Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Easter Island

Easter Island was one of those destinations so unique and difficult to reach, that I decided early on I wanted to take the opportunity to visit while I was so relatively "close" (ie, in a city that offered a direct flight) while traveling through Chile.  It's expensive to get to Easter Island, and to keep costs down my best option was to spend an entire week on the island.  As much as I wanted to visit, I actually worried about spending an entire week in such a tiny place, worried that I would have enough to do.  By the time I left, the opposite was true - I could have easily stayed longer.


I arrived to Easter Island late on a Friday evening - the sun had already set, and I couldn't see any of the scenery as my hostess drove me from the airport to the hostel.  When I awoke the next day, I realized we had a completely unobstructed view of the Pacific from our front porch.  A Canadian friend from my hostel in Santiago was staying at the same hostel, so we decided to start with a quick visit to the museum, and explore the rest of the island from there.  We never made it to the museum.  As we walked along the coastline in the general direction of the museum, we encountered our first Moai, the enormous statues that the island is so famous for.  We were immediately enchanted by the massive stone structures, taking photos and posing with them.  At some point we realized that the museum had closed at 1, so our plans for the rest of the afternoon changed. 

A quick background on the statues, for those unfamiliar with the history.  The original inhabitants of Easter Island came over from likely one of the Polynesian islands sometime between 600 and 900 AD.  The carving of the moai were a form of ancestor worship.  When a tribe's king died, a Moai was built in his honor, and placed on a platform facing the settlement, typically with his back to the ocean, in order to guard the tribe.  As the years went on, and likely in an attempt to outdo one another, the Moai were built bigger and bigger, even adding separate topknots (called Pukao) to the statues, slowly depleting the island's natural resources as the local people fixated on creating and transporting the statues.  The theory goes that when the tribes were at war with one another, and one was defeated, the winning tribe would topple over the the Moai facedown, ridding the statues of their spiritual power (called mana).  All of the Moai that are standing on the island today have been restored. 

We took a break afterwards and wandered up to the main street - I wound up sitting down at what would become our favorite restaurant in town, with a great staff, delicious food, and the best wifi we found on the entire island.  As soon as I sat down, a cover of Sweet Home Alabama started playing - a great omen to hear on a big game day!!  

After a bit more rest at the hostel, we decided to get in a quick hike to the Ranu Kau volcanic crater before the sun started to set.  The hike was beautiful - through a variety of landscapes, from dense greenery to tall, thin trees, to whispy grasses blowing in the wind.  We came upon the crater itself suddenly and were amazed at the incredible sight.  A vast bowl full of water, covered in a patchwork of greenery - moss and grasses - with the ocean visible beyond the other side.  

We had planned to hike back down, but on a whim, stuck out our thumbs when we saw a pickup truck headed back down the road that runs along the summit, and caught a very quick ride back to our hostel!  Plenty of time to get cleaned up before catching a gorgeous sunset back at the Moai we had visited earlier that day - the sun sets off in the distance just behind them, silhouetting the statues against the brilliant pinks and oranges filling the sky.  At sunset we were joined by my roommate from the hostel - a girl from France who's also taking a year off - and the three of us returned to the restaurant, perfect for me to obsessively check ScoreCenter to make sure Alabama had taken care of LSU!!


The next day the three of us got up early and headed into town to rent bikes to visit the primary circuit on the island.  My French roommate had already visited most of the sites with a driving tour earlier in the week, so she became our tour guide of sorts for the day.  The day was bright, sunny, hot, and windy - perfect for seeing the sites, but quickly reminded me that I'm not exactly in cycling shape as we made our way up and down the steep hills and bumpy roads!  From the center of town, we cycled out past the airport and took a right, in the direction of the quarry.  Over the next few hours, we cycled along the coast, visiting a number of sites along the way that included remnants of settlements and toppled Moai - at a spot called Aka Hanga, we visited a small cave that had once been a dwelling looking out towards a platform with a number of large, toppled Moai.  Finally, as I was reaching a pinnacle of hunger and exhaustion, we made it to Rano Raruku, the Moai quarry, where we stopped for a much-needed lunch before venturing into the park.  

