Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is the most remote place in the world. Located a whopping 3,700 km ( 2,300 miles) west of Chile. The journey to the mystical island is part of the experience. The four-hour flight from Santiago filled my head full of fantasy and my belly full of butterflies. The feeling of utter isolation over the Pacific wreaks havoc on your thoughts. I’ve never felt more relieved getting off a plane in my entire life.
Everything about the island is mysterious and new. Upon disembarking the plane by staircase, the first thing you see prior to reaching the the thatched roof terminal are the native paintings covering the wall surrounding the terminal. As soon as you enter the thatched covering you will notice the National Park ticket desk to your left jammed with stanchions.
From the airport, you will need to get to your hotel. Once you exit the terminal you will be overwhelmed by islanders holding passenger pick-up signs and welcome lei’s. The transportation options are limited so pre-book you ground transportation ahead of time.
The options are:
- Pre-arranged hotel transfer
- Pre-arranged rental car
- Taxi – if you can catch one
- Hoofing it to your hotel or hostel
I assumed our hotel would automatically pick us up from the airport. I quickly realized we were stranded and started hustling for a ride. Luckily we were able to secure a taxi. FYI: they only take cash.
The car enables you to cover the entire island in a day (we did this), including the sunrise at Ahu Tongariki, spending some time at Anakena Beach, and the sunset at Ahu Tahai. These three sites are a MUST SEE while on the island.
Sticker and Other Types of Shock: Rapa NuI is going to be expenssive. Everything including water has to be shipped onto the island by boat or plane.
Hot showers were few and far between. The lack of hot water is part of island living and a reminder that hot water is a luxury we take for granted. I found between 8 p.m.-10 p.m. to be the perfect time to get in a hot shower.
Where To Stay:
There are many options on Rapa Nui, from affordable to luxury. I highly recommend using travel points for your hotel stay. This is a once in a lifetime journey, so live it up a little. I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards points for our rountrip flights from Santiago, Chile to Rapa Nuí and for our 3 night stay at Altiplanico Isla de Pascua . It is cheaper to fly to Santiago,Chile and then onto Rapa Nui then it is to fly directly to the island. Plus you can layover and enjoy Santiago. Search Santiago to Easter Island on LATAM. I found the best deal in late September.
An amazing free breakfast was included in our stay, which helped save on food cost. We were walking distance to Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (free museum with the only female moai on the island), Hanga Kio’e (moai) and the Ahu Tahai complex which is the best place to watch a moai sunset on the island.
Since Chase pays for the hotel rooms with cash we ended up with one of the three best bungalows with an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean.
Money To Burn:
Explora Rapa Nui– As part of the reservation fee all guests can choose from 30+ free explorations accompanied by local tour guides. The explorations range from scuba diving off Rapu NuI to an eight hour lava hike. If money is no object on this trip I highly recommend booking this hotel experience. Nightly rates range from $699+.
On The Cheap:
Easter Island Kona Tau– A Hostelling International youth hostel. I always recommend this hostel organization for safety, cleanliness and their adheatence to quiet hour rules.
Dorm bunk beds start at $36 USD per night and private rooms start at $70 a night for solo travelers. This hostel is in a great location as you can walk to the airport, the market and downtown Hanga Roa.
I am always in search of cheap places to eat and drink. Let’s be honest you can’t eat at Michelin Star restaurants every night while traveling. Plus, I enjoy discovering each cities own version of comfort food.
Oheho Surf Cafe
Located in downtown Hanga Roa Oheho Surf Cafe sits across the street from the premier surfing spot on the island. From the outside it looks like nothing more than a surf shack. However, the inside is full of hungry teenagers and the aromas of baking empanadas. You can order almost anything off of this menu and be happy. But, the empanadas are where it’s at; cheap, big and stuffed. You won’t be disappointed. Wash it down with some of the cheapest beer on the island, the locally brewed Mahina, sporting what else a Moai on the label and made with local water harvested from wells and rainwater. Choose between the Pale Ale and the Porter. I preferred the Pale Ale.
Situated down the street from Oheho Surf Cafe this open air Chilean style cafe looks out onto the North goal of the town futbòl field. The hanging tables and carved bar make for a quaint place for a pint and a snack. We were stuck here in the rain for a while, but the free WiFi and beer kept us placated.
