Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is the destination of choice for many travelers who are intrigued by the famous statues, the isolation, and the mysterious history of this island. But, hard facts for serious travelers are hard to come by. We thus are presenting what would be a fantastic five-day vacation on that tiny island in the Center of the World.
But first, a few facts: there are not many options for reaching this remote island: only one airline, LANChile, flies to Easter Island. Flights originate from Lima (Peru), Santiago (Chile) and Papeete (Tahiti) and are a little more than five hours in duration. The airline schedule is seasonal, with more flights scheduled during the week in the austral Summer (December-February). Cruise ships do visit Easter Island, but usually stop only for a few hours, which is not enough time to get even a slight feel for the place. Private sailboats occasionally visit the island, but special permission to land is required.
Few travel agencies have a staff person who has actually been to the island and they sometimes give erroneous information about what to see, how long to stay, and where to stay. The most expensive hotels are not necessarily the best, and they seldom book anyone into a “residencial” (a small pension).
Travel agents unfamiliar with Easter Island look at a map and see a tiny island, only 7 by 15 miles, and think “What can one possibly do there for more than a few days?” So they book their clients into three-day tours. This is a big mistake. For starters, there are some 15,000 archaeological sites of all kinds, nearly 1,000 statues, thousands of petroglyphs, beautiful beaches, good snorkeling, diving, horseback riding, shopping, caves to explore, fishing, hiking, and for party animals, discos that run all night. The islanders are friendly and visitors can make acquaintances easily.
A huge festival, Tapati Rapa Nui, takes place in late January/early February that pulls out all the stops. This is mid-Summer on the island, the height of the tourist season. Prices are higher, and a lot of tourists are on the island. If you prefer a quieter time, pick October/November or March/April. If you want the place practically all to yourself, be there in July-August, but be prepared for rain and chilly weather.
Easter Island is sub-tropical so there is relatively little variation in temperature and precipitation. It can rain anytime of the year. While temperatures do not vary much, there can be a wind-chill factor. However, tourism does vary! January and February are the busiest months on the island. October, November, and December have slightly fewer tourists. June, July, and August are the slowest months for tourism, as that is wintertime in the Southern Hemisphere.
A few facts: Some 3,900 persons live on the island, which is governed by Chile. The residents speak Spanish; Easter Islanders also speak their own language, Rapanui. Nearly all live in the village of Hangaroa, where the hotels, shops, and restaurants are located. There are vehicles for rent, including motorcycles and bicycles. You can sign on with a tourist agency for a guided tour (see below), or wander around by yourself.
You can take your meals with your hotel room, or only have breakfast, and eat lunch and dinner out. The local stores have food items for lunch, like cheese and bread, etc. The water is safe to drink but has a high mineral content; if you find it a problem, bottled water can be purchased in the stores.
Do not head out — ever — without taking water. There is no safe drinking water outside the village.
If you are on the island on a Sunday, do take in Mass at the Catholic Church, regardless of your religious persuasion. The singing, in Rapanui, is wonderful. Note the wooden saints and holy figures, carved by local artists.
There are over 50 places to stay on the island. Some are well-appointed hotels with swimming pools; then there are smaller hotels with fewer amenities; then residenciales, which may have from 2 to 10 rooms for rent. There are several places to eat in the village; these range from snack bars to full-on restaurants. Food can be expensive on the island, so expect to pay mainland prices.
Because of the fragile nature of most of the sites and the exponential increase in travelers to Easter Island, visitors who wish to see ‘Orongo and Rano Raraku must pay a fee of $US60 ($US10 for children 12 & under) to visit those sites. The fee allows one visit to each site during a period of 5 days. Alternatively, visitors may purchase a wristband in advance upon arrival at the Mataveri Airport for $US50 ($US10 for children 12 & under); the wrist band is valid for 5 days and allows unlimited visitation to all of the island sites except for Rano Raraku and ‘Orongo, which can be visited one time each. With this in mind, we recommend you plan your visit carefully so that you have plenty of time at Rano Raraku and ‘Orongo since they can only be visited one time each; if you wish to return to either of these sites a second time, the fee must be paid again.
What follows is a “perfect five days” on the island . . .
Head by car to the statue quarry, Rano Raraku (above) as early as possible. Take lots of water and some lunch. Do not stop along the way to see the many sites you will pass along the south coast road, but go directly to the quarry. To be there early means that you may have this incredible site all to yourselves, at least for a time. There is an entrance fee to Rano Raraku; save your ticket as it can also be used to enter the site of Orongo (each site may be visited once with the same ticket). Fees are collected to help with maintainance and preservation of all the sites on the island.
Nearly 400 statues are found at the quarry and many of them are still attached to the matrix of the rock where they lie unfinished. A trail leads around the outside slopes, and heads over to a vista point where of the interior of the crater can be seen. At the top of the highest point are holes in the rock that were early devices for braking the statues during the process of lowering them from the bedrock. In order to preserve the statues and the environment of the interior of Rano Raraku, access is now prohibited.
