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Inside: Chile’s remote Easter Island is an archaeological treasure and home to one of the world’s great mysteries. Here’s everything you need to know to visit (whether you’re on a budget or not!).
It’s one of the most remote islands on earth.
Easter Island is located a startling 2,200 miles west of the nearest continent and 1,290 miles east of the nearest populated island. So remote, in fact, that the United Nations once proclaimed Easter Island the most isolated inhabited island in the world.
But this far-flung island is also one of the world’s greatest mysteries and an undisputed archaeological treasure. Easter Island is home to more than 20,000 archaeological sites.
But like’s England’s Stonehenge, despite the intensive study of these ancient sites, the biggest mystery of Easter Island 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.
But I’m thrilled to finally arrive at my first stop on this year’s itinerary. And I have a full 6 days ahead to explore this most fascinating of the world’s sacred sites.
The perfect Easter Island hotel – on a budget
Since most accommodation on Easter Island consists of simple guesthouses, I book a room at the highly recommended Kaimana Inn for my stay.
Despite the late hour, my host, Marcelo, is cheerfully awaiting my arrival at the airport. After more than 24 hours of travel to get here, I’m grateful for the short drive into town (and to my bed) for the next few nights.
My room is basic, but comfortable, and has everything I need. And the location is perfect, an easy walk into the main town of Hanga Roa.
Exploring Hanga Roa, Easter Island
After a solid night’s sleep, the next morning I join the rest of the guests at Kaimana for breakfast in the open-air dining area.
After breakfast, I start my day with a visit to the island’s only town, Hanga Roa. From the hotel, I make my way to the water and immediately spot my first moai which seems to be guarding the town’s small harbor.
But before I continue, perhaps a little history on the mystery of the moai is in order.
The mystery of the Easter Island 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 are 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 to carve 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 69 feet high.
Once the moai are carved, they are then transported to a family burial platform called an “ahu.” Ahus are located all around the island and so are the moai. The family dead are then usually buried in a vault beneath the moai to transmit mana, or spiritual power, to the living family chief.
How did they transport the moai?
It is believed that the islanders transport these giant statues atop tree trunks and that ultimately leads 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, (not unlike Stonehenge) the big mystery is why?
It seems for a period of time the entire island is obsessed with carving and transporting the moai. And then, for some reason that will never be known, it stops as abruptly as it began.
It’s possible the islanders experience some dramatic event that causes a complete change in their belief system almost overnight. The production of moai is utterly abandoned with many left around the island still in transit.
A period of tribal wars follows and all of the erected moai are toppled, presumably to break the mana of the family chief they protect. All of the moai standing today were re-erected by archaeologists in recent times.
The decline of Easter Island
When the first Europeans arrive on Easter Island in 1722, they find a once-great culture in rapid decline.
Deforestation has led to an environmental disaster and a shortage in the food supply. Most of the island’s natives are carted off to Peru to work as slaves in the 19th century. Many who remain later die in epidemics, leaving only a few behind to carry on the Rapa Nui culture.
Restoring Rapa Nui
Today, the descendants 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 keep the tourist throngs to a trickle. It’s actually quite refreshing compared to many of the world’s other great sites like the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall.
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This is 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.
In fact, there are no large group tours on Easter Island. Guided exploration is limited to small groups and private tours.
Rano Kau & the caves at Ana Kai Tangata
Despite the small size of Easter Island, it is home to three dormant volcanoes. The nearest to town, Rano Kau, is said to be the most spectacular, so I set out to hike it.
On the walk from town, I pass two giant caves at Ana Kai Tangata. They are stunning enough to be their own tourist attraction and I’m surprised that they are 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 is steep but the terrain is not difficult and in a little over an hour I’m staring down into the lake-filled center.
And I have to admit, it’s a pretty spectacular view.
A Rapa Nui Tweet-up
During my long layover in Lima on the way to Easter Island, I did a Twitter search for any mentions of the island. As a solo traveler, sometimes I like to see if any of my fellow travel bloggers are also visiting my current destination.
That’s where I discovered that @aliadventures7 and a friend were arriving on the island today from Tahiti.
I sent her a message and we arranged to meet up for drinks in town. As it turns out, she and her friend Amanda are 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.
Sunset from Ahu Tahai
When I meet up with Ali and Amanda, we decide to walk over to Ahu Tahai and try to catch the sunset. From what I’d read, it was THE spot on the island for sunsets.
I went by last night but clouds ruined most of the sunset fun. Determined to see at least one amazing sunset while I’m here, I want to try again.
And it’s well worth the hike. We are 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 drops behind the giant moai, it’s literally hypnotic.
