Ah, Easter Island! Doesn’t it conjure up the most wonderful images? I’ve wanted to visit this enigmatic island in the South Pacific ever since I first saw one of the giant moai in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, decades ago! Thor Heyerdahl’s documentary about his expeditions (1955-56 and 1986-88) only served to keep the fire going.
Where did they come from, the Rapanui? What happened to them? And why did they create the moai? Mysteries all round here. And a cultural landscape unlike anywhere else.
So when friends invited us on a trip to Chile, there was no doubt: we must include Rapa Nui.
But first, the etymology. Why is it called Easter Island? That’s thanks to Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to spot the little island back in 1722. And you won’t be surprised that happened on Easter Sunday. But Rapa Nui is the local name for Easter Island. Rapa Nui for the island, and Rapanui for the people. I will use the two names interchangeably here.
There is an even older name: Te pito o te henua, thought to mean ‘the navel of the world’. And why not? What counts as the centre of the world depends on the eyes of the beholder, doesn’t it?
Iorana – Easter Island greeting
This cheerful sign greets you as you disembark at Mataveri Airport. At 27°S, 109°W, it is the most remote airport in the world, 2,602 km from the nearest. (Totegegie Airport in the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. Inquiring minds want to know.)
Iorana is the all-purpose greeting on Rapa Nui. It means hello and goodbye – similar to ciao in Italian and kia ora in Te Reo (Māori).
Rapa Nui: horses, flowers, moai
And with that, we are on Easter Island, a contender for the title ‘most isolated inhabited place in the world’. (Though I think Tristan da Cunha wins by a couple hundred kilometres).
The nearest populated territory to Rapa Nui is Pitcairn Island, home of 50 people, most of them descendants of the Bounty mutineers. Neighbours they might be, but it’s not as if they hang out on a regular basis. The two islands are 1,931 km apart.
Our preliminary wander around Hanga Roa, the island’s tiny capital, leads us past flowers in abundance – and horses. They roam free on Rapa Nui, the horses – about 4,000 of them, almost as many as there are people. Our host asks us to always keep the gate to the cabanas closed, else they come in and trample the garden.
What makes Rapa Nui famous – and unique, is the intriguing moai, the huge volcanic rock sculptures.
Continuing down the street towards the ocean, we see more horses, peacefully grazing by the Tahai Ceremonial Complex – and our first ahu (sacred platform with moai).
The moai of Easter Island
You must pay an entrance fee to Rapa Nui National Park. You are also required to have a guide. (More on that in the Practicals section at the end of the post). Only two sites on the island fall outside of these two requirements: Tahai and Anakena.
But no guide doesn’t mean you can waltz up to the moai and, god forbid, touch it. This is both because the moai are fragile and because they are spiritually significant.
If you cross the line of stones, you will get in trouble – loudly – with any local who sees you. And touching a moai will land you a fine. In 2008, a Finnish tourist not only touched a moai, but also broke off an ear for a souvenir. He was fined USD 17,000, and ordered to stay away from the island for 3 years. He could have been sentenced to 7 years in prison. All things considered, he had a lucky escape.
FOLLOW THE RULES AT ALL TIMES!
The single moai on the right, is Ko Te Riku. He is the best preserved, and probably the most photographed. Let’s take a closer look.
Looks like he is wearing a hat, doesn’t it? It is actually a pukao, representing hair, carved from red volcanic slag. But that’s not all. He is also the only moai with eyes – eyes made with white shells and corals, and obsidian for the pupils. Like the other moai, Ko Te Riku has been reconstructed, pukao and eyes included. It is not free fantasy, though. During excavations, original eyes have been discovered; you can see one in the anthropological museum here on the island.
Here’s two pukao up close:
Legend has it, the moai came alive, and protected the tribe with spiritual power – mana. Almost all the moai on Rapa Nui face inwards for this reason: to keep an eye on its people.
The only exception are the 7 moai at Ahu Akivi, the celestial observatory.
At Ahu Akivi, the moai look out over the Pacific Ocean. One theory is that they represent 7 explorers sent to find Rapa Nui all those centuries ago, and now, they are looking back towards where they came from.
Rano Raraku: the volcanic quarry
The Rano Raraku quarry
The Rapanui constructed moai from ca. the 11th to the 17th century CE. 1,043 complete moai have been uncovered so far, more than half of them from the quarry at the Rano Raraku volcano.
But why did they create these moai? And how did they move them from the quarry to the different platforms? That is a mystery, right up there with the great pyramids at Giza and the standing stones at Stonehenge. How would you lift a 12-tonne stone, using nothing but muscle power?
Spot the unfinished moai?
Different theories have been introduced; I think the most intriguing one is the walking moai.
30 years after his first expedition, Thor Heyerdahl returned to Rapa Nui to test this theory. Now, with wide bottoms and narrow heads, the moai‘s centre of gravity is pretty low. Along with Czech engineer Pavel Pavel and 16 locals, he attached ropes to the head and base of a standing moai, and they simply pulled it. As it was moved along, the moai tilted from side to side. Et voila, the statue ‘walked’.
