Easter Island is one of the remotest places on Earth – its nearest inhabited neighbour, Pitcairn Island, is 2250km away in the South Pacific Ocean – and is less than half the size of the Isle of Wight. Despite its diminutive size, this triangle-shaped island (known locally as Rapa Nui) is packed with truly unique sights. Here are five not to miss.
This volcanic crag in the east of the island is where the majority of the moai (the iconic Easter Island statues) were produced, carved directly from compacted volcanic ash. The moai – which can weigh over 80 tonnes – were then transported, presumably on wooden sleds, though the island’s oral history claims they were able to “walk”, to their ahus (platforms). Some, however, proved too heavy to move – or refused to walk – and today dozens of giant heads sprout up from the green slopes of Rano Raraku. The largest moai ever carved, the 20-metre tall El Gigante (“The Giant”), is also here, still attached to the rock face from which he was carved.
East of Rano Raraku, right on the coast, is the dramatic Ahu Tongariki, a 200m-long ahu upon which 15 colossal moai are lined up – the largest number of Easter Island statues ever erected on a single platform. A tsunami in 1960 swept across this corner of the island, dragging the ahu and the moai more than 90m inland and as a result of a lack of funds, little was done for decades until a Japanese man saw a TV programme about the incident and decided to start fundraising. A five-year restoration project – which involved Chilean archeologists, around 40 islanders, specialists from the Nara Institute of Japan and international stone-carving experts – was eventually completed in 1995.
Rano Kau and Orongo
Not all of Easter Island’s stunning sights revolve around moai. In the southwest tip of the island is the vast crater of the extinct Rano Kau volcano. The base of the crater is filled with water, and reeds have bunched together to form what looks like an archipelago of green islands. A hole in the far side of the crater – the result of the last eruption – means that the Pacific Ocean is visible, stretching away as far as the eye can see. Nearby are the remains of the village of Orongo, home of the annual Birdman ceremony, in which chiefs of the island’s various kin groups would nominate a competitor to swim through shark-infested waters to the largest of three islets 2km off the coast to retrieve the first egg laid by the sooty tern. The winning chief was named the new Birdman and his kin group provided with special privileges.
On the north coast of the island is the idyllic Anakena beach – think swaying palm trees and stretches of golden sand – which locals consider to be the landing spot of Rapa Nui’s first colonizer, Hotu Matu’a. Close by are the moai of Ahu Nau Nau, who were buried in sand for many years, something that has largely protected them from the effects of weathering.
A short walk from Hanga Roa, Easter Island’s only town, are some of the earliest surviving moai: the oldest, Vinapu II, is believed to date from around 857 AD and his stonework is noticeably inferior to younger counterparts. The site was first excavated by Norwegian explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, whose controversial theory that Rapa Nui was first colonized by people from South America is discounted by most modern experts, who argue the first settlers came from Polynesia.
Shafik Meghji is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Chile. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji.