Easter Island - high on our life list. We're here at last. Actually we're not "here"......we're nowhere!
Easter Island is so remote that - unlike the Galapagos - no mammals or reptiles (and very few insects) drifted here prior to the arrival of man, in approximately 500AD. It was virtually "fauna sterile".
Only 4,000 people live here on this 64 square mile spot in the ocean. Short of Tristan da Cunha or Pitcairn, this is as far away from anywhere that you can be.
There's a surprising french flavour since the Tahiti-Santiago flight stops enroute and many french vacationers spend a few days. When the food is french, the end of the world is not a bad place to be.....unless your preference tends to "freedom fries"!
We visited the Galapagos to see what evolution had wrought over millions of years. We came to Easter Island to see what man had made and unmade in mere hundreds of years. It was a moving 3 days.
Liz found us a perfect tropical hotel in the centre of town - walking distance to the restaurants and stone monoliths on the beach....plus it came with chickens and inflatable toys.
But even at the end of the world - cell coverage is ubiquitous
This island is physically beautiful; tragically deforested, it is a series of open multi-hued vistas...all inevitably culminating in the azure sea. The smoke is not volcanic (the islands are tectonically dead), it is from farmers burning off fields....sadly for all the wrong reasons:
To put our comments into context, we need a brief history review
#1 Polynesians arrive and create culture that sculpts and erects huge stone heads (the "moai") as religious/ancestral worship icons
#2 Environmental/cultural/agricultural diasters/warfare cause disallusion with moai based religion - stone heads are toppled by their creators
#3 Cult of the Birdmen appears
#4 Europeans arrive - slavery/disease/exploitation - Chile claims for maritime importance
#5 Stone heads re-erected - archeaological research
#6 Becomes tourist destination
The Bird Man Cult
The island is a triangle with a volcanic caldera at each vertex.
At one corner (lower left on the above map) is this perfect caldera - it has Fresh water and is approximately 60' deep - the reeds are migrants from South America and the source of the fibre that the Rapa Nui used to erect the Moai
Standing off shore from the crater are three islands where terns nest. The governing structure developed that whichever tribe's champion climbs down the cliff, swims to the island, gets one of the first laid tern eggs, swims back with the egg tied to his forehead and climbs up the cliff again.....will be the winner and his tribal chief gets to rule the island for the next year - all making Iron Man look like a Sunday walk!
Below - the Islands, the petroglyphs carved to celebrate winners and our guide Carlos
A culinary digression
After our first day we find what is described as the best and most expensive restaurant on the island - "Taverne du Pechuers" - right on both counts.....marvelous food. Absolutely fresh ingredients, lovingly cooked and aggressively priced - but far less expensive than comparable food in Paris or New York or Toronto. Below - shrimps with hot peppers ("pil pil"), startlingly good tuna ceviche, grilled tuna in roquefort sauce and - in Liz's opinion - the best lobster she's eaten in memory - a slipper lobster cocktail with avocado. For $100 it was in retrospect an epic meal....and a reminder that the French still know how to really cook
We started the next day by visiting platforms (Ahus) where the Moai (pronounced "Moe-Eye") had been toppled.
The following photo might help put all the overlapping elements in context.
There are huge numbers of apparently semi wild (although branded) horses wandering Easter Island. The number of young foals indicates a very fertile fauna
Easter Island is characterized by very rugged basalt coasts. There are few beaches or harbours. Even today, all goods are off loaded from larger ships onto lighters and brought ashore to a tiny harbour
The Pile of stones in the upper left:
The largest stones are toppled moai (stone heads, face down). The smaller stones are pieces of the Ahu (the platform on which the Moai stood) - there are ruined Ahu everywhere
The Stones by the man in the green shirt (lower left quadrant)
This is a Moai statue that never made it on its trip from the quarry to the Ahu (platform)
The following shot is a close up - why it was left unerected is unknown, but there are moai "in transit" all over the island:
All the moai were carved from a single quarry on the island - a mountain of volcanic tuft. They were carved in two stages:
One - fronts shaped and removed from the mountain and taken down hill
Two - stood upright on the mountain's lower slope - because the moais were carved face up their backs had to be finished after release from the mountain.
The dots on the mountain slope are unfinished Moai. When the Rapa Nui stopped believing, they stopped carving and moving statues.
The Rapa Nui had a production line for Moai on their mountain quarry. Following are some photos of statues in varying stages of excavation - the first being the largest ever attempted....and uncompleted (it's 21 metres high and likely weighs over 200 tons).
It touches you to stand beside them unfinished in their stone sarcophagi, still part of the mountain, doomed never to be released - weeds and lichen are creeping in. There is a lovely inevitability to it all. Almost Gods....forgotten.....rediscovered.....dissolving back into the mountain that almost gave them birth.
The following photo gives you a sense of the size of the Moai.
We were so haunted by the quarry that we went back the next morning at sunrise, when we could be alone with the Moai. If you ever make it to Easter Island - get up early, see the Moai alone. If nothing else, the light is better for photographs and your soul....as shown below, including Moai where the keel has just been removed and is about to be removed
The Moai on the downslope have appeared on a 1,000 science fiction book covers. Trust us, they are as enigmatic in real life as they are in print. We took hundreds of photos - following are some we particularly liked.....remember most of the Moai are half buried:
And here's a really original shot - no one has ever done this before!
