Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
The history of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is shrouded in mystery. There are many questions about these people and their past. One thing that can’t be questioned is the persecution of these people. Not only did they suffer at their own hands with tribal wars and the destruction of the environment which they abused for the construction of the Moai, enormous stone monuments honoring their kings. They also suffered at the hands of the explorers who brought with them common diseases that the Rapa Nui had no immunity for. The western world had discovered a new and different world and began to plunder the petroglyphs, even small moais, and other artifacts. Some displayed in the Smithsonian and in England, to name a few.
The island was devoid of pearls, gold, or any other valued resources so it went unclaimed for many years. The people themselves became a wanted resource and countries such as Peru enslaved a large number of them for the Spanish empire. At the time, there were just a few thousand Rapa Nuis left. The island became the doormat for sailors traveling between Polynesia and the Americas. Between disease and slavery, the population dwindled. Then, one day, the brother of the president of Chile proposed to annex the island. The people of Rapa Nui put it to vote and they, of course, were in favor of the idea. They would no longer be tread upon or enslaved. They had found their saint. But this is a story of tragedy. Chile had found a way to capitalize on their new territory. They leased the island to a British sheep company who would use it for sheep farming. They treated the Rapa Nui as if they were less than the sheep. Young children, to the elderly, were forced to work which included carrying large rocks to create fences to separate the animals. The people were forced out of their homes and relocated to Hanga Roa. A wall had been created to keep the people in what I would compare to a concentration camp, only allowed to leave the walls for work.
Interest in the moai statues and its believers had grown which brought archaeologists and anthropologist alike. The world began to see the plight of the Rapa Nui and pressure began to build on the Chilean government to act. The government eventually removed the British sheep farming company and gave them their independence. The Rapa Nui National Park is now controlled by the people. The scientests not only helped preserve the history of the island but also helped the economic future of the people. Their work paved the way for tourism. I’m not a historian so I write this in generality. What I can tell you is that visiting this unique island is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s like taking a time machine and reliving the history of the island. A history full of mystery, which today is still unsolved. Theories and disputed claims rule the island. How did they move the moai, what caused the fall of the culture, where did they immigrate from, etc.?
There are dozens of sites you can visit on the island so I’ll give you the highlights and my favorite locations. A visit to the island will always start at Hanga Roa. The location of the airport and the biggest town on the island. Before you visit, look at a map and see how far your hotel is from Ahu Tatai. You’ll want to walk here at sunset. The town is small so you most likely can walk to the site, and bring a flashlight for the walk back. It’s something you can do without paying for a tour.
There are two main tours you can do to see the island. On my first full day I did tour B-Megaliths which included two of my favorite visits. The first was Rano Raraku, the rock quarry that provided about 95% of the moai on the island. You can follow the path through the quarry were some moais were just carved out of the side of this volcano and left eerily in its place as if time had stopped. They never reached there destination. They didn’t even leave the quarry. As they were being carved out of the volcanic cliff, the moai culture had collapsed and they were no longer needed. They now litter the side of a cliff like weeds sprouting out of the ground. You can get relatively close to these semi-buried moai and get an appreciation of the effort and will it took to carve and move these megaliths.
A short distance from the quarry is the other highlight of tour B, Ahu Tongariki. An ahu is a stone platform and Tongariki is the largest one of all consisting of 15 mighty moais. These were previously toppled during the Rapa Nui civil war. And, in 1960, these giant monoliths were swept hundreds of feet from its pedastals by a tsunami. With a large donation from Japan, the moais were returned to there rightful place and adorn the eastern coast of the island. You’ll wonder how large the typhoon was that could move such humongous stones, and how the Rapa Nui moved the moai miles and miles through rocky terrain. Tongariki will give you perspective of the work and dedication it took to build and move these enormous stones.
The second full day excursion is tour A – a Journey of Legends. A highlight of the tour is Anakena, a white sandy beach, and the location of the village established by the Polynesian chief Hotu Matu’a who led two large canoes of settlers to this island. The beach is beautiful but the water can be quite cold outside of the summer season. Historically, it’s an important site as it was the capital of the Rapa Nui culture and the center of the moai culture.
Another highlight to the tour is the Rano Kau crater. If you sit on the right side of the plane, facing forward, you’ll have a great view of the island and this crater which provides a wonderful view of Hanga Roa and the island. As luck would have it, I was the only person on this tour and we were able to have a picnic lunch on top of this crater. After a short hike from the road, we had the crater to ourselves, we sat on the grass and had lunch facing the crater. This was once the source of fresh water for the Rapa Nui. Now, it’s a wonderful view.
A third highlight is the stone village of Orongo. Directly across from were we had lunch is this historic village. This was the center of the birdman religion which replaced the moai culture and circulated the power to a different village every year. An annual competition occurred here between representatives of each village. They would have to descend the cliffs and swim to an island 2.5 miles away. They would have to retrieve an egg from a tern and swim and then ascend back up the cliff. Most of the participants died during this journey but the winner would become a god and the chief of his village would become the leader of the Rapa Nui people. Visually, Orongo is not the most stunning. But, look over that cliff and you can feel the anticipation, the rush, and trepidation each contestant had when they looked at the course.
Rapa Nui is a mystical place I wish we could all experience. It can be quite expensive because of its distance and remoteness. You can save some money by using LATAM’s website, the only airline carrier, and use the drop down menu to choose your country. Use Chile and you will be charged the local rates and you can possibly save 50%. Yes, the site is in Spanish. I used Google translate to navigate through the site and purchase my flights. You can do this and save for all of Chile’s domestic flights. There are no savings for international flights. When you land at Easter Island, make sure you purchase the National Park Pass as you will not be allowed to enter the park without it. It’s the first booth you will see as you enter the airport.
The cost and the distance will keep most people from visiting the island and that makes my visit that much more special. Walking among the moai and pondering the mysteries of the island was truly a unique experience I will remember forever.