Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, is the most remote inhabited island on earth. With a distance of more than 1,300 miles from Pitcairn Island and 2,000 miles to the Chilean coast, the island is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Its history is fascinating as little is known about its settlement, rise and sudden collapse. Best known for its Moai sculptures, the island should be a bucket list item for everybody. We will share our experience breaking it down into a few different sections.
When researching Easter Island, we were faced with tons of random information and making sense of it all was tough. The purpose of this blog post is to present our travels on the island which could also be used as a basic itinerary, give a brief history of the island and share miscellaneous information that we think is useful for other travelers. Ok, here we go!
Our flight left Santiago at 7PM and we arrived on Easter Island after a five hour flight at 10PM local time. There is a two hour time difference between Santiago and Easter Island. We grabbed a taxi to get to our hotel which is a fixed rate for airport transfers of 5,000 Chilean Pesos or about $8USD. We were wiped from the long flight and went to bed to prepare for our fast and furious trip.
One thing to note before digging into the fun stuff is that the majority of the archaeological sites are located within Rapa Nui National Park so buying a park permit is necessary. As soon as we got off the plane and before getting our suitcase, we stopped at the National Park office inside the airport to buy this pass. The cost is 54,000 Chilean Pesos or $80USD per person. It is pricey, but its worth every penny!
In the morning, our first stop was at Vinapu. This site contains two separate Ahu or platforms and two Moai statues that have fallen and become partially buried. A typical site for the Moai is that a large Ahu was built and the Moai erected on top. The significance of this site is that the Ahu is different from any other on the island. The large stones were masterfully carved to fit together. The resemblance to the fitted stones of the Inca at Machu Picchu is immediately noticeable. Although there is no concrete evidence that there was contact between the Inca and the Rapanui people, seeing the resemblance makes one think that it is very plausible.
Next, we drove to Orongo, located right on the caldera of the Rano Kau volcano on the southwest side of the island. When I say right on the caldera, I mean right on the caldera. Just a few meters in the other direction are the sheer cliffs leading to the ocean several hundred feet below. The significance of this site is that it is the location of the Birdman Competition which was a cult that arose on the island in the 1700s. During a period of drought and famine, it was believed that the gods were no longer providing for the people and that it was competition among men that would provide for the people. Each year when the Sooty Tern would return to nest on the islands, the men involved in the competition would travel to Orongo and wait for the birds to arrive. As soon as the birds began laying eggs, the men would climb down the sheer cliffs and swim to the small rocky islands offshore. Once on the island, they would find an egg and climb back down into the water then scale the cliffs back to Orongo. The first person to do so received recognition and privileges from the Rapanui for an entire year. He would be required to live in isolation for some time after shaving all of the hair on his body and was the leader of the Rapanui people until the next competition began. The competition was very dangerous as the cliffs very tall and completely vertical. Injury and death was not uncommon. Additionally, sharks filled the water during the same time of the year and shark attacks were another common hazard. A symbol for the Birdman cult, essentially a man’s body with a bird’s head, began appearing around the island during this period.
Orongo was only used during the Birdman Competition and was not a village occupied year-round. Dwellings were built using stacked flat stones. Inside the dwellings, the stone roofs were painted with many different images. During the early 1900s, as sailers would explore the islands, the dwellings were destroyed to remove the roofs and paintings that were then stolen. Luckily, the majority of the dwellings are still intact.
Here are the islands that the competitors would swim to:
This is the Birdman Cult symbol that appears in later periods all over the island:
From Orongo, we visited Ana Kai Tangata where large caves were painted in the same manner as the dwellings of Orongo. Unfortunately, the caves have become unstable and are no longer open for tourists to enter to view the paintings. Even so, watching the waves roll into shore was mesmerizing.
At Ana Kai Tangata, we ate lunch before moving onto our afternoon exploration.
The first stop after lunch was the Puna Pau quarry. This quarry is located on the outskirts of the island’s lone city of Hanga Roa and it is significant because it is the location where the topknots for the Moai statues were carved. The topknots are essentially “hats” placed on top of the Moai statue. Although not all of the Moai had topknots, the majority that were actually erected did have one. The volcanic stone here is called scoria and is a deep red color which creates a nice contrast with the grey color of the body of the Moai. A possible tip for other travelers is that we overheard a guide saying this is the best place on the island to watch the sunset. With your park pass you are only allowed to enter this site one time so making it the last stop for the day would be necessary.
