Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Rapa Nui is As Remote As It Gets
By Lucy Eglington
A tiny speck of an island in the vast Pacific, Rapa Nui is the world’s most remote inhabited island — you can go more than 1900km in any direction without seeing another soul.
The name Easter Island was given by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 to commemorate the day of his arrival, but the island is known to the natives by its ancient name, Te Pito o Te Henua, or “Navel of the World.”
About 2500 people live on the island, nearly all of them in the tiny town of Hanga Roa. The people are 70% Polynesian, the rest hailing mainly from the Chilean mainland.
Rapa Nui’s main tourist draw is the mysterious moai — the solemn stone sentinels which dot the coastline. But these are not the only remains of the now-extinct culture. Petroglyphs (rock carvings) depicting the “birdman” cult, carved Rongorongo script (the only written language in Oceania), ancient dwellings and caves can all be found here.
The Polynesian culture still survives today, and people still devote their time to traditional woodcarvings, crafts, tattooing, string figures, dance and music.
Various theories have been put forward as to the Easter Islanders’ origins, some wackier than others. The similarity between Rapa Nui and Incan stonework led Thor Heyerdahl to propose that the islanders were from Peru. Others suggest that Easter Island is the remnant of a lost continent, or indeed some sort of alien collaboration project!
Current archaeological evidence suggests that Polynesians discovered the islands in about 400 AD and the culture developed from there. Slightly less thrilling than aliens, but more likely to be true. Regardless of how it came to be, Rapa Nui has an epic and bloody history.
Once a Lush Paradise
Rapa Nui was once a lush tropical paradise — until the population topped 10,000. The drains of agriculture and the flourishing moai “industry” on the tiny island’s resources were too great, and it was stripped completely bare. Inevitably, in the face of rapidly dwindling food and shelter, social order declined into civil war and ultimately, cannibalism.
During this time, all of the moai along the coast were torn down from their vantage points by the islanders, as acts of war and defiance. The statues which stand on their original platforms today do so because of recent archaeological restorations.
As if all this wasn’t enough, during the spice race, western “civilization” dropped in on the island. Once they had introduced the islanders to their various diseases and stolen the remaining healthy people to sell into the slave trade, the population was reduced to just 111, and memories of the past were all but vanquished.
When the missionaries arrived, they wiped out all remaining evidence of the religious cults, and all pure-blood Rapa Nui died out. Annexation with Chile brought new blood, and today there are only a handful of people with ancestors in the original population.
Sadly, the invasion is still on, as the island expects an increasing number of tourists. This is a double-edged sword — as revenue from tourism goes into the hands of local people, it will bring some much-needed prosperity to the island. However, such numbers will put significant stress on the island’s resources.
- Many of the statues are side by side with headdresses.
Still, Rapa Nui is one of the most unique places on earth; a tiny, isolated place where people live amongst the ever-present ghosts of intriguing lost culture. Nearly all the volcanic landscape is a national park, with craters, caves, and a wild, rugged coastline.
The warm trade winds whip across the grassland, and wild horses roam everywhere. There are also a couple of beautiful beaches, flanked by swaying tropical greenery.
The Rapa Nui people are incredibly friendly and warm and are only too keen to share their mysterious inheritance with responsible travelers.
WHEN TO GO
The climate is sub-tropical, and temperatures range between 85 and 57 degrees. However, in the winter (June-August) the wind can make it seem much cooler, and you’ll need a light jacket and sweater. The summer months (December-February) are slightly more humid, but still comfortable.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Lan Chile is the only airline that flies to Easter Island. Four times a week, flights go between Santiago (Chile) and Papeete (Tahiti), via Easter Island. Between times, the airport is closed. The roundtrip fare from Santiago-Easter Island costs approximately $800 US, and a similar amount from Tahiti round-trip. You can also fly Chile-Easter Island-Tahiti.
There are about 20 taxis on the island which are used by both locals and tourists for short trips. For sightseeing around the island, they’ll prove far too expensive.
A better option is to rent a vehicle — jeeps, cars, vans, and motorcycles are all available. A jeep costs about $40-50 a day, and splitting the cost makes it an inexpensive way to see the island. There’s only one gas station on the island, so stock up before you leave town! You’ll need an ID and an international driver’s license. If it’s a motorbike you’re after, the locals often rent their own out for about $30-35 a day.
Bicycles are available in Hanga Roa for about $15 a day, but the distances can add up. And if you get a puncture, it’s a long walk back to town. Take some water, a good map, a hand pump, tire repair kit and waterproofs.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can rent a horse from $20 and up, depending upon the individual beast. Beware: some have homemade saddles (which can be quite painful on the undercarriage) and unless you’re really good with horses, you might find yourself at the helm of bolting, snorting tearaway steed.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTIONS
Most of the island is populated only by the horses that roam the grassy plains, and the many moai and other artifacts are left in situ in the natural landscape. In other words, there are no turnstiles here. Visitors should respect this by not climbing onto the platforms or touching the statues, and leaving any bones they may find amongst the rocks. The relative lack of tourists means that you will often have a site entirely to yourself, which, in turn, means you may want to buy a guidebook to help you interpret what you are seeing.
