Exploring the Mystery of Easter Island

The moai. The mysterious statues of Easter Island are that main draw, bringing thousands of tourists each year.

Many visitors come for about two days, do several group tours, relax at the hotel, and then leave. I, however,  have dreamed about visiting Easter Island for decades. I wanted to truly get to know the island beyond what any bus tour could provide.

Seeing as the island is about seven miles wide and 15 miles long, I ditched the idea of a tour bus or even renting a car. I was going to hike and bike my way around Easter Island.

So I started planning.

Arriving to Easter Island from Santiago

There is really only one way to get to Easter Island– by plane. The majority of flights depart from Santiago, Chile, on LATAM (formerly LAN) Airlines.

Currently, there are eight flights a week from Santiago, so booking early is advised. One flight a week also departs from Tahiti. Flight time to Easter Island from Santiago is about five hours, generally departing in the morning. 

Arriving at Mataveri Airport, the entire plane crowds into a small baggage claim area. While waiting, you can visit the CONAF booth to purchase the entry ticket to the national park on the island (current cost is $80 USD or 54,000 CH Peso).

The ticket is valid for the entire length of your stay and is the only ticket you need to visit any of the sites on the island. Just be sure to have it on you when you visit all the archaeological sites. If the queue is too long at the airport, you can also purchase the entry ticket at Rano Raraku.

The airport is within walking distance of the main town, Hanga Roa. But nearly every accommodation on the island offers free shuttle service to/from the airport, greeting you with a flower lei. Arriving in the early afternoon, it makes for a wonderful time to explore Hanga Roa.

To orientate one’s self on the island and to learn its history, the first stop should be Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum. A small but wonderfully detailed museum that sheds light on the history and culture of the island (though a recommended reading before getting to the island is The Mystery of Easter Island by Katherine Routledge).

Admission to the museum is $2.00 USD and is open 9:30 – 17:30 Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 – 12:30 on the weekend and is closed on Mondays. It is also one of the rare places on the island where there is a public restroom. Mark this location down guys!

Afterwards, it was a quick stop at the post office for a special Easter Island passport stamp. Just up the street is the Mercado Artesanal (Mon. – Sat.), offering hand carved moai, wood crafts, jewelry, etc. I had to walk around twice before deciding what I wanted to buy. Most stalls will accept either USD or the Peso.

Exploring Easter Island Day 1

The first full day began before sunrise. Being two hours behind Santiago, sunrise was just after 8:00 a.m. The place to be to watch the sun come up is Tongariki, which is the site that has the most standing moai – 15 statues. As Tongariki is on the far side of the island, the hotel arranged taxi service to the site (20,000 pesos per person).

Arriving while it is still dark, the outline of the moai begins to appear at the first hint of light.

Watching the sun rise behind the statues is a once-in-a-lifetime, serene, and magical moment. Most people departed back to town (taxis will wait) after the sun was up. I stayed behind and had the impressive site to explore all to myself.

My plan for the day was simple. I’d walk back to town, which is about 13 miles, stopping at the sites along the way. Following the road, I started my leisurely walk heading to the nearby Rano Raraku.

Making my way past all the moai heads dotting the hillside I could feel the excitement build. This is Easter Island at its most iconic. All the pictures I looked at before visiting were turning into reality before my eye!

This extinct volcano was the factory for building the moai. Here you will see moai in all various stages of completion, some broken, some with unique characteristics including one sitting moai. There is a small gift shop, café, and restroom ($1.00 USD) on the site.

Rather than go back to the main road, I hiked the Trail of the Fallen Moai. A one-mile trail that meets up with the main road, where you pass about a dozen fallen moai that never made it to their destination.

The incredible thing about the trail is that the moai are right there, all around you. You could literally reach out and touch them if you wanted to (resist the temptation to do so, however!). To be able to get so close to the fallen statues and study them was an incredible experience. At the archaeological sites one cannot walk up to the moai nor disturb the ahu (platform) that they are on.

Walking along the road, it felt as if I had the island to myself as traffic was rare. One is more likely to encounter the wild horses that roam the island or even a herd of cows than people. But this was how one gets to know the landscape. In either direction, an extinct volcano looms in the distance. Next to you, the ocean waves crash against the lava rock. It’s easy to lose yourself in the surroundings. The soundtrack of the island is the waves crashing, the crow of the rooster, and the billow of the wind.

Exploring the island, you see the statues in their natural environment. In museums, there is something powerful and alluring about them, but they look out of place. On the island, they belong. You may not understand their being, but they suddenly make sense. They are one with landscape. The statues need the island as the island needs them.

Along the way, I passed smaller sites where the moai are face down (when the culture of the moai eroded, the natives knocked down the statues). As remarkable as it is to see the moai restored and standing, there is a connection with the past at the sites where the statues are face down. This is how the natives left them. And, this is how the first Europeans found the island.

