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Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island, had been on Dad’s wish-list for a long time. There was something about the mysterious statue heads on the remote Pacific Island and the mystery that surrounds them that continued to be a big draw long after he had heard a fellow traveller talk about it back in 2003. So, while the rain spoilt our week in Pucon we looked for a way to visit the island. Sadly, there were not enough seats for the whole family to make the trip when we looked. However, Mum convinced Dad that there would never be a better opportunity to make the trip than now. Dad booked the flights and would be visiting Rapa Nui while Mum looked after the kids in Santiago.
Getting to Rapa Nui
Rapa Nui is a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean long inhabited by the native Polynesians, also called Rapa Nui. The Dutch found the island on Easter Sunday of 1722 and subsequently named it “Easter Island”. However, there was conflict with the Rapa Nui people when the Dutch landed that day, and Rapa Nui descendants are not fond of the name Easter Island to this day.
Rapa Nui is sometimes referred to as the most remote island on Earth, so getting to it feels like an achievement! The island is now Chilean territory and regular flights from LAN airways will take you from Chile’s capital, Santiago to the island town of Hanga Roa. LAN also operate a once weekly flight from Tahiti to Rapa Nui.
The flight time is around five and a half hours to travel the 3500km West from South America. The airline know that this is a major route for tourists and therefore service the route in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner complete with in-flight entertainment.
Tip: When booking; try to navigate the LAN website in Spanish as there appears to be a multi-tier pricing system. When Dad was looking for flights he searched the website in Spanish. When it was time to book he navigated in English only to find that the same flight was almost three times as expensive. Needless to say; he switched back to Spanish for the booking and the cheaper price was upheld.
Hanga Roa airport is very small so you won’t get lost after disembarking the plane. You have an opportunity to purchase a National Park ticket before collecting your bags. Almost all of Rapa Nui’s hotels will send a representative to pick you up at the airport. As you exit the terminal building you will see a host of locals waiting with name boards and flower necklaces to hand out.
You can purchase your National Park ticket for USD$60 at the airport or at the CONAF office at Mataveri. The ticket is used for entering Rano Raraku and Orongo village, two of the more interesting sites, and lasts for five days.
Accommodation on Rapa Nui
Rapa Nui can be notoriously expensive, but if you are willing to rough it for a little bit you can find some very
reasonable accommodation options. Dad did exactly this when he booked four nights at the Camping Mihinoa campsite for a total of £47. The site had pre-pitched tents and provided a sleeping bag. There were also kitchen facilities on-site which allowed for a further saving on food.
There are also a few places on the island offering cheaper hostel type accommodation but prices start to rise drastically when looking at mid-range options such as the well located Tupa Hotel or the Hotel Hotu Matua which is slightly out of town but offers a pool.
Rapa Nui Climate
Easter Island has a subtropical climate with summer falling between December and February while winter (around 19oC) is between June and August. Dad went in early March and found the island to be very hot compared to mainland South America, despite the temperatures being the same. While walking around town on his first day he suffered from heatstroke! Apparently, heatstroke affects the local Rapa Nui people too so Dad didn’t feel too bad after hearing that – but take a hat and plenty of water to stay hydrated while exploring the island.
Transport on Rapa Nui
Since Hanga Roa is quite a small town it is entirely possible to get around by walking. Dad walked around town a lot and even took an easy stroll back to the airport from the campsite when it was time to head home!
There are a few places where it is possible to hire a bicycle too, which is obviously a quicker way around town and opens the possibility of headed out around the island more.
Taxis can be found driving around town and can be hailed down to negotiate a fare to somewhere on the island. These are not your standard yellow cabs however, you will generally see a sign in the front window that reads “TAXI”.
Most people who visit Rapa Nui will hire either a scooter or a jeep to navigate the island. There are plenty of options around town. This option allows you to visit the sites on the island at your own pace and in your own time.
Tip: If you are pushed for cash then you can always ask around town for people to share the cost and driving with you. Most people there will want to see the same things you do and will.
If you can’t drive (like Dad) and still want to get the most out of exploring Rapa Nui there are companies that offer day tours. One of these is the excellent Easter Island Travel with whom Dad spent two days with them on their ‘Megaliths’ and ‘Journey of Legends’ tours. There are other options though but with tour companies it may be best to book ahead, especially if you have limited time on the island.
