Guide to Easter Island: Remote Isle of Mystery

Guide to Easter Island: Remote Isle of Mystery

Santiago to Easter Island

We decided to go next from Santiago to Easter Island, which was actually quite a ways out of our way (and hardly cheap either).

Why go to Easter Island?  I realize this may sound like a rhetorical question, but I think my answer is a bit on the geeky side:  I’ll be honest – I’d wanted to go to Easter Island ever since I read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse in college about how the Easter Islanders went from being a complex civilization of thousands of individuals who produced those amazing iconic statues, the moai, to a dwindling group of stragglers by the time the first Westerner, Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, first stumbled upon the island in 1722.

I wanted to see the place with my own eyes, to witness the treeless landscape, and stare down one of the statues that the Rapa Nui built to protect their island but which – ironically – ultimately led to their own undoing.  I wanted to see what failure of a civilization looked like first-hand.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, in order to understand the story of Easter Island – its rise and fall – and the mysteries the island holds, you need to grasp just how isolated the place really is…

Putting the Distance in Perspective

How isolated, you say?

Imagine yourself sailing in an outrigger canoe on the open Pacific Ocean for months on end with members of your extended family – food is getting low, water is what you catch from the rain (which isn’t much), a few people have died already (Aunt Keilani isn’t looking too great these days either), and you’re not sure how much longer your group can go on.  The navigators in your group have been watching the stars and the waves, scanning for any sign of land for months, without any luck.

You have always trusted their skills, but you are really starting to wonder if maybe this time they’ve miscalculated – when finally someone in the group spots land the distance.  Imagine your joy at this proffered chance for survival!  Imagine your fear as you finally step out of the canoe – what will you find?  Is anyone here already?  Will there be food to feed you and your family?  All you know is, if you don’t get out of the canoe and onto this island, you will all surely die.

This is not an unrealistic depiction of how it was for the intrepid Polynesians, the Rapa Nui, who first settled Easter Island over 1000 years ago, for it is one of the most isolated islands in the world.  The small triangle-shaped isle lies almost 3,000 miles off the coast of South America, forming the eastern-most point of the Polynesian triangle, along with Hawaii and New Zealand. The closest island to it, Tahiti, where scientists believe the original Polynesians settlers came from, is a mere 2,500 miles away.  And if you’ve ever seen the outrigger canoes that they used to get there, you can imagine how arduous the journey must have been…

Polyneisan triangle
Polynesian Triangle – Easter Island marks the eastern-most edge

Why go all that way?

Scientists believe that a kelp disease may have reduced fish stocks in the area of Tahiti, thus driving the Polynesians to go so far in search of another home.  There is no possible way that the Rapa Nui could have set out knowing exactly what they were heading for, as it would have been aiming for a needle in a haystack, with only the stars and waves to guide them.  They must have set out only with the faith that their navigators would be able to find land if it existed. Easter Island is the Moana story for real!

moana
Moana was loosely based on real Polynesian migration patterns

Guide to Easter Island and Getting There

Luckily for us, we did not need to spend months on a canoe to get to Easter Island – we were able to fly direct from Santiago to Easter Island the morning after our day-trip to Valparaiso.  That said, the once-daily flight from Santiago takes over six hours by plane.  The only other direct flight is once-weekly from Tahiti (if you’re lucky enough to be able to start there), and that flight takes only (!) five hours.

Our LATAM Air flight arrived late at night, so we weren’t able to see the scenery right away, but we were immediately set at ease by the relaxed Polynesian atmosphere.  Our wonderful Airbnb hosts greeted us at the airport with warm smiles, placing fragrant leis around our necks, and the balmy island breeze that met our skin was delightful after the heat of the Atacama Desert.  We couldn’t wait to wake up early the next morning to explore the island!

Moai:  Silent Stone Sentinels

Like most people who come to Easter Island, our main goal was to see the moai – the ancient statues dotted along the coast as if guarding the island.  At some point, the Rapa Nui islanders started carving the statues out of single pieces of solidified volcanic ash rock using only hand-held basalt axes.

