There’s a dearth of information for independent travelers to Papua New Guinea. Lonely Planet stopped publishing guidebooks for PNG after 2016, and their information is quite outdated at this point. Online, information tends to be quite decentralised and hard to find.
This seems to be the top concern, and it was for me before arriving. For the most part, things are fine if you follow local advice. Just ask people — they’re some of the most friendly people you’ll ever encounter, they’re always happy to see a rare tourist, and they really look out for you! POM is not particularly walkable, more out of traffic chaos than safety concerns; everywhere else, you can generally walk unless advised against. People will frequently offer to escort you to places even if it seems safe, and it may seem overbearing at times, but it may be wise to take their offer if you’re in a large town going somewhere particularly deserted. Going out at night is not recommended, and there isn’t much to do at night anyway outside of Port Moresby. Things are far more relaxed in villages.
Take standard precautions for petty theft. (I was a victim of this twice, and I take some blame for being careless.) While not uncommon, it’s not to the degree that you need to be paranoid. Violence is rare but does happen, particularly if people are inebriated. Tribal violence won’t affect the traveler and there’s no reason they’d go after you; the most that will happen in this situation is that a road or place may be considered closed to outsiders. People will tell you, and you’d be wise to heed that.
An e-visa is available, and is your only choice while the visa on arrival option remains suspended. If you’re going independently, apply here. The “tourist – own itinerary” permit under the Visitor section was what I chose, and the visa was granted automatically and immediately. Other people online had mixed experiences with delays applying for the “easy visitor permit (30/60 day)” option. Apply early just in case, but not too early — your visa is only valid for entry within three months after it’s been granted.
PNG isn’t a cheap country, but most of the time, it’s also not quite as expensive as it’s made out to be. As of 2023, 1€=K3.9, US$1=K3.6, C$1=K2.7, and A$1=K2.3. ATMs are only present in cities, and credit cards are generally not accepted unless it’s a high end spot or a Chinese supermarket. Accommodation is not of good value compared to other countries, but something reasonable can usually be found for K150-200 per night. Oftentimes, I was able to negotiate this down to K100-120 including dinner, or even have it offered to me without asking, just because they appreciate tourists so much.
PMV rides within a city are usually K1.5 to K4 depending on distance. Taxis are not cheap — in POM, usually K50 to anywhere from the airport, K20 for a short distance with hard negotiation. Domestic flights will eat up your budget but are unavoidable, and I think I spent about C$1000 for 6 different legs in total, some booked on sale, and some booked last minute.
Get a sim card on arrival. At the POM airport just outside of international arrivals is a Digicel store, where you can get a sim card for free. A one-month plan with calling, text, and 50 GB of data costs K120. As someone who did not stay in resorts, I did not encounter wi-fi even once in the country. Reception is a mixed bag but there is 4G in larger areas, and no coverage at all in more remote ones.
E-sims are available via Airalo, but having an actual phone number is recommended. You’ll need to call accommodations frequently, especially for booking ahead or pickups, and it would be ideal if they can reach you also. Many businesses will have two phone numbers, plus a presence on either Facebook (Messenger) or WhatsApp.
You’re almost certain to make local friends who will exchange numbers with you. This is a country where more things happen with the more connections you have, as they might know a person who might know another person who can help you with whatever you’re looking for!
As for language, most people can speak English. If not, they speak Tok Pisin, which has enough English in it that you’ll understand. You’ll pick up a few words here and there by osmosis, but here’s a basic guide; simple conjugation (verb + “-im”) and past/future tense (“pinis” suffix/”bai” prefix) are very useful for comprehension. Even making up speech as you go along is surprisingly helpful.
Most regions in PNG are not connected. You’ll be stuck flying Air Niugini and PNG Air for most journeys. Air Niugini had major reliability issues during my trip, with every single flight I took with them being delayed at least 2 hours and up to 3 days for hopper routes like Kavieng-Rabaul. PNG Air is both cheaper and currently more reliable, according to locals, though my flights with them were delayed as well. Speaking for 2023, do not attempt a tight layover; 3 hours would most likely not be enough. I chose to book flights with a one-day gap in between.
That being said, Air Niugini often runs very affordable promotions on Tuesdays, with significant discounts for flights about 6-7 weeks out with the trade-off being no refunds or modifications. Check their Instagram.
Flights are often overbooked. Check in online as soon as possible to make sure your seat isn’t given away. At the airports, you’ll still need to check in again at the counter to get a paper boarding pass.
