Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is territorially a part of Chile and one of the most remote populated islands in the world, as well as one of the most mysterious. Best known for its Moai, the massive volcanic carvings that encircle it, Easter Island's past is shrouded in mystery and an exploration of the island, an introduction to its residents, and a contemplation of its history and future should be on every world traveler's list.
Easter Island is most easily accessible from Santiago, Chile via an approximately 6-hour flight. Alternatively, regular flights from Tahiti stop at Easter Island on their way to Chile. A few cruise ships make landings at Easter Island, as well. I visited as part of a trip through Chile and Peru, making the flight and staying for four days before returning to South America.
Where to Stay
Off the beaten path for most travelers, Easter Island offers a variety of hotel options which, in my experience, need not be booked in advance. In fact, the airport lobby boasts numerous staffed booths offering accommodation ranging from full-service hotels to tent camping (tents provided, if desired). The less-adventurous can book in advance for any option, but don't be afraid to step off the plane not knowing where you'll be staying; you won't have difficulty finding something suitable, and at a reasonable price.
Stepping off of the plane in Easter Island feels like stepping off of the plane in many Polynesian countries: travelers are greeted by a ukelele band and offered faux-flower leis, which are returned upon leaving the airport. Leaving the airport, though, and moving on to Hanga Roa (Easter Island's only town), the Rapa Nui culture becomes evident.
I recommend exploring the town by foot. Just north of the city proper, situated near the harbor, is the first Ahu a visitor is likely to encounter. A small meadow precedes it, this often being grazed by the rangy horses now inhabiting the island. Beyond this, atop their tightly-formed pedestals, the Moai seem to grow in size the nearer one draws, menacing coral eyes staring across the land through the millennia to a past long forgotten.
Not far away is the Hanga Roa cemetery, a small graveyard bordered by a low volcanic wall. Within are graves marked by tombstones simple and elaborate; everywhere, though, are flowers. Far from mourning death, the cemetery feels like a celebration of life, and is well worth the short walk.
Unique to Easter Island is the feeling that you can see almost everything there within just a few days; indeed visitors can view literally the entire island from single vantage point. That said, what you do see will stay with you for a lifetime. Touring the island can be done by foot, bicycle or by car, and the mode of transportation is best determined by the length of your stay and your activity level. I preferred renting a bicycle. Combined with hiking excursions, this allowed me to visit every major Ahu and most of the minor ones, as well as numerous side excursions, in just a few days, returning to Hanga Roa every evening. The island can be circumnavigated by bicycle in a day, as well.
Rana Raraku is the extinct volcano that provides the raw material for the Moai, and absolutely must be seen to be comprehended. After paying the nominal entrance fee, visitors hike into the crater, part of which has become a lake frequented by the island's horses. The quarry itself is surreal. Thousands of years have seen the earth build up over the Moai, themselves in various states of completion, and in the Spring one can expect to see what looks like stone giants marching out of a sea of grass.
The circumference of the island is dotted with Ahus, some restored, some not, some partially so. A day spent visiting as many as possible will be both exhausting and exhilarating, and the most famous Moai may not be the most striking. Realize that each of them represents a generation of labor and was built with the notion that it was a memorial that would last forever.
Beyond the famed Moai are other peculiarities; the Dos Ventanas (Two Windows) cave, which served as a refuge for various important Rapa Nui personages during civil war and incursions from Peru alike. The Ana te Pahu (Banana Cave) once also may have served to shelter residents during times of strife.
Orongo, presumed to be one of the last population centers on Easter Island before European re-settlement, is on the southwestern tip of the island. It can be visited on a day hike from Hanga Roa, and the views of the caldera (volcanic crater) and the ruins of the stone buildings, combined with the petroglyphs and the bizarre history of the "birdman" cult (which saw young men scale the sheer cliffs down to water's edge, swim the ocean, climb a pinnacle jutting from the water, retrieve an egg of the Sooty Tern, and return with it, unbroken, strapped to their foreheads, is impossible to forget.
Maunga Terevaka is the defunct volcano in the center of the island. Hiking to the peak will allow visitors to see the whole of the island and the unbroken ocean surrounding it in a 360-degree panorama. Rapa Nui has been called the "navel of the world" and standing on the top of Manuga Terevaka feels like standing, quite literally, on top of the world.
Easter Island is home to a comprehensive cultural/historical museum that may or may not be open, depending on how island relations with Chile are at the time of visitation. I found it closed when I visited due to protests; if it is open, though, local reviews highly recommend it.
Finally, because no visit to a tropical isle is complete without obligatory lounging on a breathtaking-beach, no visit to Easter Island can be considered complete until visitors have spent a few hours (at least) at Anakena, the golden sand beach on the northern coast. It is beautiful in the extreme, boasts its own modest Ahu, and even serves those travelers with a sense of adventure, because a stroll through its wide palm grove runs the serious risk of head injury by falling coconut.
The Easter Island population is small, less than 6,000, and strongly protective of its history. In true Polynesian fashion, it's also incredibly welcoming to those who wish to know it. Business on the island are owned by residents of the island, and money spent there goes to locals. The performers seen at a nighttime cultural show are the same people you will see tooling through Hanga Roa on a scooter the next day.
Easter Island is home to both a large, far-ranging (at least as far as geography allows) herd of wild horses. There is also a substantial population of stray dogs. Both appear healthy enough as many residents volunteer their time and money to feed and care for them, and the dogs are extremely friendly. My hike from Hanga Roa to Orango was accompanied by a local dog who stuck with me the entire time; in return, she earned a nice meal at the end of the day!
Of note is that Easter Island has its own brewery, which produces the Mahina-branded pale ale and stout. The stout is outstanding!
The history of Easter Island is still controversial, and may well be so forever, but from the European perspective, it was first discovered by the Dutch in a culturally inconsequential (from the Dutch perspective) 1722 visit, but by 1774, many of the Moai had been toppled during civil wars. Peruvian slave trade further reduced the population, and this combined with environmental pressures meant the end of Rapa Nui as an island unto itself. With regard to earlier history, many theories abound, but that which I find most plausible is that Easter Island was home to two distinct immigrations; one from greater Polynesia, and a later immigration from Peru, and that it was the interaction of these two disparate cultures that ultimately determined the fate of the island.