As I sit aboard the LAN flight to Easter Island, Chile, I marvel sadly at how little the world has changed, after all of its mistakes and pitfalls. The history of the island I am about to explore is tragic, marred by the depletion of natural resources, and further destruction of the population by warfare and culture clash with the conquistadores. My flight is jam-packed, ironically, with a group appropriately named “Conquistadores Aventuros” a Seventh Day Adventist missionary group, seeking to “civilize,” in a way, not unlike European and South American predecessors as they pass out booklets entitled Tiempo de Esperanza, (Season of Hope) to the locals. Later, I will leave the island with chunks of obsidian dug from a crater’s edge, shells collected at Anakena, the sole beach on the island, and bones rescued from tidepools along the coast, as well as with photographs of natural and human creation which astounds even my Nikon. Along with the missionaries sitting around me, I struggle with the idea that we constantly continue this pattern of taking without asking permission and giving without considering whether or not we should.
And onward we fly.
By some unfathomable stretch of human strength, intuition and survival, a boatful of Pacific Islanders, likely Polynesians, made their way an estimated 2,000 miles across an empty and desolate ocean to an island called Isla de Pascua. No map, no compass, no GPS, perhaps they didn’t even have a destination in mind; it was simply the boat, the stars, and that dear hand of providence.
This is, at least, the presumption of how the Rapanui arrived on Easter Island.
Life on Rapanui proved to be something south of Paradise. Although nobody knows for sure exactly what happened to the Rapanui, archaologists and historians are nearly certain that the downfall of the civilization was a result of a rape of natural resources both by the locals, initially, and later, foreign intruders. What used to be an island of lush forests was transformed, over years, into barren plains on which nothing of use to its inhabitants can grow. This island may have simply been hostile to the demand, without the supply to satisfy a population; however, it is theorized that these islanders wasted thousands of trees in the transportation of the moai, the large stone tribal icons scattered around the island, to the coast. Without wood to burn and food to cook, the Rapa Nui are presumed to have resorted to tribal warfare and perhaps cannibalism, their population further decreased after wars with the Spanish.
Destroyed by disease and warfare, less than 3% of the Rapanui remained by 1877. Along with the more than 1500 people killed went the culture and traditions of the island, something that has been barely re-stitched together by the current population, a blend of Chileans and Polynesians.
The island itself is beautiful, despite the lack of forest life, which is easily forgotten when presented with the panorama of lush green hillsides, yellow and purple wildflowers crouching in bunches, and giant, pensive moai admiring the turquoise surf crashing against twisting volcanic cliffs.
Isla de Pascua is approximately 15 miles long by 8 miles wide, and claims a tip of the Polynesian triangle, which includes Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island. There are two main roads; one curves around the eastern coast, while the second cuts through the middle of the island. The west coast above the main town can be accessed by mainly gravel and dirt roads, although most of the action (“action” being a relative term) is on the east coast. Volcanic caves and lava tubes can be found along the northwest coast, and moai are visible everywhere, both standing and fallen, broken and whole, although the most exciting spots are the Rano Raraku volcano and rock quarry, and Ahu Tongariki.
The town of Hanga Roa is the only town on the island. Its main street has a number of car, motorcycle, and bicycle rental stores, a plethora of restaurants, and numerous “supermercados.”
The Rapa Nui people are striking, especially the women. Their beautiful, long, jet-black hair frames their exotic Polynesian features beautifully. What I heard of the Rapa Nui language, I liked; apparently it is quite similar to other Polynesian languages. However, I did not find the people to be very friendly; I’m not really sure if I blame them:
Tourism is the sole source of income for this island; Isla de Pascua must import the majority of its food and resources. Without the moai, it is likely that this island would have been abandoned long ago. I constantly wondered, as I failed to encounter very much joy and friendliness among the local people, if they lived with a slight resentment, a resentment etched into the stone faces gazing into the distance, which we furiously clicked away at with our cameras, as if the scene was ours to capture, pocket and take home. I can understand the frustration that the Rapanui must feel, as tourist after tourist, with deep pockets full of pesos and ignorance, march obliviously across the island for a couple of days, and then are gone, not likely to return. It occurred to me that the worldview of an islander, most of whom have never been to the mainland, must be quite interesting in comparison to the wide scope of information and experience we encounter on our giant, seemingly boundless continents.
Sure enough, I felt the “those damn tourists” vibe as we posed in front of a moai on our first day, apparently too close, and were yelled at by a Rapanui on horseback policing the archeological sites. I felt only slightly less foolish than the Finnish tourist Benny read about in our guidebook, who was apparently caught trying to remove an ear from a moai to take home as a souvenir.
