Yes, the island of the giant heads really does exist and it is amazing! I’m going to do my very my best to describe our 5 day travel experience to this wonderful location in this short post and you can judge for yourself.
“Where is the Easter Island?” or “How do you get there?” these are some of the questions we get asked a lot by most people whenever the subject comes up. And the answer is always being: it is a tiny Polynesian island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles or 3500 kilometres off the coast of Chile equivalent to five hours plane journey from mainland in our case. It is believed that Polynesian people settled on the island more than a thousand years ago and began building a thriving new civilisation. The island is also commonly known as “Rapa Nui” in the local language. It’s stood through test of time, history and civilisations. It has always been a fascination for both scholars and travellers alike simply because of the fascination surrounding the giant stone heads.
According to history records, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen discovered the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. He was astonished to find that the island was covered with hundreds of mysterious giant stone heads. These huge statues are called “Moai” and there are nearly 900 of them on the island. They are believed to be somewhere between 500 and 750 years old and many of them stand around the coast of the island with their backs to the sea. Most archaeologists believe that they were meant to represent the spirits of Chiefs or ancestors, but we don’t have written records to help understand their significance or how they were made and so archaeologists must rely on clues that were left behind.
This has always been a fascination of mine I have always wondered how the Moais got to Easter island myself until we got into doing more research for this trip.
From what we understand, each statue is made from a single large piece of stone by the early settlers, although some of the statues have a further piece of stone on the top of their heads, carved into a top knot. On average they’re thirteen feet or four meters excessive and weigh between 12 and thirteen tons. The largest “Moai” ever erected referred to as “Paro” is over 32 ft or 9.8 meters tall and weighs 82 tons.
Despite the fact that the statues are frequently known as “heads” most of them have bodies, some have been buried inside the floor as much as their shoulders and plenty of more were tipped over. At one point there had been no unburied statues left standing in any respect. however now dozens of statues had been re-erected and a few had been restored to look as they did many years ago.
The island is fractured from three extinct volcanoes and a diffusion of volcanic substances, which have been suited to carving the enormous statues. the main quarry is a volcanic crater known as “Rano Raraku” an archaeologists estimate that 95% of the statues came from here. The vast majority of the “Moai” were carved from a material called “Tuff” a type of rock, made from compressed volcanic ash. This type of rock is soft and easy to carve, but it is less durable than other kinds of stone, making the “Moai” vulnerable to erosion by wind and water.
Hundreds of partially finished statues surround the “Rano Raraku” quarry in various stages of completion, some appear to have been abandoned when Carvers reached chunks of harder rock that they could not carve through, while others were unfinished when the people of Easter Island decided to stop all statues building. One statue at the quarry would have been the largest ever made if it had been finished and would have been 71 feet or more than 21 meters high and weigh more than 270 tons.
Some experts believe the people of Easter Island transported the massive “Moai” by rolling them on tree trunks, but other dispute this notion and there are other theories that suggest otherwise.
You may have noticed that there are not many trees on the Island, it was claimed that the people who lived here chopped down so many trees that one day they ran out and there were no more trees at all.
Today, much of The island’s natural and historical sites are protected and collectively referred to as Rapa Nui National Park, which is also a UNESCO world heritage site, this means that the parks which contain many of the “Moai” as well as the “Rano “Raraku” quarry and other sites are considered so interesting and precious, that they ought to be protected and preserved for people of the whole world to learn about and enjoy them.
You can think of it as a big archaeological site with Moai and prehistoric rock carvings with other ruins scattered around the island.
Another thing most people are interested in is how to get to this destination. Flights to Easter Island were not direct as one can imagine for such a destination – The best way for us was to travel to Easter Island from UK London via Madrid, Lima & Chile Santiago. We also managed to fit in Cusco The concern we had with this particular trip was the few stopovers and not to loose our luggage. Thankfully we didn’t.
We landed in the morning on Easter Island town of Hanga Roa (the only town on the island). We were picked up at the airport by a waiting member of our hotel staff and chauffeur driven to the hotel. They welcomed us with a Hawaiian style flower necklace and a welcome cocktail on arrival @ Hotel Hanga Roa Eco & Spa Village (https://www.hangaroa.cl/en/) to be our residence for the next 5 days on the island. Fantastic hotel, one of the best on Island in our opinion, close to the centre of the city (Hanga Roa) but also close to the sea.
We were shown our room after the small formalities of checking in at the main desk.
And greeted with spacious room with the designed style of both rooms and hotels frankly original.
The hotel boasts all sort of facilities: gym, massage, swimming pool, relaxing lounge and of course different restaurants for breakfast and dinner.
Majority of the island is mostly uninhabited by people, however Hanga Roa is where majority of the population have made home.
The town also has various small shopping markets for food and various other necessities.
This is something you might want to consider, we bought our ticket entry to the national parks from the hotel but if you are going to a different hotel or camping and you are unsure that you can’t get the entry from your hotel, you can buy this at the airport too.
On this occasion we decided to do away with the traditional holiday excursions and opted for the self-guided tour so that we have the luxury of time and freedom for sightseeing and experience the island in full. So we opted to rent a car for the 4 days (from day 2 to day 5). That was the best decision we made! Which meant we could explore the island at our own pace. The car rental service is also offered by the hotel which was highly convenient! But you can also get this in Town. Don’t forget to take you driving license with you.
We had a half a day, so after checking in and renting a car for the next day we set off on foot to explore the nearby and the town on the island.
I don’t know about you, but for me the thoughts of exploring a completely new destination always invokes excitement especially when you are on an island like this that is far away from everything else, the excitement and adrenaline takes it to a whole new level! Even after a 5 hour flight journey from Santiago we couldn’t wait to get going, any other time we would prefer to just want to relax by the poolside, not this time!
We made our way on foot out of the hotel compound on to the main road, walking along the coast line with clear blue sky and see wave after wave crashing against the coastline rocks. We soon came across our first random giant Moai statue in what looked like a small local residential village, opportunity for the first Moai photo! We later learnt this Moai was not part of the main Island attractions. Our mini India Jones adventure also include the discovery of a diving clubs and giant sea turtles.
It was exciting seeing what the most populated and lively part of the island had to offer.
This is something you can easily do on foot as Hanga Roa is relatively small. We quickly discovered restaurants, souvenir shops and cocktails bars. There are also lots of tour agencies and car rental services and ATMs to withdraw money from.
There are also more restaurants closer to the sea, other hotels as well and some isolated Moais statue attractions.
After a full breakfast, armed with a map and a phone app, we jumped into the newly rented 4×4 car and started our exploration of the island properly.
This was an extremely enjoyable coastal drive, particularly the drive between VINAPU, AHU AKAHANGA AND RANO RARAKU.
The coastal view was so spectacular, we were always stopping the car to get out and walk closer to the cliff’s edge as we drove. It’s an incredible experience watching the powerful waves violently crashing into the shore.
How do we know where we were going without getting lost? Well, there is only one major ring road encircling the entire Island, so it is highly unlikely you get lost!
As the Island is not overly populated and possibly due to the location which is not full of tourists, it renders that air of tranquillity as though you have the entire island to yourself. The best thing about having five days on the island was that we could take our time and truly savour each site we visited.
Our first stop was Vinapu. We underestimated Vinapu before we got to the island as we were looking for the famous line of 7 Moais but Vinapu is an amazing construction. You will also find traces of the Inca sites of Peru. The stones irregularly shaped form a wall fitted with small stones – a highly skilled technique which can also be found near Lake Titicaca. Some stories say that Vinapu was actually built by the Inca Tupac Yupanqui during his exploration in the Pacific Ocean – See the pictures and judge for yourself.
Next stop was Ahu Akahanga – A quick visit here in what used to be a small village formed by houses, a small square and stone ovens. There was also a cave that served as a shelter for fishermen. The Moais you can see here, 13 in total, are all lying on the grass. These magnificent statues that once protected the island against pirates and other assailants are resting now, as if their mission had been accomplished – what mission? you may be asking – well, locals told us that back in time, whenever someone was approaching the island, they would see these giant heads through their telescope and run away thinking that the island was protected by giants!
