For as long as I can remember, probably since the first time I saw them in vivid color on the glossy pages of a magazine, I’ve had a penchant to travel to the Chilean-owned territory in the Polynesian Triangle to observe the mysterious ‘heads’ of Easter Island. But they are more than just ‘heads’. More than just somber expressions with pouting lips, sunken sockets devoid of eyes, and pointed chins and noses. These moai—in the local vernacular of the indigenous residents—are actually full-bodied representations of Rapa Nui chieftains and prestigious members of the community. And the ahus (ceremonial platforms) upon which they stand are their burial tombs.
My South-American husband Gustavo, himself a native of Chile, and I intend to be on our ATV, following the coastal road, in the ‘Madrugada’ (wee hours of the morn), heading toward the largest of all the archaeological venues, Tongariki. Our goal is to get there before the crack of dawn, to watch the first rays of sunshine diffuse across the monoliths.
Sunrise at Tongariki
We headed toward fifteen moai, sculpted from the volcanic tuff found at the quarry of Rano Raraku, just up around the bend on the highway. These are fifteen of the original 23 moai rescued after the tsunami of 1960 that swept them, along with vegetation, marine algae, and debris, into the center of Hanga Roa, some 50-plus miles into the island’s interior.
Carved by skilled craftsmen in the 15th and 16th centuries, the mega-ton stone statues are located marginally inland from Hanga Nui Bay. Wave upon wave of Pacific Ocean rolls in on enormous breakers, battering the sable-black shoals, before receding in spumes of soaplike suds. Nature’s washing machine. Cliffs loom in the distance, unfazed by the thrashing.
Chirping Diuca Finches light on the scattered volcanic boulders that fan out from the ahu, unperturbed by the hordes of tourists running willy-nilly, cameras in hand, trying to find that perfect angle. I was content perched upon our rented 4×4, nibbling on a breakfast sandwich, amazed by the rays of golden light seeping like insipid fog between the moais.
Flickers of sunshine dance across the open field…a field of Johnson grass, invasive weeds, and every now and then, a rare Verbenaceae flower poking out of the soil. Daybreak arrived. A trio of milling tourists toasts their grand adventure with makeshift plastic glasses of champagne, while Gustavo and I hurriedly pack up our things, eager to beat the crowds to the quarry at Rano Raraku. Long before lunchtime, we have a date for a picnic at Anakena Beach.
Northern Coast and Anakena Beach
Emerald seas lap gently at the fine-powder sands of Anakena. Towering palm trees drape their leafy fronds across the long stretches of beach, offering afternoon shade for the sun-bathers. Remnants of footprints dapple the coral grains, edging closer toward the aquamarine water, before disappearing with the tide.
Verdant green hills grow right up to the ahu of the seven moai of Nau-Nau, the most meticulously restored statues on the island. Nothing could be more fitting for a land gleaned from royalty. For on this very spot, as oral legend dictates (passed down strictly by word-of-mouth), the founder of Rapa Nui initially set foot. Supposedly right here, on Anakena Beach, the first king—Ariki Hotu matu’a—landed with his two-canoe entourage and dwelled in caves surrounding the shore.
Gustavo and I find ourselves at the farthest end of Anakena, near the handicrafts and souvenir stands; we marvel at the view of crystalline surf gently sweeping across the grains of sand, before withdrawing back to Poseidon’s lair in whispers of foam. Tiny bubbles of froth receding over protruding humps of lava rock, rinsing the parai (seaweed) from the slag.
A Masked Booby swoops along the coastline, plunging into the Pacific waters without hesitation, and plucks a flying fish from the swells. The seabird pulls back up, dinner in tow, and flies in the direction of Rano Kau, an extinct volcano with a freshwater crater lake at the far-end of Easter Island. “He looks like he’s been dipped in paint.” I chuckle at the outstretched wings clambering for an updraft of air, and the ebony-black wing tips and tail feathers that seem to have been dunked into an inkwell in the sky.
