It had always been on my bucket list to one day spend the holidays on Easter Island. In my dreams I envisioned myself standing between the enormous Moai on a tropical island with fantastic views and friendly locals. When I finally had the chance to visit in 2001, it turned out that all of it was true! The magic of Easter Island really does exist.
From the Archives
I spent my holidays on Easter Island many years ago, so a lot of descriptions and references are probably no longer accurate if you would visit the island today. However, I had such great memories and think the stories I can tell are still interesting. So I figured I would tell you anyway. If you happen to plan a visit, please let me know if you also found the magic.
The road to Easter Island
Not literally, of course, no road leads to Easter Island. On the contrary, you will have to do a lot of flying to get there. It is one of the most remote places on earth, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between New Zealand and South America.
I was in New Zealand at a time in the distant past (let's say somewhere in the early 2000's), and suddenly it dawned on me that I would never be closer to Easter Island than at that moment. So I started looking at flights and found out there were only two flights a week to Easter Island: one leaving from Papeete, French Polynesia, and one from Santiago, Chile. Most people only stay for a few days, see the statues, and hop on the next flight out. I had plenty of time so decided I would stay for 2 weeks, which would give me plenty of time to find the magic of Easter Island.
Easter Island is a small island, the runway of Mataveri airport nearly cuts the island in half. The bottom part of the runway projects into the ocean, so the landing has to be perfect. Well, our landing wasn't, so the pilot could not set her down as intended. He had to pull up again and make a new approach. And in the process, circle the entire island at a low altitude so I saw the entire island and its volcanoes from the sky. The start of this adventure could not have been better.
Tourist accommodation was a bit scarce at that time. Spending your holidays on Easter Island was not a big thing then. I had prepared a little by reading the Lonely Planet and had jotted down some places I wanted to stay at. When I got off the plane, the arrivals hall was filled with locals holding up cardboard signs with names of hotels and hostels. The ones I was looking for were not advertised anywhere. I was approached by a lady who spoke some English and motioned me to stay at her 'hostel'. That hostel turned out to be a private family.
I don't know if they were aware that I was coming, but the 8-year-old son was hastily removed from his room and had to share with his teenage sister. The airport lady left me on my own with the family. Only the teenage girl spoke some English. Father, mother and son did not at all. I did not speak any Spanish or Rapanui (the local language on Easter Island). Despite the language barrier, they were really welcoming and friendly and immediately started giving me food.
I had no idea what kind of deal was made with these friendly people, but apparently, my lodging also included all meals. I was kindly invited to all meals that were prepared in the house. The food was good, lots of fish of course. I was not vegan at that time. Otherwise, I would have had some serious issues finding food on the island. Traveling as a vegan to this island would have been hard, with hardly any fresh crops being grown.
The main settlement on the island is Hanga Roa. With 2000 inhabitants it is home to nearly all of Easter Island's people. It's is mostly flat and easy to walk around. My guesthouse was about a 10 min. walk from the harbor. This is also the only place on the island to dock a boat. The rest of the coastline is rocky with steep cliffs. Because it is part of Chile, most of Easter Island's provisions come from Chile's mainland, either by plane or boat.
At the time of my visit, Hanga Roa was a very sleepy town. Apart from 2 airplanes arriving every week, nothing much happened here. Back then, there was a school, a few little shops (for my necessary intake of chips and cookies) and even a football pitch.
A tiny speck of Rapanui history
Easter Island received its 'white-man' name from the first known European visitor: the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. He arrived on Easter day in 1722 and therefore named the island Paaseiland (Easter Island) (I know, surprisingly original..) To the locals, the island is known as Rapanui (Fun fact: Kevin Costner made a movie about Rapanui's first people by the same title: Rapanui. An interesting watch). Most locals speak Spanish as the main language, and Rapanui, a Polynesian language.
The day I arrived happened to be a local holiday, they called it 'Rapanui Day'. Lots of children were dancing and singing while in traditional dress. I hope they did not do all this especially for the tourists, but I don't believe so.