Sits on the the surf-side of Hanga Roa. The accordian style windows open up to allow for amazing views (great sunset location) and fresh ocean breezes. Serving up fantastic seafood dishes Te Moano is close enough for a post dinner stroll up to the nearby Ahu Tahai complex for the sunset of a lifetime.
The reason thousands of people are willing to travel to the end of the Earth annually are surprisingly everywhere. I don’t know if it’s the length of the journey or the hype, but as soon as you get off the plane your need to see one immediately is overwhelming.
After checking into the hotel we put on our rain gear and proceeded to get drenched walking to the closest Moai: Hanga Kio’e. He was magnificent. Standing stoically on his base with the moody backdrop of clouds, vivid greens and wild horses the moment exceeded my imagination.
We tried to continue on to Sunset Tahai, but the rain proved to be too adversarial. Waterlogged and jet lagged we headed back to the hotel for a hot shower (which to my dismay was cold), a beer and dinner.
The drenched evening didn’t damper our spirits. It actually gave us time to rent a car from the hotel ($80 for 24 hours) and plan our journey using the Isla de Pascua map we received when we purchased our 10 day park pass. We rented the car for a 24 hour window 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. giving us the opportunity to watch two Tahai sunsets, an Ahu Tongariki sunrise and see the rest of the island in-between, while leaving plenty of time to refill the gas tank.
Driving in Rapa Nui is really fun! Only the main road that runs North and South from Hanga Roa is paved. Meaning all others are dirt roads. Thanks to the island rains from the previous day most of these roads were washed out making for a fun and bumpy off-roading driving experience.
All of the rental cars have manual transmission. Make sure you learn how to drive stick prior to arrival as trying to Google “How to Drive Stick” on giant dirt hills will not be an optimal learning experience and may proof dangerous. Plus the internet on the island when you can get it is unreliable and about as slow a dial up.
RAPA NUI GLOSSARY OF WORDS
Moai-are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people between the year 1250 and 1500. Nearly half of all the moai on the island are still located at Rano Raraku, the main quarry where all the Moai were built and then later moved to their permanent locations on to platforms called Ahu.
Ahu-The stone platforms on Rapa Nui where moai stand.
Pukao-a cylindrical piece carved in red scoria from the Puna Pau volcano. This form represents a hat or a hair knot (depending on opinion) and was placed in the last phase of construction on the ahu.
Mana-spiritual power that the moai give off to protect their tribe. This is why all moai look towards the interior of the islands where the villages and the habitants were located and not towards the ocean.
Avanga-funerary chambers which were built for leaders of the community.
Hare Paenga-boat houses used by the most senior leaders and their families.
RECOMMENDED DRIVING ROUTE:
The 24 hour driving route I recommend has 2 parts. Part 1- (A-J) starts at Ahu Tahai at sunrise and stops at Puna Pau. The second part starts Puna Pau (A-D) and continues back to Ahu Tahai for sunset and ending at Ahu Tongariki at sunrise the next morning (D).
1. Ana Kai Tangata
A beautiful ocean cave full of ancient rock art located just outside of Hanga Roa. Be careful hiking down and watch for incoming waves. Ana Kai Tangata is one of the best place to see the ancient rock art of the island. In the inner vault of the cave you can see cave paintings in red, white and black. The paintings represent the Manutara or white-tipped tern. This bird is considered to be the icon of the bird-man cult.
2. Mirador Rano Kau
A 324 m (1,063 ft) tall extinct volcano located on the southwestern side of Rapa Nui. Rano Kau has a Crater lake, which is one of the islands only three natural bodies of fresh water.
The main draw of Rano Kau is the remaining ruins of the ceremonial village of Orongo. Here the contenders for the legendary Tangata Manu (The Bird-man Cult) lived temporarily in a grouping fo 54 stone houses (a few remain) built on the impressive rim of the Rano Kau crater.
Tangata Manu was the annual competition to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui, swim back to Rapa Nui and climb the sea cliff of Rano Kau to the clifftop village of Orongo. Whomever, completed this task first became the leader of the tribes for the season. Trust me when I say this is the world‘s hardest triathlon.
Orongo is located at the point where the sea cliff and the inner crater wall converge. An ahu with several moai was recorded on the cliffs at Rona Kau in the 1880’s, but fell to the beach and is no longer visible.
