Of all the places I’ve had the privilege of visiting throughout my travels, I can recall only a handful of locations, which left such an indelible impression that it felt, in a way, unreal to know that I was actually there; for me one such place is Easter Island.
Located about 3,500 kilometers (over 2,100 miles) from the coast of Chile and more than 2,000 kilometers (just under 1,300 miles) from Pitcairn Island (its nearest inhabited island neighbor), Easter Island is one of the most remote places in the world. The original settlers of Easter Island (Rapa Nui: Rapa Nui; Spanish: Isla de Pascua) are believed to have arrived between 700-1100 CE, and were more than likely descendants of nearby islands within the Polynesian Triangle.
Ever since the arrival of the first Europeans centuries ago, Rapa Nui has become a destination of great intrigue, which today receives more than 80,000 visitors per year (more than thirteen times the population of the island’s almost 6,000 residents), a figure that grows every year. It 1995, the Rapi Nui National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, helping to promote tourism while also protecting its important archeological artifacts.
For the vast majority of travelers that make the six-hour flight to this little remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the allure of Rapa Nui unquestionably derives from the mystique and presence of hundreds of moai statues found littered across the landscape—whose construction and transportation, not to mention how they were erected, continues to be a source of debate.
Eager to find out more about Rapa Nui, its antecedents and the significance of the mysterious moai statues, I had the pleasure of taking a day tour with Kia Koe Tour in order to learn more about this fascinating island.
At 7AM we were picked up from our hostel and taken to our first stop: Ahu Akahanga. What makes Ahu Akahanga unique is the fact that it has never been restored, which means the state you find the moai and landscape in is exactly the way the first Europeans would have experienced it. A remarkable fact given the eroded, though somewhat well preserved condition of the statues since their initial construction centuries ago.
Many of the moai in this area have since fallen from their ahu (stone platforms), which were either toppled over by rival tribes of the island or by natural causes, such as tsunamis. There’s a relatively small moai (measuring a few meters in length) laid face-up (encircled by stones) which is believed to be one of the first moai constructed on the island.
According to our guide, Rosie, Hotu Matu’a, believed to be the first settler and initial ruler of Rapa Nui, is supposedly buried in the area, also referred to as “the King’s platform”. Many unique artifacts have survived since the first Rapa Nui people arrived, such as umu pae (earth ovens), which functioned by heating and transporting hot rocks to the pit and then using plantain leaves to cook and cover food (including fish and vegetables), and hare vaka (boat houses), which are large oval shaped formations that the Rapa Nui used to construct boats.
Not too far away from the uma pae and hare vaka is an ana (cave), which the Rapa Nui used for shelter in case of a strong winds, rain or escape from the sun’s harsh rays. The caves are still in use by residents today, whether for the reasons listed above or as a place to picnic with family and friends. Near the cave you’ll find a plethora of pukao (hair bun) in the surrounding area. It’s still a mystery as to how the Rapa Nui managed to place the pukao on top of the moai, though one theory suggests that they may have been placed at the same time the moai was being erected by using a system of rocks, levers and pulleys to gradually raise them into their upright position.
Our next stop took us to Rano Raraku, where 397 of the 887 moai at Easter Island can be found. In fact, this particular region of Easter Island supplied the building material for over 95% of all moai on the island. It’s impressive to walk around this region of the park (which is accessible only by tour, though I’ve heard of some travelers who’ve managed to cross the control point on bicycle) and see how many moai are either incomplete or partially buried by the ground.
The reason why many of the moai are found in this condition, as Rosie explained, is because somewhere along the construction or transportation process they were abandoned—for which reason, however, has yet to be explained. Moai were constructed to honor only the most revered and highest ranking members of the Rapa Nui. This also explains why each moai (with the exception of seven moai) face inwards towards the island’s center rather than to the ocean, so that, as the Rapa Nui believed, their antecedents can watch over them and protect the island.
Moai are typically several meters in height and can weigh anywhere from several dozen to more than a couple hundred tons. One of the most impressive examples is a moai that is completed but has yet to be carved out of the rock. This particular moai is the largest on the island, weighing over 270 tons and, if fully erected, would measure over 21 meters (71 feet) in height, more than twice any other standing moai. Rosie further explained that when moai are commissioned for construction, they are built on site, carved form the rock of the quarry, erected to their upright position and, when instructed, transported to their proper location along the coastline. But when the Rapa Nui suddenly stopped production of moai several centuries ago, many were left in their current state, either incomplete or partially buried due to the elements. This would also explain why these moai lack hollowed out sockets for eyes, found with no pukao and have not been toppled to the ground.
