Living in complete isolation on one of the loneliest islands in the worlds, Easter Island remains one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Nearly 1,000 strange monolithic moai statues raised on 300 temples by a primitive culture whose ancient oral history has completely vanished, a visit to Easter Island is an incredibly thought-provoking experience that reaches far beyond the norms of travel. This Easter Island travel guide frames the basis of your visit and will help you plan the journey of a lifetime to Rapa Nui.
About This Easter Island Guide
Having visited the South Pacific on three occasions, finally making it to Easter Island was quite a personal achievement. I spent a few days exploring Easter Island as part of an expedition-style cruise from Tahiti to Easter Island, returning the following year for a second visit. The information in this Easter Island travel guide is based on my experiences and on extensive research.
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Why Visit Easter Island?
Though lacking the “typical” Polynesian tropical island flare, a visit to Easter Island is not only a celebration for the eyes but also an exercise for the soul. One of the world’s greatest mysteries is perhaps a lesson or a “red flag” for humankind. It’s an example of how a glorious society, capable of erecting immense monolithic structures, can quickly decline and spiral to a bloody civil war over the loss of natural resources. Come to Easter Island to be dazzled but be sure to understand the context before touching down. This guide will hopefully help you answer the question of why even visit such a remote outpost.
What’s Included in this Easter Island Travel Guide?
Easter Island Facts and Brief History
Easter Island’s anthropology and history are very interesting topics for any visitor to this unique destination and, in fact, in the “essential travel tips” section of this Easter Island travel guide, I will list a few recommended reading sources. In this section, I’ll briefly highlight some of the key facts that any visitor to Easter Island should find useful.
Where Is Easter Island located?
Easter Island marks the eastern tip of the “Polynesian Triangle” – an area in the Pacific Ocean that stretches from New Zealand in the west to Hawaii in the north and to Easter Island in the east. There are approximately 1,000 islands within this so-called triangle, all of which are home to Polynesian societies that colonized the islands in multiple waves many centuries ago.
Easter Island is one of the most isolated islands in the world and definitely the loneliest of the Polynesian islands, even more so than Pitcairn Island. Beyond Easter Island lies an empty 4,000 kilometer-long stretch to the coast of Chile on the South American continent. Its closest inhabited “neighbors” are Pitcairn Island (1,900 km to the east) and Mangareva in the Gambier Island group of French Polynesia (2,500 km to the northeast).
Easter Island Names
Easter Island was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, hence the name Easter Island. The island is also commonly known by the name Rapa Nui, a name that was introduced in the 1860s. This either followed a visit by Polynesians from the island of Rapa in the Austral Islands group of French Polynesia or following the repatriation of a handful of surviving islanders from the Peruvian slave raiding tragedy who needed to be distinguished from other islanders. Since Easter Island (sort of) resembles the smaller island of Rapa (Rapa Iti), the name Rapa Nui stuck. Easter Island is also known (more locally) by the name Te Pito O Te Henua which literally translates into “the navel of the world”, however, there is no clear reason behind it besides oral tradition.
Some scholars believe that Easter Island was never actually named by the original Rapanui people who discovered and colonized the island. This actually makes sense because, with nothing else around, where is the need to name the island? Locals did name specific places on the island itself but likely referred to the island in its entirety simply as “the land”.
Easter Island is not your “typical” Polynesian paradise. It has no flowing rivers, no deep valleys, no towering peaks and no protective lagoon. Starting from approximately three million years ago, Easter Island was formed by the successive eruptions of three separate volcanoes who combined to give Easter Island the shape of a triangle. The island is fairly small and has a land surface area of 160 square kilometers. Its highest point is the summit of Mount Terevaka (510m).
Easter Island lies below the tropics and as such, experiences mild weather throughout the year (see Easter Island average weather). The most striking feature of its climate is the wind, a constant force which posed an extreme challenge for early settlers and their agricultural aspirations.
The Early Period (600-1100 AD)
Easter Island was colonized by Polynesians who most likely arrived from Mangareva or from the Marquesas Islands, both of which are part of present-day French Polynesia. The beginning is not entirely clear, with a legend recounting the arrival of two large canoes led by future king Hotu Matu’a at Anakena Beach. What is entirely clear, thanks to soil and sediment samples, is that in prehistoric times, Easter Island was mostly covered in pristine forest mainly consisting of large palm trees and many edible plants. The island was also home to immense bird colonies. As the settlement expanded, chunks of forests were cleared for agriculture and birds were easy prey as a source of protein. During this period, modest temples were constructed, mostly consisting of stone platforms.
