Ultimate Guide Easter Island. The Taj Mahal. The Pyramids. The Eifel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. There are certain monuments around the world that are known to all. I remember even as a kid I knew these landmarks. And there was another landmark that made an impression on me as a child … the mysterious Moai of Easter Island.
Easter Island History
Easter Island is one of the most remote civilizations on the planet. There are flights from only two places … a daily flight and two flights during high season (five hours) from Santiago, the capita of Chile, and a weekly flight (five hours) from Tahiti. Easter Island is 2,300 miles from Chile, which annexed the Island in 1888. And on a side note, if in the Santiago airport, do not look for Easter Island on the board, keep your eye out for Isla de Pascua, its Spanish name.
Easter Island was discovered by Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, in 1722; on, surprise, surprise, Easter day. Easter Island natives had a traumatic relationship with the outside world. European disease and slave trading pummeled the population. In the mid-20th century, the natives were kept in near slave like conditions by a sheep farm that had bought all the land on Easter Island. In 1877, the population had been decimated, only 111 inhabitants remained on the entire island.
The Polynesians settled Easter Island sometime between 700 – 1100. There are many debates surrounding the island. One school of thought, has the settlers arriving from other Polynesian islands while another theory has the islanders coming from the South American continent. The Polynesian theory has islanders piloting canoes 1,600 – 2,000 miles from “nearby” islands Gambier and Marquesas. The South American theory points to the cultivation of the sweet potato on Easter Island that is native to the continent.
The native population on Easter Island reached a high of 15,000 people. At the time of contact in 1722, the population had dropped to 2,000 – 3,000 people. This compact island is only 63 square miles. And as the population grew it stressed the local environment. The Polynesian rat and over population led to deforestation of the island, leaving the island virtually treeless.
After hitting a low of 111 people, the population today is 6,000 plus. There is a mix of native people and mainlanders from Chile. There is some tension between the islanders and the mainlanders competing for finite resources. The island is now seeing 100,000 plus tourists a year visiting Easter Island. Today, there are continued threats to Easter Island’s sustainability. The lack of natural resources and its remoteness challenge its long term viability. Easter Island does not have a single port or pier, making it incredibly difficult for boats to bring supplies to the island. Boats can wait a week or month on the ocean, waiting to bring supplies ashore. There is nowhere to place the growing trash left by natives and tourists. The island has limited fresh water. And virtually all food is flown in as well. There has been many debates about limiting the residents of Easter Island as well as the number of tourists.
In addition to the mystery of where the natives of Easter Island originally came from are the ubiquitous Moai statues found throughout the island. Over 900 Moai were created by the Rapa Nui people, the name of the Polynesian settlers. These monolithic human figures were carved between 1250 and 1500. Nearly half of the Moai are still at the main quarry of Rano Raraku. They are carved from hard volcanic ash. The others were transported throughout the island. The largest Moia tips the scale at 90 tons and 33 feet high. The average Moia is 13 feet and 14 tons. The Moai have overly large heads, elongated noses, and strong jaws. But how did the Rapa Nui people transport these statues around the island?
The Moai were transported as far as 11 miles across the island. And Easter Island had no draft animals, wheels, or cranes. Many theories have made the rounds over the years. One hypothesis that has gained traction is neke-neke. Neke-neke is a Rapa Nui word that translates to “alternatively pivoting on the balls and heels of his feet, rocking slightly, and keeping his knees stiff”. It has been theorized and recreated recently, that a small group of people with a series of ropes, could rock and twist the Moai and slowly but steadily move the statue forward. Based upon the design of the Moai, specifically with its belly, which was designed to provide a center of gravity which allowed it to “walk”.
It is believed that the Moai represented the Polynesians’ ancestors, chiefs, and other high ranking males. The Moai are erected on platforms known as ahu. And the statues have their backs to the ocean, facing inwards, thought to be overlooking the people of the village. Bodies were cremated behind the ahu, and the remains were placed into the platform.
At time of first contact in 1722, all the Moai were upright on top of the ahu. By the early 19th century, all Moai across the island had been toppled over. It is theorized that fighting between the island’s clans resulted in the destruction of the Moai.
Top Sites In Easter Island
Fifteen Moai are gathered on the largest ahu platform on Easter Island. These Moai were all toppled during the island’s civil wars and then damaged again in the 20th century from a tsunami. The largest Moai, weighs in at 86 tons, can be found here. This is a breathtaking place to visit, almost a primordial setting with a volcano and the ocean in the background. This is a great place to visit for sunrise.
Seven Moai can be found here on three different platforms. Ahu Tahai is located in the main town of Hanga Roa. This is where I went for sunset.
Seven Moai of equal size can be found on this ahu. These are the only Moai that are looking toward the ocean, compared to all of the others which look inward
Ahu Nau Nau
Seven Moai are located at Anakena beach. Legend has it, that King Hotu Matu’a landed on this beach centuries ago when colonizing the island.
Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater, is the quarry where virtually all Moai were crafted. Three hundred ninety-seven Moai are littered across the quarry. The Moai are in different stages of creation; some found barely carved out of the mountain side, and others discarded on their way to the platform for display. There is also an incredibly beautiful crater lake at the top of the volcano. Well worth the brief walk.
Orongo is the site of the birdman cult which took place during the 18th to mid-19th century. Orongo is stone village comprised of multiple windowless, round-walled buildings. The cult was centered on an annual competition where men raced to retrieve an egg and bring it back to Orongo. The winner’s clan leader would become the leader of Easter Island until the following year. This competitor was deadly to some of the competitors for it entailed scaling down a sheer 900 foot cliff and then swimming in an open ocean to a nearby island to retrieve an egg.
Ranu Kao is an amazing extinct volcano next to Orongo. Ranu Kao stands at 1,000 feet and contains a large fresh water crater. The crater is over 3,000 feet across and 600 feet deep. It sits on the edge of the ocean. You can do a mini-hike around its circumference. The place is fantastically beautiful and a good pace to come to for sunrise.
Varua Ora – Cultural Show
I went to Varua Ora, a Polynesian Cultural show full of traditional dance, singing, and music. This is a fun and entertaining show and worth your time. The cost per ticket without dinner is CLP $15,000.
Read and see more about the beautiful sites of Easter Island.
Where To Stay
I stayed at Lemu Lodge. Lemu is set away from Hanga Roa located on a Rapa Nui farm. The intimate lodge is exceptionally peaceful and tranquil, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The spacious rooms are luxurious and bathed in white. And finally, the staff is friendly, outgoing, and attentive. Staying at Lemu Lodge was a highlight of my trip. Read more about my stay here.
Hanga Roa is the capital of Easter Island. Close to 90% of the population resides in the town. The vast majority of hotels, restaurants, shops all make their home in Hanga Roa. It is a low key town, with no building being over a couple of stories.
I would highly recommend renting a car. The island is small but the car gives you great flexibility and there are no great options on getting around the island without one. The cheapest car is listed at $80 a day. After arriving at Easter Island I went directly to the rental agency without a reservation and was able to secure a small discount. There is one gas station in Hanga Roa on the same street as the airport.
There are a number of companies which offer group tours, starting at around $25 for a half day (with private guides costing much more). Other options include walking, biking, or taking taxis. My thoughts if you are making the effort to go to Easter Island, rent the car.
As I noted earlier, there are not a lot of options for flights. These flights are expensive. Most likely you are taking LAN from Santiago. When booking flights, try different options, changing dates and maybe adding on a day or two. Experiment by using the Chilean version of the site and even try using a VPN to hide your location. Also, take a chance and look at business class, sometimes the price is nearly the same. It is near impossible to use points to get an Award ticket. I was happy to get my roundtrip ticket for under $500. The planes are a newer 777 and are very comfortable.
Virtually the entire island (well, anything of touristic value) is a national park which requires a ticket. This ticket can be purchased at the airport upon your arrival to Easter Island. The ticket costs $80 or CLP $54,000 (no credit cards) and is valid for 10 days. You are allowed to visit Orongo and Rano Raraku only once, so plan accordingly. Park Rangers will check to see if you have a ticket.
I hired a guide from Kava Kava Tours for one day, and planned for him to accompany me to both Orongo and Rano Raraku. I felt both of these sites would benefit greatly with a deeper explanation from a knowledgeable guide. He charged me $110 while using my rental car. I was very glad to have the guide and in a perfect world, I would have used him every day. Easter Island has such unique history and a guide allows you to have a greater understanding.
There is not a lot of wifi options in Easter Island. Some restaurants and hotels offer it, but it is slow. I has a local SIM card from Claro, but I could only get a signal in Hanga Roa. Make sure you download your Google Map for offline use.
Where To Eat
As I noted, food is very expensive in Easter Island. Virtually, all food is flown in. There are a lot of restaurants and cafes to choose from. Hanga Roa also has a lot of stores where you can stock up on food. Flying on LAN, you are allowed two checked-in bags. Consider bringing an additional bag of food from the mainland to save money.
As the name implies, this restaurant has a view of Ahu Tahai for sunset.
Come here for ice cream. They have working wifi.
Right on the ocean, with a deck. Come here for sunset.
There are a couple of cafes near the beach. A great place to relax with overpriced but tasty empanadas.
Away from Hanga Roa, Lemu Lodge is located on the ocean. They have a professional chef on staff, who will create a personalized and delicious meal on request.
Ultimate Guide Easter Island
Disclosure: I was an invited guest at Lemu Lodge. The opinions expressed are my own, and I highly recommend you stay here.