In the center of Apia, the capital of Samoa, lies the Samoa Cultural Village. Open three days a week, the Village offers two hour long tours showcasing unique aspects of Samoan culture. The insightful tours are a perfect way to begin your time in Samoa. Acquaint yourself with the traditions still in practice throughout most of Samoa today through the live demonstrations at the Samoa Cultural Center.
Planning Your Visit to the Samoa Cultural Village
We are definitely not cultural center experts, but we’ve been to enough to know the Samoa Cultural Village is a gem! We visited the Samoa Cultural Village at the end of our week long trip to Samoa. I wish we had known to schedule this visit at the beginning of our trip, as it sets the tone of your visit to Samoa perfectly. Not only is it one of the most informative and enjoyable cultural centers we’ve been to, the tour is also free and provides a traditional Samoan lunch (for free!).
The Samoan Cultural Village holds its tours from 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Tours leave from the Samoa Tourism Fale on Beach Rd. in Apia. Look for the Fale across from the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, and right down the road from the Clock Tower.
See our Guide to Apia, Samoa for more travel planning details around Apia such as accommodation suggestions, dining out, and other must see spots.
Welcome and Palm Weaving
Upon arriving at the Cultural Village, you are sat down to listen to beautiful, island music while waiting for tour guests to arrive.
If you haven’t already been introduced to impressive palm frond weaving, you’re sure to be dazzled by the hats and head bands woven while you wait. You will later see woven palm baskets and plates.
Live demonstrations of traditional tatau (the Samoan word for tattoo) are the first stop of the tour. There is a long, rich history of tattoo in Samoan culture that was nearly erased by missionaries when they arrived in Samoa.
Visitors to the Samoa Cultural Center are allowed to enter the tattoo fale and watch, but out of respect for the Master Tattooist and those receiving tattoos, pictures are not allowed.
The tools of traditional tatau were carved sections of bone or boars tusk, attached to a wooden handle. These tools were dipped in ink, and then tapped into the skin using a tapping mallet. The tools vary in size depending on the tattoo pattern needed.
The master tattoist, or Tufuga, works with apprentices who stretch the skin and wipe away excess ink. While watching the process, the tour guide explained the cultural significance of tattoo, and how it has evolved to meet modern times.
The traditional ink from burnt nuts has been upgraded to modern ink. The tools used in Samoa are now galvanized metal, but the process still holds true to its authentic roots.
Samoan Cookhouse and Umu
The next stop in the village was to learn about the steps involved with cooking a traditional Samoan meal in an Umu, or earth oven. While umus were the only way to cook historically, many Samoans maintain the tradition and still prepare an umu each weekend with family.
Visitors watch as coconuts are husked, cracked open, grated, and then squeezed for the coconut cream. The coconut cream is then mixed with baby Taro leaves to be cooked into palusami. Breadfruit is peeled, and prepped to go into the oven, and fish are wrapped in banana leaves.
The tour guides already had a fire started with umu rocks hot and ready for cooking. Once the food is prepared, rocks are pulled out of the fire and are arranged to create a hot bed.
Note the traditional tattoo of the man on the right. His Pe’a (male tattoo) starts above his hips and extends to below his knees. His lavalava (the brightly colored fabric) covers much of the tattoo. The shoulder tattoo is not traditional, but is very common in modern Samoa.
Food is placed on the rocks, and then a thick layer of banana leaves goes on top to contain the steam. This umu food was later shared at the end of the tour, after about an hour of cooking.
The tour next heads to watch a quick viewing of traditional wood carving. While there are some fun carvings that may remind you of the Disney movie Moana, most of the carvings are various ornamental bowls.
Many are used only with the traditional welcome “Ava” ceremony. There are also log drums used to make music during Samoan dance.
The final informative stop of the tour is to watch the process of making barkcloth, or Tapa, also knows as Siapo. The entire process is incredibly time consuming, so as you can imagine the use of barkcloth in modern Samoa is reserved for decoration and times of celebration.
Tapa is made from the inner bark of the Paper Mulburry Tree. This narrow strip of bark is soaked, then pounded, and finally stretched with smooth seashells to create thin sheets of cloth. Multiple layers are glued together to make the final Tapa.
To decorate the sheets of Tapa, ink is either hand painted or spread over carved wooden templates. While this design method is still used for Tapa, it has also met the modern world and used for decorating fabric.
Traditional Samoa in a Modern Time
The Samoa Cultural Village highlights traditional practices of Samoa with live demonstrations. Tour guides explain how these traditions have evolved to fit modern times, yet still hold true to their authentic roots.
I’m not sure that we can stress enough how wonderful the tour at the Samoa Cultural Village is. Between the entertaining tour guides and the massive amounts of history shared, it is a perfect way to spend a few hours in Apia.
If you’re traveling in Samoa beyond Apia, you’ll see these traditions throughout Upolu and Savai’i. Need more ideas on things to do in Samoa? Take a look at our favorite spots around Upolu.
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This post was first written in April, 2019 and recently updated in May, 2021