Easter Island is with its iconic stone statues one of the biggest mysteries on Earth. A lot of research has been carried out to enlighten where, more precisely, the Rapa Nui people of Polynesian origin came from, and when the first settlers arrived on the remote island. In recent years their old culture has drawn a lot of attention worldwide. We have been as lucky as to find accommodation with the most awesome Rapa Nui hosts, a couple renting out half of their private house in Hanga Roa, the island capital.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 24 JAN 2020
Flying in from Santiago de Chile after a 5-hour flight is an awe-inspiring experience. After 3,700 km (2,300 miles) over the deep and vast South Pacific Ocean without the slightest sight of land, it is announced through the speaker that we will land in barely ten minutes.
From the window we see the contours of a tiny island approaching. We finally go down and arrive at the renowned Easter Island. I have known about it since I was a child, when the isolated island and its fascinating statues were brought to my knowledge through a Donald Duck comic strip. Ever since, I have always dreamt of seeing the island for myself.
As Europeans it is one of the furthest destinations in the world we could reach. It has not until recently occurred to us that we would really come here. However, planning a longer South America trip, we seized the opportunity to visit the remote, unique island. We took advantage of already deciding to go to Santiago de Chile to incorporate Easter Island as well. If not now, it might never be…
Polynesian and Rapa Nui Easter Island
The volcanic island is one of the remotest inhabited islands in the world. This faraway, Polynesian island is located in the South Pacific Ocean, west of the Chilean coast, at the southeasternmost vertex of the Polynesian Triangle with Hawaii and New Zealand, respectively, as the two other vertices. It was annexed to Chile in 1888, and is now governed as an integral part of Chile.
The Polynesians named the island Rapa Nui. It was discovered by the outside world on Easter Sunday in 1722 – from where it has got its recent name Easter Island or Isla de Pascua in Spanish.
It is believed that Polynesian people settled on the island around 1200 AD – or maybe even before. They created an extraordinary, thriving culture with gigantic, volcanic moai statues placed on elevated platforms, facing inwards with their back towards the sea. The statues represented the spirits of their ancestors.
Rapa Nui is really not big. From the air we see than the runway stretches all across from one side to the other on the southern part of the island. Actually, NASA has extended the runway to serve as an emergency landing field for space shuttle missions.
Our hosts’ daughter receives us in Hanga Roa Airport, the Mataveri International Airport, in their big four-wheeler. They rent out half of their private house, Cabaña Tongariki. We squeeze ourselves together so that we can all be there. She eagerly explains that she will take us for a short sightseeing tour in Hanga Roa on the way back to their house.
Noticing the Polynesian traits of the locals, waiting to pick up the tourists, we are reminded that we have really come to Polynesia! Something we haven’t given too much thought to before coming. Now we experience that visitors to the island are received with Polynesian flower necklaces at the airport!
Before leaving, she double-checks that we have already paid the fee of 80$ per person for the entrance to the Rapa Nui National Park which is the entrance ticket to all the cultural sites outside Hanga Roa. It is only for sale at the airport and in one other location in town. We will need to show the ticket to prove that we have paid the fee at many of the important sites around the island, so it would be annoying to find out later that we missed it.
” Remember to buy the National Park ticket before leaving the airport!”
Her improvised sightseeing service is unexpected, but we definitely welcome it. For once we have someone to show us around, something we are not too used to when travelling. We pass by the main sights in town and our female driver explains about the shops and points out the local grocery store. We could have bought and brought our own groceries from Santiago. Many travellers do that before boarding the plane to Easter Island, since food is terribly expensive on the island. You are seemingly allowed to take a box of groceries with you on the flight. We just simply hadn’t got time for that in Santiago. And maybe we don’t either really believe that food can be THAT expensive here…
The young lady lets us know what we should consider when touring the island the next day. She suggests an order we should do the moai sites in, so that we will both beat the tourist groups and benefit from the right moments during the day.
Tahai ceremonial complex
Taking us to the Rapa Nui moai masterpieces north of the Hanga Roa harbour, she willingly explains about the huge statues. She clarifies the mystery around the missing eyes of nearly all the moai on the island. We get a brief explanation of how the eyes were only carved and added in the very last phase when the statue was already in its final location. This means that moai, that never reached their final location, never got eyes. Besides, the statues once with eyes, all lost them during the centuries to come.
Here, within walking distance from Hanga Roa, she shows us the Tahai ceremonial complex comprising three ahus which are platforms with moai. The Ahu Ko Te Riko moai is the only statue on the island, that today can be seen with restored coral eyes, symbol of spiritual power. It is also one of the three moai on the island that still wear their pukao, their red hat. She describes for us that this is an excellent example of the numerous sculptures created by the Rapa Nui people of the moai carving era.
On the improvised tour she explains about her Rapa Nui people, their culture and language. She gives examples of her parents’ names: the Spanish version, the Rapa Nui version… as well as their nicknames! I find it a bit astonishing that they translate their names, but it seems all natural to her.
