate volcanoes.) Vaira'o is on the smaller one, whereas the waterfall we were looking for is on the northeast side of the bigger one.

The information counter was, of course, closed again by the time we got started for the day. But we worked out a few things about the Tahiti bus system from the map.

  • The green category buses go on a within-Pape'ete route.
  • The other buses basically go around the island, whether completely or partially, clockwise or counterclockwise.
  • Blue ones go clockwise around Tahiti and back, but only up to Papeno'o.
  • Red ones go counterclockwise and back, but only up to Papara.
  • Only the yellow ones go all the way to the smaller portion of the island.
Pape'ete bus stop map and list of stops around Tahiti

Although technically Faarumai waterfall lies after Papeno'o, we took a bus on the blue route. Again, fluent French is an asset here. We learned from the driver that the bus actually has a rest stop at a kind of fire depot past the final stop, which is close enough to where we wanted to go.

Bus times in Tahiti

My first inkling that I might be in trouble with the bus system in Tahiti, was when I noticed no bus times against the routes. There were also no bus times listed at bus stops, not even the nice ones with seats. You have to ask at the information counter. Or, if you're a local, you just know.

I grew to realise that the difficulty with a Polynesian-style public transport system, is not about complexity. It's more that it's too relaxed.

I mean, I suspected that the times are not going to be adhered to precisely. I am, after all, Southeast Asian. We know about late buses. However, when Jon asked for how much latitude there was in the bus timing, so that we knew when we would have to be back at the fire depot to catch the bus back, we learned that it could be as wide as an hour, with a possibility of non-arrival.

A smart guy, Jon asked whether it was possible that the bus could also leave early. At least, if the uncertainty goes only in one direction, you could work with it. Just add to the travel time.

But no. The bus may leave early as well. (Although thankfully, not by an hour!)

So now you're probably thinking, omg, I gotta be early for the bus, but then also be prepared to wait as well. Well, the reason why this works on Tahiti, is that people here aren't fussy about when they arrive. If they're going somewhere that day, it's a travel day!

Getting on Tahiti's Long Distance Bus

To get to Vaira'o, I needed to take one of the buses in the yellow category, which go to the smaller portion of Tahiti. I guess you can consider them Tahiti's 'long distance bus'.

The main coastal road goes in a loop around the bigger part of Tahiti. The long distance buses all pass through Taravao, whether they go clockwise or counterclockwise. Taravao is a town at the isthmus connecting the bigger part of Tahiti to the smaller part.

From here, the road branches; one goes along the northern coast of the smaller part, and the other along the southern coast. They each have their own terminus, and do not close into a loop. So you have to make sure you're on the bus that goes to the right side of the island, at least before Taravao. (You can change at Taravao if you're not on the right one).

It's possible to work this all out from the sign at the bus information counter. But one thing was missing.

The map didn't say where you should wait for the yellow category buses.

Where to wait for the bus that goes all over Tahiti

Red bus stop near Tahiti ferry terminal

At the information counter, we enquired after the bus to Vaira'o. It was along the route to Teahupo'o, the last stop along the southern coast. We learned from the waterfall trip that the buses would have a sign on the windshield, indicating its final stop. So I would need to look out for the one that said 'Teahupo'o'.

So I asked where I should wait for that bus, indicating the map, and expecting a simple point of the finger to the right spot.

But no. The counter staff began rattling off directions in French. They were lengthy directions. I blinked, not comprehending.

Seeing me in trouble, Jon came over with a questioning look. "It seems to be tricky to find," I told him. The counter staff was making motions with his hand, attempting to underscore his instructions. Jon listened intently.

After further back and forth discourse over a map, Jon managed to gather that the right bus stop was near the Ferry Terminal, on the terminal side. And that was where I was, when Jon surprised me with coffee.

Sometimes the wrong bus is the right bus

Oh, one other thing. Yes, the buses will have a sign that gives the last stop of the bus. And yes, the bus I was meant to be on, should have said 'Teahupo'o'.

But as Jon kept me company while I waited, we noticed the bus idling in front of us had been there for a while. Its sign did not say Teahupo'o (Pae'a? or maybe Papara... started with a 'P' anyway), but it was nonetheless there at about the time my bus was supposed to be.

Jon had misgivings. He had travelled in Polynesia before, and was savvier in this region than I.

