Almost immediately upon our arrival in Chile, we learned that Easter Island, the most remote, inhabited island in the world, the island known for the mysterious, monolithic Moai statues, was actually a part of Chile.
Or, from the kids point of view: Easter Island is here? The island depicted in the movie Hop? And therefore, clearly the island where the Easter Bunny lives?
And just how remote is it? Well, the closest nearest land mass is an island (population 50) over 1,000 miles away. The closest continental point is Chile, nearly 2,500 miles away. It is literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; the southern most point of the Polynesian triangle.
Over the course of our time here, a revolving conversation ensued concerning whether we would actually make a trip to Easter Island. It seemed like an incredible opportunity, of course, but was such a big trip worth the time, great expense, and work that comes along with hauling 3 young kiddos?
Then, not long ago, a fellow foreigner posted the following question in an online group of expats in Chile: “Is a trip to Easter Island worth the money? Or is it just seeing a bunch of statues?”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Incredibly, and almost immediately, the group overwhelmingly (and by overwhelmingly, I mean 100% of the hundred or so responses) cheered YES! I say cheered because there were a whole lot of exclamation points, capital letters and emoji happy face icons.
Not a single person said “no.” Trust me, I looked.
They discussed the magic of experiencing the Moai in person, the beauty in the remoteness and tranquility of the island, and for some the incomparable spiritual experiences they encountered there.
So of course our discussion on the topic, which had all but died out, returned with a vengeance.
“Well”, we reasoned, “this is an opportunity of a lifetime. One we probably wouldn’t make if we were still in the States.”
Fast forward roughly two months and the Tritt family was saying “Chao Chao” to Chile, (all but Tom, that is, who still refuses to say that word), and “Iorana” (yo-rana) to Easter Island, Isla de Pascua in Spanish, Rapa Nui to the islanders.
Though I count flight hours in dog years when traveling with 3 children, the 6 hour flight from Santiago to Easter Island went really well, I am sure partially in fact that we had our first experience on a Dreamliner (amazing).
The Mataveri International Airport, located on Easter Island, is considered the most remote airport in the world. Because the size of the Island is small (a mere 7 miles by 14 miles), the runway actually starts at the southeast coast and almost reaches the northwest coast. It is also constructed at a seemingly sharp incline, which I’m guessing helps the plane to break more rapidly, and you can definitely tell it during the landing. It was one of very few flights where the entire cabin clapped upon landing. To be fair, I don’t think there have been any problems with landing on the Island; I simply think the people were thinking, that was pretty sweet.
Another interesting fun fact: The runway at the airport is a considered by NASA an emergency landing location for United States space shuttles.
Upon our arrival, we were almost immediately greeted with big smiles, warm hugs, and beautiful flowered leis by the owner of the hotel/cabana we were staying in for the week. We loaded up our things in her van, and journeyed the short distance into Hanga Roa, the capital and only town in Easter Island, population roughly 3,000. We journeyed down a main avenue, seemingly the heart of the town, lined with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. From there, we hung a left and drove along the harbor, gasping at the nearly 30 foot waves crashing against the black, jagged rock. Looking carefully, we were able to spy several surfers, apparently and understandably another popular activity on the island.
After a brief check in, review of some welcome notes from the Easter Bunny, and pick up of the rental, 2 door SUV (they are all the same there), we made our way back towards the harbor in town to get a good look at the only Moai in Hanga Roa. In the northern part of the city, behind a coastal cemetery and across the street from a seemingly out-of-place large, brand new futbol (soccer) stadium, and with the ocean stretching far behind them, towered Ahu Tahai, a group of 5 Moai, with an additional 2 off to the side. It was absolutely incredible to behold our first Moai, but at the same time strange to see an ancient world wonder surrounded by civilization. I realized then that I nearly expected them all to be hidden in an enchanted forest, only discoverable by treasure map. That said, these are the only Moai in Hanga Roa, and along with all of the other moai, had signs scattered roughly 50 yards out asking visitors to refrain from approaching them and/or touching them. The rest of the 887 Moai carved by the Rapa Nui people stretch throughout the rest of the island’s countryside and volcanic regions.
Having no idea the incredible surprises, intimidating, eery and breathtaking, we were going to encounter that day.
For, while we were there, we witnessed first hand the rising strife taking place between a group of Rapa Nui islanders and the Chilean government.
Through word-of-mouth, I learned that the island right now is composed of roughly 50% transplants from Chile, and 50% islanders with Rapa Nui heritage. Apparently, the Rapa Nui’s frustration stems from the growing population, which they argue the island is incapable of supporting, as well as the foreign tour guides and taxi services, which they feel are disseminating inaccurate information to the tourists, thus destroying the story of their heritage. Roughly a couple weeks before we traveled to Easter Island, a group of Rapa Nui set up blockades to prevent foreign tour guides and transit from passing into the National Park. The Chilean government responded with, “Fine, but if you do that, you are not allowed to charge the daily fee for people to cross into the National Park, and therefore you will not make any money.” (which clearly, they survive on).
