Easter Island must be one of the most fascinating and mysterious places on this earth. It is one of the world’s most remote inhabited spots, a tiny tropical paradise smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Formed from volcanoes, Rapa Nui (as it’s called by the locals) is a small triangle of ragged black rock coast, grassy rolling hills, and a mystifying history.
The enigma of the island revoles around its famous moai statues, the giant stone figures that line its coastline. The curious statues are a glimpse into the life of an ancient civilization that flourished and then all but disappeared.
The mystery of Rapa Nui begins about a thousand years ago when a group of Polynesians traveled for days and days by wooden boat and arrived at a tree-rich island. They settled the island, using the trunks from the island’s tall palms to make canoes for fishing. Within a few centuries, the new inhabitants had multiplied to about 15,000 people and developed a complex society.
The islanders worshiped their ancestors, who they revered by carving the moai, each of which represented a deceased ancestor. They placed the moai on ceremonial platforms called ahu and situated them along the coast with the faces of the moai looking inland, presumably in order to watch over their descendants.
As the population grew, the resources on the island were overexploited, and eventually the tall palms and some species of birds became extinct. Without these palms, they couldn’t make canoes to fish, and the people started going hungry. Overpopulation and overuse had plundered the resources the islanders needed to survive.
It is thought that this devastation of the ecosystem fueled an internal crisis among the island people. A group called the Bird Man cult fought for power and changed the religious practices of the culture. The people stopped carving moai. The existing moai were knocked over. An intense internal war permeated the island.
The island was in the middle of this calamity when a Dutch explorer came across it on Easter Sunday in 1722, dubbing his discovery Easter Island. In the following years, civil war, violent slave raids, and the introduction of European diseases diminished the population to just a little over one hundred people by the late 1800s.
A representative of the remaining Rapa Nui people officially annexed the island to Chile in 1888. It has been a part of Chile ever since. The several thousand modern natives of the island profess to be descendants of 36 of the island’s inhabitants at the low point of its population.
Seeing Easter Island’s moai in real-life has been something I’ve wanted to do ever since I saw one in a picture so many years ago I can’t even remember the circumstances. A visit to Easter Island, though budget-breaking, was something I was looking forward to more than any other segment of my trip.
A five-hour redeye flight brought me to the island from Lima. Landing at 7am and enduring an agonizingly slow immigration line and a cab driver who couldn’t find my guesthouse, I was not in the best of spirits when at last I collapsed in my bed for a morning nap. The thrill of actually being on this island I had wanted to visit for so long was overwhelmed by my exhaustion and frustration.
Thankfully, a nice long sleep erased all vexation. I awoke impatient with suspense to finally see the wondrous statues in person.
I set out towards Hanga Roa, the island’s only town, in search of some moai. It was an uneventful though scenic walk along the charcoal shore, past hotels and restaurants with views of the frothy, vivid blue ocean.
Then I rounded a bend of the coast, and there were two moai, tall and proud, solemnly watching over the town with oval eyes between stern foreheads and broad noses.
Standing under these lofty figures, I was in disbelief that I was actually staring them down up close and in front of me. I spent the rest of the afternoon rambling along the moai-filled coastline near Hanga Roa in enraptured wonder. Each moai is in varying states of restoration, some with white coral eyes and balancing pukao hats on their heads, some so battered that their human features are barely distinguishable.
I returned home filled with anticipation for the next day.
The triangle of Rapa Nui extends only fifteen miles from end to end, which means it is possible to see the sights of the island without the aid of a motor. I was bursting with excitement to traverse the length of the island on a bike, a mode of transportation that I think is extremely underrated.
It had been a long time since I’d ridden a bike, and I’d forgotten how absolutely exhilarating it is!
I pedaled to the southern coast of the island and cruised along the seaside road just taking in the land and waterscape. I was having so much fun maneuvering the bike that I was almost disappointed when I reached Rano Raraku, a small volcanic crater that functioned as the moai quarry and workshop.
