Where time stood still

As haunting as it is beautiful, Easter Island continues to baffle experts, and offers visitors a journey like no other. Mercedes Amézola explores...

Lying in the Pacific Ocean some 3,700 km east of Chile and 4,000 km to the west of Tahiti is one of the most isolated inhabited places on Earth: Easter Island. Known as Rapa Nui to the locals, the island is world-famous for its magnificent and mysterious statues, the Easter Island heads, or “Moai”. There are almost 900 Moai scattered around the island and the unique culture that led to their existence remains shrouded in mystery – Easter Island is a place of legend, intrigue and beauty. The UNESCO-listed island attracts thousands of visitors each year and is forging a reputation as a prime example of sustainable tourism.

We arrived at the tiny Mataveri International Airport to a traditional greeting of bright floral garlands and warm, welcoming smiles. Although politically aligned to Chile, the people of Rapa Nui have a culture that is strong in Polynesian influence, with many beliefs and superstitions rooted in their natural surroundings. Every new building on the island aims to maintain harmony with the land, and this approach lies at the heart of the 5-star Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa where we would stay during our visit.

With a welcome cocktail in hand we were guided to our rooms through the tranquil and stylish resort. The walk was lined with flowers and blossom, the design of the buildings paying homage to the ancient stone dwellings of the historic Orongo village. Inside, the bright and expansive rooms are luxurious yet relaxed, designed using local wood and volcanic material throughout. The polished rock floors inspiring a connection to the land of Rapa Nui.

The resort’s large fresh water swimming pools offered the perfect antidote to the long flight from Chile. As the day drew on, we relaxed in the sun, soaking up the breathtaking views as the Pacific waves crashed against the rocks metres away.

The food at the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa is worth the trip alone. From stunningly creative canapés, to mouth-watering tuna ceviche, or perfectly seared steaks accompanied by a silky mushroom risotto, it’s the epitome of culinary perfection. However, no amount of luxury should distract from the historic treasure that Easter Island is so famous for, which is why Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa has an activities concierge to tailor a wide range of tours to ensure that guests get the most from Easter Island. On their advice we toured the island on quad bikes, went hiking on the Poike Volcano and took a guided tour of the legends of Orongo and the Birdman Competition (see box out). It’s said that Easter Island can easily be visited in three days, yet the island has so much to offer that a week is recommended.

Legends of the fall

Rapa Nui’s main attraction is of course the Moai statues (each site is known as “ahu”). Historians tell us that towards the end of the 1700s they were all knocked over as new leadership hierarchies emerged across the island. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the majority were hauled back into place, a few remaining on the ground in memory of the tragic civilisation that came before. Records show that the island’s population plummeted from 15,000 in 1700 to only 111 by 1877 following a period of famine, disease, slavery and even cannibalism.

Now standing strong, the Moai can be found across the whole island, facing inland to protect the villagers. The largest and most scenic site is Ahu Tongariki, where 15 Moai stand looking towards the hills with the ocean roaring behind. The sites are best explored with a guide who will detail the many theories and legends that scientists and popular culture have gathered to explain these sublime structures. However, much of what took place on Easter Island remains a mystery.

We chose a full day tour with Green Island Tours. Travelling around the island in a small group provided a day keenly focused on the history of the Moai. Rano Raraku is another essential site to understand more about the Rapa Nui. This crater served as factory for sculpting the Moai in the 1500s – here alone there are 400 half-finished statues built into the rock, including a 21-metre behemoth that never made it to its final resting place.

Up above, down below

A star gazing tour is another must, with Easter Island’s zero light pollution affording astonishing views of the solar system. Green Island Tours are the only agency currently offering a dedicated tour which provides a fascinating insight as to how the Polynesians navigated to Rapa Nui using the stars and ocean currents. Marc Ross Shields, the owner of Green Island Tours, is a professional photographer who is keen to help visitors return home with dramatic shots of the Moai framed by the Milky Way.

The excitement of Easter Island is not limited to the land. Earlier in 2018, the island was declared a Marine Park, which means only locals can fish the waters and that the majority of endemic wildlife is on the increase. Around 6,000 people inhabit the 63 square kilometre island and they maintain an environmentally-friendly lifestyle. This is great news for the ocean – at up to 60 metres, Easter Island has some of the best underwater visibility in the world.

The extremely professional Orca Diving Centre is the oldest diving centre in the island. Under their expert guidance we scuba-dived to the sunken Moai – a replica that was submerged in 1998 and is now almost as famous as the real Moai for its photographic appeal.

We dived for almost an hour, enjoying crystal-clear visibility and a sense of stillness like nothing I’ve experienced. However, if scuba diving is not for you, Orca Diving Centre also offers snorkelling trips around the Motus, the two uninhabited islands where the Birdman Competition took place. Here, colourful corals are home to many different endemic species of marine life.
With the help of the Marine Park and the work of the locals to keep the culture alive, Rapa Nui will continue to flourish as a sustainable tourist destination for those in search of adventure, myth and beauty.

Further information
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