Easter Island: The Dream at the End of the World
IS it possible to get to Easter Island without traveling a very long distance? No; it is not. If you live in New York City you will fly to Santiago, Chile — 11½ hours — rest a day, and then take another jet plane 5 hours into the Pacific to reach your goal. (And the planes go from Santiago only a couple of times a week.) The trip may be an hour shorter if you live in New Zealand, but don't count on it.
This tiny speck of South Pacific lava can be reached by boat, of course. That's how the Polynesians got there around A.D. 700, but it's a long, long trip by water. It's a long, long trip from anywhere by any means, but is it worth it? As they say in certain parts of our Middle West — "You bet!"
It took me 50 years to get there from the time I first heard of it. I'm not certain there was any semi-sensible way to get there (from anywhere) back then, but it was on my list, along with Egypt, the Aztec and Mayan cultures, Ayutthaya (the old capital of Siam, sacked by the Burmese in the 18th century), the Roman cities of Sabratha and Leptis Magna on the Libyan coast and other essential destinations. Now that Libya is open to us and has made available the prehistoric painted and carved art of the Fezzan Cliffs, I'll get there, having accomplished the others.
Way before the movie "Planet of the Apes" showed us the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand, I have felt the need to experience cultures which grew, fell into decadence and vanished. These are probably cautionary tales even beyond their aesthetic marvel.
Why did Easter Island take so long to accomplish even after it was feasible? Well, people looked at me as if I was crazy: "You're going where!?" "You're kidding!" "For a couple of statues!?" I got busier and busier as the years went on, and so I put Easter Island on my "someday" list, along with the Gobi Desert and Antarctica (I know, that last one has gotten easy).
As my 78th birthday approached (three months after my 77th, it seemed), it occurred to me that unless I was planning to ask St. Peter to be my travel agent I'd better get cracking. I found an architect friend who wanted to go with me, and it was arranged, and we went. Was it worth it? As I wrote a couple of paragraphs back, "You bet!"
My five days on Easter Island have been one of the high points of my traveling life. I recommend it to anyone who's willing to spend the time on the island required for a full experience. A quick trip in and out (even if it could be arranged) would be such a waste. Cruise ships do drop by on rare occasions. One — a round-the-world tour of Japanese travelers — stayed two days while I was in residence, letting passengers off in small groups for a six-hour visit. It was barely enough time for them to photograph each other photographing the wonders.
EASTER Island (10 miles by 15 miles) was formed eons ago by three massive volcanoes rising from the sea. These — and lesser eruptions — formed the island, which, except for a minor area fit for farming and living, is lava with a thin layer of infertile soil. Most of the island is strewn with stone, with jagged cliffs for a coastline. The island is also strewn with over 800 gigantic and breathtaking statues averaging over 20 feet high. Only a relative few of these are upright and in original placement, but many of the rest can be seen and visited, half buried or prone. The experience is very much like visiting a fiction we have not imagined.
The island was settled — probably about A.D. 700; at least these are the newest estimates — by Polynesians exploring eastward. One group went northeast and found the Hawaiian Islands (uninhabited, of course) and another group went southeast and ended up on an island bare of people but covered with huge palm trees, naming it Rapa Nui (it was later renamed Easter Island by the captain of a Dutch ship that arrived there on Easter Sunday in 1722). These two groups traveled in large canoe-like vessels — double-hulled, perhaps — along with their small animals and fowl, and grain and root vegetables. The landing at Easter Island was difficult as there are only two small congenial beach areas on the entire island. But it was accomplished, and while further journeys may have brought new settlers, no one ever left Easter Island. There was no way home.
Shawn McLaughlin's essential book, "The Complete Guide to Easter Island" (Easter Island Foundation, 2004), deals in great detail with the settlement, growth and eventual, almost complete depopulation of the island. As well, it tells of the shameful treatment of the natives by European explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries and the self-destruction of their culture by the natives before the European invasions. It is a sad history, and you should know it before you go. The book describes in clear and specific terms the construction and moving and placement of the statues (moai) to the vast ceremonial stands (ahu) around the island. It is the one guide book you will need.
Five days are the minimum you should stay on the island to even begin to experience its extraordinary treasures (not to mention the wild and beautiful landscape — moonscape, sometimes.) While there are tours of various kinds available, I recommend that you go about on your own — having done your homework, of course. You should rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and explore the island as you see fit, except I would strongly recommend that you not visit the huge volcanic quarry where the great figures were carved until first you've seen them on site. See the quarry on your fourth day, perhaps.
On your first day you really should visit the small but instructive anthropological museum, just a bit outside the town of Hanga Roa where you will be staying. Near it is the first set of statues you should visit, the Tahai complex. It's an easy introduction to the wonders ahead. Take your time. Absorb. Don't be rushed. And anything you see should be seen at least twice, preferably at different times of the day, for the statues become different experiences in different lights. And be sure to see them from all sides — for the hulking backs of these stone creatures are as moving as their fronts.
