I have had a fascination with Easter Island (Rapa Nui: Rapa Nui, Spanish: Isla de Pascua) since I was a teenager mesmerized by those huge 1500-year-old statues carved out of rock, called moai. I first saw them on television or in National Geographic. Each time I visit someplace new, I think, “I can’t believe I’m here.” Easter Island’s landing strip, Mataveri International Airport, has the geographical distinction of being the most isolated in the world. Airports are noisily apparent and far from homes, but Mataveri International Airport is walkable from the island’s only town, Hanga Roa. The LAN Boeing 767 I see parked on the tarmac looks oddly out of place, as if it made an emergency maneuver on an uncharted land mass. My first full day, I hiked toward Orongo and looked back, seeing the airplane totally foreign to the environment. I heard that one unique thing you can do here is lie on the grass and see the airplane rush overhead as it lands in the afternoon.
Rapa Nui is eerily quiet, which is a welcome break from the usual constant swarm of digital communication, traffic, and people. The Internet speed at the hotel at which I stayed was as bad as it could be while still functioning, on par with pitiful connections I used in Africa. This is just as well since there are only ten-and-a-half hours of daylight here. The sun rises after 9:00 in the morning! I have no Internet access in my room, which truly does lead to faster and better sleep, as studies suggest.
There is effectively only one practical way of entering Rapa Nui, a six-hour flight from Santiago de Chile. Were I to fly to Paris, I would see people in the waiting area at the airport gate and perhaps recognize a few of them in the plane or even at the baggage carousel. But there would be little chance of seeing any of these fellow travelers once in the grand city of Paris.
Easter Island is a sizable piece of land, but the flow of traffic to it is so specific and limited that I realized that everyone I was waiting with in the Santiago airport check-in line would be seen repeatedly. I saw them again in the airplane and at the carousel. An hour later, I would recognize them wandering around the island. There are only 6000 people on Isla de Pascua. Most estimates of tourism to a given place may have a big margin of error.
On Easter Island, everyone is here only for tourism. There is no oil contracting work or English teaching going on here. Moreover, we can count the exact number of people that enter and exit the island each day with hilarious accuracy. There is only one daily LAN flight to and from Easter Island. The plane carries 217 passengers. There are probably only 400 to 800 tourists on the island at any given time.
This island is unlike any other to which I have traveled. Even relatively isolated destinations like Hawaii and Barbados are filled with residents and tourists, not to mention the constant sight of water vehicles, cruise ships, fishing boats, and sailboats. Isla de Pascua offers an elegant reserve that rather takes your breath away.
The accommodations and restaurants on offer are quite homey. I have not seen a single staircase. With a couple of exceptions, restaurants present the feeling of eating at one’s home. The hotel I am staying at is similarly unassuming.
I have been warned several times by literature and a couple of people about the expenses in this captive environment, but it has actually been cheaper than I had expected. More importantly, the food is better than I had expected, and the portions are seemingly gargantuan. On balance, the value is above average.
My first full day, I hiked to Orongo and Rano Kau, important sites in the south part of the isla. There would normally be a park permit required to access certain parts of the island, which is one-third Rapa Nui Nacional Parque. However, there is some type of row among staff and government so no fees are being collected. It is not entirely clear what is supposed to be open or not. For example, the entrance to the trail I stumbled upon looked closed and was unmanned, but I just slid under the chains and made my way.
From my time here, exploring the island on foot seems to be rare, owing to the hills and general human laziness. I feel like I am encroaching onto people’s backyards constantly, maneuvering under clotheslines and sidling by ambient cows and horses, getting lost without the assurances of a map.
Aside from foot, the primary modes of transportation are car, motor-scooter, or motorbike. To a far lesser extent, people can traverse long distances using an all-terrain vehicle or push bicycle.
