Travel Log | Easter Island (8-11 Feb 2008)
Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as it's known locally) is said to be the remotest inhabited island in the world. The Chilean territory is situated in the South Pacific, 3,500km west of Chile, 4,200km east of Tahiti and over 2,000km from the nearest inhabited island of Pitcairn. The island is famed for its numerous stone statues (Moai) which cover the Island. The statues were built by the native Polynesians but exactly when, why and how they were constructed and transported remains a mystery today.
Quite when the first settlers arrived in Easter Island is disputed but it's likely they were of Polynesian origin and arrived from the eastern or central South pacific. It's believed that Easter Island was originally rich in vegetation but over time the island was completely deforested to provide wood for building fishing boats and possibly to make rollers used to transport the huge stone statues around the island. Due to rough coastal waters the fertile fishing grounds are found further offshore and can only be accessed by boat. With no vegetation and no means to build boats the island slipped into famine. Shortages of food caused widespread death and resulted in islanders turning to cannibalism. Easter Island is often held up as an example of the worst kind of manmade environmental disasters. Further population fluctuations followed over the years as the island went through periods of recovery followed by epidemics (brought by the first European settlers) and civil wars between feuding clans. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 and remains a Chilean territory today. The population of around 4,000 people is comprised of roughly 60% native Rapanui and 40% Chilean.
Easter Island has few trees or larger vegetation even today. The most striking parts of the grass covered island are the three dormant volcano craters at Rano Kau, Rano Raraku and Rano Aroi. The east-end of the island is dominated by the airport runway which is used by NASA as a contingency landing strip for space shuttles returning from orbit. A few beaches dot the coastal areas which are popular with locals for swimming and general posing.
Various tour options are available whilst on Easter Island but the most convenient way to get around is to hire a car. The roads on the west side of the island are fairly under developed so a 4x4 is the best option. Easter Island is a stopping point for South Pacific cruise ships so occasionally large tour groups descend on the island. Most cruise ships don't stay longer than a few hours and having your own transport allows you to escape to the further parts of the island where the crowds don't generally reach.
Most accommodation on the island tends to be small scale hotels or family run guest houses. A few more upmarket options are now available but at a price. The food options on the island are fairly limited. Most the restaurants in the capital Hanga Roa seem to serve a similar menu of fried meat/fish with fried potatoes. The best food we came across was the French restaurant down by the dive centre but unfortunately the extra quality in terms of cuisine was cancelled out by the service from the ridiculously rude owner. From reading later reviews it seems that this restaurant (and its owner) enjoy a level of notoriety on the island, not least with the complaints department at the main tourism office.
Our visit to Easter Island rather fortuitously coincided with the annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival. The festival is a two week showcase of Rapa Nui culture and events including swimming, wood carving, body decorating and spear fishing competitions. Evening entertainment includes singing and dance-offs between competing teams. The highlight of the festival is the Tapati triathlon where competitors swim, paddle and run (carrying large bunches of bananas) around Rano Raraku lake. The triathlon is followed by the Haka Pei where loin cloth clad competitors slide down a steep grass hill on sleds made from the trunk of banana trees.