It was magical entering the quarry for the first time, seeing the hills with unfinished and half-buried Moai, their heads and shoulders poking out of the earth, gazing off in various directions.  We wandered through slowly, eyes wide with amazement, taking photos, climbing the various paths, spotting unfinished Moai that had only just been started to be carved out of the stone walls of the mountain.  As we followed the path around the corner of the hill, we caught a spectacular view of the Ahu Tongariki Moai - a platform of 15 - with the sea in the background.  Also around the corner was a single unique Moai with an unusually rounded shaped face, kneeling, the only one on the island carved as such.  As we wound our way through the park, we eventually made our way up to the volcanic crater at the top, filled with water similar to Ranu Kau, but with tall reeds growing around the sides.  Finally we made our way back to our bikes and pedaled the short distance over to Tongariki, where we posed for photos with the massive statues and then sat silently, listening to the waves crashing on the shore not far behind the Moai, hoping to etch the view permanently into our minds.  Only one of the restored statues currently wears a Pukao, but there was a pile of them (too damaged to place back atop the statues' heads) off to the side, each one as tall as a person.  Also off to the side is a single Moai that has been restored to guard the entrance, and in between the platform and the mountain where we had just come, there is a single Moai lying facedown - it was likely toppled on accident during transport, and since a Moai which has fallen has lost its mana, it was likely left there, and a new Moai would have had to be carved to replace it.

From Tongariki, we cycled towards the sandy beach, making one brief stop at Te Pito Kura, a large circular-shaped stone with magnetic properties, so it will throw off a compass placed on top of it.  We tested the theory with my iPhone app, but I'm not sure if it worked because of the stone or because my app was wonky! 

Finally, after an entire day of pedaling, we reached the beach at Anakena.  One of the only sandy beaches on the island, it's covered with palm trees and contains its own platform of Moai.  However, by that time we were more interested in the famous tuna empanadas, so we headed straight to one of the beachside shacks to try one out!  Rather than relax on the beach after our empanada, we decided to head back towards the hostel since the sun would be setting soon.  We hopped on our bikes and began a ridiculously steep ascent back towards town.  After what felt like half a dozen stretches of straight uphill, I gave up and stuck out my thumb.  To my amazement, a family of three in a hybrid SUV-pickup ruck immediately stopped and happily let me toss my bike in the back and climb into the backseat.  Not far down the road, we picked up my French roommate as well, leaving our determined Canadian friend to happily pedal his way back!  Granted, we had done most of the hard work - it was almost straight downhills after we piled into the truck - but we were more than happy to swiftly make our way back to the hostel and get a shower before catching sunset, and we were shocked when he arrived only 30 minutes after we did!


My Canadian friend and I had kept our bikes for a second day, so we set out to do the smaller circuit of the island, including the hike to the highest point - I was happy to at least mix in some hiking with all the cycling!  We cycled out to Ahu Akivi to visit a platform of seven Moai, the only ones on the island that actually face the water. 

There we parked our bikes and began the long walk up to the highest point, Maunga Tere Vaka.  The hike was long, but not too steep, and the biggest challenge we faced were the high winds and occasional bits of rain as we made our way through the tall grasses and sporadic gnarled tree, past two small volcanic craters, all the way to the summit.  We didn't stay long due to the incredibly strong winds, but we sat down on one of the sides of the hill, enjoying the view and the sandwiches we had packed.  

Finally we made our way back down to our bikes and continued along the circuit.  We made a quick stop at a set of inland caves, then continued along a very rocky path (apparently after remembering how to ride a bike I was going to be introduced to actual mountain biking) to the coast, which we followed all the way back to town.  We made a couple of stops along the way, the first at a rocky outcrop with a stunning view of the gorgeous volcanic cliffs that look out over the sea (there is actually a set of caves here as well that open up to a view of the ocean, but we could never find the entrance!), and the second at a single Moai Ahu Akapu.  That evening we returned to the hostel to cook dinner, enjoy a beer or two, and take in another gorgeous sunset from our front yard.


