Travel Guide to Easter Island
A guide to the mysteries of Easter Island
I stood on the lip of Rano Kau volcano, above the reed-choked marsh filling its crater, and gazed over the green velvet of Easter Island to an unbroken panorama of Pacific Ocean in every direction.
I peered to the west, but the nearest neighbor, Pitcairn Island, lay 1,180 miles away, hidden behind the very curve of the Earth. I looked east, where the next landmass to break the waves was the Chilean coast, some 2,300 miles away. Despite the sultry South Pacific sun, I shivered. At that moment, I realized what it meant to be in the most isolated inhabited spot on Earth.
Suddenly, the Rapa Nui penchant for worshipping giant stone heads and picking kings via the ironman-style Birdman contest seemed a perfectly sensible development for a Polynesian culture that had remained cocooned in isolation for more than a millennia...until Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven stumbled across the island on Easter Sunday, 1722.
It's a Mystery
"Red Bull is supposedly sponsoring a revival of the Birdman contest next year," said Nena, my guide. Rano Kau volcano was the site of Orongo, a ceremonial village devoted to the Birdman cult.
By the 18th century, prolonged civil war had left the Rapa Nui population decimated and their moai (those giant heads—torsos, really—once venerated as ancestor-gods) toppled and smashed.
The survivors developed a new politico-religious system centered around the Birdman. At the start of nesting season, each clan sent their best warrior to swim though shark-infested waters to an offshore islet where sooty terns bred. The first man to bring back an egg earned for his chief a one-year term as king over all the clans.
On an island of just 4,000 souls where Chileans, like my guide, outnumbered Rapa Nui natives three to one, I wondered just how much cultural sensitivity a faddish soft drink campaign would display in reviving an ancient belief. "Will all the contestants be Rapa Nui?" I asked. Nena did not know.
To be fair, everything about Easter Island is one big we-don’t-know. The standard answer to any question here is, "It’s a mystery!" How did a small fleet of eighth-century Polynesians, paddling their canoes against the prevailing currents, manage to find this speck of land in the fist place? How did they carve, move, and raise those famous gargantuan moai, which stand, on average, 13 feet tall and weigh 13.8 tons? There are half a dozen plausible theories, but no answers.
Did ever-increasing moai production hasten the island's devastating deforestation? (A popular, but unprovable, explanation.) Were the moai toppled during the civil war as attacks on clans' guardian spirits, or were they later pulled down by a broken culture disillusioned with their gods? Probably a bit of both.
I asked Nena all of these things, and after exhausting the litany of popular theories, she finally just shrugged. I knew what was coming. "It's a mystery!"
Do it Yourself
Actually, throughout a day and a half of touring, the bit about Red Bull was only the second thing Nena said that I hadn't already learned from my guidebooks. (The first was that the lights Kevin Costner used in making the best-forgotten movie Rapa Nui had irreparably damaged most of the Birdman paintings in a cave down the coast.)
I don't blame Nena. It was my fault for booking an all-inclusive package that included lodging (and all meals in the hotel's insipid restaurant), airfare from Santiago, and two days of touring—and managed to cost more than if I'd simply booked the lot on my own.
The final straw came when Nena's tour company tried to rip us off. After managing to avoid visiting the island's three most spectacular sights during the "included tours," they graciously offered to extend our touring by a half a day...for $40 a head.
My girlfriend and I opted instead to rent a Jeep for $60 with another couple and head off on our own. The hotel kindly packed our lunch so we could have a picnic at Anakena, Easter Island's only South Pacific–looking beach: white sands, palm trees, and wild horses. It was a gorgeous setting for Ahu Nau Nau, a string of well-preserved moai sporting oversized red pukao topknots, a symbol of powerful mana (energy) that look for all the world like proto–Devo hats.
Nearby was another of the Big Three our tour skipped: Tongariki, a conga line of 15 moai set against the sea. Just above them rose Ranu Raraku, the volcanic crater from which all the island's moai had been quarried and nearly 400 remained. This was the Easter Island I'd always pictured: a helter-skelter of giant heads marching down the grassy slopes, some stuck at odd angles, others lying on their faces as if crawling toward the ocean a half-mile away.
Above this army of moai, the sheer face of the volcanic crater was a workshop abandoned at the height of its output. Half-finished moai of every shape and size were layered, terraced, and puzzled together so as not to waste an inch of material. Some looked nearly finished, with detailed figures; others merely roughed out, barely emerging from the rock face.
We clambered up and around to the interior of the crater where more moai waded through the high grasses toward a lake at the center. Bushwacking along a faint trail through the jungle-thick vines and reeds, we kept happening across one lichen-spotted moai after another suddenly, each time getting that Indiana Jones-like thrill of discovery.
Unlike the re-erected moai on our tour of those much-photographed village altars, which you could only approach to within about 10 feet, at the quarry we could walk right up to the ancestral spirits of the Rapa Nui. We could stare past their pursed lips, mossy long ears, and broad ski slope noses to the thick shelf of a brow. In the shadows below the brows, their empty eye sockets stared implacably toward the Pacific Ocean sparkling in the near distance.
When You Go...
Learn from my mistakes and plan a solo trip. The most isolated island on Earth is, as you'd expect, not that easy to get to. The only way to get to Easter Island is on a daily, five-hour LAN Chile flight from Santiago, Chile (from about $510, taxes included; www.lanchile.com)—though a few of these flights each week continue to Papaeete, Tahiti, so you could island hop that way. Flights from Chicago to Santiago start at $680 (www.cheapflights.com).
Since most lodgings, from the local hostel to my $110 hotel, are nearly identical (down to the same bed frames and prints on the walls), aim for something nice but cheap: Hotel Orongo, in the heart of the main town with a great restaurant (011-56-32-100-572, www.hotelorongo.com, $70), or friendly Cabañas Vaianny, with private cottages and home-cooking (011-56-32-100-650, www.angelfire.com/pop2/vaianny, $30).
Get a good guidebook to Chile (Bradt, Footprint, and Let's Go were all excellent) and rent a jeep from your hotel ($60 a day, or $90 for A/C and much better handling)—or you can always go the guided tour route.