The Rapa Nui language
The native population on Easter Island today is bilingual, speaking both Rapa Nui and Spanish. Spanish is used for communicating with visitors and mainland Chile, whereas Rapa Nui remains the colloquial island language used in the families. The Polynesian language is spoken by the roughly 3,500 remaining Rapa Nui inhabitants (out of an estimated 17,500 inhabitants at the peak of the Rapa Nui culture).
The Rapa Nui language has been kept as a unique language because of the remote location of the island without communication to the outside world for hundreds of years. The characteristics of the language are the limited number of sounds due to the presence of only ten consonants and five vowels. Some of the languages today being closest to Rapa Nui are Tahitian and Marquesan as well as, maybe surprisingly, the New Zealand Maori language. This has contributed to theories that the first seafarers to arrive on the island may have been the same people that reached New Zealand.
Just before arriving at their house, the daughter again emphasises that her parents don’t speak English, but only Spanish, in addition to the Rapa Nui language.
Our stay in a private house on Easter Island with Rapa Nui people next-door
We finally drive up a volcanic dirt road which leads to her parents’ house. It is on the outskirts of Hanga Roa with fields or grass areas bordering some of the roads. When arriving we are astonished to see beautiful banana palms with huge, greenish bananas on them, just in front of the house. The island features a subtropical climate with warm and humid summers and mild winters which are perfect conditions for the palm trees.
In Hanga Roa on Easter Island we stay with the most awesome Rapa Nui people
Her mother receives us, welcoming us in Spanish. She explains about the house and shows us the part of the house they live in. In fact, their family has four adjacent houses on the road. The name of the house is Cabaña Tongariki, named after the impressive ahu platform with the 15 moai statues: Ahu Tongariki.
Planning an all-day trip, driving around on the island, we ask about the possibility of renting a car. Our hosts offer that we can rent one of their four-wheelers which is way cheaper than the car rentals on Hanga Roa’s main street. We do not need much reflection to accept this.
The case is that you don’t find the usual car rental services on Easter Island, and it is NOT possible to get any car insurance at all. However, traffic is limited and there are only a few roads outside Hanga Roa, mainly just one for a round trip to the other side of the island, so the risk of something happening is not significant. Accidents are extremely rare! Nearly all cars are four-wheelers such that they may go across the terrain, if needed. We have no second thoughts and agree that we can take the car in the morning.
Since tourism is the major industry for people on Easter Island, many locals rent their houses or part of their houses out to the visitors. So when looking for a Hanga Roa hotel, you should definitely also consider private accommodation such as a cabaña with Rapa Nui people. The advantage of staying privately with a family is that you get to see the local community from another angle, and it is in general more affordable than many of the traditional hotels.
This is precisely why we have chosen to stay in Cabaña Tongariki. It is a unique chance to meet local Rapa Nui people and get a bit of insight into present-day island culture.
Shortly after arriving we instinctively find our shorts at the bottom of our rucksacks. They have been packed away while we were in the Andes Mountains where we even got to experience snow! Now, we definitely need them again. It is about 20 degrees centigrade and we feel the pleasant climate change.
Hanga Roa sightseeing
Hanga Roa main street is not a conventional main street. Walking along it is not like strolling down the main street in any other town. It is village-like with scattered houses, green areas and palm trees as well as dirt paths in between the houses. If we hadn’t read that this is the Rapa Nui main street, it would probably never have occurred to us!
At first, we think that what we have heard about the sky-high price level on Easter Island maybe is a bit exaggerated. However, we soon get to experience that food indeed is terribly expensive. This is also logical since nearly everything is flown in from Chile. Only the few things grown on the island are supposed to be more reasonably priced. We shop in the local grocery store and cannot help being a bit shocked that 3 avocados (admitted: they are very big) cost us over 12 USD! And 6 bananas go for more than 6 USD!
From now on we pay attention to what we buy! We soon find out, which confirms what we have read beforehand, that when eating out, oven empanadas are both a tasty and a budget-friendly option! They go for as little as 5 USD in some places!
The harbour is tiny and really picturesque with its few colourful boats moored. July is off season and it is stunningly quiet there when we arrive.
In the southern part of Hanga Roa, on a green area atop the rocks, we spot the first horses. The island is known for its numerous horses. More specifically, it supposedly features around 6000 (wild) horses. The number is greater than the number of Rapa Nui people on Easter Island! Since the Rapa Nui people are limited in number and all concentrated in Hanga Roa, the island offers excellent conditions for undisturbed wildlife wherever you go. This of course also means that you need to watch out for horses on the roads when touring the island!
It soon becomes clear to us that everything on the island is definitely small-scale compared to most other places. It is only natural in such a small community. Anyway, when we suddenly find ourselves in front of the Rapa Nui Parliament we need to look twice to understand that this really is the parliament of the people on Easter Island (?!?). It is a spartan-looking, rural building with a tin roof – nothing sophisticated at all!
We have paid attention to the direction we took when we left the cabaña since we don’t want to get lost on the dirt roads! Our road is named ‘Make-Make’ after the deity and creator of humanity and all things: the Make-Make god who is also the warrior as well as fertility god in the Rapa Nui mythology.
Our amiable hosts receive us outside when we come back from our walk, letting us know that they are just on the other side of the wall in the house if we have any questions or need anything!
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