Easter Island/Isla de Pascua/Rapa Nui

For the most remote island on earth* Rapa Nui certainly doesn’t feel isolated when you step off a shiny new 787. At first, it feels like a less developed Hawaiian island. But just as you start to get comfortable, you stare out to sea and everywhere you see nothing. It is a harsh reminder that you are five hours away, by air, to the nearest airport in Santiago and more than 1000 miles away from the nearest island. You realize that if the airplane needs to divert there is nowhere to go. And if you need to leave the island, you can only do so once a day. Eerie when you see the numerous tsunami evacuation signs.

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Old (Moai) and new (plane)

Easter Island is still an island shrouded in mystery. It’s estimated Polynesians settled this small island (63 square miles) between 800 and 1200, and the island was “discovered” nearly decimated by the Europeans on Easter, 1722. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the Rapi Nui (the islanders) carved giant statues and erected them the around the island, averaging 13 feet tall and an impressive 14 tons. Long before electricity, cars, or roads and only with primitive tools, the Rapa Nui managed not only to carve the statutes,  but to transport them a dozen miles to every edge of the island.  During its peak, Easter Island may have had as many as 9,000 inhabitants. To date, ruins of nearly 900 Moai have been unearthed.

But then something happened, we don’t really know what, and the population declined and the Moai’s were toppled. Was it over population? Rats? Aliens?

By 1776 when Captain Cook visited, there were only 700 people left on the island. Because there was no written history, and limited oral history, we don’t know why these statues were created, what they were used for, or how they were transported across the island. They are believed to represent elders and other high status people on the islands. All face away from the ocean and look over the villages.

Learn more about the island’s history, and read some theories, from The Smithsonian and NPR.

Visiting Easter Island

Despite the remoteness, a visit to Easter Island in 2016 is relatively simple. Commercial flights from Santiago go daily. The island is small and can been seen in full in two days, but leave some extra time to insure for bad weather and have a chance to relax and enjoy.

Because there is a single main road around the island and driving is easy, the best bet is to rent your own transportation, especially if you aren’t staying right in the town center of Hanga Roa. There are numerous rental agencies with scoters, 4x4s, bikes, and small cars. All cars are 4WD which leads to some fun off road driving. For the first day, sunny, I rented a scooter and touted the main sites solo. Highly recommended is the local guide book “A Companion Guide to Easter Island,”available on Kindle or in almost any shop or rental car agency on the island. It allows you to go at your own pace and learn about all of the sites. After seeing the entire island by scooter, I decided to swap for a car so that I could drive early in the dark to make the sunrise on the other side of the island. It was a good move as it began to rain hard the next day and it was great to be able to drive back and forth to town. See below for a few driving cautions.

When exploring the island, I realized how little I knew about the history. None of the Moai currently standing were in an upright position in the 1950s. It was foreign investment that came in and helped restore the tipped statues. Still, only a fraction have been restored. The most impressive being at the north east tip of the island Ahu Tongariki, an ahu (platform) wth 15 restored Moai. I visited three times. Once via the scooter in late afternoon. After the large tour group left, it was bliss. I tried to go back the next day, unaware the site closed at 5:45. I then made it for the sunrise the following morning. Tip: get there early, and if you can, bring coffee and a blanket. It is an amazing experience.

Sunset and sunrise Moai:

Other Moai photos from around the island:

There is even an underwater moai, and because it is a movie prop and not the real thing, it is the only one on the island that you can touch! I luckily made the last dive trip before they closed for weather until I left. The diving is about a five minute boat ride (which was great given the huge waves), and a one tank quick dive. While the visibility is amazing, and coral very good, the sea life is relatively minimal. We saw a few fish and eels, but no turtles or other larger animals.

Here are a few pictures from the dive:

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And a few other scenic views:

 

Next up, the rest of mainland Chile, Jen gives up hostel living for a few days for a 5* hotel, and I meet a goal to get in some flight time on this trip. Oh, and in real time, I am two continents ahead of this post, and writing this from Morocco.

*Remote as measured by distance to nearest populated land

Know if you go:

Plan:
Easter Island is 5-6 hours from Santiago. Go when you are already in Chile, or combine with a trip to Chile. If you are planning a trip, remember there are seasons. I was there in winter (North America summer), daytime was in the low 70s, night was cold. But it wasn’t crowded. I could have Moai to myself, and I was the only one staying at the three cabins at Hareswiss. I went to the beach, but it wasn’t beach weather. It poured one day. Winter isn’t optimal, but try fall or spring for avoiding peak Chilean tourism and larger crowds with an additional daily flight.