And so on our first sunny, cold morning venturing to the gates, we too came across a makeshift blockade, composed of a rope tied between trees with Rapa Nui flags hanging from it. A gentlemen approached the car in camouflage and with an irritated look, and took down our information (as apparently they are still required to do), allowing us to pass, free of charge.
Throughout our week there, we saw these guys tearing up the streets on their motorcycles, stationed at blockades, or riding around the countryside in the back of pick-up trucks. Always in camo, and always displaying their Rapa Nui flag. Although they always looked angry, and seemed as if they were trying to intimidate, I never felt like we were in danger while there. Easter Island is actually a very friendly, happy and peaceful place, and the Chilean police force was stationed throughout. It wasn’t at all like Mexico, (meaning, we never saw a single gun—we still haven’t even seen one in Chile, it’s that peaceful). Generally in this area, the most controversial dispute becomes a protest.
All that said, the 99.9% of the remaining things we experienced on the island were incredibly and uniquely serene and beautiful.
From that checkpoint, we first visited Rano Raraku, the volcanic quarry where all of the Moai were carved. Their immensity is breathtaking, towering at heights of up to 30 feet, and weighting up to 75 tons. Although it appears the Moai are merely heads, they are in fact full-bodied statues, but often buried up to their shoulders.
Roughly between the years of 1100 and 1600 A.D., skilled Rapa Nui tribal members spent over a year carving each Moai. It is believed they carved the Moai in representation of clan and religious leaders. It is also believed the clans were in a race to build the bigger and better Moai, with the ultimate goal being to line the Moai around the entire perimeter of the island.
Each statue was created while it remained attached to the quarry wall, detaching it just prior to transport in an act symbolic with the cutting of an umbilical cord. A Moai was considered complete once the eyes, made of coral and obsidian rock were inserted.
It was believed that the obsidian possessed a magical essence called “mana”, which protected the islanders.
On an aside, despite ALL of us looking, Maddie was the only family member who found obsidian randomly scattered throughout the ground. In fact, she found an entire envelope’s worth of obsidian, many resembling arrowheads. In a conversation with a Rapa Nui woman who was actually selling it, Maddie was informed that it is still believed the rock contains this “magical essence”, and that if the rock is not properly “cleansed” (as her rocks apparently were) the person in possession of the rocks would see the spirits of their ancestors. Although she stated it was a good energy, she suggested Maddie return the rocks to where she found them. Of course, instead Maddie returned home with them, (which was entirely okay legally) and gifted them to numerous friends, family, and random strangers she met on the airplane. I’m sure including some of you! We haven’t experienced anything strange yet, but please let me know if you do! (wink)
Many of the Moai were then transported mysteriously to coastal locations throughout the island, some up to 14 miles away. The question of exactly how they were transported remains a mystery, though in recent years researchers have settled on one overriding theory.
Originally it was thought they used logs as sleds and pushed them on tracks. However, after reviewing the breakage of many of the Moai that fell (and remain in the location they fell), and after comparative experimentation, it has been decided that the tied ropes to each side of the Moai, and through rocking it back and forth, a team of up to 150 people would “walk” them to their locations.
Interestingly, nearly the entirety of the Moai face inland, believed to have been watching over the people. The only exception is a group of 7 Moai, Ahu Ahkivi, that is stationed slightly inland, representing the 7 initial discoverers of the island, and facing towards the ocean to help travelers (including their king) find the island.
It is common to see broken Moai scattered in random areas throughout the island, having fallen at some point after their removal from their carving site . In the quarry, there remain 394 Moai, some abandoned abruptly while being carved, some abandoned because the stone was bad or a mistake was made, and others fallen soldiers.
The fact that the Moai creation stopped abruptly one day is another added mystery of the island. Moreover, shortly afterwards, the clans began to engage in warfare, knocking and/or destroying each others work. This all occurred around the same time as the arrival of Europeans (on Easter Day). Hence, the ultimate dream of surrounding the island with Moai was never realized.
Upon entering the quarry, and viewing the scattered Moai all around, my breath was quite literally taken away. Here we were viewing a graveyard of broken dreams, of broken masterpieces that these people had spent every day for over a year on.
But then it occurred to me, if the Rapa Nui could spend an entire year carving one single Moai statue, not only as a remedial, assembly line job, but as an inherently spiritual experience, raise the several ton monolith, haul it, and then watch it fall and break, never to be removed again, and then go back to work the next day and begin a new one….well, why on earth wouldn’t I write about it again.
Quite frankly, it’s the least I could do to honor the wonders that they created.
Following the Quarry, we visited Ahu Tongariki, the longest group (15). It was so beautiful that we made a second trip to this one and watched the sunrise behind them. Sadly, not 50 yards from Ahu Tongariki lay a fallen Moai – yet another example of how close they were at times. Devastating. Easter Island is made of three, extinct volcanoes, which is why you see black rock everywhere, and I would imagine why little is grown there. One of the volcanoes, Rano Kau, has an actual lake made of rainwater in its crater, and we were able to drive right up to it, peaking over the side, marveling at its beauty while maintaining death grips on the children. At these points, with the small island and vast ocean below you…well, let’s just say you feel very small, and very remote.
