Rapa Nui, the navel of the world

After only two days in Santiago and when we were starting to get over the tedious jet lag we packed our backpacks and headed to the airport again. Ahead of us a 6 hour flight across the Pacific to Easter Island! Ivan, the owner of the hostel where we were going to stay, welcomed us with the traditional flower necklace at the tiny Mataveri airport in Hanga Roa, and gave us a little tour around the town as we headed to the hostel. It didn’t take long until we saw our first moai in the very same Hanga Roa.

Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited places on earth. To get an idea of its isolation, their closest human neighbours are in Pitcairn Islands 2075km away and Santiago is only 3770km away. There are several theories about the origins of the inhabitants of Easter Island. Most agree the first to reach the island were Polynesian, but other theories relate them with people from South America. The legend says that some 1,500 years ago a Polynesian chief named Hotu Matu’a sailed here in a double canoe from an unknown Polynesian island with his wife and extended family.

On our first day in the island we went to the ceremonial village of Orongo. The village is within walking distance from Hanga Roa, so we put on our trekking shoes and got ready for an outdoors day. On the way to Orongo we were joined by a cute German shepherd who we named Pulgas and accompanied us for the rest of the day. It was so nice having Pulgas as our dog for the day that we were really tempted to adopt her! We passed by a small cave with ancient paintings, crossed a sparsely populated wood and also went through the impressive crater of the Rano Kau Volcano, which has incredible views of the blue sea. Orongo village is in a very dramatic location and consists of a complex of stone built houses with tiny doors, not even me with my 1.54m could fit through those doors without crawling. It has an special place in the Rapa Nui culture because it’s where the birdman cult festivities used to take place every year and where the chief of the island was chosen after the race celebration.

The moais, those big stone statues with red hat, are without a doubt the most representative symbol of Rapa Nui. We both had pictured them much bigger than what they were in reality. But still it’s difficult to imagine how the Rapa Nui were able to carve, raise and move them. Archaeologist and experts have again different theories about what they meant for the Rapa Nui and how they were built. According to the islanders moais were a form of honouring their ancestors and a way of protecting their land, that’s why most of them are on the coast and looking inland. Most hypothesis say that moais were raised by slipping stone after stone underneath them, but one of the questions for which they don’t have an answer is how the hats were lifted. The island was once lush and tree-covered, but they think the use of wood for the transportation of the moais was the reason for the deforestation. When the colonists anchored in Easter Island, they discovered that almost all the moais were laying on the ground, toppled from their ahus (sacred platforms). The legends say that most of the moais were knocked on purpose during the islands wars between clans. Others have toppled over the years due to earthquakes or tsunamis. It wasn’t until recently (1995) that some of the moais were lifted with the help of a Japanese investor after watching the story on tv.

Although the island is not very big, it’s not easy to reach some of the most interesting spots by foot, so we rented a motorbike for a day. We saw many ahus and fallen moais around the island, there are around 400 moais in total from 2m to 20m in high. One of the most interesting visits was Rano Raraku, were most of the statues were produced, carved from the stone. It was really impressive to see them still on the stone half carved and seeing the faces of the moais coming out from the ground. Nearby Rano Raraku is Ahu Tongariki, the largest Ahu with 15 standing moais. It is the best place to see how the moais were like when they were standing, it’s a majestic scene to see the fifteen with their back to the ocean. On the other side of the island is Anakena, the only beach in Easter Island. There we found the picture we had always imagined of Rapa Nui, moais standing still on a white sand beach in between palm trees. We closed our loop to the island with Ahu Akivi, the only place where the moais were raised inland and the only ones looking out to the sea. Enough moais for the day!

Rapa Nui has the fame of being very expensive, and it really is. Even the cheapest hostel is more expensive than in Santiago and the prices of the food are almost 3 times of what you pay in mainland Chile. But I guess it is understandable, because everything that gets in (food, cars, petrol…) has to do it either by plane or by ship. We were advised to bring some food with us, and we were happy that we did because it really helped us to keep our budget under control.

As soon as we stepped out of the plane we realized that the character of the people was different from those in mainland Chile. People are very friendly, relaxed, kind and always willing to help. We were offered several times lifts from locals when we were heading back from Orongo. One of the days we were advised by Ivan to attend the curanto one of the families was celebrating in honour of San Miguel. Strictly speaking curanto is a way of cooking the meet in a ground oven (like the hangi), but generally speaking it is a party were a family welcomes everybody to a curanto meal, drinks and traditional music. Unlike the expensive and very touristy hangi meal in New Zealand, we didn’t pay a peso and we stuffed our stomachs with yummy roasted beef, sweet potato and traditional sweets for lunch, and brought with us bags of vegetables and fish for dinner. The best of it was the traditional dancing and singing with all the locals. A truly unique experience that really gave an insight into the Polynesian character and culture.

We spent five days in total, but three would have been enough. Specially because we weren’t able to do scuba diving due to the bad weather. A pity because it is meant to be the place with best visibility in the world. We filled the rest of the days working a bit on the blog, relaxing while looking out to the sea, watching surfers catching impossible waves, imagining how the future would be, eating yummy empanadas at Kite Mate (Raul’s food stall) and going to the movies to watch Rapa Nui. Although it has a few Hollywoodian touches it captures quite closely archaeologists theories and we liked it.

The visit to the Navel of the World has been one of the surprises of our trip. It had never been in our plans, but when we changed our itinerary to go to Japan we also decided to pay a visit to the moais. We thought we would find a paradisical island with moais everywhere in between palm trees and white sand beaches, but what we found instead was a magical and mystical place where to experience the real Polynesia.

Visit our flickr gallery for all the pictures!

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Accommodation

Hostal Petero Atamu – This was the cheapest accommodation we found online. Ivan and Lory, the owners, were always very welcoming and made us feel at home. We stayed at a double room with shared bathroom. The hostel was always clean and the breakfast was really good. The wifi was only working at times and was a bit on the slow side. There are two shared kitchens with everything we needed for cooking. Transportation to and from the airport is included. Totally recommended. We paid 30.000 CLP per night.

Motorbike rental

Oceanic – There are several places to rent motorbikes along the main road in Hanga Roa. All offer you the same price. We paid 20.000 CLP for 24h rental.

National Park Permit

The permit is required to visit Ranu Raraku and Orongo. We bought at the airport because it was 15 % cheaper. We paid 25.000 CLP per person.

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