The statues original statues were smaller and rounder, resembling statues found on other Polynesian islands, but over time they evolved into tall rectangular stylized statues:  approximately 1/3 head and 2/3 body, with arms by sides and hands placed on their bellies.  Heavy brows shielding deep-set eyes, long ears, and jutting square jaws give the moai a fierce countenance.

FUN FACT:  Many people erroneously think that for a long time we only had the heads of the moai and that their bodies were only recently discovered by archeologists.  This isn’t true –  some moai were buried up to their heads, but many always had their bodies exposed.

Many moai were crowned with red stones called pukao, which were carved from a separate quarry from the moai bodies.  Scientists still debate whether the pukao were meant to be hats or represent hair knots, as the men often died their hair red.  Once the moai and pukao were in place on their ceremonial platforms (ahu), the statues were ‘activated’ by placing coral in their eye holes. Now the inward-facing statues could watch over the island’s inhabitants for generations to come.

Collapse – Thanks to Moai?

As I mentioned before, Jared Diamond’s book Collapse used Easter Island as a great example of a civilization that drove itself almost to extinction.   Diamond believes that it was most  islanders’ obsession with building moai that led to their downfall.

Many people think that the mystery of the moai is why they were built.  In actuality, we have a good understanding of why:   according to oral record, moai were built as a form of ancestor worship, with families commissioning a moai to commemorate a loved one.

According to Diamond, there was clearly a bit of an arms race over time, as families built bigger and bigger moai to one-up each other.  There’s no question that eventually the island was deforested, and Diamond believes that the environmental impact that followed led to the civilization’s collapse.  By the time Captain Cook cruised by in 1774, the population was down further from Captain Roggeveen’s record in 1722, and there were no moai left standing – possibly toppled by the Rapa Nui in revenge towards the religion that failed to protect them?

The Real Mystery of the Moai

With most moai weighing over 20 tons (not to mention the 11 ton pukau), the real mystery they pose is not so much why they are there but how they got to their .  After all, these heavy behemoths had to be moved from the quarry at the center of the island to their costal ceremonial platforms, ahu, by a culture that did not have use of the wheel or any form of draft animal! (The only mammals of note on Easter Island were what could fit and survive in their canoes – rats, pigs and chickens.)

Easter Island statue

There are three main theories on how the moai may have been moved:  dragged on sleds using ropes, ‘walked’ upright to their positions using ropes, or rolled there using a series of cut longs as a moving platform.  The latter theory may hold the key to the collapse of Easter Island’s civilization – as more and more moai were built and they became bigger over time, more and more trees were required to move them.  This eventually led to the complete deforestation of the island.  Many moai were abandoned mid-carving in the quarries, and the islanders adopted a new religion (the Birdman religion) as the island could no longer physically support their previous belief system.

Hanga Roa – THE City on the Island

Easter Island is small, and as if to emphasize that, there is only one city on the island – Hanga Roa.  The town center is just a few minutes’ drive from the airport, with two parallel main roads, each dotted with restaurants and car rental places.  Just to note, Wifi can be hard to come by outside of hotels.  We ended up spending significant time in an Internet café just to keep up with daily communication.

We rented a 4-wheel drive SUV in town from one of the many shops on the main street.  When we were there, most cars cost around 50,000 CPL per day on lower end.  To rent one, you just need a valid driver’s license.

TOP TIP:  If you are unable to drive manual, you may not want to rent a car yourself, as there are very few automatics available, and the road conditions are tough (lots of potholes), making manual driving more difficult than normal.

You can also hire an English-speaking guide from many of the same shops that rent cars and offer tour packages.  We had intended to do this, but due to a communication snafu, we ended up going it alone in the end.  In hindsight, I wish we had fought harder to find another guide, as there is little to no written information at the various sites.  Without a guide, you will need to go off of what is written in a guide book – which is fine, but less lively than having a local explain things to you.

