Easter Island remains a mystery. Officially part of Chile and over 2000 km from its nearest neighbour, this remote island still holds the secrets of a lost civilisation, covered in hundreds of Moai statues and the ruins of a village perched on a volcano crater that was home to a strange ancient ritual.
We’d heard the story, the islanders had become so obsessed with carving these statues in tribute to their ancestors that they used up all of the island’s natural resources, cutting down the trees to build wooden supports and ramps. They began fighting amongst each other and toppling the statues in rage and were, in the end, responsible for their own demise. As we came to find out, the reality was much more complex.
A six hour flight from Santiago on the new LAN Dreamliner and we landed on Rapa Nui (its original name). The runway is huge for such a tiny island and was actually built by NASA as the back-up runway for the Space Shuttle.
We were staying in a room on a campsite called Camping Mihinoa, one of the cheaper options right by the sea and just a ten minute walk from the island’s only town Hanga Roa. As we’d heard horror stories about food prices we brought as many essentials as we could from the mainland in our backpacks (mainly pasta, wine and cheese). The reality was that buying groceries wasn’t as expensive as we’d heard and we could still get things like bread and eggs for a decent price.
The Island is pretty small so we hired a jeep for a couple of days to visit some of the Moai sites and volcanoes. Our first and favourite site of them all was Ahu Tongariki. Fifteen Moai tower majestically in front of the ocean. Almost all of the statues on the island face inland, as if watching over their ancestors.
Rano Raraku is an extinct volcano and the quarry where most of the Moai were carved and then transported. Almost 400 unfinished statues still lie here, others abandoned that had fallen in transit. Until recently people believed these were just heads, but archeologists discovered bodies buried beneath the ground. You can walk around the quarry and see the statues in various stages of carving, some still embedded into the rock. It was almost as if they put their tools down one night and never went back. For what reason, is still a mystery.
Sitting so remote in the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island isn’t known for calm seas but there are a couple of beaches where it’s safe to swim. Anakena is on the North coast, with beautiful white sand surrounded by coconut palm trees. A row of Moai guard the beach, sporting red pukao on top of their heads. The theories are that these either represent hats or man-buns, no one knows for sure.
Rano Kau is a giant extinct volcano crater which sits at the South of the island. It looks incredible, a sea of blue and green, with its own microclimate. Perched at the edge of the crater is Orongo, the ruins of an old settlement, some of which have been rebuilt. These houses were the starting point for the strange ancient Birdman race. The race involved participants swimming to the tiny island of Mota Nui off the coast and waiting for days for the first egg of the Sooty Tern bird. Whoever came back to Orongo first with the egg was crowned Birdman and his tribe would get first dibs on the islands dwindling resources for that year.
Easter Island has a magical feel to it. The mystery surrounding the Moai and the friendliness of the Rapanui people, together with a real Polynesian feel (even airport security wear flowers in their hair) made it a place we found difficult to leave. One day they were celebrating the day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, so they cooked loads of food traditionally in the ground and gave the whole island a free lunch! Driving was so easy and stress free, the only dramas being potholes and wild horses.
While on the island we read a book called “The Statues That Walked” which goes into detail about how they think the Moai were moved for miles from the quarry to the coast. The main theory now is that they tied ropes around their heads and in teams pulled them from side to side so that the statues started to waddle and literally walk. The book also talks about how the deforestation on the island occurred in a time frame that would make it impossible for the islanders to have cut down all the trees. Their resources did diminish but the arrival of Europeans also brought diseases which was a much more likely cause of their disappearance.
No one truly knows why they stopped making their statues seemingly overnight…it will have to remain lost in time, like so many things on this beautiful island.