3. Ahu Vinapù
This particular site is known as the Inca Ahu. There is a theory that states that Vinapu was built by the Inca, Tupac Yupanqui during his expedition to the Pacific. Located in the back of the site that faces the sea, there is a buried moai from which only the head protrudes. This figure is very deteriorated due to erosion and the eye sockets were never carved, so it is deduced that it never reached the platform. Behind this statue is the back wall of the ahu that is the evidence supporting the “Inca” theory. This wall shows one of the finest works of Rapa Nui architecture. It consists of large blocks of stone weighing several tons, joined without mortar and built with great precision and design. This particular wall bodes remarkable resemblance to the walls in the fortress of Saysachuaman and the wall within the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru. This similiarity is the the reason theorists believe contacts between the inhabitants of Polynesia and South America existed.
4. Vaihu – Ahu Hanga Te’e (Stop Suggestion)
Located in the Bay of Hanga Te’e sits a large Ahu measuring 86 meters long and 12 meters wide. This semicircular Ahu held eight statues with pukao that now lie face down on the ground. This site has never been restored and stands as an example fo the huri moai period or destruction of the moai, which took place from the eighteenth century as different clans from the island clashed.
In front of the ahu there is a large ceremonial circle of stones called paina. The paina was used for rituals to honor different members of the family.
5. Rano Raraku Volcano
Served as the moai quarry/factory and holds 397 of the magnificent statues. You can only visit this site one time during your visit to the island, so make it count. Private tour guides are available for hire at the entrance to the park. At Rano Raraku you will find figures in various stages of development including the welcoming moai, the famous Piro Piro Moai, located steps to the main path to the quarry. His name means “bad smell” which is based on his abnormally large carved nose. He is also recognizable by his hunched back. The moai is quite large standing 36 feet, a majority of which is hidden below the ground. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl excavated below and around the moai revealing the buried part of the body, which measured almost twice the height of the visible head. He is the tallest standing moai on the island.
Not to be missed when visiting Rano Raraku are the other named statues. Te Tokanga-meaning “the giant” reclines against the rock from which he was carved. The weight of this moai is estimated at 200 tons and its length of 72 feet makes it the largest moai ever carved on the island.
Here are some fo the other named moai:
Hina Riru or Hinariru moai– is famous for being due to its exposure in travel guides, books and travel promotions. The main recognizable feature of Hinariru is his head, which tilts slightly to his left.
Moai carved on a head-if you look closely during your walk on the intermediate path you might be able to spot the moai head carved atop of an old moai head. The moai is tilted back a bit with a bulging belly. The base of the add-on moai ends at the neck of the original moai it was carved into.
Located above the moai carved on a moai and just below the Te Tokanga you will find Ko Kona He Roa-this moai was unearthed by the same Thor Heyerdahl exhibition. When the belly of the moai was dug out they discovered a petroglyph of a European three masted ship with square sails, an anchor below it and a drawing of a turtle etched into the moai’s belly.
Tukuturi moai-to spot Tukuturi make your way to the southern end of the Rano Raraku quarry, where the main path forms a curve to continue the visit. From here it is possible to view the Poike volcano and the magnificently gigantic 15 figures of the Ahu Tongariki silhouetted against the ocean. Here you will find the Tukuturi moai its name translated to either “kneeling moai” or ”squatting moai.” This statute too was discovered by Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition. Tukuturi, measures 3.70 meters in height, weighs about 10 tons and has a rather rough finish compared to all of the other carved moai in the quarry. It is also the only moai that looks towards the Rano Raraku, as all the others turn their backs on it.
6. Ahu Tongariki
Whose name means easterly winds, is located on the eastern end of the south coast of Rapa Nuí. Poike volcano, the oldest on the island, can be seen to the left of Tongariki.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial structure built on Rapa Nui and the most important megalithic monument in all of Polynesia. It represents the pinnacle of the sacred constructions called ahu-moai that were developed in Rapa Nui for more than 500 years.
The central platform, which is oriented to the rising sun of the summer solstice, measures almost 100 meters long and its original lateral extensions reached a total length of 200 meters. During the final phase of construction of the ceremonial altar, Ahu Tongariki held 15 moai, which made it the platform with the largest number of statues on the entire island.
Standing on front of Tongariki is the southeast face of the Rano Raraku volcano-the quarry where most of the moai were carved and then moved into position around the island.
In addition to the impressive statues at Tongariki there are also numerous petroglyphs (engraved art in the volcanic rock).
Many of the petroglyphs found on the island were carved on flat rectangular shaped stones protruding from the ground. In Tongariki, there are hundreds of artworks and engraved figures of historical value making it the place on the southern coast of the island with the most important rock art. A few meters southwest of the platform there is a circle of stones that highlights a group of petroglyphs of sea turtles. In Rapa Nui, there are more than 30 engravings of honu (turtles), but the details of these particular petroglyphs make them some of the best on the island. Ask the National Park Guide stationed at the entrance to point out the locations of these petroglyphs and Papa Tataku Poki. To capture these petroglyphs with the best lighting try sunrise or sunset.
Papa Tataku Poki
About 200 meters in front of the ahu, almost on the edge of the enclosure surrounded by a stone wall, there is the magnificent set of petroglyphs of Papa Tataku Poki. These panels of volcanic rock are very close to the remains of stone foundations of the hare paengaor (boat houses) that were built here in the past.
On the surface of the stone you can find a wide variety of carvings relating to the people who lived here. There are several carvings of figures that represent the bird man or tangata manu.
The carvings of the twelve bird men are impeccable, especially the three who turn their backs on each other. Other than Orongo, this is the site with the highest number of reliefs of this figure.
Other carvings at Tongariki are the faces of the god Make Make, one of them with goatee, and several figures representing the tuna.
7. Papa Vaka
An archaeological complex located on the northern road of the island known for the large number of petroglyphs (rock art). The petroglyphs exemplify ocean life with carvings of vaka (canoe), mangai (fish hooks) and other important fishing tools.
For the best light to view the petroglyphs it is recommended to visit in the early morning or at dusk, when the light accentuates the carvings. There are several elevated platforms and helpful descriptive signs near each rock to help you see the rock art.
8. Te Pito Kura
Located in front of the Bay of La Pérouse two kilometers southeast of Ovahe beach. It is the largest moai transported and erected successfully on an ahu. It’s height reaches 10 meters and is estimated to weigh 80 tons. In front of Paro lies his giant pukao- 2 meters high and weighing 10 tons.
Not far from the ahu lies a grouping of smooth stones with one large egg shaped shaped stone called Te Pito Kura means ‘naval of light”. According to legend the single stone was brought to Rapa Nui by Hotu Matu’a, the founding king of the Rapanui people, in his boat from Hiva. It is said that this rock, almost spherical and smooth, concentrates a magnetic and supernatural energy called mana. The rock has a high iron content, which causes it to be higher in temperature then the other stones.
9. Ahu Nau Nau (Anakena)
One of the most beautiful row of moai on the island is Ahu Nau Nau. It sits framed between the palm trees, the white sand beach and the turquoise blue of the exotic beach of Anakena. The moai watch over you as you take a dip at one of the most remote beaches in the world.
The Ahu Nau Nau is located about 150 meters inland from the quiet shore of Anakena Beach. Considered the birthplace of the history and culture of Easter Island. It was here that, according to oral tradition, the high-ranking chiefs of the powerful Miru clan established their residence, and where the first king of the island, the Ariki Hotu Matu’a, landed with his people and established the first settlement that originated to the Rapa NuI culture. It is said that Vakai, the wife of Hotu Matu’a, is buried here.
To the right of the Ahu Nau Nau stands the Ahu Ature Huki. It was the first moai that was re-erected on the island during modern times by Thor Heyerdahl, who wanted to test several theories of how the moai were moved and erected in the past.
Heyerdahl used a dozen men, wooden poles, stones and ropes and after eighteen days of effort they lifted the gigantic statue over a cluster of stones, leveraging logs until they could seat the moai in place. This method was used to erect other ahu including Ahu Akivi.
10. Puna Pau Volcano-The Quarry of Pukao
Puna Pau is a small extinct volcano, located about 7 kilometers northeast of Hanga Roa. We traveled there directly from Anakena. This crater emerged during the eruptions of Ma’unga Terevaka, the youngest and highest volcano on the island. Due to its secret location on the island and most likely silent production of pukao Puna Pau is considered to be a sacred place.
Inside the Puna Pau crater there is a quarry of red scoria or hani hani that was once an important source of raw material for the islanders, which they used to carve smaller red moai, containers for water called taheta, eyes and of course pukao-the red hats placed on top of moai. The red scoriais a type of volcanic ash which is reddish in color due to presence of iron. It is thought that a third of the crater of Puna Pau was used to manufacture all the pukao on the island.
