The Fantasy of Easter Island
Rapa Nui, known around the world as Easter Island, is one of those fantasy destinations that most people recognize from pictures, but few people actually get a chance to visit in their lifetime. The tiny speck of land is one of the most isolated inhabited islands on the planet. Located 3,687 km west of the already isolated coast of Chile and 4,230 km east of the equally isolated island of Tahiti, this literally is the middle of nowhere. Its closest inhabited neighbor is Pitcairn Island located 1,921 km to the east… yeah, that’s isolated.
So how did this tiny chunk of land thousands of kilometers from anywhere develop one of the most monumental and mysterious civilizations in the South Pacific? It’s a riddle which has baffled outsiders since the island was first visited by the Dutch on an Easter Sunday in 1722. These early explorers discovered a unique society of clans centered around elaborate altars topped with mammoth stone statues called moai thought to represent honored ancestors. Adding to that sense of mystery, when James Cook visited the island in 1774 he reported that many of the moai had been toppled in inter-clan conflicts. Why? What would lead to such an act of self-destruction?
The remoteness, the mysteries and the island’s archaeological heritage are precisely what drew us here. It has been way up on my list of must-visit places since I was a young child. For me, it was never a question of “if” I would travel to Easter Island, but rather “when.” If you have visited Rapa Nui recently, you might notice that there is something slightly wrong (even upsetting) about the picture directly above. There’s a reason for that. It turns out that we arrived at the precise moment that the rebellious people of Easter Island decided to revive their self-destructive tendencies, this time turning on their tourists. We’ll discuss that and explain the picture in our next post. For the time being, we’ll indulge a bit more in the fantasy of the island itself.
The Easter Island you dream of does exist in many forms. Even as we stepped into Chez Maria Goretti, our home away from home during the ten days we spent on the island, we oohed and aahed at the garden full of flowers and the fanciful Rapa Nui statues carved by Maria’s husband. We marveled at the exoticness of Polynesians who spoke Spanish with tourists rather than English or French and listened with fascination when people spoke Rapa Nui. We sat by the pool and soaked up the sun eager to explore further afield in this tiny, remote piece of paradise.
The volcanic island is framed by windswept beaches of gnarled black lava with crashing waves sending a constant spray of salty mist through the air. The majority of the island is preserved (or was preserved for the first six hours of our visit) in a national park which serves to protect the island’s historical and natural heritage. There are two gloriously undeveloped white-sand beaches at Anakena and Ovahe on the north coast of the island, but unlike Tahiti or Hawaii, Easter Island is not really for people looking for a beach holiday. Rapa Nui is more about culture and rugged landscapes, mysteries and meditation. Adventure and culture enthusiasts will revel in the various options for getting out and exploring the island. We decided to partake in them all.
First up, renting a car. Easter Island is small, but there’s a lot to see with cultural nooks and crannies dotting the coasts and interior. There’s no real public transportation on the island, so visitors must either take a tour or rent a car. Since we were spending 10 days on the island and we wanted to take our time rather than rushing through the sites in a single day, we headed down to Oceanic Rapa Nui to rent a 4×4 Suzuki Jimmy.
Driving the island is a breeze, even in Hanga Roa, Easter Island’s tiny capital. (Can I say capital when they really only have one town?) Roads throughout the island are great and driving conditions are laughably easy. That’s a good thing too because, as of 2015, no single rental agency offers auto insurance with their cars. Yikes!!! That made us a bit nervous because you never know when a cow or a horse might step out in front of you, but we decided to just go for it.
And we’re really glad we did. Winding our way through the stark grasslands of the island’s interior hopping from one archaeological site to the next gave us the sense of independent adventure we so craved. From Ahu Vaihu to Ahu Akahanga to Ahu Hanga Tetenga, we stopped at seaside lookouts, gazed upon the wild open ocean, and walked among some of the moai that had been toppled during the 18th century. We discovered petroglyphs carved on broad boulders at Papa Vaka, crawled through lava tubes at Ana Kakenga, and explored underground burial sites at Ana Te Pahu. Most importantly, we strategically managed to dodge day tours which follow a very set pattern as they work their way around the ring road. This proved to be the greatest advantage of having our own car: we managed to have popular sites such as Ahu Tongariki and Ahu Akivi all to ourselves. Yay.
We wound our way up the side of Rano Kau and gazed out over its stupendous crater filled with a sprawling wetlands of totora reeds. We explored the low stone houses and petroglyphs at Orongo village, which recall the glory days of the legendary Birdman Cult. (Anyone in my age group remember the character Hawk from the ’70s version of Buck Rodgers? Yeah, that Birdman cult!) Easter Island is full of mysteries which will thrill and challenge amateur archaeologists and UFO enthusiasts alike. If you have been to Peru, do not miss the subtle but extraordinary site of Ahu Vinapu. We both gasped when we set eyes on the masonry of the burial platform; it is exactly the same as the masonry in Cuzco or Machu Picchu!