For my fellow travel and monument-sighting junkies, Easter Island is a must-see. It is a trek, about 5 hours east of Santiago. But it is worth it. However, I must warn anyone with the inkling that it is horrendously expensive; if I had been warned of this before my trip, I would have only stayed 2 days, which is plenty of time to see the whole island. Everything is marked up, since, as I mentioned, this is the island’s only source of revenue. For example, to get into Rapa Nui National Park, which you must do to see the main archeological sites, is $60 USD. Also, we never had a meal for less than $50.
1 cucumber + 1 onion = $4.00
1 bunch of basil = $2.00
1 potato = $2.00
1 small bottle of olive oil = $7.00
3 tomatoes + 1 head of garlic = $4.00
1 package of tomato sauce = $1.00
1 package of spaghetti = $2.00
And this didn’t even include meat. We ended up with some decent spaghetti and a half-decent salad, although our kitchen had no pepper or spices, and barely any cooking utensils.
Benny decided, after our disappointing cooking experience, which is usually one of our favorite activities (as a young and broke couple), that we needed to put together an emergency cooking kit for all future travel. This is what we came up with (inspired by everything we lacked during The Easter Island Spaghetti Fiasco:
Emergency Travel Cooking Kit
– OLIVE OIL
– BALSAMIC VINEGAR
– PEANUT OIL (this was Benny’s idea; he is quite particular about his oils)
– MATCHES (we ended up lighting the stove with Benny’s flint fire starter, which I had made exceeding fun of him for for bringing on the trip, certain that he would not need a fire starter; turns out I was wrong)
– OREGANO (we’re spoiled)
– ZIPLOC BAGS (I had to throw away a whole salad, which I gladly would have put in the refrigerator and eaten the next day
– CAN OPENER
I also thought it would be fun, since we were on an island!, to do something islandish and make pina coladas. We bought a $5 bottle of rum, a $5 can of pineapples and a $5 can of cream of coconut. Very excited for my afternoon treat after a long day of scuba diving and hiking, I rushed to the kitchen. I found the blender covered in fruit flies, but refusing to get discouraged, washed it off (the kitchen had no hot water and no soap), and powered through. I put in the pineapple and the rum, and went to retrieve the ice from the freezer, then discovered someone had spilled papaya juice all over my bag of ice (this was not a closed bag of ice). Still undeterred, I salvaged ice from the bottom of the bag and threw it in. Finally, I went to open the coconut, and found that it was thick, almost like jello. Keep going. As I scooped it out, I discovered the bottom half of the can was brown, which really didn’t look right to both Benny and I. The hostel owner walked in and I asked him what he thought. After looking at the expiration date, he said it was fine, and then looked at the expiration date of the pineapples, and informed me that they had been expired for one year. I wanted to cry.
We threw out the pina coladas and settled for rum.
Aside from our cooking debacles, the rest of our stay was quite lovely. We spent our first day driving around the island in our rented “jeep,” finding many platforms of fallen moai along the coastline. Our hostel, Hostal Akapu, was about a 15-minute walk from Hanga Roa, and the walking path sat next to several ahus, or moai platforms. One moai, which we could see from our cabin porch, was the only one on the island I saw with bright white eyes. Another ahu, a few minutes walk past this one, had four slightly deteriorating moai. So, by the time we got in our jeep and bounced along the innumerable potholes to see more coastal moai, the facedown fallen statues seemed to lack very much excitement.
Just as disappointment began to set in, we made a sharp turn off the road toward Rano Raraku, a volcano and rock quarry, according to my map. As soon as we approached, however, I realized that the dark spots I had seen on the hillside of the volcano were not shrubbery, as I had assumed, but moai, hundreds of them.
This quarry is where the Rapanui harvested the stone for the moai; from here, they transported them to the coasts and created the ahus, or ceremonial platforms. Archaeologists have postulated that the moai signified deified ancestors, most likely chieftains and other powerful males. The moai, were probably created from around as early as 1100 A.D. by the Ancestor Cult, and ended in the 1860s, during the Birdman Cult and the arrival of Europeans and slave traders. These moai number 887 throughout the island, although only 288 of them made it to their final destination at the ahu. The rest lay scattered around Rano Raraku and throughout the island in-transit and unfinished, yet no less majestic. Moai range in size and can be anywhere from 15 to 70 feet tall. The biggest moai weighs 145 tons, but the average weight is usually around 15 tons.
The trail at Rano Raraku winds around the side of the volcano through individual and unfinished moai which stand towering and erect beside the trail. The scene was truly quite incredible, with the powerful dark statues standing upon green and yellow fields of grass, covered by some of the most incredible arrays of clouds and blue sky I have ever seen. It made for some lovely photography. After finishing the trail, a second trail takes you to the less famous crater lake of Rano Raraku, which was surrounded by wild horses and more moai.
