When we think of Easter Island one image immediately comes to mind – the oversized stone sculptures with their characteristically large heads, long noses and big ears. They’re not just impressive, but also make observers a little uneasy, and it’s these statues we have to thank for making Easter Island so famous around the world. Whether these figures depicted primordial gods or served as funerary monuments is something which still remains unknown today. While there used to be thousands of these so-called moaistanding upright across the island, you’ll find that many of these stone structures have been toppled over. The native inhabitants used to celebrate victorious battles by destroying the opponents’ sculptures – a statue with its face in the ground signalled the dominance of the victorious clan. So, what comes to mind when you think of the Easter Island are the historic, sculptures carved out of tuff and reaching a height of ten to twenty metres and weighing several tons. With their decorations of basalt axes, spearheads, topknots and eyes, the moai are the landmark of the Easter Island.
Where actually is Easter Island?
Geographically speaking, this isolated island in the south-east Pacific belongs to Polynesia, although politically it belongs to Chile – but I’ll come back to that a little later on. You’re best imagining the island as a right-angled triangle with three extinct volcanoes forming the corners – they’re 500 metres high and the entire surface of the island comes to around 162.5km². The landscape is heavily influenced by the volcanic nature – next to the Rano Kao, Poike and Maunga Terevaka volcanoes you’ll find over 70 smaller craters, boulders made from hardened lava and natural caves. The natural green spaces are all very rocky, so you won’t find any flat landscapes here!
The island’s capital is the only place worth naming – around five thousand inhabitants live in Hanga Roa. You won’t find any other places that resemble a town anywhere else on the island. Although you’ll constantly find little huts everywhere, the majority of them have long since been abandoned. The reason for that has something to do with why the island politically belongs to Chile. The Polynesians had already discovered the island by 700BC, and more followed in 1,400BC – because of the 3,700km distance from the South American mainland they lived a whole century completely isolated from the rest of civilisation. In 1722 Dutch explorers took a wrong turning and came across the island during an Easter Sunday, hence the island’s name in English. However a few years later this new-found prominence of Easter Island was becoming a threat for the native inhabitants – Europeans were flocking to the island to hunt, abduct and sell them on to the slave trade. There was also the problem of illnesses that were passed onto the natives from the foreign invaders.
Since more and more natives were dying, the population that lived on the island shrank from 20,000 to a mere 200 thanks to these deadly illnesses. To make matters worse, Chile took over the island in 1888 and leased it out to sheep farmers. The few surviving natives were kept as slaves from then on – it was only in 1965 that Chile granted them Chilean citizenship and the civil rights associated with it. Today around 6,000 people live on Easter Island. Contrary to what most people believe the official language here isn’t Spanish, but Rapa Nui. This language, part of the Polynesian family, has changed so much during its isolation that it’s difficult to recognise the similarities between it and the original language it derived from.
What makes Easter Island such a popular destination?
Although the island has only a small population and is far away from civilisation, it’s a popular travel destination. The airline LAN Chile offers the only possibility to reach the island with flights from Santiago de Chile or Tahiti, and while there’s a harbour for small boats, there’s no regular connection by ship. In case you’re planning on travelling to Easter Island, I recommend going in January and February. The island boasts a warm, subtropical climate with good trade winds all year round, but the beginning of the year is the warmest time, whereas the lowest temperatures are recorded in July and August. The time that you travel to the island will depend on the kind of activities you want to do once you’re there. If you’re a passionate hiker, it’s best to travel during the cooler months. If you’re looking to catch some rays, admire the palms on the Anakena coral beach or hop in the sea, the warmer months are of course better suited for this. However I really recommend a spot of diving, surfing and riding too when you’re on Easter Island!
Once you’ve powered through a long day, you can fill yourself up with Polynesian fish dishes, Chilean empanadas and creations made from sweet potato, avocados and guavas. In comparison to South America the prices are considerably higher, which is why you should save up a few pennies before your trip. You can let the evening slowly fade into night at the village centre – here you’ll find small bars and a disco which offers attractions for tourists several times during the week. Once you’ve been out on a drunken night and want to just fall into bed, you can get a room at Hanga Roa for around £18. However since there’s only one official camp site on the island I’d advise against bringing a tent with you – it’s strictly forbidden to set up camp anywhere else and you shouldn’t hedge your bets on spending the night with a local unless you actually know them.
Apart from the sporty activities that should definitely be on your plan there are other different sights to see when you’re on Easter Island. Rano Raraku for example is very popular amongst travellers – it’s here where the moai where made. On the slopes of the volcano as well as the crater lake you’ll find hundreds of statues of the craziest designs. And if you’re in the area, why not go to Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial platform of the Polynesians – it’s just a few metres away. You’ll find another ceremonial platform at Te Pito o te Henua – this is the place to go if you want to see the Navel of the World. Probably the best place to take a photo is on the ridge of Rano Kao’s crater. You’ll have a breathtaking view of the reef islands of the south-west coast. Alternatively you can also hike up the extinct volcanoes Poike and Tere Vakader. Where-ever you decide to go, you won’t miss the moai– they’re simply everywhere!
Do you see now why Easter Island is something quite special and why it’s such a popular tourist destination? You won’t just find breathtaking nature, but also history everywhere you step – and this history is so exciting because we still don’t know all the secrets!