Easter Island – Moai and More

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a small triangular island (just 163 square kilometres; population 6,000) in the middle of the Pacific, 4000 kilometres from anywhere. It is the most isolated inhabited spot on earth, and home to giant statues that have puzzled archaeologists for years. Since reading Thor Heyerdahl’s book “Aku-aku” as a boy, Ian has been fascinated by the place, and finally had the chance to visit it.

We flew for five hours from Santiago over empty ocean and finally touched down at the small airport which normally sees just that one flight a day.  We landed on time, and one of our cases came up quickly, but there was no sign of the other luggage.  Then the carousel stopped! There were no official explanations, but we discovered that the door to a section of the hold was frozen shut.  Ian had to wait two hours for our second case, but we were among the lucky ones. The island people were unable to get one container out of the hold, and the plane had to return with it to Santiago, and bring it back next day.

Welcome to Rapa Nui with a wreath of flowers and a drink of guava juice

We were expecting somewhere quite barren, and were surprised at how lush and green the island is. The weather was warm and sunny (a nice change from Santiago!), and we stayed in a cabin with a verandah which overlooked the sea, on which we had breakfast every morning.

On the verandah of our cabin

The island is very Polynesian in feel, with most of the inhabitants and the local culture having clear Polynesian roots. We went to a local dance show, and it was very similar to ones we’d seen in New Zealand, Tahiti and the Cook Islands.

Rapa Nui dancer

But the main feature of the island, and what makes it unique, is the dozens of colossal statues, or moai, which dot the island, created by earlier inhabitants and moved (no-one knows how) on to massive stone platforms (or ahu). During later tribal conflict all the moai were toppled off their platforms, but a number have been re-erected by archaeologists more recently. We were delighted to discover that a group of these re-erected moai could be seen just a few minutes’ walk along the coast from our accommodation. We were regular visitors, photographing them during the day, at sunset and even in the early morning at moonset.

Moai near our cabin

Moai at sunset (1)

Moai at sunset (2)

Moai at moonset

The moai near us consisted of a group of five smaller ones together on an ahu, then a larger single one, and then one with a ‘topknot’ of red rock and eyes made of coral. It seems that the red topknots were placed on moai representing royal or other eminent individuals, as not all the statues have them.

Moai with topknot and eyes

We had three full days on Rapa Nui, and arranged tours to make sure we saw everything we could in that time. One day was a group coach trip, where we saw a number of sites, some with the moai still toppled and others where they had been re-erected. Probably the most impressive of the latter had 15 moai in a line, staring inland.

15 Moai at Ahu Tongariki

There was also a surprisingly nice sandy beach, where we could swim in the Pacific, but this also had two sets of re-erected moai right on the beach – probably the most unusual beach decorations we’ve seen.

Anakena Beach

Moai at Anakena Beach

The biggest collection of moai we saw, however, was at the quarry where they were carved – the equivalent of ‘Moai ‘R Us’. There were dozens in different stages of completion, including many buried in the ground up to their necks – apparently so that the finishing touches could be added to the face. The biggest of all – 22 metres long – was still attached to the rock and was evidently never completed before the bottom dropped out of the moai market.

"Moai R Us" at Rano Raraku quarry

Take your pick...

We also did a couple of trekking tours with an individual guide. One day we went up Rano Kau volcano, near the main village, and hiked round its impressive mile-wide crater. This is filled with water and floating rafts of reeds like the one at Lake Titicaca, in Peru.

Rano Kau crater

From there we visited the ceremonial village at Orongo, centre of the birdman cult. Young men had to swim out to the little offshore islands and collect the eggs of seabirds. The one who found the first egg was the winner, and became king for a year, according to legend. The village has a long row of stone houses where the eminent spectators lived, as well as a number of petroglyphs carved in the rocks, showing a half-man, half-bird figure.

Housing at Orongo cermeonial village - not suitable for the overweight

The 3 sacred islands near Orongo village

Birdman petroglyph at Orongo village

We found Rapa Nui a fascinating place, if different in many ways from what we expected. The people are very friendly, and the whole island has a ‘small village’ feel. One thing we noticed was how expensive everything was – not surprising when everything has to come by sea from Valparaiso, an 8-day trip, and then be unloaded into small boats to enter the harbour.

Supplies for Rapa Nui coming ashore

On Wednesday 20 April we said farewell to Easter Island, and flew back to Santiago.  We transferred to the bus station and stayed overnight at the Ibis there, to be ready for the next stage in our travels.

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