From Puna Pau, we drove to Ahu Akivi which is one of the most recognizable sites on the entire island. At this site, a large Ahu was built and seven Moai statues have been erected looking to the sea. Interestingly, this is the only site that is not right on the coast and the only site where the Moai look to the sea. All other Ahu are near the coast and Moai always look inward to the island. The seven Moai here represent the original seven explorers who discovered the island. This was a great taste of the sites that we would visit later in the trip.
Just a short distance from Ahu Akivi is Ana Te Pahu which is a cave that supplied drinking water to the people. This cave was very important source for drinking water as there are no rivers or streams on the island. At this location, drinking water was almost always available. Its location on the west side of the island was important as the majority of the people lived there in ancient times. The entrance is unique as it is one of the few places where banana trees grow on the island.
Next, we returned to Hanga Roa and began driving north along the west side of the island. We visited Ana Kakenga which is a lava tube that is believed to be a place for hiding during times of war. Rapa Nui was almost always a peaceful place but there were periods of war. This cave has a very narrow opening making it difficult to see. At the end of the cave, the ceiling grows taller and two openings along the coast provide sunlight. Sheer cliffs are below the cave making entrance from the coast nearly impossible.
We turned around and headed back south to the lone Moai of Hanga Kio’e. This Moai and Ahu are believed to be a late period construction. Although it is less impressive than many other locations on the island, it was still fun to see.
At this time it was nearly 6:00 in the evening and we returned to our hotel to get more drinking water and eat dinner. We relaxed for a couple of hours and set out to watch the sunset at Tahai.
Tahai is easily one of the best spots to watch the sunset on the entire island. Seven separate Moai on three different Ahu lie directly on the west coast allowing for the sun to set between them. This was most likely a very important social and religious area for the ancient people of Rapa Nui as there is a large grassy area in front of Moai. A ramp leading to the sea was also built to provide access to the open ocean along the rocky coast. We enjoyed the beautiful sunset with plenty of other tourists. Many people bring a bottle of wine or beer to enjoy as the sun sets. During our visit in early December, the sun set quite late at about 9:20pm.
We also enjoyed the company of lots of friendly dogs at Tahai!
After the sunset, we returned to our hotel tired from a long day of exploration. In the morning, we rose at 6:15AM to catch the sunrise on the opposite side of the island.
Equally as popular among tourists is watching the sunrise at Tongariki. Tongariki is located right on the coast between the Rano Raraku quarry and Poike volcano. At this site, fifteen Moai stand tall on a massive Ahu looking inwards as usual. In our opinion, this is the most impressive Moai site on the island as it is the location of the largest Ahu with greatest number of Moai. We watched the burning orange clouds gradually change to shades of pink as the sun rose. During our visit, the sun rose at 7:10am. At 8:00am, we returned to our hotel for breakfast before setting out to explore.
The first stop after breakfast was the museum in Hanga Roa. Entrance to the museum was free and provided excellent information about the island with many great artifacts as well. Among the artifacts were tools used to sculpt the Moai, boards containing a summary of symbols for the native language, beautifully carved sculptures and many other interesting things. In hindsight, visiting the museum first may have provided us with a better understanding of the culture and archaeological sites for our visits on the first day.
After the museum, we visited Anakena on the northeast side of the island. This is the location of one the island’s two sandy beaches. When we parked the car, we were met with a large green grassy field of palm trees, a coral pink beach and crystal clear waters every shade of blue. According to oral legend, this is the location where the first seven explorers landed when the island was discovered. Two separate Ahu with seven Moai lie right next to the beach. The water was pretty cold when we were here and temperatures were still low so we didn’t swim but we did get our feet wet.
After exploring this area, we stopped into a restaurant and enjoyed shrimp and tuna empanadas for lunch. They were delicious! Tuna was one of the major sources of protein for the Rapanui people so finding tuna at the restaurants is quite common.
Following Anakena, we stopped at Te Pito Kura where one Moai on a large Ahu was located. This site was significant as the Moai was the largest Moai ever successfully moved and erected on an Ahu. The site has been left as it was found so, sadly, the Moai lays facedown. The majority of the Moai on the island were knocked over during times of war and only a few sites have been restored. We went back and forth on whether the sites should be restored. Seeing the restored sites is unbelievable and allows for viewing the Moai in their majesty. On the other hand, seeing the Moai facedown tells an important story of the island’s history.
Next, we stopped at Papa Vaka which is a major petroglyph site. From this site we can see depictions of canoes, fish and fish hooks which shows the importance of fishing to the people. Additionally, there is a tuna and shark which are easily identifiable. Since the petroglyphs were carved in the soft volcanic stone, they were very difficult to see and will most likely be impossible to see in just a few decades.