The three essential assemblages of statues are Ahu Akivi — to my mind the most beautiful on the island — seven giant figures staring out over the landscape with power and serenity; Ahu Tongariki, with 15 giant figures staring toward the quarry where they were formed, and Ahu Nau Nau, located at the pleasant beach called Anakena. These three must be visited, but there are so many other sites that two weeks could be profitably spent.
The island's being so small we managed to spend lunchtime each day at Anakena, where good food (grilled tuna and chicken with root vegetables) is available, and still be able to visit a site in the morning, and another late afternoon. One paved road reaches from the town of Hanga Roa to Anakena Beach and tributary dirt roads to wherever else you want to go. There are several hundred free-roaming horses on the island, families mostly, and they often share the roads with you but are thoughtful in moving aside. We saw a few cows and some birds, but there was no sign of the 70,000 sheep which once crowded the island. In the town of Hanga Roa there are many stray dogs; they are very friendly.
It is said that there are scorpions and black widow spiders about — the latter in the tall grasses. I saw none, my eyes being elsewhere, but long trousers and boots are a wise dress code.
The quarry itself is on one of the two volcanoes you must visit. They are called Rano Raraku and Rano Kau. The view (both inward and outward from the rims of these volcanoes) is spectacular. Each is filled with a lake of great dimension. The quarry at Rano Raraku faces south toward the sea, and the extension hillside is studded with topsy-turvy figures abandoned on their way down the hillside; as well (higher up) with half completed sculptures not yet loosened from the rock. There are more inside the crater, where the black widow spiders are supposed to live. The view from the rim of this quarry is spectacular.
Equally spectacular is the view from the top of Rano Kau — the other volcano I mentioned. The interior lake is very large, and the view from the rim (where the petroglyphs are) straight down to the ocean is thrilling. Watch out for the wind, though. It can be fierce up there. It occurred to me that if I wasn't careful I was in danger of plunging down the craggy cliffs into the ocean, but I was, and so I didn't. Aside from the petroglyphs you'll also find the ancient town of Orongo — round stone houses from a millennium ago.
A few practical matters: the town — Hanga Roa — is not large and can be easily traversed by foot. There are 10 or 12 hotels (including a couple of relatively expensive ones a little way out which did not impress me), the most desirable one being the Hotel O'TAI, with lovely gardens, comfortable rooms, a pool, good breakfast, a friendly staff and reasonable rates. It is also a five-minute walk from what I found to be the best restaurant on the island, La Taverne du Pêcheur (reservations required). It is closed on Sundays, but you might be able to persuade Raul, who seems to run the Hotel Orongo (in town) to cook for you then. The people who live on Easter Island are friendly and often very beautiful.
The best months to visit Easter Island are from October to mid-March when the daily temperatures hover at 75 to 85 degrees. An early morning rain shower is common.
Since you'll be spending a day in Santiago both before and after your visit to Easter Island, there are a few things you should experience there. There is the extraordinary Pre-Colombian Museum in the center of town with quite amazing pieces from the various cultures from Central Mexico right down to Patagonia. And not far from this museum is the wonderful Central Market, a great wrought-iron structure having in it huge fish markets as well as seafood restaurants. If you have never experienced the tiny nail-size baby eels sautéed in olive oil and garlic (which I first enjoyed in Madrid) just forget you're eating eel and have a wonderful meal. Santiago itself is a little grubby but what else would you expect after nearly 20 years of military dictatorship, fortunately now ended. The Santiago Crown Plaza Hotel is central and quite comfortable.
But don't dawdle! You're there for Easter Island.
I was shocked, shortly after I returned, to learn of a proposal for a gambling casino on the island. We all know that gambling casinos bring crime, and we also know that they benefit absentee owners infinitely more than they do the populace where they are located, and those of us who have been there know that any benefits a casino might accrue to the populace would be devalued by the corruption of such an enterprise. Those of you who treasure Easter Island as I do would do well to write the Chilean government to protest this ill-advised venture. However, you might want to get to Easter Island rather soon. As I said, don't dawdle.
Let me quote from Mr. McLaughlin's essential book on Easter Island, for he describes the experience you will have as well as anyone could.
"What really makes Easter Island unique among the ancient places of the world is its preservation of the lifecycle of Neolithic ritual. Most realms of antiquity, like Pompeii or Machu Picchu, are frozen in time or represent the final manifestation of a culture, its zenith. But on Easter Island you can see the birth, life, and death of the ancient culture — the womb of the moai in the statue quarry, the stately triumph of the moai on their platforms, and the solemn (some might say pitiful) decadence of their fall from grace ... the moai lying deaf, dumb, and blind in the volcanic dust whence they came."
For many Easter Island will be a once in a lifetime experience — literally and figuratively. But I plan to go back, and more than once. I want to bring special friends with me, people who will appreciate the experience. I want to see the rapture in their eyes as they live with the wonders.