Rapa Nui – Easter Island – is shrouded in mystery. How did its people get there? Where did they come from? How did they move those gigantic statues? Some of that enigma comes to life during January’s fortnight-long Tapati, a festival that combines ancient customs, such as carving and canoeing, with modern sports, such as the triathlon and horse racing.

First, the islanders form two competing teams, representing the age-old clans, so if you want to participate, it’s best to get to know one of the captains. The opening ceremony kicks off with Umu Tahu, a massive barbecue, followed by a parade of would-be carnival queens wearing traditional grass skirts.

Most of the sports events are for men only: one breathtaking highlight is the bareback horse race along Vaihu Beach. If you fancy your chances against the proud locals, be prepared to wear little more than a bandana, a skimpy sarong and copious body paint. Another event, staged in the majestic crater at Rano Raraku, has contestants – including the odd tourist – paddling across the lake in reed canoes, running round the muddy banks carrying two handfuls of bananas and finally swimming across, with huge crowds cheering them on.

Meanwhile, the womenfolk compete to weave the best basket, craft the most elegant shell necklace or produce the finest grass skirt; visitors are welcome to participate. Little girls and venerable matriarchs alike play leading roles in the after-dark singing and dancing contests. They croon and sway through the night until the judges declare the winning team, usually around daybreak.

But the true climax is Haka Pei, in which three-dozen foolhardy athletes slide down the steep slopes of Maunga Pu’i Hill – lying on banana trunks. Top speeds reach 80km/h, total chaos reigns and usually a limb or two is broken, but the crowds love it. Should they ask you to take part, learn two vital Rapa Nui words: “mauru uru”, “no thanks”.

Tapati begins every year at the end of January. Lan Chile (www.lan.com) makes the 5hr flight to Easter Island several times a week from Santiago.

 

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