My fourth full day is what I like to think of as my day of rest on the island - once my two friends at the hostel departed for the airport, I wandered down to the small nearby port to do some writing and reading, enjoy coffee and ice cream from my new favorite cafe, and look into booking a snorkeling trip for the following day.  At some point that afternoon I met an American photographer from California who had just finished up a few days of diving and was looking to do the large circuit of the island the following day - by car.  I offered to split the car with him to see the major sights one more time (and a few I had missed during our bike trip), and hopefully spend a bit more time at the beach.  We also both wanted to take in sunrise from Tongariki, so we agreed to meet very early the next morning to get started!


Thankfully the sun doesn't rise too early on Easter Island, so around 6:30, my new friend picked me up from my hostel, and we sped to the other side of the island to Tongariki.  There wasn't a ton of color with the sunrise that day, so although we arrived a little bit late, we didn't miss too much of the pre-sunrise color, and there was already a small crowd gathered.  I was able to get a few great shots of the 15 Moai silhouetted against the sun and enjoy the incredible beauty of the place in the early light.  

After we had spent a fair amount of time at Tongariki, we journeyed over to Papa Vaka, a site with some amazing petroglyphs (ancient carvings in a set of rocks) that I had missed during our bike tour, that are best viewed in the low light of early morning.  Thanks to the light we were able to clearly see the amazing scenes, including a tuna, a shark, an octopus, and a massive canoe with a variety of elements carved around it.  Next we swung back by the quarry in time to be the first people through the gates when it opened, aside from the dozens of wild horses roaming around the grounds.  The quarry didn't hold the same magic as laying eyes on it for the first time, but an entirely different, peaceful feeling that comes from being nearly alone in such a strange an interesting place in the early morning.  Having first seen it in the afternoon, it was also interesting to see the statues with the complete opposite lighting - different features and faces becoming illuminated.

From the statues we took a nice, long break at the beach - I enjoyed the sand and the sun and a book, while my friend mostly took the opportunity to swim around and spot some fish.  Eventually the little food huts opened up, and I enjoyed a delicious empanada (on Easter Island the empanadas are massive and fried up to a crisp - one was more than enough to fill me up) of tuna, tomato, cheese, and oregano, before returning to the beach for a bit more sun.  We visited the secondary beach before heading back to town, which was primarily covered up at high tide, but provided a great view of the waves crashing agains the volcanic rock and of the highest peak off in the distance.  

We headed back to town, planning to call it a day so I could catch my snorkeling trip, but the shop hadn't actually gotten enough people to go out that afternoon.  I considered just switching to the following day and hoping they would find more people, but I found myself convinced to actually try a dive in the morning instead.  I hadn't been diving in a full six years, but the visibility and opportunity for a refresher convinced me to give it a try (that, and the dive center gave me a minor discount), and I signed on.  With the extra time on our hands, my friend and I decided to drive up to Oroco for a quick visit.  I hadn't had a chance to visit, since the first time I hiked to Rano Kau, Oroco was already closed for the day, so I was glad to have had the opportunity to return without hiking back up!  Oroco is a site that was utilized during the "birdman" phase of the Rapa Nui culture - after the ancestral worship time of the Moai had passed.  Here the tribes would gather once a year for massive celebrations and to watch the birdman competition - where a single member of each tribe would climb down the face of the cliff, swim to the small offshore islands, and hide in the caves there for days or weeks at a time until the Sooty Tern birds laid their eggs - the man who retrieved the first egg was declared the winner of the competition, and his tribe's king would be the king over all the tribes for the following year.  Orocco is situated right on the edge of the Rano Kau crater, high above the sea, with tiny, low to the ground dwellings and incredible birdman petroglyphs at the points where you can view the small islands where the Sooty Terns nested.