The Middle Period (1100-1680 AD)
This is the period in which the nearly 1,000 moai statues were carved, transported and erected on some of the 300 ahu (temples) found throughout the island, mainly along the coast. The local population was split into various tribes, each of whom had its own temples. Urged by the chiefs and in response to either inter-tribal competition or the gradual depletion of natural resources (or both), larger and larger moai were carved. To fuel this obsession, more and more natural resources had to be consumed until “the point of no return” was reached and society started to (quickly) collapse, still living in complete isolation from the outside world.
The Late Period (1680-1868 AD)
These roughly two centuries are the most tragic in Easter Island’s history. During this time, intense inter-tribal warfare broke out, characterized by extreme violence and highlighted by the toppling of all moai statues from their platforms. Since it was believed that a moai represented the tribe’s ancestors and that its mana (spiritual energy) protected the tribe, by destroying the statue, rival tribes sought to extinguish the mana thus eradicating the “enemy”.
By the time Easter Island was “discovered” by Europeans in 1722, it is reported being completely barren and its population poor, weak and without the means to efficiently fish. Future visitors would bring with them diseases and report in succession of the gradual toppling of moai until none were left erected by 1868.
During this time, the new birdman religion took over the island, led by the warrior class as opposed to hereditary chiefs. In 1862, thousands of Rapanui were kidnapped by Peruvian slave raiders to work on remote guano mines, included many of the island’s scholars. Most were never to return, a major reason for why so little is known about the island’s ancient history. The few who returned were sick and infected the tiny local population until only 110 Rapanui were left. In 1868, Christian missionaries arrived on Easter Island.
Easter Island Today
Easter Island was annexed to Chile in 1888, mainly because no other “superpower” was interested in this remote outpost. The government immediately leased the island to a sheep farming company and local Rapanui were confined to a small section of the island (present-day Hanga Roa). Islanders became Chilean citizens in 1966 and gradual development began. Today, nearly 50% of the island’s population of 8,000 is Rapanui with the rest being Chilean families from the mainland. Locals enjoy a high degree of autonomy and favorable land ownership laws though pockets of resentment towards Chilean control and a small independent movement do exist.
Now that you understand the context, head to the next page for some essential Easter Island travel tips!
Essential Easter Island Travel Tips
Listed here are some of the most useful travel tips for planning a visit to Easter Island
Recommended reading & watching
Since the main reason for visiting Easter Island is seeing the famous moai statues, I highly recommend preparing for the trip and understanding the context. Here are a few recommended resources:
- Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island: very useful if Easter Island is part of a wider journey.
- A Companion to Easter Island: exactly as the name suggests! A great read containing all the details you want to know without going into too much detail.
- Collapse by Jared Diamond: a book dealing with the causes for the collapse of some of the world’s ancient societies including the Rapanui.
- Island at the End of the World by Steven Roger Fischer: a good historical account from the ancient settlement and well into the 20th century.
- Aku Aku by Thor Heyerdahl: the accounts of the legendary Norwegian ethnographer who is responsible for many Easter Island discoveries and theories.
- The Enigmas of Easter Island: a more scientific book which combines a wealth of archaeological evidence, intriguing folk memories and the records of early explorers, to reveal how the island’s decline may stem from ecological catastrophe.
- The Mystery of Easter Island: a book by Katherine Routledge describing one of the earliest and most impactful archeological expeditions to Easter Island.
- Rapa Nui: a 1994 Hollywood movie that was filmed on Easter Island starring many islanders as extras. The film didn’t do well at the box office but will likely be of interest for travelers to Easter Island.
When is the best time for visiting Easter Island?
Easter Island’s peak tourist season is during the southern hemisphere’s summer months between December – March. The January/February school holiday season is particularly busy and during these summer months, the temperature is around 27 degrees Celsius and humidity relatively high. The first half of February is also the month of the annual Tapati festival, a celebration of Rapa Nui culture that is similar to the Heiva festival in Tahiti.
April and May are usually the rainiest months in the year, with relatively low temperatures extending all the way to November. If you want to avoid both the high season prices and the chilly/wet weather, the best time to visit Easter Island is between October to December.
How to get to Easter Island?