Seeing the statues thrown down, you cannot help but ponder on what happened that made the islanders lose their faith and destroy their idols that had been their way of life for centuries. What was life like? How did they even knock down these towering statues?

As I made my way closer to town, some locals pulled over offering a ride into town. I thought, why not? I had read that locals will sometimes offer rides so I hopped in. Locals are very proud of their island and are curious to know what visitors think of it. Not to mention, they are super friendly and laid back. No “buenos días”. Always a “hola” to greet strangers.

Back in town, I stopped at Oceanic Rent a Car, where I picked up my mountain bike for the next day. Renting a bike is quite cheap – about 8,000 Pesos per day ($12.00 USD), including chain and lock (although, some of the sites do not have a place to lock up). Car rentals, on the other hand will run about $80.00 USD a day. Insurance is not available; so, if there is any damage to the vehicle, the renter must cover all expenses.

Exploring Easter Island Day 2

The next morning, I hopped on the bike and headed to the site of Vaihu. If you are not used to biking as I was, it can be a little challenging at times as there are a few hills. But, when you can coast, with the road to yourself, sweeping views of the ocean, a volcano in the distance, it is just a glorious sensation.

Finally heading inland, I stopped by Puna Pau, the red rock quarry where the moai’s top-knots were carved; Ahu Akivi, the only grouping of moai found inland that also face the water (restrooms are here, too, for $1.00 USD); and hiked up Terevaka, the tallest of the island’s three volcanoes, offering amazing views of the island.

It was finally time to visit Orongo, the ceremonial village atop the volcano Rano Kau and the focal area for the birdman cult, which rose on the island after the fall of the moai.

Parking my bike at the trail head, I hiked up the one-mile trail to the top. An easy ascent through a rare grove of trees. At the top, you are immediately greeted by the mirador of Rano Kau, and what a sight! The volcanic crater has become a freshwater lake, creating a fragile ecosystem. It was like looking at the world’s largest impressionist painting. Astounding!

It’s possible to hike most of the way around the crater. Walking around the Orongo village offers incredible views of the nearby motu (islets). This is also where you will see the largest concentration of birdman carvings on the island. Heading back down the trail, all of Easter Island is before you. It is a sweeping view of the unique landscape.

Exploring Easter Island Day 3

For the last full day, I hired a taxi and went to Anakena, the largest of the three beaches found on the island. Standing on the beach are seven of the most detailed and beautifully carved moai on the island. Arriving at 9:00 a.m., I had the beach to myself until a herd of horses ran through and rolled in the sand before galloping off. A few cafes and a restroom ($1.00 USD) are in the park next to the beach. From here, I walked along the road to Papa Vaka to see the marine inspired petroglyphs.

Walking back, I went off the beaten path to visit Ovahe, the second beach on Easter Island. Passing several grazing wild horses, I followed the rocky path to the secluded beach. It is a hidden gem on the island.

As I headed back to town on foot, I was offered my second ride from a local. After dinner (my go-to place was Club Sandwich – massive sandwiches and empanadas, all fresh, and very affordable), I headed over to Ahu Tahai, walking distance from town, to take in sunset. Four standing moai, the ocean, and one amazing sunset, made for a perfect end to another perfect day.

Leaving Easter Island

On the last day, I had a few hours before I had to head to the airport. I walked up the coast and found a lava rock to sit on. In front of me, Rano Kau, three moai sites, Hanga Roa, and the ocean. It was the perfect spot to sit and reflect on my time on the island realizing there was still more to explore, more to understand about the mystery of the island.

I dreaded getting on the plane. It felt like I was leaving a dear friend. One that I didn’t know if or when I would see again.

If you take the time and don’t rush from site to site, the island gets inside you, becomes a part of you. With that, I know I will be back one day.

Just the Basics:

  • Airfare: Roundtrip/Return from Santiago, Chile was $500.00
  • Accomodation: Tupa Hotel, average $85.00 a night (breakfast included)
  • Meals: Dinner at Club Sandwich was about 8,000 pesos ($12.00). In general, food will cost more than on mainland Chile as nearly everything is imported to the island.
  • Transportation: Total cost for stay was 56,000 pesos ($86.00), including 2-day bike rental and two taxi rides
  • Admissions: Total $82.00 – national park entry and admission to museum
  • Total Spend for 4 Nights (not including souvenirs): $1,056.00 USD

Where to Stay on Easter Island

Tupa Hotel

Located on the outskirts of Hanga Roa, the Tupa Hotel is a charming hotel with nice size rooms and a super friendly staff. Every morning they had a large breakfast spread that you can enjoy from the dining room where you will find a magnificent view of Terevaka volcano. Recommended for travelers on a midrange budget.

Other options include:

About the Author

A nomad at heart, April went on her first international trip when she was 19 and has been hooked on travel ever since. Traveling as an independent, solo, female traveler, organizing her own adventures, she finds that her bucket list keeps getting longer rather than shorter.

You can follow April here on Instagram (solo_traveler77) or Twitter (@unendingjourney)

 

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