Air:
The only airline is LAN (being rebranded LATAM) flying daily from Santiago on a fancy new Dreamliner (Boeing 787). For my West Coast friends, LAN is an Alaska Air mileage partner, so book far enough in advance, and you can use miles (go business, great value on miles since domestic but a long flight with long haul business). Or if you pay cash, make sure to get your Alaska elite qualifying miles. Round trip airfare from Santiago starts at $500. Book on the LAN Chile site – the US site is more expensive.  If you want to have even more fun, fly directly from Easter Island to Tahiti via LAN on their once weekly flight.

Tour:
Everyone lives in one town, Hanga Roa. The entire island is about a 60 minute drive.
If you plan on self touring, purchase A Companion to Easter Island for your Kindle, or on the island at any of the island shops. It will help guide you around the sites. Very helpful is the time most tour busses are at any given site – so you can avoid them – along with what time of day is the best light for photography.

Stay:

Remember, you pay for more than what you get here. There are many small hotels. All are overpriced. I had a lovely stay at Hareswiss. There are three cabanas with partial water views. While a good 30-40 minute walk from town, with a car/scooter, it was a great and very quiet location. Bonus, had a kitchen which I used for every meal, and was affordable (for Easter Island) at $79 a night (without daily service or breakfast – it was nice to be able to save a bit and cook for myself). There was a Moai at the end of the street that felt like a private Moai at sunset.

For a budget, there is one hostel I found, and apparently you can also camp. Best bet is Google – Hostel World and Expedia only have a limited selection.

Eat:

I cooked, so not much help here. Many people grocery shop on the mainland and bring coolers here. I had one empanada at a bakery, which is the frugal eating here, and some grilled meat from a stall outside the market. Meat was pretty decent – if you walk by a grill it is worth stopping.

For coffee or dessert, go to Mikafe by the scuba diving shops. They serve a proper cappuccino and what appear to be lovely pies and gelato. I also enjoyed a local beer by the water one night.

Do:

  • Moais – See them all – 900 or so. No further explanation needed. This is why you are here. Leave yourself time to go back to your favorite and see at different times of day. Marvel at how these got here and what life on the island must have been like at that time.
  • Horseback riding – I didn’t have a chance to do this, but a good way to see the western coast, without road access, is via horseback. If you have an extra day and the weather is good, I’d recommend it.
  • Diving – The clarity is great, the sea life, less so. Given the low cost ($60) and low time commitment, the dive is worth it. You can see and touch an underwater Moai, but know that it is a prop from a soap opera and not the real deal. It is only fI’ve minutes from the shore, so you can complete your dive within two hours, great to not eat up a day. I used Orca and they were a solid outfit.
  • Rent a car – There are many options for vehicle rentals including scooters, dirt bikes, bicycles, quads, and cars. I love two wheels when I can, and it is half the price. Make sure to bring a motorcycle qualified drivers license to rent a scooter on Easter Island.  I swapped the scooter for a car on the second day so I could do a pre-dawn drive to sunrise on the opposite side of the island. Given the poor road condition, I wouldn’t recommend a scooter in the dark. Beware – the biggest danger on the island are the cows and horses that hang out in the middle of the road.
  • Tour – Many tour operators. I didn’t do one and felt fine going at it alone. I wouldn’t have wanted to see the Moai with 20 other people. If you do a tour, I’d recommend a private or small group.
  • Ballet Kari Kari dance show – This show, three nights a week, was a fun hour and worth the visit. If you go, figure out how to get a seat. I was in the bleachers, and it was very uncomfortable.
  • Beach – There are two beaches, a primary one (Anakena) with services and Moai (left), and there is one nearby (Ovahe) that is a bit more private but takes a 5-10 minute walk from the parking lot and doesn’t have sun in the mid to late afternoon.
  • Hike – While most places can be reached by car, the west coast apparently offers nice hiking. There are other spots as well. Due to limited signage and cell coverage, most books I read recommended hiring a local guide to accompany.

Animals: 

There are wild animals everywhere. Dogs, horses, and cows especially. Be cautious when driving, especially at dawn and dusk. As you can see, even the horses like to join to watch the sunset at a Moai.

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People and animals preparing for sunset.

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