My final full day on the island was the day I decided to explore the waters surrounding the island… I arrived at the Mike Rapu dive center in the morning to get geared and suited up for my first dive in six years.  Thankfully the instructors at the center were incredibly helpful, walking me through all the gear checks and making sure I was comfortable.  A Chilean man who was also a novice diver and I were paired up and would be diving with an instructor, while a French couple would be diving with the dive master.  I began to feel more and more nervous as we boated out to our dive site - a spot called "the cliff" - feeling slightly more like I was about to jump out of a plane than a boat.  Once we entered the water and began to descend only a few feet, I genuinely panicked and swam back up to the top gasping for air.  My instructor was immediately by my side, holding me up and saying tranquilo (calm) until I was okay.  I suddenly realized why I had panicked - I forgot to clear my ears!  All that time I had been worried about remembering to check my gauges and maintain neutral buoyancy (things that came quite naturally once I was actually under water), and here I had forgotten the most basic thing in the world:  breathe and clear your ears.  With my instructor's help, I made the next descent attempt easily and felt calm, but he stayed by my side - literally holding my hand - until he felt assured that I was calm and would be fine swimming on my own.  And truly, I was.  I suddenly remembered how wonderful it feels to be floating below the surface, breathing, flying almost, and seeing the amazing colors of the fish and the coral all around me.  The small reef was nice, and the fish were stunningly beautiful in all their colors.  The visibility, as they had promised, was absolutely incredible - even though my refresher dive status kept me relatively shallow, I could clearly see the bottom, 50 meters below.  When we finally surfaced, I wasn't quite ready for it to be over.  We made it back to the dive center, and as I was starting to get cleaned up, the French couple asked, "Aren't you doing the second dive?  We go to the underwater Moai!"  Between them and the dive master, I was finally convinced, and they brought out a new tank for my gear.  

The Chilean man I had been paired with left, but we had another local man join us who was working on his advanced certification, so we were back to a group of four.  The four of us would go with the dive master, in pairs, and our same instructor from before would follow along.  This time, I had no problem descending, and the instructor even complemented me afterwards on how good my technique was underwater!  We saw the underwater Moai almost immediately (this is a "modern" Moai, but no less impressive, especially underwater!) and posed for pictures, then continued along the reef to a couple of large sunken anchors.  In addition to the impressive set of colorful fish from before, this time we also spotted a puffer fish, and our dive master was able to coax a large eel out of his hiding spot in the reef!  The reef and the variety of fish were again beautiful, and the visibility was absolutely remarkable.  

When we finally returned, I stood under the hot shower as long as possible to remove the chill of the Pacific, then sat down next door for some lunch and a hot beverage to relax after the exhausting and wonderful morning.  At some point I returned to the hostel to get cleaned up, but I returned to the exact spot not long after to continue reading a book I had picked up at the hostel ('Marching Powder' about the San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia - I was determined to finish it before I departed).  As sunset neared, I ventured back over to the nearby Moai platforms to take in one last sunset on the island.  Unfortunately, it was too cloudy for any real color, but it was still incredibly peaceful and beautiful sitting in the grass, watching the statues against the purple-grey of the clouds, listening to a man lightly strum his acoustic guitar in the background to the accompaniment of clucking chickens, chirping birds, and singing crickets.  I wandered back into town once the sun had completely gone down to return to the restaurant for one last nice meal, saying farewell to the kind staff before wandering back to the hostel.

Earlier, the divers had mentioned the possibility of an outing to the local "club" that evening, so since it was my last night, I decided to give it a try.  None of the divers actually made it, but the outing was definitely worth it - apparently every Thursday at the "club" (basically a beachside bar), a local Rapa Nui band plays, and four men in traditional costume put on a show, dancing in traditional fashion and occasionally pulling women from the audience to dance with them.  It was entertaining to say the least.  Once the show ended, the bar truly did turn into a small club, as a DJ played modern music, and the tourists and locals danced away.  At this point, exhausted, I returned to the hostel under a blanket of stars and clouds.  


The next morning, I packed up my things, had one last coffee at my favorite spot, finished my book, said farewell to the divers, and headed to the airport, feeling strangely emotional about leaving the tiny island I had grown so attached to over the course of a single week, the longest I've actually spent in a single location over the course of my travels thus far.  I'm so glad I was able to pay the island a visit during my journey, and I can say it's definitely worth the expense of getting out there if you can.  


  1. Amazing how we always hold our breathe when we panic. I much prefer the diving on the warmer Carribean oceans though :) Those photos look amazing. Will have to live it through this post though.

    1. It wasn't too cold after I doubled up on the wetsuits! I'm looking forward to getting back over to Asia for some warmer diving myself :)

  2. Thanks for sharing the beautiful pictures and the stories. Great handstand!