Destination: Chile: Easter Island
Just Back From… Easter Island
We’re living in an era when every morsel of information is just a Google search away. But I recently visited a place–probably one of the last on earth–where there are more questions than answers, which not even your iPhone can help decipher. Easter Island is the ultimate enigma, and after a recent visit and much study, I’m still trying to figure the place out. Even my tour guide started our first day together by saying about the island, “No one really knows the truth. We can chose our own answers.”
Theories about Easter Island abound, few of which have been fully confirmed or disproved. Even its name is debated: the moniker comes irrelevantly from a Dutch sailor who stumbled on the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. The ancient native name, Te Pito te Henua (which can paradoxically translate as either “the navel of the earth” or “the end of the earth”) has been replaced by contemporary locals with Rapa Nui. These inhabitants themselves are referred to as Rapanui and speak a language called (you guessed it) Rapanui. Chile, the country that Easter Island technically belongs to, calls it Isla de Pascua. This wide choice in names can lead to some confusion. Even at check-in at the Lima airport, the airline clerk seemed unable to understand “Easter Island,” offering, with a smile, flights to “Miami — or Los Angeles?”
The island’s biggest questions revolve around its famed stone heads, or moai. How could a culture with so little material goods, focus not on survival, but on creating incredibly intricate and poignant monuments? How were they carved? How were the statues, some of which stand thirty feet high and weigh up to eighty tons, transported? Why did production stop? Why are so many broken and abandoned?
There is no shortage of possible explanations: the statues were built to honor ancestors and to watch over the island (which is why they all face inland, and not out to the sea); they were carved from a volcanic quarry with stone tools (metal was not introduced to the island until recently); the moai were “walked,” using a complicated rigged pulley and lever system, or they were rolled atop multiple tree trunks (the wheel also did not make it to the island until Europeans first visited in the 18th-century). Construction halted due to a revolution or the arrival of Europeans or widespread disease (we do know the pause was sudden and final, as evidenced by abandoned tools left by unfinished statues). Statues are knocked down from weather-related incidents, during revolutions or when they fell and broke during transport.
When I showed a friend back home my photographs, she asked how on earth I was able to get so close to these archeological treasures, a remark that reminded me of a modern-day mystery: the island has no fences, ropes or lines guarding the 1,000 statues. The only thing keeping visitors from climbing on the heads is the hushed nature of the setting. The respect the moai elicit is so strong that visitors seem to fall under their spell. I certainly was incredibly struck by the statues, returning to view them multiple times, almost as if I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
As mysterious as the moai are the island’s remoteness and intricate culture itself. The longer you visit, the more questions arise: How did the people get there? What brought them there? Where did all the vegetation and animals come from? (As a volcanic island, Easter Island was not part of the ancient Pangaea supercontinent, thus everything had to arrive via wind, bird, sea or ship.) How did a culture, with rich complexity (with even its own language, rongorongo), develop without outside inspiration, thousands of miles away from civilization? And tragically, the final question: what actually caused the culture’s collapse?
The island’s bareness adds to its eerie feeling and prompts scientists’ favorite question: where did all the trees go? Studies have shown that the island was forested at one point, but it now has very few trees, resembling the bogs of Ireland more than a subtropical island. Much to my delight, along these exposed and rolling hills, roam an estimated 10,000 wild horses, adding another enigmatic element to the landscape. (This number is made more significant when considering that the human population is currently only 5,000.)
My visit passed in what felt like a dream, filled with breathtaking vistas and rich folklore. On my first day on the island, we were told an older man had died, leading a local to comment that there would be a great rain soon: “There always is after a death, as the spirit is passing.” If I had any doubt, the next day saw a ferocious and unseasonable rainstorm. By the end of my five days on Easter Island, I had stopped asking questions starting with “how” and “why,” having come to appreciate the island for what it was, not how it came to be. Questions outweighing answers is what makes Easter Island so unique. Just don’t ask Siri about it.
Getting There: Easter Island is the world’s most remote inhabited island, located halfway between Tahiti and Chile. LAN is the only airline serving Easter Island, flying from Lima, Santiago or Tahiti. Connecting in Lima takes three hours off overall flying time for those traveling from the U.S.
When to Go: The island’s temperature rarely dips below 60 or rises above 80 degrees and constant breezes keep away any humidity. The most popular time to visit is between October and April, with May seeing more rain. Tapatai Festival runs from the end of January until the beginning of February.
Where to Stay: Explora Rapa Nui (www.explora.com) is the ultimate luxury option on Easter Island. Part of the acclaimed Explora portfolio, the beautifully secluded lodge has stylish rooms in two ranch houses with floor-to-ceiling windows. The staff takes care of every detail, from gourmet meals to expeditions and adventures. Hanga Roa Eco Village & Spa (www.hangaroa.cl) is an alternative for visitors who would like a bit more freedom to make their own plans. Located in town, the property has luxurious accommodations and an incredible spa.
Who Should Go: Although a trip to Easter Island is an ideal family holiday, the historical aspects of all tours, along with a lack of kid-friendly establishments and activities, makes the destination much better suited to couples, friends and families traveling with older children (twelve and above). The island is also popular as a stop for honeymooners and romantics heading to Tahiti for an escape the ideal visit length is four nights, in order to see all the sights. The time difference from New York is only one hour, so Americans benefit from having zero jet lag.
Check out the recommended reading list for Easter Island
Read about recommended hotels on Easter Island
Read about the famous stone heads of Easter Island
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