When I found out that I could afford plane tickets to Easter Island, I was ecstatic. I knew that this would most likely be my one and only chance to visit the world re-known place. However, I was lucky since I was already living in Santiago, the closest airport to the island. My round trip cost me $480 U.S. The only reason why I knew about this amazing deal was because one of my private students worked for Latam airlines and gave me the heads up. Never underestimate the fact that its all about who you know!
A Few Things to Know About Easter Island
To the locals, the island is called Rapa Nui. It is named after an island in French Polynesia called Rapa that is shaped similarly. Nui means big, so the name is just Big Rapa. The language is also called Rapa Nui, though I was told that only about 10% of the people there speak it anymore. Everyone speaks Spanish since the island is technically owned by Chile. This is something the locals are not happy about. At all. The indigenous are referred to as Rapanui, and to be a true citizen, you have to have been born on the island. Only citizens can own property on the island.
As for the moai (the statues you’re so familiar with), they were carved out of volcanic rock to represent chiefs, or important members in the community. They face inland, away from the sea, so that they could look over and protect their villages and people. The Rapanui believed that the moai possessed mana, or spiritual power, and that it was this that protected the people after the chief had passed away. The interesting thing is that at one time, every single moai was knocked down, mostly face first. This was done by the Rapanui themselves. Instead of fighting between villages, they would go and knock down each other’s moai, face down. When this happened, the moai would lose their mana, and just become a carved rock. That is why some of the moai are chipped, have broken pieces, and have lost all of their hats.
I only found out where in the world Easter Island was when I decided to move to Chile. I quickly realized that a lot of people back home didn’t know either. Here is where the island is as a reference. It is the most remote inhabited island in the world. (There is another island that is more remote, but no one lives there). There are only 2 places on the island where people live. 95% of the population is in a town called Hango Roa. The other 5% live on the opposite corner of the island, near a smaller beach called Ovahe.
Pricing Out the Trip
My friend Tracy was along for ride on this adventure too, and together we had researched everything under the sun it felt like. I read a fair share of blogs about how expensive everything was, to prepare to spend a lot, that it was by no means a frugal vacation. After reading all of that, I stressed over money for weeks leading up to the vacation that no longer felt like a vacation. I was asking for tips from everyone; my students, Facebook groups, you name it. In the end, we both decided to withdraw at least $300 because we were told almost no one took card, and there were only 2 ATM’s on the island.
We found out that the reality was very different to everything you just read. Taking out cash was a good idea, but not extremely necessary. There were plenty of restaurants, shops, and tour places that had signs saying they accepted cards. Luckily we had been warned ahead of time about bringing our own food, so we ate in for breakfasts and lunch. Even when we went out exploring, we packed a lunch and some water. When we did go out to eat, it was a little pricey, but not insanely so. The empanadas were about twice as much there as they are in Santiago, but that only brings them to about $6 or $7. We shared a giant burger once, and went out for ice cream a few times; so in all the food on the island only cost us about $40.
As you can imagine the hotels there are very expensive, but you always have other options if you take the time to look. I was very lucky and found a couchsurfer that was willing to host me, which means I got to stay on the island for free. Her name was Maca and she was super sweet. I even got a room to myself, and a bed to sleep in! Of course I was free to use her kitchen to cook the spaghetti i had brought. As for Tracy, she got pretty lucky too with Airbnb. Her place was only $45 a night. For the first night, she was taken to a hotel as the Airbnb house wasn’t ready yet. She didn’t have to pay extra, but the hotel was $85 a night, and it came with a stellar free breakfast that we took full advantage of. So when it comes to finding a place to stay you don’t really have to break the bank.
Another money sucker are the tours. Now in San Pedro we splurged on them as everything was very far away, and we could easily have gotten lost. However, there is only 1 road that goes around the park, so we opted out of the tour buses and just rented some bikes instead. They ended up costing 10,000 pesos for 24 hours, or around $18. For a little bit more you can rent a scooter; the catch is they require you to have a motorcycle license to rent one. The loop in the park is 48 kilometers, or 30 miles, long; therefore I would recommend getting the license ahead of time and getting a scooter, unless you are extremely fit. One great thing about the tours is that the guide tells you everything you need to know about the island and the different spots you visit. In order to compensate for that, I bought a comprehensive guide book and we managed just fine.
