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 Hauntingly, their large eyes—originally made of obsidian and white coral—are often gouged out, with their bodies in varying stages of erosion.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.
In early Febuary I was among the first guests to check into Posada de Mike Rapu, the hotel of the Explora en Rapa Nui resort, which opened in December and has finally brought first-class accommodations to the island. It’s the third eco-friendly luxury lodge developed by the Santiago-based Explora company (the others are in Southern Patagonia and the northern Chilean desert). Although Easter Island prohibits land sales to non-natives, Explora was able, after years of negotiation, to open the hotel by partnering with a local businessman.
Situated on a secluded plain above the roaring Pacific, the luxurious lodge, built of indigenous volcanic stone and hardwoods, has 30 simply but handsomely furnished guest rooms, each with a huge picture window. After checking in, I was tempted to sprawl out on the daybed and stare out at the endless sea. Integral to the Explora philosophy, however, is getting guests up and moving—and not just to the excellent restaurant at the hotel, which features succulent just-caught fish and robust Chilean wines.
Though the lodge’s daily morning and afternoon hikes—which take about three hours each and range in difficulty from casual to heart thumping—are not obligatory, you do like feel like a slacker if you don’t partake. And even the most sedentary guests are likely to be charmed outside by the hotel’s hiking guides. All island natives, they are well informed, friendly and, oh yes, quite nice to look at. On my trip, the other guests showed varying levels of commitment to the outdoors—and to the lodge’s recommendation to pack sturdy hiking shoes. While a Toronto couple, on their way back from a voyage in Antarctica, arrived for each trek outfitted with Everest-ready gear, a charming Italian woman and her teenage daughters appeared for their first expedition in sundresses and strappy little low-heeled sandals—attire that would have been perfect on Capri. The next day the Italians showed up wearing much more sensible Teva sports sandals, which they had just bought in town, not to mention expressions of horror and amusement over their unfashionable footwear. The third morning, they skipped the hike altogether, which I discovered when they busted me playing hooky by the pool.
One of the most fascinating hikes was to Rano Raraku, one of the island’s three extinct volcanoes. Raraku, a quarry, was the nursery of the moai, as is evidenced by the sculptural forms emerging from the hill in various states of completion. Dozens of fully sculpted moai, meanwhile, sit on the slope, as if they’d just come off an assembly line and were awaiting delivery.
As our guide explained, the moai were built between the years 1000 and 1600 as protective figures. After the death of a tribe’s chief, a moai was carved in his image, then erected on a stone altarlike platform, where it watched over the village. While many mysteries remain about how these leviathans were built and raised into their positions, one theory holds that they were transported on a series of rolling logs. In their frenzy to build, however, the Rapa Nui deforested their tiny island. By the 18th century, the island was roiled by civil war and disease.
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.
Where 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, email@example.com, 56.32.551554.