Easter Island (Spanish: Isla de Pascua, Polynesian: Rapa Nui) is one of the most isolated islands on Earth. Early settlers called the island "Te Pito O Te Henua" (Navel of The World). Officially a territory of Chile, it lies far off in the Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway to Tahiti. It is most famous for its enigmatic giant stone statues, built centuries ago, which reflect the history of the dramatic rise and fall of the most isolated Polynesian culture.
The English name of the island commemorates its European discovery by a Dutch exploration vessel on Easter Sunday in 1722.
Ever since Thor Heyerdahl and a small party of adventurers sailed their raft from South America to the Tuamotu islands, far to the north of Easter Island, a controversy has raged over the origin of the islanders. Today DNA testing has proved conclusively that the Polynesians arrived from the west rather than the east, and that the people of Easter Island are descendants of intrepid voyagers who set out from Taiwan thousands of years ago. Legend says that the people left for Easter Island because their own island was slowly being swallowed by the sea.
In brief, the prehistory of Easter Island is one of supreme accomplishment, flourishing and civilization, followed by environmental devastation and decline. Although it is not agreed when people first arrived on Easter Island (with estimates ranging from several hundred to more than one thousand years ago), consensus seems to be that the first peoples arrived from Polynesia. Rather than being inhabited by mistake or chance, evidence has suggested that Easter Island was colonized deliberately by large boats with many settlers -- a remarkable feat given the distance of Easter Island from any other land in the Pacific Ocean.
The first islanders found a land of undoubted paradise. Archaeological evidence shows that the island was covered in trees of various sorts, including the largest palm tree species in the world, whose bark and wood furnished the natives with cloth, rope, and canoes. Birds were abundant as well, and provided food for them. A mild climate favoured an easy life, and abundant waters yielded fish and oysters. The islanders prospered due to these advantages, and a reflection of this is the religion which sprouted in their leisure, which had at its centrepiece the giant moai, or heads, that are the island's most distinctive feature today. These moai, which the island is littered with, are supposed to have been depictions of ancestors, whose presence likely was considered a blessing or watchful safekeeping eye over each small village. The ruins of Rano Raraku crater, the stone quarry where scores if not hundreds of moai sit today, is a testament to how central these figures were to the islanders, and how their life revolved around these creations. It has been suggested that their isolation from all other peoples fuelled this outlet of trade and creativity -- lacking any other significant way to direct their skills and resources. The bird-man culture (seen in petroglyphs), is an obvious testament to the islanders' fascination with the ability to leave their island for distant lands.
However, as the population grew, so did pressures on the island's environment. Deforestation of the island's trees gradually increased, and as this main resource was depleted, the islanders would find it hard to continue making rope, canoes, and all the necessities to hunt and fish, and ultimately, support the culture that produced the giant stone figureheads. Apparently, disagreements began to break out (with some violence) as confidence in the old religion was lost, and is reflected partly in the ruins of moai which were deliberately toppled by human hands. By the end of the glory of the Easter Island culture, the population had crashed in numbers, and the residents -- with little food or other ways to obtain sustenance -- resorted sometimes to cannibalism and a bare subsistence. Subsequent raids by powers such as Peru and Bolivia devastated the population even more, until only a few hundred native Rapa Nui were left by the last century.
Today, Rapa Nui National Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its residents rely much on the tourism and economic links to Chile and daily flights to Santiago. As with many native peoples, the Rapa Nui seek a link to their past and how to integrate their culture with the political, economic, and social realities of today.
Due to its extreme geographic isolation, many people assume that only the highly intrepid traveller can get to Easter Island. In fact, the island is accessible by regular commercial air service to its Hanga Roa (IATA: IPC) airport, and tourism is the main industry of the island.
Still, it is rather "out of the way" for most people, with a minimum of more than 5.5 hours in the air from the nearest continent, and very limited routes to get there. The only regular flights are via LAN Airlines daily to Santiago de Chile and once per week to Tahiti. With no competition for fares on an objectively lengthy and obscure flight, fares range between USD300-1200 round trip from Santiago.
About the only scenario in which Easter Island is "conveniently located" is on a round-the-world voyage, in which it provides an interesting stop on the way between Polynesia and South America, and will help bolster others' perception that you went "everywhere". Due to the swell only one in four cruise ships can berth via tenders.