For certain routes like Kokopo-Namatanai or POM-Tufi, TropicAir flies 9-seater planes. Find their latest schedules on Facebook or contact them directly by phone. They sometimes fly extra flights.
If you look at my route map, you’ll notice a lot of backtracking to POM. It’s largely unavoidable after the route reductions in the wake of the pandemic. PNG Air may have more direct routes than Air Niugini, but these don’t run frequently (i.e. Wewak to Mount Hagen direct on Saturdays). Despite Lae being the second-largest city, there are few connections to be found there, but it’s worth doing some research.
For remote areas like in the Sepik, there are some grass airstrips used by missionary organisations. They all accept tourists at cost (no profit) if they have room, but scheduling and space are unpredictable as tourists are not their priority. Routes are generally not specified on their websites, so you’ll have to reach out and ask for your options. Sepik flights all depart from Wewak.
- SIL: [email protected] (they also run excellent guesthouses around the country)
- MAF: [email protected] (based in Mt. Hagen, but also flies out of POM and Wewak)
- NTM: [email protected]
If you’re not shelling out for crazy expensive private transport, it’s all PMVs: public motor vehicles. These are most commonly vans, but can be buses, boats, and trucks. Every town and region has a different numbering system for them, and they’re generally safe to take as long as you protect your pockets.
Inter-region PMV transport in some areas may be less safe due to robberies and road hold-ups. Ask around and assess the risk before taking.
Routes between Lae, Hoskins (Kimbe Bay), Rabaul/Kokopo, Kavieng, and Buka (Bougainville) do exist, but take a long time and don’t run frequently. R&A Marine seems to be the only inter-island option remaining. Chebu no longer seems to operate.
I can’t speak for Lae or Mt. Hagen, but Port Moresby is basically the only place you’ll find restaurants. In all other places, there’s basically nothing beside supermarket kai bars (cheap, K5-10), fried chicken fast food (mid-range, K20), and perhaps a hotel restaurant if you’re lucky (K40+). Guesthouses will often offer to prepare meals for a cost (K25-45) that they may or may not end up charging, depending on if they like you! Some meals will be great with coconut stews and fresh fish or crab, but most days it’s usually either kai sausage (that bright purplish one) or something canned (tuna, mackerel, spam) on top of a bunch of carbs: sweet potatoes, sago, rice, instant noodles, or a combination of those. Not terrible but it does get incredibly boring day after day. Your self-catering options will likely be similar: supermarkets outside of POM sell mostly only packaged goods. Vegetables are usually only found at street markets.
You can find festivals listed on the Papua New Guinea Tourism website as soon as dates are confirmed. Usually this isn’t more than a few months in advance. Sometimes the dates there can be wrong — it’s best to Google for a local Facebook page and research/inquire further. Consider also checking the New Ireland Tourism Instagram or contacting them there, though again one of their staff members gave me incorrect information. These were the ones I planned around:
- National Mask Festival: early July in Kokopo, on Facebook.
- Shark Calling Festival: mid-July on west coast New Ireland, check/contact NI Tourism. There’s purportedly another one in August on the east coast. I unfortunately missed both.
- New Ireland Day: annual holiday now declared on July 27, may include day before or after for festivities.
- Sepik River Crocodile Festival: early August in Ambunti. Contact a guide for more info.
The most famous ones otherwise are the Goroka Show (mid-September) and the slightly-smaller Mount Hagen Show (mid-August). These see many more tourists than the rest, so make arrangements early, especially with accommodation.
Handicrafts are beautiful and cheap, particularly on the Sepik. Be aware that if transiting through Australia, you probably won’t be able to bring anything into that country. You can choose to send your items home via post, but first you must get them fumigated at the local quarantine office (K30). Both offices may not have power when you visit, which means you won’t be able to send… I’m still waiting over a month later for my guide to return to the post office with my item!
Assume all accommodation rates are negotiable unless noted. The rates listed below are the advertised price. Almost everything should also be reachable on Facebook, where you’ll find pictures. The lists below are by no means exhaustive, but were the options I encountered that were within my personal budget. Blackouts and brownouts are common in the cities, and there’s usually no electricity at all outside of them; most places will have a generator that they’ll run for a few hours each night.
Accommodation here is the most expensive in an already expensive country. I chose to find a Couchsurfing host, but I had reliable backup recommendations.
- Rehoboth Lodge: contact details on Facebook, K150. Close but not walkable to the airport, A/C options available.
- Waigani Lodge: WhatsApp +675 7286 1584, K180 with A/C and shared bathroom. Free airport pickup/dropoff.