The Moai Statues Explained
Of course, the main draw to the island are the huge stone statue heads – the Moai, and the story behind them. There were around eight different villages on the island when the Rapa Nui first settled. There was a class system in place for each village and when a village leader or Chieftain died it was customary to build an ahu, a stone tomb, for them. On the ahu was placed a Moai in the form of the person who had passed away. The Moai was placed so that it looked back on the village, that way the mana, or spirit, of the person would always look over the village. At first the Moai were carved from wood, but soon they were carved from stone.
As time passed the village leaders demanded greater Moai for themselves and this led to competition from the other villages. This was all good business for the stone carvers at the Rano Raraku volcano, better known today as the Quarry. A visit to Rano Raraku today allows you to wander through the unfinished Moai that look hauntingly out from the volcano and is truly one of the most magical places on Earth.
Once finished, the Moai would be transported to the village. This would take time and patience as the huge stone structures were slowly transported. The final touches to the Moai once it was in place over the ahu, would be to add the eyes to the statue so that the spirit of the person who had passed could watch over the village.
All the Moai that remain standing now, except for those at Rano Raraku, have been restored. The theory is that during tribal wars, and uprising of the lower classes in villages resulted in the Moai being toppled face first across the island and this is evident today at various sites. Those that remained were possibly toppled by natural disasters such as Tsunamis.
Following the time of the Moai the Rapa Nui people decided that war between the tribes was not the answer but they still needed a way to determine who would rule over them. From the ruins of the Moai the Birdman Competition was born.
The Birdman Competition
If the age of the Moai was one of war and feuds then the age of the Birdman Competition would be an age of
peace, love and sex. The tribes had come together and decided that war was not good for the island and that they would be better off with a single leader. To decide the leader, they invented the Birdman Competition.
Each of the tribal leaders would select an athlete to serve as their champion in the annual competition. Each
year the competitors would gather at the ancient village of Orongo on the crater of the Rano Kau volcano. A group of sea birds would nest of one of the islands just off the coast of Rapa Nui. Each athlete would have to scale down the cliffs of Rano Kau and swim out to the island. Their job was to retrieve one of the nesting bird’s eggs. Once they had done this there was a further swim to a rocky island, where they would scale the rock and hold the egg aloft.
Village elders in Orongo would be watching and confirm the winner of the competition. The village chief that the winning athlete represented would get to rule over Rapa Nui for a year. For the athlete, he would get the choice of one or more of the virgins set aside for the winner.
Enjoying Modern Day Rapa Nui
Aside from the wonderful history of the island, there is a lot to enjoy on Rapa Nui. Walking around Hanga Roa
gives you the opportunity to visit the carvings at Parroquia de la Santa Cruz church, or to look past the many tourist items in shops for some genuine Rapa Nui crafts. The town also has a couple of government sponsored Wi-Fi hotspots where you will find the best internet connection on Rapa Nui. These are in a park on the corner of Atamu Tekena and Te Pito O Te Henua and next to the excellent Haka Honu Restaurant overlooking Pea Beach.
Tip: Eating out can be expensive on the island so bring as much extra food as you can from mainland Chile to save on food expenses.
There are a couple of beaches where you can take a swim in the Pacific Ocean too. In town is the small bay of Pea Beach but the real gem is Ana Kagenga, a short drive away from Hanga Roa. Here you will find the best beach on the island. White sand, palm trees (along with warnings about falling coconuts) and a Moai thrown in for good measure!
If Diving or Surfing is more your scene then you are well catered for too. There are a few dive shops in town, mostly close to the jetty at the end of Te Pito O Te Henua. There is a replica Moai, left over from the Kevin Costner directed Rapa Nui film, submerged for divers to explore. Surfers can be found out from Pea Beach in town and there are a few other spots on the island to catch some breaks.
For a lasting memory of Rapa Nui, you can get yourself a tattoo on the island. Most tattoo artists ply their trade along the main street, Atamu Tekena.
Mostly while in Rapa Nui take some time to soak up the laid-back island life of the people and slow the pace of your own life down. One of Dad’s favourite things to do on the island was to walk the short distance out of town to the Moai of Ahu Tahai and Ahu Ko Te Riku and sit on the grass along with other tourists and locals while watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Moments like that make the effort to get to Rapa Nui worthwhile.
Returning to Santiago
After four nights on the island it was time for Dad to return to Santiago. After heatstroke and illness on the first day he had grown to appreciate the island, the history and its people. A half an hour walk took him back to the airport where he waited to board the LAN Dreamliner back to Santiago in the best terminal building on the trip – a porch overlooking a small garden and the airplane.
After the flight back, and a shared transport (booked at the desk in arrivals) to the AirBnB apartment he was reunited with Mum and the kids. Unfortunately, things had not gone so well in Santiago while he was away…