Rapanui, Chile

Feb 19-21, 2002 – Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

Rapa Nui, Easter Island, Isla de Pascua, or “Te Pito O Te Henua” (Navel of The World), whatever you call it, Easter Island is certainly unique. Part of its uniqueness lies in its location, thousands of miles away from any other inhabited place, in the middle of the Pacific. At 109 degrees W, 27 degrees S, its nearest neighbor is some 1,400 miles away, making it one of the most remote inhabited spots on the earth.

Part of its uniqueness also lies in its geography – about 65 square miles, formed out of the remnants of 3 extinct volcanoes, the island is (almost) treeless, has no surrounding coral reef, and therefore little in the way of natural harbors – for the most part, the shoreline is steep cliffs pounded by surf.

Certainly, a very large part of its uniqueness lies in the great stone Moai – statues – that are scattered around the perimeter of the island.

The Moai are certainly what most people think of when you mention Easter Island. There are over 800 on the island, the vast majority of which are found all along the coast, situated with their backs to ocean. One set, called Ahu Akivi, are inland and face towards the sea, and towards Tahiti – they are thought to represent the original seven settlers who came across that same sea from Tahiti. Most of the Moai stand upon Ahu – great stone foundations which are in themselves impressive in the size, scope, and precision of the stonework. A few do not. The overwhelming majority lie toppled off their Ahus with their necks broken. Apparently, at some point during the islands turbulent history all were deliberately toppled from their foundations, and (so it seems) stones arranged so that when they fell they would be symbolically decapitated. The standing Moai today at various Ahu around the island are the results of relatively recent restoration efforts. In fact, if you look closely at many of my pictures (below), you can see the concrete seam where the head has been welded to the neck.

There’s a tremendous amount of information on Easter Island and the Moai on the web – I won’t repeat it all here. For those of you interested, Wikipedia has a nice summary here.



Arriving in Hanga Roa

Even disembarking at the airport is somewhat different that what you might expect. You don’t get out of the plane, and like in America, get immediately herded down a tunnel or through a walkway made of plastic cones and into a building. Instead, you amble of the plane, and kind of straggle across the runway – there’s no other planes in sight, and although there’s a few small plastic cones and chain put up to keep you from walking into a jet engine, the whole thing is much more relaxed. I wish I had taken a picture of the plane sitting on the runway that night, when, on our way back home, we stopped back on Easter Island for a couple of hours to refuel. A 767 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport looks big, but it’s surrounded by other, equally large airplanes. A 767 on the ground at night on Easter Island, taller than any building on the island, looks impossibly, monstrously huge, like its someone’s cruel joke to even pretend such a thing could somehow fly.

We were met at the airport by a girl from the residencial we were staying at, who hailed a cab through town and took us to our accommodations. Hanga Roa itself is a pleasant, if somewhat sleepy little town. There’s a few shops on the main drag, selling souvenirs, renting cars and bikes, and selling groceries and the like. There’s one gas station on the island, a post office, and a bank (no ATM, though they were installing one while we were there). Accomodations are fairly simple. There are no large hotels on the island (note: there weren’t as of 2005, when we visited and I wrote this – I’m told there’s been quite a bit of development since) – a few smaller hotels, and a lot or residencial’s – essentially rooms in private homes or annexed on to someones home. The one we stayed at wasn’t exactly the Hilton – spartan is the word that comes to mind – but it provided a (relatively) clean place to sleep and to take a shower. There are also a number of small restaurants in town – though I wouldn’t recommend Easter Island for the cuisine.

Hanga Roa





We arrived in the afternoon. After settling in to our room, we decided to take a walk into the center of town – about a quarter mile stroll down the dirt road on which our residencial was located. Hanga Roa is located right onthe shore, so we strolled down the road, and turned downhill towards the water. And there they were, looking improbable and implacable among the green grass and blue skies near town – our first Moai. There’s actually 3 Ahu situated next to each other and pretty close to town, as well as the remains of some ceremonial buildings and the foundations of a one or two longhouses.

It was sort of an odd feeling, traveling almost 3 thousand miles to see something, then practically stumbling on the thing you’d come looking for before you expected to.. I don’t know why, but I had sort of expected we would need to take a bus, or a rent a car, or at least hike somewhere to get to the Moai. Nope, they’re right there, at the edge of town. The first thing that struck me, other than their location, was their accessibility – in the US, such artifacts would no doubt be surrounded by a rope, or better yet, a fence, or protected inside a national park. Here on Easter Island, they’re just hanging out on the edge of town, and you have to wander through a horse pasture to get there. (Note: I’ve since learned that the majority of the island is, in fact, a Chilean National Park)

Ahu Tahai, Ahu Vai Ure, and Ko Te Riku





The next day, we rented a 4 wheel drive car (most of the roads on the island are unpaved) and drove around the southern coast of the island. Our first stop was Rano Kao, the cone of one of the extinct volcanoes that make up the island. A dirt road leads around the side of the cone, until you reach the top and can look down at the fresh water pond in the middle of the crater. It’s quite a beautiful spot – the colors of the water and/or reeds growing in the center are quite striking, and the green of the whole place contrasts nicely with the deep blue waters of the ocean beyond.

Farther on around the corner of the crater, high up on the side, at the furthermost corner of the island, is the abandoned ceremonial village of Orongo. Orongo appears to be the center of the Birdman Culture – it is from here that island men (purportedly) swam out to the small islet (called “Moto Nui”) just offshore to wait for the first egg of the Sooty Tern, to claim leadership of the clan for the year. Orongo today consists of a number of remarkably preserved stone shelters, as well as some striking petroglyphs carved into the rocks up there.

