August 2013: Easter Island or the Polynesian name for the island, Rapa Nui has been a dream travel destination of mine ever since childhood. It was always one of those mystical places featured in documentaries about strange and mysterious places. It is easy to understand why the island is shrouded in mystery. Rapa Nui is one of the most isolated islands on Earth and yet there are a thousand of these massive stone heads, built for an unknown purpose via unknown methods, spread out all across the island staring up to the heavens. To better understand the island, my wife and I spent 5 days camping on the island, and one of those nights was spent sleeping in a cave. This is the story of our Rapa Nui trip.

About Rapa Nui

Map of Location

The people of Rapa Nui have lived on the island it is believed since 1200AD. The island is most famous for its colossal stone figures, or moai. The moai represent the spirits of ancestors who are believed to protect their descendants. Approximately 2000 moai were made between the years 1100-1650 and located where they were originally placed. The statues stand above the ground with their faces pointed to the heavens and backs to the ocean.

Rapa Nui would eventually be named Easter Island, its more commonly known name, by a Dutch explorer, who discovered the island on Easter Day, 1722. The island upon discovery by the Dutch was occupied by almost 4,000 islanders.  The next few hundred years would not be kind to the island’s occupants and almost 90% would perish. The reason is a combination of factors such as diseases introduced by Europeans, inter-tribal warfare, famine and slavery. The arrival of Europeans was a disaster for the people of Rapa Nui but their problems began long before the arrival of Europeans. According to oral traditions passed down from generation to generation, the population of Rapa Nui was already suffering free fall due to climate change before the Europeans arrived. Famine, warfare and cannibalism was rampant on the island. Many believe that over-population and over-consumption of the island’s resources led to the deforestation that changed the islands climate bringing famine to it. The people out of desperation then turned to their ancestors building massive moais hoping to please their ancestors and receive help. The warfare continued and cannibalism sent many people hiding in lava caves to find refuge. Then the Europeans came…. Currently there are approx. 3000 people living on Rapa Nui, 70% native and of that population only 800 can speak the Rapa Nui language.

How to Get to Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is actually part of Chile even though it is thousands of miles away. So, the best way to reach it is via Santiago, Chile. Flights started flying to Rapa Nui in the 1990’s. Prior to that it was one of the hardest places in the world to visit and could only be reached by a long sea voyage. Now even by plane, it is far and a 5-hour plane ride from Santiago, Chile or from Tahiti.  I visited Rapa Nui via a LAN Boeing 777 flight from Santiago, Chile.  During the time of my visit, there was one flight every few days and sometimes on a daily basis. In addition to visiting Rapa Nui, my wife and I visited Santiago and other parts of Chile.

Exploring the Island

 

Map of Rapa Nui

As soon as Paula and I arrived to Hanga Roa, we picked up our rental car. The best way to visit Rapa Nui is independently and with a 4WD rental car.  Many of the roads are made of lava rock and in bad condition, so a 4WD vehicle with high clearance is really useful.  We rented a small jeep for only about 40 USD/day including insurance.

Lava rock road that is very easy to puncture a tire and over heat an engine of a basic vehicle

In order to keep costs down, we also brought our tent, camping food, and wine for a week of camping. We stayed most nights in a campground overlooking the ocean in the outskirts of the only town in Rapa Nui, Hanga Roa. The campground had a kitchen, and toilet/shower facilities too. The view from our tent over the ocean was incredible but our exposed location with nothing to block the wind also meant that our tent would flap loudly throughout the night and in one heavy rainstorm our tent collapsed and almost blew away.

Our tent and home in Rapa Nui

A sea turtle we saw resting on shore not far from our campsite

The Hanga Roa campground was our base for most of the trip with the exception of one night when we camped inside a cave overlooking the remote Ovahe Beach. Wild camping on the island is not allowed so we made sure to park the car and walk over to the cave late in the afternoon when no one was around, and it was easy to go unnoticed.  Camping in the small cave overlooking the South Pacific, where the people of Rapa Nui once likely sought shelter from marauding bans of cannibals, was like a dream. The cave was sheltered from the wind and the view over the ocean was incredible, especially early in the morning during sunrise.

Sleeping in a cave at Ovahe Beach

Ovahe Beach below and the cave where we slept is up above

Sunrise Over Ovahe Beach

One of the most scenic landscapes of the island is of Rano Kao crater and the dramatic sea cliffs behind it. A great hike is to hike the entire rim of the crater on the ocean side from end to end. Orango is the ruins of one of the largest and most important Rapa Nui settlements on the island.

Paula looking at the Rano Kao Crater on the south end of the island by Orongo. 

Moai Statues

 

The highlight of any trip to Rapa Nui hands down are the moai statues that are found across the island but mostly in the northern half. The faces of the stone moai cast a somber and eerie glance up into the sky as if they are hoping for the Gods to deliver them from their Earthly torment. The most impressive moai sites are all in the northeast at Ahu Tongariki, Ranu Raraku and Ahu One Makihi.

Ahu One Makihi

Ahu One Makihi

The Moai at Anakena beach which was toppled during the civil war between tribes on Rapa Nui was re-erected by one of my favorite explorers from the 1900’s, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who built a balsam raft and floated across the Pacific from South America to Polynesia to demonstrate his belief that Polynesians originated from South America instead of Asia. His adventure was documented in his book, “The Contiki.” Thor lived a long adventurous life full of adventure exploring the South Pacific and Thor is one of my heroes.

Anakena Beach is a beautiful white sand beach, one of only a few beaches on the island. We went for a swim and the water was freezing.

Me in front of the Anakena beach Moai Erected by Thor Heyerdahl-a hero of mine

Anakena Beach, one of the only beaches on the island

The quarry where many moai are found in different states of construction is located at Ranu Raraku. This to me was the most amazing site on the island and like most places we visited, we had the place to ourselves which made the visit more mysterious. The Moais are huge, and their upper torso extends out of the ground. No one knows why construction of the moai seemed to stop abruptly. 

Paula at Ranu Raraku

Ranu Raraku

Ranu Raraku

Ranu Raraku

Ahu Tongariki

Ahu Tongariki

Crowned Moai

Wilderness Hikes and Lava Cave Exploration

 

Although the island was not crowded with tourists, especially if you have your own vehicle and plan to visit the moai sites around popular times, there are a few places on the island with wilderness, miles of hiking where you will be guaranteed to be alone. The Poike peninsula in the northeast and the northwest coast of the island are wild and beautiful with great hiking. The lava caves around the western half of the island-Rock Ete 46 are fun to explore on your own and completely wild with no handrails or artificial lights.

Natural vegetation along the wild northwest coast

Poike Peninsula

Paula and I hiked along the sea cliffs of the northwest for a few hours and didn’t see another person. It is a wild wind-swept lava rock landscape with huge tropical turquoise green waves crashing ashore. An all-day hike can take you to the other side of the cliffs passed a few isolated moai’s along the way.

Paula admiring the sea cliffs of the northwest

Northwest sea cliffs

Wild landscapes of northwest

Paula and I absolutely loved the lava caves and had a blast exploring them. Some of them would lead to opening in the middle of a cliff overlooking the ocean while others seemed to lead endlessly underground. 

Opening to a lava cave

Paula climbing the lava cave

On our last day on the island, we watched an amazing sunset at the Te Moai location near Hanga Roa. There was incredible surf in front of the giant moai’s and I watched surfers catching overhead waves. I can’t imagine a more exotic wave to surf.

Te Moai

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