By Air: Easter Island has one airport just outside the island’s only town – Hanga Roa. LATAM operates daily flights from Santiago and a weekly flight to/from Tahiti in French Polynesia. On the return leg, be sure to arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure, if not more. Your bags must be screened before you enter the check-in line, the process is not efficient, to say the least, and passport checks require additional major waiting time.
By Cruise: quite a few cruise ships include Easter Island in their itinerary, usually combining the journey with other stops in remote Pacific Islands such as Pitcairn Island. Keep in mind that you’ll be ferried to the island by tender boats as no proper port exists on the island. In addition, you’ll spend multiple short amounts of time on the island and travel as a group, leaving little time for “contemplation” which, in my opinion, is a very important ingredient of a successful trip to Easter Island. Lastly, whenever disembarking for a tour, you will have your bags checked by the Ministry of Agriculture officials who prohibit the entry of the likes of fresh fruits and vegetables.
By Yacht: even if you don’t own a yacht, you could hitch a ride with cruisers in need of a hand. Try your luck in various forums but do remember that sailing in this part of the world can be rough, with passages taking several days from one patch of the land to the next.
What to pack for Easter Island?
Here are a few tips for what to pack for Easter Island:
- Easter Island is all about the outdoors so be sure to pack lightweight and sweat-repelling clothing that can be layered on or off.
- If you’re traveling out the season, be sure to pack something warm as well as long “trekking pants” for windy and wet days.
- Be prepared for wind and rain with a good light rain jacket that has a hood.
- Comfortable water-resistant walking shoes are highly recommended.
- International drivers license and scuba diving certification card (if applicable).
- Good camera and a tripod if you’ll be doing serious photography.
- Have a look at this page for more information and specific recommendations.
Easter Island visa and money
Easter Island is part of Chile so be sure to check if you need an entry visa. However, there are special entry conditions that are specific to Easter Island. Tourists may stay on the island for a maximum visit of 30 days and must be able to show proof of an outbound flight as well as accommodation on the island. Should you wish to have your passport stamped with a unique “moai” stamp (free), you’ll need to physically head to the tourist office in Hanga Roa.
As far as money, Easter Island is definitely not the cheapest destination, especially if you’re coming after a South American tour. The local currency is the Chilean Peso but US Dollars and credit cards are widely accepted. Euros, on the other, are not that widely accepted.
Pro tip: merchants will gladly accept USD in cash but do note that this comes at a very unfavorable exchange rate, what locals refer to as the “Easter Island exchange rate”. It’s best to withdraw cash from an ATM or exchange at a local bank.
Tipping in Easter Island
Most restaurants in Easter Island will include a 10% service charge in the bill. It is also customary to tip your tour guide if you had a good experience ($5-10 per person).
How many days do you need on Easter Island?
Let’s put it this way: you can see all the major Easter Island highlights in two full days of touring but it will be a rush, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate. I recommend spending a minimum of three full days on the island and up to five days if possible. This should leave ample time for taking it slow, having time for reflection in the most moving sites and even some time for a hike or an adventure activity such as scuba diving or horseback riding.
Where to stay in Easter Island?
All accommodations on Easter Island are in and around the only settlement on the island – Hanga Roa. Accommodations range from backpacker style and even camping (check out Hostal Tojika) to luxury resorts such as Explora and high-end lodges such as Altiplanico. In the mid-range category, you’ll find Hotel Iorana, Hotel Puku Vai, Hotel O’tai, Vai Moana, and Hotel Manavai.
Here’s a list of all Easter Island accommodation that you can book online!
The sole official language in Easter Island is Spanish but as roughly 50% of the population is Rapanui, their native language – Rapa Nui – is also common to hear. Rapa Nui has some similarities to Tahitian.
Getting around Easter Island
Easter Island is relatively small so getting from one point to another should not take up too much time.
Organized tours: If you’re traveling as part of an organized group or a cruise, you’ll be ferried across the island in small buses accompanied by local guides who should have a good degree of knowledge about the ancient history and oral history. They can definitely also provide context to present-day life on the island. For organized tours bay good Rapa Nui guides, contact Rapa Nui Travel. A combo of two half-day shared tours coast about $60 per person and a full-day shared tour costs about 45$. The full-day tour also comes with the option for lunch (approx $35) but you can also just purchase your own meal at one of the restaurants in Anakena Beach, where the tour stops for lunch.
