Complete guide to visit Easter Island, Chile
There are many questions surrounding Easter Island, mainly about its famous Moai statues.
What are they? And how did they get there? This complete guide to visit Easter island answers all the questions and more.
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Where is Easter Island?
Laying in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, over 3500 kilometres from mainland Chile, Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.
Because of its distance to the mainland there is actually a time difference of 3 hours. And its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also means the weather changes in a heartbeat with overcast, quite windy days, even in the spring. But that also makes it one of the best times to visit.
Being part of Chile, the entry requirements are the same for Easter Island as for the mainland.
But there is a new entry form you have to fill out as of September 2019. Download it and fill it out before getting to the airport in Santiago de Chile. It’ll be checked by police and replaces your PDC card you get when entering Chile for the first time.
How to get to Rapa Nui
There are surprisingly lots of daily flights from Santiago de Chile to Mataveri, the one and only airport on Easter Island. Unfortunately we visited during the time when there were a lot of civil riots in South America, which delayed our flight for 6 hours. But then again, visiting Easter Island was on top of our bucket list for so long, nothing could ruin that dream.
The flight from Santiago de Chile with LATAM Airline took around 5 1/2 hours. Compared to the size of the plane, the airport in Hanga Roa is quite small, with only 1 runway. Since Easter Island is part of Chile the checked luggage allowance is the same as for other domestic flights (with LATAM that’s around 20 kilograms).
As of September 2019 there is a new entry form required you have to fill out online before boarding the plane to Easter Island. You can download it online here. Make sure you book a hotel on the approved hotels list.
Arriving on the most remote inhabited island in the world - Easter Island
When arriving on Easter Island you can buy a bus ticket straight at the airport if you haven’t arranged a pick-up by the hotel. Another alternative, if you know where your hotel is, chances are you can walk there. Our pick-up was arranged by our hotel but as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary because the hotel ended up being across the street from the airport.
Another thing you have to buy straight when you arrive at the airport is the entry ticket to the National Park, which costs $80 per person. If you’re exploring the island with a tour group, the ticket for the National Park is likely included in the tour price.
How to get around
Since there is only one city on the entire island, Hanga Roa, it’s easy to get around by foot. Cute little shops, restaurants and cafes line the main street.
But the real deal are the famous head statues, or Moai, scattered all over Easter Island. We read up a lot about them before our trip but still decided to take a tour to make the most of our short time there, and get even more information about their history. And boy, did we! Our guide, Noah, was absolutely amazing in answering all our (ok, let’s be honest, my) questions about every little detail of Rapa Nui history.
Or you can rent a car, ATV or mountain bike to see all the major sites.
Easter Island - The South
Booking a tour around Easter Island is one of the best ways to explore the island and get as much information as possible about the history of Rapa Nui. There is unfortunately not much documented of Rapa Nui’s history as most of the stories and traditions have been delivered verbally from generation to generation. Luckily our guide Noah was as Rapa Nui as they come and answered all our questions (and we had A LOT!).
Ahu Tahai - not your ordinary Moai
The first day of our tour took us around the south of the island, visiting ancient sites like Ahu Tahai, a complex of 3 platforms with the only Moai having eyes today. It was placed there in the 80s for a photo shoot but resembles what the original Moai looked like.
So you can thank Vogue for this fully restored Moai.
The eyes were the last things put in place once the statues reached their final destination. The Rapa Nui believe the eyes contain the spirit of the deceased in the body.
Fun fact: the name of the statue changes from Moai to Aringa Ora o te tupuna once the eyes are put in place.
Ahu Tahai complex also includes a house and the burial grounds of William Mulloy, the archaeologist who found and restored the site in 1967. He was the one who decided to set a border around all sites to make sure people didn’t build too close to them, and thus protected them.
Ahu Akivi - The 7 Scouts
The 7 Moai of Ahu Akivi represent the 7 people sent out to look for a new island to inhabit after the Polynesian people had to leave their homes due to natural disasters. The priest had a dream of passing 7 islands and making the 8th, triangular shaped one, their new home. So the king sent 7 scouts to find the island that matched the priest’s description. They found Easter Island and built the seven statues in their honour. The Moai of Ahu Akivi stand aligned with the stars – all other Moai stand facing inland. During the spring equinox the sun sets behind the Moai in the centre.
Ahu Akivi was first restored in 1960 but archaeology suggests it originally dates back to the 1400s.