It’s also just a plain spectacular spot, as a grassy hillside gives way to steep cliffs several hundred feet high perched over thousands of miles of ocean. Dawn and I just hung out on the grass for a while, relishing in the peace and quiet and watching the waves crash on Moto Nui far below.

Rano Kao and Orongo





After Rano Kao we decided to drive along the longer, southern coast of the island to the other end, where another large Ahu stands and also where the quarry where all the Moai were carved is located.

When spent a leisurely day driving along the rocky, lava strewn coast, stopping occasionally to look at the surf pounding the shore. A number of additional Ahu and solo Moai dot the shore, but these have not been restored and are thus laying here and there where they were toppled for some unknown reason years ago. Along the way, we also ran into great big topknots scattered here and there, either at other Ahu’s or just abandoned along the shore. Since the topknots were quarried at a spot near this end of the island, and the Moai themselves carved at the quarry at the other end of the island, one can only surmise these topknots were being transported to a location to meet up with their designated Moai when they were abandoned.

The Southern Coast





Farther down the road, at the south-eastern most corner of the island, lies the larger volcanic crater Rano Raraku, and the quarry from which most of the Moai were carved. We arrived there late in the afternoon after driving down the length of the island. The crater itself is similiar in geography to Rano Kao at the other tip of the island, although larger, less steep in most places and with a larger fresh water lake in the middle.

What sets it apart, though, are the sheer number and density of Moai – they’re everywhere on both the interior and exterior slopes of the crater, many of them buried up to their necks in the sand, tilting crazily backwards and forwards, looking out over the ocean (many of these Moai look out over the ocean, I guess because this wasn’t they’re intended resting place]. Some Moai of truly staggering proportions lay still half encased in the soft volcanic rock from which they were apparently being carved when they were abandoned.

This place, for me at least, was the highlight of the trip. Its hard to really explain the, for lack of a better word, other-wordlyness of this place – all these huge stone heads, some tilting backwards crazily, others tilted forward, some pointing just so, some buried up their necks, all starting sightlessly out to sea. Far below, waves crash on the shore and another, intact Ahu can be seen with Moai standing, backs to the shore. Dawn and I wandered around for a while, struck somewhat mute, I think, by the craziness of it all. There’s very little in the way of development on this end of the island, so the only other people around was some islander-cowboy on horseback herding cattle just a little ways down the hill, and another group of three or so tourists. For the most part, it was just us wandering around the grassy slope, among the towering stone heads.

The other thing that struck me, other than the sheer number and size of the Moai, was the artistic achievement these statues represented. I guess I expected primitive art and artifacts to be, well, primitive – crude, somehow, or lacking in technique. But the fineness of the features, the artistry with which these statues were carved, is really quite impressive.

I certainly don’t believe these statues were carved by little green men who for what ever reason chose to come to earth on this little patch of land in the middle of the ocean. But, given the utter strangeness of the place, standing there, alone in the middle of all these huge, helter-skelter stone heads, it becomes a little more understandable why someone might come to that conclusion.

Rano Raraku (The quarry)





From the slopes of Rano Raraku you can also see Tongariki, down by the shore. Tongariki is a large Ahu, holding 15 well preserved Moai, all with their backs to the sea, including one Moai with a topknot. It’s also one of the more picturesque spots on Easter Island, with a rocky cove where the Ahu stands backdropped by steep, shear cliffs against which the surf crashes. We drove down after visiting the quarry, and for laughs took some pictures “working” (yeah, right). We figured with photograph evidence in hand, we could show our bosses, and convince them to let us write the whole trip off as a business expense – Dream on.

Ahu Tongariki





The next day we took a commercial tour to two spots we hadn’t yet hit – the TopKnot quarry, and Ahu Akivi. The TopKnot quarry isn’t too far outside of Hanga Roa, but in land, away from the shore. Up on top of one the auxillary cinder cones from the main volcano, it’s a smooth grassy hillside on which lay a dozen or so topknots, all apparently abandoned after they had been carved, before being tranported to meet up with the waiting Moai. The hillside gives way to a hollow, of sorts, in the ground, and it is from this hollow the red stone that makes up the topknots was apparently quarried, somehow transported up the steep slopes of the hollow, then down the hillside and from there, across the island.

Aside from being a place, in strangeness almost equal to Rano Raraku, the main quarry, it is also physically quite a beautiful place. I don’t know if the hills are this color year round (obviously, we visited in the summer hemisphere later summer/early fall) but they were an intense, almost surreal green, which contrasted sharply with the deep blue of the waters off in the distance and the lighter blue of the sky above. Add into the mix the red of the soil and the abandoned topknots laying on the ground, and it almost looked like a surreally distorted version of some giant’s billiard table or putting green. Maybe aliens did create the Moai, after all – maybe this was their version of a chessboard?

The Topknot Quarry





One of our final stops on our tour of the island was Ahu Akivi. Inland, not too far from the topknot quarry, seven Moai stand facing the sea – these are the only Moai, in fact that do so. The story told is that these seven Moai represent the original seven sailors who set out from Tahiti and eventually landed on Easter Island. Because they came from the sea, they look back over the sea to their original home. I don’t know how true it is, but it makes a nice story.

Ahu Akivi





Our last night in Easter Island, we had a bit of a surprise. We had not originally planned it this way, but it turned out our time on the island coincided with “Tapati Rapa Nui,” a two week long festival held on the island every year to help keep the Polynesian traditions of the island alive (and, I’m sure to help promote tourism at the same time). Our last night happened to coincide with the last night of the festival, and thus a big parade down Main Street, Hanga Roa. I think everyone on the island was either at the parade, or in the parade – at least it certainly seemed like it.

Tapati RapaNui





And so our time on this little island in the middle of nowhere drew to a close. Next up, Tahiti and Bora-Bora.


[santiago][chile & french polynesia][tahiti]