Four hours after leaving Tahiti, our Latam aircraft gently descended onto the tarmac at Hanga Roa Airport, Easter Island. And a few minutes after that, we joined the rest of the herd in the small immigration area to have our papers checked. Then, after a quick check of our forms, the official stamped our passports and granted us admittance to one of the most unusual places on the planet.
One of the features of a small airport dealing with a lot of passengers is the chaos outside as tourists try to meet up with their taxis. Fortunately, we spotted our driver in rapid time and, after being adorned in flowers, were bundled into a car and bounced along the roads to our cabana.
The physical contrast between the Intercontinental Resort and the Cabanas Henua Iti couldn’t be starker. But, the service and friendliness we experienced here were just as good – and so was the comfort. However, because the nearest restaurant was half a mile away, we thought it prudent to go into town to get some supplies for dinner. The cabana folks ordered us a taxi, and we were soon on the road to Hanga Roa for cash, food, and drinks. After dropping our supplies back at the cabana, we decided to walk into town. We didn’t get very far, though, within a few minutes someone stopped to give us a lift.
Our objective was to see as much of Easter Island as possible. We could achieve this either by booking ourselves on numerous tours (expensive) or by car. Despite what some of the travel sites suggest, it is not possible to see Easter Island by bike within the time we had. So, within half an hour of being back in town, we had taken possession of a pre-battered 4×4 for the week. Although less than 5-years old, that car didn’t have a part of its bodywork unbeaten, scuffed or scratched. It even had a lump of bodywork filler falling out from the top of the driver’s door pillar. However, we saw this state of tattiness as a positive thing – we didn’t need to worry about being charged for any further damage.
That afternoon we drove along the coast road to Ana Kai Tangata to see the rugged coastline and the caves, before heading back to the cabana to meet the owner’s dogs.
More and more moais
The next morning, we drove towards Tahai to take a look at the Moais. However, the first one we spotted wasn’t an ancient one created by the ancestors of Rapa Nui. We found this newer but equally striking version in a cemetery used to mark someone’s grave:
At the museum near Tahai, we watched an old BBC documentary (ironically) about the history of the island, the Moais and the Rapa Nui natives. We learned of the decimation of the Rapa Nui population – down at 1877 to 111 people as a consequence of disease brought by the Europeans, the brutality of Peruvian slave traders and evacuation of some of the islanders. It’s a sad tale.
Later, we headed over to Ana Kakenga and one of the caves the Rapa Nui hid inside in the event of an attack. It’s well-hidden even now. The entrance to the cave has no signpost, and it’s thanks only to the dog lying near the cave entrance that we were able to spot it. It’s a bit of a squeeze going in (Maria gave it a miss), but it opens up to a space that could hold over a hundred people. This cave leads out to the cliff edge where there is a plunge to oblivion for the unwary. Invaders could be spotted, but the cave dwellers remained invisible.
We briefly stopped at the single moai, Moai De Huri A Urenga, before heading to Ahu Akivi where there are seven moai thought to represent the early explorers (before the Europeans coming along to bugger things up).
Then, onto Ana Te Pahu, where there the caves, previously used for water storage and crop growing, are still home to several species of plants; they are fascinating and large enough to walk into and around.
One of the most famous sites on Easter Island is Anakena. It is recognised as the birthplace of the Rapa Nui culture as it is where Hotu Matu’a, the founding king of the Rapa Nui people, first landed at some point before 1200 AD – it’s also an excellent place to wash your flip flops and bask on the beach. Our choice of footwear must have looked bonkers to many, especially those wearing hiking boots, but it didn’t get in our way. And a quick wash in the sea is all they need.
Near to the sea is the enormous moai atop of the Ahu Ature and there are seven more on Ahu Nao-Nao.
A short and bumpy car journey brought us to Ovahe, which contains an ancestral cemetery overlooking a rugged but beautiful coastline, with waters in every shade of blue imaginable.
On the way back to our cabana, we called at Papa Vaka to see the rock art, before ending the day at Tongaraki. The Ahu here is the largest on Easter Island and was restored in the 1960s. That was no mean feat. The biggest of the Moai’s weighs in at 86 tonnes – it’s a lot to lift.