Fun fact: The word Ahu describes the platform the statues, Moai, stand on. It’s created from small, evenly spaced rocks and located to (almost) always face inland.
Easter Island - The North
The full day tour around the north of the island includes quarries where the Moai statues were carved, a crater growing most of the island’s food, and the largest Moai statue in the world.
There are over 1000 Moai statues on Easter Island, but only three of them are female. All of the female statues were carved from different rock, like basalt. Their heads are identical to the male ones and were only identified as female because of the petroglyph komari carved into them, meaning female reproductive organs. On old drawings from the 1960s each female statue used to have 2 heads.
Puna Pau - top knot central
The second day of our tour took us around the northern half of the island, including the stone quarries where the rocks for all Moai were carved.
One of those quarries is Puna Pau, where the pukoa, the top knots for the Moai, were carved.
It is the only location to find good quality scoria, a red oxidised rock used to carve the pukoa.
Fun fact: there is lots of debate if the top pieces for the Moai are called “top knots” or “hats”. Many people call them hats, simply because that’s what they look like. But the word pukoa in Rapa Nui, the native language of the Rapa Nui people, actually means “top knot”. Now you know!
Tip: Puna Pau is one of the two sites that you’re only allowed to visit once due to the amount of tourists interested in these places. Both Puna Pau and Orongo Village require a dated stamp on your National Park ticket!
When the Rapa Nui carved each pukoa they would make them bigger than needed because pieces would fall off during transport. Now you’re probably wondering how they attached the pukoa to the Moai, right? Well, I was curious too so I asked the question. And there are two theories:
The first one is that they stood the statue up in its final location and then built a ramp to push the pukoa on top of the head.
The second theory is that they attached the pukoa to the Moai laying down and then lifted it into the upright position all together.
Ahu Huri A Urenga - royal Moai?
As almost all other Moai and Ahu, Ahu Huri A Urenga was built to be aligned with the stars. During the summer solstice the sun sets behind it. The Moai of this Ahu have four hands instead of the usual two, and the theories as to why vary. Some believe it’s because these Moai represent royalty and didn’t have to work.
Vinapu - half buried
The first platform of Vinapu was carved perfectly from the rock during the 1300s-1400s, whereas the
second platform is much older, dating back to the 1100s.
The Moai statues are half buried in front of the platform instead of standing on top, and they don’t have eye sockets. Carving the eye sockets is the last step in the carving process before putting the Moai in its final place.
Rano Kau - a crater to feed the island
The crater of Rano Kau volcano collects rain water and forms a wetland with trees growing up to 3 meters tall. Due to its protected location, all of the food for the island grows here.
Only native Rapa Nui people are allowed to go down into the crater, swim here in the summer and even do their laundry in the water.
Orongo Village - place of the bird-man competition
Orongo Village is one of the two sites tourists are only allowed to visit once with the National Park ticket. In recent years tourism has picked up a lot and to ensure all sites are protected from wear and tear, the Rapa Nui people have limited the amount of visitors.
Orongo wasn’t a permanent village for people to live in; it was used as grounds for a yearly competition between the 18 tribes who used to inhabit Easter Island.
The bird-man competition
The original village used to house around 400 people during the 30 day bird-man competition, or tangata-manu. It consisted of three disciplines: running, swimming and climbing. The goal was to steal an egg of the Manatura bird, a bird native to Easter Island. The competition lasts for 30 days because that’s the reproduction cycle of the bird.
Each of the 18 tribes sent one person to compete in the competition; everyone was only allowed to compete once in their lifetime. The winner of the competition would be crowned king for one year and rule over the island’s resources.
The competition started at the top of Rano Kau crater. The first discipline was to run down to the bottom, carrying a large straw float used later for the second discipline. Once they reached the bottom, the athletes had to climb down the steep cliffs, then swim across the 1.5 kilometre wide channel to Moto Nui islet where the Manatura birds were nesting. The athletes had to steal one of the eggs and bring it back to the main island. The only rule during the competition was to bring back a whole egg; it didn’t matter how it was acquired. If the egg broke during any part of the journey, the athlete could choose to go back to Moto Nui islet to steal another egg, or to simply steal an egg from one of their competitors.
After returning to the main island the priest inspected the egg for cracks; if the egg was in perfect condition and the athlete had returned before everyone else, he would be shaved head to toe and crowned the winner.
Ana Kai Tangata - the learning cave
Lava rivers flowing underground hollowed the rocks and created this cave. It was used to teach Rapa Nui children about the bird-man competition. The name literally translates to cave for people to learn.
