The magnificent Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island

Easter Island

Summer 2005

It's quiet here on Easter Island in the off season. The whisper of wind across the hills and hiss of surf against the rocks are often the only sounds. Even the rain, when it appears, is a gentle mist that comes and goes almost without a sound. So, when you come upon the statues -- the Moai for which Easter Island is famous -- there is no fanfare, no chatter of crowds, no hawkers pushing T-shirts. Only a sudden awareness of their presence looming solid and unmistakable: A visual shout that startles in this quiet, barren landscape.

Easter Island wasn't always quiet like this. Centuries ago, it was an overpopulated island whose inhabitant's needs denuded the once-forested island, impoverished its soils and sparked raging civil war. The statues themselves are thought to have played a heavy hand in Easter Island's ecological catastrophe. Quarried from stone in one volcanic crater in the southeast, they were likely moved on log rollers to their sacred locations throughout the 64 square mile island. The moai's thirst for wood to ease their passage is thought to have turned the island into a nearly treeless landscape.

Ahu Tahai - the closest site to the main village of Hanga Roa, Easter IslandThe hardships suffered by the Polynesian inhabitants -- the Rapa Nui, as they call themselves -- is our gain, now. More than 300 moai are scattered across Easter Island in every state from perfectly restored and re-erected on their Ahus (sacred platforms), to lying toppled and broken into pieces, barely discernible on the rocky ground. To see them, choose the method that strikes your comfort or adventure level best -- on a guided tour in a vehicle, by renting your own jeep, motorbike, ATV, bicycle, or even on horseback. To see the island's gorgeous landscape best, though, you can simply hike from site to site, enjoying the conical green hills, deep blue seascapes and pleasant South Pacific weather along the way.

I arrived on Easter Island at the end of August, on a flight from Santiago, Chile (which owns the island). The five hours by air makes you appreciate the amazing ability of the Ancient Polynesians as mariners. The world's most remote inhabited island, it is more than 2000 miles from South America, and 1,400 miles from its closest inhabited neighbor -- tiny Pitcairn Island (which was uninhabited when the Rapa Nui arrived). When you get here, you are truly out in the middle of nowhere!

The face of a fallen moaiMyself, and two other travelers I met at my hotel -- Bo, and airline worker from San Diego, and Taka, a Honda employee from Tokyo -- pooled our resources to rent a jeep for two days. We bargained them down to $35 a day, though most were asking $40-50. And as a gentle rain greeted us on our first day of sightseeing, I was glad we did. Hiking that day would have been a wet slog. Elected driver, I also quickly learned why a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended. The rutted dirt or mud roads make driving a challenge, at times.

Taka, Bo and I began our exploration at Ahu Tahai, the closest major site to the island's main village of Hanga Roa. Tahai is actually three separate ahus. Two have one moai each standing, and a third has five statues. As we parked, Taka and Bo let out whoops of joy. There they were -- our first moai -- looming through a fine mist of rain, with their backs to the sea. I breathed a silent "Wow." We had the bonus of of having the site to ourselves, which would happen over and over during the next four days. The tallest moai at the Tahai complex, Kote Riku, is quite striking as it is the only one on the island with its coral eyes still intact. We lingered for quite awhile at Tahai despite the light rain, not wanting our first contact with Easter Island's wonders to end.

Finally, we drove north along the coast, stopping at several other sites. At Ahu Te Peu, the moai are tumbled down from their platform, and only one of the heads is easily visible. It lies among the rocks, its red stone top piece broken into shards beside it. Amidst the rubble, I found a weathered, round piece of white coral, likely the moai's long-lost eye. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, I plucked it from the grass and placed it back in the empty eye socket. The moai seemed to wink its thanks.

Seven moai stare skyward at Ahu Akivi, Easter IslandNext, we visited Ahu Akivi, where seven moai stand in a valley. Most sites on Easter Island are along the coast, but this is one of the few inland ones. The statues' thin angular faces give them an alien quality -- doubtless what has fueled UFO fanatics to seize upon them as evidence of visitors from space. Historians are fairly certain, though, that they were constructed as a spiritual offering/commemoration of religious or clan leaders.

From Akivi, we bucked along the stony mud road to the small volcanic cone of Puna Pau, whose red stone was used to carve the top pieces of the moai. Some assert the two-level, cylindrical forms represent ceremonial headdresses, while others say they are stylized representations of hair "top knots." The view from atop the hill was fine, though most come to see the two dozen finished but unused pukao, as the top pieces were called, strewn along the slopes or in the ancient volcano's crater.