Driving to the south, we returned to Tongariki once more. It was great to see this site in the morning and once again in the afternoon. With the morning sun behind the Moai, it was difficult to see the definition of the faces. In the mid afternoon sun, the shadows cast on the face were perfect. Directly behind this site is the mountain of Rano Raraku which is the site where nearly all of the Moai were carved.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Rano Raraku to visit the quarry which is arguably the most impressive site of the entire island. At the quarry, hundreds of Moai were in various stages of being carved. A large trail allows visitors to walk above, below and in-between these Moai. The Moai were carved laying down, face up. After the majority of the statue was carved, it is believed to have been separated from the mountain and stood up in a hole where final carving of the back would be done. This is the reason why there are so many Moai standing upright at this site. Once carving was finished, it is believed they were dug out of the hole and transported to the final destination. One of the misconceptions is that some of the Moai are actually just heads. In reality, they are all full bodied statues that have been buried up to the neck from the time production ceased. At the quarry, many statues were broken leading one to question whether they broke during transportation or if they were broke intentionally. Many Moai were still connected to the mountain in the later stages of carving. Of those still attached to the mountain, some have large hard rocks sticking out of the sculpture. These were likely abandoned as cutting through those rocks would have been impossible with the tools available. Seeing all of the Moai here was impressive. One of the reasons it was so impressive is that the quarry is essentially untouched by archaeologists and sits as it was when it was abandoned centuries ago.
One of the most interesting sculptures at the quarry is the Moai known as Tukuturi. This Moai is different than the other Moai here and on the island as it is in a kneeling position. Additionally, the face appears to have a goatee as it looks to the sky. It is believed that this was carved at a date after production of the traditional Moai ceased, most likely during the period of the Birdman Cult.
After visiting the quarry, we walked along a path where ten or so Moai were abandoned, seemingly on their way to a final destination. Seeing so many Moai in process and finished on their way somewhere makes one question why they were never moved to a final resting place. Were they intentional left here? Did something drastic happen that forced production and moving the Moai to stop? This is one of the many mysteries of Easter Island.
From the quarry, we made one final stop in Akahanga. This was a large settlement with at least three separate Ahu and many toppled Moai. Clearly it was an important settlement but little is known about its importance.
At this time, we ran out of time to visit additional sites, but all of the major sites were completed. We returned to Tahai to watch another sunset as we reflected on our time on the island.
A note about this general itinerary. Easter Island is small and the sites can be visted in just about any order. We found this itinerary to be helpful as many of the major sites were saved for last. It allowed the anticipation for those sites to build. It provided a sufficient amount of time to visit each site but we were tired at the end of each day. Our two full days on the island did not allow us to Hike Maunga Terevaka Volcano or hike to the coast near Poike Volcano either. We would have enjoyed having an extra day to do this. On the other hand, the majority of the landscape on these hikes are through grassland so we weren’t completely bummed we couldn’t do so.
Now a little bit of the history of Easter Island.
The first mystery of Easter Island begins with its origins. Geologically speaking, the formation of the island was the result of a hot spot in the Earth’s crust that allowed three volcanos to rise from the ocean floor resulting in the creation of the island. These three volcanos gradually merged resulting in a triangular shape. To the southwest is Rano Kao, to the east is Poike and on the north end is Maunga Terevaka.
Of course, as soon as humans entered the equation, the complication began. Being so far from the next closest piece of land begs the question as to where the first humans came from. It is almost unanimously believed that the origins of the first settlers of Easter Island arrived from Polynesia and were likely escaping war. The legend of the island is that a search party was sent looking for a new island to settle to escape the war. Once the island was discovered, canoes of settlers set sail towards Easter Island.
Some of our first questions were “how in the heck did somebody find this island in the middle of the ocean” and “how did they find their way back?” We discovered that the search party most likely used their master sea faring abilities to study ocean currents, observe the stars and watch for life sources such as seaweed and seafaring birds which would indicate that land is nearby. Additionally, we learned that a recreation using similar canoes was completed in 1999, taking 19 days to reach the island. Although the arrival from just about anywhere seems to be a shot in the dark, the masterful seafarers seem to have been prepared for the task at hand.