Still basking in the glow of the sunset, Ali and I grab a glass of wine and spend an hour or so rehashing our travels. Where we’ve been and where we dream 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 unexpected upgrade to explora Rapa Nui
The next day, fate intervenes in my travels – as it often does.
Last night, I posted a few pictures of Easter Island on Facebook and my high school friend Jill sent me a message asking if I was staying at the explora Rapa Nui hotel. Jill is now a travel writer in London and she needed a review of the property for her website.
I’m not, of course, but I’m happy to review it for her if she can work out the last-minute reservation with the hotel.
A few hours later, Jill works her magic and the plans are set for me to spend my last two nights at the island’s ultra-luxury eco-hotel – all expenses paid.
The usual $1,000 a night rate at the hotel includes gourmet meals, drinks and daily island explorations led by local Rapa Nui guides. So, obviously, I’m super excited to experience this amazing property, which is definitely not in my RTW budget!
Arrival at Easter Island’s best hotel – explora Rapa Nui
I arrive at the hotel Friday afternoon and am shown to my plush and cozy room for the next 2 nights. Next up, a delicious lunch before I meet up with head guide Joanna to plan my afternoon exploration.
There are no “tours” or “excursions” at explora – only explorations.
I’ve already spent three nights in town and have covered much of the southern part of the island. So we focus my activities on the northern half of the island.
First up, the Rano Raraku quarry
I head out with three other guests and two guides bound for the Rano Raraku quarry, the site where all of the moai were “born.”
It’s 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.
From the top of the quarry you can 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 I can almost feel the power of the mana as our guides explain its history.
After a terrific afternoon, we return to the lodge for evening cocktails (a nightly tradition).
Planning explorations at explora Rapa Nui
While the guests unwind, the guides review the explorations available for tomorrow. The offerings change daily and are tailored to create an individual plan for each guest. Once my plan is in place for tomorrow, I head back to my room to clean up after the hike.
Dinner that night is another exquisite meal featuring local ingredients and fresh fish – all accompanied by fine Chilean wines.
Yes, I am quickly adapting to luxury explora style. I could definitely get used to this.
Hiking Easter Island
It’s my last full day on the island and I have a packed-full day planned.
I spend the morning with head guide Joanna exploring the northern part of the island. Our first stop, the place I came all the way to this island to see.
Ahu Tongariki, “the Fifteen”
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 have it all to ourselves for the better part of an hour. I spend the time walking all over the site taking pictures and just breathing it all in. I’ve been looking forward to visiting this spot since I landed on the island four days ago and it’s totally worth the wait.
Easter Island’s best beaches
From Ahu Tongariki, we hike along the northern edge of the island. We wind our way through a small fishing village and finally to the island’s two best beaches, Ovahe and Anakena.
Easter Island is not especially known for beaches but these two could rival those in other South Pacific paradises like the Cook Islands or Tahiti.
At Anakena, still more moai stand guard by the sea.
A seaside picnic, explora style
For lunch, Joanna and I gather with other explora guests for a seaside picnic fit for a king. As I sit back with my glass of champagne and grilled shrimp, listening to the waves crash against the rocks, I simply can’t believe my luck to be here.
What an incredible experience.
Snorkeling Motu Nui
That afternoon, I join a small group for a snorkeling trip out to Motu Nui in Easter Island’s startlingly blue waters.
The waters surrounding the island are considered some of the clearest on earth. The visibility is up to 200ft in some places thanks to a lack of plankton in the water. Of course, the flip side of that is 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 join friends from my hike yesterday for dinner at the hotel. After a full day, I barely make it back inside my room before falling into my plush bed for some well-deserved sleep.
Final thoughts on Easter Island
Sadly, today it is time to leave.
Visiting Easter Island was a dream for so many years, it’s hard to believe I have finally checked it off my Bucket List. It’s such a magical place. It’s everything I hoped it would be and more.
Even after five days on the island, I still feel like I could spend weeks here. It’s rare that a place you build up in your mind actually lives up to your expectations. Although, Antarctica springs to mind.
This mysterious island and its native people actually exceeded my every expectation. I’m just 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.
And I have to say, the explora Rapa Nui experience is absolutely one-of-a-kind. I can say with 100% certainty that there’s no better place to stay to truly understand and appreciate the unique culture of Easter Island through the eyes of passionate Rapa Nui guides.
And the delectable meals and luxury accommodations don’t hurt either! In fact, now I’m dying to visit explora’s other fabulous all-inclusive South American properties in Patagonia, Atacama, and Machu Picchu.
(Update: Next year, on Round the World #8, I do just that!)
The bottom line?
If Easter Island isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. It’s well worth all the effort and every penny you’ll spend to get here. And the great news is, no matter what your budget, there’s a perfect hotel to call home during your stay.
Next stop, Malta!