Akahanga village close-by is one of the last remaining original Rapa Nui villages. It’s made up of 13 houses, but the Rapa Nui people used the cave itself as shelter as well until the 1900s. Many native Rapa Nui people lived in caves across the island before the economy grew after the first commercial airplane arrived in 1967.
Vaihu Village - a replica of traditional Rapa Nui life
To learn more about everyday Rapa Nui life, Vaihu village was built as a replica of an original Rapa Nui village.
Small, narrow house structures, harpaenga, were used only for sleeping as most of their life happened outside during the day. The entrance to the houses are small, only allowing one person to crawl through at a time. The small entrance also protected them from rain, wind and enemies.
In front of each house is a small terrace with a stone bowl collecting water, called taheta. A rock carved into the shape of a head was believed to fend off evil spirits as the Rapa Nui don’t believe in heaven. Both good and evil spirits stay in the world and the evil spirits had to be fended off.
The Rapa Nui grew food within stone structures that also housed chickens. Only one rock in the structure could be removed to let chickens in and out, and only the people of each village knew that specific rock. Before the tribal wars in the 1600s people didn’t have a need to build chicken coups or protect their property like this.
Throughout the village are multiple fireplaces, called umupai, holes in the ground surrounded by rocks. The food was cooked using banana leaves in between layers of food, depending on the heat needed to cook each layer.
Tongariki - Polynesia's largest Ahu
Tongariki is the not just the biggest platform on Easter Island but also in all of Polynesia. Its location close to a volcano created a good base to carve a lot of statues and not having to transport them far. The restored platform is the base for 15 Moai statues, only one of which is wearing a top knot.
That is due to the worst recorded earthquake and tsunami in Chilean history which washed away all original Moai statues including their top knots. Only one top knot was in good enough shape to be put back on top of the Moai statue.
The Moai statues got bigger over time, and their number was increasing too. That meant more workers were needed to carve the statues, which in turn meant more food was needed. This lead to the tribal wars in the 1600s in which the different tribes toppled over each other’s statues. After the wars not one Moai statue was left standing.
Between 1992 and 1995 all Moai got restored and one statue was sent to Asia to promote Chilean history. Ahu Tongariki was restored for $2.5 million sponsored by an Asian machinery company which donated the machinery to lift all Moai statues back into place.
Rano Raraku - the birthplace of (almost) all Moai
95% of all Moai statues on Easter Island were carved in the crater of Rano Raraku. First, they carved the face directly out of the volcanic rock, then the torso. After, the carvers slid the Moai down the volcano and put it in place on the island. If the statue broke during this process, the carvers had to start over again. A typical Moai statue would take around 1 – 1.5 years to complete.
Rano Raraku was considered neutral ground by all tribes so no statues were destroyed here during the tribal wars.
Each tribe had its own master carver who oversaw 20-30 people working on multiple statues at a time. All Moai statues had petroglyphs carved into their sides, necks and backs to worship the make–make god.
All Moai statues on Rano Raraku are still in their original position. The biggest one of them, Tetu Kanga, measures 21 meters and is also often called The Giant.
Another unique Moai statue is Tuturi, which translates to “nearly done”. It’s one of a kind because of its legs and similarities to the tiki statues in Polynesia.
Anakena beach - where it all began
The beach is believed to have been the place where the founding king of Rapa Nui, Hotu Matu’a, first set foot on the island. It’s also the only beach on the entire island where Moai were erected.
Te Pitu Kura - a magnetic rock
Paro, a 10 meter tall statue, is the Moai that has been transported the furthest from its carving place. It’s standing on a platform called Note Ara A’u Henga and weighs 82 tons.
Close to this giant is a formation of magnetic rocks. A large one in the middle, with four smaller ones around to resemble north, east, south and west, consist of a magnetide mineral that renders compasses useless.
Read also: if Easter Island doesn’t sound like a place you want to explore, check out our guide to Patagonia instead.
The Rapa Nui stopped building Moai statues in the 1500s, and there is not much information as to why. Wars between the 18 different tribes started around the 1600s and a lot of Moai statues and other sacred places were destroyed.
Fun fact: Easter Island is the only island in the Pacific to develop its own writing, called Rongo Rongo. Today both the writing and translation are lost, unfortunately. All Rapa Nui history is passed on within the family by word of mouth because it’s not taught in schools. (Since Rapa Nui belongs to Chile, the school curriculum teaches Chilean history).
Hi, I’m Nadine
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