Easter Island, Rapa Nui, as it is known locally, is a place I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. I grew up a bit of a nerd, watching the features of the huge stone heads on the Discovery Channel and I wanted to see them for myself. The opportunity came as I was going to Antarctica. I thought, ‘I'm down in South America already, why not take a few extra days and go?' I caught my flight from Santiago, Chile, the only place that flies directly to Rapa Nui. When we were coming in to land on one of the most remote places in the world, it really hit me that I was finally going to experience this amazing place for myself. I got a bit over-excited and took a picture of the onboard map. I was one of THOSE people…but I didn't care.
I was met at the airport by the Manager of the Hanga Roa Eco Resort, the place I would call home the next two days. As is the custom on Hanga Roa, I was greeted with a necklace of beautiful local flowers and taken by transfer to the resort.
During the 20-minute drive he told us about the history of the island as well as things you must do when you're here; see a local show, experience the quarry and walk around the small town of Hanga Roa.
We arrived and were immediately greeted by staff and a drink: the best way to check into any resort. Hanga Roa Eco Resort was based on the idea of connecting to the natural environment and the history of the island. As they say, it pays homage to Orongo Village, an ancient settlement located on the top of the Rano Kau volcano. They strive to use natural materials and give the least artificial experience possible. The resort has a spa on site, a pool with an ocean view, 3 restaurants (one mainly used for breakfast, one a bistro and an evening restaurant for dinner) and wifi available throughout the resort. When I opened the door to my room I was really blown away. Calling it a ‘hotel room' is an understatement. Most of the room was made up of natural elements. Volcanic rock, cypress trunks and a beautiful clay soaker tub. The sliding door led out to a patio overlooking the ocean. I could definitely get used to this.
Despite how welcoming and beautiful my surroundings were, I was too excited to stay put. I had to get out and explore. I decided to walk into the only town on the island, also named Hanga Roa. The town itself is small, about 3400 people, and comprises 87% of the population. There are several shops, a couple of grocery stores and even a football (soccer) pitch that looks right out onto the harbor. Many of the shops carry the same type of things, but they are all great to browse in.
Tip: Make sure you go to the post office if you visit Hanga Roa. You can get your passport stamped there for free, but be aware you may not always get a chance to send that postcard home. When I went they were out of stamps.
The walk back to the resort was lovely. It's only about 20 minutes from the town and a path/road lies right beside the ocean. It's a pretty amazing realization, looking out onto the pacific and knowing you're thousands of miles away from anything. Not only did I want to explore the island, but I wanted to try out some of the local dishes and see what the resort had in store. Keeping with the theme of the Hanga Roa Resort, much of what is offered in the restaurants are local specialties: I went for the kahi (tuna) and it was perfection. I spent my evening relaxing around the resort and exploring what else they had to offer, and wound up in my lovely, huge clay tub before tucking in and getting rested up for my all-day tour on Day 2.
I had a wonderful breakfast full of fresh, local fruit and at 9am sharp my guide from Maururu Travel, Matu'a, picked me up at the hotel and after picking up the rest of our small group of 8 people, we set off to discover the island. The tour took us all over the island and Matu'a was a great guide. He's originally from Rapa Nui and seemed to know everyone we came across driving through town. His passion for the island and its history shows, and he seemed excited to share it with visitors.
Maut'a told us throughout the day of the islands turbulent history, starting over 1000 years ago and ending in the late 17th century when civil unrest and degradation of the island's resources led close to the extinction of the people. We learned the culture of the people and of course the story of the Moai – the giant statues that have become synonymous with Easter Island. Over 800 statues have been inventoried on Rapa Nui, many of which were never installed and remain at the quarry at Rano Raraku to this day. They are made from hard volcanic rock and average about 4 meters (13 feet) and weigh around 12.5 tonnes! The largest Moai ever carved still sits in the rock bed at the quarry. He is called “El Gigante”, a name that is well suited. El Gigante is 22 meters (72 feet) and weighs between 160 and 182 tonnes. To give you some perspective, a blue whale weighs around 150 tonnes. It is believed that the Moai were carved and erected to honor the dead. The statues were symbols of authority and power, but to the people of the island they were much more than that. Once carved and placed onto the ‘ahu platforms', the people believed the statues were charged with a kind of magical energy called ‘mana'. Many of the ahu platforms were surrounded by villages and settlements and the Moai would look down onto the village, watching over their people.
You can see in this photo that some Moai have what look like hats on top of their heads. This is actually called a ‘Pukau' or top knot and is believed to represent high status.
Our tour continued over many amazing sites but the highlight of the day came at our last spot: Anakena Beach. According to legend, Anakena was the landing place of Hotu Matu'a, the Polynesian Chief who is believed to have founded the first settlement on Rapa Nui. This place was paradise from the moment we arrived. A grove of coconut palms lead us to a white sand beach and crystal-clear blue water, which everyone in our group took advantage of and took a dip. Further away from the beach are small huts where you can buy local food and fresh juices. Try the maracuya (passion fruit). It was amazing. Along with the natural beauty of Anakena Beach, there is also an ahu of 6 Moai. Unlike most of Rapa Nui, these statues look out onto the sea, and not on the village. Some believe they are looking out to sea waiting for their king to arrive. This place was truly breathtaking and I felt as though I could have stayed here forever.
The tour ended and we headed back to our respective hotels in Hanga Roa. I wanted to experience some of the shows I had read about before coming. There are a few places around Hanga Roa that feature the story and traditional dance of the people. The receptionist helped me find a show in town that evening. I saw the Maori Tupuna show which was a 25-minute walk from the resort. I wasn't sure what to expect, but these dancers were amazing. The music was powerful, and the men and women dancing were spectacular. They moved with grace and power and worked their butts off.
Towards the end of the show they began interacting with the audience and much to my surprise, and embarrassment, I was one of the crowd they brought up on stage and to dance with them (I admit to being a not-so-great dancer, but I didn't know anyone there so I worked it and had a great time). My first few days on Rapa Nui were amazing. The resort was beautiful, food and wine delicious and staff were excellent. The sites I experienced would stay with me forever. So far, Rapa Nui was everything I had hoped it would be and there was still more to come! As I was waiting for my transfer to my next hotel, I was presented with a necklace of shells from the area. As is custom on many pacific islands, Rapa Nui was no different. They were beautiful and something I will treasure always.
Stay tuned for part two!
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