Night flight to Hanga Roa / Easter Island. LATAM and their film selection rocks. I managed to see all the latest Oscar films and satisfy my cultural craving. Arrival to the island is very relaxed. Rapa Nui is served by a daily internal flight from Santiago and weekly (and only) international flight from Tahiti, which I suspect gives purpose to the chilean police presence on the island. I am staying with Tiare, sister of Vaiana whom I stayed with in Papeete. That is the only thing I know, therefore I leave the field “address” blank on the arrival card. When the nice officer inquires about that, I explain that I am staying with friends, but don’t know their adress. “Ok, then. Bienvenida en Isla de Pascua”, he smiles and stamps my passport.
The population of Rapa Nui counts, according to the latest census, about 7.500 inhabitant, but that allegedly includes tourists present on the island at the time. Most inhabitants, except for policemen and military, are Polynesians, very nice, hospitable, always smiling, always willing to chat. On mainland Chile, most people live under the impression that the Polynesians on Rapa Nui are hostile. No wonder given the fraudulent manner in which Chile annexed the island in 1888 (Policarpo Toro presented king Atamu Tekena with a contract in both Spanish and Rapanui, and while the Spanish version claimed complete sovreignity, the indigenous version spoke of mere friendship and protection). Tiare speaks French because she had lived on Tahiti, but everyone else speaks Spanish (there is a high school now, but until recently, all teenagers had to go to study to mainland Chile). I struggle a bit in the first days as I need to switch from french mode to my version of spanish (modified italian, really).
First thing: buy the entrance ticket to the national park in the office in the city centre. This is essential, as the ticket will be required upon every visit to the archeological sites, but you cannot buy it there. It costs about 80.000 pesos and is valid for 10 days. You can visit everything as many times as you want, except for the Rano Raraku quarry and Orongo village, which can be only visited once.
I trek along the coast north from Hanga Roa, see the first restored moai at Ahu Tahai, then visit some caves on the coast (which are a bit difficult to find, as they are basically only holes in the ground), all the way, about 15 km to Ahu Akivi. When I leave the village in the morning, a cute yellow dog starts walking with me and doesn’t leave me for one minute, not even when I descend in the caves. When we leave Ahu Akivi and are about to walk back to Hanga Roa, after 5 minutes a pick up struck stops and offers me a ride to the village. People do this here, it’s considered common courtesy. I ask whether the dog can come too, we hop at the back of the car and save ourselves a gruesome 2 hours walk on tarmac). I end the day watching a spectacular sunset at Ahu Tahai. Then my little companion stops in a random restaurant and starts doing “I haven’t eaten in 3 months” eyes at the diners and loses any interest in me, which I am grateful for, because at least I don’t have to negotiate with Tiare whether she wants to adopt a really sweet and well-behaved dog.
Sunset at Ahu Tahai:
Diving in the morning. Water has an ok temperature, not lukewarm as in Bora Bora, but a pleasant 22 degrees. There is not much marine life variety (again, compared to French Polynesia), but the reef is healthy and the landscape and visibility are spectacular. There is a moai under water, but it’s concrete, it’s there just for tourists.
In the afternoon I rent a jeep and Tiare’s mother, who works as a tourist guide, accompanies me to see the most important moai sites and explains everything there is to know about Rapa Nui culture. We speak French, so I can hereby claim on every future CV that I am fluent in French and it will not be a lie.
Basically, the history of Rapa Nui is the history (and quite possibly the future) of the humankind in miniature. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful paradise island, covered in forest full of birds, home to the world’s biggest known palm tree, plenty of fish in the sea, sources of fresh water. Then Homo Sapiens came and colonized the island. And started building Moai. The theory most scientist agree upon is that the Moai represented ancestors and their “task” was to watch over the living. Therefore, wherever you have an ahu (altar), there will be a village nearby (in the sight-line of the moai). At first, the statues were about 1.5m tall. But as every tribe chief wanted to properly marinate in his ego, each generation of new moai was bigger than the previous one. The biggest standing moai is 9 meters tall, the biggest one that left the quarry is about 16 m and the biggest one that was ready to leave the quarry, but never made it out, is a colossus of 22 m. Exactly the same thing happened in european architecture. Each monarch desired to show to his rivals that his cock was bigger and harder, pardon me, I meant to say that he wished to demonstrate his piousness and devotion by building larger cathedrals. This wasn’t much of a problem in Europe, where the resources were not scarce, but when you start a dick fight in a remote island, well, you have a toxic mix for tragedy. Which is exactly what happened.
To move the moai from the quarry, the Rapanuians (is this a word?) needed wood, so they cut down trees. Unfortunately, endemic trees in Rapa Nui were not adapted to presence of predators (there too were no indigenous mammals), and their seeds had no hard shell. The Polynesians brought rats with them (they were considered a delicacy) and the rodent ate all the seeds, therefore a resource that was supposed to be renewable became scarce. More unfortunately, the Rapanuians were fishermen and needed wood, except for erecting idols, mainly to build ships. When there was no more wood left, they were not able to go fishing, which eventually lead to starvation and cannibalism. Upon the discovery of Rapa Nui in 1722, Jacob Roggeveen reports a thriving civilization. Mere 52 years later, James Cook anchored in Anakena beach to find an almost deserted island.
Whoever was left was taken care of by slavers (the island was raided for “workforce” in mid-19th century by the Peruvians), and the few that made it back carried smallpox virus. The Catholic missionaries then donated to the islanders not only eternal salvation of their souls, but also tuberculosis. By the end of the 19th century, there were only over a hundred indigenous left on Rapa Nui, out of 14.000 at the peak of civilization between 16th and 18th century.
These days the island is covered by ahu (altars), more or less destroyed (only a handful has been restored). The moai were destroyed by the Rapanuians themselves, either in internal conflicts (to deprive the enemy tribe of the protection of their ancestors) or during the population crisis when the faith in the idols got lost. The new cult of Birdman arose briefly, but this was put to an end by the missionaries. Us Europeans are such a nice bunch.
Sunrise at Tongariki:
I drive early in the morning to Ahu Tongariki to see the sunrise (well, early ish, as the sun only rises at 8.30 here), then I leave it further 5 km north up the road, and trek to Cape O’Higgins and back and manage a quick dip in the ocean on Anakena beach before I need to return the car by 2 pm.
Trek to Orongo village by the Rano Kao crater. It would be an easy enough hike if it wasn’t terribly hot, but the views are fantastic. Orongo has never been permanently inhabited, it served as ritual village for the festival of Birdman (a competition which consisted in swimming over to the nearby atoll Mutu Nui, where the seagulls nest, and whoever stole the first egg would rule the island for the following year).
Rano Kao & Orongo:
Off to mainland Chile. Rapa Nui is possibly the strangest, most magical place I can imagine. Getting here is expensive, the life on the island is expensive (but the food is great), but it’s definitely worth it. It is also possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience.