Travel to the ends of the earth and one will discover there are
still mysteries to be solved.
How were Easter Island’s enigmatic stone statues transported
from a volcanic quarry to their ceremonial platforms, miles away?
Who were they meant to represent, and what’s with the round red
hats decidedly un-Polynesian some statues wore? And why, between
the first European contact in 1722 and Captain Cook’s visit, 50
years later, were most of the heads toppled?
The statues moai have provoked theories for centuries, and for
every conjecture made by a well-meaning archeologist, it seems
another falls. In 1955, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl proposed
that the Polynesians originated in the Andes, traveling by boats
made of totora reeds from Lake Titicaca. The same reeds sprout from
a crater lake on Easter Island perhaps they were imported by
settlers? Heyerdahl made important discoveries here, but his South
American connection did not hold up. I landed on Easter Island with
a comprehension of its mysteries tucked in my back pocket. Four
days later, I left with more unanswered questions than when I
arrived and a desire to return.
The islanders today refer to their home as Rapa Nui, not Easter
Island (as the first European explorer named it), nor Isla de
Pasqua (as today’s protectorate, Chile, calls it). The island,
2,300 miles west of Santiago, is referred to as the most remote
place on earth, a notion that only adds to its allure.
But it’s the iconic statues I came to see. After a traditional
lei greeting at the airport and checking into my hotel in Hanga
Roa, the island’s one town, it’s hard to hold back from a half-mile
sprint to Tahai, where three ahu ceremonial alters support a series
To my surprise, every one of the stone faces is different in
size and character. Stolid, mournful, stoic, each possesses its own
personality. China Pakarati, my guide with Kia Keo Tours, explained
that the moai were like portraits for the Rapanui, but that today
they are missing one crucial element: their eyes, which gave the
statues mana, or power. Made from white coral, only one set of the
eyes exists today, in the local museum.
“The eyes were what brought them to life,” said Pakarati. “It’s
thought that during the conflicts the eyes were stolen to take
their spirit away.”
The conflicts, Pakarati explained, were the result of
overpopulation: “They spent their energy carving the moai instead
of growing food. They cut down all the trees for building, for
burning, and the society collapsed.”
In the 17th and 18th centuries, fierce tribal wars and
cannibalism consumed the island, and all of the moai were
“They ate their enemies,” smiled Pakarati. “They prepared them
just like chicken, wrapped in banana leaf.”
Since 1955 a few dozen of the 887 moai have been re-erected at
sites like Tahai. While each of the ahu occupies a unique setting,
the island’s most magnificent site is the volcano of Rano Raraku,
also known as the quarry.
At Rano Raraku, the stone giants were sculpted from the outer
and inner slopes of the crater, and the suddenness of Rapa Nui’s
demise is evident: Although dozens of moai appear complete, dozens
more are in various stages of carving within the cliffs. On one, an
etching on the chest represents the three-masted outline of a
European ship. Another is the largest moai discovered over 65 feet
high which hints at another theory: Was rebellion fomented when the
moai were conceived in a size that could no longer be
The quarry was where the moai were born, but it also represents
Rapa Nui’s eventual collapse. It is an emotional experience which
transcends that of any other archeological site I’ve visited.
You can cover all major archeological sites in four days, as I
did, but I wished for more. Many people come for a day or two and
knock off the major sites, but a visit to Easter Island isn’t all
about the moai. There is hiking, biking and horseback rides around
the island. The diving through gin-clear water is fine, and surfers
ply the harbor at Hanga Roa, a town with a decidedly laid-back vibe
and a handful of good restaurants and Internet cafes. Several
nights a week there are revues of local music and dance with
And there is the awesome crater of Rano Kao, where the
ceremonial village of Orango is perched, strewn with petroglyphs.
It was here that the birdman cult originated, a religious ceremony
that took over when the statue sculpting ended.
And yet another mystery was born.
When to go:
Located just outside the tropics, Easter Island’s weather is
acceptable year-round, though during winter nights (our summer
months) temperatures can get down to the 50s. January-February is
peak season, with temperatures reaching the 80s. The annual Tapati
festival February 1-18 in 2008 features cultural events, song and
dance and sporting competitions. Water temperatures average 65
LAN Airlines offers up to five flights a week from Santiago,
Chile, to Easter Island in high season, plus two from Tahiti. Check
in early: My flights were overbooked in both directions. Roundtrip
fares from Santiago commonly start about $700, but last October
there were three-night air/hotel packages going for $799 from LAN
tour offices in Santiago.
Where to stay:
There are at least a dozen hotels on the island and many
guesthouses. All are located in and around Hanga Roa. I stayed at
Hotel O’Tai (phone: 56-32-100-250; e-mail Hotel
O'Tai:, which offered straightforward accommodations, a pool
and restaurant for $115-$145 (double), including breakfast and
Note that a surcharge is added for all credit-card transactions
on Easter Island.
An orientation to the island with a local guide is strongly
recommended for at least your first day. China Pakarati works with
Kia Koe Tours www.kiakoetour.co.cl; phone/fax: 56-32-100-282). Shared
tours range from $30 for a half-day to $50 for a full day with
picnic, but a seven-hour private tour with guide and car is a
better deal at $160 for up to three persons.
Car rental starts at $60 a day; bike and horse rentals are also
As part of Chile, Spanish is the official language of Easter
Island, but most residents speak English.
The web site www.islandheritage.org provides excellent archeological
and historical details, from the Easter Island Foundation, as well
as up-to-date tourism information. “The Complete Guide to Easter
Island” is the most through guidebook, sold on the same web site,
while Lonely Planet’s “Chile & Easter Island” devotes a 19-page
chapter on the island. Jared Diamond’s acclaimed book “Collapse”
has a lengthy section on Easter Island’s demise.