EASTER ISLAND | SOUTH PACIFIC OCEAN
THE TV SHOW “LOST” REVOLVED AROUND A MYSTERIOUS GROUP OF PEOPLE MAROONED ON A DESOLATE AND EQUALLY MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. THINGS WENT HAYWIRE AND THE ENDING LEFT A TERRIBLE AND UNSATISFYING TASTE IN EVERYONE’S MOUTH. I COULDN’T THINK OF A MORE APT COMPARISON TO EASTER ISLAND, THE WORLD’S MOST REMOTE INHABITED ISLAND. IT’S ORIGINAL PEOPLE ARRIVED HERE FROM POLYNESIA, AND AFTER A SUCCESSFUL INITIAL PERIOD OF PROSPERITY THEY SEEMED TO LOOSE THEIR MINDS, CUTTING DOWN ALL THE TREES, BUILDING GIANT STONE EFFIGIES AND – IF YOU BELIEVE THE LEGENDS – RESORTING TO CANNIBALISM. HOPING THINGS HAD CALMED DOWN A BIT SINCE THEN I ARRIVED LATE IN THE EVENING ON A FLIGHT FROM THE MAINLAND SIX HOURS AWAY.
These days the only way to access Easter Island is via a flight from Chile’s capital Santiago. Flights from Lima have been discontinued for the time being, why I don’t really know. Confusingly despite being a territory of Chile check in at Santiago airport took place at the international desks before you were transferred to the domestic terminal. Six hours across the Southern Pacific later I was touching down in the capital – and only town – of Hanga Roa. Like the island itself Hanga Roa is a small sleepy place. You have the airstrip at the head of the town and one long main street which runs parallel to the coast, clogged with restaurants and vehicle rental stores.
After signing in at the tiny immigration window I was picked up by the girl running my hostel, she was young and friendly but had a far away look in her eyes that screamed “I’ve seen some shit”. I was also presented with a large map of the Rapa Nui National Park and a welcome lei. When I was told I’d get a welcome “lay” when I arrived I was picturing something a little different than a garnet of flowers, but still this was pretty cool. I was under the impression leis were only a Hawaiian thing, but obviously it’s a pan-polynesian tradition.
I had arrived on Easter Island (or Isla de Pascua as it’s officially known in Chile) on Halloween night. This wasn’t something I’d planned, it was just when I could get the cheapest flights. LAN Chile have a monopoly on flights to Isla de Pascua so it took months of constantly checking Skyscanner and Tripadvisor alerts to find good value flights for the time period I would be here. I remember finally booking the flights one evening in my hostel in Lima and thinking “come hell or high water I’ve got to be in Santiago on October 31st”. I love it when a plan comes together.
OK, so most people know Easter Island as “that weird place with the giant heads” or even “isn’t it where Jesus went to die?” as one friend of mine asked, and to be honest that’s kinda the whole deal here. The island, known as Rapa Nui to it’s original inhabitants, measures only sixteen miles long. The town of Hanga Roa is situated on it’s south western coast, and even though most of the main attractions are on the opposite side, it doesn’t take long to get there – even by bicycle. My hostel was only a short walk from the town centre, the only problem with walking there was the weather. I awoke the next morning to a mini hurricane. It reminded me of news footage of tropical storms I’d seen in Florida with palm trees being whipped back and forth as violently as Willow Smith’s hair. On the plus side it gave me time to get to know some of the characters in the hostel. I became friends with an Italian dude and we quickly came up with a plan to explore the island if we ever made it out alive.
Things were better that evening so we walked to the far side of town to marvel at some of the smaller heads that were placed there. These giant stone heads are called moai, and their purpose still isn’t fully understood. They are mostly placed along the shore facing inwards which leads some people to believe they offered spiritual protection from the sea. Others believed them to be a form of ancestor worship, or a way to honour the gods of their past. Whatever the reason for their existence they are an incredible sight, made out of the island’s black volcanic rock they stand like silent sentinels, ever watchful. There is a modern recreation of a moai which displays the colourful markings that decorated their backs. The designs are carved in the bizarre Rapa Nui script called rongororongo, an extinct language no one can understand. Just like Irish will be in twenty years. The more you learn about the island the more mysteries it tends to throw at you.
We rented bicycles down at the shop the next day for the 16 mile cycle to the other side of the island. Our first stop was lunch at Anakena beach. This is a pleasant white sand beach ringed by palm trees and containing an impressive altar of moai called Ahu Nao-Nao. These guys look incredibly smart in their big red hats, like polynesian elves. According to legend this beach is where the first settlers of Rapa Nui arrived. It was only fitting to honour this fact with some bananas and blue Gatorade.
Rapa Nui contains well over 800 moai statues but the largest and most impressive of these are contained at Tongariki. Here fifteen giant moai are placed on the island’s largest altar or ahu. One of the statues is an incredible 86 tonnes making it the largest ever erected here. It’s here that you really appreciate the scale and achievement of what the Rapa Nui craftsmen achieved. The statues surprised me with just how big they really are, pictures don’t do the sense of scale justice here. The ahu here was rebuilt in the 1990’s as during the islands civil way period competing tribes knocked over each others statues in what must have been the world’s most dramatic game of dominoes. Ahu were sometimes used as ossuaries, a burial place for chiefs. As such it is forbidden to step on them as a sign of respect, while many legends grew up around them, such as that of the ghost walkers (moai kava kava) which can apparently be seen here on certain nights.