Renting a car: the best way in my opinion for exploring Easter Island is by renting a car and independently visiting the top sites (approx 60$ per day). Driving is fairly simple: there’s just one gas station, they drive on the right side and there aren’t too many roads so getting lost is highly unlikely. However, roads are littered with potholes so drive with extra caution and avoid driving at night. The top car hire companies are currently Insular and Oceanic, however other smaller companies are also available and many hotels rent cars and other vehicles such as scooters and quad bikes.
Cycling: renting a bicycle is another great way of exploring Easter Island, just be mindful of road conditions.
Horseback: if you’re into riding horses, you can book several tours and explore some of the more remote corners of Easter Island.
On foot: some sites can be easily reached on a short walk from Hanga Roa such as Ahu Tahai, the museum, and the “Cannibal Cave”. Several hikes are also available (see the following sections for more details).
Pro Tip: if you’re not traveling as part of an organized tour group, inquire with your hosts about the best times to visit certain sites in order to avoid the tour buses. Such organized tours tend to move around the island in “patterns” so it’s best to try and outsmart the crowds.
Hiking in Easter Island
Hiking is a great way to explore Easter Island and visitors can choose from several trails. Excluding the short “walks” within the major sites, the most interesting “proper” hikes are the ones to the summit of the Mount Terevaka (the highest mountain on Easter Island), hiking the remote north coast and exploring Poike – the easternmost section of the island which is also off-limits to cars. Some hikes are to be done with a local guide and more details are provided in the following section of this Easter Island travel guide.
Rapa Nui National Park
Nearly half of Easter Island’s 160 square kilometers make up the Rapa Nui National Park so you are faced with no choice but to purchase a national park ticket ($80/adult, $40/child). Tickets can be purchased upon arrival at the airport or in downtown Hanga Roa, close to the Cruz Verde pharmacy. National Park tickets are valid for 10 days from the time they are issued and tickets are inspected at the major sites. In addition, your tickets permit a one-time entry to Orongo and Ranu Raraku (so make them meaningful).
In addition, you must adhere to the following rules in order to help to preserve the fragile archeological sites of Easter Island:
- Do not touch any archaeological remains (this includes hugging moai statues!)
- Do not attempt to stand on the stone platforms of the temples (ahu)
- Do not walk or drive outside of the marked trails
- No camping is allowed within the National Park limits
- Do not collect any rock or sand samples
Pro Tip: the national park ticket is printed on a thin piece of paper so be sure to protect it inside a water-resistant pouch. Do not forget your ticket when changing clothes as you will be requested to purchase an additional ticket on the spot in the event of misplacement.
What to buy in Easter Island?
Hanga Roa features a couple of crafts market and souvenirs stands will be manned at all major sites. The following are the top items to consider:
- Replica moai statues: the ubiquitous replica moai statues will obviously grab your attention and dollars but do keep in mind they are not actually produced from the original rock as that is strictly forbidden. The simplest moai are made of soft cement and will easily crack, with better versions made of tougher cement (20K Pesos for a mid-sized statue). The higher quality moai statues are made from solid rock (obviously imported) and are quite heavy (65K Pesos for a mid-sized statue). The more features on the moai (top knot or eyes) the more expensive it will be.
- Wood carvings: exquisite figurines featuring the ancient gods or legendary grotesque figures are prized souvenirs (well over 80K Pesos).
- Tapa: the typical Polynesian cloth is hard to come by (and expensive) but if you ask around you should make it to the source. Authentic tapa is made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree and painted with natural colors produced from the likes of the candlenut.
Pro Tips: ensure your moai are well protected with sufficient bubble wrap and separately wrap a statue and its topknot (pukao). Consider visiting the Hanga Roa prison, where you can apparently purchase souvenirs made by inmates for discounted prices.
Personal safety & fines
Easter Island is a very safe place but I recommend to exercise basic caution with your personal belongings as you would in any other place and to purchase the right travel insurance for your trip. The main dangers when traveling on Easter Island can easily be avoided:
- Driving: avoid driving at night (unless it’s for catching the sunrise at Ahu Tongariki) and keep your eyes peeled for wild horses and potholes.
- Walking: stick to the paths and take extra care if it has rained as you could easily slip.
- Hiking: be sure to pack the right gear and keep in mind that the weather can often quickly change. In addition, avoid hiking on unmarked trails without a local guide.
- Scuba diving: besides the cold ocean temperatures, adhere to your dive master’s instructions.
Do not bring any part of Easter Island back home with you! No rocks, no sand, no nothing! All luggage is screened at the airport and you can expect heavy fines if caught concealing such items.