Sunset at Tahai
The sun begins its slow descent, sending iridescent shadows washing over the rocky shoreline of Tahai Archaeological Complex. A string of backlit clouds, charcoal, and grey, begins to dissipate; suddenly, brighter wisps of nebula allow the glimmers of fading light to filter through. They splay across the finely renovated Ahu Ko Te Riku, which consists of nothing more than a single moai. A solitary ‘living face’ (aringa ora) restored in all its original splendor, with a fancy crimson pukao (topknot, the original ‘man-bun’) and a pair of eyes. Ogling eyes. With sclera of white sea coral, irises of red scoria, and pupils from black obsidian discs, this lone moai stares blindly at the travelers and locals congregating on the grassy knoll, awaiting the sunset.
Downwind, Ahu Vai Uri and its five moai, in various stages of disrepair, stand as ‘mute sentinels with their backs to the sea. Some headless, some broken beyond redemption, they attest to the days long past, when warring rival tribes—the ‘Long Ears’ and the ‘Short Ears’—nearly drove their civilization into extinction. Yet, like today’s surviving Rapa Nui who cling to their ancient beliefs, these damaged moai still manage to resist the churlish waves and the ever-blustering winds.
Curanto and Cultural Show at Te Ra’ai
We have arrived two hours early to Te Ra’ai, touted in Spanish as ‘un restaurante etníco’, to meet with Victor Ika, the proprietor of this establishment and keeper of the Rapa Nui time-honored traditions. Already, the glowing embers of the umu (earth oven) have been warming for two hours, in preparation for the customary ceremonial curanto (umu pae), or traditional pit cooking. The soil around the rectangular pit is dampened with water, to aid in the steaming, and the first layer of banana stalks are arranged atop the heated stones. Then comes the food.
Mounds upon mounds of meat—chicken, ribs, savory sausages—are followed by starchy vegetables such as pumpkin and camote (sweet potato), topped off with an enormous fish, one-quarter the size of the hole in the ground. All the victuals are left to simmer under another blanket of plantain leaves, red-hot stones, and genuine hemp fibers, stiffer than sackcloth, ultimately seal the umu pae. A pair of native islanders, being trained in the Rapa Nui conventions, shovel dirt onto the textile, while Victor delivers the crowning touch, plunging the ceremonial paddle, or ao, which is believed to contain the spirit of the ancestors, into the curanto.
Before the guests arrive, Victor changes from his street clothes into classic Rapa Nui attire—long ivory cape with a buckskin-colored attached shawl, both made of mahute bark and trimmed with feathers; a headdress, a hami (loincloth) and leg coverings of tree-trunk fibers strapped on around the knees.
“Iorana,” he greets the tourists who have come not only for the show but also for the umu pae. “Welcome.”
Victor had shared with me earlier that, “The curanto, in olden times, was a way to try and bring the tribes together in agreement. Otherwise, there would be war.” Today, it’s a way to maintain a “connection to the ancestors and even though they don’t eat the curanto, at least not in the physical sense, they feel like they are not forgotten and then they give us blessings.”
To Victor, the umu pae keeps the Rapa Nui way-of-life alive and helps to “remain in touch” with forefathers who have passed on. It is much, much more than just a spectacular meal.
After our faces have been painted with a mixture of natural pigments and clay—ritual takona body art that goes on ocher-colored but dries as a whitish paste—we try our best to learn the basic steps of the tribal dances. Graceful hand gestures and sensual swaying of the hips for the women; male posturing and battle poses for the men. With the food finally ready, we retreat indoors for an incredible buffet, followed by an evening of delightful entertainment from the Haha Varua cultural troupe.
Later that night, back at our campground, I fall asleep to a different tempo. No beating of drums, no strumming of ukuleles or thrumming on kauahas (horse jawbones), no chanting. No ripped Rapa Nui male dancers or lithe ladies in grass skirts gyrating to the rhythms of ancestors past. Tonight, nestled under the covers and toasty inside our tent, the only sounds I hear are the surging ocean breakers lashing at the rocky seashore…the occasional pitter-patter of raindrops against the canvas…and my husband’s snores.
If You Go to Easter Island
We stayed at the Mihinoa Campground, Avenida Pont, Caleta Hanga Piko. It offers campsites for tents, as well as hostel dormitory rooms or private rooms with a shared kitchen. Find out more online at the Camping Mihinoa website.
To make reservations for the Te Ra'ai Restaurant and ethnic show in Hanga Roa, which offers performances on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, visit online. You can learn more about visiting Chile by checking out what Wander writers have to say.