It turns out there was another member of 'my' family, a 3-year-old girl. Not a little sister to the other two, but a daughter of the teenage girl. The father of the girl was nowhere in sight and the girl was mostly raised by her grandmother. The teenage girl planned to go to Santiago to study the following year. That would take her away from her daughter for at least 4 years. Santiago is a 4-hour flight and very expensive. The prospects for teenagers on the island are not great if they don't want to work in the tourist industry. At that time, there was no higher education on the island.
The father of the house was a taxi driver. On an island with a population of little more than 2000 people and not many places to go, there is hardly any demand for taxis. So he spent most of his days lying on the couch. The mother did what most mothers were expected to do: take care of the household and prepare the food.
The single most important feature that draws people to the island is of course the Moai, the impressive stone statues that are cast out of volcanic rock. Some mysteries regarding these giants have still not been solved, but they are said to represent ancient ancestors. The Moai can be found all around the island (mostly on the coastline, looking inland), but they originate from the same place: the Ranu Raraku volcano on the eastern part of the island.
There is not much evidence for it, but it is assumed they were moved by the use of trees. Easter Island is currently almost devoid of trees, but there is evidence that it was once fully forested.
The first Maoi I saw was Ahu Ko Te Riku, near the harbor of Hanga Roa. This is also the only Maoi on the island that has white eyes made of coral. These eyes were added more recently to show a representation of what they most likely must have looked like in the early days. By the end of the two weeks, I had seen almost all 887 Moai on the island.
Getting around Easter Island
Seeing the sights of Hango Roa can easily be done on foot or by bicycle. To reach the other interesting tourist sites on the island, however, you need something a little faster. You can use a horse, but that was not really my cup of tea (even before I was vegan). You could always get a taxi, of course, and help 'my' dad off the couch. 😉 Instead, I chose to rent a quad bike. The entire island is 32 km long (29 mi) so that can easily be covered on a quad. Besides, quads are a lot of fun.
On top of the world
On flight arrival days a lot of tourists arrived at once and, consequently, visited the sites all at once. A few days later, however, they would all be gone and I had the island all to myself again. That is when I started exploring. On one of those days, I rode to the top of the highest hill on my quad bike. The view was absolutely stunning. I could see 360 degrees around me without any obstructions. I could see the horizon in all directions and the curvature of the earth. That was a really spectacular moment. The nearest inhabited part of the world (Pitcairn Island) was 2,075 km (1,289 mi) away. Chile and French Polynesia 4 hours flying in opposite direction. I felt at the same time incredibly tiny and on top of the world.
The most magical place on Easter Island has to be the Ranu Raraku volcano. This is where almost all of 1000 Moai that once existed were hewn out of the volcanic rock. One day, 'father' gave me the keys to his taxi to drive around the island. My main stop was Ranu Raraku, where I walked around for hours. Many Moai 'in progress' are still there on the slopes of the volcano. They are just standing there, waiting to be transported to their place on the island. Some were deemed unfit and were just left unfinished. There are so many statues left out there, it's incredible. On the way back home at stopped at Ahu Tongariki, 15 majestic Maoi in a row.
Beach life on Easter Island
Although the entire coast of Easter Island consists of volcanic rock, there is a tiny beach, Anakena Beach. The teenage daughter and her friend took me there one day. You virtually have to cross the entire island to get there from Hanga Roa. It was a lovely sandy beach. Back then, not spoiled by commerce or tourism. A beautiful secluded bay, surrounded by palm trees. The setting could not have been more special.
On Sundays, my family would take to the coast and I was asked to go with them. They would spend the entire day there, together with other families, just enjoying a day out. No picturesque beaches on this side of the island, just sharp jagged volcanic rock. And plastic chairs. Father would spend a few hours catching fish, so we would have something to eat for lunch. A relaxing day to wind down from the busy city life. 😉
More island activities
The islanders were not that fascinated by the Moai anymore, so they choose some other activities to keep them occupied. On one evening we watched a football match at the pitch in the harbor. What I understood was that it was the cup final. I don't know how many teams they had on Easter Island, but apparently more than one. I had a great time watching the match.
A more traditional form of activity is outrigger canoeing. The teenage daughter was a member of the outrigger club. An outrigger canoe is basically a wooden canoe with a support on one side, making it harder to flip over on rough ocean waters.
Time to say goodbye
I had a great time on Easter Island and was sad to say goodbye to my lovely family. I hope to be able to return one day and see if the magic is still there.