Head to the next page and let’s explore Easter Island’s sites!
Things To Do & Places To See In Easter Island
Check out these 3-day and 4-day Easter Island itineraries to see how to best divide your time on the island. If you’re looking for a quick read, here’s a list of the top 10 things to do in Easter Island.
Follow the sites mentioned in this section on this interactive map. Simply click on the image to open in Google Maps.
Home to over 90% of Easter Island’s population, Hanga Roa (meaning “wide bay”) is the closest things to Manhattan for the next 4,000 km in either direction. I found it to be quite dull and unlively but this was after coming from Tahiti. Most of the interesting sites and businesses are located either on Te Pito o Te Henua or the more commercial Atamu Tekena. The town also boasts a few free internet hotspots but so do most restaurants and cafes.
Built in 1937, this is the island’s main church. While its exterior is nothing out of the ordinary, its interior does feature several exquisite wooden statues which blend both Christian and indigenous Rapa Nui symbols. Behind the church are the graves of a number of island dignitaries. If you’re here on a Sunday, do not miss the morning service which includes lots of singing and mingling with locals (arrive at around 8:30 am).
Just across from the church is the main crafts market where you’ll find many stalls who basically sell the same items. Shopping will be made easy if you carry sufficient Chilean Pesos but some sellers will even accept credit cards. Should you wish to use US Dollars or Euros, sellers will do their best to accommodate you but will charge a premium. See “what to buy in Easter Island” in the previous section for the top souvenirs.
Crafts can also be purchased at the smaller (and newer) “agricultural and crafts fair” further down on Atamu Tekena. Unlike the main market, this one also sells fruits and vegetables in the back (though it’s very low key).
Located towards the bottom of Te Pito o Te Henua, this is where you can get a really cool free moai stamp in your passport. Opening hours are tricky so just follow your luck! Recent rumors say that the tourist stamp is now only given in the tourist office, somewhere along Hanga Roa’s waterfront.
At the bottom of Te Pito o Te Henua is Plaza Hotu Matua and Roa Otai – the main wharf. You can snap here nice photos of the fishing boats, check out the dive centers and grab some food/drinks in the restaurants around the wharf. If you head here in the early morning hours, you can see the fishermen returning with their fresh catch.
Further along the wooden boardwalk and passed the moai statue is Pea Beach – Hanga Roa’s prime bathing, surfing and snorkeling spot. It is said that sea turtles are frequently spotted here but it wasn’t the case when I visited.
Hanga Vare Vare
From Plaza Hotu Matua, you can walk along the trail heading north along the coastline (in the direction of Ahu Tahai) and check out Hanga Vare Vare and its natural swimming pool plus the island’s picturesque Christian cemetery with its large cross made from a pukao – the reddish topknot adorning some of the moai.
About a 15-minute walk from town, this is Easter Island’s “commercial wharf” though cargo ships cannot dock here (cargo is ferried over on smaller boats). There isn’t much to see here apart from a moai statue (Ahu Riata) and additional nice shots of colorful fishing boats (plus another dive center).
Hanga Roa Prison
Tourists can visit the island’s tiny prison and purchase discounted crafts made by the (talented) inmates themselves. Inquire locally or at the Hanga Roa police station (the prison should be right behind the station).
Ana Kai Tangata – also known as “the cannibal cave” – is the most accessible cave from Hanga Roa. It is reached via an easy 15-minute walk from Hanga Piko or thirty minutes from downtown Hanga Roa. The setting here is simply magnificent, with cliffs smashed by ocean waves and the slopes of Rano Kau visible in the distance. There’s also a flooded lava tube that can be spotted from the bluff.
The cave is signposted and reached via a series of steps. It measures about 15 meters deep with a wide entrance and has a height of about 5 meters but you cannot venture past the railing. Painted on its ceiling are ancient petroglyphs which are a little tricky to spot but should be visible (water leaking from the upper layers and the harmful effect of sea salt are eroding the color).
The cave’s literal translation means “man cave” but it can be interpreted in several ways which have led to it being associated with cannibalism, though no such evidence has been found. Other caves worth exploring on Easter Island are Ana Te Pora, Ana Kakenga, and Ana Te Pahu.
Ahu Tahai Complex
Ahu Tahai is easily reached by Hanga Roa either by car or by simply walking along the coastline from town. Ahu Tahai is also the best place in Easter Island for watching the sunset, as the sun gently sets on the horizon directly behind the moai statues.