"Wait here," he said, getting up. He thought it was worth asking the driver, on the off chance that the bus is on time, but the sign is not correct. And it was a good thing he did, too!

It turned out that the usual Teahupo'o bus wasn't coming, and this bus was substituting. If I had simply let the bus leave without me, there would be no other bus until much, much later!

Tahiti bus fares

As far as I can tell, bus fares in Tahiti are local common knowledge, because it's not shown in the bus information counter or at bus stops. However, there are standard fares. When you board the bus, the fare schedule is shown inside, and you pay the driver upfront.

In my case, I had to ask the driver the fare to Vaira'o. The fare schedule didn't go as far as that, since the bus usually doesn't go beyond Papara.

Tahiti bus fares on the Papara route sign inside the bus

The bus trip to Vaira'o

Jon and I said our goodbyes; he would be in Moorea by the time I returned to Pape'ete. After this narrow save, the trip to Vaira'o was uneventful.

Buses in Tahiti are in good condition, and modern. The coastal road is well paved; Tahiti is actually pretty good in terms of infrastructure.

Beyond the urban-industrial area past the airport, the scenery becomes more rustic. The steep hills on the left and the sea on the right. Tahitian homes with their gardens of flowers and fruits.

A Tahitian old lady of Filipino heritage got on the bus, and was delighted to see another Malay face. We attempted a conversation, and I gathered that she was on the way to attend church. She eventually got off.

I had to watch out for my stop, which was at a grocery shop. But luckily, it was the only grocery shop stop, and I didn't miss it.

The challenging bus trip back to Pape'ete

The trip back, however, was not quite so easy.

I assumed it would be easier, because surely buses passing through on the reverse way, were all going to Pape'ete. My host assured me of the same. And when I enquired, so did the bus driver.

But this was not so. At Taravao, the bus driver stopped and asked me to alight. With my rudimentary French, I managed to work out that he wanted me to cross over to the other side of the road, and take the next bus that passed. That bus would go to Pape'ete. All I needed to do, was show my ticket stub.

Then the bus left. I think he was going around to the small end's northern coastline towards Tautira.

It took a while for the bus to arrive. I began waiting alone at the stop, which didn't have a shelter. By the time it arrived, there were others waiting with me. I was befriended by a Tahitian; fortunately the Vini mobile data reception finally kicked in, and I could use the voice function on Google Translate. It made for a better conversation.

But eventually I did make it back to Pape'ete.

Other Transportation Options in Tahiti

I have to admit, taking the bus in Tahiti was considerably more challenging than I anticipated. If this is more than the adventure you're willing to undertake on your trip, what are other ways to get around the island?

The obvious one, and quite common with tourists in Tahiti, is to rent a car. I didn't investigate this option, since I intended to spend most of my time on Tahiti either in Pape'ete, or in the lagoon.

Black sand beach in Tahiti with vegetated volcanic coastline

Are there taxis in Tahiti?

Yes, there are taxis in Tahiti. They are concentrated in Pape'ete itself, and will go to the airport and around the city. There are taxi stands near main tourist hot spots, with signs displaying the rates.

But... it doesn't seem like you can take a taxi to go to further destinations.

I don't know if the taxis just won't go, even if you'd pay whatever that would mean in terms of fares, or whether it's just so not done, that they wonder why you don't simply do the cheaper option that makes way more sense.

Which is...

Hitchhiking is normal in Polynesia

Oh why don't you just hitchhike?

Well, if you miss the bus, there's always hitchhiking.

These are the sorts of remarks that seem typical in Polynesia, and maybe the Pacific islands in general. This is why the bus driver said yes, when I asked if it's the right bus to Pape'ete. By changing at Taravao, I'd get to Pape'ete, and what was the difference?

After all, somebody or other would be going somewhere or other. People are happy to take you along and drop you off along the way. Indeed, I saw most of the archaeological sites of Easter Island, through serendipitous hitchhiking.

In Easter Island, it felt fine. I didn't feel like trying it in Tahiti, though. Tahiti seemed bigger, with more people, and more urban. It was more than my personal comfort level as a solo female backpacker.

Carbon offsetting information to Tahiti

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Fa'a'a via Auckland produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,280 lbs CO2e. It costs about $51 to offset this.


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