Ana Maria Varela, commercial director for Explora, and her son // © 2015 Ana Maria Varela
Feature image (above): Easter Island is home to the famous “moai” statues, each one a tribute to a tribal chief that passed away. // © 2015 Explora
Rapa Nui, the indigenous name for Easter Island, is one of the most isolated inhabited islands on the planet. It is located in the South Pacific more than 2,300 miles east of the Chilean coast. Settled in approximately 300 AD by Polynesians, the destination features the World Heritage-listed Rapa Nui National Park and approximately 900 hand-carved, lava-rock figures, known as “moai.”
Ana Maria Varela is the North America commercial director for Explora, a travel company founded in 1993 that operates both hotels and tours in South America and Easter Island. She last visited Easter Island in October 2014 but has traveled to the destination more than 20 times.
Varela spoke recently with TravelAge West about the extraordinary island destination, the Explora Rapa Nui lodge and the experiences her company offers travelers.
What’s it like to visit Easter Island?
Every time that I go it’s a different experience, and when you visit, you are seeing a completely different culture. For me, Easter Island is a mysterious island, very magical, and you can feel a special energy there. I think some of that comes from the “mana,” or power, from the people who are reincarnated in these huge statues. And just imagining how they moved these huge statues from one side of the island to the other is incredible.
What are moai?
Each moai represents the soul or reincarnation of the chief of a tribe. These chiefs had wisdom, power and knowledge, so when the chief died, the tribe ordered a moai be carved so that his mana would be reincarnated in the moai. The smaller moai are the most ancient, and they had rounder shapes. But once the people got more experienced at carving them, the moai started getting bigger and bigger. The biggest is more than 65 feet high, which is just huge.
Most of them are standing up now because the Japanese, the Americans and the Chileans did all of these different restorations. But if you go to the north coast, you will see the moai as they were when they were knocked down 400, 600 or 700 years ago, depending on the time of the particular tribal war.
Do you have a favorite place on the island to be around the moai?
Visiting the Ahu Tongariki ceremonial platform at sunrise is probably one of the most fascinating views on the island. Everybody is quiet and then you start to see, out of the darkness, the 15 shapes belonging to huge moai. It’s a very special moment, and Tongariki is really only 15 minutes from our property, Explora Rapa Nui.
What should travelers expect at the Explora property on Rapa Nui?
We opened the 30-room Explora Rapa Nui lodge about eight years ago. Before that, we had Rapa Nui houses, but the lodge is now built with volcanic rock from the island and wood. You feel free there because we have many indoor and outdoor places year-round. It’s located outside of town, up on a little hill, and all of the rooms have views of the Pacific Ocean. The island actually has more than 7,000 wild horses, so you will probably wake up in the morning with a horse in front of your window. And while you are in the countryside, the lodge is just 10 minutes from town.
It’s also the first hotel certified by LEED in Latin America, and we have two kinds of rooms: the standard and the suite. The only difference is the size. The layout and the view, everything is the same.
Is Easter Island a good destination for families?
It’s great for families. Today, we have so little time to really talk, and when we do talk, we often just go over the same things. But on Easter Island, you not only have a completely different environment and a different culture, but you also have very few Wi-Fi connections, so it’s a great time for bonding with your family.
The industry, as you know, is seeing more and more multigenerational travel for families. Easter Island is a great place for that because grandparents can do a lot of different things, kids can do something different with their parents and then they all can get back together for dinner.
What sort of Easter Island activities does Explora offer travelers?
We have full- and half-day activities, and we divide them up into different levels: easy, medium and demanding. We do trekking, biking, boating, fishing, ancestral fishing and snorkeling.
One of our activities takes people to visit the caves where the Rapa Nui people used to live, and that’s a great, full-day experience for kids because they learn about why [the tribes] lived there. Then, we explain the moai, what they represented and what makes them so sacred for the Rapa Nui people.
Our guides are all local, so what they’re telling you is what their ancestors taught them. They’ve learned through a verbal history, listening to their parents and grandparents, and they feel they have a responsibility to continue these traditions. I really enjoy that romantic, ancestral way of seeing.
How long would you recommend people stay?
People usually go for three nights, but I always recommend four nights if you really want to have time to go to town and mingle with the locals. And if there are some honeymooners who want to combine Easter Island and Tahiti, that’s really a wonderful combination because LAN Airlines now flies once a week from Rapa Nui to Papeete, French Polynesia.
We also get a lot of people who want to combine Machu Picchu and Easter Island, [and] we pay a commission of 10 percent to travel agents. We have a huge business with travel agents across the U.S.