Take a Historic and Tragic Journey to the Molokai Leper Colony

July 14, 2020   8 Comments »

Take a Historic and Tragic Journey to the Molokai Leper Colony

June 18, 2015 8 Comments »

I listened in shock to our guide Pat as he told the story of Olivia, “Olivia arrived in the 1930’s. She was 18, engaged to be married, and had been living in Oahu. She went to the doctor to get her tonsils out and was diagnosed with leprosy, but she wasn’t told and was allowed to go home instead. The doctor reported it to the authorities (as required by law) and they showed up at her door to tell her the news and to pick her up to take her to Kalaupapa. She said that her life ended at that moment. She went to the bathroom to kill herself with Lysol, but didn’t succeed. She lived exiled in Kalaupapa until she was 90 years old.”

You can find it all over the world, tourism based on tragedy and human suffering. It’s the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Dachau in Germany, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the 9/11 Tribute Center that recently opened; something draws us to these sites when we travel.

Table of Contents

Why do we engage in tragic tourism
Where is Kalaupapa National Historic Park
Getting to the Molokai Leper Colony
How to get to Kalaupapa Colony today
Permit required to visit
Going to Kalaupapa by mule
Kalaupapa Father Damien Tour
Residents stayed even after a cure was found
Things to know before you go to Kalaupapa
Books about Molokai’s Leper Colony

Why do we engage in tragic tourism?

“some have a personal connection to the tragedy as survivors, relatives of victims or witnesses. Others have an intellectual or cultural interest — to understand what happened, or connect the tragedy to other historical events. Others have no connection to the site or the event, but happen to be there as tourists and visit those places as part of their sightseeing.” –Independent Traveler

As I arrived at Molokai Mule Ride office to take the Father Damien tour, I definitely was the latter. I had heard about the Molokai leper colony, but knew nothing about its tragic history. I was intrigued to learn more, but first we had to get there and that’s not easy.

Where is Kalaupapa National Historic Park

Kalaupapa National Historic Park is situated in an isolated part of Molokai, at the bottom of the steepest sea cliffs in the world. It’s not an island, it’s just a hard-to-get-to place that happens to be the most beautiful area of the island and probably the most beautiful area in all of Hawaii.

molokai leper colony
Kalaupapa sea cliffs – remote and beautiful.

Getting to the Molokai Leper Colony

In 1865, the only way to the Kalaupapa leper colony was by ship – and it wasn’t a pleasant ride. After being diagnosed, patients would be torn from their lives and taken by boat in a cattle pen to a small rowboat that admitted you onto Kalaupapa. This plot of remote land is where most of the patients came to live out their lives and most likely perish. At that time there were no cures for leprosy (now the politically correct term is Hansen’s Disease), and by order of the King the law was to exile all people diagnosed with leprosy to Kalaupapa.

It was so remote and off limits that supplies only came one time per year on a barge, the rest of the time the people fended for themselves.

Molokai Hawaii kalaupapa cemetery
Resting in paradise in Kalaupapa National Historic Park on Molokai Hawaii

How to get to Molokai Kalaupapa Colony Today

In 2020, Kalaupapa is still difficult to get to! As part of the Father Damien Tour, you’ve got options.

  1. Plane – you can arrive by (a very small) plane from Oahu, Maui, or topside Molokai.
  2. Hike a very challenging, muddy switchback trail down the steepest sea cliffs in the world. The trail traverses a 1,700 foot elevation change over 3.5 miles. And remember – if you choose to hike down the trail, that means you have to come back up the trail – and that is very strenuous.
  3. Take a mule ride down/up the sea cliffs. UPDATE – call first to make sure the trail is open. It was closed for a while due to a land dispute and then closed recently due to a land slide. However according to the website, Muleride.com – it appears they are selling tickets for the mule ride again. They also sell air tickets on the site.
kalaupapa by mule
Riding a mule down the steepest sea cliffs in the world to Kalaupapa Historic Park in Molokai Hawaii

Permit Required to Visit

If you visit Kalaupapa, you must have a permit for visiting. You can do this by booking with the tour company. You can only visit with a guided tour run by Damien Tours LLC. They will take you around the area in an old school bus while teaching you about the tragic past of leprosy and the colony.

If you book a mule trip down the trail, it includes the Father Damien tour and permit.

kalaupapa leper colony
The port where the barge would land one time a year

Going to Kalaupapa by Mule

I went in 2015 and chose to take the mules as I had heard about the exciting (and sometimes harrowing) experience of riding the mules down 26 narrow switchbacks 1700 feet; the steepest sea cliffs in the world.

By doing the adventurous mule ride, the whole tragic tour seemed to be ‘lightened up’ a bit. Somehow they had combined adventure travel with a historic tour, which sort of made it more digestible.

