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An Introduction to: Easter Island

Published May 15, 2018 by SA Explorer

Secondary Categories: Features

Always wanted to visit the most isolated, permanently-inhabited island in the world? A place with mysterious stone statues and stunning sunsets? Then you should probably add Rapa Nui aka Easter Island to your bucket list.

Located 2,300 miles from mainland Chile, Easter Island is a tiny speck of land surrounded by the endless blue abbess that is the Atlantic Ocean. Only 10 miles long and 15 miles wide, this far-flung island was formed by volcanos (now extinct) and its nearest neighbors are a whopping 1,290 miles away. In addition to its unique location, Easter Island is also famous for its intriguing history, stunning landscapes, and enigmatic stone statues of stoic sentries.

The sculptures, called moai, are the most recognized images from Easter Island. These massive statues feature oversized, rectangular heads and range from 6 to 33 feet high. Believed to have been built around 1300 AD by the original Polynesians inhabitants of Easter Island, there are more than 300 of the statues scattered across the island. Experts believe the monoliths were built to honor ancestors, and that clan warfare in the 17th century caused the destruction and topping of several of them. Many of the moai have since been re-erected and returned to their original perches atop stone platforms, called ahu.

In the beginning

The culture and history of Easter Island (called Rapa Nui by locals, and Isla de Pascua by Chileans) is tumultuous and debated among experts. It is generally accepted that the island was originally inhabited by Polynesians, who probably came from the similarly remote island of Marquesas sometime between 700-1200 AD. Population growth and agricultural surplus spawned a thriving society (which enabled the emergence of a priest and artisan class) but ultimately resulted in clan conflict and environmental degradation. By the time Europeans discovered the island in 1722 (on Easter Sunday – hence the name), experts believe the local civilization was already in turmoil. The following centuries of foreign exploitation further denigrated local culture.

Today, one-third of Easter Island is covered by Rapa Nui National Park and the island's main city of Hanga Roa houses over 85% of the island’s population of around 6,000. Most of the accommodation and dining options are located within the city but we also work with a couple of spectacular out-of-town lodgings. Due to the island’s small size, all popular destinations are easily visited during day tours and outdoor lovers will enjoy plentiful biking, hiking and horseback riding opportunities.

Main attractions

One of the most popular places to visit on Easter Island is Ahu Tongarik, which is the largest ahu on the island with 15 statues. It also contains the heaviest moai, weighing in at 86 tons. Like most of the statues, these were once toppled—first by humans, then by a tsunami—and were restored in the 1990s.

An equally impressive site is Rano Kau, a volcanic crater with steep sides and a lake in the middle, which is nearly covered by totora reeds (the same type of reed used to make the floating islands at Lake Titicaca). The ceremonial village of Orongo sits on the edge of the crater and contains over 50 oval-shaped houses.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Orongo served as the center of ceremonies for the Birdman cult. To earn favor from the deity Makemake, locals competed to find the first egg of a sooty tern (a local seabird) by climbing down the cliff from the village and using a totora raft to scour the lake for an egg.

To understand where the moai came from, a visit to the Rano Raraku quarry is a must. The volcanic crater is where many moai were carved from the soft volcanic rock, and a stroll along the grassy slope reveals statues in various stages of completion.

Where to stay

The luxurious Explora Rapa Nui, on a deserted oceanside plain outside of town, is built from local stone, timber and loads of glass which ensures that all 30 suites have great views of the Pacific. Every morning guests choose from a menu of outdoor activities led by expert local guides (volcano trekking, SCUBA diving, horseback riding, etc) and the evening menu (fresh-caught fish, homegrown vegetables and Chilean wines) is equally enticing. Group sizes on the exursions at this top-end establishment are capped at 8 people.

The HangaRoa Eco Village and Spa enjoys a privileged and secluded seaside position that’s just two blocks from town. Hangaroa’s 75 elegant rooms are built from rustic materials that blend with the environment and its dining options combine great local cuisine with spectacular ocean views. Like the Explora it also boasts its own guides and excursion menu, with groups being limited to 12 - 15 people.

The slightly more basic Altiplánico Rapa Nui is located a 40-minute walk from Hanga Roa in a serenely secluded spot with great views of the ocean and of the Aka Pu moai. With only 17 stylish but minimalist cabins and no on-site guides, we recommend this hotel for folks who want to design their own itinerary (we routinely arrange private day-tours for our guests). The restaurant earns rave reviews for its innovative – and sizeable – takes on local cuisine.

Book your trip

Easter Island is serviced by nine weekly flights from Santiago, Chile (6 hours). Speak to our Destination Experts (we all live and breathe South America) about crafting your own bespoke itinerary or consider adding an Easter Island extension to any of our Chile vacations. In fact, Easter Island also goes great with Peru, Argentina and even Ecuador.

All pictures of moais were sourced from Max Pixel, the hotel photos are courtesy images and the Rano Kau image was taken by Claire Provost and is used on a Creative Commons license.

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