Easter Island has always intrigued me. The tiny triangle of land is isolated in the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, but its mysterious history and unique moai statues make it famous throughout the world. I couldn’t take a trip to Chile without visiting.
But first I had to find a way to get there. There is only one flight a day from Santiago to Easter Island, and LAN has a monopoly on the route. As such, prices were well over US$1,000 round-trip for an economy class ticket when I did my research. I wasn’t going to pay that.
Instead, I found the best use of frequent flier miles I’ve ever come across. For just 20,000 British Airways miles, I could make the five-and-a-half hour trip to Easter Island and back. That was only 2,000 miles more than was required to fly the one-hour flight from London to Paris. Even better, for 40,000 BA miles I could do it in business class. Done.
Unfortunately my flight to Easter Island was delayed two hours. I later found out that this is a very common occurrence, with LAN treating its monopoly as a free pass to operate flights with little regard for the official schedule. Many people I met in Easter Island had been delayed seven or eight hours on their way from Santiago, Lima, or Tahiti, the three places from which LAN operates flights to Easter Island. Despite my frustration, I considered myself lucky that I was delayed a relatively short time.
After taking a five-hour nap on the plane, I alighted on Easter Island ready for my stay at explora Posada de Mike Rapu. The sister hotel of explora Atacama—where I stayed on the previous leg of my trip to Chile—this pretty property was both the only hotel outside of the main town on Easter Island, and the only LEED certified building in South America.
After the short van ride from the airport to explora Easter Island, I was shown to my room, which had expansive views of the ocean across a great big field. I set my things down and met the others that had just arrived for our orientation. Similar to the one at explora Atacama, this overview covered topics like the history of Easter Island, the flora and fauna, and of course, the famous moai statues.
Due to our late arrival, we were going to miss the afternoon excursion. However, our guide, Beno, agreed to take whoever wanted to go on the Cliffs & Caves sightseeing hike out himself. I was surprised to find that I was the only one that wanted to go.
Beno and I drove through big grass fields dotted with horses and cows, and ultimately reached Ahu Akivi. There I caught my first glimpse of the giant moai. Seven of them stood proudly along a raised platform. As we approached, Beno, who was Rapa Nui and had a deep knowledge of archaeology, explained that this particular platform was unique. It was the only one on the island where the moai were facing the ocean instead of facing inland.
After walking around and taking some photos, we drove to a nearby cliff-side location called Ahu Tepeu. There we saw the remnants of a Rapa Nui village, complete with the foundations of an upside-down canoe shaped house, and a moai platform from which all of the statues had been pulled down.
Further along the cliff we came across some caves, including a large one that we walked into. The cave had small tunnels within it that went all the way out to the sea.
Back in the van, we drove out to our final sightseeing destination. This consisted of two platforms near the town. There we watched the sunset while enjoying fruit, cheese, and cava.
After returning to the hotel for a three-course dinner, I went to bed early and woke up the next morning for my first excursion of the day: the Rano Raraku quarry. Cut into the side of a large volcanic crater, the quarry was where all of the moai on the island were carved.
As we walked from the start of the trail to Rano Raraku, Beno, who was again my guide, explained more about the moai. Each statue is unique in that it represents an individual family. No two statues look exactly alike.
Additionally, it is widely believed that each statue took two to three years to complete. When they were finished, they were taken to the village of the family after whom they were carved, but there is no agreed upon theory of how this process took place. Some archaeologists believe that they were transported in a standing position. This fits with the oral history of the Rapa Nui, which states that the moai walked to their respective platforms.
Further along the path, we saw a large number of moai statues that never made it to a platform. Some had fallen and broken in transit, others sat buried neck-high in the grass.
Beno explained that in addition to not being on a platform, the surest way to tell that a moai had never made it to its official destination is that only when the statue reached its final resting place did the eye sockets get carved and the coral-and-rock eyeballs placed into the face.
Rounding a corner, we looked down at the famous 15 moai platform, the largest on the island. It was Easter Island’s equivalent of a national cathedral in terms of the time and effort that it took to build each moai and transport it to the platform.
At the end of the quarry hike we walked up a short hill into the crater. To our right was a tent set up for an archaeological dig. Beno explained that it was being done by Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, an archaeologist from UCLA who was also the director of the Easter Island Statue Project.
Dr. Van Tilburg had been coming to Easter Island for over 25 years to excavate moai. Lucky for us, Beno knew her. He took us up to the site of the dig and we were able to spend a few minutes asking her questions about the statues she was excavating. It was a very unique experience.
After listening to Dr. Van Tilburg talk about her research and explain various theories about the symbols carved into the moai, we returned to explora. I enjoyed my lunch by the large windows overlooking the ocean, and then spent some time working in the spacious lodge. The area featured a large sitting room as well as a small area with tables that was great for those of us that wanted to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi access.
In the afternoon I took a mini-excursion to one of the two beaches on Easter Island. Like most of the other places I had seen, this one had a platform containing moai. The beach setting was a beautiful backdrop for the statues, and I ran around taking pictures after a quick dip in the warm ocean water.
My official excursion that afternoon was a hike to Rano Kau, or the Birdman Crater. I was lucky enough to have Beno as my guide again. We drove out to a spot near the airport, where explora had a unique hike that would take us along the cliffs and up to the crater.
Our group of seven started off in an unexpected burst of rain, which quickly gave way to sunshine. Along the way we stopped at a platform with toppled moai scattered all around. It was here that I saw the first (and only) female moai of the trip. There wasn’t much left of her, but it was interesting to see the difference between the male and female statues, including the type of rock used to carve them.
The middle of the hike took us up a grassy hill along the side of the island. Then all at once we raised our heads and looked out over the most beautiful part of the island I had seen yet: the Rano Kau crater. The interior of the deep bowl of earth looked like paradise.
Gone were the barren grassy hills of the rest of the island. In their place was a lush tropical eden filled with royal blue pools and islands bursting with bright green reeds. Beno explained to us that there is a theory that all of Easter Island looked like the interior of the crater before the original landscape was stripped in a Malthusian effort to use finite resources to feed and house an ever-growing population.
We walked along the edge of the crater, enjoying the interplay of the sun and clouds on the surface of the water below. Eventually we met up with our van, which took us to the opposite side of the rim to see the Birdman village, Orongo.
Orongo was a collection of unique, low-slung rock houses built for a special historical competition called the Birdman Competition. During this ritual, competitors from various tribes would participate in a swim to the nearby Motu Nui island to bring back the egg of a Sooty Tern. The contenders competed on behalf of their tribes, and the winner’s prize was for the head of his tribe to be crowned king of the island for a year.
Orongo was an extensive collection of houses nestled among large rocks that had petroglyphs of the Birdman, a mythological creature that was half bird, half man. We walked around the village for awhile and admired the views of the sea below. As Beno told us about the snorkeling and diving excursions out to Motu Nui and its neighbors, I felt a pang of regret for not spending more time on Easter Island.
Alas, that evening was my last in the Pacific. After returning from the crater, I settled into another good three-course dinner and a glass of Chilean Carmenere.
The next morning I was up and out by 6am, waving good-bye to Easter Island before heading back to Santiago. As sad as I was to have had such a short trip to the land of the Rapa Nui, I was excited for the next leg of my Chile travels: Patagonia.
To be continued…