Six days on Easter Island (or Isla de Pascua as the Chileans call it) is just not really enough time to fully appreciate everything that there is to see in this magical place. I gave it my best shot though, and I really think this is one of the most special places I’ve ever been to. I’d known about this place from countless National Geographic articles, and even a bunch of Far Side cartoons, but I had always assumed that getting here would be outrageously expensive. Luckily some friends and I found a great deal on the LanChile web site that got us here from Santiago for only $378.00! The trick was to only look for tickets on the Spanish language site; if you searched on the English language page, the cheapest flight advertised there was nearly $800.00!
We were met at the airport by the lady who owned our hotel with gorgeous leis that she draped around our neck. She drove us down to where we were staying, and frankly I was stunned at our proximity to the ocean. The property was right above the beach, and although the rooms were a bit spartan, the atmosphere more than made up for it (especially for $20.00 per night!).
After we got set up in our hotel, we set out to explore the town of Hanga Roa. We went and talked to the local dive operators, and found out that there was definitely some worthwhile things to see under the surface. We also got our first glimpse of one of the giant statues (called Moai in the local language) standing on a platform near the local beach. That evening we witnessed one of the spectacular sunsets we’d get very familiar with while eating one of the best pieces of tuna I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying.
The next day we got up early to take a guided tour of the island’s major archaeological sites. We started out at a few coastal ahus (rock platforms) where there were great sea views, and a few statues that had been toppled over. Actually, all the statues on the island that were erected at one time had been toppled by either inter-clan warfare, or tsunamis. There was apparently one tsunami back in the 1960s that tossed 30 ton stones backwards several hundred feet! Anyway, looking at these fallen statues was impressive, but you really got a feeling of waste, like something really significant had happened there, but had since been destroyed and nearly forgotten.
After we saw a few of these sites, we moved on to the really exciting stuff. The first really impressive site was called Ahu Tongariki which was fairly near the quarry where all the statues were extracted from. This was a huge platform with 15 moai standing erect. They had all been knocked down by the tsunami in the 60s, and had laid on the ground like all the others until sometime in the mid eighties when a Japanese crane company offered to fix the site in exchange for a little free publicity. One of the strange things about this site is that only one of the statues is wearing it’s topknot style hat. Apparently there was a disagreement between the locals and the archaeologists who were in charge of the restoration about whether these particular statues had ever had the topknots. One night, the locals decided to hijack one of the cranes and lifted one of the 30 ton topknots up to the top, and the archaeologists decided to leave it rather than risk damage taking it down!
After Tongariki, we headed over to the quarry where all the statues were born. This is probably the most spectacular place on the island, and more than that, it’s probably one of the most spectacular places in the world. Everywhere you look, you see statues in various stages of completion. Some are buried in the ground up to their necks for the final details, some are just rough shapes in the rock, and there is even one that is nearly finished but still attached to the bedrock where it was born. I could spend hours wandering around here just looking at all the different statues, checking out all the fine details and just imagining what this was like during the height of production.
Finally we ended our day over at the main beach. There are a few more statues that have been restored, with the most notable being one standing by itself that Thor Heyerdahl raised with the help of a few islanders using no technology in the 1970s.< The next few days were spent doing a combination of diving and relaxing in the sun. The diving wasn’t the best I’d ever done, but it was great to be back in the water. There were lots of turtles, pufferfish and parrotfish, and a few corrals, but for the most part the waters were a bit too chilly for the kind of spectacular reefs that I’ve seen in other places. One of the fun things that we saw on the first dive was a miniature statue that someone had built out of fiberglass and placed on the ocean floor. The divemaster didn’t tell us about it before the dive, and it was pretty surprising to come around a corral head and suddenly see it. Apparently there is a real moai somewhere on the ocean floor, but no one knows exactly where it is. The story goes that the Chilean navy was going to transport the statue to a museum on the mainland, but the ropes broke and it fell into the ocean. There have been a few half-hearted attempts to locate it, but I get the feeling that the navy really has other priorities to look into.
The last day two days on the island were actually some of my favorites. James and I took off one morning for some serious hiking around the island. We had a couple of destinations in mind, but nothing too specific. I’d heard about some lava tubes that were supposed to have spectacular views, and we decided to go look for those. When we finally found them I was blown away! There was one tube called “dos ventanas” (Spanish for two windows) that started out as a barely noticeable hole in the ground. We followed it down this tiny cave until it suddenly turned into a pretty good sized underground room with two passages leading out. There was light coming from the two passages, and when we followed them to the end, it turned out that they both ended up as lookouts on the cliff face, with an amazing view of the infinite ocean as far as we could see. After enjoying that for a while, we kept hiking around finding more and more caves, and finally ended up at Ahu Riki, which are the only inland moai that actually face the ocean.
The strangest thing that I think I experienced there was actually on the plane ride back to Santiago. I was sitting in the row ahead of this really large and loud woman who was actually complaining about how she’d wasted three whole days on the island. She kept complaining that one day was enough to see a bunch of stupid statues, and she couldn’t believe that she’d paid the money to come out here. I was stunned to hear this, but it’s just another example of the “ugly American” stereotype of travelers that I try really hard to disprove. I’ve heard that only 15% of Americans actually have passports, and people like this really make me wish it was fewer!