Rapa Nui (Easter Island)


Isla de Pascua, or Rapa Nui, lies in the Pacific Ocean just south of the Tropic of Capricorn and 3790 km west of Chile; its nearest neighbour is Pitcairn Island. The island is triangular in shape, with an extinct volcano at each corner. The original inhabitants called the island, 'the navel of the world'. The unique features of the island are the many (ceremonial altars) on top of some of which stand 600 (or so), huge stone figures up to 10 m in height, representing the deified ancestors of the Rapa Nui people. The islanders have preserved their indigenous songs and dances and are extremely hospitable.

Background

It is now generally accepted that the island was colonized from Polynesia about AD 800. Thor Heyerdahl's theories that the first inhabitants came from South America are less widely accepted than they used to be and South American influence is now largely discounted.

Indigenous Polynesian society was competitive, and it seems that the five clans that originally had their own lands on Rapu Nui demonstrated their strength by erecting complex monuments representing deceased leading figures of the tribes, facing inwards as to protect the tribesfolk. These
mo'ai
were sculpted at the Rano Raraku quarry and transported on wooden rollers over more or less flat paths to their final locations; their red topknots were sculpted at Puna Pau and then brought to the coast. Rounded pebbles were all collected from the same beach at Vinapu and laid out checkerboard fashion at the
ahu
. The sculptors and engineers were paid out of the surplus food produced by the sponsoring family. The population grew steadily, until around the 16th or 17th century it passed the limits of the islands natural resources, causing a century of warfare and famine between the tribes during which most of the
mo'ai
, seen to have failed their descendents, were destroyed or at the very least knocked off their plinths. At one point the population was reduced to as few as 111 inhabitants. War was finally ended with the introduction of the cult of the Bird Man at Orongo, and the population slowly recovered.

European contact with the island began with the visit of the Dutch admiral, Jacob Roggeven, on Easter Sunday 1722, who was followed by the British navigator James Cook in 1774 and the French sailor Le Perouse in 1786. The population of the island remained stable at around 4000 until the 1850s, when Peruvian slavers, smallpox and emigration to Tahiti (encouraged by plantation owners) reduced the numbers. Between 1859 and 1862, over 1000 islanders were transported as slaves to work in the Peruvian guano trade. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 and from 1895 to 1952 most of it was leased to a private company that bred sheep on its grasslands: a wall was built around the Hanga Roa area, which islanders were forbidden to cross.

Now, about half the island is used for grazing and agriculture, while the other half constitutes a national park. Of the current population, about 1000 are from the mainland. Tourism has grown rapidly since the air service began in 1967 and is now also regularly visited by cruise ships. Many of the
mo'ai
have now been restored to their original positions.

Getting there

The high tourist season is September to April, although there are tourists year-round. The only ways to reach the island is by
Lanchile
plane from Santiago or on a cruise ship. Easter Island's airport is just south of Hanga Roa. Most flights continue from Easter Island to Tahiti.

Getting around

There are numerous taxis available on the island and an unreliable summer bus service. Horses, bicycles, motorbikes and cars can all be hired.

Climate

Unlike most Polynesian islands, Easter Island has no coral reef as winter temperatures are too cold for coral to survive. As a result, the coastline has been eroded in parts to form steep cliffs, around Poike, Rano Kao and on the northern side of Terevaka. There is no high central plateau and consequently little gully
erosion, which would normally lead to the development of streams and rivers. Moreover, much of the island's rainfall drains away underground into the huge caverns formed by the collapse of basalt caves. As a result, although annual rainfall is usually above 1000 mm, there is always a severe shortage of water and in many years several months of drought. Humidity is usually high, and the rainy season is March to October, with the wettest weather in May. Average monthly temperatures range from 15-17°C in August, up to 24°C in February, the hottest month.

Hanga Roa and around

There is one village on the island, Hanga Roa, where most of the population live. The
Museo Antropológico Sebastián Englert
, www.museorapanui.cl,
 has good descriptions of island life, although most of the objects are reproductions because the originals were removed from the island. Free guided visits are available with advance notice. There is also an interesting modern church with locally stylized religious art and carvings, mixing catholic themes with elements of the cult of the Bird Man. Services are held on Sundays with hymns sung in Rapa Nui. A taxi journey within any two points in town should not cost more than US$3.