The Trail down the sea cliffs to the Molokai leper colony was created in 1988 and is maintained by the National Parks. I was put on the mule named Koa, meaning strong warrior. However, he was pretty chill, and had no need to be the lead mule so we were pretty happy being 2nd in the procession. Koa was older and getting ready for retirement, I think that’s why we got along so well.

molokai mule ride kalaupapa
Hold on tight as it’s really steep!

Our guides, Audrey and Lulu, answered questions and dolled out trivia-worthy facts all the way down the cliffs. It took 2 hours to get down and the hardest part was holding on and not panicking around the narrow turns. Audrey made a point to tell us that the mules had done this hundreds of times and knew their job and the trail well. She even said that they step in the same place every day.

My favorite thing about the mule ride was seeing how much our guides absolutely loved their jobs. They even got a little teary eyed when they talked about their founder and we all said our final goodbyes at the end.

Much to my dismay, Koa enjoyed swinging really wide in the switchbacks but I trusted him completely. On the way up the cliffs it was a quicker ride, only 90 minutes, but it was much harder on the mules. As we stopped and rested at the halfway point, I could feel Koa’s heartbeat as he rested in the turn number 13. These were impressive animals.

molokai mule ride kalaupapa
My view of the switchbacks from the back of Koa.
Molokai mule ride selfie
This selfie took a lot of balance while going down the cliffs on a mule!

Kalaupapa Father Damien Tour

“It isn’t all tragedy and disaster here,” our guide Pat said, “life did go on; they were a community.”

We met Pat at the bottom of the cliffs and all boarded an old rusty yellow school bus. Others who had arrived by plane or by foot joined us; we were given a sack lunch, and immediately swept into the tragic and touching world of Hansen’s disease all with a gorgeous Hawaiian backdrop.

molokai leper colony
Pat telling us about the history of Kalaupapa

Out of the 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa throughout the years; 90% were Hawaiian. The Hawaiians were more prone to catching western diseases, as they couldn’t fight off these new illnesses that had been introduced to their culture.

After years of public purgatory, a mixture of antibiotics created in the 1940’s was found as the cure, and after that there was no more real need to isolate. But it wasn’t until 1969 that the laws finally changed in Hawaii and people were free to leave Kalaupapa leper colony. The problem was that many had nowhere to go as the knowledge and stigma about the disease was slow to reach the public and sadly few had any place to go even when they could.

However, as Pat said, they had built a community in Kalaupapa, it was their home now. It had a hospital (however it burned down when they couldn’t start the fire truck), many churches, homes, recreation fields, a gas station that had 5 tanks holding up to 30,000 gallons. And there was even one bar in the community.

Residents Stayed Even After a Cure Was Found

After 1969 many patients stayed and lived out their lives there, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

Today the only people allowed to stay in Kalaupapa are the old patients and the park rangers. Sixteen people are still on the list to stay currently, but they are all quite old. The youngest is 73 and the oldest 90. In 1980 President Carter created the Historic Park in order to preserve the Kalaupapa history and the highly sought after land from being developed.

Pat spent 2+ hours educating us on Hansen’s disease, telling us stories about the people in the community, helping us understand how the community ran. He took us to the many churches and cemeteries in the park and gave us time to reflect upon what we were seeing.

Kalaupapa Molokai Hawaii
Churches in Kalaupapa – there were many.

He told us the stories of Father Damien, the heroic Belgium Priest who loved and served this colony of outcasts and eventually caught the disease and perished there at 49 years old.

Kalaupapa National Historic Park Father Damien
Father Damien’s grave at Kalaupapa National Historic Park Molokai Hawaii

The bus returned me back to Koa and we began the ride up the cliffs. While bobbing and swaying up the switchbacks, I had plenty of time to think about what I saw and learned. Overall the day was a strange mix of sobering, uplifting, and educational.

People engage in tragic tourism for different reasons, but for me it reminds me of how far we’ve come. And it makes me wonder what things our society are doing now that we will look back in 50 years and think are ludicrous. Only time will tell. I also wonder about Koa, what will happen when he retires? Will he miss this trek that he does day after day after day? I think he will.

Visit Molokai
Riding a mule to Kalaupapa

Things to Know Before You Go to Kalaupapa

  • You must have a permit in advance to enter Kalaupapa
  • You must be 16 years or older to visit
  • There are no medical facilities
  • There is no food or shopping in the colony – bring your own lunch and water
  • Pack out your own trash
  • Photography of residents is strictly prohibited. Make sure you talk to your tour guide to know what you are able to take pictures of.
  • You cannot stay overnight
  • You must be in good physical condition to visit due to the strenuous nature of the trip

Books about Molokai’s Leper Colony


View all Kalaupapa pictures

molokai leper colony cemetery
molokai leper colony cemetery


I was a guest of Visit Molokai during my time on the island, however all opinions here are my own.

This post contains some affiliate links. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site

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