No one arrives on Easter Island by accident. It is on the way to nowhere, and it is next to nothing. In fact it is the most isolated inhabited and mysterious island in the World. Chile, the country that has overseen it as a province since 1888, is some 3 600 km away, and until the Mataveri International Airport was built in the 1960’s, getting there was possible only by ship.
After almost 6 hours of flying from Santiago over the Pacific Ocean, we descended through the clouds and in the middle of a deep blue ocean we first laid eyes on the tiny triangular shaped land of Easter Island. Truly breathtaking!
Everyone is greeted at the airport with a garland of colourful flowers and whisked off to their accommodation, which is never more than a few minutes from the airport as most lodging is in Hanga Roa, the only town on the Island. There are several hotels and numerous guest houses and we stayed at Iorana Hotel, which was clean, friendly and adequate.
We could hardly contain our excitement at the adventure that awaited and within minutes of arriving at the hotel we were out site-seeing. Most of the island is covered with stone and has jagged cliffs for a coastline. The island is also strewn with over 800 gigantic and breathtaking Moai statues averaging over 5 meters high. Only a relative few of these are upright and in original placement, but many of the rest can be seen and visited, half buried, lying down or incomplete.
Five days is probably the minimum you should stay on the island to even begin to experience its extraordinary treasures not to mention the wild and beautiful landscape.
The island was named by Dutch sea captain, Jacob Roggeveen, who was the first European to visit the island and landed on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722. Easter Island is known as Rapa Nui by the locals and Isla de Pascua by the Chileans.
Roggeveen made known what he had seen: a barren island where hundreds of enormous human-shaped statues lined the coast. It intrigued him that such primitive people, on an island devoid of timber and pack-animals, could have moved such large objects. Roggeveen’s reports sparked a lot of interest and soon many ships were headed there. However by the time Capt. James Cook arrived in 1772 all the moai were all lying down.
Why had all the statues fallen? At some point Easter Islands population had risen to around 10 000 but unfortunately this was more than the islands resources could accommodate. Consequently the population experienced extreme difficulties leading to tribal wars; and there are even references to incidences of cannibalism. During these difficult times the population doubted their religion and toppled all the standing Moai along the coastline.
Many of the Moai statues have since been re-erected by various archeologists and the population has increased from a mere 110 at the turn of the last century to around 2 000 locals and a 1 000 foreigners.
Rano Raraku is a volcano which provided the stones for the great statues. Here we walked among the fallen giants where some 394 statues remain unfinished and in this vast volcanic workshop some are still attached to the inner rock, some upright on the crater’s outer slope, as if frozen on their way out. Adventurous climbers can move among them and climb to the top of the crater as we did. Inside the crater, half a mile wide, grazed a herd of wild horses which are found in abundance wandering free all over the island. The freshwater lake is filled with reeds and from this vantage point one looks over the entire expanse of the island and the vast Pacific which is just spectacular.
From Rano Raraku, it is a short walk toward the coast to Ahu Tongariki, where a Chilean archaeologist team restored a row of 15 Moai, completed in 1995. The moai were hoisted into position by a crane built and donated by a Japanese company, a reminder of how impressive it was for the ancients to move these statues without mechanical power. The sight of these towering figures on their original ceremonial platform, or ahu, gives one an idea of what an amazing sight Roggeveen saw, when hundreds of such statues skirted the island.
A visit to Anakena beach, about 19 km from town is a delight and swimming in the warm, clear azure water of the crescent beach is a must. This is also a great place for a picnic lunch. Just beyond the beach Ahu Nau Nau was the very first Moai to be re-erected and restored and this was done in the mid 50’s by Thor Heyerdahl. Of the seven moai sitting on top of the ahu, four have topknots made out of red scoria, a soft volcanic rock. Legend says that the first king, Hotu Matua, landed his canoe here. On the way back from Anakena to Hanga Roa is Puna Pau, the quarry for the red scoria topknots (pukau) that once crowned the moai.
We also booked a scuba dive through Mike Rapa’s dive shop and the water was fantastically warm and crystal clear, while the coral was beautifully coloured. Jacques Cousteau spent a few years exploring the waters around Easter Island and claimed them to be some of the clearest water in the world.
Easter Island is extremely small, so it is possible to get around fairly easily by car. Its longest side is the southern coast, which is 22kms long, and at its widest point it is 18km across. At each of the three outer points of the island there is an inactive volcano.
Rental cars, generally jeeps, are available from rental agencies in Hanga Roa, as well as a few dirt bikes. With a car, it’s possible to see most of the sites on the island in a few hours. Scuba diving and snorkeling is also possible near the islets Motu Nui and Motu Iti (well known for “The bird man culture”) who are located about 1 km south of the island. Hiking, bicycling or horseback riding are other options.
Easter Island also has a fascinating and extensive cave system to explore. To date, there are no off-limits area, but do respect the archaeological work. The Rapa Nui had a form of writing called rongorongo which no one has deciphered yet. The meaning and source of these enigmatic characters has been open to interpretation for years.
Since everything is imported, be prepared for higher food and drink costs. There are around 25 restaurants catering to tourists on the island. Menus tend to be limited, but the range of fish is impressive and constituted our first meal on the island. There are also a few “supermarkets” where visitors can pick up necessities.
Despite the occasional landing of a commercial jet, and visiting cruise ship the island is still profoundly secluded. The nearest inhabited land, tiny Pitcairn Island, is 2 016 km away. In 1935 most of the island became a national park to protect the archaeological sights and since 1995 it is a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.
The main language spoken on Easter Island is Chilean Spanish but we didn’t struggle too much with English. Rapa Nui, a Polynesian language, is spoken by all islanders, and many souvenir-sellers and restaurant staff will greet you with “Iorana” rather than “Buenos días”. The island’s economy revolves increasingly around tourism. You’ll find Rapa Nui a pleasant place to visit, but don’t be surprised if you experience a sense of the mysterious, a sadness and the pull of the ancient moais.
Most, if not all of the commerce on this island occurs in the port town of Hanga Roa. There are a number of small shops geared toward tourists, as well as an open market. The official currency is the Chilean Peso, although, as on the mainland, transactions can often be performed in US Dollars. When buying souvenirs it is best to use cash. You can buy replicas of moais, rongorongo tablets and other local artifacts in the markets.
The temperature rarely exceeds 30ºC and does not drop below 14ºC so Easter Island can be visited most of the year. Be prepared for wind, which keeps the temperature comfortable, and for a light rain possibly several times a day. May is the rainiest month, but the porous volcanic soil drains quickly. Bring comfortable clothes, good walking shoes or boots, a jersey and a windbreaker. The most expensive and crowded months are during the summer season of December to March.
Easter Island today, remains one of the most unusual places you will ever visit, basically an open air museum. The islanders are a sensual, mysterious people, believers in their moai, struggling to hold onto their unique identity, yet aware that they need development, education and the tourist trade to survive.
For many Easter Island will be a once in a lifetime experience for us, we hope to return. Easter Island has been one of the high points of our travels and we cannot recommend it more highly. Go see it for yourself!