Easter Island, A Self Guided Tour

posted in: Chile, South America | 1

Landing on Easter island we reach another level of “the middle of nowhere”… This small dot in the Pacific Ocean is the most remote piece of inhabited land on earth. For years the mysteries of the island have intrigued us, so we made it a must see while traveling South America. It’s simple, to get to this Chilean island, it required to cross at least 3500 km of sea from either the South American continent, Polynesia or New Zealand. No wonder the island is renown for its mysterious culture and history that involves a collapsed civilisation, toppled statues and bird-man stories.

In this article, we will take you on a 5-day journey across this tropical island that we explored by car, bike and on foot for just above €600 each, flights included. Let’s go!

 

About Easter Island

Easter island was named by the dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, who was the first to set eyes on the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. The islands name in Polynesian is “Rapa Nui” which means Big Rapa for its resemblance to the island of Rapa, in south Polynesia.

Since the internet has reached the island and with daily flights from/to Santiago and Tahiti, Easter Island has only a taste of remoteness through its location. However, if it doesn’t feel remote as you walk around the only town on the island, Hanga Roa, you are immediately called back to what the island used to be as you start exploring it.

The landscape has been shaped by successive eruptions from three volcanoes and centuries of not so Pacific waves… When the first habitants, “Hotu Matua” believed to come from Polynesia, arrived between 400 and 700 CE, the island was covered with a native, now extinct Palm tree. It is thought the trees were cut down in favor of crops, and never regenerated.

Easter Island is most known for its lost civilisation and the famous Moai statues that can only be found on the island.


The Moai

The Rapanui people started carving the volcanic rocks into heads (Moai) wearing Pukaos. These statues were erected all around the island onto platforms. These sacred (tapu) “Ahu” that were facing toward the island with the aim of protecting the descendants, were also used during ceremonies of the different tribes. According to the first navigators’ logbooks around 1770, all the heads were initially standing. However, as James Cook visited the island in 1774, the Moai are toppled which could be explained by potential internal conflicts within the Rapa Nui’s society.

These days, archaeologists have restored a few “Ahu” but the majority of the Moai are still found face down, testimony of the tribes’ war.

 

The Birdman cult

As the chief of Easter Island starting loosing his power during famine and war, a new cult came to replace the Moai era. The Birdman cult appeared as a rebirth for the island, extolling freedom and wisdom.

In the Rapa Nui mythology, Make-Make is the God of Fertility and the creator of humanity. He is represented as a man with a bird head and can be found on many petroglyphs on Easter island.

Each year, until the missionary forbade it, a competition was held in tribute to the Birdman. First a prophet would declare the name of the contestants. Those men, the tribes’ chief, would then elect a person who would compete for them, but sometimes they would compete on their own.

The aim was to swim to the island Moto Nui and be the first to catch a Sooty Tern egg before climbing the cliffs to Orongo village. The winner’s sponsor would in the end, be crowned as Birdman, considered as Tapu (sacred) while his tribe would have the first rights to the island’s resources. This seemed to have been a way on avoiding war over diminishing ressources.


The Decline

There are many reasons for the decline of the Rapa Nui civilisation but the most striking one would be the exportation of men and women as slaves to Peru. Coupled with smallpox and tuberculosis epidemics brought by the slaves to the island, the estimated population of natives dropped to 36 in less than 20 years.

The Rapa Nui never went extinct, however, even if archeologists have solved many mysteries, a lot of unanswered questions remain. What we know about the Rapa Nui and Moai is the fruit of songs and stories that were transcribed by missionaries. Archeological studies have also cleared up a lot of interrogations but the most intriguing one such as how did the Rapa Nui move and stand the Moai, has still not been solved.


Visiting the island self-guided : our itinerary

1. Renting a car to watch the sunrise at the most incredible Ahu of the island :

We rented a car for 24 hours in order to be able to visit “Ahu Tongariki” at sunrise. We set off around 4 am and drove for 25 minutes before reaching our destination. The car was driving in pitch black and the only thing we could hear was the sound of the waves crashing on the cliffs. We were the first tourist on site and had to wait for the “doors” to open while stargazing. Many other cars and tours arrived after us, but magically disappeared around 10 am. At that time we were the only visitors on site which was absolutely incredible to believe.

The sunrise at Ahu Tongariki was a blessing. Probably one of the most impressive we have had the chance to see on this trip. We all stood in front of the ocean, the Moai looking at us, while the sun poked out from behind the statues, touching the clouds with a purple then orange hue.

To avoid the crowds that had now moved to the next site : Rano Ranaku, we drove north towards Ahu Nau Nau. As we arrived on site, at Anakena beach, we could immediately distinguish the beauty of the postcard white sand beach surrounded by tall palm trees. There, we found the 7 beautiful Moai (some without heads) turning their backs to a crystal clear blue water.

We couldn’t resist and obviously enjoyed the view of the Ahu Nau Nau from the water. Later on, as the tours arrived one by one to settle for lunch, we packed our picnic and drove back south toward Rano Ranaku, the birthplace of the Moai. From this mountain quarry, we really enjoyed the different point of view of the Ahu Tongariki.

It is easy to spend hours wandering around the quarry. There are many heads poking out of the ground. These are actually complete Moai, but partially buried. Another amazing part of the walk is to see the different stages of carving. What struck us the most, was  that a couple of statues were not even cut out of the rock. Just as if they were left by their sculptors for an eternal sleep attached to their bedrock.