After the initial discovery and settlement of the island, there seems to be three or four defined periods which span the island’s time periods. The first period is described as the settlement and Moai period. During this period, the island was settled and populations grew. Also during this time, the Moai statues were beginning to be carved and moved around the island. The next period is defined by the a change in religion and ruling by the “Birdman Cult.” The third period refers to the drastic decline in the island’s population due to starvation and capture by Peruvian slave traders in the 1860s. At its peak, the population is believed to have been nearly 15,000, but dropped to a low of about 120 after the slave traders ransacked the island. Finally, the fourth period is the current period which can be described by increasing population and gradual reliance on tourism for its economy. The current population of the island is around 5,000 people, most of whom live in the island’s lone city, Hanga Roa. This period generally began around 1900.
Easter Island is best known for the Moai statues. Contrary to popular belief, the Moai were not created to represent gods, rather, they were built to honor leaders and other important people. Most of the statues were carved from the quarry at Rano Raraku from a soft volcanic stone known as basalt. As mentioned earlier, many of the Moai were adorned with topknots although many never had them. Over the several hundred years the Moai were made, the general style remained very similar although slight changes in features can be observed. Only a few “female” Moai were ever carved with 99% representing men. Some interesting statistics about the Moai is that there are 887 Moai documented, 288 were moved and erected on an Ahu, 397 remain at the quarry where they were being carved and 92 are scattered throughout the island, presumably on their way to an Ahu.
The initial population decline of the island is still a bit of a mystery but appears to have been a result of overconsumption of the island’s resources. It is believed that the island was initially heavily forested but much of the forest was burned to make room for crops. It is also believed that a large palm tree related to the Chilean Palm was abundant on the island and was crucial in making canoes necessary for fishing. Nowadays, the majority of the island is only grassland with only small forested sections with trees too small for making canoes. With decimated forests, no canoes for fishing and a population too big to sustain, large scale starvation is thought to have set in. Reports from sailors who visited the island around this time period reported seeing corpses laying around the island. It is believed that people were dying too fast to even be buried and were left where the person died.
At some point during the island’s history, warfare is believed to have resulted among the islanders and nearly all of the Moai were toppled. We learned that before the Moai were toppled, large boulders were strategically placed so that when the Moai would fall, its neck would land directly on the boulder breaking it from the body. The majority of the sites on the island have not been restored by archaeologists and broken Moai can be observed laying facedown.
Peruvian slave traders were also an additional hit to the island’s population. During the 1860s, these slave traders captured an estimated 50% of the remaining population, many of which were the island’s leaders and their relatives. The resulting population was quite small and were left with very little tools or resources to survive. Perhaps the biggest blow is that at this point, the majority of the island’s oral history was lost forever.
So, this brings us to the current time period. Unsurprisingly, tourism drives the economy of the island today. We expected the sites to be flooded with tourists, but were pleasantly surprised to share each site with only a handful of other tourists. With all of the deforestation of the island and reports from other travelers, we half expected the island to be, well, ugly, but in reality it is unbelievably beautiful. The green grass hills against the deep blue ocean was stunningly beautiful.
Also, Hanga Roa is a cute little town with plenty to do and see.
And our final thoughts on our visit to Easter Island…
Ok, so what did this trip cost us? All in all, we came in at a price tag at just over $1,100 per person. This was not in our budget when we left the US. Oops. That said, we looked up plane tickets and found that a plane ticket from the US to Easter Island would be nearly $3,500 per person. Ouch! We took advantage of our location in Santiago and found relatively cheap tickets and saw the island for less than what one plane ticket would have cost from the US. If you are in Santiago for whatever reason, look into it. Seriously.
How did we get around? We rented a car. It was a piece of crap. When we started doing research we found that the average price of a rental car on the island is about $80USD per day. When we contacted our hotel, they contracted with a company that rents for $50USD per day. Our taxi driver from the airport offered slightly less than that, so look around before you book.
During our visit, we stayed at a cute little hotel. Camping options are available but don’t really cost much less than a budget hotel.
One final thing to note about seeing the island on a budget is that eating out will destroy your budget instantly. Food is crazy expensive on the island. We brought a bunch of groceries with us from Santiago to avoid the ridiculous prices. As an example, our hotel wanted to charge us $3USD for a cup of hot water. They have this “murdering tourists’ wallets” thing figured out.
Finally, the flight. Easter Island is roughly the same distance from Chile as Hawaii is from the US. From Santiago it was a five hour flight. Why does this deserve being mentioned in this blog post? Because we were upgraded to first class for the flight back to Santiago! It was really nice to be able to spread out, enjoy real food and take advantage of all of the perks. It sure made leaving the island a little more tolerable!
We arrived in Santiago exhausted but ready to return to our life on the road. From Santiago, we prepared to return to Argentina for some wine tasting and Christmas with family. We will pick up there!