The most remote inhabited island in the world offers a different kind of island adventure than what you may have already experienced in the Caribbean.
Think of an island vacation and rum drinks on a sandy beach probably come to mind. Think of Easter Island and those giant heads probably come to mind.
But Easter Island — Rapa Nui to the natives — offers a chance to combine plenty of relaxing island adventures with visits to fascinating archeological sites. The island is a World Heritage Site. You’ll never think of the island as just “that place with giant heads” again.
The island is small enough that in several days you can visit all of the most important sites and get a true grasp of what is known of the island’s history — while still having plenty of traditional island fun and relaxation. Do pay for an English-speaking guide to take you around. Various packages are available and are worth the cost.
The island got its name when Dutch explorers spied the island on Easter 1722. Thinking there might be gold under the moai, they topped a few of them but found only bones.
Toppled moai, the Rapa Nui believe, must be left where they fall. Most were brought down during civil wars by the islanders themselves, but in modern times some of the moai have been restored to an upright position because it’s difficult to attract tourists with fallen statues — and tourism is obviously what fuels the island economy.
Some of the moai are topped with a red pukao, made of a different stone from a separate quarry.
The best time to visit Rapa Nui is during Tapati, which takes place the first two weeks in February. More than just a festival, it is a series of contests in which the people compete in dancing, sports, and in depictions of native dress.
That the culture has been preserved is remarkable considering the island’s history. At one point, the native Rapa Nui were taken into slavery and only a small number remained alive when the survivors were ultimately restored to the island. Also notable to the island’s history is that the earlier inhabitants had completely deforested the island and had hunted to extinction the nesting birds that were so important to their way of life. (For more on the history of the island’s ecological collapse, see Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”)
To get to the island, you’ll likely fly in from Santiago, Chile, although there are a few flights from Tahiti. Combine your time in Easter Island with a stay in Santiago, where you’ll find plenty of things to do, from hiking and horseback riding in the Andes to visiting museums and historic sites.
Here are just a few of the don’t-miss sites on Rapa Nui:
• Anakena Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and the only one on which you will be able to sunbathe while pondering a row of moai standing sentinel. Legend has it that the Polynesian people leaving their home island after a volcanic eruption sought this island after having a vision and first landed on this gorgeous beach.
• Ahu Akivi is the only place where the moai will be found facing the ocean. The seven standing moai represent the seven professions of those sent to colonize the island: fisherman, astrologist, farmer, doctor, sculptor, writer and architect, according to one tour guide. The seven are lined up to face the sunset during the equinox.
• Akahanga contains toppled moai as well as village remains. Stone foundations show where their dwellings once stood and rings of stones mark where they built fires so they could use hot stones to steam fish and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves. A small cave shows where villagers hid in times of danger.
• Rano Raraku is the quarry where islanders somehow carved the large moai, weighing around 80 tons, and then transported them to various sites all over the island. Over time, the size and the craftsmanship of the moai increased. There are moai in various stages of production here, from some that were never completely quarried to others that toppled over during transport — meaning the islanders would have to start fresh on a new carving.
• Orongo means “hearing the message” and refers to the practices of the Birdman Cult that seemed to gradually overtake the ancient ancestor worship associated with the moai. Each year, young men would come to this ceremonial center for six months, preparing for the perilous contest of scaling a dangerous cliff down to the sea, then swimming to a small adjacent island where sooty terns nested. The objective was to obtain the first egg of the season. The name of the first man to find an egg would be called back to the big island. But he wouldn’t truly be the winner until he brought the egg back unbroken. The last year of the competition was 1863. Because they carved a birdman petroglyph into a rock to mark the competition every year, we know the tradition lasted for 111 years. While the young men trained, the young women prepared to be considered queen by staying in a cave for six months. Then they’d stand on a certain rock and submit to an examination to confirm virginity. Young men who didn’t win the competition would receive as a consolation prize one of the virgins.
• Adjacent to Orongo is Rano Kau, a volcanic crater full of fresh water that overlooks the ocean and has an eerie beauty.