By Marilyn Diggs
The 1994 movie Rapa Nui,” produced by Kevin Costner, portrays a grueling tribal contest to elect the Bird Man before Easter Island’s discovery by the outside world. Athletes race down 300-meter cliffs, swim through the shark-infested ocean towards a tiny coastal island to snatch the first eggs laid by a sacred bird, and then return with them unbroken. The first to make it back, wins. In exchange for putting the egg into the head honcho’s hands, the Bird Man’s tribe rules the island for a year. And, the victor gets to marry the white virgin who has been kept in a cave for six months to make her skin pristine. The couple has the honor of living a year in the quarry where the famous moai (pronounced “moy”) statues are carved. Intrigued by the film, I couldn’t believe that I was on a LAN plane heading for this ritual’s location and would see for myself the mysterious island, the most isolated place on earth.
A five-hour plane ride from Santiago brought us to the South Pacific island just after a magical peach, gold and violet sunset. I would see these fascinating colors again later, but this time from the sacred ceremonial site Tahai, against maoi silhouettes. At the small airport, smiling copper-skinned islanders tossed purple flower lays around necks and drivers whisked tourists off to their lodgings. It was pitch black. I could hear the ocean outside my comfortable cottage at Hangaroa Hotel, but had to wait until dawn for my first glimpse of Easter Island.
I knew all the facts: The small triangular island (only 117 sq. km) formed by three volcanoes has a population of 3,000. Its maximum length is 24 km and its widest point is 12 km. No one knows who the original islanders were. Probably neighboring Polynesians – from the Marquesas islands, 3,200 km northwest – washed ashore in large double canoes around 700AD. These same people migrated to Hawaii and New Zealand. The seafaring Dutch landed in 1772 on Easter day, hence the name. Life wasn’t a paradise even before the Dutch, English, French, and Spanish invaders. In the late 1600s, warring clans destroyed rival villages, maoi and natural resources like the trees before Europeans ever took slaves and interbred with the natives. In the 1880s the Chilean government relocated the Rapanui to one spot, today the only town – Hanga Roa. These facts, however, didn’t prepare me for the spellbinding experience during the next four days.
Ancestral Worship in the Form of Moai
Easter Island is shrouded in mystery. The signature attraction on Rapa Nui – as the natives call it – is the gigantic stone figures, or moai (pictured left). It is believed they represented idolized ancestors. My heart excitedly pounded at our first tour stop: a dotted line of moai marked the Rano Raraku quarry, on the grassy side of a volcano. We trekked to the top of the quarry hill for a better look. Our guide reported that of the 800 moai on the island, 500 are at the quarry. There they were in all stages of production. Broken ones hadn’t survived the upright transportation to the shorelines. Others intact lay horizontally, noses and chins just beginning to appear from the gigantic boulders. The more you looked, the more you saw. The most impressive were the upright ones, half-buried so the sculptor could reach them to add details: elongated ears, oval-shaped eyes of white coral and fingers. It was as though we had invaded an artisan’s outdoor studio on his lunch break.
The most authentic, untouched remains are in the quarry since all the standing moai today have been restored in the last century. Savage local warriors toppled moai from their altars before missionaries arrived to condemn further ancestral worship. Earthquakes and tsunamis also did their damage.
Leaving the quarry, we traveled west to the amazing Ahu Tongariki – 15 moai stood in a line on a stone altar (ahu) at the ocean’s edge, facing inland towards a flat green plateau. In general, the stone figures ranging from two to twenty meters in height protected the villages built near their platforms. Some moai sport red stone “hats” (pukao) weighing as much as 11 tons and may depict the male hairstyle of the early inhabitants – topknots dyed red (pictured at the top of the article). Only one group faces seaward; legend says this cluster in the center of Rapa Nui represents seven explorers sent by the first island king.
Even though missionaries began in the 19th century to convert islanders, the moai features on the Christ and saint statues in the local church are irrefutable, as well as the native symbols decorating the wooden statues.
Touring on two legs or four
Vans took us throughout the eastern side of the subtropical island. Our guide was the great grandson of the last Rapanui king and grandson of the oldest native on the island who is 88 years old. He took us swimming at Anakena Beach guarded by moai. We perched on the rocky departure point for the Bird Man contest (pictured to the right). Several ancient village sites visited still harbor the secret symbols on carved rocks. We meandered through ruins, staring at the house foundations, and tried to imagine life in thatched shelters resembling upside down canoes. A folklore ensemble at the hotel filled in the gaps as grass-skirted, tattooed and feathered dancers swayed a Hawaiian hula but faster, stomped and sang accompanied by drums and stringed instruments.
The western side of the island is less accessible so I opted to see it on horseback. At one point the pretty Rapanui guide – Tipa, my friend and I dismounted in front of a small rocky hole next to the sea. What lives in there? I wondered. Down the guide disappeared and beckoned us to follow. The dark pit, formerly a hiding place from slave marauders, was a lava tunnel whose end opened to the cliff and the sea below. A mild rain refreshed the horses as we roamed the green savannah in search of moai and outstanding views.
My visit ended too soon. Undoubtedly Easter Island mysteries, like its beginnings, its oral legends and its hieroglyphics (rongo-rongo script) resembling tiny lava lamp blobs, are part of the enchantment. As we flew away, the biggest enigma I had was: how could I have waited so long to visit Rapa Nui?
Where to Stay:
Hanga Roa Hotel – Top end hotel on the ocean with international and local specialties served in lovely restaurant with a view. Cozy bar, pool. Short walk from mainstreet. Kari Kari (Rapa Nui’s Cultural Ballet Co.) performs weekly here. Presently being remodeled but remains open. Av. Pont s/n. Tel: (56 -32) 100-299. www.hotelhangaroa.cl and email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manavai Hotel – Owner Ben Paoa is also a musician and composer. Dedicated to his Rapanui culture, he has gigs at his casual rustic hotel and runs the movie Rapa Nui. Convenient location in town. Set in tropical gardens. Breakfast only at restaurant. Pool. Mid-range hotel. Av. Te Pito Ote Henua 1945. Tel: (56-32)100-670. www.hotelmanavai.cl and email@example.com.
Abercrombie & Kent Chile – destination managers based in Santiago, can book activities with its island operator: Mahinatur. www.mahinatur.cl A&K: phone (56 – 2) 334-5087; firstname.lastname@example.org and www.akdmc.com.
Matias Riroroko Hey – personal or group guide. Cell phone: 9305- 6380. email@example.com.
LAN – Only airlines flying to Easter Island. Convenient flights leave from Santiago.
Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International, a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges. www.mdiggs.com
Previous articles by Marilyn:
Nature and Nurturing in Chile’s Lake Region
Chilean Patagonia: Going to the Ends of the Earth
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 2
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 1
Spending the Night in the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu
Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha“