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Easter Island travel with author David Stanley
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The mystery of Easter Island (Isla de Pascua) and its indigenous inhabitants, the Rapanui, has intrigued travelers and archaeologists for many years. Where did these ancient people come from? How did they transport almost 1,000 giant statues from the quarry to their platforms? What series of events caused them to overthrow all they had erected with so much effort? And most importantly, what does it all mean? With the opening of Mataveri airport in 1967, travel to Easter Island from Chile and Tahiti has become easy, and many visitors now take the opportunity to pause and ponder the largest and most awesome collection of prehistoric monuments in the Pacific. This is one of the most evocative places you will ever visit. (Below we follow the convention of spelling the island name Rapa Nui and its people and their language Rapanui.)

The Land

Fast Facts

Easter Island lies in the eastern South Pacific Ocean, due south of Salt Lake City, Utah, and due east of Brisbane, Australia.

The island shares the "Mountain Time Zone" with Denver and Calgary, GMT minus six hours. Daylight Saving Time runs from mid-October to mid-March.

The Pacific's largest body of archaeological sites is here, an unforgettable World Heritage Site. The island itself is rugged and beautiful, and the people helpful.

LanChile Airlines flies here from Santiago and Papeete twice a week.

Three-quarters of the island's 3,800 inhabitants are Polynesian. Today they are citizens of Chile.

Barren and detached, Easter Island lies midway between Tahiti and Chile, 4,050 km from the former and 3,700 km from the latter. Pitcairn Island, 1,900 km west, is the nearest inhabited land. No other populated island on earth is as isolated as this. At 109°26' west longitude and 27°09' south latitude, it's the easternmost and almost the southernmost island of the South Pacific. Easter Island is triangular, with an extinct volcano at each corner. It measures 23 by 11 km, totaling 171 square km.

The interior consists of high plateaus and craters surrounded by coastal bluffs. Ancient lava flows from Maunga Terevaka (507 meters), the highest peak, covered the island, creating a rough, broken surface. Maunga Pukatikei and Rano Kau (to the east and south respectively) are nearly 400 meters high. Rano Aroi, Rano Raraku, and Rano Kau contain crater lakes, with the largest (in Rano Kau) close to 1.6 kilometers across. Since 1935 about 40% of the island, including the area around Rano Kau and much of the island's shoreline, has been set aside as Parque Nacional Rapa Nui administered by the Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF). In 1995 the park was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, the first place in Chile to be so honored.

Small coral formations occur along the shoreline, but the lack of any continuous reef has allowed the sea to cut cliffs around much of the island. These bluffs are high where the waves encountered ashy material, low where they beat upon lava flows. Lava tubes and volcanic caves are other peculiarities of the island. The only sandy beaches are at Ovahe and Anakena, on the north coast. (View a map of Easter Island.)



The sub-tropical climate is moderated by the cool Humboldt current and the annual average temperature is 20.3°C. The hottest month is February; the coolest are July and August. Winds can make it feel cooler. The climate is moist, and some rain falls 140 days a year. March to June are the rainiest months; July to October are generally the coolest. August to December are the driest months, although heavy rains are possible year-round (much of it falling at night). Drizzles and mist are common, and a heavy dew forms overnight. Snow and frost are unknown, however. The porous volcanic rock dries out quickly, so the dampness need not deter the well-prepared hiker.

Flora & Fauna

The forests of Easter Island were wiped out by the indigenous inhabitants long ago, and during the 19th century sheep finished off most of the remaining native vegetation. Grasslands now envelop the green, windswept landscape; few endemic plants survive. Large tracts of eucalyptus were planted in the 1940s and 1950s. The crater lakes feature thick, floating bogs of peat; nga'ata (totora) reeds related to South American species surround and completely cover their surfaces.

Of the native birds, the frigate bird featured on many of the island's petroglyphs has been driven away, and the sooty terns (manutara) which once nested on Motu Nui in their thousands, are greatly reduced in numbers. The brown hawks (manu toketoke), small gray finches (manu puhi), and tinamous (vivi) have all been introduced from the continent in recent years. The numerous dogs encountered in Hanga Roa are also new arrivals. Some 4,000 horses and cattle range across the island, damaging the archaeological sites.


Polynesian Genesis

It's believed that Easter Island was colonized around A.D. 300 by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands or Mangareva, as part of an eastward migratory trend that originated in Southeast Asia around 2000 B.C. Here developed one of the most remarkable cultures in all of Polynesia.

Long platforms or ahu bearing slender statues known as moai were built near the coasts, with long retaining walls facing the sea. Each ahu generally carried four to six moai towering four to eight meters high. These statues, or aringa ora (living faces), looked inland towards the villages, to project the mana (protective power) of the aku-aku (ancestral spirits) they represented. Some 887 moai have been counted on Easter Island, of which 288 were actually erected on the ahu.

The vast majority of moai were all cut from the same quarry at Rano Raraku, the yellowish volcanic tuff shaped by stone tools. Some writers have theorized that the statues were "walked" to their platforms by a couple of dozen men using ropes to lean the upright figures from side to side while moving forward; others claim they were pulled along on a sledge or log rollers. Some statues bore a large cylindrical topknot (pukao) carved from the reddish stone of Puna Pau. Eyes of cut coral were fitted into the faces of the standing moai. South of Puna Pau, Maunga Orito contains black obsidian, which the islanders used for weapons and tools.

In the 16th century the focus of Rapanui culture shifted from statue carving to the "birdman" cult at Orongo. Overpopulation, depletion of resources, and famine may explain the change. In 1774 Captain Cook reported internecine fighting among the islanders, with statues toppled and their platforms damaged, and by 1840 all of the moai had been thrown off their ahu, either by earthquakes or rival tribes.


Dateline: Easter Island


Polynesians arrive from the Marquesas or Mangareva


possible beginning of birdman cult at Orongo


Jacob Roggeveen arrives on Easter Sunday


Captain James Cook stops here briefly


French explorer La Pérouse calls


Peruvian slavers kidnap some 1,400 Rapanui


smallpox epidemic decimates the population


French Catholic missionaries convert survivors


last birdman festival at Orongo


island population down to 110 persons


Chile defeats Peru and Bolivia in War of the Pacific


Chile annexes Easter Island


Thor Heyerdahl conducts excavations on the island


Ahu Akivi restored by Mulloy


the Rapanui become Chilean citizens


opening of Mataveri Airport for travel


opening of island's Anthropological Museum


Ahu Nau Nau is restored by Sergio Rapu


Council of Elders former on the island


first Rapanui governor appointed


Americans extend airstrip for NASA space shuttles


filming of Kevin Costner's epic Rapa Nui


protesters demand the return of indigenous land


Kari Kari Ballet Cultural formed


UNESCO declares Easter Island a World Heritage Site


the Chilean government agrees to land redistribution


1,400 hectares of land granted to Rapanui families


Biblioteca William Mulloy opens


additional land grants to Rapanui families



Hiking and surfing are the big activities here. One of the most intriguing and practical hikes on Easter Island is along the rocky northwest coast from Anakena to Hanga Roa.

The scuba diving off Easter Island is not for beginners as one must dive in the open sea and the water is cool (Nov.-April is warmest). On the plus side are the unique caves, walls, corals, and fish. Two dive shops opposite the small boat harbor at Caleta Hanga Roa run trips.

Surfers will find a couple of consistent waves adjacent to town, such as the rights at Caleta Hanga Roa and Ahu Tahai and the left at Hanga Mataveri Otai. On the south side of the island, a powerful right plows into the lava at Hanga Poukura. Some of the highest walls are a couple of kilometers east at Cabo Koe Koe near Ahu Vaihu. Summer is the best season for surfing on the north coast, winter on the south (especially March to September).

Horseback riding here is fun and inexpensive. Anakena is too far to go by horse and return in a day anyway, so look upon riding more as a change of pace than as a way of getting around. The area north of Hanga Roa is ideal to explore by horse.

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Easter Island flag, 
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Easter Island MAP


Public holidays

January 1
New Year's Day
Good Friday
May 1
Labor Day
May 21
Battle of Iquique Day
Corpus Christi
June 29
Saints Peter and Paul Day
August 15
Ascension Day
September 18
Independence Day
September 19
Army Day
October 12
Columbus Day
November 1
All Saints' Day
December 8
Conception Day
December 25
Christmas Day


In late January or February is the carnival-like Tapati Rapa Nui festival, with traditional dancing, sporting events, canoe races, a horse race, fishing tournament, handicraft and agricultural exhibitions, statue-carving contest, shell-necklace-stringing competition, body-painting contest, kai-kai (string figure) performances, mock battles, feasts, and the election of Queen Tapati Rapa Nui. A unique triathlon at Rano Raraku involves male contestants in body paint who paddle tiny reed craft across the lake, pick up bunches of bananas on poles and run around the crater and up the hill, where they grab big bundles of nga'ata reeds to carry down and around the lake before a final swim across. There's also haka pei, which involves young men sliding down a grassy mountainside on banana-trunk sleds at great speed. Colored lights are strung up along the main street. Needless to say, all flights immediately before and after the festival are fully booked far in advance.



Most visitors require only a passport valid six months ahead to stay 90 days in Chile. Visas are not necessary for North Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and most Europeans to travel here. Check this at any LanChile Airlines office. An entry tax or cobro por reciprocidad is collected upon arrival in Chile, with the amount varying according to nationality (U.S. passports US$130, Canada US$132, Australia US$56, etc.). This rather high tax is valid for the duration of the passport and doesn't have to be paid again each visit. No vaccinations are required.

The local currency is the Chilean peso. Credit cards are rarely usable on Easter Island as those accepting them have to wait a long time to be paid. Some hotels levy a 10% service charge for the use of credit cards.

If you want to pay something approaching local prices, ask how much the item or service costs in pesos. Only tourists pay in U.S. dollars and dollar prices are invariably higher. When prices are quoted in dollars, you can usually save a small amount by asking to pay in pesos. Easter Island is less expensive than French Polynesia but more costly than the rest of Chile.


Getting There

LanChile Airlines flies a Boeing 767 from Tahiti and Santiago to Easter Island twice a week. In the high season December to March, extra Santiago-Easter Island flights are added. From North America and Europe, LanChile has direct flights to Santiago from Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Madrid, and Frankfurt. People in Europe and Australia can have Easter Island included in a cheap round-the-world ticket, something that usually isn't possible in North America. Travelers in Canada and the U.S. can have Easter Island added to any LanChile ticket to Santiago quite inexpensively. The departure tax is US$26 to Tahiti or US$7 to Santiago, but it's usually included in the ticket price.


Getting Around

There's no public transport but the locals are pretty good about giving lifts. Over 100 clearly-marked taxis patrol the streets of Hanga Roa. For hikers, the taxis are handy to get somewhere in the morning with the intention of walking back to town. Otherwise, you can arrange to be picked up wherever you like later in the day. Bargaining may be required to avoid paying inflated tourist prices.

The hotels and several offices along the main street rent vehicles. Most are 4WD jeeps due to the rugged terrain. Prices vary and bargaining is possible in the off season from April to October. The roads to Anakena and Rano Raraku are now fully paved, making bicycling a lot more practical than it was, and you should be able to rent a bike without difficulty.

abridged from the 8th edition of Moon Handbooks South Pacific
Copyright © 1999, 2004 David Stanley, reproduction prohibited

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