A six-hour walk from Hanga Roa north along the west coast passes
Ahu Tahai
, just outside town, where there is a cave house and a
mo'ai
with eyes and topknot in place. Two caves can be reached north from here: the one inland appears to be a ceremonial centre, while the other (nearer the sea) has two 'windows' (take a strong flashlight and be careful). Further north is
Ahu Te Peu
, with a broken
mo'ai
and ruined houses. Beyond here you can join the path to Hanga o Teo , or turn right, inland to
Te Pahu
cave and the seven
mo'ai
at
Akivi
. Either return to Hanga Roa or continue to the
Puna Pau
crater (two hours), where the
mo'ai'
s distinctive red topknots were carved.

South of Hanga Roa is
Rano Kau
, the extinct volcano where the curious Orongo ruins can be seen. The road south from Hanga Roa passes the two caves of
Ana Kai Tangata
, one of which has paintings, and continues southeast. If, however, you're on foot, take the path just past the CONAF sign for a much shorter route to the impressive Rano Kau crater. A lake with many reed islands lies 200 m below the rim of the crater. Locals occasionally scramble down to collect medicinal herbs. On the seaward side of the volcano is
Orongo
, one of the most important sites on the island with many ruined buildings and petroglyphs, where the bird man cult flourished. Out to sea are the 'bird islets', Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao. It is very windy at the summit, with good views at sunset or under a full moon. It is easy to follow the road back to Hanga Roa in the dark.

Rest of the island

A tour of the main part of the island can be done on foot, but this would need at least two days, returning to Hanga Roa on the first day and setting out again the next day. For more extensive exploration you could hire either a bicycle, horse or a car. A high-clearance vehicle is better suited to the smaller roads than a normal car. From Hanga Roa, take the road going southeast past the airport; at the oil tanks turn right to
Vinapu
, where there are two
ahu
and a wall whose stones are joined with Inca-like precision. Head back northeast along the south coast to reach
Vaihu
, an
ahu
with eight broken
mo'ai
and a small harbour,
Akahanga
, an
ahu
with toppled
mo'ai
, and
Hanga Tetenga
, a toppled
mo'ai
and an
ahu
, with bones visible inside. Beyond is
Ahu Tongariki
, largest platform on the island with a row of 15
mo'ai
, which was damaged by a tidal wave in 1960 and later restored with Japanese aid. Turn left here to
Rano Raraku
(2 km), the volcano where the
mo'ai
were originally carved and where many statues can still be seen. In the crater is a small lake surrounded by reeds; swimming is possible beyond the reeds.

The road heads north past 'the trench of the long ears'; an excursion can be made from here east to
Poike
headland to see the open-mouthed statue that is particularly popular with local carvers. Ask the farmer for permission to cross his land. At the northeast end of the headland is the cave where a virgin was kept before marriage to the victor of ceremonies during the time of the bird man cult; ask someone for directions.

The road along the north coast passes
Ahu Te Pito Kura
, where the 10-m-tall
mo'ai
is one of the largest ever brought to a platform. The road continues to
Ovahe
where there is a very attractive beach with pink sand and some rather recently carved faces and a cave.

From Ovahe, you can return direct to Hanga Roa or continue to the palm-fringed, white-sand beach at
Anakena
, the site of the village of the island's first king, Hotu Matua, and the spot where Thor Heyerdahl landed in 1955; his visit is commemorated with a plaque. The
mo'ai
here has been restored to its probable original state. There is a picnic area and a stall selling barbequed meat and fish on a skewer, US$7 (the tuna is excellent). From Anakena a coastal path of variable quality runs west, passing beautiful cliff scenery and interesting remains. At
Hanga o Teo
, there appears to be a large village complex, with several round houses, while further on is a burial place, built like a long ramp with several ditches containing bones. From Hanga o Teo the path goes west then south, inland from the coast, to meet the road north of Hanga Roa.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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