After the rock quarry, we drove further along the main road to Ahu Tongariki, the most famous ahu on the island, and the one you have likely seen in pictures advertising Easter Island. It is a row of 15 moai, each unique and different. It almost reminded me of a portrait of some old businessmen from the before-smiling age of photography: all standing, serious, looking at the camera, some short and stout, bellies hanging out; others tall and thin, one even with a version of a top hat, some with more distinctive facial features, others less extraordinary. They made me giggle. We decided to return to Ahu Tongariki the next morning early before the sun rose, in order to capture the majestic statues against a warm orange morning sky.
It was on this day that we discovered just how expensive this island really was. Our first meal on the island was nothing special: we ate at a small café called Café Ra’a (Sun Café). I had chicken curry and Benny had a fish sandwich. We ordered 2 Cokes. The bill was $50. It was yummy, but not 50-dollar-yummy.
After lunch, I was dying to get to the beach, so we headed back across the island to the one and only beach, Anakena. It was a beautiful white sand beach, flanked by palm trees and a lawn packed with wild horses, guarded by an ahu of smaller moai all wearing those funny red hats, which we still do not know the significance of. Wehad a lovely afternoon reading on the beach and sitting under the sun, although the water was not quite warm enough for a pleasant swim. As we watched the sunset, Benny snapped away on his camera and I headed to the tide pools to collect sea urchins and bones and shells and other “treasures.” Of course I could not forget to fill a water bottle with the white, dainty sand for my mom’s famous sand collection.
On the way back to Hanga Roa, while the sky was still tinged with light, we pulled the car over to watch a group of wild horses galloping across the island plains. It was beautiful. I have always wanted to see wild horses run.
That night, we had an incredible dinner at a restaurant called Varua. It had an express menu for 9 mil pesos, or about $18 per person, which included a salad, an entrée, a pisco sour, and a fresh squeezed juice. When our salad came, we were overjoyed, since we had been desperate for vegetables after a diet of mainly bread and cheese over the last week and a half. We had a lovely Mediterranean veggie salad, I had grilled chicken, Benny had delicious steak skewers and we each had fresh squeeze pineapple juice. We couldn’t have felt like our money was better spent.
The next morning may have been my favorite part of our trip. We woke up at 5:30,while it was still pitch black and the millions of stars still twinkled above our cabin. We still had the rental car, and we packed up a blanket and a pseudo-picnic of canned peaches and oatmeal cookies (the “supermarket” was slightly lame in the way of breakfast foods) and headed back to Ahu Tongariki. Racing against the sun, we made it to the ahu just before the sun started coming up.
We took pictures for about an hour and watched the sky change against the row of moai, first black, then dark blue, then purple, then orange, and finally a lightershade of blue pocked by glorious white fluffs of clouds that seemed to love the day. After we had taken our fill of photos, which actually never quite happens, we sat down on our blanket to eat our canned peaches and enjoy the cool morning air.
Not soon after that, we saw an old disgruntled Rapanui woman heading towards us. In Spanish she tells us that we are not allowed to camp here, she is pointing at our blanket and yelling to the point that I got completely lost in her words. My stomach knotted up with embarrassment and slight fear as I tried to explain to her that we had not camped we had only just arrived earlier that morning, but she didn’t believe us. Finally we told her we would just leave, and we folded up our blanket and left. A rough end to a perfect morning, but a good story nonetheless.
Exhausted from an early morning, we spent the rest of the day exploring Hanga Roa close to home, shopping for our pricy spaghetti dinner ingredients, and collecting obsidian, Benny’s favorite island treasure, as we made our way along the trail that led back to our hostel.
Earlier that morning, we had met the 6-day old puppies that had been abandoned by their mother at our hostel. They were still shaky from being born, and as adorable as they were, seemed to have a dim chance of survival since nobody really had the means or time to care for them. When we arrived back to the hostel that day, we met our second friend, a tiny little kitten who snuck into our room and curled up at the foot of our bed as we uploaded pictures and napped. Joined by all of our animal friends, we cooked dinner and curled up to watch Groundhog Day, excited at the next day’s prospect of scuba diving.
(Photo by Benny Haddad)
We dove with Scuba Mike, one of the two scuba outfitters on the island. I chose this one over Orca Dive only because there was a delicious homemade ice cream place right next door called Mikafe, and I really wanted to have ice cream after our dive! Benny was the most excited out of the two of us, mostly because he had his brand new underwater casing for his Canon G11, and was anxious to add someunderwater pictures to his portfolio.
