In 1722 Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to set foot on Rapa Nui. As it was Easter he named his discovery Easter Island. Most of the moai – the iconic stone images of (presumably) forefather figures that Easter Island is famous for – were still standing at that time.
Intertribal warfare in the century that followed, however, saw almost all of the statues being toppled over, the losing tribes being disgraced by their revered images being pulled down. Nature took care of most of what was left.
This means that the standing moai that we visited the past five days – almost three hundred years after our fellow countryman – are the result of restoring the statues to their former splendor. These restorations have been carried out since the 1960’s and now attract 60.000-70.000 tourists each year to the island. We were two of them.
How we explored Easter Island
Our trip to Easter Island doesn’t get off to a great start. As our LAN flight from Santiago de Chile touches down on the runway (that spans almost the entire width of the island near the capital Hanga Roa) we see rain gushing onto the tarmac. The skies are grey and as we get out it’s chilly and windy. Not exactly the tropical paradise we’d hoped for.
The rest of the day it doesn’t get much better and the weather forecast for the days to come doesn’t look very promising either. Slogging around Hanga Roa we nevertheless book a full day tour for the next day to get some necessary background about the island and we rent a Suzuki Jimny for the three days thereafter to explore the island on our own.
Moai and ahu explained
We’re the first to be picked up for the tour. Twelve more people have booked; all of them from Chile. Luckily our guide takes her time to explain everything in English about the history of the island, and the significance of the moai and ahu (the ceremonial platforms) we visit.
The short version: the Rapa Nui are a Polynesian people that migrated from other islands in the Pacific to Easter Island between the fourth and eighth century. As part of their forefather cult they sculpted big stone statues (moai) of these forefathers from the volcanic rock and placed them on ceremonial platforms (ahu) near their villages.
As happens within many cultures mutual rivalry led to a competition about who could raise the tallest moai. The statues eventually got so big (over ten meters high) and so heavy (several tons) that it became impossible for the islanders to move them from the quarry at Rano Raraku to their villages. Therefore many of the statues can still be found near the quarry. It’s hard the get a grip of their actual size. You can only see the top part of the statues as they’re mostly buried in the ground.
Mysteries surround Easter Island
How they managed to move the statues to their erection platforms in the first place is still one of the great mysteries surrounding Easter Island. What is known is that the struggle for land and food led to intertribal warfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The victors pulled down the moai of the defeated tribes in order to destroy the power people derived from the moai as well.
Lucky for us the weather stays OK for the day: mostly overcast but dry and warm. In the days that follow the weather improves a little every day, giving us the opportunity to take good pictures at the sites we have visited before during the tour and some new sites as well, like the Orongo Ceremonial Village and the Rano Kau crater (no moai here), which can be visited on a half day hike from Hanga Roa.
A word of warning: it’s strictly forbidden to stand or climb on the ahu or touch the moai or any other structure of historical religious importance! If you do want a picture of yourself next to a maoi, there are some replicas near the harbor in Hanga Roa.
As the island is not very big (360 km2) we are able to visit some sites several times. There are many fallen and weathered moai to be found scattered across Easter Island, but most impressive are the row of fifteen standing moai at Ahu Tongariki, the quarry at Rano Raraku, Ahu Tahai at sunset (very picturesque), the row of seven moai at Ahu Akivi and the seven standing moai (some sporting topknots) of Au Nau Nau at Anakena beach.
Tropical Anakena Beach
We somehow seem to end up at this beach at the other side of the island every single day of our stay. It is the only Rapa Nui spot that appeals to a tropical feeling, with a white sandy beach, palm trees, beach bars and sunny most of the time. On the last (and warmest) day of our stay we enjoy some nice beach time here.
On the last evening we visit a traditional dance show. Of the several dance troupes on the island we choose Kari Kari. They’re supposed to be one of the best. We only make it just in time for the 8 PM show. A beautiful sunset keeps us at Ahu Tahai a little too long.
Luckily we’ve already booked tickets earlier that day because the small dance venue appears to be packed. The seating is rather cramped and people in the front rows holding their iPads or mobile phones in the air to film the show are a nuisance. But the dancing is energetic and entertaining.
Just two hours before our scheduled flight back to Santiago de Chile it starts raining again. A perfect time to go, but we sure would have liked to stay a little longer. Many visitors who return from Easter Island talk about a mystic experience. We won’t go that far. But that it was cool and special to visit such a remote and interesting place on earth? No doubt about it.
Too far? Too expensive?
When we started planning our trip to Peru, Bolivia and Chile visiting Easter Island was not the first thing that came to mind though. It was not directly on our (mental) map as the island is 5.000 kilometers away in any direction to the next inhabited island or mainland Chile.
