Easter Island is one of the remotest places on earth. Known as the Navel of the World, here's my experiences of visiting Easter Island when backpacking.
How to get to Easter Island
I visited Easter Island back in 2005 – which was at the time this travel blog first went online. Yes, Dave's Travel Pages has really been online since 2005!
The reason I visited Easter Island, was that whilst backpacking through Central and South America, I had to choose between visiting the Galapagos Islands or Easter Island. To be honest, it wasn't much of a choice – I'd wanted to go to Easter Island since I was 10 years old, so away I went!
But first I had to leave Peru
The story starts in Peru, where I'd just finished a few weeks backpacking…
Getting the plane to Santiago in Chile turned out to be a major undertaking. I arrived with plenty of time to spare at Tacna airport, where I was due to catch the 20.15 flight to Lima.
Once there, I would have a wait of three and a half hours before catching another flight to Santiago, Chile. That was the plan, anyway.
It was only as I checked my baggage in at 18.00, that they informed me that the flight was delayed until 23.00. I did a few quick mental calculations, and the answer was the same for all of them.. Arse.
I figured that if everything went well, I should still have three quarters of an hour spare to make my connection, which might just be enough.
The check-in girl assured me in Spanish that my rucksack would go straight through to Santiago (Yeh, right, like THAT was going to happen!), and that if I missed my flight, they would arrange another one for me free of charge.
Although I had answers to all my questions, they weren't necessarily the ones that I wanted, but there wasn't a lot I could do about it, so I left the check in desk, and began my five hour wait in what is perhaps the worlds most boring airport.
Tacna – The Worlds' Most Boring Airport
Tacna airport consists of two duty free shops, two small sandwich cafes, an upstairs bar/restaurant, a chapel, and inexplicably, a cheese shop.
Five hours is a long time to wait in such an environment, and tempting as it was to make a random purchase of ten kilos of cheese, I went upstairs to the bar/restaurant instead.
Now, it doesn't matter where I am, people who I've never met before, and who have one foot over the line of sanity, feel the urge to talk to me, and today was no exception.
No sooner had I walked in the room, two Peruvians and a Brazilian called me over to their table of empty beer bottles. They bought me a coffee, said they wanted to practise their English, and then started to ramble the same things over and over again, such as ‘Fuck. I lived in the United States. Europe. Germany. Yes. Fucking Peruvian bullshit. Fucking. Bullshit.', at the top of their voices.
As I said, the airport was quite lame, and as these guys were my only source of entertainment, I decided to see how long they could keep it up. They were quite enthusiastic, but eventually, after a final gabble of ‘Bullshit, fucking Peruvian bullshit', they ran out of steam at the three quarters of an hour mark, and wandered off.
Clock Watching in Tacna Airport
Although everybody else in the bar/restaurant was clearly relieved, it left me with another three hours to kill and no source of distraction, so rather than just clock watching, I decided to use my watch to time myself. – Breath holding, 3 mins. Blinks in a minute, 75. standing on one leg (had to stop that as I was starting to get some strange looks).
Time passed, and an announcement went out at 21.40 calling our flight in to the departure lounge. Things were looking up, as this meant in theory a 22.40 departure time. No worries.
I bumped briefly into my friends again, or to put it more accurately, they stumbled drunkenly into me, before shuffling off into some corner.
The departure lounges only saving grace were the leather back chairs, and although I could see the cheese shop, access was denied.
Time dragged on, with only the intermittent shout of ‘Fucking Peruvian bullshit' rising from a far away corner to relieve the boredom.
At 23.00, I realised that things were not going well, but at least we were boarding.
As I walked to my aisle seat, I looked over to see who I would be sitting next too, and obviously, fate decided to put me next to my drunken Peruvian buddies.
I was greeted with a roar of ‘David!! Fucking Peruvian bullshit', and I sat down.
At 23.30, the plane eventually took off, so I made some more calculations whose answer came to Double Arse. – We'd be landing at 01.00, and my next flight left at 01.45. I really needed things to be going in my favour to be able to connect successfully.
