Off Chile's mainland

Easter Island: the navel of the world

Set in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Chile's Rapa Nui is a gem for history buffs and nature enthusiasts alike with archaeological wonders and stunning landscapes.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 Category: Top destinations
Isla de Pascua Isla de Pascua (Photo: Sernatur)

Far from the rest of the world and close to paradise, Easter Island is well known for its extinct volcanoes, pristine beaches and the enormous stone statues called moais that attract thousands of international visitors each year. Situated more than 2,000 miles to the west of mainland Chile, the small island is a 70 square mile speck in the Pacific Ocean.

The island is home to a Polynesian culture that dates back at least 1,700 years. In 300 AD, the first migrants arrived on the island, bringing with them a long cultural history preserved in myths and legends that are still being handed down today. The island's 5,000 inhabitants have a rich heritage based on their native language, festivals and traditional songs and dances.

The first European to arrive at Easter Island was Jakob Roggeveen, who landed on Easter Sunday in 1722, giving the island its name. However, the natives call the island Rapa Nui, Te Pito o Te Henua, which means “the navel of the world.” In 1888, Policarpo Toro took possession of the island in the name of the Chilean government, and today it belongs to the country's Valparaíso region.

Easter Island provides many outdoor adventure options. Snorkeling and scuba diving, surfing, sailing, kayaking, horseback riding and trekking are all common activities on and around the island, which was formed by volcanic activity centuries ago. Visitors can easily access the island's three extinct volcanoes, where they can hike down to the lagoons and lush vegetation nestled in their craters. The largest volcano is called Maunga Terevaka (1722 ft) and the other two are called El Poike (1154 ft) and Ranu Kau (1063 ft).

Rapa Nui is considered by some to be the world's largest outdoor museum. It was declared a National Park in 1935 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.

Archaeological attractions
There are close to 900 moais scattered throughout the island, along with a number of other interesting archaeological sites. The journey through these sites is an excellent opportunity to come into contact with the magical energy that emanates from Easter Island.

Even today these places hold a special significance for the local community so it is recommended that visitors pay the greatest respect to the rules at each site. The locals ask people not to climb the ahus and  moais and not to touch the rock carvings.

Rano Raraku: Here you will find a hiking trail that leads to the moai factory, a rock quarry containing almost 400 statues in various stages of construction. The statue-making enterprise seems to have been abandoned suddenly in a puzzling mystery that continues to baffle archaeologists.

Ahus: There are approximately 300 platforms or altars called ahus, scattered throughout the island, most of which are at least partially destroyed. The most important ahu sites are Vaihu, Akahanga, Heki'i, Raai, Te Peu and Vinapu, where visitors can see the remains of everyday human settlements complete with houses, caverns, stoves and henhouses.

Tahai-Ko Te Riku Complex: This site in the town of Hanga Roa contains stone houses, chicken coops, ceremonial sites, three moai platforms (Tahai, Vai Uri, Ko Te Riku), and a jetty built entirely of stone.

Ahu Huri A Urenga: This site near the town of Hanga Roa has a single statue that looks toward the spot where the sun rises on the day of the winter solstice. This astronomical event marks not just the beginning of winter, or Tonga in the Rapa Nui language, but also a number of prohibitions and taboos surrounding fishing and other island activities

Ahu Akivi: This is an archaeological complex with seven statues gazing toward the sunset over the sea. According to tradition, these seven moais represent the first Polynesian explorers who arrived on Rapa Nui after being sent out by King Hotu Matu'a. The Agu Akivi site was restored in 1960 by archaeologist William Mulloy.

Ahu Ature Huki: Located on Anakena Beach, this site has an anthropomorphic statue that is believed to be among the oldest on the island.

Ahu Nau Nau: This site has seven well-preserved statues featuring details that are impossible to make out on other moais, such as tattoos. A moai from this site is currently on display at in the Easter Island Museum.

Caverns and volcanoes
Easter Island has many interesting geographical landmarks for the avid trekking enthusiast, including a number of fascinating caverns. The most popular caverns are Ana Te Pahu and Ana o Keke. Ana o Keke, which means the Cave of the Virgins, is a site that Rapa Nui brides used to visit in preparation for marriage. The cavern is located on the north face of Poike Mountain and can only be entered by crawling on your belly. Ana Te Pahu, on the eastern side of the island, has four large chambers that were used as rooms and ossuaries.

The popular hike to Rano Kao Volcano is a full day excursion through eucalyptus forests until ascending to the crater and climbing down the inside to explore. Today the crater mouth is filled with native and introduced vegetation and unusual stone carvings. A second, less popular route to the volcano's summit passes through a series of cliffs on the volcano's north side.

Beaches
Anakena and Ovahe:
These are the only sand beaches on the island. Anakena is the main beach and with its sand, palm trees and warm, turquoise waters, it is a patch of paradise. Near the beach are two restored ahus and some camping sites. The smaller Ovahe beach is located to the east of Anakena.
Surfing beaches: The main surfing beaches of Rapa Nui are Hanga Roa, Vaihu and Tahai. Hanga Roa has ideal waves for beginners and the island's natives have been mastering waves here for centuries on a special type of body board called a haka nini. Vaihu has beautiful tubes. while Tahai gets the biggest waves on the island.

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