It was on our bucket list but it seemed like an unattainable dream: too far away and too expensive. But is this right? That depends on how you look at it. Is flying for five hours really that long if you take bus rides that last much longer without thinking twice about the length of the journey? No.
That leaves the question of money. Sure, it’s more expensive than making a land based trip in most of South America. You have to fly, accommodation is more expensive, as is eating out. You know: location, location, location. Additional costs like car rental, doing a tour and the obligatory national park fee also add up.
A visit to Easter Island will by no means be cheap, but there are ways to keep costs down. You can read more on this in our travel tips below.
Travel tips Easter Island
Transport – Most can be saved on the biggest expense of a visit to Easter Island: the flight from Santiago de Chile. LAN Chile is the only airline servicing Rapa Nui, twice daily from Santiago de Chile, once a week from Tahiti.
You’d think that tickets would be very costly, but we managed to secure our return tickets for the very reasonable price of 222.000 CLP (325 euros) each. To achieve this you have to do two things:
- book early – we booked eight months in advance.
- book through the Chile page of the LAN Airlines website. This last part is elementary and saved us about half the cost compared to booking through a booking site like Skyscanner or the English language page of LAN. If you don’t speak Spanish just open the English page as well and go through the booking procedure. We don’t speak Spanish and managed to book our tickets without a problem. And in case you were wondering: no questions were asked at check-in for the flight.
Sleep – Booking accommodation early is also essential for securing one of the few affordable places, especially in high season. We stayed in a double en suite at Camping Minihoa which, as you can guess, also has a campsite. We paid 25.000 CLP (about 32 euros) per night for the room, that was a little damp but suited our needs. It had a big double bed, hot showers in the morning and evening, a large communal room with wifi (not very strong signal though, best early in the morning when all other guests were still asleep…), glorious ocean views and a free transfer from and to the airport. Minihoa is about a 10 minute walk from the center of Hanga Roa.
Money – In Chile it’s often possible to pay in US dollars for tourist services like hotels and tours and souvenirs too, but in most cases it’s better to pay in Chilean pesos as prices quoted in dollars most of the time are much higher than prices in pesos. The price difference can be considerable. Camping Minihoa, for example, quoted us US$ 55 or 25.000 CLP (= US$ 35), a price difference of US$ 20 per night!
There’s one major exception and that’s when staying in midrange and high-end accommodation. If you’re staying less than two months in Chile, as a foreigner you don’t have to pay the 19% VAT (called IVA in Chile). There’s one condition: that you pay in US$ or by credit card. It’s always good to ask your hotel about this option.
Car Hire – Having your our own set of wheels is the best way to see much of the island (cycling is also possible and of course much cheaper). Car rentals start at about 40.000 CLP (about 50 euros) per day for a Suzuki Jimny, less if you rent several days. Distances are short, roads are mostly OK and petrol is surprisingly cheap.
Rental cars are not insured so make sure you get a good car and that all dents and scratches are marked on the rental form when you take out the car. We used Oceanic, the biggest car rental agency on the island. The car had seen better days, but they helped us out for free when our car refused to start on the last day. So no complaints.
Tour – If you are strapped for time the main sites on Easter Island can be seen in two hurried days of sightseeing. To appreciate the island better it’s good to stay a minimum of 4 or 5 days. Our initial reason for staying 5 nights was that it would give us some buffer in case of inclement weather. On Easter Island it can rain any time of year and that can seriously ruin your experience. And it’s no destination you’ll return to anytime soon, so it’s better be safe than sorry (though no guarantees here).
Ticket – To see all the sites on Easter Island foreigners have to pay a Rapa Nui National Park conservation fee of CLP 30.000 (or $ 50). Tickets can be bought on arrival at the airport and are valid for five days. Though most sites can be visited without your ticket being checked, you’ll need it to gain entry to Orongo Ceremonial Village and the quarry at Rano Raraku. The ticket is valid for one entry at these two sites but repeat visits are possible if weather has been bad on your first visit. Just tell the park ranger at the ticket office and they’ll let you go in.
Eat – Outside of Hanga Roa there are not many places to have lunch on Easter Island. If you’re not planning to be there around lunch time you only have two other options. There’s a small restaurant near the entrance to Rano Raraku, but choice is limited. At Anakena Beach two beach bars serve all kinds of burgers with an nice view of the beach and the ocean. Alternatively you can bring your own lunch bought at one of the bakeries along the main drag in Hanga Roa.
From Easter Island we flew back to Santiago de Chile. Maybe our post Time flies in Santiago de Chile is also interesting for you.