Being set in the natural landscape, all the sites and are open year-round. Orongo is the only site that is permanently manned by a park warden, who will collect a fee of US$10, covering entry to all the sites on the island for the length of your stay. Below is a selection of the many sites on the island:
A breathtaking lake-filled crater at the end of the island. It has an ancient stone dwelling-place, and hundreds of petroglyphs carved with Birdman images. It’s not known when the Birdman cult arose, but it may have been at the height of the resource crisis. It became the dominant religion on the island and was still in practice until 1867.In a once-a-year challenge for leadership, contenders would scale down the craggy, vertical slopes of Orongo, and swim across the tempestuous, shark-infested ocean to a small islet where Sooty Terns nest. The winner of the challenge was the one who brought back an unbroken egg. Over 480 birdman petroglyphs have been found on the island, and most of them are around Orongo. It is thought that they might represent birdman competition winners.
- Ranu Raraku
No one really knows why the Islanders decided to build so many moai, but each one was carved from the massive caldera of Rano Raraku, a volcano in the center of the island. Ranu Raraku is a great place to start seeing the island, as it is strewn with hundreds of abandoned moai in various stages of completion. They lie half-buried on the sides of the volcano, sticking up out of the ground, and still partly carved into the rock.
- Ahu Akivi
When the moai were finished, they were moved to their resting-places across the island using giant logs and set up on their ahu, or ceremonial platforms. Broken moai, abandoned beside the ancient roadways, testify to the difficulty of moving the massive stone giants. With the exception of Ahu Akivi, all the erected moai face inland — possibly placed that way to watch over the villages. Ahu Akivi is also unusual in that it is the only inland ahu. It is thought to have been built around 1442. With a view of the western part of the island, its seven moai were raised and restored in the 1950s.
- Ana Kai Tangata
As the moai-building industry reached its peak, the trees were all cut down and used – causing the land to erode. As the islands descended into civil war, moai were toppled, the violence grew steadily worse and victors would eat their dead enemies to gain strength. With food supplies so low, it may have also been the only way to get a tasty snack! If you’re feeling morbid, you can visit Ana Kai Tangata, which translates to “cave where men are eaten”. Inside the eerie cave are paintings of strange, ghost-like birds.
- Ahu Tongariki
One of Easter Island’s most impressive ahu. Fifteen huge moai stand proudly with their backs to the ocean, presiding over a stunning stretch of land. This ahu was restored by archaeologists after it was completely destroyed in 1960 by a massive tidal wave: it took five years to put back together.
- Ahu Naunau
The statues at Ahu Naunau still sport their red headdresses, known as Pukao. These were carved from a separate quarry of red rock and added to the moai on completion. Many of the island’s moai had Pukao, and you can see them scattered on the ground near to their wearers.
- Ahu Nau Nau
This ahu stands next to a beautiful pink-sand beach, Anakena, on the north shore. Anakena is one of only two beaches on the island, and it’s a fantastic spot to stop for a swim or a picnic after a hard day of tramping around the island.
- Rano Raraku, Easter Island is a volcanic crater that served as the quarry for about 95% of the island’s sculptures known as moai. These moai were left in various states of production.
Diving is fairly popular on the island. Ask down at the dive shop down on the tiny quay in town. One of the diving highlights is a massive submerged moai, specially made and sunk for Kevin Costner’s film, Rapa Nui. A lot of the locals have stories about this film, as many of them were in it!
BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
Anakena Tours in Hanga Roa (Tel: 223292) offers quick whistle-stop tours of the island if you don’t want to wait for the next plane three days later. Alternatively, many of the residenciales offer homespun tours. Some better than others, depending on the linguistic abilities of your hosts!
Visitors should try also to attend a cultural performance which typically involves the singing of both traditional and modern music. Some of the “dances” are small plays about cultural events and these prove very popular with Rapanui as well as other Islanders where they have been seen at Pacific Arts Festivals since they first participated in 1972. There are cassettes available of traditional and modern Rapanui music and some Compact Disks are beginning to be produced.
The islanders love a knees-up, and they are disco divas. Despite the tiny population, the island has three(!) discos. They usually go on all night, starting around eleven. As well as the usual drinks, the locals like to quaff revolting-looking blue pisco sours. These are fairly close in composition to paint stripper, so go easy on them!
If you are female, be careful with whom who you dance. If you dance with someone, you are expected to dance with them all night, and there are a few rough characters around. It’s best to arrive with a man who you know, even if you don’t intend to stay with them all evening.
If you’re here on a Sunday, the 9 a.m. service at the Catholic church is fun to attend. The singing is absolutely wonderful, and the church is filled with fantastic carvings that are a hybrid of traditional church trappings with those of Rapa Nui.