Marshy lake in the middle of the crater of the volcano of Ranu KauAfter lunch, we drove just south of Hanga Roa to the massive volcanic crater of Ranu Kau. The wind screamed at us as we parked and walked to the edge of the rim. Inside, was another world. A small lake filled the crater, its blue water speckled with patches of green grass, reeds and peat bog. Descending the path towards it, the wind died slowly, and crickets could be heard chirping in the marsh. It was like a little bit of Louisiana plopped down inside a South Pacific volcano.

The main draw of Ranu Kau, though, is not the spectacular scenery, but the fairly intact ruins of the ceremonial village of Orongo on its slopes. This was the center of the Birdman ritual of the Rapa Nui. Each year, the island's clans sent a champion to compete in the Birdman race. The contestants would clamber down the treacherous slopes of the volcano's rim to the sea, then swim to the tiny islets of Motu Iti and Moto Nui, just under a mile offshore. Once ashore, they would search for the egg of the migratory seabird, the Sooty Tern. The first to find an egg and race back to Orongo (handing it to their clan chief) would be Birdman for the year. As the center of the ritual, many of the stones of Orongo are carved with petroglyphs. Most are pictures of a humanoid shape with a bird head. It took us awhile, but Bo finally spotted one and pointed it out. Once we knew what we were looking for, we suddenly could see them everywhere in Orongo. Some stones were bedecked with multiple petroglyphs.

The tiny islets of Moto Iti, Motu Nui and the spike of Moto Kau KauWe closed the day with a return to Tahai to watch the sunset. One of the few intact moai on the west coast, and close to Hanga Roa, it is a popular place for travelers to congregate and shoot for that special Easter Island sunset photo.

I was hoping for sunshine our second day, as we'd be driving along the island's southern coast, which has the highest concentration of sites. At Ahu Vinapu, we saw the tightly fitting stones of the platform whose uncanny similarity to Incan architecture has spurred academic debate. The moai themselves lie face down behind the platform. It is thought this (seen at most ahu across the island) is a result of clan warfare -- the ultimate humiliation of a rival clan's venerated leaders. Sometimes rocks were strategically placed so that the tumbling moai would be decapitated as it fell.

As we drove along the much nicer southern road (in sunshine!), we also stopped to photograph the excellent coastal scenery. Booming waves plowed into the jagged black rocks of the undulating shoreline, eliciting "oohs" and "ahhs." Nearly all the moai we passed were face down. Historians think most of the destruction occurred during a forty year span in the late 1600s or early 1700s, when the island's resources were dwindling. We saw more travelers that day, of course, as the south coast contains the top two sights on the island.

Ranu Raraku, the quarry of the moai, is one of the Easter Island's highlightsOne of those is Ranu Raraku -- "the quarry of the Moai." Nothing on Easter Island caused me to pause longer, trying to drink in as much of the sight as possible, nor tugged at my soul harder, than this massive volcanic cone. It was here that Rapa Nui craftsmen carved the moai out of the rock rim of the crater. Two sections stand exposed by the carvers. As you stare at what looks at first like jumbled rock face, the outlines of moai under construction take shape before your eyes. Here you may discern a nose and eye sockets, there the smooth rectangular length of a body. As interesting as this is, though, it pales before the collection of the completed but undelivered moai that cluster on Ranu Raraku's slopes. Historians think that as the carvings were completed, they were placed in shallow pits. These have since filled up, leaving only the heads poking through the grass, tilted this way and that by the pressure of soil and settling. What the visitor sees is a field of dozens of moai heads, looking up, down and virtually every direction. The effect is truly otherworldly. It is as if a community of semi-human giants were frozen in stone while stopping to ponder some wonder in the skies above. Over time, all except the heads were slowly buried by earth and dust. Some of the faces still gaze inscrutably skywards, while others bow in mute acceptance of their fate.

The fate of the 15 moai that stand with their backs to the sea at Ahu Tongariki was much kinder. Restored in the 1990s (after a tidal wave 30 years earlier scattered them), they are the greatest collection of moai re-erected on a platform. Where Ranu Raraku mystifies visitors, Ahu Tongariki impresses them. The effect of the 15 statues in a row is majestic, evoking images of Ancient Egyptian temples. The gorgeous deep blue bay at Tongariki -- with its nearby cliffs and towering stone stack not far offshore -- would be much-photographed anywhere else on the island. Here, it is hard to tear your eyes off of the line of moai. Awed, the three of us vowed to get up early the next morning and drive here to watch the sunrise in Tongariki's splendor.

Anakena Beach, lovely, but with chilly waters!From there, the excellent southern road quickly gave out and as we looped northwards. We were back to bucking along rutted, rocky dirt roads. We stopped at one or two sights before finishing at Anakena Beach, where the Rapa Nui first came ashore around 800 A.D. The palm-fringed beach is pretty, but the water is quite chilly due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold waters up from the south pole. At the edge of the beach is Ahu Nau Nau, excellently preserved due to be buried in sand till restored in 1978. You can see the finely carved lines detailing clothing, jewelry, lips, etc. Overlooking it from a slight hillock is the first ever moai to be erected, Ahu Ature Huki, which was done by Norwegian anthropologist of "Kon-Tiki" fame, Thor Heyerdahl. The drive back to Hanga Roa on the wonderful, paved interior road zipped by, and we returned in plenty of time to close the day with another shot at sunset pictures at Ahu Tahai.