Whenever it got too hot, we made a beeline for the beach at Anakena and cooled off in its pristine turquoise waters. The beach is also the legendary landing point for the first Polynesian settlers thought to have arrived from the distant Marquesas Islands. If you’re worried that you might suffer from moai withdrawals while taking a dip, never fear. There’s a nice line of stone heads backing the sands to keep amateur archaeologists satisfied while they soak in the Pacific. Just around the small headlands to the east there’s a second stretch of beautiful sand called Ovahe. The isolated cove is backed by steep volcanic cliffs and provides a bit more shade in the intense Easter Island sun, but keep those eye peeled for falling rock. It’s also a good location to see locals wearing traditional loincloths spearfishing off the rocks.
Of course, the highlight of any visit to Easter Island is most certainly Rano Raraku. I’m sure entire Easter Island calendars have been photographed at this one particular site. The eroded volcanic crater served as the quarry for the tuff used to make the moai statues. It’s the figurative birthplace of the moai and an especially sacred location. Even as you approach, the sight of the surreal mountain with angled moai emerging from the soils sends chills down your spine. Visitors follow paths through a forest of ancient stone figures up into the cliffs where they can find some ancient moai that were still in the process of being cut when the inter-clan battles broke out. It’s a historical moment frozen in time which reveals a great deal about how the moai were made.
Those in a rush around the island may be tempted to content themselves with a quick run through the main loop at Rano Raraku, but make sure you explore the inner-crater trail as well (we actually missed it during our first visit.) The crater boasts a beautiful lake with grazing horses as well as slopes full of more stunning moai. In some ways, we enjoyed the hidden crater trail more than the more famous loop near the entrance. By the way, for those who don’t realize it, those heads popping out of the soil often connect to fully carved bodies. For many archaeology buffs around the world, walking among the towering elongated heads of Rano Raraku is a major goal. Simply awesome.
Yes, the moai are the main attraction here, but for visitors with a bit of time on their hands, there’s plenty more to discover. We saddled up and followed Pantu from Pikera Uri up the gentle slopes of Maunga Terevaka, the highest volcano on Easter Island. It’s a relatively easy 4-hour trip which rewards riders with intimate views of the island’s interior. It’s important to note that Easter Island feels quite different from Hawaii or Tahiti. Long before the first Europeans arrived, the early Polynesian settlers transformed the fragile tropical environment into a carpet of grasslands. Easter Island superficially resembles Iceland more than Bora Bora or Maui. Having said that, those grasslands mean that you have uninterrupted views all the way up the volcano culminating with a bird’s-eye 360 panorama from the summit.
Horses aren’t just a touristic novelty. Since contact with Europeans, horses have come to play an increasingly important role in local culture. Well after other parts of the world had made the transition to cars, the Rapa Nui continued to travel by horse. This gives the locals a rather unexpected Polynesian cowboy vibe. Seriously, you really haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a Rapa Nui dressed in a goat-skin thong riding through town with a speargun slung over his shoulder. The whole odd mix of influences seems to encapsulate the Easter Island experience. Sitting on my horse at the peak of Maunga Terevaka looking out over the vastness of the Pacific as our guides chatted in Spanish and Rapa Nui seriously gave me cultural chills. As a travel blogger, there aren’t many places where you think to yourself, this place is totally unique. As if a Polynesian cowboy adventure on a South Pacific volcano wasn’t enough, Pantu surprised everybody with a huge grilled fish when we got back. What better way to finish a ride than to stuff your face with watermelon and barracuda? Is that the local take on sitting around the campfire?
After exploring the heights of the island, we decided it was time to explore the depths. We made our way down to Mike Rapu Diving Center to do a couple of the more popular local dives. Heading out through a gap in the huge swells, our first dive took us to a wall just off the tiny islets of Motu Kau Kau and Motu Iti. The impressive volcanic wall was more about underwater formations and spectacular visibility than huge schools of fish, although we did spot some interesting endemic species including colorful local morays. As you explore the wall and slide through those volcanic fissures, keep checking the blue because you never know what might pay a visit during your dive.
Our second dive took us to the photogenic underwater moai just off Hanga Roa. While the highlight is certainly the once-in-a-lifetime dive and photographic opportunity to swim past a giant Easter Island head, the surrounding reef offered up more fish life than we spotted along the wall including more local eels, some great scorpion fish and several endemics like Easter Island butterflies. We should point out that the underwater moai is a newer carving, not one of the ancient statues seen at historical sites around the island. Having said that, we thought it was a great attraction and we loved the fact that the proud Rapa Nui are continuing the tradition of moai carving.
It’s clear that the people of Easter Island are proud of their traditional culture. That pride is expressed in a revival of and a celebration of Rapa Nui tradition, language, religion and dance. Every year during the first two weeks of February, the people of Easter Island host the Tapiti Rapa Nui, an island-wide celebration of everything Easter Island. To be honest, Thomas and I have grown a little tired of “festivals,” but this one looks really special and we do wish we had been able to time our visit to coincide with this impressive event.
