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Easter Island: Exploring an Ancient and Enigmatic Land

When most people think of Easter Island, they picture the giant stone statues that dot this isolated Pacific Island.  Certainly these statues, known as “moai,” are spectacular and mysterious.  But Easter Island offers numerous other sights and activities that will capture the imagination of any tourist.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, lies far out in the Pacific Ocean.  Its location makes is one of the world’s most isolated islands.  This remoteness adds to the island’s mystique and the sense of drama that surrounds what is considered by many to be a holy place.  While Easter Island is officially a Chilean territory, its culture and history are tied more to ancient Polynesians who arrived on the island twelve to fifteen hundred years ago, according to historians.  Today, it is inhabited by about 5,000 islanders.

While Easter Island lies in an isolated location, tourism has made significant inroads in recent years. Its unique stone moai are the single greatest draw, but Easter Island offers many other enticements to visitors around the world.


Most of us have seen photographs of the huge stone busts that seem to rise from the earth.  Giant, stoic-faced, they have fascinated the public imagination for decades.  They appear to depict ancient Polynesians, the ancestors of current island residents.  Buried for centuries, most moai were excavated in the 1970s.

Seen up close, the moai are even more striking and mysterious.  In the first place, their sheer numbers are startling.  Almost 1000 are found on the island, many on grassy hillsides, some in volcanic craters, and others along the beach.  Carved from volcanic rock, most of the busts were moved from their original locations and placed throughout the island.

Almost all of the statues face inward, rather than toward the sea.  They are grouped in long lines and mounted on stone platforms.  Each statue is huge, measuring up to 32 feet high, although many remain half-buried.  Each figure weighs as much as 100 tons. While they appear monolithic, they are by no means identical.  Each bust likely represents a particular ancestor, and moai appear variously thin or fat, in varying heights, and with some bearing tattoos.

Action Adventures

Rapa Nuis is considered by many to be an ideal playground for outdoor sports enthusiasts.  It has become famous among surfing pros in the last two decades, as the home of some of the world’s most challenging Pacific waves.  Scuba divers also flock to the island, claiming that the waters surround the island are some of the clearest they have found. Hikers and horseback riders appreciate the opportunity to enjoy vigorous exercise while discovering the ancient sites and statues that are found throughout the island.  Thousands of horses are found on the island, and hiking areas abound.


The beaches around the island offer both the expected joys of Pacific beaches — soft white sand, brilliant sunlight, the soothing crash of waves, craggy coastlines, aquamarine water — and new opportunities to explore the island’s cultural treasure.  Anakena Beach is a popular stop,  its attractive beach surrounded by a forest of coconut trees.  Several caves dot the beach, one of which is said to be the home of King Hotu Matua.  Two archeological sites are also found here.  Perched on an overhanging hill above the beach is the Ahu Ature Huki, featuring a long platform or “ahu” with a solitary remaining moai.  The legendary Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl helped restore this moai, and in doing so, was able to demonstrate how such massive stones could have been erected and moved centuries before.  The great Ahu Nau Nau is also found here, its platform containing seven moai in various states of repair.

Ohave Beach is another beautiful spot on the shore  Located at the foot of a volcanic cliff, the beach is less visited than Anakena Beach– but beware of the potential danger of falling rocks.  Near the beach area lies a cave that looks out over the ocean.

Island Culture

For those who want to explore the islanders’ roots and culture, the moai are not the only avenue for exploration.  Once a visitor has recovered from the awe instilled by the giant moai, we recommend a visit to the restored village that is home of the island’s “Bird Man” culture.  Orongo, lying between a volcano and a cliff drop-off, is the setting for at least 150 carvings depicting figures with men’s bodies and bird heads. They are believed to represent an ancient religious cult, but their origins remain somewhat obscure.

Throughout the island, you’ll find unique representations of a fallen culture, in petroglyphs, tattooed figures, and fragments of written language.  But ancient relics are beginning to blend with more contemporary cultural representations. The island’s ancient culture is undergoing something of a revival, as young islanders tattoo themselves in traditional culture symbols and embrace the ancient arts, sports, and dances.  Displays of artfully carved wooden decorations and other wares highlight the work of local artists.

During February, the Tapati Festival is a fascinating way to explore island culture.  Each year the island hosts a series of competitions that are based on ancient sports and arts, such as body painting, tobogganing, and spear throwing.  In one competition, the Haka Pei, loin-clothed islands toboggan down the side of an ancient volcano on logs of banana trees.  Parades, food exhibits, and dance competitions all make the Tapati Festival a one-of-a-kind treat.

If you’re looking for a vacation destination that’s truly off the beaten track, Easter Island fits the bill — but you won’t have to sacrifice your comfort. Several eco-lodges have sprung up on the island, offering modern amenities to visitors. Whether you visit Rapa Nui to explore its ancient mysteries and island culture or to enjoy the contemporary pleasures of a Pacific paradise, you will find that Easter Island offers much more than a typical island vacation.

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