The moai were carved out of the side of Rano Raraku then transported to their final destinations on the island’s coast. No one knows for sure how the moai made it from the volcano to their spots around the island. Some theories speculate that they used the trunks of the tall palms to carry the moai, which contributed to their eventual extinction. It would be ironic and sad if the construction of these extraordinary statues that defined the culture also precipitated its demise.
Hundreds of moai in various stages of completion grace the side of the crater. Some are even still a part of the volcano, only partially carved.
As I circled the volcano through the multitude of moai, a long ahu appeared in the distance. It was Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on the island with fifteen moai. Pushed over in the civil wars and inland during a tsunami, Ahu Tongariki was restored in the 1990s and is today one of the most impressive ahus on the island.
Of course, I had to get a closer look at Ahu Tongariki, so I hopped back on my bike and vigorously pedaled on a rocky shortcut to the ahu site. After I had sufficiently captured the ahu and each of its moai on my camera from all angles and zooms, it was on to the beach.
Despite being a tropical island, Rapa Nui has only a few beaches. Its main beach, Anakena, is ivory sand, waving palms, and moai. I would have liked to collapse on the fine sand, soak up some sun, and gaze at the ocean and moai for a while, but it was a long ride back to town.
The main road through the middle of the island towards town began with a few miles of uphill sweating. Cars sped past me as I slowly inched up the road. Then I reached the crest and coasted down as fast as the cars. I arrived back to Hanga Roa with a euphoric adrenaline high.
I had covered twenty five miles of the island on a bike!
The next morning, my bike had to be returned to the rental place, and I had to continue my exploration of the island without the ease of wheels. I headed in the direction of another volcano crater, Rano Kau, just outside of Hanga Roa.
During the short walk from town to the crater, a sign for a cave lured me from the road. A momentary detour took me into a shoreline grotto crashing with waves on its coal-black rock. Thought to be used at one time or another as a canoe workshop and a ceremonial chamber, it was a secluded and tranquil sanctuary from the inland life above.
Scaling the side of Rano Kau, I enjoyed elevated views of Hanga Roa and its little airport before arriving at the crater. A path along the rim of the crater leads to Orongo, a ceremonial village that was used for an annual competition held by the Bird Man cult. Islanders stayed in little round stone houses in the village while the competition was held. Chiefs of different tribes on the island would swim to a nearby islet to find an egg of an endemic seabird. The first one to bring the egg back to Orongo was declared that year’s “birdman,” a sacred distinction that gave its holder a lot of privileges.
The little village of Orongo sits on a narrow bluff on the very edge of the island with the crater of Rano Kau on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. Many of its round dwellings have been restored. Petroglyphs relating to the birdman competition are engraved in rocks around the village. The stone houses in the village have views of the three islets off the coast of Easter Island, including the islet where the birdman competition was held.
Without wheels, the best way to get to my next destination a few miles outside of town was with a jog. Crumpling with tiredness, my legs dragged me to some petroglyphs near a quarry called Puna Pau, which is where the pukao hats were made.
I forced my weary legs to persevere on to Ahu Akivi, an ahu of seven moai. Unusual because the ahu is not on the coast, it also contains the only moai that face the ocean.
My journey through the center of the island next took me to a cave. The grove of palm trees adorning the entrance gave the pitch-black cavern a misleading cheerfulness. With a half-hearted attempt at daredevilry, I ventured into the blinding darkness with just the faint light of my waning flashlight as illumination.
A few minutes of climbing over piles of rocks and ducking through pasages that connected the cave’s separate hollows was enough for my sense of adventure, so I turned back. With three miles to go to make it back to town and the sun sinking in the sky, I wanted to get a move on. (And, I’ll admit, I wasn’t too stoked about burrowing into the abyss of the earth without having an idea where it led.)
My sore legs carried me along the volcanic rock cliffs of the coastline road as the sun lowered towards the ocean. Finally back in town, I joined a crowd of people on a grassy hill and gaped at the falling sun disperse pinks, oranges, and yellows over a group of silhouetted moai.
It is now back to the mainland and a new country, to the capital of Colombia, Bogotá.