ThIs site has strict rules as to where you may go, so please adhere to them. From the top of the trail you will be aewarded with a fantastic view of Hanga Roa.
11. Ahu Akivi-The Seven Explorers
Just like the other ahu on the island this structure is oriented astronomically. The moai look straight into the sunset during the equinoxes. According to oral tradition these seven moai represent the seven youngsters sent to explore the island before the arrival of the colonizers by Hotu Matu’a.
The statues present a careful uniformity between them, something that does not occur in Tahai or Tongariki, which gives the monument a sense of harmony and balance. It is said that the moai of Ahu Akivi are the only statues that look towards the sea on the entire island, since the rest turns their back on the ocean.
Like other platforms on the island the Ahu Akivi was built following a precise astronomical orientation. Thus, the moai represented the change of seasons and announce the times for various agricultural tasks.
In Akivi, the axis of the platform was oriented from north to south. The faces of the moai look exactly at the point where the sun sets during the equinox of the austral spring (September 21st) and their backs face the sun of the dawn during the autumn equinox (March 21st).
12. Ahu Tongariki Sunrise-
The sunrise at Tongariki is one of the many natural wonders the island provides on a daily basis. This majestic gift is best viewed between December 21st (summer solstice) and March 21st (autumn equinox) when the sun rises behind the back of the Ahu offerIng spectacular photographs.
After these dates, the sun rises behind the Poike volcano. It is still possible to capture epic images of the sunrise behind the moai statues as you can see in the pictures taken below during our stay: September 10-13.
There are many tours to the Tongariki sunrise, but I believe it is easier to take your rental vehicle up to the sunrise as you will be able to sleep in longer and travel at your own pace. We took the main paved road most of the way to avoid large potholes, since the drive is pitch black and there are loose horse roaming the roads. Make sure to give yourself extra time to drive slow.
Check in with the hotel or the place you are staying for sunrise times. They are incredibly helpful with this and can give you the best itinerary for your morning.
14. Ahu Tahai Sunset Complex-
The ceremonial complex of Tahai is one of the most interesting places on Rapa Nui as it combines archaeological remains of great historical importance with a landscape of great beauty. Located in front of the Pacific Ocean, the Tahai complex offers the most compelling sunset on the island.
The archaeological site of Tahai is one of the oldest on the island. The earliest remains found here date back to 700 AD.
Tahai was selected by the first settlers of the island for its easy access to the sea for fishing along with its supply of fresh water from underground springs.
The reason most people visit the Tahai complex is to see the three ahu located on the rock cliff above the sea. Looking at the grounds to the far left sits the ahu with five moai named Ahu Vai Uri. The next moai to the right of the five is Ahu Tahai. Finally the moai to the far right, Ahu Ko Te Riku, is the most compete moai on the island with its bright eyes and wearing a pukao.
It is recommend that you visit the Ahu Tahai at least twice. Since the complex can be visited as many times as you would like I recommend early morning when the sun illuminates the front of the statues providing excellent contrast and details for photographs. The second time to visit is obviously during sunset when the moai are backlit creating the most breathtaking silhouettes of the statues. Other than the sunset behind the Pyramids of Giza, this was by far one of the most magnificent sunsets I have ever experienced.
1. Ahu Vai Uri-
The Ahu Vai Uri is the platform with the largest number of erected statues In the Tahai Complex. Its construction dates from 1200 AD. and its five restored moai are a sample of the different styles of how they were carved.
2. Ahu Tahai-
A single solitary moai about 4.5 meters high. The very eroded figure has a thick torso and a wide neck. It sits on the oldest platform of the complex built around 700 AD.
Despite the wear and tear of time the moai still reflects the pride of the once perfected statue. During sunset you can still feel the power of its mana.
3. Ahu Ko Te Riku-
Ahu Ko Te Riku is the last moai in the complex located further north. The single restored moai stands 5.1 meters high and contains all of the elements of a complete moai including a pukao and eyes.
The last moai you will see on Rapa Nui is the one standing in the courtyard of the departure lounge at Mataveri Airport. It was created by local sculptor Manuel Tuki and donated to the airport in 1975. Apparently, it has become the most sought after photographic image by travelers from all over the world before leaving Mataveri Airport.