Two of the most famous moai can be found in Rano Raraku: tuku turi (a genuflecting moai made from red scoria with ears and a goatee) and another moai, which features a petroglyph on its belly, recording the first known contact of European arrival to the island. Though Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to arrive at Rapa Nui (he landed on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, thus the reason for the island’s name), the island has long been under the purview of Spanish influence. In 1888, Chile officially annexed Rapa Nui as part of Valparaíso Region (which is why the official languages of the island are Rapa Nui and Spanish).
After walking and exploring for a couple of hours, including visiting a beautiful crater lake, we headed back to the visitor’s center to have lunch. This would be a good time to mention that the tour lasts about seven hours and costs CH$20,000 (USD$31) without lunch or CH$30,000 (USD$47) with lunch. Given the additional cost for lunch (it is an island so expect higher than normal prices for just about everything compared to the mainland) I opted to pack my own lunch instead. If you’d like to buy souvenirs this would be an excellent time to do so, as there are many shops located next to the picnic area.
It’s also worth noting that at the time of my visit (May 2015), entry into the park was free (due to revenue disputes between Rapa Nui and Chile, entry to the park was free until the issue is resolved). Given the tax typically levied on tourists visiting Galápagos Islands (USD$100), perhaps a similar tax (park entry fee) will be applied to Rapa Nui National park, so the sooner you can visit the better.
After lunch we boarded our bus to visit one of the most famous ahus at Rapa Nui: Ahu Tongariki. As the largest ahu of the island, all fifteen moai were at one point toppled, either because of conflict due to the island’s many civil wars or the tsunami of 1960, which struck off the coast of Chile and swept the moai inland. It wasn’t until the 1990s when a group led by archeologists Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas, working in conjunction with Tadano Limited and University of Chile, restored the moai to their proper place atop the ahu. One of the moai (second one from the right) has a pukao atop its head, which is a resounding feat considering this particular moai weighs 86 tons. Also, all the moai here face the sunset during the Summer Solstice.
It’s worth noting that the best time to visit Ahu Tongariki is for sunrise. You can hire a car to take you in the morning to take you to the site. This is an extra excursion, which is separate from the cost of the tour and you’ll need to wake up early in the morning (about 6AM) for the sunrise, which appears around 7:30AM. But it’s absolutely worthwhile when you view the sun creep over the hillside and illuminate the faces of the moai atop Ahu Tongariki.
Te Pito Kura & Ahu Tu’u Paro
Not far from Ahu Tongariki is Te Pito Kura (Rapa Nui: navel of light, also believed to be the original name of the island). This is is an especially noteworthy site because of the presence of a large polished rock that can cause compasses to respond abnormally, with the needle spinning and pointing in every possible direction. Given the special properties of the heavy, iron dense stone (believed to have been brought to the island by Hotu Matu’a), it was thought to possess special healing powers or energy (known as mana) including the ability to increase female fertility.
Next to Te Pito Kura is Ahu Tu’u Paro, a felled moai statue, which along with its accompanying pukao, is the largest statue ever to be transported on the island. Weighing in at 82 tons and measuring almost 10 meters (more than 32 feet) in length, many scientists speculate that it would have taken anywhere from four to five hundred people to transport Tu’u Paro to its ahu.
Our last stop on the tour took us to Anakena, a beautiful beach covered with white coral sand, featuring two ahus, Ahu Ature (with one moai) and Ahu Nao-Nao (which has seven moai). It was in Anakena, according to oral tradition, that Hotu Matu’a first made land fall when arriving at Easter Island and where he founded the island’s first settlement. Anakena is one of only two beaches on the island. After an hour at the beach, we packed up our gear, took the last of our photos and returned to the bus to head back to town.
Though the tour had ended, by the end of the day I had gained not only a greater appreciation for Rapa Nui, its people and history but also a desire to stay even longer, which is something you probably wouldn’t expect to feel when you’re isolated on one of the world’s most remote places.