Easter Island, Chile: Mysterious history & unreal landscapes

It’s hard to pick highlights in South America because we visited so many unique places.  But if we had to choose, Easter Island would definitely be towards the top of our list!  Although our stay was short, the wild coastal landscapes and mysterious historical sites absolutely took our breath away.

Day 1: Scootering along the east coast

For our first day, we decided to do a self-guided tour of the ruins along the east coast.  We rented a scooter, grabbed a map, and spent the whole day checking out ocean viewpoints and some seemingly-purposeful, some seemingly-random rocks.  Although we didn’t get the historical narrative that a guided tour would’ve offered, it was 100% worth it to take as much time as we wanted at each location. 

We had a delicious picnic overlooking some crazy waves and a landscape worthy of a motorcycle ad.

We stopped at almost every ruins spot marked on our map with no initial idea which were significant.  Some moai (head statues) were indistinguishable from boulders except for the fences and signs that warned against damaging them.  Others stood proudly, giving us a glimpse into their former majesty.

We stumbled upon a model village with some surprisingly short thatched houses that you could go inside.  Still not sure why they were built so short initially (tiny people?), but we did find out later that the people eventually transitioned to the more durable housing option of caves.  We also checked out some rock carvings, which even my art-historian self didn’t get that excited by.

But apart from the random adventuring, we did know that we needed to make it to two important sites.  One was Rano Raraku, the rock source of the island’s heads and still the site of many well-maintained statues.  It was amazing to see statues of different sizes and shapes standing and lying all over the hilly landscape.  We spent plenty of time soaking up their strangeness and speculating about their meaning.  It had such a weird vibe that we were reluctant to leave!

The other key destination for our first day was Ahu Tongariki, which boasts 15 upright moai right next to the ocean.  Up until this point, we hadn’t seen any unified organization of the moai statues.  Arriving felt like stepping from the messiness of “real life” and history into a postcard of the past!  We later learned that at one point, all of the moai on the island had been toppled.  Then there was a period of time in which basically anyone with money could come over to Easter Island and restore the statues and settings.  However, now that Rapa Nui is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, restoration has many regulations that results in a higher cost and therefore less completed projects.  I liked the combination of unrestored history and picture-perfect recreations, but I believe that Tommy’s opinion of UNESCO took a bit of a dip after hearing about that.

Day 2: Tour of the central sites

On our second day, we opted to go with a guided tour.  This ended up being perfect,because we got to ride in a van instead of on a bike while it was raining, and were also able to ask them plenty of questions about the sites that we had seen the day before.  We visited a few more of the restored sites, including one on the island’s only sandy beach (Anakena).  This is known for being the “birthplace” of the island and has quite the interesting wooden sculpture to celebrate that.

At each spot, we learned more about the internal and external struggles of the Rapa Nui people as well as physical facts about the moai statues.  This is where we learned about UNESCO rules, the housing type transition (clan warfare resulted in the thatch houses being burned down frequently), and toppling of the moai (various theories, none confirmed).  The most interesting fact about the moai was that their eyes were originally made of white shells and coral.  The moais’ ancestral power was “activated” when the eyes were inserted.  Another fun fact was that the big circles on tops of some of their heads are hair buns (not hats)!

The highlight of day 2, however, was definitely Rano Kau.  This is an extinct volcano with a lake inside that has long served as an important source of freshwater for the island.  When you write it out like that, it doesn’t sound that amazing – but trust me, it was completely otherworldly.  The rich greens, browns, and yellows of the plants growing in and around the volcano created a beautiful contrast with the cool greys and blues of the water and sky.  It was both soft and harsh, the jagged volcanic rocks coexisting with plant life.  Photos cannot do this place justice.  I would say that it looks like something out of Middle Earth, but Tommy says I maybe shouldn’t use that reference since I’ve never read or watched Lord of the Rings.  But you get the picture. 😉 It was unreal!

Not to mention… Rano Kau also happened to be the site of the Rapa Nui’s birdman competition.  What is that, you might ask?  Only the fierce race to determine who would be the next ruler of the island!  (This was after the clans lost faith in the ancestral moai).  The fittest clansmen would run around the volcano’s edge, climb into the ocean, swim to an islet to retrieve a manutara bird egg, tie it to their forehead, and swim back to present it to their chosen clan ruler for the next year.  As a prize, the winner got to pick a wife who had been trapped in a cave in order to obtain “beautiful” pale white skin.  Yeah, the women really got the short end of the stick in that deal.

We were so glad that we chose the guided tour for day 2, as we definitely wouldn’t have understood as much of the historical significance that the moai statues and Rano Kau hold without it.  We had another half day on the island after that, which we spent walking around town and watching the waves. 

Throughout our travels, there have been a few locations (Zhangjiajie in particular) that we both knew we would regret having to say goodbye to.  Although I didn’t expect it, Easter Island was one of them.  I constantly found myself trying to just soak up the moment, reluctant to move on to the next site because I didn’t know when I would next get to see anything like it.  Easter Island’s incredibly beautiful landscapes and strange history took a special hold on our heart.  We would highly recommend it to anyone making a bucket list!  (Oh, and it’s an runner-up in the new list of 7 world wonders, if you need any additional incentive! 😉)

We are currently loving life in Mexico, and will be back in the Midwest at the beginning of August.  Until then, keep an eye out every 10 days for a new blog post covering a location from the past 9 months! 👀

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