Shimmering, luminous days on an island thousands of miles from anywhere…
Unspoiled natural beauty in a tropical island setting – without the bright lights and frenetic pace of a typical resort…
Mysterious statues that walked to their resting places and a more mysterious culture that erected them…
These are just a few of the attractions of the beautiful, mysterious island of Rapa Nui, better known to most of us as Easter Island. Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Rapa Nui is over 3,000 km from the central coast of Chile and 1900 km from the closest inhabited island, making it one of the world's most remote places. The small island – only about 46 square miles in area – is nearly a perfect triangle whose longest side is 24 km and is only 12 km wide at its widest. Yet within that tiny space exists the luminous beauty of a natural sanctuary and one of the best-known mysteries of the ancient world – the mysterious Moai – the statues of Easter Island.
Made famous by Thor Heyerdahl's books Kon Tiki and Aku-Aku, there are 887 known moai on the island. The enormous stone statues are carved of tuff, an easily compressed volcanic ash. They weigh as much as 75 tonnes, and among the enduring mysteries of Easter Island is the question of who carved them and how they got from their birthplace at the center of the island to the coasts of the island where they were meant to stand guard.
In the 1950s, Thor Heyerdahl and his crew of explorers slept in tents on Rapa Nui's beach. Today, visitors stay in any one of over a dozen hotels and can join guided tours of the island or explore it independently. Even though there are many commercial flights to the island, and tourism is an important industry, it has remained unspoiled and beautiful.
The Moai and their attendant mysteries have overshadowed many of the other attractions of the island. Most people who come to Rapa Nui are drawn by the mysterious stones and the myths surrounding them. Once they arrive, however, they find that there are many other things to see and do, though many are interconnected in some way to the Moai.
The Caves of Rapa NuiRapa Nui, built on a volcanic island, is naturally riddled with lava tube caves used throughout history for different purposes. The most famous of these is Ana Kai Tangata, just west of Hanga Roa, where you can still see the remains of ancient paintings on the ceiling. The remaining paintings seem to be part of an elaborate frieze. On the floor nearby is another painting, more modern and less faded. Other caves include Ana Te Pahu, the Cave of Rooms, the largest of the caves that is really a connected series of smaller "rooms". Legend has it that islanders used to hide in Ana Te Pahu from slavers.
Hanga RoaThe only city on Rapa Nui, Hanga Roa, is both port and airport and the center of population, with most of the island's 3,000 people living here. About a dozen hotels and bed and breakfasts, a handful of restaurants, a grocery store, and many small shops, including Internet cafes.
Tahai Architectural ComplexThe Tahai Architectural Complex is among the best-restored sites on the island. Its attractions include three ahu stone altars/pedestals that served as pedestals for the Moai.
Museo Antropológico Sebastián EnglertThe Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum is located just west of Hanga Roa. Named for a priest who spent most of his life on Rapa Nui, the museum features a rotating display of maps, artifacts, and information about the Moai and Easter Island.
Mercado Artesanal (Artisan's Market)Located near the church on Tu'u Koihu street is the Artisan's Market. While there are many small tourist shops in Hanga Roa that sell souvenirs, t-shirts, and the like, the Mercado houses many of the native artists and artisans selling their sculptures and other handicrafts. Most sell items created specifically for the tourist trade, and the prices vary from merchant to merchant and with the complexity and artistry of the piece. Unlike the souvenirs found in hotel gift shops, however, you may be able to bargain down a price at the Mercado.
Anakena BeachOne of two sandy beaches on Rapa Nui, Anakena Beach is a Polynesian paradise, complete with palm trees, golden sand, and sparkling water. It is also the only place approved for camping on the island. The amenities at Anakena Beach include changing rooms, picnic facilities, and bathrooms. Nearby is a smaller beach, Ovahe, which offers both delightful swimming and excellent snorkeling. There are also three ahu at Anakena Beach, withstanding Moai in varying states of repair.
Rano KauOne of three extinct volcanoes on the island, Rano Kau is a spectacular sight. The mile-wide crater is packed with over 100 small lakes, and the spectacular view is worth the trek to the lip of the volcano's bowl.
Rano RarakuThe volcanic bowl of Ranu Raraku is the birthplace of the Moai. There are 394 Moai at Rano Raraku, many of them still half-carved and attached to the rock that birthed them. To reach those statues, though, you'll have to hike up the trail along the outside wall of the volcano bowl, and inside the bowl, the paths may be overgrown and difficult to navigate.
This is only a small sampling of the sites and activities that seduce travelers to Easter Island. According to the guidebook published by the Easter Island Foundation, there are over 15,000 archaeological sites, nearly 1,000 statues, thousands of petroglyphs, beautiful beaches with outstanding snorkeling, excellent swimming, and good surfing, caves to explore, horseback riding, over 100 hotels, and pensiones and four discos where the party animals among visitors can dance until the sun rises. The typical three-day tour offered by the travel agencies warns the guide, is never enough to see all that you'll want to see.