This Chile-governed island, 2,200 miles from mainland South America is arguably the most remote inhabited place in the world and its fascinating history and culture reflects its isolated nature. Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is accessible via a few flights a week from Santiago, Chile and one from Papeete, Tahiti.
The island is most famous for its collection of moai – massive, stone, humanoid megaliths – and around 1000 can be found dotted about the lands and along the coast. The statues were built to represent tribal chiefs or prominent figures when they died. They each have unique features, designed to mimic the appearance of their living counterpart and they sit upon an ‘Ahu’ which is the tomb.
It is thought that eventually the Rapa Nui people moved on from a culture of deified ancestors and looked to a new spiritual direction – a belief in a singular creator god, Make Make. With few reptiles and mammals on such a remote island, the people turned to seabirds for their divine connection and so began the birdman competition, another fascinating piece of history and culture awaiting discovery by curious travellers.
Alongside these intriguing traditions, the island boasts beautiful volcanic landscapes, charming beaches, excellent scuba diving, delicious seafood and boutique resorts.
This enigmatic island has no shortage of things to do and discover, so here’s our top 10:
• Ahu Tongariki
• Anakena Beach
• Rano Kau
• Rano Raraku
• Sebastian Englert Museum
• Tangata Manu
• Traditional Dance Show
• Sunset at Hanga Roa Harbour
• Moai Passport Stamp
• Pukaos at Puna Pau
An ‘Ahu’ is a sacred ceremonial site where several moai stand and the word can also be used to describe the flat stone that they stand upon. The largest, and probably most popular, Ahu is Ahu Tongariki, a site where you can find 15 of the best-restored moai on the island. In the 20th century, they were swept away by a tsunami. Since then, they have been re-erected to their original positions and they stand proudly before the mountains once more.
Although beautiful at any time of day, we recommend getting there early and watching the sunrise gently between the statues and cast long, striped shadows across the floor. Stick around once the sun comes up to have the place to yourself and some excellent photo opportunities.
Within Rapa Nui National Park lies Anakena Beach, a picturesque white coral sand cove home to two Ahus – Ature Huki and Nau Nau. Ahu Ature Huki
Ahu Ature Huki is a single moai which was knocked down in a battle between rival tribes but has now been restored to its original position, overlooking the beach.
Ahu Nau Nau is made up of seven moais who have tattoos carved on their backs. The tattoos remain visible thanks to the moai being buried in sand for around 900 years and the patterns of the tattoos signify tribal allegiances and beliefs.
As well as the Ahus, the beach also has warm, calm waters which are perfect for swimming and many optional activities such as horseback riding, scuba diving and nearby hikes.
Easter Island’s unique ecosystem and landscapes were formed by its three volcanoes but the most naturally impressive one to visit is Rano Kau. This volcano sits right on the edge of the coast and is the largest volcano on the island. There is a walking path that takes you around the rim of the crater and passes the Rano Kau viewpoint where you can cast your eyes across the crater lagoon, over the towering volcanic walls and out to sea.
From the viewpoint, you can also take a lesser-used path to Vai Atare, a 3-kilometre trail that leads to different viewing angles as well as the crater ‘bite’ – a dip in the crater wall – from which you can see the three Motu inlets and the cliffs where the Birdman Competition was historically held.
The draw of Rano Raraku is its incredible archaeological significance, as it is here that the moai found all across the island were made. A unique type of rock, called Lapilli tuff, makes up the volcano and it is this raw material that was used by sculptors to carve the iconic statues and turned the crater into a quarry.
Visitors to Rano Raraku will find 397 finished and unfinished figures dotting the foot of the volcano and lining the south-west slopes of the crater walls. These statues account for almost 40% of the total number of moai on Easter Island.
Sebastian Englert Museum
The only museum on Easter Island is named after German missionary Father Sebastian Englert who spent 30 years extensively documenting the island’s culture, language and legends. Within the museum, there are many preserved artefacts such as obsidian stone tools called matā, the face of a moai with a coral eye and the only female moai.
None of the 27 original Rongo Rongo tablets can be found on the island, as they are all in museums in other parts of the world. However, the Sebastian Englert museum does house some replicas.
The William Mulloy library is also part of the museum and features books, articles, photographs, maps, field notes and more relating to the history, geology and archaeology of Easter Island.
Birds had an important role in early Easter Island culture and religion, as it was believed that they had a mystical relationship with the gods and were able to unite the earth, sea and sky. Born from these beliefs, was the Tangata Manu (Birdman) cult.
An annual ritual, in the form of a competition to collect the first manutara (sooty tern) egg of the season would decide who would lead the Rapa Nui people for the coming year. Elders would make a bid for leadership and then select a champion to represent them in the competition.
The chosen champions would then dive down the cliffs of Orongo village, swim over to the Moto Nui inlet and await the season’s first egg. Once an egg was obtained, they had to swim back to the main island, whilst keeping the egg safely strapped to their foreheads and ascend the cliffs back to the village. It is thought that they would also shave their heads and grow their nails to achieve a more bird0-like appearance.
Unsurprisingly, many contestants died during the arduous race, whether it be from shark attack, an unexpected fall or a battle with a rival.
Traditional dance show
Spend an evening engrossed in the lively, cultural throws of a traditional dance show. Music and dancing are an important part of life on Easter Island and the shows give visitors an authentic insight and help to preserve ancient culture.
Dances typically depict scenes of everyday life, both of love and war, and last for around 90 minutes. The performers often get the crowd involved in the dancing, so it’s guaranteed to be a fun and energetic night.
There are several dance groups across the island so there is usually at least one show available each day.
Sunset at Hanga Roa Harbour
Head to Hanga Roa harbour for a great sunset spot. The nearby beach is the perfect place to snorkel in the day, particularly as sea turtles can often be spotted in the waters. As the sun begins to set, adjacent La Kaleta restaurant provides a lovely setting to relax as the sky ignites with colour and offers a fantastic menu filled with delicious Polynesian food.
If you can’t get enough of the moai then head to Ahu Tahai for sunset. A short walk from Hanga Roa harbour, you can watch the sun dip below the horizon behind the shadowed silhouettes of the famous figures.
Get your passport stamped with a moai
Anyone flying into Easter Island from Chile will miss out on the customs passport stamp, as the island politically belongs to Chile. However, you can navigate this omission by visiting the post office in Hanga Roa (opposite Hotel O’tai).
Here, you can get a completely legal passport stamp featuring the iconic moai! It’s certainly one of the most unique and interesting passport stamps you will find.
Pukaos at Puna Pau
Although almost all the moai were sculpted in Rano Raraku, the large redhead accessories, called pukaos or topknots, that can be seen on some of them were carved out of red scoria found at the Puna Pau quarry. Often mistaken for hats, these headpieces are actually topknot hairstyles of the people the statues represent.
Here, you can see the remnants of the quarry and the pukaos that never quite made it to their respective moai.
Hopefully, these highlights of Easter Island will entice you to visit this magical island. These 10 things are just the tip of the iceberg – I left the island feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of understanding the culture and history.
Matt Rushbrooke is Director of Touring & Tailormade at Rainbow Tours.