SLA DE PASCUA, June 1 — Easter Island is an enigma. We have all seen those “giant stone heads” in travel magazines or documentaries. We have all wondered about the name. (It was given by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who “discovered” the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. The island’s official name, Isla de Pascua, also means Easter Island, albeit in Spanish.)
At only 160 square kilometres in size, home to fewer than 6,000 inhabitants (the original islanders are called Rapa Nui) and thousands of kilometres away from the nearest continent, this is one of the most isolated places in the world. There is no better place to escape to, if one is so inclined.
I call it checking one more item off my bucket list.
The best time to visit Easter Island is during the months of March-May and September-November: fewer tourists, great weather. To get here, there are LAN flights from Lima, Peru and Santiago, Chile.
My travel companions and I are greeted at the airport by Paul Pownall, who is our guide and host during this trip. Pownall runs a bed-and-breakfast here called Tekarera with a spectacular view of the sea. An American, he first visited Easter Island as an archaeologist’s assistant in 1968 when he was only 16. Eventually he moved here after graduating and married a local Rapa Nui woman. He knows more about the island than most researchers. We are in very good hands.
We start our tour of Easter Island at the Tahai Archaeological Complex, which is not far from Tekarera. Pownall tells us that the Rapa Nui carved monolithic human figures from stone called moai and set them on ceremonial platforms called ahu. The islanders believed the moai statues contained the “mana” or spiritual energies of great ancestors. The statues nearly always faced inland in order to watch over and protect their descendants.
Tahai, which comprises three separate ahu sites, was restored in 1974 by Pownall’s mentor, the late Dr. William Mulloy. The first site, Ahu Vai Uri, is a row of five moai statues; Ahu Tahai is in the middle with a solitary moai. The third, Ahu Ko Te Riku, is the only moai with restored eyes. On its head is a pukao, which is a hat or topknot carved from reddish scoria, a type of volcanic rock.
This is the first time we are in such close proximity to these statues. Previously, when we watched documentaries about Easter Island, these giant heads looked grand but honestly it’s hard to be awed by something so detached from our lives.
Now that we are standing right in front of the moai, we can’t help but wonder how the islanders managed to build something so immense without any modern technology. For that matter, how did the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids? These feats will always remain a mystery and a wonder.
Next we head to Rano Kau, a 324-metre extinct volcano that is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rapa Nui National Park. The crater lake at its peak is one of Easter Island’s few natural bodies of fresh water. Perched precariously at the sea cliff nearby are the ruins of Orongo, a ceremonial village.
Till the mid-19th century, Orongo was the site of the Bird Man race, an annual competition with representatives from every clan on the island. The contestants, known as the Hopu, must climb down the treacherous cliffs and swim to Motu Nui, the largest islet off the waters of Easter Island, in order to seize an egg from the nests of the manutara (Sooty Terns).
The first Hopu to make it back to Orongo with an intact manutara egg was crowned the Tangata Manu (Bird Man) and reigned over the other clans for a year. Benefits included rights over the collection of eggs and birds, crucial as a food source. This was a dangerous prize to claim as many Hopu perished from falls or shark attacks, making this the Rapa Nui version of “The Hunger Games.”
At nearby Ahu Vinapu, a pile of collapsed moai statues disguise the fact the underlying ahu has some of the most remarkable stonemasonry on the island. The heavy yet closely arranged basalt slabs remind one of similar stones at Machu Picchu in Peru that fit together tightly without mortar.
En route to our next site, Pownall stops at a stony beach where we take in the sights and sounds of ocean waves breaking on rocks. He shows us where hidden blowholes may be found, the sea spray shooting high into the air like an intermittent geyser. The view of the endless sky meeting the deep blue sea is one I will cherish forever. Such is the joyous beauty of Mother Nature!
Most of the moai statues are carved from the main quarry at Rano Raraku, another extinct volcano. What is truly astounding is the fact the Rapa Nui would carve each statue whole from the rock before transporting them by the hundreds to set on ahu sites around the island.
Many half-carved moai figures are still found here, emerging from the face of the mountain like sentries. Pownall tells us that some get damaged during transportation and the islanders, not being wasteful, would carve smaller moai statues from the broken pieces.
Climbing a little higher, we discover a beautiful volcanic lake where wild horses graze by its banks and occasionally islanders (and tourists) skinny-dip. I’m not entirely sure that’s allowed but we sure don’t mind the view.
Just a kilometre away from Rano Raraku is Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on Easter Island with 15 moai statues. One of these weigh 86 tonnes, making it the heaviest ever to be erected on the island. During the Rapa Nui’s civil wars, the moai statues were toppled and in 1960, a tsunami swept them inland. It was only in the 1990s that Ahu Tongariki was fully restored and now it is the best spot on the island to catch the sunrise. Trust me; this is an absolutely postcard-perfect opportunity worth waking early for.
If you are hungry (and you ought to be, after traipsing all over the island), head over to Anakena, a white coral sand beach, for a touch of barbecue, freshly squeezed juice and empanadas (Spanish-style pastry stuffed with shrimp or meat). Enjoy your lunch in the shade with a cool sea breeze blowing. As you might guess by now, there is another row of moai nearby too.
Of course, Easter Island has its dark side too. At Ana Te Pahu, there is a series of caves at the foot of Maunga Terevaka, the highest and youngest of the island’s three extinct volcanoes. Pownall tells us that these caverns were not only plantation sites for the former island dwellers — bananas, taro and sweet potato were the main crops — but also a refuge.
In the 19th century, when Peruvian slave raiders attacked Easter Island and kidnapped 1,500 victims (over half of the island’s population), some managed to escape by hiding in these underground caves, many with exits towards the sea-facing cliffs. When the slave raiders were finally forced to release those they had captured, these survivors returned carrying smallpox from the mainland. The ensuing epidemic wiped out even more of the island’s people.
These caves were perhaps the Rapa Nui’s last sanctuary. Despite their painful past, the Rapa Nui remain a friendly, laidback people with ready smiles for friends and strangers alike.
As Easter Island is remote — half-way around the globe for most of us! — do stay for at least four days so you have enough time to explore, learn its history and geography, and simply wander around to take it all in. It’s an experience of a lifetime.