It’s one of the most remote islands on earth. A startling 2,200 miles west of the nearest continent and 1,290 miles east of the nearest populated island. The United Nations has proclaimed Easter Island the most isolated inhabited island in the world. It’s also one of the world’s greatest mysteries and an undisputed archaeological treasure. The island is home to more than 20,000 archaeological sites. But despite intensive study of these sites, the question still remains: What caused the dramatic rise and fall of this ancient Polynesian culture?
Known as Rapa Nui to the native population and Isla de Pascua to Chileans, the English name commemorates its European discovery by a Dutch expedition on Easter Sunday in 1722.
I arrived on Easter Island late Wednesday night after my un-glamorous airport adventure in Lima. I had 6 days to explore this perhaps most fascinating of the world’s sacred sites. Since most accommodation on the island consists of simple guest houses, I’d booked a room at the highly recommended Kaimana Inn. My host, Marcelo, was cheerfully awaiting my arrival at the airport late that night and after more than 24 hours of travel to reach the island I was grateful for the short drive into town and to my bed for the next few nights.
After a solid night’s sleep, I awoke the next morning and joined the rest of the guests at Kaimana for breakfast. I decided to start my day by exploring the island’s only town of Hanga Roa, just a short walk from my hotel. I made my way to the water and immediately spotted my first moai which seemed to be guarding the town’s small harbor.
The Story of the Moai
It’s hard to appreciate just how powerful a visit to this sacred island is without a basic understanding of its turbulent past. So I will try my best to explain what is known about the history of Easter Island.
No one knows the true story behind the moai but the most common theory is that they were religious symbols of gods and ancestors. Archaeologists believe that Easter Island may have been inhabited as early as AD 400. Beginning around 900 AD, the islanders began carving the moai out of the soft volcanic rock forming the sides of the Rano Raraku crater (where more than 400 unfinished moai remain today). The giant moai average 12 tons in weight and 13ft in height with the tallest known a staggering 69ft.
Once the moai were carved, they were then transported to a family burial platform called an “ahu” which were located all around the island. The family dead were then usually buried in a vault beneath the moai to transmit mana, or spiritual power, to the living family chief. It is believed that the islanders transported these giant statues atop tree trunks and that ultimately led to the total deforestation of the island. Today there are more than 850 moai spread throughout the island.
While it’s fairly clear how the moai were made and transported, the big mystery is why? It seems for a period of time the entire island was obsessed with the carving and transportation of the moai. And then, for some reason that will never be known, it stopped as abruptly as it had begun. It appears the islanders experienced some dramatic event that caused a complete change in their belief system almost overnight. The production of moai was utterly abandoned with many left around the island still in transit.
A period of tribal wars followed and all of the erected moai were toppled, presumably to break the mana of the family chief they protected. All of the moai standing today were re-erected by archaeologists in recent times.
When the first Europeans arrived on Easter Island in 1722, they found a once-great culture in rapid decline. Deforestation had led to environmental disaster and a shortage in the food supply. Most of the island’s natives were carted off to Peru to work as slaves in the 19th century or died in epidemics, leaving only a few behind to carry on the Rapa Nui culture.
Today, the descendents of those few Rapa Nui are helping their island experience a Renaissance. Many of the island’s archaeological treasures have been restored and protected against future damage and Easter Island has opened its doors to tourists from all over the world. Luckily for those of us who do visit, the minimal tourist facilities and logistical difficulty in reaching the island have kept the tourist throngs to a trickle compared to many of the world’s other great sites. This was one of my favorite things about the island – the opportunity to experience one of the world’s most spectacular archaeological treasures without the threat of a bus full of Japanese tourists arriving.
Sunset from Ahu Tahai
Despite the small size of Easter Island, it is home to three dormant volcanoes. The nearest to town, Rano Kau, was said to be the most spectacular so the next morning I decided to hike it. On the walk from town, I passed two giant caves at Ana Kai Tangata. They were stunning enough to be their own tourist attraction and I was surprised that they were barely mentioned on my map (which just goes to show how many amazing sites this island has). The hike to the top of the crater was steep but the terrain was not difficult and in a little over an hour I was staring down into the lake-filled center. Spectacular, indeed.
During my long layover in Lima on the way to Easter Island, I’d done a Twitter search for any mentions of the island, primarily to see if any of my fellow travel bloggers were also visiting. Surprisingly, I saw a tweet from @aliadventures7 that she and a friend would be arriving on the island next day from Tahiti. So I sent her a message and we had arranged to meet up for drinks one night in town. As it turns out, she and her friend Amanda were both originally from Atlanta! Go figure…down here in the middle of nowhere I run into two fellow travel-lovers from Atlanta – you’ve gotta love Twitter.