Adjacent to Rano Kau is Orongo. There, we saw a small village of stone huts occupying a narrow grass area at the top of a hill, only feet away from roughly a 1000 foot fall into the ocean on one side, and the deep volcanic crater on the other. There are also apparently hundreds of petroglyphs, or birdman carvings, there, though we only saw a few.
This could in part have been due to the fact that we were hauling @$$ through the trail…nauseated by the thought of any of the kids becoming remotely close to the edges. In fact, I would venture to guess that other visitors that day were unamused by the family of 5 that was composed of 2 parents crazily yelling at their kids to stay away from the edge, stay away from this, and stay away from that. I mean, I didn’t know them, but still. (-: And how on earth did people sleep in those huts? Did they not sleepwalk? Did their children not wander? Or was it a survival of the fittest type of lifestyle? Yikes.
But I digress. Orongo was a location of critical importance to the Bird Man Cult, another important historical aspect of the Rapa Nui. Apparently, over the years the islanders became more warrior-like, and worshiped a god named Make-Make, and a birdman symbol—a symbol of a figure that was half-man, half-bird.
An annual bird man contest took place at Orongo, which involved various men competing to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui (you are able to see it from above very easily-see photo). The men would descend the massive cliff, and swim through shark infested waters out to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. The first contestant that found an egg and made it back alive to present it to his sponsor caused his sponsor to then be declared “birdman” for that year, an important status position.
While Easter Island is surrounded by a great deal of rock and rough waves, there were two places that were able to satisfy our need for a beach and some R & R. Anakena Beach is nestled in a calm bay, displaying turqouise waters, white coral sand beach, a palm tree grove, and magnificently, several Moai towering over it all. Legend has it the Anakena Beach was the landing place for a Polynesian chief and his canoe party, whom eventually settled Rapa Nui.
Incredibly, we also ran into some neighbors of ours that had recently moved to Chile from the United States, as well as some other neighbors who are Chilean. Our US friends have a daughter who Maddie had become fast friends with in the months preceding, and Greyson adored their elementary-aged sons. End result-a lot of happy kids swimming, running, and building sand castles and sand Moai.
We were also able to attend a traditional Rapa Nui dance performance, which with it’s Polynesian flair felt quite similar to something we’d see in Hawaii. They presented both beautiful music and dance.
Noteworthy is how incredibly isolated the island does in fact feel. Perhaps it is because we have 3 children, and given that the hospital there is very basic (we actually visited—Ellie had a terrible cough we wanted checked out), if anything happened to anyone it would require the 6 hour flight back to Santiago. That was a bit scary. But moreover, there are simply very few stores, very few options on the menus, and very little actual land mass. Several of the people we saw on the airplanes were traveling to Santiago simply to buy things. Hanga Roa does have electricity and running water, and we stayed in a lovely little cabana with a beautiful pool, but even we had cold water the first 2 days.
It is clear the island survives on tourism, and from what I understand has a small fishing industry as well. Most of the wonderful people of this island appear to live where they work (at the hotels, restaurants, and stores.)
It occurred to me while we were there that perhaps the “mana” of their ancestors did in fact possess the ability to protect the island. For now, hundreds of years later, even after the introduction of disease from the Europeans, the obliteration of the island’s trees (which was very clear) thanks to the transportation of Moai and the Polynesian rat, a resultant absence of any agriculture (while there we only saw a few banana plantations) and a significant reduction in population at one point to 250 people—-they made it.
These people live on this island in the middle of nowhere, but thanks to the very statues their ancestors created to protect them, they continue to survive, welcoming daily flights of tourists which not only allows them to maintain contact with the outside world, but is their actual ticket to survival.
We feel incredibly blessed to have made the trip, and sincerely pray the children in some way, shape or form, are able to carry it with them for the rest of their lives as well. ❤
“Kids, what were some of your favorite things about going to Easter Island?”
Greyson: “Ah, going fishing with my dad! Because he let me put the hook on, and the weight on, and cast it out, and catch a fish, like this (arms far apart) big! And I liked swimming! And the statues! But they had really creepy eyes! Yes, that’s what it was all about.”
Maddie: “The beach, the Moai and fishing. I thought it was really cool because the Moai were WAY bigger than I thought they would be. But then I realized that some of them were small too. I’m pretty sure some of the big ones took way more than a year to make, but maybe the small ones took less than a year. When I went there was a rock that they were carving still, the face and the whole front, but it wasn’t a statue standing up yet. And then I found some rocks on the ground that were very special because they are made of volcanic rock. So that’s why they are so special; and they protect you. I also saw my best friend Louise there, and she’s from America!”
Ellie: “That.” (cute smile) ❤