It was just Benny and I and two dive guides. We dove to about 25 meters, a short dive of only 45 minutes or so, but exciting nonetheless. There wasn’t a ton of sea life offshore, but there were some nice coral gardens, giant black sea urchins, an eel that looked like a giant cobra, and a variety of colorful fish. We also swam by a moai underwater, which looked incredibly well preserved and out of place; we were pretty sure it had been placed there specifically for tourist scuba diving. It was neat, anyway.
(Photo by Benny Haddad)
Scuba diving rejuvenated us, and after ice cream (of course!) we set off in search of the caves that supposedly were common on the west side of the island. One of the adult dogs who lived at the hostel took a keen interest in our walk and guided us the whole way. When we finally did reach Ana Kakenga, a small cave, and disappeared into it, his loyal and protective vein kicked in and he hesitantly followed us, but definitely wasn’t happy about it. At first, controlled by my claustrophobia, I was just as reluctant to go into the cave; granted, from the tiny lava tube entrance it was impossible to know if and when it opened up. But finally an island guide and another couple arrived and went right in, and I knew I couldn’t let myself pass it up. We followed them in, luckily I had brought my headlamp, and ended up in a cave that had two separate openings to the sea, right on the edge of the volcanic cliffs and the striking turquoise water. If the dog could do it, I had no excuse.
After a long walk home, unwilling to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a snack, we boiled the potato left over from the night before, sprinkled it with salt, and snacked on it along with potato chips and fruit cocktail. Very healthy. We were simply conserving for yet another meal at our favorite restaurant, Varua: this time Benny tried the ceviche and I had the most delicious (white) sweet potato fries I’ve ever had…don’t forget the free piscos!
Our last day on Isla de Pascua was a lazy one, just what I needed. We convinced ourselves yet again to rent a car to drive up to the Rano Kau crater, the most famous of the island’s volcanoes, which ended up being quite lucky since it proceeded to rain for the rest of the day. You can also hike to the top of the crater to find a lovely panorama as you hike higher and higher. At the top of the crater, which is filled with a swampy and overgrown lake and surrounded by patches of bright yellow flowers, is the ancient village of Orongo, build by the Birdman cult, which began after the Europeans arrived in the mid-1700s, and ended after Catholic missionaries began to construct churches on the island in the last few decades of the 1800s.
The Birdman cult was characterized by the “Birdman” competition. During springtime, the sooty tern, a type of seabird, would arrive to lay eggs on the Motu Nui islet. When this tangatu-manu competition began, chiefs (or their representatives) of different tribes would climb to Orongo and prepare for the annual competition. After climbing down the cliffs of Orongo and swimming the great distance to the islet, the hopu would wait for the arrival of the birds. The first one to collect an egg, swim back to Easter Island, and once again climb the cliffs to Orongo, would be called tangata-manu, a sacred title which he would hold for a period of one year, until the next competition. I couldn’t help but wonder why this tradition has disappeared; perhaps it was because so many died from the fatal falls off the treacherous cliffs, or were claimed by the sea in drownings or shark attacks. Valid reasons, to be sure. Isn’t it interesting, though, that very few of the people who are given power around us had to prove any ability whatsoever. I think I’d rather have a political representative that could retrieve a sacred bird egg than could talk and B.S. his way to the top. Plus, he’d be fit.
We ended our day at the restaurant nextdoor to Varua (apparently we like to stay close to home), called Te Kape Restraurant, which had a similar express menu for only 8990 pesos instead of 9000…a deal! It turned out to be slightly more impressive: the best part were the bright purple mashed sweet potatotes; apparently the purple sweet potato is native to Easter Island and does not grow anywhere else. Too bad for TSA, or I could have introduced it to the lovely gardens of South Central L.A.
After dinner, we saw what was described as an “not-to-be-missed” (of course)traditional Rapanui dance and music show, which actually was very entertaining. Through a story told in the Rapanui language, men with gorgeously toned bodies covered by feather loincloths (yes!) and voluptuous hula-dancing girls donning colorful hula skirts and coconut bikini tops danced and sang. Of course I was brought on stage twice to dance, my worst nightmare, made only slightly better by the fact that Benny had to come dance the second time as well. The gyrating hips and sweaty chests that I struggled to both dance with and avoid touching all at the same time made an interesting end to the night.
With the vacation coming to a close, we enjoyed one last night and one last cold shower in our slightly mangy hostel, glad to be headed home. However, since I had perhaps the best company in the whole world, I could not have asked for a more amazing trip, far away from big cities, bright lights, pollution and noise, surrounded by only the starlight, the full moon, the lapping waves, and the protective eyes of a lost and ancient civilization.