Easter Island

Easter Island

The first inhabitants of this 60-sq-mi/155-sq-km island called it Te Pito o Te Henua (the Navel of the World). Visitors today often call it the world’s largest open-air museum. It has a fascinating—and tragic—history.

The first settlers of Easter Island, one of the most isolated islands in the world, 2,300 mi/3,750 km west of Santiago, were Polynesians who sailed from the western Pacific. Settling on Rapa Nui (the Polynesian name for Easter Island), they cultivated fruits and vegetables and cut the native forests to build their boat-shaped houses and fishing boats. They also cut the native palms to help move the now iconic moais, the gigantic statues carved from volcanic stone and set all around the island. (The moaisare estimated to weigh 50-90 tons/45,000-80,000 kg.)

Growing population, deforestation and tribal rivalries ignited conflicts that literally decimated the population by the early 19th century. It was during these struggles that Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen first saw the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. In the mid-19th century, Peruvian slavers abducted a significant portion of the population, even as the increasing outside contacts brought smallpox and other European diseases; a population that may have numbered up to 20,000 fell to just a few hundred. Today’s population is a blend of native Rapa Nui and Polynesian, Asian and European heritage. The official language is Spanish, but Rapa-nui (the native language) is also spoken.

Sprawling and densely wooded Hanga Roa, the island’s only town, is the site of the much-improved Father Sebastian Englert’s Archaeological Museum. Nearby sites such as Ahu Tahai, the spectacular Rano Kau crater and its Orongo ceremonial village—site of the “birdman” cult that superseded the moai as objects of veneration—and Ahu Vaihu are all easily accessible from town. Many visitors rent cars for the easiest access, but a knowledgeable local guide can be an asset.

The highlight of any visit to Easter Island are the moais and Rano Raraku quarry, which alone has nearly 400 moais. At the quarry, you can see moai in various stages of completion, from a rough outline in the ground to the nearly finished product (apparently the carvers simply laid down their tools one day, never to take them up again).

Also try to visit some of the volcanic tubes, often incorrectly called caves, where some hid during tribal wars; other tubes served as garden and orchard sites. On the western coast of the island, near Orongo, is a cliff and a petroglyph-covered altar, the center of the birdman-worshipping cult that sprang up after the stone deities “lost” their power.

The island has volcanic lava cliffs, lush subtropical gardens, paved and unpaved but passable roads, clear air and hundreds of horses and cattle. Anakena, where several moai stand atop a restored ahu (platform), has the island’s best beach.

In early February, the Tapati festival celebrates the island’s distinctive culture, but Easter Sunday (from which the island takes its European name) is interesting for its blend of the indigenous and the European celebrations.

To reach Easter Island by air, you must fly from Santiago or Papeete, Tahiti (it’s equidistant from the Chilean mainland and Tahiti). The flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui takes almost six hours, and Lan Chile is the only carrier offering this service. If you’re not continuing on a South American tour, we suggest going on to Tahiti rather than going back to Santiago. It should be noted that trips to Easter Island are not for the light of purse: Except to spend a minimum of Ch$1 million getting there and back to the mainland.

Hotels on Easter Island vary in quality, but some are excellent. Residenciales, local guesthouses, are a more economical alternative.