On the side of the quarry mountain and in sight of the largest restored Ahu at Tongariki (15 standing Moai) is the Crouching Moai - here's our photo of what thousands have taken before
Tongariki is awesome. We sense the guides plan it this way - you see the aftermath (the Birdmen) then the Quarry, and then you see the ultimate display - 15 Moai poised against the awesome coast. For a people without metal tools, or wheels, or block and tackle; sculpting and hauling a 100 ton giant down from the mountain and erecting him by the shore was an incredible achievement....to have done it 15 times is numbing.
Following are pictures of Tongariki - do note the red rock top knot of the second Moai from the right. We can't believe the fact that the Moai shadows point back to their birthplace is coincidental.
A note on our guides:
Day One we had a very good local guide - Carlos - who was extremely knowledgeable and had worked with the Heyerdahl family. We learned a lot from him.
Day Two we hired a fascinating lady - Josie Nahoe Mulloy - she is the granddaughter of William Mulloy, an archeologist/anthropologist from the original Thor Heyerdahl expedition who went on to devote his life's studies to Easter Island and re-erecting the Moai. He is given a lot of credit for reinvigorating the island's cultural heritage and the latter day success with tourism once the Moais were re-erected.
Josie is half Rapa Nui - she grew up in the States and took a degree in anthropology and then an MBA. She worked as an investment banker in San Francisco during the halcyon dot com days, but 8 years ago decided to leave San Francisco and return to her Easter Island roots - she subsequently married a Rapa Nui man and is now well established as a guide.
Josie is knowledgeable, bright, charming and the perfect guide if you want to learn about Easter Island - then and now. We walked, we ate, we drank, and had much fun and learned much about the past and present - here's a pic of Liz and Josie:
One of the most poignant sites we visited with Josie was the Ahu Akivi - one of the most famous restorations done by her grandfather. During the restoration in 1960 it took a full month - using a stone ramp and two wooden levers - to raise the first of the seven moai. By the time they got around to the last moai the same task took them less than a week.
This sight has several unique characteristics - the moai are all of a similar size, the ahu is quite small and is inland....and most importantly....the moai face the SEA rather than facing INLAND as all the others do.
This is Josie's favourite ahu on the Island - and we understand why - it was very special to be there with her (pic below of Ahu Akivi with Richard and Josie):
We asked Josie about burials in the Ahus - her response was to walk ten feet, turn over a rock and show us a skeleton. It may have been opportunistic, but it did get our attention!
Josie took us on a drive to the highest point on the island - the following photos are the three vertices of the island - notable is the absence of trees. In fact erosion is an ongoing problem.
One interesting feature is that virtually all the population is concentrated in the one city (Hanga Roa) - the result of oppressive policies by the British sheep farming company that effectively owned the island and subsequently the Chilean navy, who ruled the island.
It was long thought that the Moais didn't have eyes until an archeologist discovered a coral eye while excavating in the sand at the beach at Anakena. Now there are a couple of theories as to why the archeologists haven't found more eyes....
One - because they're coral, they may have simply deteriorated away or...
Two - the eyes were given to the moais after they were erected to bring them to life - and when the Rapa Nui people lost faith in the moai, they toppled them and removed and destroyed the eyes in anger.
One of the moais near town has eyes - (near Ahu Taihi which is a 10 minute walk from town) - 3 pics follow:
Following are photos of other moai from other ahus around the island.....
The moai are the stars of Easter Island, but some of the lesser known attractions are incredible. One was a lava tube known as "two windows". It's an anonymous small hole in the ground as shown below:
You crawl in backwards, creep a good distance along a 4 foot high passage and eventually come to a "Y" intersection - at the end of each branch is where the lava poured into the sea. Two "windows" suspended hundreds of feet above the surf below. We crept to the edge and looked down.....a long way down.
The Rapa Nui mined the top knots for the moai from a separate quarry - of course, when you're moving 100 ton statues with stone tools you always decide to mine their caps from the other end of the island!
The top knot stone is bright red and quite hard. Today the quarry is over grown and the round top knots are gently subsiding into the grazing ground. It's all rather bucolic, with meandering cattle, silver fig trees and the red stone. Elsewhere on the island you find top knots where they came to rest when their moai were toppled.
We closed our visit to Easter Island with bottles of wine and great conversation on Josie's veranda.
There's a number of books recently on the best seller lists that employ Easter Island as a metaphor for what humanity is doing on a global basis ("Collapse" by Jared Diamond and "A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright).
The warnings get a lot more credible when you're actually there - the implicit peril of hubris, the futility of religion taken to illogical conclusions, and the inevitable consequences of environmental destruction. Ironically the Easter Islanders may be repeating their ancestors' folly - over breeding, erosion, larger and larger cruise ships, a casino....but since we're doing similar things on a global basis, who can blame the islanders for playing along?
The flights to Santiago and home were low stress - scooped Business Class seats (yeah!) -- the kids on the plane were inexplicably quiet; our luggage arrived when and where we did; the house was still here; our birds are fine and the first tulips are poking their heads up from the frost hard beds.
We had a wonderful time. Learned more than we expected; met a lot of interesting people (local and fellow travelers) who taught us how little we know about the world. We'll go back to South America, but next year most probably New Zealand and Tasmania, with a side trip to Japan.
To come - a "random observations" wrap up and a separate list of recommended hotels, restaurants and attractions.