Every now and again, an opportunity arises to travel somewhere that you had never previously even remotely considered. For me, these have usually been in the form of business travel which, although certainly not as relaxing as holidays, have nevertheless always managed to surprise, enlighten and/or educate me in some way. For that reason, I have always embraced such opportunities. A few months ago though, an opportunity arose that would take us on a short break to the remarkable, extraordinary and mystical place that is Easter Island.
Our son was studying in Chile on a university exchange from the UK. He was going to be away for a year, so we decided to plan a holiday there, incorporating various stops around the northern part of the country including the Atacama and the Andes. From there, we planned to head south as far as his university city of Concepcion (all of which you can read more about elsewhere on this blog). We had originally also intended to head much further south to Patagonia as well, but as we were visiting in July/August in mid-winter, we were advised the adverse weather could be a problem that far south. And, so it was that with five spare days to fill before returning to the UK, we decided to “pop over” to Easter Island.
A dot in the middle of the South Pacific, Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, to use its local name) is one of the remotest inhabited places on earth. It is neither cheap nor easy to get to, the only regular air service to the island being a daily flight direct from Santiago (well, there is also an infrequent service from Tahiti apparently, but that isn’t much use to most people!). It isn’t exactly a local hop, but as we were in Chile and would never be closer, if we were going to do it then now was the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I would now say it is one of those “must do” trips if you are in Chile.
Rapa Nui might have been annexed to Chile since the 1880’s, but it is much closer in culture to Polynesia, which is consistent with its location, being one corner of the Polynesian triangle along with Hawaii and New Zealand. It’s a pretty small volcanic island too, with a population of only around 6,000, nearly all of whom live in Hanga Roa, the only town on the island.
It was most likely first settled by Polynesians sometime between 300-800AD and the history of the island is full of mystery and folklore. However, it is clear that there are three main periods of civilization. The earliest settlers were responsible for the carving of the 800 or so Moai (the large volcanic stone statues) that are dotted across the island. These enormous statues represented tribal or family ancestors or elders and were thought to provide protection over the community. Those that were moved to their permanent locations were erected at various sites close to the coast around the island. From their large raised stone plinths (called Ahu), they tower over the fields facing inland, thus keeping watch over the settlements.
The Moai were all carved from the rock of one volcano on the island, Rano Raraku, and many examples are still scattered around the crater and slopes today. Remarkably, only about a quarter of the total were ever moved to their final permanent locations. The remainder either sit abandoned at the volcano quarry, or lay haphazardly near the roadsides, presumably mid-journey to their final destination.
The Maoi carving period lasted a few hundred years, with later examples noticeably bigger and better than the older ones. However, by the 1600’s the practice stopped as overpopulation (around 15,000 at its peak) reached a critical tipping point, putting an unsustainable strain on natural resources. This lack of natural resources rapidly resulted in fierce internal fighting for survival, and during a few short years of rapid decline and tribal or family infighting, not only were the unfinished carvings abandoned, nearly all the previously erected Moai were toppled.
The end of the Moai period marked a transition into a new belief centred around the cult of the Bird Man (Tangata Manu). This belief system held that whilst ancestors were still seen as providers for their families, the leaders could be represented in human form. Each year, elders would make their bid for leadership of the community by choosing a warrior to honour the god of fertility, Makemake. These warriors, who were chosen for their strength and fitness, pitched themselves against each other in a bizarre competition to become the Bird Man.
The competition involved climbing down the rugged Orongo cliffs into the ocean, where they would swim to the small islet of Moto Nui and wait for the first Sooty Tern (Manutara) to arrive. The task was to retrieve the first Manutara egg of the season and then swim back to Orongo with the intact egg. The winning athlete would win the crown for his representative elder, who would then become leader for the year. As Bird Man, the winning athlete would also be held in high esteem. He would shave his head and grow his finger nails in order to achieve a somewhat bird like appearance. The Bird Man cult survived until the 1860’s when missionaries arrived. They successfully suppressed the cult, bringing Christianity to Rapa Nui, and the culture transitioned to its current form.
Interestingly, after years of violence, and prolonged periods of famine and disease, by the late 1800’s the population of Easter Island had diminished to just 111 people. All of the Rapa Nui population today can trace ancestry back to that small group of survivors.
Anyway, enough of the history lesson, suffice to say that it is absolutely fascinating and well worth doing a bit of internet searching if you want to learn more.
Our experience on the island was magical. Our visit started at the tiny Mataveri airport, where we were required to purchase an entry ticket to the National Park monuments for $80. As we left the airport huts, we had a fabulous welcome from local tour guides including the placing of a tradition Polynesian Lei around our necks. A nice touch that instantly conveyed the relaxed Southern Pacific culture.
We were dropped at our hotel, which was perched on the rocky cliff looking out west over the ocean (great for the South Pacific sunset!) just outside Hanga Roa. It was apparently one of the better hotels on the island, although I would still only class it as a 2* hotel but in a 5* location. There was nothing wrong with it as such; it was clean and relaxed, the staff were friendly, there was fresh linen etc. When it was constructed in the 1960’s it would have been beautiful in all respects. It’s just that it appears not to have been decorated since, and the whole place just seemed a bit tired and in need of a refresh (the pine clad walls and ceiling in our room was testament to that). Although we didn’t look inside other hotels, I would imagine most are of a similar standard. Therefore, you need to be prepared for fairly basic accommodation.
Using our hotel as a base, over the next few days we embarked on three superb tours of the heritage sites around the island. Our hugely entertaining and knowledgeable local guide gave us a fascinating insight into the folklore and traditions of the island and the restoration work to repair and re-erect previously toppled Moai that was carried out in the 1960’s and 70’s by American Anthropologist, William Mulloy.
In between the tours, we also had plenty of time on our own to wander down to the beautiful rustic town of Hanga Roa. Here, we visited the Catholic church, the artisan market and various tiny craft shops before relaxing in the small harbour with coffee and empañadas. We were also told to be on the lookout for turtles swimming in the harbour and were thrilled to see two huge and beautiful examples swimming around within a few minutes.
In the evenings we experienced some gorgeous sunsets, especially from our hotel and a nearby rustic restaurant, both perched on the rocks of the west coast of the island. The sunset highlight though, was a thirty minute walk away, on the far side of Hanga Roa. One warm evening, we sat on the grass at the ancient site of Ahu Tahai and watched an achingly beautiful scene as the winter sun set on the ocean behind the huge Moai statues. The clouds at sunset threw up a fabulous palette of blue, green, red, orange and crimson against a foreground of silhouetted Moai. Not bad for a mid-winter August evening. Photographs can never quite capture the sheer scale of the landscape, but it’s one of those images that will stay with me forever.
Easter Island’s isolation in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere, has allowed it to preserve a very strong cultural identity that has survived European settlers, pirates, famine and near total extinction of the population. It remains a beautiful, unique and deeply mysterious place where legend and stories passed down through generations keep the history alive.
If you ever find yourself with an opportunity to go to this wonderful island, then my advice would be to not turn it down. It’s a life experience that you won’t regret and although it’s a bit of a trek to get there, it is well worth the effort and the cost if you are starting from Santiago.
Click here to visit my Easter Island Gallery, where you will find over 50 high res photos of this beautiful island.
Also, feel free to leave a comment on this article. I would love to hear of other people’s experience of the island.