Exploring the Island

We decided to explore the island on our own over the two full days we had rather than join a tour.  (We would have liked to spend more time, but it’s expensive, and honestly, 2 full days was plenty of time to see everything.)  The island is triangular in shape, formed when three separate volcanoes melted into each other, leaving a volcanic cone on each of its three corners.  We did the South side on the first day, and the two triangular halves of the North side the second day.

Easter Island map

TOP TIP:  There are few roads and almost no street signs, so it’s best to navigate by GPS.  If you don’t have cellular service, download the app Maps.Me and use it to navigate without GPS if you are driving yourself

The islanders have restored many of the moai to their ahu platforms dotted around the island, and you can visit the sites yourself easily by driving around.  Each ‘site’ is clearly marked on a map, and you can enter by purchasing a national park pass when you arrive at the airport or at the central office in Hanga Roa next to the Cruz Verde pharmacy.  Just show the pass when you go to the various sites and collect your stamps.  Passes are $80 for foreign adults and $40 for foreign children.

TOP TIP:  Though it is part of Chile, Easter Island is another great place to get a unique stamp in your real passport.  Look for these stamps at the various sites you visit.

Beaches

Another difference with other Polynesian islands is that Easter Island is not really known for its beaches.  Most are rocky and not really the kind of place that you want to stretch out and sunbathe.  The exceptions are two lovely white sandy beaches – Anakena and Ovahe, both on the South side.  Anakena is believed to be where the first intrepid settlers landed, and you can see why they decided to stay:  it’s absolutely beautiful, with a few palm trees and some moai on an ahuOvahe is a bit harder to get to and more treacherous, but this natural barrier acts as a people filter, so its nice if you want to get away from tour groups and cruise ships.  We swam there and sheltered under a nearby rock overhand for our picnic lunch, and it was absolutely lovely.  (Do note though – unlike Hawaii, the water is cold!)

The people

One of our favorite things was getting to meet the local people.  When we first got there, I was struck by how Easter Island seemed to be almost a Latin version of Hawaii – albeit much smaller and poorer cousin.  (Despite its prices, Easter Island is definitely still developing!).  The people there speak their native language – Rapa Nui – as well as Spanish and remarkably good English.  We got by in English more in Easter Island than anywhere else during our Latin American adventure.

Were very impressed by the Polynesian hospitality shown us.  In addition to picking us up from the airport with leis, our Airbnb hosts actually ran a Polynesian dinner show on their property.  It included a traditional feast to welcome guests as well as traditional dancing, and we truly felt the generous, welcoming nature of their culture.

TOP TIP:  If you get a chance to attend a dinner show, I would highly recommend it as a wonderful window into the local culture. This is the one we attended.  

We also experienced incredible kindness from strangers.  One day it was raining very hard and we were trying to walk from our Airbnb into town to find some breakfast (and let’s be real, COFFEE!)  We apparently were heading the wrong way down the road, and a pick-up truck slowed down along side us.  The gentleman who was driving motioned for us to get in the back cab, and we weren’t about to turn down the kind offer.  He drove us into town, and when we got out he was almost offended that we offered him money, refusing to accept any.

It may have been cold from the rain, but our hearts were warmed by this simple gesture.

Kelly’s Guide to Easter Island:

  • Remember that there’s only one scheduled flight per day from Santiago – so you need to plan accordingly
  • If you are not on an organized tour – which I would recommend for the freedom – then you can easily rent your own car for approximately 50,000 a day. But note – all cars for rent seem to be manual!
  • English speaking guide if you can – can book through car rental places often
  • Despite it being a developing nation, prices are still expensive – you may want to consider Airbnb over hotels
  • If you purchase a local SIM card in Chile, whatever you do, don’t get Claro – it won’t work there and you will be high and dry!
Two Traveling Texans

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