We landed on Thursday, August 31, but that afternoon was just spend unpacking, getting our bearings, and planning the upcoming itinerary. The real adventure started on Friday morning. Like I mentioned before, we had an amazing free breakfast complete with a fresh strawberry smoothie, ham and cheese sandwiches, fruits, and little pastries. I made sure to fill up as we had a long hike ahead of us. The loop we planned on doing was a small one, only about 3-4 miles. We started it off with some moai and just a few of the thousands of wild horses on the island.
Our walk led us along the coast for awhile, which was gorgeous. The entire island was formed by volcanoes so all the rock is jet black. I have rarely seen such beautiful cliffs, not to mention black ones.
Every once in a while the weather would spit out a little rain, and then stop. Since spring is just beginning here, it was the rainy season. But all we needed we light jackets that weren’t even waterproof. Thankfully for us, it’s much much warmer on the island.
Eventually the road turned inland, and we were able to appreciate the scenery. There was a plethora of archaeological sites along the way; we stopped to try and appreciate each one. Along for the ride were 2 little dogs that had decided to escort us for our entire trek, even exploring some old lava tubes with us.
After we finished our trek it was time for a shower and to get ready for the show! There are authentic Rapa Nui shows of ancient dances. Tracy and I felt like we had to go for the whole experience and see one. The one we chose was 15,000 pesos, so around $25. Tracy was afraid that it would be just like all the luaus she’s seen in Hawaii, but said that it was very different. It turned out to be an awesome show, and a great way to end our first full day on Easter Island.
Today was going to be the longest day of all. At 9 am we were ready and waiting at the bike rental place for them to open the doors. When we had planned this, we didn’t know that the entire loop was 30 miles. The employees told us that the long road along the coast would take us an hour by bike, and the shorter one going through the middle of the island was only 45 minutes.
That made us feel fairly confident, so we decided to start on the coastline road, and it was gorgeous. We were feeling great as we started our day-long adventure. We had packed lunches and planned to eat while relaxing at Anakena beach, which is where the two roads meet on the opposite side of the island from Hango Roa.
We stopped at some places, and skipped others. There are a lot of moai that are still laying face down along the road. They were left since they are broken in half, and unable to be restored. From what I saw, most of the island’s moai were face down, broken in half or pieces. It was kind of sad to see; something so huge and important to this culture just lying there, basically looking dead.
What we were aiming for were the bigger attractions, the famous moai that you always see pictures of in history books. Halfway down the long road, we finally reached Rano Raruku, where the moai were carved, and where their heads stick out of the ground.
These ones were the biggest ones we had seen yet. The reason for that was simple; as the Rapanui continued carving, they got better and better. So they tried to build bigger and better statues. The heads were easily twice my height, around 15 feet maybe. We couldn’t even see the biggest part; their bodies. Those were still underground. At one time, archaeologists excavated one, and found that they carvings were all intact. As impressive as it would be to see it unearthed, the best way to preserve them is to leave them in the ground, as volcanic rock is soft and very prone to weathering.
I could have spent hours at Rano Raruku; it was so peaceful, and there was so many things to see and places to explore. Behind the hill where the moai were carved out of, is a crate made my the long deceased volcano. In the crater was a pristine little lake with some wild horses on the far shore. It was magical.
Eventually we had to continue on our way, and that’s when we came across the famous 15. If I thought the heads were impressive, I was blown away at these massive moai that were complete with their bodies. The site is called Ahu Tongariki; ahu means platform. These impressive statues were only restored from 1992-1996, so they have only been standing for 25 years or so.
After soaking in the awesomeness, we were back on the road. By this time, it had gotten a little painful as our butts weren’t used to so much bicycle riding. As fast as we went, it seemed that Anakena beach was getting farther and farther, like when you try to chase something in a dream.
There was one last stop before the beach, and that was at Te Pito Kura, where the largest moai ever stood up now lies fallen forever. This moai is special because he is the only one whose name was recorded; Paro. Paro’s widow had the statue commissioned after his death. Unfortunately when he was knocked over, he had been broken in half and was unable to be restored.
A little ways downhill from the platform is a large smooth, round stone surrounded by 4 other smaller ones. There is a legend that says the island’s first king brought the stone from a mythical Polynesian island because it possesses large amounts of mana. Scientists however, have discovered that it is from the island.
Since it is volcanic rock, it heats up more than other rocks due to the high iron content. This sometimes causes compasses to behave strangely when placed on top of it.