Ahu Tahai is actually a series of three separate ahu: Ahu Vai Uri, Ahu Tahai, and Ahu Ko Te Riku. Ahu Vai Uri means dark or green water and its stone platform is adorned by five moai dating back to around 1200 AD. Ahu Tahai is adorned by a single moai of about 4.5 meters in height and it is the oldest ahu in the complex, dating back to 700 AD. Ahu Ko Te Riku is also adorned by a single moai but it is the only moai on Easter Island to have been fully restored with all elements, including the pukao red top knot but, more strikingly, featuring coral eyes with obsidian pupils which are thought to have embraced the moai with mana (supernatural power).
The Ahu Tahai area is actually one of the oldest settlements in Easter Island with several clues left by its Rapanui residents. As you explore the three temples, you’ll come across hare moa – stone enclosures with a small entrance used in the old days for housing chickens during the night, the stone platform of hare paenga – “classic” Rapanui homes which resembled “upside-down canoes”, and a ramp leading down to the ocean used as easy access for canoes.
Sebastian Englert Museum
This is the only museum on Easter Island and is definitely worth visiting. The museum is named after a German priest who devoted the last 34 years of his life to archeological restoration, studying the Rapanui language and its culture. Among the museum’s highlights are moai coral eyes, rongorongo tablets (not original), ancient stone tools, exquisite wood crafts and an extremely rare female moai.
Nearly three kilometers inland on the west coast of Easter Island, Ahu Akivi is positioned on the southern slope of Mount Terevaka and surrounded by relatively flat land that was suitable for agriculture. It is one of the 25 platforms that are not located directly on the coast and it is also one of the few ahu where the moai face out to sea. Ahu Akivi is one of the most interesting temples to visit, for its photogenic moai and for its astronomical significance.
On the platform are seven moai statues of equal shape and size, dating back to the 16th or 17th centuries – the period marking the height of moai construction on Easter Island. The seven moai are linked by some to the legend of Hotu Matua (first king) in which seven “scouts” were sent to investigate the island ahead of the challenging sea voyage.
However, what is more likely is that the moai strategically (and purposely) face sunset during the spring equinox and have their backs to the sunrise during the autumn equinox. Such a precise astronomically feature by an ancient culture is remarkable and at the same time makes absolute sense considering this area was heavily populated by farmers who needed “a sign” for understanding when seasons were changing.
Roughly 100 moai statues (10% of the total) were adorned with reddish topknots known as pukao. Puna Pau is the quarry from which pukao were carved. The rock found here is of unique color and its soft contents allow for relatively easy carving. The making of pukao is clear evidence of increased tribal competition since early moai did not have this feature.
It’s important to note that the pukao do not represent a hat but rather a traditional Rapanui hairstyle of long hair tied up in a bun. The average pukao weighs about 12 tons and the largest found may have been 2.6m high and 3m wide. Locals would excavate a large chunk of rock, carve it into the shape of a ball and then transport it to its designated ahu where its final shape would be carved out.
On a clear day, the view from the top of the quarry is beautiful and you can really gather just how barren the Easter Island landscape has become and how it greatly differs from just about every island in Polynesia.
Huri a Urenga
Together with Ahu Akivi, this is another inland temple. The single moai on this platform strangely features two pairs of hands, most likely the result of an error made by the original sculptures. Like the moai of Ahu Akivi, the moai of Huri a Urenga also holds astronomical significance, as the single moai faces the sun as it rises behind a hill in the winter solstice which is the shortest day of the year.
Rano Kau is the most striking natural feature on Easter Island. It is a dormant volcano measuring 324 meters in height whose flooded crater measures 1.6 km in diameter with a water depth of 10 meters. The lake of Rano Kau was, therefore, an important source of fresh water to the ancient Rapanui though it must have been mighty hard to fetch it. Shielded from the ever-present wind, the crater’s interior enjoys a unique microclimate which helped form a bed of unique reeds and other plants on the surface of its lake.
The best way to appreciate Rano Kau is from the viewing area en route to Orongo Village. The views from up here are sensational and on a clear day, you can clearly see Mount Terevaka and Poike – the other two volcanos that, together with Rano Kau, give Easter Island its signature triangle shape. From the lookout, you can walk along a path that partially circles the crater rim but you cannot walk down to the lake without a certified guide.
Orongo is one of two Easter Island sites that can only be visited once (your national park ticket is stamped). Orongo’s dramatic location is enough to blow your mind but the allure of the bizarre religious ritual that took place here up until 1868 is what makes this spot so unique.
