1. Extinct volcano Rano Kau, 2. Orongo cult village, 3. Rano Raraku quarry, 4. Easter Island moai statues, 5. Ahu Tongariki, 6. Papa Vaka, 7. Anakena Beach
Easter Island in the South Pacific Ocean is the only rocky island in the Polynesian Triangle. The mysteries around the great megalithic sculptures located around the island have been subject to comprehensive research and investigations during the last centuries.
For many months we have planned a stay on Easter Island to see the legendary moai statues as well as the other sites linked to the ancient culture: Rano Raraku, Anakena, Orongo, Rano Kau, Ahu Tongariki and a few more!
Where to stay in Hanga Roa / Santiago? Hare PakoBa Guest House near Puna Pau with Rapa Nui breakfast, Takarua Lodge beautiful location, terrace & breakfast, Hotel Montecarlo Santiago with panoramic views in the heart of Santiago.
We have arrived on the island in mid-July which is winter in the southern hemisphere. Despite the season it is pleasant to be here since the climate is subtropical and mild. Temperatures in summer and winter don’t really differ that much here. Staying in a local cabaña, the Cabaña Tongariki, with the owners next-door is our unique chance to get our own angle and a few local impressions in addition to experiencing the outstanding Easter Island moai statues and the cultural sites related to them.
View from Orongo, Rano Kau
On our first day we get up early, since we have a whole island to cover in our rented car (along the only road around the island!)! With only 3 days on Easter Island, we have planned to reach all major places, that are not within walking distance from our cabaña, in just one day. In this way we will only need to rent a car for one whole day.
Our host brings us a bag of local guava fruits such that we can squeeze our own juice for breakfast. It is a welcome supplement to the island fresh water which has an extremely strong taste of metallic minerals. It is said to be healthy enough, but we definitely have to get used to the taste!
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Their daughter, living in the house next-door, has given us useful advice on Easter Island and suggested an appropriate itinerary to get to the various moai statues, both considering daylight angles and anticipated tourist groups. Leaving Hanga Roa, we drive past the, at this time of the day, absolutely empty airport. There is only one flight between Easter Island and Santiago de Chile in each direction every day. Catching the narrow, winding road towards the top of the impressive, extinct volcano, Rano Kau, we are full of expectations on our way to the southernmost point of the island.
Rano Kau was together with the the rest of the island the result of volcanic activity and eruptions. The oldest eruptions date to about 3 million years ago! Today Rano Kau features, as one of only three of the extinct volcanos, a fresh water crater lake at the interior bottom.
We follow the narrow path on the rim of Rano Kau to the left, and the steep, rocky coast falling over 300 m (1000 ft) on the other side. The view is absolutely magnificent. Gazing down into the water-filled crater basin is a breathtaking sight. The fresh water lagoon of Rano Kau is huge and picturesque with totora reeds growing on the surface forming small islands. It is similar to the floating reed islands on the Lake Titicaca in Peru – but here they are just small-scale and not inhabited!
The Rano Kau crater lake, located around 200 m or 650 ft from the edge, is estimated to be about 10 m or slightly more than 30 ft deep. The lagoon has been born from rain water, accumulated throughout the years. For many years it has been one of the main fresh water resources on the island. The protected slopes inside the crater Rano Kau provided excellent opportunities to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. Among others the volcano has been used to grow avocados, fig trees, guavas and bananas!
Now that we stand atop the caldera, which is over a kilometre or nearly a mile in diameter, some purple vegetation along one of the sides attracts our attention. It is a proof of the rich plant life of the immense crater bowl.
On the rim of the extinct volcano Rano Kau you can reach the remains of the Orongo village, known for its mystic Birdman Cult which succeeded the moai era.
For several hundred years Easter Island featured a thriving culture with the erection of gigantic moai statues. Towards the end of the 1500’s, the moai carving era was replaced by the Birdman Cult era. The old moai carving lifestyle ended up taking too many of the limited natural resources on the island, and maybe along with tribal wars (however, this is questionable according to recent theories), the previously so flourishing culture slowly came to an end. Instead, a new culture sprang into life: the Birdman Cult was born.
Continuing along the path, we arrive at the remains of the old, ceremonial village, Orongo. It is located at the narrowest part of the ridge where the rocks abruptly fall towards the sea on one side, and the deep crater basin is revealed on the other.
Orongo at the top of Rano Kau
Orongo is the old cult village where the Birdman competition annually took place in order to find the king for the next 12 months. The Birdman Cult era replaced the former moai carving era and new rituals arose. The competitors would have to climb down the steep rocks, swim out to the Moto Nui islet just off the coast, find a freshly laid egg from a manutara bird, swim back and climb the rocks again with the unbroken egg. Often participants died from falling down the rocks or by being taken by the numerous sharks in the ocean. The winner obtained the prestigious title of king. The last known Birdman competition took place as late as in 1888.
