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Rapa Nui National Park, Isolated And Fascinating

Moais on ahus at Rapa Nui National Park/Danny Bernstein

Moais on ahus at sunrise at Rapa Nui National Park/Danny Bernstein

Dale Ditmanson, retired Superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, used to say that we need to give national park visitors the best experience possible because they might never have a chance to visit again. Nowhere is that sentiment truer than in Rapa Nui National Park.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) may be the most isolated, and inhabited, island on Earth. Located 2,250 miles from the closest point in South America and over 2,500 miles from Tahiti, French Polynesia, it’s the easternmost point of the classic Polynesian triangle with Hawaii (north) and New Zealand (west). The island is part of Chile, and Rapa Nui residents are Chilean citizens. Though official tourist literature states that spoken languages include Rapanui, Spanish, French, and English, everyone speaks Chilean Spanish on the street.

The Mystery of Easter Island

We’ve all seen photographs of the large stone statues (moais) of men on platforms (ahus) staring at us, some with piercing black eyes surrounded by white background. Where did the statues come from and how did they get here? It’s so easy to get confused in all the speculation, history, and mystery of Rapa Nui. After reading several books and countless websites, I signed up for an all-day tour, Journey of Legends. Our small group traveled to Rapa Nui National Park sites in historical order.

The original people are thought to have come from French Polynesia at about 1,000 CE, bringing their chickens and Polynesian rats for ready food. They landed in Anakena on a sandy beach in the north part of the island. Seven moais on an ahu, each in various condition, face away from the water. The moais, made of volcanic tuff, represent deified ancestors watching over their people; almost all moais on the island look toward the village.

A little further east, we encounter Paro, the largest statue built and transported – over ten meters tall and 80 tons of mass. It was commissioned by a grieving widow to honor her late husband. As Sophia, our guide, keeps reminding us, carving and transporting moais took a lot of resources. This widow must have been rich.

Almost all the moais came from one quarry, Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater. Each moai was carved right out of the crater and came out as a fully realized statue, except for the top hat. Legend tells us that the moais “walked” to their destination. They were transported most probably by a series of rollers and ropes. Another quarry, Puna Pau, produced the top hats, (pukao), which were put on the moais at their final destination.

Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater at Rapa Nui National Park/Danny Bernstein

By the 1600s, the moai culture collapsed. The island, so lush when the people first landed, was deforested. Food shortages created tribal warfare and people hid in caves. Villagers no longer believed that moais would protect them. They took out the eyes of the statues and toppled them. People didn’t want the statues to keep looking at them. The ancestor cult was over.

A new age of the Birdman unified the clans. Each year, a competition was held to choose the next leader at Orongo, our last stop at the southernmost point of the island located on the cliffs of volcano Rano Kau. Young men representing their tribe would run down the cliff, swim to a small island to grab an egg of the sooty tern, and bring it back to their chief. The winner received many accolades, including a virgin bride with light skin. His chief ruled the island for a year. Now almost all the sea bird species have disappeared from Rapa Nui, including the sooty tern.

On Easter Sunday, 1722, Jacob Roggeween, a Dutchman, arrived with three ships. More Europeans came. By the 1860s, most young men were taken as slaves to work in Peruvian mines. When the Rapa Nui men returned, they brought back European diseases and the Rapa Nui people was down to 111, its lowest number ever. Soon, a Catholic mission was established. The people abandoned their traditional culture and converted. The people needed protection and Chile annexed the island in 1888.

Restoring the Moais

Rapa Nui National Park, which spans more than 40 percent of the island, protects and preserves the cultural icons. Since the 1950s, many international academic and archaeological groups have come to the island to study and restore the moais to their upright positions.

No discussion of Easter Island is complete without mentioning Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and author of Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl was convinced that people from South America populated eastern Polynesia and set about to prove it by building a raft and sailing from Peru with indigenous materials. His theories have long been disproved, but his book and subsequent movies made many people, including me, first aware of Easter Island.   

The whole island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

Birdman Island at Rapa Nui National Park/Danny Bernstein

Sunrise at Tongariki

Although Moais dot the whole island, the classic icon is Tongariki on the east side. Fifteen moais are lined up on an ahu; only one has a top hat. And the time to see it is at sunrise. Like almost all moais, these were toppled in the 17th century during tribal warfare. In 1960, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded caused a tsunami that pulled the moais from their base and scattered them about the valley. The site was restored with the help of cranes from the Moai Restoration Committee of Japan.

My guide, Yoyo, a native Rapa Nuian, picks me up at 6:30 a.m. and we drive 40 minutes to Tongariki in the dark. When we arrive, we join a lengthy line of patient visitors waiting for the national park rangers to open the site and check each person’s park pass. Most people had DSLR cameras with huge lenses on tripods; I have an iPhone. Like all moai sites, this one is roped off and you can only get within 50 feet of the platform.

I find a place among the crowd where I can photograph all the moais together and wait for the sunrise. The colorful sky is almost as fascinating as the moais, shooting blues, pinks and yellows around white clouds. When the sun rises, the stone faces become distinct and the sky loses its color palette. By now, most visitors take turns getting their photo taken in front of the row of moais.

The reason that I’m the only one on this tour is that I’ve also booked Yoyo for a hike in Poike, the eastern peninsula of the island after the sunrise. We park on the yellow grass and start walking cross-country, aiming to reach the high point of the area. A few head of cattle roam the land. Exotic eucalyptus trees, planted to provide shade, grow in profusion.

Poike was the site of the first volcano, which erupted more than two million years ago. Unlike most areas, there are no volcanic rocks here, making walking much easier. No signs, blazes or even a trail; this is not the Smokies.

“Rocks are a source of wealth. You can build houses or chicken coops with rocks. They’re important because there are no trees,” Yoyo explains. “The village here must have been very poor.”

We scramble down to the edge of the cliff to enter the cave of the virgins. Here, young women were kept out of the sun and imprisoned until the Birdman winner chose his bride. I never found out what happened to the other women in the cave.

If you go - The details

Most visitors fly to Rapa Nui from Santiago, Chile, with Latam Airlines. Several times a week, there’s also a flight from Tahiti. Everyone lives in Hanga Roa, the only town. Lodging ranges from hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, hostel to camping on the lawn in front of the hostel.

Hanga Roa has small mini-markets, restaurants, bars and tourist shops. The Catholic Church is worth a visit. The cemetery can be confused with a sculpture garden, which blends Catholic and Polynesian culture.

You must buy your national park pass at the airport. For non-Chileans, it’s $80 per adult in U.S. cash. They want clean bills, and credit cards are not accepted. The pass gives you access to all park sites for ten days.

Once out of the airport, a representative of your lodging greets you with a lei of fresh flowers. Similarly, when you leave, you get a shell necklace as a souvenir.

I spent four days in Rapa Nui, as an add-on to a week in the Falkland Islands, which is also accessed from Santiago. Four days seems to be a typical length of time. I made all my reservations on the web including the two tours with Easter Island Travel. 

Did you know: Rapamycin, first synthesized from microbes found in the Rano Kau Crater at Orongo, is currently used to prevent organ transplant rejection. Rapa Nui may hold the key to anti-aging drugs; it seems to extend the life of lab mice. This research might make more people wonder about the mystery of Rapa Nui.   

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Danny - I have such envy. What an incredible opportunity.

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