Surprises of Easter Island

On my RTW trip I took a decision to travel all the time in the Westward direction. Logistically, the most complicated decision on a RTW trip is how to cross the Pacific. I considered two options: option nr 1 was to fly from Santiago to Easter Island, from thereon to Tahiti, and further to Australia or to Japan via Hawaii. Option nr 2 was to first get to the United States, then fly to Hawaii and on to Japan. Eventually it became clear that option nr 1 did not quite fit into the logic of my trip, which was to be as spontaneous as possible, the reason being that in fact there is only one flight a week from Easter Island to Tahiti, this flight is very expensive if buying close to the date of the trip, and also the further flights were rare and expensive. The working option turned out to be option nr 2, which I eventually implemented.

However visiting Easter Island was my long standing dream. And so I decided to fulfil it. From Santiago I bought a return ticket to Easter Island, spending three days on the island. It is funny that even in our day a simple price arbitrage is possible. My initial intention was to buy the ticket on the website of LAN (the Chilean airline that flies monopolistically to Easter Is). But then just for fun I checked the price on some aggregator websites as well as on related companies’ sites. And – ­surprise surprise – ­on the website of TAM, a Brazilian company related to LAN, the same flights on the same days cost 200 dollars less. So of course I bought the ticket via TAM. Don’t know how that is possible and what is the explanation, I just know that such inefficiencies occur time and again. I remember once I needed to buy a ticket from Seychelles to Mauritius (we had an Air France flight arriving in the former and leaving from the latter). But Seychelles’ national airline due to some bizarre local rules refused to sell a one-way ticket and insisted we pay the price of a return one. I just refused to accept this. So sometime later out of nowhere a ticket found itself on a site of a small web aggregator of which I’d never heard, three times cheaper. At the time I was traveling around China, was staying in a small town in the Gobi desert. It was really exciting to be buying this ticket around the Indian ocean while sitting in a huge café on the outskirts of China filled with smoke and shouting Chinese hackers.

Although Easter Island belongs to Chile, it is actually pretty far from mainland South America; the flight takes about six hours, the distance is 3700 km. Easter Island will probably be the most remote place I will visit on this trip. It’s a fantastic feeling to approach it from the air.

The clouds and the Pacific below:

Easter Island appears in the windows. On this flight just like that I was upgraded to business class. Next to me a guy was sitting (or rather lying, as in LAN business class you can make your seat fully horisontal) who introduced himself as Pakistan. Actually he is from Easter Island, his name is Juan, but his Polynesian dark looks, a beard and specific hair truly make him look as a stereotypical Pakistani. He spent a year travelling the world and this was his return home. In a way he is my soulmate in terms of passion for travel… When we saw the island, he had tears in his eyes.

As you get out of the plane, all of a sudden the 100% humidity, heat and the exotic feeling surround you. Two Frenchmen next to me held their heads in their hands out of flabbergasting emotion of reaching Easter Island finally…

My relatively short time on Easter Island was full of adventures. It all started from the moment of arrival. As is my habit, I booked a last minute hotel on The map shows the hotel to be 500 metres from the airport. I decided that of course I would walk there. However the hotel was not where it was supposed to be. In the main village of Easter Island, Hanga Roa, streets have names, but houses have no numbers, so it is impossible to ask where exactly is a particular house. Nobody knew my hotel in the area where it was marked on the map. I was starting to lose hope, but finally a local on a motorbike stopped by and it turned out he knew my “hotel”. Very kindly he took me there on his motorbike. The owner of my hotel was having a barbecue with his friends and had no slightest idea of my booking. However he immediately claimed that he had a room, though it wasn’t quite ready. I insisted I needed to change and at least to leave my stuff, so he showed me to my “room”. I will spare you the details, but it was out of question to stay there. Which I declared a couple of minutes later, and he did not seem too surprised. It was actually very easy to find another hotel, the very first place that seemed suitable had vacancies. A couple of days later wrote to me that the hotel owner had indicated “no show”, theoretically this gives him the right to fine me for the whole cost of the stay. So I wrote a long epistle to attaching the photos that I had the nerve to make at the time. I expected a long debate with uncertain results, but responded almost immediately that the case is closed.

Easter Island is most known for its huge moai statues. On today’s island you can see the moai everywhere, starting from the main village of Hanga Roa. The moai were mounted on special platforms called ahu. Even today the ahu are considered sacred and it is forbidden to set a foot on them. The first ahu that I saw:

The raging Pacific in mid-afternoon Hanga Roa:

View of the North out of Hanga Roa:

The streets of Hanga Roa. The locals are true to Polynesian spirit, everybody is very relaxed and gentle. The prices though are of another order compared to continental Chile. Practically everything is brought from the mainland.