The Orongo houses were built of solid stone – a suitable material to resist the occasional strong winds the houses were exposed to on the brink of the volcano. This is opposed to the material used to carve the earlier Easter Island moai statues. They were carved from volcanic, porous lightweight rock from the compacted volcanic ash – and were therefore much lighter. The first of the 54 houses were initiated around 1400 AD.
‘Easter Island Moai Statues, Rano Raraku, Rano Kau & Orongo – Itinerary’
When walking past the village, we get a chance to peep into one of the houses. They are oval with just one opening for the light to enter. In general you would need to crawl or creep to get inside, and once inside you probably could not stand upright. We have to admit that they don’t look that appealing to stay in! And even then, the Birdman Cult people made beautiful paintings on the inner walls, just like in the secret caves around the island. The paintings depict the Birdman ceremony as well as the god Make-Make.
A large number of petroglyphs (about 1,700) are also located around Orongo, showing motifs like the manutara bird and other seabirds, fish as well as Make-Make. The Orongo village was inhabited only during the days of the Birdman ceremony which took place during the month of September. One single moai statue of basalt rock has been found inside one of the houses, linking the ancient moai era to the Birdman Cult.
Oval houses at Orongo, Rano Kau
15 minutes later we find ourselves at the entrance of the Rano Raraku quarry. The short ride is like a time portal allowing us to travel hundreds of years back in time from the Orongo period to the moai carving period.
We are now wandering around in a nearly thousand year-old and at that time probably the most important workplace on the island. This is where the extraordinary Easter Island moai statues were created by the industrious island settlers and their immediate descendants in the years to come.
Overwhelmed by the size and the number of moai on the archaeological site, we study as many of the giants as we can more closely on our way through the area. Rano Raraku is the unique place to learn about the carving process since you can watch all stages of the moai figures here. Right next to the solid, volcanic rocks we see an example of a moai in process. First the front side was carved except the eye sockets. Then the back was chiseled to release the statue from the rock. It is kind of absurd to see how the monolithic human-like structures lie or stand in all thinkable angles down the slopes of the volcano. We are deeply impressed!
After spending some time in company with the massive, immobile residents of Rano Raraku, we notice a few tourist groups beginning to appear at the site. Suddenly and unexpectedly we nearly bump into our hosts’ daughter! She obviously works as a tour guide! That is why she yesterday could give us such detailed information on how to do our tour around the island. That is what SHE does every day! Not astonishingly, since nearly everyone on the island is occupied within tourism!
Nearly all the Easter Island moai statues were carved from volcanic rock at the Rano Raraku quarry. The rare obsidian from some of the volcanos on the island was used to produce the necessary tools. Once completed, the moai were in some way transported to their final locations which were in general along the coast, always with their backs to the ocean, overlooking and protecting the Rapa Nui people. Only the coral eyes were not carved and added until the very last moment when the figures were raised.
Rano Raraku is the birthplace of the Easter Island moai statues
It is believed that the volcanic faces represent the spirit of their ancestors. During the moai era there was a development in style of the torsos and faces. The sculptures became taller and taller, as well as the facial traits became more and more stylised.
Throughout the years there have been a number of theories how the heavy stone structures were transported miles across the island. According to the Rapa Nui people and the legend, they WALKED! For mange years this was not really believed by anyone else.
The Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl considerably contributed to the research and investigations on the ancient Rapa Nui culture and its impressive stone sculptures. He came twice, in 1955-56 and 1986-88, to the island on expeditions and helped reveal the torsos of the giants and clarify how the enormous statues could have been moved around.
The Easter Island Moai statues WALKED from Rano Raraku
His investigations led to successful attempts to move the human figures vertically with the help of logs. With ropes and a well-prepared crew he showed that it was actually possible! In this way by bringing the moai statues of Easter Island back to WALK, maybe one of the biggest mysteries in the world has been resolved! A whole network of paths around the island sloping slowly down towards the designated ahus has also been revealed. There are today numerous You Tube videos demonstrating the technique likely used to transport the imposing Easter Island moai statues!
Next stop is Ahu Tongariki featuring the most awesome moai statues. Ahu Tongariki is spectacular in having 15 fabulous moai standing in a row, which is the largest number found together on Easter Island. The ahu is actually the most important structure in all Polynesia! The statues each possess their own individual characteristics, indicating that they have probably been created at different time periods. Notably, moai have been restored here with their original red topknots produced from the red volcanic material at the quarry of Puna Pau. It is recommended to come to see the sunrise here at Ahu Tongariki, which is a unique experience!
Read more about Ahu Tongariki: Take in Ahu Tongariki and Chill out on Anakena Beach.
