Easter Island: The Splendid Speck

Island: Tiny
Statues: Mysterious
Caves: Tight
Beach: Unspoiled
Trees: N/A

Full-page map
About the island

Less than one-fiftieth the size of Puerto Rico, Easter Island is perhaps the most isolated place on Earth. If you were to draw a circle the size of Asia around the island, the only other piece of inhabited land to fall within its boundaries would be Pitcairn, population 50, more than 2000 miles away. To get a feel for this, try zooming out on the map to the right.

Much of the island's past is shrouded in mystery, but the latest archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that settlers — referred to as the Rapa Nui — came from Taiwan by way of Polynesia around the year 1200. It was a one-way trip; upon arrival, they lost their seafaring ability, due either to irreparable deterioration of their boats or simply a failure to pass the knowledge on to future generations.

Rapa Nui legend tells of just one brief point of contact with the outside world in the next 500 years. They claim that soon after they settled the island, a group of strange-looking men from the east arrived one day — presumably, native Americans from what is now Chile. They coexisted for a time, the Rapa Nui learning the craft of stoneworking from their new neighbors. The good times didn't last, however; conflict erupted between the two groups, and the Rapa Nui killed every last one of the South American newcomers.

If I were a better photographer, you'd be able to see that the "hat" is red.

Although there is no genetic evidence to back the story up (that's one of the problems with genocide), the story is plausible as there are no stonecarvers among other Polynesian societies. However this new technology was acquired, it heavily influenced the Rapa Nui culture. They began to devote increasing resources to the construction of giant statues, called "moai."

The moai were placed on platforms called "ahu" where they could watch over a village, serving as both religious idols and status symbols. The early ones were more or less true-to-life, but soon an abstract style became all the rage, where the statues were given long faces, stylized squarish torsos, and pronounced lips, noses, and chins. Contrary to popular belief, they were not unadorned slabs of gray stone: a proper moai would have a red topstone (looking like a hat), as well as white coral eyes with obsidian pupils. The typical modern depiction, bald and eyeless, was based on unfinished statues like the ones below.

First contact

These figures astonished Jacob Roggeveen when he "discovered" the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. The Dutch sailor brought word back to Europe, and although nobody tried to claim the island, for the next hundred years ships from different nations would stop by when they were in the neighborhood. Each visit encountered an increasingly troubled society, as starvation and tribal warfare began to spin out of control.

Many believe the Rapa Nui brought this upon themselves by cutting down all their trees, and the poor Easter Islanders have long been used as a cautionary tale by everyone from environmentalists concerned with resource sustainability to libertarians concerned with the "tragedy of the commons." However, a newer theory suggests that the primary killer of the island's trees was the Polynesian rat.

Rats that had accompanied the original settlers had no predators here, and multiplied without check for 500 years. One of their favorite foods was the seeds of the trees which had once covered the island. This, coupled with the natives' demand for wood, was finally bringing the island to the brink of deforestation.

Without trees, the birds — a key part of the Rapa Nui diet — had no place to live, and there was no material with which to construct fishing boats. The starving islanders began to fight amongst themselves. When a village was conquered, the victors would topple all its moai. European ships by this point reported that the islanders had become openly hostile toward any attempts to land, so they kept their distance as the statues went down one by one.

In 1862, things got even worse. Peruvians stormed the island, rounded up most of the inhabitants, and brought them back to the mainland as slaves. By the time other countries intervened and secured the Rapa Nui's return, many had died and the rest brought smallpox back with them. As the disease spread, the survivors fought over the land of the dead. At the low point, there were only about a hundred Rapa Nui left on Easter Island — just 36 of whom bore children.

Missionaries stepped in, saving the descendants of the final 36 but demanding they abandon their pagan religion and convert to Christianity. Though this cost them their culture, it finally stabilized the population.

In 1888, Chile annexed the island, more or less with the blessing of its inhabitants. For the next sixty years, the Rapa Nui were confined to one small corner of the island, in a town they named Hanga Roa ("Wide Bay"). The rest of the land was leased to a sheep-farming company. In 1953, the Chilean navy declared ownership. Finally in 1966 the government decided to open the island to tourism.