Just a kilometer away is the volcanic crater of Ranu Raraku. Known as “the Nursery” this is where the majority of the moai on the island were created, hewn out of the hardened basalt. A short walk up the hill takes you around the circumference of the cone, amid the random unfinished heads of the moai poking up out of the ground like blackened weeds growing in an unkempt garden. The path climbs ever higher eventually taking you to an huge unfinished statue still carved into the side of the mountain. Whatever had caused the collapse of the Rapa Nui culture it had happened before this giant had a chance to be freed from his mountainside tomb. Around the corner is the island’s only kneeling statue, and here with your back to the birthplace of these colossi, is an incredible view over the Tongariki ahu with the dramatic soaring cliffs of Poike to their left.
In a bizarre way Easter Island, despite being one of the furthest and most exotic places I’ve ever been too, reminded me a lot of home. The rugged, windswept landscape with the ocean’s waves crashing against the towering cliffs reminded me a lot of the west of Ireland. And then there’s the weather. Don’t get me started on the weather. A great phrase to keep in mind when visiting Ireland is “If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes” It’s applicable here too. Once the mini hurricane had passed we were treated to schizophrenic weather patterns which would fool you with five minutes of sunshine before battering you with driving rain when you ventured outside. That’s not so bad if you’ve rented a car, but when you’ve rented bicycles and had no proper rain gear, well……
When you buy your entrance ticket to Rapa Nui National Park at the airport (which encompasses most of the island) you get one entrance to Tongariki and Ranu Raraku included. Because we were washed out of our previous visit to Ranu Raraku my spanish speaking Italian friend managed to sweet talk our way back in the second evening when the sun actually shone for more than it’s allocated five minutes. It was cheeky but it paid off. My mum always says “that’s why you have a tongue in your head” something my new bestie found hysterical. It was a great partnership. He got me in places for free and I taught him rubbish catchphrases he’ll never need again. Win, win.
That second evening was very pleasant. We finally had good weather and we had rented a scooter. After getting away with murder in South East Asia (disclaimer: not literally….) I was surprised how strict they were here about renting stuff without a driving license. I’d left mine at home so Andrea used his, along with his natural Italian scootering skills, to drive us around. On the way back from Tongariki to Hanga Roa we passed by some of the fallen maoi, including the largest statue ever carved. It just lay there face down in a field surrounded by a bunch of horses throwing it disapproving “go home you’re drunk” glances.
After the age of the moai had ended, a blood thirsty cult sprang up to replace it known as the Bird Man. These guys believed the gods took a more direct intervention in human affairs and that the moai were not the best means of communicating with the dead. In a scene which no doubt inspired the Red Bull Cliff Jumps of today, the chief was chosen as the man who could survive the jump from the cliff at Orongo. Not an easy feat considering some parts are almost 300 meters high. Today many of their petroglyphs remain, including many fine examples in the brilliantly named Cave of the Men Eaters. In fact Easter Island contains most of Polynesia’s best examples of rock carvings. Polynesia’s best examples of men eating though probably remain in Hawaii. Just ask Captain Cook. I just realised how ironic his surname is now actually. Jokes.
Aside from the statues there are a few other activities to do here such as snorkeling, but you’re not gonna come all this way for something you can do equally as well back on the mainland. The draw here is the ancient forgotten culture of Rapa Nui. The mystery that surrounds the moai, the enigmatic Cult of the Birdman, and the violent and bloody descent (helped as always by European influence and slavers) that left it all in ruins.
Be prepared to spend a bit of cash though. Flying here isn’t cheap so play around with your dates until you can find something more affordable. Accomodation can also be expensive, but there are hostels springing up, the place I stayed offered dorm rooms at $30 a night which is by far the cheapest you’ll get right now. Everything here is flown in from the mainland so food and drink can be costly. Your best bet is to find a small little shop and snap up some hot empanadas. These are essentially meat pies, they are hot, sometimes spicy, but extremely tasty and filling. You can get a bag of them for a few dollars which probably represents the best value here. Like most places though you can get by on a budget if you’re willing to look and research enough. People have asked me if it’s “worth it”. I can’t answer for everybody. For me it definitely was, but then again I have an interest in the weird and the strange. For those backpackers that want a remote notch on their bedpost, and a lesser visited destination to brag about to their bored friends, it’s also an excellent choice. As for everyone else…..don’t know. It’s one of the weirdest and most interesting places I’ve ever been too that’s fort sure, but each to their own.
Oh, if you do go then don’t forget to call into the post office in town. Hand over a dollar and get your Isla de Pascua passport stamp. It’s by far the coolest looking stamp in my passport and almost makes up for the fact I forgot to get one at Machu Picchu. Almost.
Next time: To the ends of the earth, more ice than you can shake a stick at. Its the third blog post from Chile but I also cross into Argentina I swear.