Easter Island

One of Earth’s most remote destinations offers plenty to explore, starting with its famous ancient stone heads.

It looks reminiscent of a war zone, with fallen bodies everywhere, their heads and necks visible, the rest buried beneath the grass. But these are not human bodies; these are some of the famous stone heads of Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Tourists come mainly to view the gigantic stone heads with jutting jaws, top knots that look like hats, and large eyes made of coral with obsidian pupils. There are many other things to see and do on this 63-square-mile Chilean territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but the statues resonate the most because they are remnants of a lost culture, every bit as phenomenal as Peru’s Machu Picchu or Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. 

For over 800 years, these monolithic stone sentinels, known as moai (pronounced MOW-eye), have been Easter Island’s guardians. Said to represent the spiritual energy or mana of each tribe’s ancestors, they once numbered nearly 1,000. As for how many remain, archaeologists have so far documented 887, not all of which are still standing. When the local clans fought, they knocked over each other’s moai to disrespect their ancestors. In 1960, a freak tsunami toppled others. 

Now, moai are scattered around the island, a land with three extinct volcanic craters, lava formations, grass, bushes, and everywhere, the Pacific Ocean crashing to the shore. On Easter in 1722, a Dutch explorer landed and gave the place its name. The locals call it Rapa Nui, which is also their language and what they call themselves. Some anthropologists think that 10,000 to 20,000 Rapa Nui once lived here, but no one knows for certain. 

What is known is that around A.D. 1200, the clans began to carve moai from volcanic rock in the quarry. Many archeologists think the Rapa Nui cut down trees to help move the statues vast distances by securing them with ropes and rolling them across a track of cut logs. Most of the locals, including many of the Rapa Nui guides, insist that their ancestors did not use trees, however. They say the moai moved themselves with spiritual energy or mana.

Regardless of how the moai were transported, the ancestors used up all the island’s natural resources. When the Europeans arrived, they searched in vain for wood, water, and food. They also couldn’t find a safe anchorage, so all of them, including the famous British explorer Captain Cook, sailed on. No one stayed long enough to see the moai.

In the 1860s, Peruvian slavers arrived and either kidnapped or killed one-third of the population. A civil war followed, and by the turn of the century, the population had dwindled to 111. Today, there are 4,000 Rapa Nui, 7,000 horses, and just shy of 3,000 cars on the island. Here, cows have the right of way and if a cow takes three minutes to cross one of the dusty roads, cars must wait. There is no honking; drivers just make kissing sounds to the cow in the hope of speeding up the crossing. 

The island’s quarry (Rano Raraku), an open-air museum, is where you’ll find nearly half of the island’s remaining moai. This is where most tourists begin their visit, accompanied by a guide. Seven roads lead to the quarry, each coming from a different direction, each with moai.

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At Rano Raraku, the colossal stone heads lie face down in the grass. Some are twice the size of an SUV. One, lying on its back, is 65 feet long, weighs 270 tons, and is still attached to the volcanic quarry rock. When a visitor asks the guide why it is still attached, the guide says, “Because it would be impossible to move.” The largest moai, the guide says, are almost 200 feet long and 22 feet high. Each was clearly carved by a major craftsman, and some of the faces are full of expression. 

Once you have wandered around the quarry, it’s time to explore the rest of the island. The best way to get around is to hike, sometimes above rocky cliffs where you can crawl through lava tubes or enter a hidden cave perched over the rocky coastline. There are few trails on the island; you make your own path through grassy pastures where cows and horses graze. Some visitors choose to trudge up the side of a steep volcano to look at ancient petroglyphs and beehive-like stone houses, similar to those on the coast of Ireland. 

The only town, which is also the capital, is the two-block-long Hanga Roa. It offers a few restaurants, a Catholic church, and craft shops selling miniature moai reproductions, carved wooden paddles, shell necklaces, painted eggs, and other items. It’s worth a quick visit. 

A hike to a beach deserves more of your time. Guests at certain hotels may be greeted at the end of their treks by staffers who supply snorkeling equipment, rubber reef shoes, beach chairs, umbrellas, chilled wines, and a buffet picnic that might include fresh tuna taro, sweet potatoes, purple potatoes, and salads. Later, you can swim, snorkel, and surf. The island offers year-round exposure to ocean swells and epic waves. It is believed that the first people to surf here were the Polynesians, who built rafts from reeds around A.D. 1200.

Similar rafts were used in the 19th century in a contest called the Birdman, which took place each April as competitors waited for the arrival of the sooty terns on a small neighboring island. Once the terns arrived, the competitors had to run down a steep cliff carrying a handmade raft, jump into the water, and paddle to the island. The race was extremely dangerous, and many fell to their deaths from the cliff or were killed by sharks. 