It is possible to spend an entire day here, but if you find yourself on overload, leave around noon, and stop to picnic at the base of the hill, near the Ranger’s house, in a grove of eucalyptus trees (just west of the entrance to the quarry site).
After lunch, visit Tongariki (above), slightly to the east of the quarry and clearly visible from the road. Here there are 15 standing statues, plus some elegant petroglyphs.
You can now head back along the south coast road, stopping along the way at the numerous sites that are visible from the road. Among these are Akahanga and Vaihu. Note the fallen statues visible from the road, lying where they fell during transport.
That evening, try dinner at Playa Pea, just across from the soccer field and overlooking the bay. They have good food, and be sure to order a pisco sour first. This is a good place to watch the sunset and some hardy surfers trying to catch the perfect wave.
Take the road south through the village and uphill to the ceremonial site of Orongo. A new visitor/interpretive center will be opening in May 2011. There is a fee to enter Orongo; save your ticket as it can also be used to enter Rano Raraku (each site can be visited once with the same ticket). At Orongo you will see stone houses that sheltered those participating in the ancient birdman ritual. Follow along to the narrowest point on the cliff where there is an astonishing petroglyph site, the most sacred place at Orongo. Here is where the priests chanted and prayed, and likely worked on the petroglyphs. Note the famous birdman motif: half frigate bird and half human.
Drive downhill to see the site of Vinapu, with its two massive ahu. The first one you come to has beautifully carved basalt blocks (above).
Then return to town and head for the restored site of Tahai, just north of the village and the island cemetery. This is walking distance from the village. Tahai has three ahu, boathouse foundations, cave shelters, a boat ramp, and statues. Tahai provides a glimpse of what a ceremonial area must have been like in ancient times. Each ahu was used for a different type of ceremony; priests lived in the hare paenga houses, and rituals took place in the plaza area in front of the shrines. The site was restored by anthropologist William Mulloy, whose ashes are interred at a small memorial at the site.
Continue north and visit the Museo Antropológico P. Sebastián Englert (MAPSE) (info in Spanish), the red roofed structure with a fence around the property. The exhibits change from time to time, but the museum has special artifacts on display, including the only intact coral eye ever found. There is also an excellent gift ship on site where books and other items can be purchased.
(Image courtesy of Kathi Merritt)
Today, take the road out of town, but turn north at the sign saying Ahu Akivi. This road will lead you to the seven statues standing on their ahu, also restored by Mulloy. Leaving Akivi, head west along a dirt road. You will pass many interesting features including manavai caves; these are on the south side of the road and can be identified by watching for trees growing up out of the openings (above). These sunken gardens supplied islanders with a sheltered place to grow food, and the caves were living places for islanders during warfare. If you want to explore the caves, take a flashlight.
At the end of the road where it turns south, you will see Ahu Tepeu. Walk down and explore the two ahu, fallen statues and note the enormous hare paenga (boat house foundation) just uphill on the right as you walk toward the ahu. It is the largest on the island. At this point, go south and the road will take you back to the museum area and the village.
Head across the island, via Vaitea, the old sheep ranch headquarters, to Anakena (above). Here is a stunning beach, three ahu with statues, petroglyphs, a grove of coconut palms, and super swimming, besides. Bring your swimsuit! Hard to beat this site, a good one for a picnic. If you want a more intimate beach, a short drive eastward takes you to Ovahe, a secluded cove with a beautiful beach. No archaeological sites here, but great swimming.
Return to the village along the east coast road, going south from Anakena and Ovahe. Stop at Te Pito Kura to see the largest statue ever moved, then to Ahu Raai with its elegant petroglyphs (on the island side of the road; a turnout for parking indicates the location). Continue south to see the huge ahu at Hekii, and others that line the road. You can continue onward and return along the south coast road.
Walk around the north coast of the island. This is a wild and unsettled part of the island, windswept hills, ruins of ahu and fallen statues. There are two trails, a lower and a higher one, but no roads. Take plenty of water and lunch. There is no water available to drink along the way. You can have a taxi take you to the trailhead north of the village, and arrange to have him pick you up at Anakena in five or so hours. The actual distance can be walked in less time, but not if you stop to see the wonderful sites along the way. You can take a quick swim at Anakena before going back to town.
This afternoon would be a good time to visit the market and shops in the village to look for the perfect souvenir of your visit. You may opt for a wood or stone carving, a pareu, a tee-shirt with local designs, or a shell necklace.
End your stay with a super dinner; celebrate with an elegant bottle of good Chilean wine, and plan for your return trip to this most magical of islands.
(Unless noted, all images on this page are courtesy of Paul Horley)