FRIDAY-TUESDAY, DECEMBER 15-19, 2006. HANGA ROA, EASTER ISLAND (A.K.A. RAPA NUI (POLYNESIAN), ISLA DE PASCUA (SPANISH)), CHILE. Easter Island is simply a magical and fascinating place--An entire island of open air museum. The moai (stone statues) and ahu (ceremonial platforms) are some of the most enigmatic and amazing archeological relics that I have come across in my travels around the world. Moreover, the island has a unique mix of Rapa Nui (Polynesian) and Chilean cultures. Rapa Nui culture has some startling similarities to my home, Hawaii (Surfs Up, Brah!). A popular tee-shirt logo that I saw in Laos and Thailand aptly describes the mix: "Same Same, But Different".
I travelled with Steven from Calgary, Canada, who was also on the Navimag ferry and in Pucon. We coincidentally stayed at the same hostel in Santiago and were on the same inbound and outbound flights. We got a room at Residencial Petero Atamu in Hanga Roa, Easter Island's only town (18k CLP/$35 per night). On Saturday, we rented a Suzuki Jimmy (Insular Rentals, 25k CLP/$50 for 24 hours) and proceeded to tour the entire island counterclockwise beginning in Hanga Roa. This took us along the south and southeast coasts through lava fields. The weather was almost exactly the same as a typical day in Hawaii--sunny, with a bit of a breeze, and temperature in the mid-20s C (high 70s F). What strikes you at first about the landscape is the volcanic rocks, the lack of trees, and the many horses grazing.
Two major sites are found along the southern coast: Rano Raraku and Ahu Tongariki. Rano Raraku is known as the nursery. It's a small volcanic mountain where the moai were carved from. Dozens of moai, in varying stages of completion, dot the interior and exterior slopes of the volcano. Of course, the big mystery of Easter Island (so named because of its 'discovery' by a Dutch expedition on Easter Sunday in 1722) is how the moai, weighing tons, were moved to varying locations around the island and placed atop ahus (ceremonial platforms). One current theory is that they were moved in the standing position, which would comport with historical descriptions of the moai "walking" to their ahu.
The moai range in height from 5.5 meters to 7 meters. Some are as small as 2 meters while others top out at about 21 meters. About 300 moai were moved to varies places along the coast of Easter Island, while a few were placed inland. Some moai have reddish cylindrical topknots, called a pukao, on their heads. The topknots are thought to reflect a male hairstyle once common on Rapa Nui. With the notably exception of Ahu Akivi, moai and ahu face inland, with their backs to the sea, overlooking villages. (In contrast, surfers in Hawaii always try to face the ocean out of respect for the powerful surf.).
Ahu Tongariki is just down the coast from Rano Raraku. The moai can easily be seen from atop the crater of Rano Raraku. Ahu Tongariki is composed of 15 moai. The site was restored by a Japanese company in the early 1990s after a tsunami had damaged much of the site. Ahu Tongariki represents the largest collection of moai on an ahu.
A short drive north from Ahu Tongariki brings you to Anakena beach, one of the few white sand beaches and probably the best beach on Rapa Nui. Two ahus with moai are found just off the beach: Ahu Nau Nau and Ahu Ature Huki.
From Anakena beach, a drive inland north west along a winding dirt road brings you to Ahu Akivi, seven moai facing the sea. During the equinoxes, these moai all look directly at the setting sun.
Our final stop for the day was Rano Kau, a 410 meter high volcano with a witch's cauldron crater full of water and reeds. Along its southwestern slope sits the Orongo ceremonial village, once home to the island's birdman cult.
One full day with a car was enough to see all of Rapa Nui's the major sights at a leisurely pace. Steven and I spent our other days relaxing, hiking, and revisiting some of the sights for sunrise and sunset. On our morning revisit to Ahu Tongariki, we met Franz, a Canadian from Quebec City, who had decided to walk around Rapa Nui.
Rapa Nui has a population of only 3,800 people. They are a mixture of Rapa Nui and Chilean. The Rapa Nui people share similar features with other polynesians like Hawaiians, notably facial features and darker skin. They have adopted some other cultural aspects of Hawaii including surfing, tropical print clothing (Aloha attire), and leis. We unfortunately missed the one cultural event, a performance by Kari Kari at the Hanga Roa Hotel, that Franz raved about. (Franz, by the way, is a British trained butler. He is the first butler that I have ever met. He told Steven and I some great stories about working for and the spending habits of the super rich (defined as having a net worth of US$30 million or more)).
Rapa Nui is absolutely worth visiting. A mysterious and enigmatic island, Rapa Nui reveals itself in parts slowly but surely to the patient traveller. But some parts will undoubtedly remain a mystery for eternity. And this is the beauty of Rapa Nui.