Island of Mystery

Discover the secrets of Easter Island’s moai

By: David Swanson

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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 of moai.

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 toppled.

“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 transported?

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 colorful costumes.

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 degrees.

Getting there:
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 airport transfer.

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; 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 available.

As part of Chile, Spanish is the official language of Easter Island, but most residents speak English.

More info:
The web site 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.