Once the competitors reached the island, they would look for the first sooty tern’s egg. The one who found it would tie it to his forehead, paddle through the waves, scramble back up the cliff, and give the egg to his chief. He would be declared the winner and would receive a virgin as his prize. His chief would become the Birdman and rule the island for a year. 

The competition no longer takes place, but at Orongo, you can still see the stone houses where the competitors lived during the event, and you can also hike up to Orongo, located on a narrow ridge between a 1,000-foot drop into the ocean on one side and a crater on the other. Petroglyphs on the rock depict the Birdman, a crouching human figure with a bird head and beak.

For those who prefer not to climb steep cliffs, a local group, the Kari Kari Ballet, performs the dances of the indigenous Rapa Nui people on most evenings. Drums and ukuleles accompany the dancers, and while the movements are like those associated with Hawaiian dancing, these dances are of Polynesian origin. The men, whose naked torsos are coated with glistening coconut oil, dress in grass skirts with grass ankle decorations. The women wear feathered skirts, headdresses, and feather-covered coconut shell bikini tops. The dancers perform with their hips moving in a nonstop undulating motion, said to depict the waves of the Pacific. They also sing songs dedicated to the gods, spirit warriors, the rain, and love. 

No visit to Easter Island would be complete without a sunset stop to see ahu tongariki. This is where you’ll find the 15 moai that were restored in 1933 and are poised on a raised platform made of stones and rubble, which juts out over a rocky cliff near the edge of the sea. The moai do not face the water, but rather the island, to protect the people. 

Many make these moai the last stop of their visit. They stand beneath the towering figures, mesmerized by the height, power, and spirituality of the statues, the last witnesses to the rise and fall of a people. 

Editor’s note: The author received complimentary air transportation to Easter Island as well as accommodations and meals from Explora Rapa Nui.

Traveler Fast Facts

What It Is: Easter Island, a special territory of Chile, is one of the most remote populated islands on Earth, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 2,300 miles west of Chile and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. It is known for its gigantic stone heads, said to represent the spiritual energy of each tribe’s ancestors.

Climate: Easter Island experiences minimal temperature variations. The warmest months are January through March when highs average about 80 degrees Fahrenheit and lows average around 69 degrees; the coolest months are July through September when highs average about 70 and lows about 61. May is the wettest month and October the driest. The high season is between January and March. Pack rain gear and a windproof jacket. 

Getting There and Getting Around: The International Airport in Mataveri, Hanga Roa, Easter Island is the main access point and is one of the most remote airports in the world. You can fly here directly from the Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport of Santiago de Chile (SCL) or the Faa’a International Airport of Papeete in Tahiti. LATAM Airlines (formerly LAN) flies from New York to Santiago daily with a change of airplanes in Miami. From there, it's a five-hour flight directly to Easter Island. 

The airport's single runway is 10,885 feet long. Private jets can easily land here as the air strip was built by the U.S. for the Space Shuttle. (The Concorde has landed here a few times.) 

Car rentals are available, though ones with automatic transmissions should be reserved in advance. Some tour packages include a car and driver.

Activities: Visit the gigantic heads in the quarry as well as the 15 restored heads on a platform at Ahu Tongariki at the ocean’s edge. Hike up to Orongo to learn about the Birdman competition. Hike through lava tubes and into caves and hike or bike to beaches to swim, snorkel, and surf. The Kari Kari Ballet is not to be missed. Stargazing conditions are ideal as light pollution is next to nonexistent.

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations: Explora Rapa Nui (A+) offers Easter Island tours that include lodging, food, alcoholic beverages, daily group explorations led by bilingual guides, and roundtrip transfers from Mataveri Airport to the Explora Rapa Nui. There are ocean-facing guest houses with whitewashed wooden rafters and sliding glass doors leading to an outside dining room, bar, and living room. Amenities include a pool and a massage area. Hotel Hare Uta (B) is a rustic resort in a beautiful setting and offers free bikes for the 15-minute ride into town. Some of the rooms are on the roadside and can be noisy. Nayara Hangaroa (B-) which is rugged, not luxe, offers all-inclusive packages, good guides, tricycles for rent, a spa suite, and ocean views.

Cuisine: Most visitors eat their meals in their hotel. The food this author experienced at Explora Rapa Nui (A+) was always served with superb Chilean wines. There was much local fish and shellfish: tuna, mahi mahi, sierra or kana kana, lobster, shrimp, and rape rape, a smaller native lobster. Sweet potatoes, taro, yams, bananas, and sugar cane are ubiquitous. Po’e is a delicious pudding or sponge cake made from banana, pumpkin, or cassava.