Way out in the Pacific, 3,700 kilometers or about 2,300 miles from mainland Chile, lies Easter Island — Isla de Pascua
in Spanish and Rapa Nui
in the increasingly accepted language of Polynesia. It it is the island to which Thor Heyerdahl sailed on the raft ‘Kon
‘ and which was first reached by airplane from the mainland in 1951. Bottom line is that Rapa Nui
remains remote and also mysterious.
It is, however, an increasingly popular tourist destination. Seasoned travelers who have been many other places and seen many other things are drawn to the island’s moai, towering figures carved from volcanic stone, moved to the shoreline and erected, in great feats of engineering for pre-industrial people, on lava-rock platforms (ahu) to guard their respective villages. Rapa Nui National Park is unsurprisingly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Of the 887 known moai, 288 were set upon platforms, 98 fell or were abandoned and 397 were unfinished and still stand or lie in the Rano Rotaku quarry. I don’t know where the rest are or their condition — and I’m not sure that archaeologists do either. Some moai feature topknots of a red stone called scoria from the smaller Puna Pau quarry. The moai are tall (average, about 13 feet) and heavy (12.5 tons). They faced inland rather than toward the sea, because inhabitants were each others’ foes. They were meant to be seen from the carved front, and each one has a different face — much like the terracotta army in Xi’an, China. The moais‘ backs are flat — by necessity because they were carved while lying on the ground. Archaeologists have restored some sites. Others remain primitive.
On the island’s northeast coast is “the navel of the world,” a round, squat black rock with four smaller sit-upon rocks around it. People hunker there to meditate, contemplate, commune with spirits, admire the view or wonder why compasses swing around madly when near the rock.
The spectacular and mesmerizing south coast is worthwhile for watching and photographing the big South Pacific rollers roiling and boiling and crashing onto the black coastal cliffs. The island was once heavily treed, but now the vegetation is largely grass. Stands of introduced eucalyptus grow where once there were palm species.
An unpaved road climbs to the top of Maunga Pu A Tiki, a dormant volcano in whose water-filled crater rafts of vegetation float like little islands. Beyond, at the tip of Poike Peninsula is a curious seasonal colony where Easter Islanders, long after the days of the moai–carvers, lived while they selected their annual leader. The bizarre ritual involved deputizing someone to swim to a nearby rock and find the first egg laid that spring by a particular bird. The leader selected in this strange way lived like a hermit during his rule. Visit yourself and hear the whole strange tale, but also know that the missionaries put an end to it. Rapa Nui is now enthusiastically Catholic, and visitors are invited to the exuberant, music-heavy Mass at the church in Honga Roa. The church is packed every Sunday, beginning at 9:00 a.m.
Honga Roa is, in fact, the island’s only town. Accommodations range from simple hostels to the luxurious Explora Lodge, currently located in a leased private vacation retreat but with plans to build a new property in the next couple of years. Numerous restaurants and abundant shops are scattered along the town’s streets. Consider signs with posted opening hours to be guidelines.
Whether you are looking for fine crafts or mass-produced souvenirs, you’ll find them in many small shops and in two multi-stall crafts markets, one on Tu’u Kohinu (one block to the left of the church) and one that is half crafts market and half produce market at the corner of Tu’u Maheke and Atamu Tekena. Prices vary, so shop around. Don’t be afraid to bargain, especially if you are buying several items, but don’t expect huge price breaks either.
The greatest variation was for what appears to be the only English guidebook to the island, Rapa Nui by Daniel Pardon . We found it at the archaeological museum for more than US$70. Gasp! That is high even for a glossy four-color job, but for that money, there should be an index. We bought it anyway because we were driving around and wanted it for the road. Later, a colleague reported that she had bought it for a few dollars more at a shop in town, but as we were leaving, we spotted it at an airport shop for about half the price. Moral: Try to pick it up on arrival — unless, of course, the prices at various venues have changed.
In the souvenir realm, I found placemats (choice of colors, choice of moai or a still undeciphered writing called rororongo) for as little as ARG$2,000 (US$4) and as much as ARG$5,000 ($10), and small wooden rororongo reproductions in the ARG$25,000 to ARG$35,000 range in town, but for ARG$7,500 at the airport. You have several last chances to shop at the airport. There’s a new brick building with several stalls across from the terminal, numerous stalls in the terminal outside of the security area or in one of several more stalls after the security checkpoint. Abundant, of course, are moai of stone, wood or molded plastic in various sizes and configurations.
The archaeological museum on the outskirts of town is more interpretive than anything else. Relatively few artifacts are on display, but 20,000 are in storage pending money to build a larger building and guard the artifacts. The town cemetery is worth a visit too. There is one ATM on a street called Tu’u Maheke. It currently dispenses cash only to MasterCard holders, but other businesses take other cards as well. The post office is one block over on Te Pito Te Henua. For ARG$1,000 (a little more than US$2), the clerk will stamp your passport with three Easter Island stamps. Scuba divers rave about the clarity of the water. Several dive shops located at the harbor use simple open fishing boats for their dive trips.
Easter Island is open range. Cattle and horses wander all over the countryside, depositing their droppings wherever. Similarly, dogs, cats and even chickens wander around town. They are uncollared but also unmenacing. In town, the streets have been paved but the sidewalks remain hazardous with cracks, gaping holes and some concrete slabs missing and storm drains exposed, so do look where you are stepping — whether to skirt sidewalk obstacles or just to avoid the unpleasantness of animal droppings.
The moai deserve more time than most bus and van tours permit, so renting is recommended. Rentals for small 4WD cars are surprisingly reasonable, and gas isn’t too expensive either. Roads from Hanga Roa directly to the most popular sites are paved, but others are not. Tourists on organized tours are never out and about during the fine dawn and dusk light, and the quarry where the majority of moai are found is not included in most tours but is quickly offered for $40 extra. If you take such a tour, cough up the 40, because the quarry should not be missed.