Hanga Roa and its airstrip. I mean, international airport.

Tourists, however, have had a hard time getting there ever since. Weekly flights began in 1970, and jumbo jets could land after 1984, when NASA beefed up the runway so that it could be used as an emergency abort site for the Space Shuttle. Still, the Chilean government only allows one airline to fly to there regularly: LAN Chile, surprise, surprise. This monopoly leads to very high ticket prices — for example, to fly there and back from New York will set you back about $2000 per person.

Fortunately, LAN is part of the OneWorld alliance, with whom we purchased our round-the-world tickets. These plans are awesome: for a deeply discounted fare (about $4000-$5000 at the moment), you get a certain number of miles to work with — in our case, 34,000 — and can fly anywhere you want, stopping as often as you like. There are restrictions (e.g., you must circumnavigate the globe, crossing each ocean exactly once, and not come back for at least three months), but adding a stop in Easter Island costs not a penny more in airfare than flying right past it.

The only thing that made us think twice was a scheduling matter: LAN's timetable only showed two flights a week, as a stopover on their Santiago-Tahiti route. We decided it was worth making time for, and arranged our plans to accommodate it.

The big day

The computerized realtime flight map was somewhat underwhelming.

We were especially worried that day about missing one of our connecting flights, since we had no idea when the next plane would be going to Easter Island. Everything worked out perfectly, though. Our only gripe was a staggering $131-per-American fee to enter Chile. This "Reciprocity Charge" is levied only against US citizens, in retaliation for our own country's hostile stance toward Chilean visitors. Remember this the next time politicians are talking about "protecting our borders."

As we flew out from Santiago, we got our best view yet of the Andes. They're really a fantastic mountain range, and looked as good in person as they do on those candies... heck, they looked better. Good thing, too, because it would be the last scenery for five hours.

Our western heading gave us a few extra hours of daylight. Just as the sun was finally getting away, I spotted a triangle of land looming on the horizon. Even as we were landing, the entire coastline — all the way around — was easily visible. There was only one runway, so when we rolled to a stop at the far end, there was nowhere to go but back the way we came. The A340 turned a 180° in much less space than I thought a big jet could, and we taxied back up Runway 1.

After arriving at Gate 1 and picking up our backpacks at Baggage Carousel 1, we stepped outside to the pickup area, where islanders and visitors were mutually excited to meet one other and every neck in sight was adorned with a lei. We would be staying in a guesthouse in Hanga Roa, still the only town on the island. The owner, an Australian man named Bill, was waiting at the airport with his truck.

Arriving into town

By this point, night had fallen, and as we drove the short ride along the dark and unpaved roads, we learned that Bill was a retired Hollywood construction manager who had been all over the world to work on blockbusters like the Star Wars prequels. Once that sort of thing got old, he settled down in Hanga Roa with a nice Rapa Nui woman named Edith and the two of them (plus a team of relatives) opened up a ten-room guesthouse.

Upon arrival, our bags were whisked away and we were led to the veranda, where Edith was waiting with tropical drinks. They were a product of the garden, Bill proudly declared as he sat down with us. We didn't get much time to talk, though, because the power went out a few minutes later. Bill ran off with a flashlight, and as we sat there finishing our drinks, looking out at the garden and the sky full of stars, with rings of blossoms still around our necks, we wondered if this was what it used to be like to arrive in Hawaii back in the days when Elvis started going.


In the morning, we walked around the grounds of the guesthouse. Tropical fruit and flowers were growing everywhere (both would show up on our breakfast plates). A pair of caged parakeets spilled some of their feed onto the ground below, whereupon a hen and several chicks excitedly cleaned it up. By now we were used to chickens roaming the grounds of our hotels, but Easter Island took it one step further, as a pair of horses showed up, unsolicited, to mow the lawn. (Since all the cows and horses on the island are branded, they're more or less allowed to roam freely. The owners know they'll get them back, and the neighbors like the free landscaping services.)

