When I asked several Rapa Nui how long their ancestors had been on the the island, they all responded with the same puzzled look. They had been there “forever,” said one, as if my calculations were pointless. On my many hikes with the guides, I was repeatedly struck by the personal connection they felt to these centuries-old moai, whom they spoke of as family. Spying any small piece of trash on a path, they would swoop down and remove it, intent that nothing defile their home.
A large part of Easter Island’s attraction is its very isolation, which seems to slow time itself. One brilliant blue afternoon, despite a steady breeze, a large dark rain cloud remained out at sea for hours in the same place, seemingly just stuck there. Meanwhile, a majestic, lone frigate bird with what looked to be a six-foot wingspan glided overhead in endless circles.
My visit coincided with the beginning of Tapati, a two-week festival that is the Rapa Nui equivalent of Rio’s Carnaval. Every night, on the large platform set up in the village, there were performances of native dance and song as well as demonstrations of body painting—another vital part of the local culture. The potent concoctions dispensed at the numerous bars added to the party atmosphere.
During Tapati, the island’s young men take part in traditional sporting competitions. In one such event, known as haka pei, strapping fellows, their painted bodies clad only in hamis (loincloths) and straw wrapped around their lower legs like miniskirts, hiked to the top of a grass-covered extinct volcano. Then they careened down, feet first, on a sort of toboggan made out of banana tree logs. Those who slid the farthest won.
In the village that evening, I saw two of the winners—one of whom was an Explora guide—joyriding on a moped, still in costume. On Easter Island, an ancient culture can seduce you—in stone or in the flesh.
TipsWhere to sleep, eat and play on Easter Island.
Lan Airlines: The only airline that flies into the island. Flights from New York via Santiago. lan.com.
Explora en Rapu Nui: The island’s first eco-friendly deluxe lodgings. An all-inclusive, three-night stay starts at $1,794 per person, double occupancy. explora.com, 866.750.6699.
La Taverne du Pécheur: Snag a table for some of the best seafood on the island. Try the shrimp with hot pepper (pil pil) or the tuna in Roquefort sauce. Near the harbor at Caleta Hanga Roa, 56.32.2100619.
TopaTangi Pub: Lively cavelike club, where locals and more adventurous tourists mix. Atamu Tekena, 56.32.551694.
Mokomae Tattoos: Where the island’s locals get inked. Atamu Tekena, firstname.lastname@example.org, 56.32.551554.