Travel info about how to visit Easter Island

An archipelago with monumental statues


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Isla de Pascua, Valparaíso, Chile

GPS: -27.072164723971, -109.34724790559

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Regarded as one of the most isolated and mysterious places on the planet, Easter Island (Rapa Nui in Polynesian) is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. This rocky island is 3,700 kilometres west of the nearest continent (South America) and 4,200 kilometres southeast of Tahiti (French Polynesia). It was King Hotu Matu’a, a member of the Haumaka people, who discovered and annexed this remote land before the year 1000 following a long journey by sea from the Marquesas Islands (Polynesian islands). He named Easter Island Te Pito o te Henua (“the Navel of the World”) because of its isolation.

Covering an area of 163 km², this small archipelago is 23 kilometres long and 12 kilometres wide. Devoid of trees but endowed with volcanoes on three ends, Easter Island has between 800 and 900 monumental statues called moai. These large blocks of cut stone, probably carved between the 11th and late 16th centuries, represent anthropomorphic beings. They measure on average four metres in height. One third of the moai statues were erected by the inhabitants of the island on ceremonial platforms (called ahu) to honour their ancestors. In the 17th century, the inhabitants gradually turned to Makemake, the creator god of men and fertility in the local culture. The stone monuments stand upright, mostly with their backs to the sea so that they are facing Easter Island to better communicate with the spirits.

Since its discovery by Europeans in the 18th century, Easter Island has aroused many myths and questions about the fall of the Rapa Nui civilization. The theory of self-collapse is the most widespread, given that the indigenous population laid waste to the archipelago’s forest, resulting in widespread soil erosion. Other experts suggest that overpopulation or a civil war between different tribes may have upset the balance of the archipelago. According to the latest indications uncovered during a scientific mission led by Belgian archaeologists Nicolas Cauwe and Dirk Huyge, there is every reason to believe that Easter Island society lived in perfect harmony and social cohesion. It was organised in small and separate communities that mixed shortly before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1722. Infectious diseases (variola, leprosy…) transmitted by the settlers were the main cause of the decline of the Easter Island population.

