Easter Island

Photo credit: Walter Ralls

Easter Island, like Galapagos and Machu Picchu, is one of those places that has fascinated me since I was in junior high. I'll be honest, I'm not sure I ever thought I'd make it to any of them, much less all three in the space of three weeks. If only we'd be able to fit in the lines of Nazca as well then I'd truly be the hero of my junior high self.

Our first stop, Ahu Akivi

There is only one flight in to Easter Island each day, a 787 on LAN Airlines. Every day but Tuesday it comes from Santiago, and on Tuesdays its from Tahiti (I guess Tahiti makes sense...Easter Island was also first inhabited by Polynesians). We flew in, arriving mid-afternoon to a beautiful party cloudy day in the mid-70s, which was pretty much the weather for our entire stay. After a lengthy wait for baggage (I've never seen a flight with so many checked bags, everything from suitcases to coolers to TVs to bicycles!), we took the hotel shuttle to our hotel, which was right on the coast. Eager to make the most of our three nights on the island, we immediately made arrangements to have a rental car dropped at the hotel and off we went to explore and see the famous Moai.

Easter Island went through several significant historical periods, though for our purposes only three are really relevant. The first of those was the Moai carving period, when the dominant religion/culture of the Rapa Nui people centered around ancestor worship. There were apparently 10 tribes on the island and in order to curry favor and ensure future success they would carve images of past tribal leaders in the form of the giant Moai. Those Moai were carved at a central location that was apparently shared across all 10 tribes, then transported to the relevant village and erected on a platform with other Moai. The eyes of the Moai were the last thing to be carved, only done once they were in position, and that apparently activated the mana of the Moai to bring favor upon the tribe and the village. As the population grew the island became very resource constrained and the tribes starting fighting and raiding each other, and over the course of this period all of the Moai were toppled, almost always face first so the eyes would be down to the ground and not to the heavens. The Moai you see in pictures have all been restored by archaeologists, though for every restored Moai there are probably dozens that were left alone. Over the course of the first day and a half we toured all of the restored platforms. While early Moai are not as enormous and impressive as you think they will be, the more recent Moai can be incredible in their size, and we really enjoyed touring the islands.

After the collapse of the Moai and the rising dominance of the warrior class a new religion/culture was established on the island, that of the Birdman competition. This was a very Hunger Games style competition, where each Spring each of the 10 tribes selected a competitor who had to swim out to a small islet off the southern part of the island and live there in caves until the first migratory Sooty Tern laid an egg. The first warrior to claim an egg won the competition, though he still had to return to the island and deliver that egg to his tribal leader, who would then become the Birdman for the next year. In true Hunger Games spirit, this would give that tribe rights to more of the islands resources for the next year and provide great benefits for the winning competitor. We spent the afternoon of our 2nd full day at the site, Orongo, where this competition took place. As you can see, just getting to the islet would be no easy feat, and I have no idea how they would climb down the cliff face to even get to the ocean.

The island was visited by Europeans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and Catholic missionaries ended the Birdman competition in the late 1800's after the Rapa Nui had been holding the competition for about 150 years. This period was one of extreme exploitation of the Rapa Nui, culminating in a slave raid by Peru that took ~1500 able-bodied men, of whom only 15 lived to return to the island after the ensuing international outcry. Worse, those that returned brought disease, including smallpox, back with them. Of the estimated 12,000 Rapa Nui at the peak of the population, apparently less than 50 survived the exploitation by European, Peruvian, and Chilean companies and governments. Like the issue of slavery in the United States, this issue still has life on Easter Island and there are still today definite signs of tension between the descendants of the Rapa Nui and Chileans and tourists alike. The Chilean constitution makes no allowance for controlling the flow of people to any part of the country, so there are no controls on the number of tourists allowed on Easter Island, and any Chilean citizen can buy property or open a business on the island. Very different from Galapagos, where visitor counts are closely monitored and you must have a hereditary tie to the island to own property. While we found almost everyone we encountered on the island (both Rapa Nui and Chilean) to be incredibly friendly and outgoing, those few who had a negative attitude were Rapa Nui without exception.

Walter on Facetime with his classmates

On a more positive note, the highlight of our stay on Easter Island was almost assuredly when we were able to facetime with Walter's 2nd grade class. We spent about 20 minutes talking to them while standing in front of a restored Moai statue right on the coast. The class was clearly impressed with the Moai and they had a lot of great questions about Walter's travels across South America. In addition, we were able to educate them on a few facts, like that fact that Easter Island is the second most remote inhabited island on the planet, and that it's about the same distance south of the Equator that Austin is north of it. The school IT group did a neat little blog post write-up on it that you can see here: http://www.bobcatblog.com/bobcat-blog/live-from-easter-island

Three nights was the perfect length of time on Easter Island, as we were able to see all of the sights we wanted as well as spend some time at the beach and do a nice three hour hike to the caldera of the largest volcano, with panoramic views of the entire island. This is a good a time as any to mention something Jie and I have been discussing over the last couple of weeks. While Galapagos is somewhere that we hope to return to time and again, we do feel like Machu Picchu and Easter Island are both "been there, done that" types of places. We are certainly grateful to have seen them and wouldn't change that, but we don't feel the need to return again either.

So now we're headed back for Santiago for a night before moving along to our last hotel stay prior to the cruise, three nights in Valparaiso. And after flying 15 times in the last 6 weeks it's hard to believe that the next time we get on a plane it will be to fly back to Austin a month from now!

You can find the rest of our Easter Island photos here: https://markandjie.smugmug.com/Gap-Year/Easter-Island/