9 THINGS YOU CAN ONLY EXPERIENCE ON EASTER ISLAND
RAPA NUI (EASTER ISLAND) is a small volcanic island halfway between Oceania and South America. It’s mostly famous for the Moai, massive human figures carved from stone by the Rapa Nui people between 1250 and 1500 AD.
I’m lucky to have recently visited this tiny dot of an island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. It was an immersion into an unexplored culture, where you can ride a horse all the way up a volcano and hear stories about the Birdman religion and sacred ceremonies. Among other things:
1. Land at the most isolated airport on Earth
Rapa Nui is located halfway between French Polynesia and Chile. It’s the most isolated inhabited land on the planet. Unless you own a boat, Mataveri International Airport is how you’ll arrive. Be sure to buy tickets for the national park as soon as you get off the plane (even before passing through immigration) to get a discount. Also, the airport runway crosses the entire island and is possibly the best place on Earth to see planes come and go…even if there’s only one aircraft per day.
2. Get the stamp!
Daily flights to Rapa Nui arrive from Santiago, meaning you get a Chilean stamp on that hard-worn passport of yours. But go to the downtown post office and they’ll be gracious enough to stamp your passport with their own Rapa Nui stamp.
3. Swim the clearest waters in the South Pacific
One characteristic that protects Rapa Nui from predatory tourism is the lack of postcard-ready white-sand beaches. There’s but one, Anakena, pristine as a Pacific paradise advertisement, complete with picnic tables, a line of very impressive Moai, carritos (shacks) selling unbelievably delicious empanadas de atun and, if you’re lucky, even a traditional marriage complete with all-white clothing, family members, and music (like when I was there).
The natural blue, cold, and cool waters are perfect for diving; sea turtles can be seen when snorkeling right off the beach.
4. Bump into ancient petroglyphs
I was roaming around some rocks by the sea, right in front a souvenir shop. There weren’t any signs — I just wanted to get closer to the sea and here looked as good as any. But then I saw a rock shaped like an animal — a frog, maybe? Right next to it there was something carved on a rock. Then more. And more.
Rapa Nui is an archeologist’s heaven — minus the curious visitor walking over ancient markings, of course. That’s why, 30 seconds later, the owner of the souvenir shop appeared on the road above the rocks yelling at me to get out of there immediately.
5. Check out the Moai
Moai translates loosely as “to whom” in the Rapa Nui language. Makes perfect sense once you understand what those enormous statues stands for — not gods or aliens, but ancestors watching over the land and sharing mana (vital energy) with their tribes. It also explains why the Moai were torn down when tribal wars devastated the island.
The best place to see them is…just about everywhere. I mean it — if not careful, you risk stepping on Moai remains near an ahu and getting mad stares from tour guides and park rangers. Two spots are remarkable: Rano Raraku, known as he “Moai factory” because that’s where the most figures were excavated; and Ahu Tahai, which is guaranteed to deliver the sunset of a lifetime and is walkable from the island’s downtown area.
6. Eat local fish
Nearly everything consumed on the island comes from conti (continental Chile). But this doesn’t mean they lack fresh, local ingredients, especially fish. They’re used for things like fresh ceviche, Peruvian-style: raw tuna or kana-kana bites seasoned with lime juice, onions, peppers, sweet potatoes, and cilantro, among other tasty ingredients. Each place has its own recipe and Tia Berta, on the main drag of Atamu Tekena, is a local fave.
Insider tip: If raw fish isn’t your thing, go for sopa marina, a rich and hearty caldo of seafood and fish.
7. Watch the world’s best sunset, drink in hand
It’s safe to say you’ll have fantastic views on any stretch of the west coast. But there are two places where the experience will be even more rewarding. The first is the top of the Terevaka peak, with a 360-degree view (also great to see the sunrise, if waking up at 5am is your cup of tea).
Second is the bar inside the newly opened Hanga Roa Hotel, walking distance from the main street. The Hanga Roa offers daily sunset drinks for visitors. Grab yours, order some snacks, and watch the sun peacefully going down the sea.
8. Ditch your car and ride a bike (or horse)
There are many places to rent bikes here. I rented mine on day 1 and spent all week on two wheels. Cars are available too, but they’re not as much fun.
9. Learn a few words of Rapanui
You can learn maururu (“thank you”), manuia paka-paka! (“cheers”), and ‘lorana(“hello/goodbye”) from the internet, but discover so much more from a Rapa Nui tour guide. Our guide learned the history and culture of his people from his grandma. Rapa Nui people have a powerful sense of belonging and are quite proud of their history and heritage.