We did make it to Tongariki for sunrise, but to tell you the truth, that about sated me for sunsets and sunrises for the trip. Afterwards, we turned in our rental jeep and bade goodbye to Bo, who was returning to San Diego that day. After a short nap, I decided since it was a lovely, sunny day, hiking was in order. I found a coastal path north of the village that begins at the museum and runs south to the volcano's rim at Orongo. I wasn't sure how much I'd do that day, but set off with my map and a compliment of water and "energy bars."

Looking to Hanga Roa, Easter Island, from across the rocky bayAlong the way, I visited several moai, the colorful, local cemetery and the picturesque, rocky harbor from where the local fishing boats and scuba diving boats launch. Trekking south, I found Ana Kai Tangata, a cave whose ceiling is still covered with Rapa Nui paintings. Next to it was gorgeous Baquedano Point, whose long, black, rocky arm churned the sea. At that moment, the sun blazed out from behind a cloud, turning the sea into a stunning turquoise blue. I sat down on the rocks and watched for awhile, duly remembering not to forget to seek out nature's beauty while pursuing man-made wonders.

When I reached the foot of Ranu Kau, I checked my watch. Since it was still early in the afternoon, decided to climb the volcano to Orongo, again. The footpath to the top took less than an hour, and was much easier hiking than walking along the road would have been. I photographed the crater, the lake, Orongo, and the Bird Man islets again, happy to have sunshine this time. At the rim, I'd encountered another hiker -- Bif, from Dallas -- and showed him the petroglyphs and explained the Birdman story. We had a pleasant hike back down, although I was fairly footsore by the time I reached the hotel. I skipped out on the Tahai sunset trip that evening to rest up for the big hike I was to take the next day.

After breakfast that morning, Taka and I took a taxi to Anakena Beach. From there, we set out for a daylong hike across the roadless northern coast of the island. The footpath along its length ends at Ahu Te Peu (where I'd replaced the coral eye of the fallen moai). From there, I told Taka the day before, we'd see how we felt, and maybe squeeze in a hike to see inland Ahu Akivi, again. That day, the weather was simply the best during out entire stay. We passed scattered fallen moai, the Easter Island's gorgeous seascapesfoundations of the early "boat-shaped houses" of the Rapa Nui, and even petroglyphs carved on the rocks. Out to sea, nature seemed to compete against the man-made sights, crying "Look at me!" with numerous panoramas of coves, bays and points. The clear blue sea dashed itself against the rocky coastline in an endless stream of encore performances. The animal kingdom, too, seemed to put on a show for us, with hawks, horses with baby foals, the free-ranging cows (and calves) of an isolated farm, and countless tiny lizards scurrying for cover at our approach.

As the coastline eventually began to turn south, we crested a hill and caught sight of Hanga Roa in the distance. Both of us felt game for an extension of the hike to Ahu Akivi, and after a bit of trouble finding the road, we made it. It was a perfect end to a gorgeous day of hiking, contemplating the seven huge moai on their platform. Once again, I was happy for a chance to photograph Akivi in the sunshine this time, instead of the rain of our first day. As we turned to go, I bid silent goodbye to the moai, knowing not whether my travels would take me here, again. Taka was beginning to tire as we trudged south towards the main road. Once on it, I flagged down a passing pickup truck. It proved to be a Rapa Nui family who invited us to clamber into the back and we breezed the last four miles into Hanga Roa, enjoying the wind in our face and the relief to our feet.

To celebrate an amazing four days of sightseeing on Easter Island, we joined Andes, a Chilean electrical engineer and his two friends, flight attendants on Lan Chile Airlines, for drinks at a local pub. We laughed and took turns ribbing each other. I gave Taka grief for his love of American pop music (Brittany Spears...?!), and then Andes for his choice of screwdrivers for a "manly" drink (as opposed to the Chilean specialty, Pisco Sours, which he derided as a "woman's" drink). After more beers and staying out later than I should have had, I reluctantly left the others to their revels, and headed to the hotel. I'd yet to pack, and it was a long way home, the next day.

Sunset at Ahu TahaiI knew that as time went by, and I thought back to my time here, I would fondly remember all the friendly faces I'd encountered there: Taka, Bo, Andes, and the silent, mysterious faces of Easter Island's moai...

To see lots more pictures from my Easter Island trip, go to my photo album on Travelpunk.com