Located on the southwestern part of Rano Kau in a narrow strip wedged between the edge of the crater and the ocean, 54 oval-shaped stone houses make up the ancient village. Orongo was never occupied year round but was always used as a gathering spot for special occasions, most famous of which is the “Birdman festival”.
As society spiraled into civil war and as famine became widespread, a new religion took over Easter Island, likely in reaction to collective anger over the “old gods” and their inability to provide despite the erection of so many moai statues. Led by the warriors (in contrast to the hereditary chiefs), the new religion worshiped the god Make Make, represented in mythology by a half-man-half-bird figure and in real life by the sooty tern bird and its eggs. Each spring, the various clans would gather in Orongo for the annual birdman competition, each selecting an elite athlete to swim through shark-infested waters to the nearby Motu Nui and return with the first-laid egg of the sooty tern. The winning’s clan leader became “Birdman” for the year and got to make all the important decisions on the island. This was a way to curb inter-tribal violence but obviously only sparked further violence, jealousy, and allegations of corruption.
Visiting Orongo evokes flashes of what this annual festival must have looked like and, though it’s hard to spot these days, nearly 2,000 birdman petroglyphs serve as additional evidence to the lengths a society would go to when pushed to the edge. The best place to spot them is just before the trail begins to head back to the visitors center after the view of the islets.
Together with Orongo, Rano Raraku is the second Easter Island site that can be visited just once. This is the “moai factory”, the quarry from which 97% of the nearly 1,000 moai were carved. Nearly 400 unfinished statues in various stages of completion are found along the slope of the crater, either damaged during early stages of transport to the various ahu or simply left abandoned by “the last shift”.
The visit to Rano Raraku is very thought-provoking, much more so than the visit to the variously completed ahu. It is here that you can picture the competing tribes carving in different sections of the crater, the sound of their toki stone hammers pounding the soft tuff for about two years until the nearly finished moai could be lowered down and prepared for transport.
Two paths are available to the visitor at Rano Raraku, the first brings you close to the moai and the second heads up to the crater rim and down to a small lake (20 minutes return). Listed here are a few highlights.
Piro Piro Moai
One of the first moai statues on the path, the name of this moai means “bad smell” due to its enlarged nose. Legendary researcher Thor Heyerdahl and his team dug into the ground and discovered the total height of this moai to be 11 meters!
Hina Riru Moai
This moai and its neighbor are often featured in Easter Island photos. The head of Hina Riru moai (“crooked moai”) slightly tilts to the left, quite an unusual pose since the face usually remains aligned with the rest of the body.
Known as “the giant” this unfinished moai is 22 meters tall and estimated to weigh 200 tons, the weight of a commercial airplane! It is the largest statue carved on Easter Island though serious doubts exist as to whether this moai could ever be transported or erected on an ahu.
Ke Kona he Roa Moai
This moai features a carving of a European ship on its front, complete with three masts, square sails, and an anchor. It is believed that locals put the finishing touches on this moai after initial contact with Europeans.
Quite out of place, this moai appears to be keeling, a position not depicted by all other moai statues. It resembles more of a Polynesian tiki than a Rapanui moai but in either case, you can catch incredible views of Ahu Tongariki from this very spot.
Rano Raraku Crater Lake
It takes about 10-15 minutes to reach the top of the crater from where you can see the small lake, about 700 meters in diameter and with water measuring 3-4 meters deep.
Of all the 300 temples on Easter Island, none are more majestic than Ahu Tongariki. Fifteen moai, the heaviest of which weighs 88 tons, adorn a stone platform spanning 160 meters. It is hard to fathom how the Rapanui could raise these monolithic beasts, especially since mighty cranes were needed in the restoration of Ahu Tongariki by the Japanese in 1994 following the 1960 tsunami that displaced the moai.
Ahu Tongariki is the best spot on Easter Island for watching the sunrise but in any event, its location is spectacular thanks to the rugged coastline behind the row of moai and the Poike volcano in the far distance.
Anakena is the best beach on Easter Island, a beautiful patch of white (and pink) sand fringed by palm trees brought over from Tahiti. Anakena is believed to be the spot where King Hotu Matua and his group of pioneers initially landed upon discovering the island.
Anakena Beach is also home to Ahu Nau Nau, an impressive temple whose moai statues were preserved for decades or even more by soft sand that covered them.