Rano Raraku is one of the most spectacular places on Easter Island. Most of the island’s moais were carved here, and many remain standing as though protecting the site. And some are only half-finished – left attached to the mountain when the workers downed tools.
Many moais, of course, were moved to other parts of the island. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure how this happened, and the theories are inconsistent. The favourite hypothesis is that the Rapa Nui felled trees to create rollers to move these giants to their new location; this goes part of the way to explain the deforestation of the island.
One of the saddest sights here is the carving on one of the moais (in one of the photographs below) that clearly shows a European ship at anchor. Little did the Rapa Nui know of what tragedy this was to bring.
In the afternoon we headed over to Akahanga where there is (amongst many other things) a mockup of a village and typical living accommodation.
On the way back to Hanga Roa, we stopped at a small fishing port where fishermen tie their open-decked boats to a rope stretching from one side of the dock to the other to prevent their boats from being battered by the swells. A little further along the road from here is a series of mooring buoys laid for visiting yachtsmen. Clearly, these have been put in place by a committee with a sadistic sense of humour. This poor boat was being thrown from beam to beam in the swells – and it was a calm day.
Dancing with the natives
That night, we went into all-in tourist mode and booked ourselves into a dance show with dinner cooked in an Umu – an oven created from hot stones buried underground.
The restaurant collected us from the cabana, and dropped us off in time for ‘traditional face painting’. Maria was up for this, and in normal circumstances, I would run a mile. But, as Easter Island is far from ordinary, I abandoned my usual reluctance and let the artist do his work.
After a welcome drink, we were invited to the ceremony to unveil the food from the Umu. The master of ceremony wearing traditional dress conducted the proceedings. Of course, I can’t judge how authentic this is, but I would guess that much it is was. This was followed by words of blessing and a bit of a song and dance. Some of the visitors were from Tahiti and were able to follow the lyrics and the dance moves, suggesting that some of the Polynesian cultural traditions have a long reach. Maria and I tried our best to keep up but looked as uncoordinated as Theresa May following African beats.
The organisers are very practised on how to seat people. We shared a large table with English speakers from Japan, the US and Canada, which worked well for us. The buffet, consisting of the food that came out of the ground augmented with some traditionally cooked meat and vegetables was excellent. And so was the dancing. It’s impossible to question their commitment to entertaining; it was unquestionably high-energy.
On our penultimate day, we drove to the south of the island to Rano Kau to see the crater lake – one of the truly spectacular views on Easter Island.
After that, we walked the short distance to the village of Orongo, which was the centre of activity for the birdman cult. This village was only used during the tournament to find the next Tangata Manu – awarded to the sponsor of the man who returned with the first egg of the season from the Sooty Tern. The competitor – the Hopu – only took risks, not the reward.
This competition was nothing like being sponsored for a fun run, where an over-enthusiastic competitor blundering around presents the only danger. The Hopu has to endure several life-threatening challenges:
1. scaling down a cliff
2. swimming to Motu Nui, waiting for a bird to lay an egg and be lucky enough to be the first one to get it
3. heading back to the Orongo through shark-invested waters
4. climbing back up the cliff
The winning hopu’s sponsor was then presented the egg and granted the dubious honour of a shaved head and a year of seclusion. Of course, I am boiling this down to the basics. There is more to it than this, but all that information is contained somewhere on the interweb.
We couldn’t have finished our trip without a last look at the ocean, so we went into Hanga Roa for a late lunch and to look at the harbour where there is a monument for the fisherman to keep them safe. They need it. The waters here are as choppy as a Ninja’s hands.
Final day in Easter Island
All week had been full-on, so we spent the morning doing nothing other than packing, then eating breakfast. The owner of the cabanas offered to take us to the airport via the car hire place. And after the car hire company reported no more damage to the car (a foregone conclusion given the state of it), we left it there and continued the journey to the airport in a far less battered SUV. At the airport, the cabana’s owner and her daughter carried our bags into the terminal and left us with a gift of a small Maui necklace each. Very sweet.
Our time on Easter Island has been one of the best experiences we have had on our odyssey. Rapa Nui has everything: history, the moai’s, the scenery and friendly people too. But don’t believe the hype about being able to trek or cycle around the island. Unless you have masochistic inclinations or are prepared to spend months there, or only see the major sights – get a car – and preferably a pre-battered one.