Between Ahu Tongariki and Anakena Beach we get the chance to view some of the famous Rapa Nui petroglyphs at Papa Vaka. The Rapa Nui term papa means stone and the term vaka means canoe. Not surprisingly, Papa Vaka is therefore the major motif of an impressive 12-metre long double canoe depicted on the stones here, the largest petroglyph on Easter Island. The carved canoe may well be the canoe originally used by the island settlers. Other petroglyph motifs are giant tuna, octopuses, crabs, birdmen and sea turtles.
The scenic Anakena Beach is next. It is one of the few sand beaches on the island – and the largest beach! It features the most pristine, white coral sand! This is really the place to have a swim in the turquoise waters – and it can be done any time of the year due to the mild climate and comfortable sea temperatures here. The beach is surrounded by coconut palm trees and several restored moai. The iconic ahu with 5 awesome moai, the Ahu Nau Nau, welcomes us right in front of the beach! Moreover, we catch a glimpse of some of the wild Easter Island horses between the coconut palms. This is definitely a beach you could stay at half a day (or a whole day!) in case you fancied a beach day on Easter Island! After an awesome island round trip we return to Hanga Roa in the evening.
The present-day culture on the island involves in addition to the Polynesian Rapa Nui culture also Christianity. The Catholic church of the Holy Cross in Hanga Roa, Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, combines in a very special way elements from the moai era, the Birdman Cult and Christianity. In their own unique manner the Rapa Nui residents have unified religions of completely distinct origins and created a fusion of them. The church structure features both Christian symbols and original Rapa Nui mythology, and the weekly mass is also a mixture of the two religions.
We are curious to experience this extraordinary fusion of faiths and attend the Sunday mass. It is held by priests wearing feather headdresses. This gives together with the melodic Tahitian / Rapa Nui music and songs the Christian ceremony a profound touch of Polynesian and Rapa Nui native culture. The singing by Rapa Nui voices is exceptionally melodious and the experience absolutely outstanding! It can definitely be recommended to attend a mass, alone to experience the blended island culture.
After the mass the entire street is turned into a huge Sunday barbecue where people grill meat on oil drum barbecues in high ‘Rapa Nui spirits’!
In the afternoon we head for the cemetery, located close to the sea, which is just as unique as the church – and speaks for itself! Some of the tombstones have extraordinary motifs and engravings that combine Christianity and Rapa Nui mythology.
Afterwards we arrive at the island’s Rapa Nui Museum with free admission. The Museo Antropológico Sebastián Englert, is a fine museum introducing the island’s history and culture, and it is gives valuable insight into the moai statues, petroglyphs, Rongorongo tablets etc.
We continue to the Tahai ceremonial complex which is all close to the museum. It consists of three ahus, Ko Te Riku with restored eyes, symbol of spiritual power, Tahai, and Vai Ure. It is also here that we find one of the few moai on the island that still wear their pukao, the red topknot.
If you stay until sunset, you will be able to get an amazing view of the Tahai! It is a favoured spot in Hanga Roa to view the sunset before having a seafood dinner in one of the restaurants close to the sea!
Walking around in Hanga Roa, we suddenly find ourselves in front of the Rapa Nui Parliament, probably the most modest parliament building in the world! It is a rural building with a tin roof – quite primitive-looking. This is the Easter Island Parliament!
At the small harbour in Hanga Roa you will a few diving centres where you can rent snorkeling gear or go scuba diving depending on your preferences. Easter Island is an excellent place for diving and snorkeling, since the waters are in general very clear with a visibility up to 60 meters! Although no large coral reefs here as around many other Pacific islands, you will be able to explore around 160 species of fauna here, many of them endemic to Easter Island. A snorkeling or diving tour is a good option for your third day on the island!
Check out the options for a cultural live dance show in the evening. It is an amazing way to experience another authentic side of the Rapa Nui culture. There are various dance groups performing a show, and you can have a traditional dinner before the show starts.
Other things to consider on Easter Island if you have more than 3 days: Rent a bicycle and explore more fascinating moai statues, spend half a day at one of the other island beaches such as Ovahe or Playa poko poko in Hanga Roa, go to see other old volcanoes such as the Mauga Terevaka or the Poike, explore more petroglyphs, or visit Puna Pau, the quarry where the red stone for the pukao, or topknot, for the moai statues comes from.
Hare PakoBa Guest House is situated in Hanga Roa, approximately 1.2 km from Puna Pau. Some of the rooms have a seating area, a patio or a terrace. Buffet (Rapa Nui-style) breakfast served every day. The guest house offers free airport shuttle.
Takarua Lodge is located at a beautiful location near the Anthropological Museum and the Tahai Complex. Family rooms, terrace, breakfast and free airport shuttle.
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‘Easter Island Moai Statues, Rano Raraku, Rano Kau & Orongo’
Easter Island Moai Statues, Rano Raraku, Rano Kau & Orongo