Ahu Tongariki – Photos

Ahu Nau Nau – Anakena Beach – Photos

Rano Ranaku – Photos

2. Hiking the volcano Rario Kau to learn about the “birdman cult” at Orongo

After returning the car back to the rental company, we decided to hike to Orongo Village from town. This nice walk makes a perfect half-day trip for whomever wants to take his/her time. After visiting the local museum in the morning, we set off after lunch along the coast towards the start of the hike. Half way through we remembered we had forgotten our touristic tickets, which are bought on arrival and give the right to entrance all the archeologic sites. We therefore had to get into a taxi to go back to our cabana… This stupid episode closed, our taxi dropped us back where he first found us so we could continue our walk.

The hike took us up a steep hour walk, on the side of the volcano. As we arrived at the top we continued our walk on the ridge, overlooking the crater’s lake. The views of Hanga Roa and Pacific are stunning from there. We even had the chance to see the daily plane to Tahiti taking off and disappearing behind the clouds. Once on site in Orongo, the trail leads into the middle of the stone houses that were used by the different tribes during the annual egg-collection competition. Here we could hear the diverse stories about the Birdman cult and even see the two islands that were used for the competition.

Volcano Rario Kau – photos

 

Orongo – photos

 

3. Cycling the least accessible part and looking for caves

The rocky path that leads north-west from Hanga Roa is only accessible to bikes and hikers. We decided to cycle a loop by visiting more sites inland. At first the road follows very rough cliffs where you can find incredible caves. These caves were once used by the islanders to hide from the rival tribes or to prepare men participating in the Birdman competition.

Around Ana Te Pahu is a lava cave where banana trees grow, the road here is finally paved. From here it is easier to get around and reach Ahu Aviki to see the only Moai on the island facing the ocean. A further pedal stroke away, and after a small steep hill, we finally reached Puna Pau, a site where the volcanic rock is red. This used to be the quarry for the Pukaos, the hair or hats that the Moai wear.

Finally, we finished the day visiting Ahu Vinapu. After all of the Ahu’s and toppled Moai seen for the past 2 days, Ahu Vinapu could have been just another Ahu. However, a remarkable feature makes the place unique. As you walk behind the Ahu, you can notice the difference with the other platforms on the island. Here the stones are well carved and fitted. If you have been to Peru, it is intriguingly similar to the Inca’s constructions. Could there have been cross knowledge between the two civilisations at some point in time? Another mystery that needs to be solved!

Caves – photos

 

Ana Te Pahu – photos

Ahu Aviki – photos

 


What else to do on Easter Island ?

  • Go to a Polynesian dance show

  • Buy the tiny bananas at the street stalls. They taste like coconut!
  • Stamp your passport at the post office for a couple of hundred pesos
  • Eat tuna, if on a budget try the tuna empanadas!

  • Swim with turtles in Pea beach, but be careful with the current and waves.
  • Rent a surf board and catch a wave in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Watch out the coast is very rocky.

  • Scuba dive and look for underwater Moai
  • Look for Petroglyphs on the island rocks. There are some signed places but you can also find rocks along the beach from Ahu Tahai to Pea beach

  • Go stargazing. You are in the middle of nowhere and the light pollution is absolutely nonexistent (except in Hanga Roa)
  • Visit the Polynesian catholic church in center town
  • Watch the sunset with a beer at Ahu Tahai

  • Visit the Anthropological Museum to learn more about the Rapa Nui and Moai
  • Look for bird paintings in caves around Ana Kai Tanata


Getting to Easter island

There are only two airports with Easter Island as a destination : Santiago de Chile (LAN) and Papeete (Air Tahiti).

We booked our flights from Santiago de Chile three months in advance. We set up a Google flight alert and received an email regarding a drop in price. Instead of a normal €700 return plane ticket with LAN, we got it for €350. A bargain if you are already in Chile or are planning to be. During the low season the cheapest you can get will be €320. From Tahiti, if you book in advance you can expect €430 return.

 


Sleeping options on Easter Island

We did not book anywhere to stay online in advance as the prices were way above our budget. Instead we took the risk to arrive on Easter Island with no place to stay. As we arrived, the only hostel/campsite was fully booked. We were stuck. Outside, people were waiting for their guests with flower necklaces in hand before. None of these people had any space either. We started to get worried until a little lady tapped us on the shoulder and offered a cabana for 30000 CLP. We thought it was a very good price as we were used to paying between 10,000 – 15,000 pp in Patagonia. Our cabana consisted on 2 bedrooms, a double and a dorm, plus a kitchen, a living room and a deck. All just for us ! We were far away from dorms and terrible hostels on mainland Chile!

Tip : if you are on a budget, check the campsite Mihinoa and try to book a dorm or a tent.

 

To learn more about Easter Island

If interested in Ethnology, have a look at the author Alfred Métraux who wrote in 1965 a study of the Rapa Nui civilisation.


Cost and useful information

Mandatory Park entrance : 54000 CLP (€75 / $80) – Foreigner price

Transport : 
Flights : €353 pp return
Rental Car 24 hours :45000 CLP (€63)
Fuel : 8740 CLP (€12.25)
Rental Bike – Full Day : 20000 CLP (€14/pp)
Taxi on the island (5 x 2000) : 10000 CLP (€14)

Accommodation :
Cabana 4 nights : 120000 CLP (€168) – €42 per night (€21pp)

Leasure : 
Polynesian Dance Show : 30000 CLP (€21/pp)
Souvenirs : 18200 CLP (€25)

Other :
Food/snack/groceries : 31310 CLP (€43)
Alcohol : 20400 CLP (€29)

TOTAL : 5 days / 4 nights
Flights included : €1280 (€640 per person) / €128 pp/pd
Flights excluded : €575 (€287 per person) / €57 pp/pd


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