When I met up with Ali and Amanda that night, we decided to walk over to Ahu Tahai and try to catch the sunset from what I’d read was THE spot on the island for sunsets. I’d gone by there the night before but clouds had ruined most of the fun. Determined not to be deprived of an amazing sunset, I wanted to try again. And it was well worth the hike. We were treated to perhaps the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s amazing what a few moai can add to an already picturesque sunset. As the sun slowly dropped behind the giant moai, it was literally hypnotic.
Still basking in the glow of the sunset, Ali and I decided to grab a glass of wine and sat for an hour or so rehashing our travels – where we’d been and where we dreamed of going. I love chatting with people who are just as obsessed with travel as I am…it almost makes me feel normal. Ha!
An Upgrade to Explora Rapa Nui
The next day, fate intervened in my travels – as it often does. I’d posted a few pictures of Easter Island on Facebook and my friend Jill from high school (who is now a travel writer in London) sent me a message asking if I was staying at the explora Rapa Nui hotel, she needed a review of it for her website. I said no but I’d be happy to do a review for her if she could work it out with the hotel for me to move over there.
Within a few hours, Jill had worked her magic and the plans were set for me to spend my last two nights at the island’s ultra-luxury eco hotel – all expenses paid. Since the usual $1,000 a night rate at the hotel included gourmet meals, drinks and daily island explorations led by local Rapa Nui guides, I was very excited to get a chance to experience this amazing property which was not in my RTW budget!
I arrived at the lodge Friday afternoon and after settling into my cozy room and enjoying a delicious lunch, I met up with head guide Joanna to plan my afternoon exploration (there are no “tours” or “excursions” at explora – only explorations). Since I’d already spent 3 nights in town and had covered much of the southern part of the island, we focused my activities on the northern half of the island and I headed out with 3 other guests and 2 guides to the Rano Raraku quarry, the site where all of the moai were “born.”
It was incredible to see the sheer rock face with visible indentations where each moai was carved. Hundreds of laborers must have worked full time here for years. You could look down from the top of the quarry and clearly see the path where the stream of moai were in transit when they were so abruptly abandoned. The quarry is a very spiritual site and you could almost feel the power of the mana as our guides explained its history.
After a terrific afternoon, we returned to the lodge for evening cocktails while the guides explained the explorations available for the next day (the offerings change daily) and tailored an individual plan for each guest. After cleaning up from our hike, we enjoyed another exquisite meal featuring local ingredients and fresh fish – all accompanied by fine Chilean wines.
Hiking Easter Island
On my last full day on the island, I squeezed in a lot. I spent the morning with head guide Joanna (who is from Southern California) exploring the northern part of the island. We started at Easter Island’s most famous site and the image that probably comes to mind when you think of the island, Ahu Tongariki aka “The Fifteen.” It’s the largest collection of re-erected moais on the island and was just restored in 1996. Joanna and I had it all to ourselves for the better part of an hour and I walked all over taking pictures and just breathing it all in. I’d been looking forward to visiting this spot since I landed on the island 4 days earlier and it was totally worth the wait.
After leaving Ahu Tongariki, Joanna and I hiked the northern edge of the island winding our way through a small fishing village and finally to the island’s two best beaches, Ovahe and Anakena. At Anakena, still more moai stand guard by the sea. For lunch that day, Joanna and I joined a few other explora guests for a seaside picnic fit for a king. I sat back with my glass of champagne and grilled shrimp listening to the waves crash against the rocks and simply couldn’t believe my luck to be here. What an experience.
That afternoon, I joined a small group from the hotel for a snorkeling trip out to Motu Nui in Easter Island’s startlingly blue waters. The water here is considered some of the clearest on earth with up to 200ft of visibility thanks to a lack of plankton in the water. The flip side of that is that there are very few fish to see once you’re underwater but the clear, cobalt waters are still quite an impressive sight.
That night I joined some friends from my hike the previous day – Nicola, Walt and their son Matt from Kansas City- for dinner at the hotel before falling into my plush bed for one last night of sleep before heading back to Santiago.
Sadly, today it is time to leave. I had dreamed of visiting Easter Island for several years and after 5 days on the island I still feel like I could spend a few more weeks here. It’s rare that a place you’ve built up in your mind lives up to your expectations. This mysterious island and its native people actually exceeded my every expectation and I’m only sorry I didn’t try harder to get here sooner. So much culture to experience and so many sights to see on this magnificent little gem of an island in the middle of the Pacific.
If Easter Island isn’t on your bucket list, add it. It’s worth all the effort and every penny you’ll spend to get here.
Next stop, Malta!