It takes a fair amount of determination to get to Easter Island. Arguably the most remote habitation in the world, it sits 1,300 miles east of Pitcairn Island, its nearest neighbor. From New York, you take an 11-hour overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, where you generally need to spend another night in order to catch the morning plane across the Pacific. During the five-hour, 2,400-mile flight due west, you won’t see a speck of land.
When, finally, the plane begins its descent, and soaring cliffs suddenly appear in the distance, you’ll see the island: a small chunk of volcanic rock, 10 miles by 15 miles, about the size of Staten Island. Is this, you’ll wonder, the start of a Lost episode?
While the trip is long, it is hardly the arduous Kon-Tiki raft expedition that Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl undertook in 1947. Today, jumbo 767s land daily with ease on what seems an unusually lengthy runway for such a petite island. (The airstrip, it turns out, is courtesy of NASA, which in 1986 extended the tarmac so that it could be used as an emergency landing spot for the space shuttle.) When you disembark, via a shaky stairway, modern life stops, however. The “terminal” is about as basic as a Quonset hut.
Everything on this rocky island seems possessed of a stark beauty. Standing against the infinite expanse of brilliant blue sky are hundreds of Easter Island’s famous mysterious stone figures, called moai, keeping watch and exerting a powerful magnetism. Carved from volcanic stone, they are massive—from 20 to 70 feet tall—and can weigh up to 270 tons. Many of them lie toppled over, like beached whales, all around the isle. Hauntingly, their large eyes—originally made of obsidian and white coral—are often gouged out, with their bodies in varying stages of erosion. Only a few remain in pristine condition.
Heyerdahl set out on his perilous Pacific voyage from Peru to the Polynesian islands to prove that the region had been settled by prehistoric South American people, who would have made the trip under similar circumstances. He was convinced that only those who had been exposed to European civilizations (as the South American Indians had been) could have had the engineering skills to construct those majestic moai.
That theory has since been disproved. As most researchers now believe, beginning around 800 AD, the island’s inhabitants, known as Rapa Nui (the local name for Easter Island), came from the other direction, the islands of East Polynesia. Although the island was annexed by Chile in 1888, its culture—notably its music, art and food—remains more Polynesian than South American.
In the past few years, thanks to Lan’s near-daily flights from Santiago, tourism has soared. (Tahiti—from whence there are two weekly flights—is the only other point of embarkation.) Although more than 50,000 people visited Easter Island last year, traffic is concentrated in Hanga Roa, the sole village—a pleasant if not particularly scenic spot filled with a variety of motels and pubs. The remainder of the island, on the other hand, feels blissfully deserted.