Easter Island, one of the remotest populated islands on the planet, has long been a source of fascination for most people. The stone heads or moai, carved some 400 to 700 years ago, are the most recognizable artifact on the island, and are responsible for the majority of the tourists that come to the island. Over 80,000 tourists visit this island of 4500 people each year.
Easter Island had been near the top of Peter’s bucket list for a long time. He was not disappointed.
Most of the moai that are seen standing erect today were restored within the last 50 years. Most travellers spend two days visiting the various sites around the island. The sites include rows of moai at Tahai in the main town of Hanga Roa, Tongariki, Akivi, and Anakena beach. These are contrasted with the 397 moai in the quarry, at Rano Raraku which are in various states of manufacture and extraction from the earth, the “hat” quarry at Puna Pau, the petroglyphs at Papa Vaka, as well as caves, volcanic lakes, white sand beaches and other ruins on the island.
We visited all of these sites, and heard various theories about how the statuses were made, moved, erected, and toppled over the centuries. We didn’t hear anything new that we hadn’t heard or read before, and therefore, were no more educated than before we arrived on these mysterious statues. However, that didn’t detract from the experience of observing the sites and learning more about the culture and history of the island.
Some of the unexpected pleasures included the white sand beach at Anakena, which is rated as one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and comparable to a decent beach in Jamaica, the volcanic cratered landscape and the presence of large trees.
The population of the island had been decimated by disease and resulted in just over 100 people living on the island at its lowest point in the late 19th century. Chile assumed control of the island around this time, and repopulated the island as well as supplied goods, food and energy to the population. Most of the people today are descended from the 100 or so persons that were on the island plus the mainlanders that emigrated to the island, which was encouraged by the subsidies the government gives these people, which still continues to this day.
Despite this dilution of the gene pool, some of the Rapa Nui culture is alive today, with dance performances a few times a week showing off the traditional Polynesian dances from many years before. We enjoyed the lively music, well muscled men and toned women, doing the traditional pelvic thrust moves on the stage.
Easter Island had an interesting mix of people, including mainlanders, foreigners married to islanders and islanders. We stayed at Te Ora run by a Canadian woman, Sharon, and managed by a Chilean woman, who had emigrated from the mainland a few years ago, for a better environment for her son to grow up in. We were put in touch with Mark, from New Zealand who operated a small tour company giving guided tours of the sites, whose wife was related to Sharon’s husband.
Mark offered an almost local insight into life on Easter Island. The Chilean government provides housing and fuel subsidies which makes living on the island much more affordable than its remote location would suggest. Indeed the standard of living seemed to be higher than in San Pedro, and looked fairly comfortable for a small tropical island. Some of the development was driven by NASA, as they needed a backup strip to land the space shuttle. The current runway on the island is almost 11000 ft, and was built to serve this purpose. One of the main roads on the island is paved to North American standards as part of this project. Unfortunately not all roads were so well paved, which resulted in half of the them requiring a 4 wheel drive vehicle to navigate, especially after a heavy rainfall.
In addition to taking us to the various sites on the island, Mark filled us in on some of the local customs, such as the Birdman competition where members of different tribes would swim to a nearby island to retrieve the egg of a bird, and bring it back to the shore. The first egg brought back in tact allowed the chief of the tribesman to be head chief of the island for that year.
Another pleasant surprise was the quality of the food available on the island. The tuna ceviche, and empanadas were outstanding, and were the best of the trip. The one gas station on the island, also sold wine and beer, and had a good selection or reasonably priced Chilean wine for sale.
Easter Island offered us much more than a bunch of mysterious stone heads. The varied landscape, deep blue ocean, sandy beaches, great food, music and culture made this a memorable place to visit.