This is where bananas come from.
Maybe they were cockatiels.
I think the one on the left is preggers.
Needless to say, the dog didn't chase away the horses or bother the chickens.

Touring the island

Our hosts Bill and Edith also have a company that runs small-group tours of the island. We spent two days with our Rapa Nui guide Terry and two other American couples, and by the end saw almost every point of historical interest.

There are moai all over the island, and most are still where the Rapa Nui left them 250 years ago — toppled face-first off their ahu and usually broken at the neck. Others never even made it to the ahu in the first place, still half-carved and embedded in a hillside or lying in a valley where they were abandoned in transit. Some have been repaired and set upright by modern scientists and historians.

All are just sitting out in the open, where anyone — even the ever-present horses — can walk right up to them. You can see pictures of all of them in the Flickr album.

The poor guys in the background had their hats (or hair) knocked off.
The topstone quarry

We also got to see the quarries from which the moai were made. The first was Puna Pau, a deposit of red scoria, the soft volcanic rock that was used for the topstones. There is disagreement as to whether these represent hats or hairbuns, as there was at least one Rapa Nui tribe rumored to have had red hair.

Moving the rock was more difficult than shaping it, so the carving took place on-site. If a flaw was discovered — such as a chunk of hard rock embedded in the material — the piece was left on the spot. The hill was littered with such rejects, and so we got to see topstones at every stage of the carving process. First they were rounded off, then smoothed, and finally a notch was made on the underside, so they could fit on the moai's heads the way a hat fits onto a Lego man.

The groove on the hill was left by the topstones as the Rapa Nui rolled them away.

A moai in front of the mountain it was cut from
The statue quarry

The head and body of the moai are made of tuff, a grayish rock formed from compressed volcanic ash. There was only one source for this material, a big mountain called Rano Raraku at the far end of the island.

As was the case with the topstones, the statues were carved right at the quarry. The artisans chipped out the rough features before the the rock was even extracted, then set it on the hillside for detailing. Rano Raraku is covered with 397 abandoned moai, nearly half of all known specimens.

The other half were moved, fully formed, to sites around the island. This was an achievement on par with Stonehenge and the pyramids, but unlike the ancient Englishmen and Egyptians, the Rapa Nui had neither beasts of burden nor any metal whatsoever. Nobody knows how the statues were moved, but Terry shared some theories. Some believe they were moved on wooden tracks or rollers (which goes along with the deforestation-by-people theory), though the moai are carved on every side and don't have a flat surface to lay on rollers or a sled. Locals say the workers "walked" them upright, rocking them from side to side. Legend says they walked themselves.

Can you find the moai in this picture?

This was also the day I got badly sunburned.

Easter Island does have attractions beyond the moai, of course. For starters, there are a series of lava tube caves. Faithful readers will recall that we saw similar caves in New Mexico, but didn't have the equipment to go exploring. This time, we finally got to climb around inside; the only equipment necessary was a flashlight.

Terry led us behind some scrubby trees and down into a tiny hidden entrance. We held onto loose rocks and bits of tree branches and roots as we climbed in, turned on our flashlights, and picked our way across the uneven floor.

Bananas and yucca

The cave didn't have stalactites or stalagmites, since lava tubes are formed by molten rock rather than dripping water. It was quite long and showed signs of former human habitation. There were piles of stones the Rapa Nui had brought in to wall off natural openings, which would slow down intruders and thus make the cave easier to defend. We also saw earth ovens — small pits where food would be cooked by surrounding it with hot stones. Occasional overhead sinkholes let in shafts of light where small plants were growing. At one major (though ancient) cave-in, we saw an entire grove of banana trees and yucca plants, which Terry said was likely planted hundreds of years ago.