After saying bye to Paro, we rode until we reached Anakena beach. It’s a beautiful, white, sandy beach that is very popular with the locals and very important because of its history. This is the spot where Polynesians first arrived to Easter Island 1300 years ago.
There is a grove of palm trees that dot the land as you approach the beach. Sadly, these were imported from Tahiti. There are no more native palm trees on the island as the natives used them all up (with all their other resources) a long time ago. Much of the flora and fauna is not native to the island, which is why it is more of a grassland than a tropical island.
We ate a late lunch, took a break on the sand, and relaxed for about 20 minutes in the sun. Eventually we lazily made our way around the beach and back to the bikes. We were pretty tired and hot, and happy to be going the short way home. What we didn’t know was that upon immediately leaving Anakena beach, there is about a mile of constant uphills. Tracy found some magical momentum and made it all the way up without having to get off. I tried that and failed miserably, walking the worst parts. As grueling as it was, when we made it to the top, we felt like superheroes. It also helped that the rest of the way was mercifully downhill.
When we got back, we found out that the entire loop we did was 30 miles! Had I known that ahead of time, I probably would have splurged on the four-wheeler. I’m glad I didn’t know. To celebrate our victory, Tracy and I went to the restaurant where my couchsurfer works and treated ourselves to some delicious tuna and cheese empanadas. Later that night I finally got to share some drinks with Maca and her roommate. We stayed up talking until 2 am, but then I had to go to sleep.
The next day when I woke up (too early because of all the damn roosters on the island) and realized just how sunburned I was. Stupidly I had thought that it would be just as cold and cloudy as Chile since it was only very early spring. Sunscreen is a much needed commodity.
It was nice to have a more relaxed day planned. We began our hike to the summit of Rano Kau, the island’s largest extinct volcano. On the way, we saw an awesome lava tube cave called Ana Kai Tangata with ancient drawings of birds on the inner wall.
We didn’t stay long as we were excited to see the crater and the lake within. The hike was uphill but only took about an hour or so. It was definitely worth it, especially since we did it for free instead of paying for a tour bus to take us. The view was spectacular; the lake alone is over half a mile long. In it are some very special plants. Since the Rapanui basically wiped out all of their own resources, this large oasis was able to save some of the original flora from the island since the high walls protect against the constant ocean breeze.
We enjoyed the view for a bit, then turned right and continued walking down the road towards another ancient site. Overlooking the ocean from atop the 1,000 foot black cliffs is the stone village of Orongo.
Made up of 54 restored houses, this quaint little place was once a ceremonial village, where the Rapanui would live temporarily for certain events. It is best known for being used during the birdman competitions.
Every year, selected men would train for this dangerous event. When the Sooty Terns came in to roost, they would climb down the cliff face with some supplies and a small board, and swim a little over a mile to the small island where the birds would lay their eggs. This is when the race began, and whoever got their hands on the first egg lain won. But the winner still had to bring the egg back to Orongo fully intact. This competition went on every year for 150 years.
We wandered slowly around Orongo, enjoying the breeze and the deep blue water. Eventually we made our way back to the entrance of Rano Kau, took a last look, and headed back down the side of the volcano to Hango Roa. When we got back to town, I started feeling light headed. It got progressively worse until I was able to get out of the sun and relax in Tracy’s Airbnb house. I made the mistake of looking up symptoms of heat stroke, and it appeared I may have had a mild case. After running cold water over my burned arms and face for about 15 minutes, we relaxed in the shade so I could cool down.
For dinner, Tracy and I went to a cute little restaurant called Club Sandwich and had the most amazing meal. We split an enormous burger that had homemade mayonnaise, avocado, and bacon, and also an empanada that also had bacon (of course), cheese, and sweet corn. It was delicious. With every bite, we just looked at each other like we couldn’t believe this amazing taste was real. After dinner I went home and fell asleep. Hard.
The next day was a sad one as we were leaving Easter Island. In the beginning we thought 4 days was enough as it was small, but we wanted a few more to just enjoy the chill vibe that exists there. Maca rode in the taxi with Tracy and I to the airport. As we checked in, she bought both of us lovely shell necklaces. Apparently it’s a custom to buy these for guests so they have something to remember the island by.
I have been back for over a week now and still can’t forget about the island and how magical it felt. It’s a little heartbreaking knowing that I will never be able to go back there. Though apparently there are a plethora of tourism jobs there, so if you have ever wanted to work somewhere memorable, there is no better place than Easter Island.