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(2013 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Rapa Nui is a place where the 21st century is somewhat out of place and where, it seems at times, there are as many people riding horses down the main streets of the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, as there are cars and trucks.

What gives this place its charm is that it’s removed from the world’s high-tech lifestyles and the smooth tourism mainstream that dominates most Pacific islands. Its residents have a culture that’s somewhere between Chilean and Polynesian and their daily lifestyle offers only a reluctant nod to the current century.

Located at the southern end of Polynesia about 3,822 kilometres from its nearest major Polynesian neighbour, Tahiti, and some 3,540 kilometres from the Chilean mainland and measuring just 166 square kilometres in size, Rapa Nui is one of the most remote destinations in the Pacific.

If you seek wide sweeping beaches and stretches of waterfront hotels and beach bars, this place isn’t for you. 

So why go there? Well, for the same reason you’d visit Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, Petra or Machu Picchu—to experience the past in a unique setting found nowhere else on the planet. It has a sense of exotic mystery.

The island is home to about 5,000 humans, an estimated 4,000 horses—most of which run wild—887 giant stone figures (called moai) scattered around the island, countless dogs that bark throughout the night and roosters that can’t get the time straight. Walk among these massive moai and the stone quarries from which these carvings were made, and you feel you’ve been transported into another time.

A Land of Many Names

Chances are you don’t know the island as Rapa Nui, but by its more common name, Easter Island. However, if that seems confusing, it also has a third name, Isla de Pascua. In Chile you’ll hear its Spanish name frequently as the island was annexed by Chile in 1888.

It got its Easter Island name when Jacob Roggeween, a Dutch Admiral, sighted the island for the first time on Easter Sunday in 1722. However islanders prefer to use its Polynesian name and residents are fiercely proud of their origins, culture, myths and legends. UNESCO designated the island a World Heritage Site in 1995 and the World Monuments Fund declared it a “most endangered” location in 1996.

The Moai

How large are they? The largest measure up to 21 metres high and weigh some 12 tonnes. They have consistent features; a raised platform made of fitted stones and rubble, a ramp that is often paved with beach cobbles, and a levelled court in front. They were rolled from the quarry on logs and placed to look over a ceremonial area with their backs to the sea.  

Carbon dating has the oldest dating back to the year 800 while the most recent is from 1500 at which point inter-tribal warfare brought their construction to a halt. The island population eventually reached its greatest at about 10,000, which was far beyond the island’s capacity of sustainability. Historians speculate that the ancient residents depleted the entire island of trees in the construction and raising of these giant statues. Consequently, the terrain is rather barren and desert-like.

There are two main must-see moai locations on the island—the moaiat Ahu Tongariki with its 15 erected statues, and the massive quarry at Rano Raraku with more than 390 giant moai lying abandoned on the hillsides. Both are easily accessible although getting to the quarry is a bit of an uphill hike.

At the quarry, dozens of the moai are half buried with their heads sticking out of the hillside dirt. The origins of these statues were long debated, some even suggested they were created by aliens. There is, of course, a more simple explanation. They were constructed by local—often warring—tribes as tributes to local officials, sacred chiefs and gods. Today, the settled earth around many of the moai at the quarry is being removed to expose the full statues.

Hanga Roa

The island’s capital—and, in fact, its only community—is the tiny town of Hanga Roa that sits on the ocean’s edge. You can’t get lost in Hanga Roa. The main street bisects the town and along its short route you’ll find a selection of stores, small hotels, restaurants, the only pharmacy on the island and a supermarket.

Most of the people in town speak English. About 69 per cent of the islanders are descendants of the original Polynesian ancestors. The rest are mostly from Chile. The official language is Spanish, however many islanders speak the original Rapa Nui language.

The 15 restaurants have varying content and prices and regardless of which of the 16 hotels you book (some are quite basic while there are a couple of high-end hotels), you can expect no-frills, clean accommodation and down-home Mama’s cooking.

Rapa Nui will linger with you for a long time. Not only because of the moai but because of its straightforward honesty and lack of pretentiousness. Its value as a destination rests not in what it is, but in what it hasn’t yet become.

Travel Planner

Some 50,000 tourists visit the island yearly, many of them by LAN Chile airlines either from Santiago, Chile, or Tahiti or via cruise lines.  

While credit cards are accepted, you can sometimes receive a discount if you pay cash. I was told it can take months for credit card receipts to generate cash flow from card companies, thus the preference for cash.

Tours and rental cars are available. In Hanga Roa there are ATMs and Internet cafés, and the local water is drinkable. Artwork and local artists are everywhere. The best art is found at the island museum where prices reflect the quality. 

For more information, visit easterislandtourism.com.

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