Our next stop was a few hundred feet from the edge of a cliff. We could hear waves breaking and wanted to take a look (and some pictures), but Terry directed us to a tiny spot on the ground, smaller than a manhole. It was another cave, much narrower than the first, and some of the other couples decided to stay behind. The rest of us squeezed inside and crouched down. It was dark and Mike hit his head — maybe hardhats should be added to the equipment list — but when we reached the end, we found ourselves at an opening in the cliff wall directly above the crashing waves! When our eyes adjusted we could see that it was a beautiful rocky beach, and we lingered for ten minutes watching the surf. This was a much more dramatic view than we would have gotten upstairs.

The tiny hole belies what's inside.

Te Pito Kura

The ancient Rapa Nui referred to their island as Te Pito Kura, or "The Navel of the World." They also gave that name to a sacred stone, perfectly round and made of magnetic ore — volcanic basalt, perhaps, or maybe even a meteorite. As Terry described its cultural import, we pictured something grand, like Plymouth Rock, but we arrived to find it was just the size of a beach ball.

The natives believed the Navel had mystical powers, and apparently so did the group of German tourists who were talking excitedly while reverentially holding their hands to it when we arrived. When they finally left, our group of skeptical New Yorkers gave it a try. We were unable to detect any Earth vibes, and found the black rock too hot to touch for long anyway. It did interfere with Mike's compass watch, though.

Anakena Beach

Today I remembered hat & sunscreen, but figured my ankles could still use some extra protection.

Both Terry and his driver had brought their young daughters along on our second day's tour, though they didn't seem particularly interested in the historical sites. Turns out they were waiting patiently for our last stop of the day — Anakena Beach. They were into their bathing suits before the van even stopped, and already in the water while we were still taking in the view. Even kids who grow up on a small tropical island get excited about going to the beach.

As one of the few spots on the island's coast where the shore is sandy instead of rocky, Anakena is believed to be the Rapa Nui's landing point and thus the oldest settlement on the island. Archaeologists have made some major discoveries by going through the debris in its layers of sand, but we didn't know any of this until later and so we spent our time enjoying the warm water and the pinkish-white sand until it was time to dry off and go back to the hotel.

The guava juice was great — pulpy and rich.

We asked Bill for a dinner recommendation, but we should have been more clear. He interpreted the question as, "Where can we find a safe and familiar oasis of American-European food that's as close as possible to what we're used to eating at home?" We ended up at a fancy place that struggled to make pesto and curry out of local ingredients. Our shrimp came with bits of avocado that were laughably hard. They might as well have been chunks of malachite.

We learned our lesson, though, and followed the locals around from that point forward. The best place was actually right next door to the guesthouse — and had free WiFi! With a little help from the waiter, we picked out a pair of seafood dishes. Hilary's nanue soup was funky, fishy, and — after she added a squeeze of vinegar — fantastic. I tried a local shellfish called rape rape (pronounced a lot like mahi mahi), which looked like giant crawfish and tasted like lobster. Our side of sweet potatoes was excellent and completely different from any American variety.

See it now, while it's hard.

Future site of the Hanga Roa Hard Rock Cafe?

We had a great time on Easter Island, due in no small part to its isolation. The landscape is near-virgin, even at the historic sites. There's no trace of commercialism. You can touch the moai all you want.

Sadly, though, it's not gonna last. Bill and Terry kept mentioning how much things have already changed, even in the past year. LAN just doubled its service to four westbound trips a week, and including eastbound flights, there are now some days when two (!) planes land. There's even a thousand-dollar-a-night hotel that just opened, and tourism is booming.

Eventually, some idiot is going to scratch his name into one of the moai, or a bunch of frat boys will try to steal the Navel, or one too many cave explorers will lose their grip on the flimsy branches or walk into a pit, and suddenly there will be fences and park rangers everywhere.

You can get as close as you want to Rapa Nui cave paintings... for now.

Natural forces are taking their toll as well. The soft material that the moai are made of erodes much faster than other rock. The wind, rain, salt, and sand have already worn down most of them. At least all the face-down ones are shielded from the elements, but people want to see sharp-chiseled statues standing upright in their original outdoor locations. I'm not sure what I would do if I were the local park service; there's not really a sustainable solution.

The bottom line is this: If you're dreaming of one day going to Easter Island, put a trip together now.

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