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  • The incredible size and profusion of the statues scattered over the entire coast of the island; the hands, the loincloths and the red tuff head adorning the moai (these statues embody the protective spirit of the ancestors of the indigenous populations)
  • The legends and mysteries surrounding the sculpture, elevation, transport and meaning of moai statues (the largest specimens are around 80 tonnes and reach 10 metres in height)
  • The Orongo ceremonial site and the Birdman cult near the volcano Rano Kau (southwest of the archipelago) ; the great moais quarry located near the crater Rano Raraku (east of the island) ; the Pukao career (statues hats) from Puna Pau (south of the island) ; the moai platforms of Ahu Vinapu, Ahu Tahai, Ahu Akivi and Ahu Tepeu; the Tukuturi moai (atypical statue of the island representing a bearded man on his knees)
  • The site of Ahu Tongariki and its 15 standing moai containing petroglyphs (drawings engraved on the rock); the sacred stone of Ahu Te Pito Kura; the Ahu Akahanga archaeological site (where King Hotu Mata is burried)
  • The Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum and the small flower garden Tau Kiani Rapa Nui
  • The beautiful Anakena beach and the more intimate cove of Ovahe (north of the archipelago); steep cliffs, vast meadows and seabed; the impressive crater of the volcano Rano Kau covered with small lakes and marshy plants (south-west of the island)
  • The main city of Hanga Roa, its market, its chapel and its Sunday mass celebrated in the Rapanui language; the picturesque port of Hanga Piko; the traditional reconstituted habitat of the indigenous people of the island
  • The underground caves (Ana Kakenga and Ana Te Pahu); the abundance of birds; scuba diving and surfing activities; the spectacle of a sunrise or sunset (the Poike peninsula, sites of Tahai and Tongariki)
  • The annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival (a tournament of old sports, endurance events and cultural activities organized in late January or early February); The Rapa Nui culture, a mixture of Polynesian, Hawaiian, Tahitian and Maori cultures
  • Easter Island is the most isolated land in the world. This remote rock is shaped like a triangle with a volcano at each end (these three volcanoes are now extinct and lie on the Nazca plate). The archipelago is believed to have been colonised between the early 7th and 10th centuries. According to Martine Thouvenin-Desfontaines, a specialist in art history, a small group of individuals from seven Polynesian families and members of the royal family are said to have formed the first human contingent, taking with them a number of provisions (chickens, plants, seeds…). Upon their arrival after a gruelling journey, these people lived in an environment that provided abundant food and shelter. It is thought that other Polynesian peoples joined these pioneers in the following decades or centuries and that this new society organised itself into several tribes and clans governed by a single king.
  • Annexed by Chile in 1888, Easter Island owes its name to its discovery on Easter Sunday by the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen in 1722 (who was sent on a mission by the Dutch East India Company to explore the Pacific). A second expedition was led in 1770 by Spaniards from Peru who took possession of the archipelago on behalf of King Charles III. This land of hostile elements was of little interest to the monarch, whose main concern was to prevent it from falling into British hands. It was not until the late 18th century that Easter Island began to attract European interest. The British explorer James Cook, who spent several days on the archipelago in 1774, helped to make the moai statues known thanks to the drawings made by the German naturalist Reinhold Forster and his son Georg Adam Forster. These representations of giant statues caused a sensation in the highest places in Europe.
  • In the second half of the 19th century, a human tragedy struck when many of the local residents, including the king and his heirs, were imprisoned and deported to Peru as slaves to work in the mines and guano farms. Other influential members of the population were shot to eradicate Rapanui identity and culture. A large majority died from diseases, reducing the number of Easter Island inhabitants to a mere 110 compared to the 3,500 before the arrival of the Europeans. Today, Easter Island has a population of 7,500 inhabitants. Populations from Chile, Polynesia and Tahiti helped repopulate the island at the end of the 19th century. It was the Tahitians who gave the name Rapa Nui to the archipelago. The current inhabitants, called the Pascuans, are the descendants of the last indigenous survivors (estimated at 60% of the total population of Easter Island).
  • Similar statues to the moais of Easter Island were found on the Marquesas Islands, in Polynesia. Smaller, they are known as tiki and have many points in common with the architecture of the moai (position of the hands, shape of the chin…). The sculptors of Easter Island would have used the same techniques as in the Stone Age. The blocks would have been extracted from the volcanic rock using pieces of wood. Flints would have been used to carve the friable and porous stone (lapillis tuff from compacted lava fragments) in a long manual process. The transport of the statues is the most divisive issue among archaeologists. However, a consensus seems to be emerging: the moai were slid onto wooden rafts held together by ropes. To move these stone behemoths to the shore, the entire tribe may have been mobilised at the same time.
  • Although it is scientifically impossible to date the cutting of a rock, the moai statues would have been sculpted from the 11th century and by the first Polynesian inhabitants (the haumaka people). This ritual would have continued long after the arrival of Europeans. To communicate, this people founded the rongorongo language, the only written language of all Polynesia still remaining indecipherable to date (it is in the form of glyphs and engraved signs).
  • Portions of the statues are buried several metres below ground level. Many of the moais may have played a role in soil fertility and agricultural production. According to archaeologist Nicolas Cauwe, the volcanic rock fragments were used as fertiliser to grow bananas, edible plants and sweet potatoes. In the absence of trees following the massive deforestation motivated by the frenetic manufacture of statues, these basalt pebbles fulfilled several functions: to fight against thermal shocks, to retain humidity and to protect the soil against erosion (caused by gusts of wind and heavy rain). This ingenious process demonstrates the great capacity of the Rapa Nui civilisation to adapt to their environment.
  • Three giant statues display drawings engraved on their backs, the meaning of which remains unknown. Only seven moais are erected in front of the ocean on the coastal site of Ahu Akivi. They probably represent the first Polynesians to set foot on the island.
  • The different clans or tribes of the island probably engaged in a frenetic competition centred on the cult of the moai. The desire to build ever larger and more massive statues in order to show their superiority probably led to internal struggles, the scarcity of resources and the breakdown of the local society. The structures of unfinished moais lying on the ground horizontally as well as those which are half buried at the foot of the stone quarry of the volcano Rano Raraku form a natural barrier. Dating from the 17th century (late Rapanui period), their function may have been to close access to the sacred site of the quarry and thus prevent any construction or transport of new statues. A large amount of human bones have been discovered in pits adjoining the moais.
  • To get out of this social chaos, a spiritual transition seems to have been initiated by the inhabitants of the island. The people’s beliefs were oriented towards the god Makemake. Represented by a bird’s head (tern or sea swallow) and a half human body, this religious cult was called Manutara. It was held from the ceremonial site of Orongo (a cliff at the south-western end of the island). Each year, a competition was held between the different tribes of Easter Island to see who could first bring an egg from the uninhabited rocky islet of Motu Nui. The winner was designated Tangata Manu (“the Birdman”) and became the sacred representative of the god Make-Make for one year (he inherited the role of arbitrator to resolve conflicts between the different clans). The victorious tribe also gained power and authority over the island during this period. This practice ceased in 1866 after a long stay by the French Christian missionaries Hippolyte Roussel and Eugène Eyraud, who sought to convert the indigenous Rapanui and turn them away from the cult of the Birdman. To achieve this goal, they used symbols of the god Makemake in the Christian rites. The Hanga Roa church and the cemetery, influenced by representations of Rapanui beliefs in its architectural and decorative elements, are a good example. At that time missionaries reported that they witnessed acts of cannibalism.
  • The archipelago is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The moais in particular are increasingly threatened by rising sea levels and the phenomena of marine erosion.
  • Flights from Lima Lima (Peru), Santiago (Chile) or Papeete (Tahiti) are available to Easter Island and land at Mataveri airport in Hanga Roa. Another and longer alternative are cruise ships sailing from several regions of the world (Ushuaia, Polynesian Islands, Callao or Pisco in Peru…).
  • There are various ways to explore the island’s treasures: on horseback, by car, by bicycle or by moped.
  • To protect the heritage of Easter Island, the authorities have set the maximum number of visitors allowed to visit the archipelago each year at 116,000 (just over 300 people per day).

Where to eat

  • Ariki o Te Pana
    (empenadas are excellent)
  • Te Moai Sunset
    (great sunset)
  • Te Moana
    (sublime kitchen and frame)

Where to go

  • Ballet Kari Kari
    (folk local show)
  • Maunga Terevaka
    (hiking with fantastic views)
  • Rano Kau
    (crater with interior lake)

Where to stay

  • Pukao Hostel
    (lush inn)
  • Cabanas Christophe
    (spacious and well-equipped)
  • Hare Uta
    (all comfort resort)