The mysteries of Easter Island

Ahu Tongariki against a backdrop of dramatic cliffs.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui 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.

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

The earliest moai looked rather alien-like to me

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).

Toppled moai

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.

things to see easter island

Ahu Akivi

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.

Rano Raraku

Two finishes statues at Rano Raraku

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.

Ahu Tongariki against the backdrop of the ocean and cliffs

Ahu Tongariki up close

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.

Anakena beach

Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach

‘The navel of the earth’

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 Orongo crater

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One of the intriguing petroglyphs at Orongo

Cool passport stamp from the Hanga Roa post-office

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

Flying from Tahiti 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

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26 Responses to “The mysteries of Easter Island”

  1. Keith Jenkins 12/11/2012 12:08 pm

    I would hire a jeep and drive around the island at a more leisurely pace and combine that with a series of hikes.


  2. Easter Island Travel 11/11/2012 4:07 pm

    Quite a read – thanks for sharing your story! If you’d return to Easter Island someday, how would you go about it? Would you spend your time for example doing more hiking trips, or is there something else that you’d like to do?

  3. Steven Taylor 14/07/2012 9:37 pm

    Can’t wait to go here in November 😀

    Thanks for sharing the photos and descriptions!

  4. Kevin - The Mad Traveler 20/01/2012 6:26 am

    Very high on my wish list! Though it’s possibly a bit dated now, a great read about the island is Easter Island, Earth Island, basically putting the smackdown on theories that the original inhabitants were from South America, and holding forth the islanders using up the natural resources as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

  5. naratraveler 22/04/2011 4:59 pm

    I have never seen moais that are half made and the ruin of a factory of them.It is got to be more amazing island for me.

  6. Jay 22/04/2011 2:10 pm

    Great piece! Beautiful island, with beautiful and sensible culture. Amazing history and an open air museum. Stayed at the incredible Explora Hotel and had the time of my life (and that of my family) covering the island the non-traditional way.

  7. Chile vacations 25/03/2011 1:26 pm

    the greatest place in the world… doubt about it!

  8. Dave 25/01/2011 4:25 am

    Great writeup! Easter Island is truly a special place in this world. You can’t help but be intrigued by the place.

  9. Easter Island Travel 06/01/2011 9:00 pm

    Great place to enjoy a nice vacations!!!

  10. Craig Zabransky 30/11/2010 4:58 am

    What a unique spot. It’s on the list. I’ll look to add it when I make that trip to Chile. Thanks for the details…

    stay adventurous, Craig

  11. Epheng 25/11/2010 2:30 pm

    HEAVEN …………………………………….

  12. Mariel 19/11/2010 5:03 am

    Great pics. Easter Island is also the main access to Chile from the Pacific Ocean and an interesting scientific place, to study flora, fauna and also geology. Discover all its places with
    Easter Island tours and enjoy the adventure!

  13. Víctor 17/10/2010 6:04 pm

    Wow, Easter Island has to be my number one dream destination. Even more after reading your post. Definitely a must do flight whenever I get to South America.

    Plus that stamp… gotta have it! Thank god you told us about it, I can only imagine going there and not getting one of those! lol

  14. Great Ocean Road Tours Melbourne 29/09/2010 9:22 am

    Nice post! It is a great travel destination and Your blog is very well-informed.I am very impress with you.

  15. Andi 28/09/2010 4:53 pm

    I can’t wait to be there next month and go diving!!!!!!!!

  16. velvet 27/09/2010 11:03 pm

    Thanks for your comment! 🙂 Haha, I heard about the stamp from another guest at the hotel I stayed at and made a beeline for the post-office! It’s definitely my favourite passport stamp! 🙂


  17. Pokin 27/09/2010 10:56 pm

    Great post! 🙂 I’ve always wanted to go to Easter Island – especially after reading Collapse. It’s on my todo list! Till then, living vicariously through your photos — speaking of which, how cool is that stamp!!

  18. velvet 27/09/2010 8:21 pm

    Me too! I only spent 4 days there. 🙁 It was sufficient to get a good impression of the island – reading a lot about the island before my visit definitely helped!
    Thanks for your comment!


  19. Cam 27/09/2010 8:12 pm

    Great post! Easter Island is one of my favourite places on this earth. The only regret I made was only spending 5 days on the island (should have planned for 10!)


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