Right next to Ahu Nau Nau is the lone moai of Ahu Ature Huki, the first moai to be restored in Easter Island!
Though swimming is chilly year-round, Anakena is a popular place with the local residents of Easter Island and will get crowded (by Easter Island standards) over the weekend. Restaurants, souvenirs shops and toilets, make this an optimal stop for lunch or a lazy day under the sun.
Pro Tip: for a more secluded vibe, head to Ovahe Beach, located about 1 kilometer east of Anakena.
Ahu Te Pito Kura
This unrestored ahu is home to the largest moai ever to be erected on a platform in Easter Island. Toppled sometime after 1838, it would have measured 10 meters in height! Next door to the ahu is a mysterious collection of round rocks which legend say are rocks brought by King Hotu Matua from the original homeland. Due to their composition, the rocks are known to play tricks on compasses and other instruments influenced by magnetic forces. Over the years, this collection of rocks has been called “the navel of the world”.
This is the best place on Easter Island to view petroglyphs, the largest of which is of a 12-meter long canoe!
Ahu Vinapu & Ahu Tahira
A complex of two temples on located on edge of the south coast of the island, where the airport runway ends.
Home to five toppled moai and several pukao topknots scattered around, one in which a cavity was carved to collect rainwater. The main attraction here is a singular red column that rises in front of the ahu, possibly a rare female moai that was carved out of the same red scoria rock from which pukao topknots were carved.
Features six toppled moai who would have been positioned to face the winter solstice. What is so special about this ahu is the back wall of its platform, slabs of basalt rock aligned with mathematical precision. This is the finest achievement of Rapa Nui stone and a cause for much speculation due to the stark resemblance to Inca walls seen in South America. Was this the result of knowledge sharing between Rapanui and Inca or was there an Inca presence on Easter Island? Yet another mystery! There’s also quite a nice view of the rugged coastline from this Ahu.
Another unrestored ahu, this time with eight large moai all face down after being violently toppled during intertribal warfare. In front of the platform is a circular area marked by stones and used in ancient times for family and communal rituals.
Within walking distance of the ahu is a “restored village” where you can see stone enclosures designed to protect crops from wind and salty sea spray, hare moa – stone enclosures with a small entrance used in the old days for housing chickens during the night, and hare paenga – “classic” Rapanui homes which resembled “upside down canoes”.
A very photo stop (though there is a single moai that’s barely distinguishable) to admire large waves crashing the coast. You’ll also find lots of obsidian rock shining on the ground.
Ahu Te Peu
An isolated west coast ahu with plenty of surrounding evidence of village life in the form of chicken houses and the largest “boat house” found on Easter Island measuring nearly 30 meters wide! The ahu is also on the trail of the epic north coast walk (see “hiking in Easter Island”).
Rapanui Cultural Shows
If you won’t be in Easter island during the February Tapati Festival, be sure to attend at least one Rapanui cultural dance show. At present, the finest show is put on by the Kari Kari dance group who hold shows several times per week. Mixing Tahitian and Rapanui dances to the sound of beating drums accompanied by ukulele and the occasional conch shell horn, do not miss this unique show! Here’s a sneak peek of the Kari Kari show.
Hiking in Easter Island
While not as dramatic as other Polynesia islands, if you have an extra day, hiking is totally a worthwhile option. Easter Island features a number of DIY hikes, such as the hike to the summit of Mount Terevaka or from Hanga Roa to Rano Kau, but the more challenging hikes should not be attempted without a guide. These include the epic northern coast hike (no car access) and the remote hike in the Poike peninsula on the far side of the island. You’ll find lots of information on this link and I can recommend contacting Sammy Atan Tuki from Ruta Rapa Nui tours if you’re looking for a guide (email@example.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | 56-984051093).
Scuba Diving in Easter Island
What the water off Easter Island lacks in term of tropical marine life, it certainly makes for with clarity. Scuba diving in Easter Island is another great activity for that “extra day” (together with hiking and horseback riding) and you’ll also get to see an underwater moai though it was certainly not placed there by the ancient Rapanui. Two of the island’s leading outfits are Atariki Diving Center and Mike Rapu, both located in the main pier in Hanga Roa.
If hiking ain’t your thing, consider hopping on a horse and exploring parts of Easter Island that cannot be reached by car. Visit this link for more information.
I hope you found this Easter Island travel guide useful. Now it’s time to shape your own visit to Easter Island. Check out these additional resources and start planning!
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