For those like us who still want to experience a bit of the traditional dance and music, there are several groups on the island which offer regular performances. We attended the Kari Kari cultural show on our last night in Hanga Roa. How you react to the show will definitely depend on whether or not you have ever seen another Polynesian dance performance and how you interpret skill level and intention. The tourist to my right, who appeared to be a non-native French resident of Tahiti, scoffed at the lack of skill. The man in front of me was visiting from mainland Chile and he loved every moment of the performance.
It’s true that the dancers lack the extraordinary skill level of professional dancers in Tahiti and Hawaii, but then again Easter Island is a very different place. The tiny island of Rapa Nui has struggled to survive the devastating impact of colonization, intense missionary activity, slavery and commercial occupation. Moreover, we recognized many of the dancers from restaurants and other businesses around Hanga Roa. (Even our dive guide was in the performance.) This was a community effort to preserve and present Rapa Nui culture to outsiders, and we really appreciated the intention and the sheer fun which in so many ways represents the best of Polynesia.
To be honest, we really needed the dance performance to balance our view of Easter Island. I have already hinted in this post that we arrived at a moment of nationalist Rapa Nui resistance which caused many of the islanders to turn on tourists and, frankly, treat us like crap. For much of our stay, we embraced the natural beauty and the historical legacy while doing our best to ignore the people of Easter Island. We came dangerously close to packing up early and leaving the island with a seriously bitter taste in our mouths. Many visiting tourists, some of which never even managed to see the island’s treasures, did just that. But after ten days on the island, we started to dig a bit deeper and look a bit beyond our own annoyance and anger to witness the hurt that had caused the nationalistic anger in the first place. For some strange reason the Kari Kari dance performance and the heart that it exhibited caused us to step back and reflect a bit on the island’s fractured history. Perhaps, like many jewels in this world, it’s those fractures and imperfections that make Easter Island so beautiful.
Before planning a trip to Easter Island, I highly encourage people to read our next post which details the problems we encountered during our visit. You really don’t want to fly thousands of miles to the middle of nowhere to see nothing.
Thanks to Chez Maria Goretti
We would like to thank Chez Maria Goretti for hosting us during the time that we were on Easter Island. Maria’s is located very close to Ahu Tahai, which makes it very convenient for catching those gorgeous Easter Island sunsets.
We loved the beautiful grounds, the tropical flowers, and the amazing carvings and sculpture work done by Maria’s husband. He is an impressive artist. One big bonus of staying at Maria’s was her garden pool. Surrounded by cooling trees and luxuriant tropical plants, the pool was a super place to relax and cool off with a beer after a day out in the Easter Island sun. Rooms are situated around the pool or in a back portion of the main house. Each room comes with a fan, private toilet, and shower.
Maria also provides a pretty epic all-you-can-eat breakfast of fruits, cakes, and pastries, which allowed us to fill up before we headed out for a day of adventure. And like the garden, the breakfast room is decorated with impressive abstract moai carvings. There is no mistaking where you are, this is definitely Polynesia. For more info about bookings or pricing, visit their website at www.hotelmariagoretti.com.
As with many Easter Island hotels, Maria provides an airport transfer, which makes your initial arrival in Hanga Roa much easier. LAN Airlines is notoriously unreliable when it comes to flight times and that can leave many visitors feeling worried that they need to contact their hotel about delays. Never fear, locals all know when the plane is arriving and they’ll be there to meet you. 🙂
Additional Tips and Information
Oceanic Rapa Nui Rent a Car
Renting a car is the most flexible way to explore Easter Island’s archaeological treasures, beaches and coastal viewpoints. Oceanic Rapa Nui offers good prices on 4×4 cars and trucks as well as quads which mean you have no problem exploring all the island’s roads and tracks. Visit them at www.rentacaroceanic.com or head to one of their two branches in town.
Horseback Riding with Pantu from Pikera Uri
Our horseback ride up the side of Maunga Terevaka was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Easter Island. It’s a great way to discover the backtrails of the interior and rewards you with amazing views over the entire island. To learn more about that ride or inquire about their other outings on horseback, you can visit their website at www.pantupikerauri.cl or visit Pantu directly at the Pikera Uri Hotel to the north of town.
Mike Rapu Diving Center
Divers who are looking for something a bit different will definitely want to check out the truly unique moai dive while visiting Easter Island. We found Mike Rapu Diving Center friendly, flexible and professional. They also offer a variety of other dives at different sites around the island including the wall dive we did at the Motus. Visit their website at www.english.mikerapu.cl or head down to their shop at the docks in Hanga Roa.
Warning about LAN Airlines
As we mentioned above, LAN Airlines flights into Easter Island can be very unreliable. Locals explained that this has to do with the size of Hanga Roa’s landing strip, the limited number of planes that LAN has that can fly into the island, and ongoing mechanical issues with those planes. We monitored flight departure times for several weeks before and after our visit and discovered that many departures were delayed by several hours.
A few visitors in our hotel experienced delays of over 12 hours and some flights were completely cancelled stranding passengers on Easter Island. (It was not clear whether those cancellations were due to mechanical problems or the unrest occurring during our visit.) We recommend that visitors to the island not schedule onward flights from the Chilean mainland or Tahiti too tightly. Leave yourself a bit of a buffer.