There are plenty of tour guides that will take you to Rabaul from your accommodation in Kokopo or Rabaul. If you have the time though, it’s possible to visit all the main sites by PMV. Note that hiking up Mt. Tavurvur requires paying a K50 kastom fee.
- Eagle Transit Haven: WhatsApp +675 7263 9412, K180 with fan, private bathroom, breakfast, free airport pickup/dropoff. Billy and his staff were by far the nicest people I encountered in PNG and went well out of their way to make me feel welcome. Constantly full with government workers, all lovely to chat with. Meals available for K45, though that was waived for me; your mileage may vary. Easy PMV access via “Channel” stop on 8B to town and 9A to airport.
Dive Kokopo: WhatsApp +675 7386 0226, K520 for two-tank dive, K130 for gear. Snorkelling K160. WWII wreck dives possible. I was unable to go due to flight delays.
To get to New Ireland, the Kokopo-Namatanai TropicAir route is particularly cheap (K137.5) and recommended over taking the less-reliable boat (K70), but availability is tight, currently restricted to Fridays and Mondays. For the boats, locals recommend taking the safer double-engine option run by Solwara Meri. All boats depart every day rain or shine from Kokopo’s beach, but may stop service if the government issues a weather warning; some boats may continue to run illegally and taking this during poor conditions is strongly not recommended; two passenger boats disappeared this way during the week I was there. R&A Marine also runs a ship from nearby Rabarua to Namatanai three times a week (K80), as well as Buka in Bougainville fortnightly. Both boats and ships may be cancelled due to weather conditions, though the latter is more reliable.
New Ireland, Kavieng area:
Generally up-to-date listings on the fancy but kind of broken New Ireland Tourism website.
- Chosen Race Guesthouse: +675 7269 3529, K150 with mosquito net, shared bathroom, and breakfast. A bit out of town in Malvung village, rustic and exposed to the elements, but comfortable and an excellent affordable option. No electricity except for generator — a hint for negotiation. Many PMVs to town from the main road next to the Fisheries College, 10 min walk from guesthouse. K20 airport transfer. Patrick and his family are quite friendly, but he is a little hard to reach by phone, and you will need to so they know to unlock the gate. Meals available, but I was never charged.
- Venbert Lodge: WhatsApp +675 7113 9158, K200 non-negotiable excluding 10% hotel tax with fan, shared bathroom, and breakfast. Quite spacious, K40 meals available.
- Noxie’s Place (Kavieng Transit Haus): website, K280 with fan, shared bathroom, breakfast and dinner. Known for good meals and owned by the same people as Nusa Island Resort. Seems popular with New Ireland villagers heading into town.
- There’s an SIL guesthouse here but I did not inquire.
Scuba Kavieng: WhatsApp +675 7264 4441, K420 for a two-tank dive, K90 for gear. Snorkelling (K60 including mask and fins) only happens if there are divers. Dorian and his team pick the dive sites on the spot, and may take your preferences into consideration depending on conditions.
New Ireland, outside of Kavieng:
Withdraw all the cash you need from Kavieng before heading out.
- Dalom Guesthouse: K150 non-negotiable with mosquito net, all meals included. Flush toilets available, but the gorgeous and clean river is your bath. NI Tourism lists a phone number but there’s no reception in Dalom! They’ll answer if they’re in Kavieng, which means you could get a ride with them (special PMV K20, 3-4 hours). Otherwise, just show up.
- There are other village guest houses that I did not stay at in Bol (decent), Fissoa (mixed reviews), and Fangalawa/Sutap Beach (decent), and plenty more on the NI Tourism website. For the three I mentioned, just show up. Bring food to cook.
- Wesan Cottage, Tsoi Island: K150 with breakfast, 2-hour boat transfer K30 (PMV on some days) or K70 (private). I did not stay here but it came recommended. Reach Abraham via the information on NI Tourism, but he only has reception on the days he goes to Kavieng, so contact well in advance.
Get everything you need in Wewak, including cash (preferably with some smaller bills), before heading out to the Sepik. If you’re taking a guide (see below), they’ll buy supplies for you.
- SIL Guesthouse: +675 7149 4901, K100 per person non-negotiable, full apartment options for 5 people also available. Fully self-catered with large kitchen spaces, lots of space to do laundry, and very peaceful and breezy on the hillside. There are no kai-bars or food options around so stock up at a supermarket en route from your airport pickup (K30). Quite far from the center of town, but it is walkable, and PMVs are available.