At least we were in the air now though, and as my friends had passed out through too much alcohol, I reached over and ate their inflight meals… Its what they would have wanted.
Upon Landing at Lima Airport
01.05, and we landed, leaving forty minutes until my next flight. Forty, excruciatingly slow minutes.
01.15, I was off the plane and standing on the transfer bus.
01.20, still standing on the stationary transfer bus.
01.25, still there.
01.30, and the airport assistants push on two elderly women well past their hundreds in wheelchairs, blocking me in. Damn, I've miscalculated where to stand!
01.31, the bus finally moves … 50 metres across the runway, where it stops to let us all off again at the terminal. Unsure as to whether this, or the fact that I am hemmed in by wheelchair bound coffin dodgers is annoying me more, I bite my tongue, look at my watch and shake my head.
01.35. Bugger. I race through the airport, somehow find where to pay the extortionate departure tax of $28.75, and join a small queue of other anxious looking passengers who are also late for their flights, as the slowest emigration officer in the world laboriously goes through everybody's passports. I'm the last one, and I virtually throw my hand luggage through the x-ray machine, and run like the wind to departure gate 17.
01.43, I'm through and sitting on the plane!! A small victory for me!
Will my luggage make it?
As the plane takes off, I realise that there is now way on earth that my luggage has been transferred from the first plane in time, but never mind, at least I'm carrying spare underpants, unlike when I landed in Mexico.
We land at Santiago airport, and it only makes sense that because it doesn't matter if I'm through to baggage claim first or not, I somehow am, and whose rucksack is the first thing on the conveyor belt? Mine! I love it when a plan comes together!
Eventually, I ended up in the Hotel Plaza Londres, which I highly recommend, where I caught up on sleep, and had a McDonald's.
My Flight to Easter Island
By contrast, the flight to Easter Island was uneventful and dull, only made mildly interesting by a kid being violently sick over his immediate neighbours.
In the baggage claim hall, there were a few stalls laid out, with hotel proprietors selling their rooms. I ended up in a place for $15 dollars a night called Hotel Tekena Inn, which has the added bonus of a kitchen to cook in.
Easter Island – Thursday 4th August 2005
I'd made a rough plan on how I wanted to see Easter island, and today, it was the sites within walking distance north of the only town of Hanga Roa.
The first Moai I saw was Ahu Tautira, and I couldn't stop smiling as I touched it, because it's another dream come true for me. Again, I've always wanted to see the stone heads in real life rather than just in books, and now I have. It makes me realise how fortunate I am to be able to do these things, and that although I'm not rich, I am happy.
Continuing up the coast of Easter Island, I saw some interesting monuments which weren't Moai, but were perhaps just as intriguing, containing anthromorphic and zoomorphic figures in a reddish stone.
I later found out these were contemporary carvings based on ancient designs, but I never did find out who carved thema nd why.
Further up, past the cemetery, was the Ahu Tahai complex.
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island
A quick word of explanation.. the Ahu are the raised, stone platforms, and the Moai are the large, carved stone human figures, with elongated, rectangular heads, aquiline noses and jutting out chins normally standing on the Ahu.
I thought that these Moai appeared to be almost sad looking, as if they were remembering back to a time when they were younger.
There was a platform with five figures on, a couple of statues laying face down in the dirt where they had been deliberately toppled over, and one complete with red topknot, and restored eyes.
Because of the angle of the head, the Moai appear to be looking at the sky, and they were all facing inland, with their backs to the ocean.
I also visited the Museo Anthropologio Sebastian Englert, which was very good in giving a background to the history of the island.
Although very strong on the Polynesian theory, (that the islanders came from other Polynesian islands), it completely ignored any South American connection, such as how the kumera (sweet potato), a South American plant came to be on the island. (The coast of South America is over 3000 km away).
Easter Island People
Easter Island legends tell of the arrival of two separate peoples, one group from the east, and one from the west.
If I were to put forwards my own opinion, it would be that the people from the east (South America), arrived first, and began a small colony, introducing the plants and vegetables from the new world.