Finally one of the BIG ones, we visited Rano Raraku. This place could have a post of it own. We spent around three hours here as you can only visit this site once.
On approach, the slope of the mountain is impressive. Dozens of giants heads spread across the hillside.
There are two thing you will visit here: the“Moais Quarry” and the Rano Raraku crater.
This place certainly gives you some clues on how the ancient moais where made, you could see some still not completely cut away from the bedrock.
It’s incredible and surreal to be surrounded and in presence of this statue stone head, so much so that we did a few laps around the site. The thinking is that this place is so far away from everything that we might never get here again better make most of it.
As touched on earlier, the Moais Quarry was apparently chosen for the material found at this location, the so called “tuff” (“tufa”) o “lapilli” which is volcanic ash. This stone is quite soft, that’s why ancient sculptures used it to sculpt the statues. Once the Moans were sculpted, they were transported to different platforms across the island. In fact, there are several holes which leads the locals to believe that some Moais were kept there until transported to the different platforms.
It is believed that the Moais were built to honour their ancestors’ memories. It doesn’t seem to be any order in the way that the Moais are spread. 40% of the total statues are in Raro Raraku. Not all of them have been finished, the ones lying on the top side of the slope are in “production” phase, these are the unfinished Moais that remained there.
The finished ones were taken through the mountainside – nobody really knows how – but researchers in hawaii were doing experimenting with ropes on each sides “as if” the Moais were walking. This would be consistent with the locals believe that the Moais “walked” to their platforms.
The crater contains a lake inside due to the frequent rain in the island. By the northern side, the shape of the crater ends in a steep cliff. Inside the crater and across the slope one can also see dozens of Moais on the slope of the mountain – however, you will have to see them from far because visitors are not allowed to enter that side of the crater. Imagine that centuries ago during drought times, that crater must have been a convenient water reserve.
It was so impressive that we struggled to leave and by the time we did, it was late enough to go back to the hotel for the daily cocktail!
When we were in Rano Raraku, we saw the 15 Moais of Tonariki from far. It was exciting to finally see with your own eyes what you had seen so many times in pictures so you can imagine how incredible it was when we actually went there!
It is believed that the biggest Moai of the island is located here due to the close distance from Rano Raraku. Initially, all the Moais had the pulao (hat). Today only one keeps it.
It is also believed that this is one of the main socio-political centres of the tribes of the eastern side of the island. The Moais fell off the the platform and were partially destroyed after the 1960 tsunami. Now, thanks to restoration, you and me can enjoy this magnificent line of guardians as it used to look in ancient times.
We spent quite a lot of time in Tonariki, enjoying every moment, taking pictures from every angle, trying to capture the beauty of this impressive structure.
The next logical stop was a relaxing time at the Anakena beach. There were a few people but wasn’t completely empty. The beach is the perfect spot to relax, enjoy a beach day, drink a smoothie or a cocktail under the vigilant eyes of the guardians of the Island!
Anakena is truly a dream beach. It is warm enough to go there at any time of the year.
It is believed that the first kings of the island landed on this beach and one can imagine why he fell in love with this place! Overtime this beach became the meeting point for masters (what we would refer to today as “intellectuals”) of the island.
There are lots of activities you can enjoy on the beach if listening to the sounds of the waves is not enough. Practise diving, kayaking or even fishing are some of the activities happening. There are cosy beach bars around the island but you can also plan your own meal and picnic. The choice is yours!
Time to explore the western side of the island and the caves.
Our first stop was Tahai. Some say that it used to be a village, others say that it used to be a ceremonial complex. Today, it has become a very popular place for pictures at sunset but as you can see from the pictures, the photographs are incredible at any time of the day. Needless to say that the actual place is far more impressive.
We then moved to Hanga Kio’e which means “Bay of the Mouse” – where does the expression come from? there is an ancient saying about a widow who mourned the death of her husband entering this cove with a mouse in her mouth. It may have been a village or the place where the kings used to live, the story is not clear, but like many of these sites, it is agreed that this was a ceremonial place.
For us, the most exciting thing about the island were the Moais, but could be wrong. We headed to Ana Kakenga. A 50 meter volcanic tube to which we couldn’t find the entry – the legend says that this cave was a shelter for a couple who hid here due to forbidden love. Nobody knows what happened afterwards, did they starve to death? did they jump into the sea? the bodies were never found…
Even the last day in the island was absolutely incredible!
It is difficult to describe Ana Te Pahu: It is a secret garden, a mysterious cave, a beautiful lava tube. The largest cavern of the island is formed by several interconnected chambers.
Also called the “cave of the drum” as the sound of a drum will resonate if you jump inside the cave.
Another name Ana Te Pahu is known by is “Cave of bananas” – seeing the banana trees outside the cave one understands why.
Don’t forget a lantern when you enter the cave. We used the flash on our mobiles, a feature available on most of the modern mobile phones.
If you are not claustrophobic and can handle darkness, go all the way to the end of the cave where you will see a skylight leading to the surface.
Our next stop was Ahu Akivi – it was so quiet and peaceful. The statues are facing the village symbolising protection of the small town.
Our adventure in the island finished in Orongo – When you get to the actual entry, you will be told that you can visit the park in approximately one hour. Just bear in mind that you can only visit this park once (as in Rano Raraku) so, plan your time accordingly as you will need to buy another ticket if you decide to go back.
Something that you will not find in Orongo (possibly the only place on the island where you won’t see them) is Moais – yes, you will not see Moais in Orongo. And why are there no giant guardians of the island in one of the most important gathering places? Possibly because from the 16th century the locals stopped worshiping the Moais and started focusing their cult like attention on another god, being Orongo the heart of this religious and political movement.
The circular constructions used to be temporary shelters for the locals during the Man-Bird festivities. These festivities came about sometime during the 17th-18th centuries. It was established that the best way to achieve power was through a competition. Initially, the competition took place as a way of celebration. But later, the festivities acquired a political tint, an excuse to justify power, i.e., the leaders were chosen at the annual ritual to find the sacred egg. The winner was proclaimed Man-Bird (Tangata Manu), meaning he would become Make-make an earth representative for one year. In their mythology the deity Make-make was the chief god of the birdman cult.
The view of the islet (Motus) is incredible. This spot is particularly relevant because here was where the most important part of the competition used to take place: finding the holy egg.
Rano Kau is an extinct volcano with a crater lake at the moment – this is one of the fresh water reserves on the island. The colours of the Rano Kau volcano are impressive. You can appreciate them before you get to Orongo and once there.
Back to the Hanga Roa to relax before our trip back to Santiago (link to santiago’s link) and a delicious lunch at Kanahau Restaurant – portions are generous, so think twice before you order ;).
You may be thinking that the Easter Island is far far away destination – is it worth it going there? Absolutely!
You can reach the island from two locations, both from Santiago Chile with daily flights and Tahiti with the weekly flights on offer. Five hours plus respectively from both locations. So it depends on which location you are coming from. LATAM is the only airline servicing Easter island and only one airport on the island.
one question we get asked is “Are there hotels on Easter island?” The answer is yes, it is just that in my opinion it’s not a holiday destination that is well publicised or maybe because it far away from everything else. Due to several enquiries about where we stayed and where are the best hotels on the island we’ve decided to create a separate review post for you to have a better idea of what you can expect coming soon so watch this space. But you can’t go wrong with Hotel Hanga Roa Eco & Spa Village (where we staid).
You can enjoy the restaurants, souvenir shops and cocktails bars. There are also lots of tour agencies and car rental services as well as two banks where you can withdraw money from.
Rapa Nui – we will be back one day. Till then, may the guardians of the island keep protecting you!
Thanks For Reading.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post, and it gave you a solid plan and ideas for your next trip.
Don’t forget to drop a comment with your own travel experience or any take away.