You may find information online about Sepik Adventure Tours, Sepik Surfsite Lodge and the Ambunti Lodge, all owned by Alois Mateos. A respected figure in the Sepik and a founder of the Crocodile Festival, Alois unfortunately passed away in July. Both lodges continue to run under currently-unclear ownership, and there is purportedly some dispute between his sons, but it is possible to stay.
Costs are quite high, and much of it is down to private transport from Wewak to Pagwi (K1000 each way, 4+ hours), the biggest riverside village connected by road. There are PMVs from Wewak to Pagwi, some direct (4-6 hours, usually overnight) and some via transfer in Maprik, but the formerly safe road between Maprik and Pagwi has been subject to frequent and occasionally fatal holdups in 2023, particularly against PMVs around market days. (That portion of the road is quite torn up and also includes a lot of hills, both of which force all vehicles to slow down.) The situation seems to be stabilizing and I met two tourists who opted for it, but for now, consider only if you have a high risk tolerance as holdups have continued.
Petrol on the river is also a high cost contributor, so the further you go, the more expensive it will be.
You can always arrive in Pagwi and try to find a guide on the spot, but no guarantees. Pagwi isn’t a very pleasant place to stay and linger. PMV boats are available, generally to Ambunti, but beyond that will run unpredictably and very infrequently, so it’s only an option if you have a lot of time, a high tolerance for rustic conditions, and the willingness to carry lots of food and supplies, as purchases on the river are far more expensive than in Wewak. Contacting a guide in advance on WhatsApp is advisable, and they’ll organise everything for you, including land transfer and hiring a boat driver and a helper. Tell them what you’d like to see and how many days you’d like, and they’ll craft a costed itinerary for you that you can revise and negotiate the price on.
Timbunke is another option for getting to and from the Lower Sepik, which may be helpful in coming up with a route without backtracking, but I don’t know the transport situation; there are likely PMVs from Wewak, but less of a chance to find a guide on the spot.
Another option is to fly from Wewak to Ambunti, where you may also find guides on the spot. It’s also convenient for visiting during the Crocodile Festival, which takes place next to the grass airstrip. MAF charges K410 each way, which is more comfortable, cheaper, and faster than land transport, but scheduling is unpredictable. MAF, SIL, and NTM all generally fly this route weekly. Other options to smaller remote villages that they happen to be stopping in may be available, as are much more expensive charters. No one seems to fly to Timbunke anymore.
In total including two K1000 legs of land transport, a 5-day itinerary can cost K6000 to K8000 depending on distance covered on the river, and entry fees for festivals and sacred houses. Consider this the general 2023 price due to inflation — it is significantly higher than what you may see written on other website for years past, primarily due to petrol. Prices are generally the same whether you’re alone or if you’re a party of maybe up to 5 (with a minimal increase for accommodations and food), so it’s best to find some company to split the expenses with.
Out of the many guides I messaged, these were the most reliable in responding. All fell within the price range described.
- Johannes Teven: WhatsApp +675 7363 7760, based in Ambunti. My guide, specialises in Upper Sepik and seems particularly knowledgeable about even obscure places for the intrepid. Quite honest, provided realistic rates without shortchanging people, supplied us with generous amounts of food, water, and snacks along with bedding and mosquito nets. For cost transparency, we would pay for supplies, guesthouses/homestays, petrol, hired help, and festival entry costs out of pocket, all deducted from the total cost, with the remainder being his guide fee.
- Cyril Tara: WhatsApp +675 7111 0089, based in Kaminibit. My initial guide pick until his boat was inoperable. Seems to have a prominent reputation, and is knowledgable for Lower and Upper Sepik. His itineraries were thorough and adaptable, and when costs ballooned beyond my budget due to his needing to borrow a high-powered boat, he readily recommended other guides including Johannes.
- Justin Bob: WhatsApp +675 7189 4621, based in Kaminibit. Also recommended by Cyril, and is his assistant guide.
- Luke Kama: WhatsApp +675 7058 0830, based in Kanganamun. Provided less costly options, particularly for the Lower Sepik, but itineraries were less detailed. Met him in person and he seems quite friendly.
PNG isn’t an easy place to travel independently, but it’s not as impossible as people make it seem! Bring lots of patience and willingness to go with the flow if and when the unexpected arises, and don’t plan your itinerary tightly as things seldom follow a schedule even if there is one. It’s worth the extra effort. Good luck!
I have some limited information as well for regions I did not visit, including Bougainville, Goroka, and Mt. Hagen. Feel free to contact me or comment with further questions.