Easter Island, or Rapa Nui (map) as it’s called by the Polynesians, or Isla de Pascua as it’s called in Spanish, is one of the most isolated places in the world; the closest landmass is about 4,000 kilometers away. The island is small but the scenery is spectacular. In addition, it boasts an extraordinary history as well as one of the greatest mysteries of our time. Visitors soon discover that there are many things to see on Easter Island, despite its small size. Easter Island is in my book one of the top places to visit in Chile!
The island’s topography is characterised by windswept rolling hills, punctured by the occasional volcanic crater, that abruptly end at the coast with massive white cliffs, some 300 meters in height, with the great ocean pounding tirelessly at their feet. One of the first things any visitor will notice is the freshness of the air; it really is incredibly fresh! The incessant wind is another feature – it seldom stops blowing!
The history of Easter Island
Easter Island is a fascinating place with an incredible history. Its small Polynesian population has endured many hardships through the centuries that included famine, civil war, mass abductions of its populace and the destruction of its ecosystem.
When the first European explorers visited the island in the 18th century, they were struck by the fact that people actually lived on this isolated island which had little natural resources. The explorers also recorded the first reports of the now famous stone statues, called ‘moai’, on the island. The stone statues littered the shoreline and were in a state of neglect. Three centuries later, the island is relatively well-off: its citizens receive considerable subsidies from the Chilean government, its Rapa Nui National Park (that occupies a large chunk of the island) is a UNESCO World Heritage site and attracts many tourists each year, and its famous moai are gradually being restored (archeologists have re-erected 36 of the more than 800 moai on the island).
It is still very much a mystery as to why the moai were built and how the locals managed to erect such huge statues (the largest are more than 20 meters long) and haul them many miles from the quarry to the ‘ahu’ (the platform on which the statues were placed). During a tour of Easter Island, visitors will be introduced to the various theories surrounding this mystery – my favourite is the theory involving aliens! I highly recommend reading about the fascinating history of the island before your visit as this will allow you to truly appreciate the hardships the islanders endured throughout the centuries as well as their day-to-day lives and intriguing rituals.
Things to see on Easter Island
The historical sites are scattered throughout the island in the Rapa Nui National Park (there’s an $80 entry fee – which helps to pay for restoration and maintenance work – and the park is managed primarily by Rapa Nui residents). One of these sites is Ahu Akivi which consists of a large ahu and seven large moai, all of them facing the sea – this is a unique feature as all other moai on the island face inland.
The highlight is Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano and the site of the quarry and factory where the moai were created. As you approach the volcano, you’ll be greeted by the astounding sight of dozens of heads sticking out from the grassy hillside. A walk around the quarry provides visitors with a good impression of the various stages of production of the moai. Don’t miss the sight of the huge unfinished moai, measuring 22 meters in length.
Another spectacular site to see on Easter Island is Ahu Tongariki. This is by far the largest ahu (fifteen moai in a row) with the ocean and cliffs forming a dazzling backdrop.
The island boasts a beautiful sandy beach, Anakena beach, that’s lined by more moai (Ahu Nau Nau). Anakena’s sheltered cove makes it an ideal spot for a swim. The road that leads to the beach passes an ancient ceremonial site that is worth a stop. The site features a globe-like magnetic stone which locals called the ‘Navel of the Earth‘. If you put your hands to the globe, you might feel little electro-magnetic pulses emanate through your hands and arms.
Orongo, another ancient ceremonial site on the edges of a volcano, is another highlight. A visit to this site involves a hike to the top of the volcano where visitors are treated to a magnificent view of the large crater. The path continues along a series of primitive dwellings where the priests used to live, and several large boulders full of rock carvings (petroglyphs). The views of the crater on one side and the deep blue ocean on the other side are simply breathtaking.
The only town on the island is Hanga Roa. It’s the only place on the island where people are allowed to live (the rest of the island is a national park). Only 5,000 people live here and they mostly depend on tourism for their income so the town is filled with little hotels and guesthouses, restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops that cater to tourists. There’s also one bank, one post office, a tourist office (from which visitors can get a cool Easter Island passport stamp), an interesting museum and a hospital. The town’s harbour is filled with colourful fishing boats – try to spot the large green turtles that inhabit the harbour. Also at the harbour is one of the better restaurants in town: Taverne du Pescheur. The tuna (steak or sashimi) and mahi mahi are unbelievably fresh.
Flying to Easter Island
Getting to Easter Island can be an expensive affair but, as always, good planning and research can bring down the cost considerably. Booking a flight/tour from mainland Chile can be very expensive. If you’re flying into Chile on LATAM Airlines, it’s not very expensive to add a Santiago – Easter island return to your international ticket. Easter Island can also be easily included in a trans-Pacific route if you’re flying from Australia/New Zealand via Tahiti to mainland Chile as there is a LATAM Airlines service from Tahiti to Santiago that stops at Easter Island, making it ideal as an inexpensive stopover for a few days.
Read about my trip to Easter Island.
Search for accommodation and tours in Easter Island