On the first day I was lying in the grass and just soaking the island exotic:

The next day I rented a bike and embarked on a tour around the island. This is about 60 km on a road that constantly changes altitude, up and down. During this whole tour I couldn’t resist the strongest feeling of déjà vu. It is true that I’ve been to so many places by now that every new place invokes memories of five others; and yet here it was particularly forceful. I had the feeling of coming back to the Orkney islands, a magical place I visited in 2011. Easter Island seemed a parallel universe in so many ways:

1. It is also painted in all shades of green, from emerald to brownish green of the moss
2. The landscapes: the oceans, the mountains, the cattle in the green expanses
3. The wind
4. The humidity
5. The constant rain
6. The ocean surrounding and diving from the mainland
7. The megalithic culture featuring giant edifices
8. And finally the presence of a single focus of this megalithic culture, in which the representatives of all various island tribes would gather to partake in a common ritual
9. Bike marathons that I also undertook there

The road circling the island passes by the ocean for most of the time. These incredible waves three men high are breaking on the rocks along the road:

It has long been thought that Easter Island was settled twice, in two waves coming from other Polynesian islands. This was suggested by the legends of the islanders, but the most obvious argument was the fact that all the moai were broken or at least removed from the ahu around 17th century. The cult of the ancestors symbolised the moai was replace by another cult, that of the Birdman, which was found on the island by the Europeans.

The difficulty to obtain a definite answer was linked to the fact that there are no written sources on Easter Island, with the exception of rongo rongo writing, which has not been deciphered (and in any case is of a later date). But gradually new scientific methods have provided clarity. Today the historians agree that there were no two ways of settlement – ­they are not seen neither in archeology nor in linguistic nor in genetics of the island. The fall of the moai cult was explained by the critical exhaustion of the island’s resources. The men simply cut all the trees, and the lumber-intensive production of the moai became impossible. I found it shocking that out of 900 known moai, less than a third were actually mounted on the platforms where they were destined – ­only 267. The rest are lying around the island on the way to the platform or (the majority) on the slopes of the Rano Raraku mountain, from which they were in fact ground out. This means that the cult fell in the moment of its apogee, at the peak of the mania grandiosa of local chieftains, no doubt fuelled by mutual competition.

I think this is a lesson for our whole civilisation, built on unending growth of resource consumption. Easter Island chiefs no doubt also believed that the ancestors would magically send them new trees, just like many people believe today that science will find a way to create resources out of nothing, and so we can spoil the planet and spend without looking back.

The Rano Raraku mountain, “the moai factory”, with slopes filled with the moai in various stages of preparation:

The moai represented the ancestors. They were always mounted next to villages, facing them, accompanying the descendants and lending them protection.

The moai look into the ocean:

This is what they see:

A lying moai:

A moai which was started but never finished, still part of the mountain:

Rano Raraku is in fact a former volcano. Most moai come from the quarry on the outer slope. But a small quarry existed also on the inner slope. It is possible to enter the volcano and to see the small lake inside. This is it:

The little points in the middle are the inner quarry moai. Can’t approach them due to some safety rules.

Next to Rano Raraku there are the remains of the ceremonial village Tongariki. The ahu of Tongariki is the largest on the island, containing as many as 15 moai. The view of Tongariki from Rano Raraku:

A statue guarding the path:

The impressive row of moai in Tongariki. All the moai were capped with a pukao, a ceremonial cap made from red basalt from a quarry at the other end of the island. Only one moai in this group still has a pukao.

One more view of Rano Raraku, this time from ahu Tongariki:

On the Northern shore I found this ritual stone, called Pu o Hiro. Entire wars were fought on the island for the possession of this stone. It was believed that it brought its owner rich harvest. It was used as a musical instrument in rituals: by blowing into the marked hole, the stone supposedly makes a very strong low sound heard from far away.

The weather of Easter Island is notoriously unpredictable. Before leaving for my bike tour I checked the forecast and it promised clouds. But the locals only laughed when I asked about the weather. Who knows? As I moved around the island, the sky was covered with more and more clouds, the wind rose, at some point it started to rain, the rain turned into a shower combined with a hurricane wind. It became harder and harder to bike, especially as the road in the North went mostly uphill. As I reached the Anakena beach in the North of the island, I was soaked. So I decided there was no reason not to swim in the ocean. Such was my first swim in the Pacific.

Anakena beach, featuring of course an ahu. View from the ocean 🙂

At that time the hardest part was still ahead. I had to cross a hilly terrain in the North West, all through the rain and strong wind blowing straight to my face. The wind was so strong that at times it created a bizarre optical illusion: I would be moving seemingly downhill, but had to pedal as if I were moving uphill. This last part took me several hours, and by the end I was so covered with dirt, that I had to eventually throw away everything I wore that day, from shoes to underwear. In Easter Island I got to experience the deceptive nature of the Pacific islands. They appear as paradise for most of the time, but can suddenly show a decidedly non-paradisical side.

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