The question why remains. Why did the Rapanui create the giant statues?
The most likely explanation seems to be that the Rapanui made them to commemorate their ancestors. One story goes, that each time a chief died, his tribe commissioned a statue from the quarry. The moai was then erected at his village, so he could keep an eye on his people.
When discovered, all the island’s moai were found thrown off their platforms, probably during civil wars on the island. For about 200 years, ever since the collapse of the Rapanui civilisation, they had been laying on the ground, face down. The last recorded sighting of a standing moai was in the mid-1800s.
Just a short distance from Rano Raraku is Ahu Tongariki. With 15 huge moai (the largest weighs 88 tonnes!) stretched out over 220 metres, the grandiose ahu here at Tongariki is the biggest sanctuary in all of Polynesia.
In addition to civil war damage, the moai at Tongariki also took a beating from a 1960 tsunami which swept them further inland. Like all the moai on Rapa Nui, the ones at Ahu Tongariki have been restored.
Notice the pukao?
Female moai on Easter Island
Only 10 of the moai found, can be classified as female, i.e. with breasts or a vulva. Four of these were discovered at the quarry at Rano Raraku.
Heyerdahl’s first expedition discovered the torso of a girl moai near the beach at Anakena, and brought it to the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo. On his next expedition, 32 years later, Heyerdahl found her head. ‘Please bring back her torso,’ said the Rapanui, ‘so we can put her back together and make her whole again.’ Eventually, the torso was returned and reunited with the head. You can see her at the well thought-out anthropological museum in Hanga Roa.
Female moai at the Museo Antropológico Sebastián Englert
The magnetic stone at Te Pito Kura
Remember the ancient name for Easter Island, Te pito o te henua, which means the ‘navel of the world’? This stone, the one in the middle, is te pito kura, the ‘navel of light’. This singular stone, 80cm in diameter, was brought here, in the boat, by the first king of the Rapanui, so the legend goes. Naturally, it has supernatural properties, in the form of magnetic energy – mana.
The stone is high in iron, is very warm and makes your compass go a bit haywire. Had we been here a few years ago, we could have put our hands on it to receive some of that energy. Good for fertility, too, it is said.
However, our guide tells us a very disrespectful couple visiting from the mainland thought this would be a fun place to have sex and share it with the world. The social media posts made their way to the island, and locals were enraged, as well they should be. As a result, there is now a stone fence enclosing it, so no touching the stones. Interestingly, the compass still goes a bit off, even with the distance to the stone.
The Ranu Kau caldera
3 volcanoes erupting more than 2 million years ago created Rapa Nui. The Ranu Kau is the largest of the 3, and it has a weird and wonderful freshwater lagoon at the bottom.
Only locals can climb down the spectacular caldera at Ranu Kau.
Orongo and the Bird-man cult
On the western side of the crater, 300 metres above it, is the ceremonial village Orongo, the most important ritual site on Easter Island. On the other side of the village is a vertigo-inducing vertical drop, overlooking a rock poking up from the ocean, and two tiny islands.
See the little islands off the coast there, behind Ingunn, Matthias and our guide Moiko?
The island furthest out is Motu Nui. That’s where the manutara, the sooty tern, came to nest every spring, in September.
The bird-man competition
The various tribes on the island competed for power, with ritualistic, fierce, and death-defying competitions.
Every spring, the chiefs of the different tribes (or more often, someone they appointed to represent them) competed to obtain the first egg of the manutara. That meant climbing down the rocky outcrop and swim across to Motu Nui. With all the dangers that lurked in the ocean – sharks, killer waves, being thrown against the rocks, drowning – they risked their life. And as if that was not enough, they also risked being killed by a competitor.
When the participants arrived on the island, they would sit in caves and wait for the birds to arrive and lay their eggs, sometimes for days or even weeks. Petroglyphs have been found in the caves.
Once the winner secured the coveted egg, he swam back, carrying the egg in a basket tied around his forehead. He – or rather, the chief he represented – was named tangata-manu – birdman – for one year, and was considered tapu – sacred. During that year, he lived in seclusion in a ceremonial house, and was expected to do nothing but sleep and eat. Also, his tribe was entitled to all the birds and eggs from Motu Nui for one year.
The last Birdman competition took place in 1867.
Sacred houses in Orongo ceremonial village
Although the origin itself of the tangata-manu ceremony is unknown, it is clear that it was part of a deep transformation in power balance, religious beliefs, social structure, and territorial sense that had marked the island people for several centuries.
Info board at Orongo
The Rapanui people
But what about the Rapanui? Where did they come from? And what happened to their civilisation?
Somewhere between 800 and 1200 CE, a group of people of Polynesian origin (possibly from the Cook Islands or Marquesas) got into their wooden outriggers – and rowed until they found this little island. Why they left their home is anyone’s guess. Lack of food or fresh water? Fleeing from enemies? Sent by the chief to find and colonise new lands? Or simply adventurous spirit? Either way, setting out on the enormous Pacific in a small canoe takes bravery to a whole other level, if you ask me.