It is winter here, so the sun sets at 19:30. There is not a single traffic light on the island, and the streets are not well illuminated. It is treacherously dark at night, as I found out. Having just glimpsed Alice in Wonderland on the hotel lobby television, I thought of her in a flash, as I fell into a ditch, walking on the sidewalk. It was so dark that I could not see this gaping hole in front of me. It was quite a fright, and I was happy that the fall was only several feet and not to the other side of the world. Still, it gave my body a shock to the point where I thought I might lose consciousness. I was relieved that after the numbness subsided, I had no broken bones, only a loss of some blood.
The second full day, I went for a dive not far from the coast. There is disappointingly little animal life on earth or in water. Despite its exotic remoteness, Easter Island does not proffer the endemic species of Hawaii or the Islas Galapagos. Still, the dive was fun for its own good, and the water is astonishingly clear, with visibility exceeding 40 meters. I have a propensity to nosebleed profusely after every dive, to the point of alarming those around me. I enjoy the diving, but it takes something out of me, in addition to the blood.
There are more than 800 moai on the island. From afar, they look like giant heads, but they actually have a torso too. They are arresting phenomenon, and all archaeological reasons for how they were moved or constructed seem to be conjecture, as far I am concerned. More recently, I am impressed with how some of these modest houses are built, as I have not seen much construction equipment. Actually, I do not know much more about the moai having visited here than I did before my tour.
The guided tours are horribly expensive. Renting a car is quite popular, but that costs more than US$100 per day. A quad-bike or motorcycle will run US$60. One day, I awoke, took a swig of tap water, grabbed a granola bar, bought a half-liter bottle of water, and rented a push bicycle for US$13. I decided that I was going to explore the island this way.
I try not to regret any decisions I make, but if I could reconsider a few things, one would be to assess the water situation better. With all the sightseeing, the whole trip took nearly six hours. There is no shade on Rapa Nui and only a few trees, none of which were for my benefit in the form of free-flowing coconut water or shade. The temperature was ideal, at 19 °C, but the constant sunlight did have a gradual effect.
I am not an athlete, so this biking idea might have been too ambitious, and the hills killed me, forcing me to walk the bike up at times. The headwinds were not insignificant either. I saw no one else on bike or foot, and I felt like I was getting strange looks when everyone would pull into a sight via four-wheel-drive car, and I came struggling on my push bicycle.
Fortunately, the roads are well-maintained, and there are only a few ways to go. The ever-present sight of the Pacific Ocean pushed me forward, but I was keeping just as constant an eye on my precious 500-milliliter bottle of water. I do not drink much water, even when exercising, but I was reduced to taking a couple of drops by the end. Apparently, I did a poor job of rationing because I was completely out of water with more than 10 kilometers to go. According to my iPhone, my total for the day was 46 km on bike and 10 km on foot (with the bike).
Being uphill, the last stretch home seemed interminable. So for the second time, I hitchhiked home. Being saddled with a bicycle, I had to wait for fortune in the form of a red pick-up truck. The savior was a corpulent native who spoke only the Rapanui tongue and español. When I communicated my dying thirst, he pointed to a dirty half-filled bottle of water on the floor. I happily accepted.
The first time I hitchhiked was coming down from Orongo. It saved me 8 kilometers on foot. I was picked up by a young French couple who said they had been traveling for a year, quitting their job as an optician and unknown occupation.
While traveling, one hears strange stories. On my walk home from my first dinner, I was asked by a French man in his 20s if I knew of a good bar. I replied that I did not and asked when he arrived. When he said “two months ago,” I thought something had been lost in translation. When I confirmed this duration, I discovered that he was from a Parisian suburb who randomly decided to buy a one-way ticket to Rapa Nui. He found work on an animal farm, where the owner beat him mercilessly. He now lives a happy existence at a hostel but still does not know where to get a drink. His friends and family think that he is insane.
From the United States, Isla de Pascua takes 15+ hours each way, requiring a connection through Santiago. Since the island is so charmingly isolated, I would highly recommend building the trip as part of a South American tour of at least two weeks. The Easter Island flights are not cheap. I was fortunate to find a round-trip itinerary from Santiago for $461, but paying $600-$800 is more likely. Four to six days in Rapa Nui is perfect.