Later, the Polynesians arrived, and then at some point, again backed up by legend, there was a war between these two peoples, and the original settlers were wiped out.
That would explain any South American influence, and also why the islanders language and appearance was Polynesian.
The museum also contained some examples of the Rongo Rongo script, the undecipherable writing of the islanders. I've got to say, I wasn't too sure what to make of it, and as the original inhabitants were all but wiped out in the slave raids of the 1800's, no one is ever going to be able to say for sure what they mean. Perhaps they were just bullet points, signs written down to prompt the reader into reciting a handed down story or prayer.
Bicycle and Car Hire on Easter Island
In the afternoon, I looked into hiring a bike, which is going to cost $10 a day, and a car, which will cost $50. Coming from Peru, it all seems horribly expensive, actually the same price as things back in England, but I'm only ever likely to be here the once, so I have to
make the most of it!
On Friday, I hired a bicycle and cycled to the semi-restored ceremonial village of Oronga. It was a four hundred metre climb up the side of volcano Rano Kau, and I've got to say, my cycling legs weren't what they used to be. Think I'm going to have to put in a lot of training before I go on my next trip of cycling from England to Cape Town, South Africa in a years time!
I made it to the top after a couple of stops, and entered the site. Oronga is much younger than the Ahu and Moai, and was the ceremonial centre for the ‘birdman' cult which gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The village is partially restored, and has stunning views both over the ocean on one side, and the lake filled crater of the volcano on the other.
The lake is almost totally covered in floating totura reeds, which makes it look all the more amazing. The village itself consists of stone houses built into the side of the slope, and they look almost like hobbit homes.
The doorway is a low tunnel, which you would have to crawl through on your stomach to enter. There would have been almost no light inside, as the walls had no window holes, and because of the earth covered roofs, a cooking fire would have been impractical.
Birdman Cult Easter Island
Although they are called houses, I don't think they were permanently inhabited, and were only used during the ‘birdman' ceremonies. At the edge of the crater, but on the ocean side, are a number of boulders with carved petroglyphs associated with the birdman cult. To me, they looked like frogs.
The carvings were much cruder than the older ones I had seen the day before. In the afternoon, I saw more rain than I had on all the trip put together so far.
Jeep Hire Easter Island
On Sunday, I hired a jeep for the day to see the places I couldn't get to on foot or by bike, and it was well worth it. Going anti-clockwise around Easter Island, I saw quite a few Ahu with their Moai toppled over face down in the earth and their red topknots scattered
around. What a way to go!
As I drove around the Easter Island, I started wondering why such a small place had never been unified under one leader, and then I realised that there was no need, as before first contact with Europeans, there was never a threat of invasion or war.
I suppose this is what makes people unite in the face of a common enemy. Being isolated, the clans would have formed alliances on the island as and when they needed too, and then after contact with the Europeans, for whatever reason, civil war broke out, and this is when the statues were toppled over.
It's such a pity that we don't know more about the original islanders and the mysterious stone heads, but then again, if you took all the mystery out of life, it would be pretty boring.
I saw plenty of re-erected Moai, some with their hats, and the crater of Rano Raraku, which is also known as the nursery, was a real highlight.
Rano Raraku is the volcano crater which was used as the quarry for the stone from which the statues were cut. Statues of all sizes and stages of progress cover the slopes, almost as if the workers downed tools and went on permanent strike.
Close to the crater and on the coast, 15 Moai have been re-erected on the largest Ahu ever built. I couldn't stop thinking that maybe it was the showroom for the Moai, and that the different clans would pick and choose the ones they wanted!
Returning to South America
The plane back to Santiago went without a problem, and I slept in the airport overnight to save on a bit of cash. As far as airports go, I highly recommend sleeping there. The facilities were modern and clean, the temperature was just about right, and the cleaners were mindful not to disturb those of us crashing out.
Weds 10th I caught the plane to La Paz, Bolivia and that's where to pick up the story from now on!