Regardless of your faith, you will be welcome here. In early February there is the Semana de Rapa Nui, a weeklong celebration of all things Rapa Nui with dance, music and other cultural events.
Many of the islanders are Christian, so the usual festivals such as Christmas and Easter are also observed.
Many of the locals who operate hotels and guesthouses arrive at Mataveri Airport to greet the tourists. Unlike other destinations filled with touts, this is usually the best and cheapest way to find a room on Rapa Nui. Plus, you’ll get a free ride into town! All the accommodation is in Hanga Roa.
- Hotel Iorana
Fabulous views of the coastline, plus there’s an ocean-side rock pool at the foot of the cliff, and a swimming pool. Rooms are US$118 for a single with breakfast.
- Hotel O’Tai
Tel: 100-250; fax: 100-482.
Set in lovely gardens with a swimming pool, in the center of town. The staff is very friendly and there’s a good restaurant. Rooms are US$62/94 with breakfast.
Residenciales are usually an extension of a private home and are basic rooms, with or without bathrooms. Prices range from US$25-US$30. They are a great way to meet the locals, and an informal, less expensive alternative to the hotels.
- Pension Tahai, owned by Maria Hey, costs from US$30 with breakfast. Rooms have private bathrooms with hot water and face onto a large tropical garden filled with fruit trees.
- Mahina Taka Taka Georgia
Tel: 100-452; fax 100-282.
A small residenciale near the museum just outside town, owned by a genuine Rapanui family. Rooms have private bathrooms and doors to the garden. The price is US$25 per person, including breakfast.
- Ana Maria Arredondo has rooms for rent in for US$25 per person with breakfast. Tel: 100-359.
Authorities discourage camping around the island, but there are camping facilities at Anakena on the north coast. However, there is no water or food available outside town, so you’ll have to carry it all in.
Food here is very expensive, as nearly everything is either shipped or flown in from the mainland. This is definitely not a gastronome’s paradise: restaurant menus are limited, but they’re redeemed by the abundance of tasty fresh seafood. Food and drinks are only available in town, so stock up in one of the two supermarkets before you head off for the day’s exploring. You’ll have to be imaginative: depending on when the ship last came in, fresh produce may be a little past its best!
There’s a pizzeria, Pizzeria Giovanni, and a French/Pacific hybrid restaurant, La Taverne du Pecheur. The food here is an interesting mix of local ingredients and inventiveness in the face of sporadic supplies, all washed down with fine Chilean wines. Because of the limited supplies, most of the places around town have similar menus.
Mercado Artesanal (the morning craft market) is the best place to shop, but you can also pick up souvenirs on the street leading up to the church and on Policarpo Toro, which is the main drag through town. Obviously, many a mini-moai has been made sold here, and they’re everywhere in varying sizes, shapes and quality.
Carvings are in every shop, and pieces include statues of female figures (moai pa’a pa’a), paddles (rapa), clubs (ua), staffs (‘ao), lizards and birdman images (tangata manu). After the moai, birdman images are extremely popular, and exist as both ornaments and small pieces of jewelry in bone, abalone shell and silver.
You can also buy shell jewelry and a variety of Pacific Island knick-knacks — ornaments and serving spoons and hair clips, many of them made of coconut shell, abalone shell and bone. Somehow, I don’t think the sarongs saying “Bula Fiji” on them are locally made!
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
Citizens of the US, Canada, Australia and most Western European countries do not require a visa, though New Zealanders do. Entry permits are received upon arrival and good for 90 days are renewable. US citizens must pay a $US20 entry tax.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
The water can taste slightly odd here, but it’s safe to drink. If you prefer, the stores have bottled water and soft drinks. There is a hospital on the island, but facilities are limited so if you come down with anything nasty, it’s best to head for Chile. You won’t need inoculations for Easter Island, and there is no malaria, although the island does have mosquitoes.
The only natural dangers are scorpions and black widow spiders, which arrived in the 1960s from the mainland. These live on the north coast in the rocks and tall grass.
Easter Island Information:
The official Chile Tourism site offers a wealth of information
Easter Island Tourism also has their own website about the island
pacificislandtravel.com Good info on the island and on other islands nearby.
Sernatur, the tourist office (100-255) can provide names of places to stay and prices. It is on Tu’u Maheke street, near the bank.
The story of a team of archaeologists and a 75-person crew who struggled to raise a 10-ton moai, using only the ancient tools and materials. How the moai were moved and erected is still, to a certain extent, a mystery, and this project attempts to unravel it.
Easter Island: Archeology, Ecology, and Culture
By Jo Anne Van Tilburg
Easter Island : Mystery of the Stone Giants
By Catherine Orliac, Michel Orliac (Contributor), Paul G. Bahn (Translator)
Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit — Chile and Easter Island
By Lonely Planet Publications
This guide is mainly devoted to Chile, and only has a very small section devoted to Easter Island.