On the island, they established their own traditions, free from any outside influence, including chiseling away at volcanic rock to create the legendary moai.
The trees that disappeared – and a lesson for us all
When the settlers arrived, Rapa Nui was awash with lush palm trees and edible plants, but by the time European explorers showed up, the island was practically barren.
One theory is that the Rapanui thrived on the island for centuries, but eventually ran out of wood. Our guide on a full-day tour of the island, tells us this happened because they would have needed wood to cremate their dead, more and more as the years passed. Charcoal has been found in the island’s volcanic craters, so they must have burnt something.
Another theory has to do with rats arriving with the settlers, perhaps brought along as food. If so, the rodents may have taken their revenge. On the island, the palm trees provided yummy rodent chow. Researchers have found plenty of rat-gnawed palm seeds.
Deforestation most likely started the decline and eventual collapse of the Rapanui civilisation.
There is serious learning for us there.
Whatever the reason (it could well be both rats and people), when resources become scarce, division and fighting ensue. Our guide tells us there were 18 tribes on the little island, and several inter-tribal wars. Add to that the probability of Europeans arriving with syphilis and other diseases.
But worst – and saddest – of all: In 1862, slave raiders abducted half the population and forced them into slavery in Peru, including the bearers of the culture and family histories. Only 15 survived and made it back to the island, bringing smallpox along, and so killed off the rest. By the end of the 19th century, only about 100 people remained on the island that once was home to more than 10,000.
Rapa Nui practicals
Hanga Roa harbour
Getting to Easter Island
LATAM (formerly LAN Chile) flies between Santiago and Mataveri Airport daily in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner (January 2024). The flight takes about 5.5 hours westwards and 4.5 hours return.
Getting around Easter Island, seeing the sights
The island is quite small – not walk-around-it small – although you could in a couple of days, if you tolerate walking that long with the blistering sun bearing down on you. This runner calculated the circumference of the island to be about 70km. A more logical choice is hiring a vehicle. Several companies rent out cars, bikes, scooters, quad bikes and even pick up trucks. And don’t forget all those horses. If you want to drive a full loop around the island (in a car), it takes about an hour at low speed.
MIND THE SPEED LIMIT! (The roaming dogs and horses will see that you do).
Full-day and half-day sightseeing tours are available. If you want to see it all, you need 3 days. Add an extra day or two if you want to laze at the beach and/or in a hammock for a bit. Considering the long flight from Santiago, I recommend it.
Entrance tickets and mandatory guides
You need an entrance ticket to see all the moai except those at Tahai and Anekana. As of January 2024, the entrance fee is USD 35 for Chileans and USD 80 for foreigners. The proceeds go to preserve this unique cultural landscape.
Tickets are available online, and at the Ma’u Henua service office in the central market in Hanga Roa. It is valid for 10 days, starting from your first entry, and you must show it (usually along with your passport) at the site entrances.
You are only allowed one visit each to the two most important sites – Ranu Raraku and Orongo, so plan accordingly. For the other sites, you are free to visit as often as you like within the 10 days. You must also have an accredited local guide with you at all the sites except Tahai and Anekana. You can join a tour, or organise your own tour; ask the Ma’u Henua service office to find a guide.
Rapa Nui cowboy
Beach life on Rapa Nui – and turtles
Most of Rapa Nui’s coastline is rocky, but there are two sandy beaches. Anakena at the north-east end of the island is the most popular one, with all white coral sand. There are ahus here, as well, two of them, both restored. According to the legends, Anakena is where the first settlers arrived 1,000 years ago.
You can also swim with turtles, something we only discovered on our last day.
Turtles at Hanga Roa harbour
Easter Island sleeps and eats
You will find most hotels and restaurants on Rapa Nui in and near the capital Hanga Roa. We stayed at Cabañas Te Maori: nice and easy, and practically on Atama Tekena (main street), just two blocks from our fave breakfast spot. (No, nothing sponsored).
Not only horses, but also dogs roam free on Rapa Nui. This big guy greeted us on the door mat the first morning. Afterwards, I opened the door with excited anticipation every morning, but sadly, he never returned.
Sea food is abundant and delicious. We had breakfast at Mana Maria on main street every morning. Trust me, she makes the best grilled omelette sandwich. (Again, nothing sponsored).
Money and miscellaneous
Credit cards are widely accepted (I used ApplePay everywhere), or you can use Chilean pesos or US dollars, if you’re old school. There are 2 ATMs and a few exchange offices in Hanga Roa.
Voltage is 220V. Plugs/sockets are C or L, the same as mainland Chile. You can buy adapters at the two shops Kanina and Hare PC.
You can drink tap water.
There is a modern hospital on the island, providing basic health care needs. Furthermore, there is also an ambulance plane that takes you to mainland Chile for major urgent specialist needs. It is a costly affair, though, so if you think there is a chance you might need it, make sure your travel insurance covers evacuation. And drive slowly.
There are a couple of pharmacies on main street.
No poisonous snakes or spiders or otherwise dangerous creatures live on Rapa Nui.