If you want to take the intrepid route, the "tall ship" Soren Larsen sails to Easter Island from New Zealand once a year. The voyage takes 35 days, crossing the point on earth furthest from land.
Easter Island is relatively small, so it is possible to get around fairly easily, even though public transportation is not available.
The most popular option is to visit archaeological sites with a tour company. It takes 2 full days to visit all main archaeological sites of Easter Island and, thus, recommended minimum stay is at least 3 nights.
There are also plenty of rental cars, generally 4x4s with manual transmission, available by rental agencies in Hanga Roa, as well as other vehicles. However, it should be noted that vehicles of the island are not insured since mainland insurance companies do not admit any insurances for the island. Thus, you cannot rent a vehicle without a guarantee (your credit card).
It takes at least 2 full days to see all the main sites using a rental car. There are also several guesthouses offering used vehicles. Even the rates might be lower, it's advisable to be cautious since vehicles usually have minor damages (scratches etc.) so it's best to check the vehicle and take photos before accepting a vehicle in these cases. When in doubt, just use an established rental companies located on the main street: Insular, Kia Koe Tour and Oceanic.
Extra caution should be taken into account when driving after dark since horses or cows that roam free on the island might be standing right in the middle of the road.
Bicycles are also available but you should be well-prepared since summer months can be exhausting due to combination of heat and humidity. Some protection against wind and rain is highly recommended between June and August. Road to Anakena is paved but most of the dirt roads are challenging (quite uneven and potholed). However, an experienced biker will be perfectly fine everywhere on the island.
A valid driver's license specifically for motor scooters and motorbikes is required. Otherwise, driver's licences for cars will allow the use of cars or 4x4 quad bikes.
There are no street lights outside of Hanga Roa.
There are plenty of stray dogs but since they're not aggressive, a strict voice with a gesture should shoo them away.
The biggest tourist attractions on Easter Island are the Moai. The Moai are standing upon ceremonial platforms called Ahu.
Please note that the Moai and their platforms are protected by law and should not be approached under any circumstances. Do not walk on the Ahu. It would be an extremely disrespectful gesture and in case you damage the sites, even accidentally, the punishment is severe.
Rano Raraku and Orongo require entrance to the national park that can be bought at the airport upon arrival or, alternatively, at the CONAF office. The same entrance is valid in both locations so make sure you keep your ticket safe. The rest of the island can be visited without an entrance.
Ahus are mostly located along the coastline of the island. First time visitors may be struck by how many archaeological sites there are around the island, where you can be virtually alone depending the season and time of the day.
Each clan typically had an ahu even though not all of them had moais and thus while you drive around the south coast of the island every mile will contain sites where you will see ruins.
Two exceptional sites are the volcanic craters of Rano Kau and Rano Raraku. The slightly inland quarry at "Rano Raraku" is where the majority of moais were created, on a hillside. This 300 foot volcano remnant provided the stones for the great figures and is where a visitor can see various stages of the carving, as well as partially-finished figures scattered around. A climb to the left side of the crater, over the top, and into the bowl, is well worth it. Hiking to the opposite lip of the crater, where the most moai are found, is one of the most dramatic sites on the island.
Similarly, Rano Kau is the remains of a volcanic cinder cone, which like Rano Raraku, is filled with fresh rainwater and has a mottled unearthly appearance that is breathtaking.
Easter Island features two white sand beaches. Anakena, on the north side of the island, is an excellent shorebreak bodysurfing location with a bit of north swell. Even the 1 inch waves barrel (it's also possible to surf in the harbour at Hanga Roa and many of the locals do so). There's a small parking lot, a restroom/changing facility (costing $1 U.S.D.), several small BBQ joints with cold drinks, and a shaded picnic area.
The second beach is a hidden gem called Ovahe, not far from Anakena. This beautiful and desolate beach is surrounded by breathtaking cliffs. Note of caution: the path leading down to the beach is somewhat treacherous and unstable and best reached by foot - driving off-road (contrary to the misguided and somewhat callous actions of some tourists) on most of the island is illegal anyway.
One of the surprising facts is that occasionally a natural phenomenon, great waves, wash away all the sand from Ovahe that slowly returns along with waves. Last time this occurred was in 2012.
Some sources refer that you might sleep overnight in one of the caverns near Ovahe beach but that information is outdated since water now leaks in from the cracks above the cave. Additionally, entering areas without guidance when its dark might be a bad idea.
Some areas are recuperation zones (Poike peninsula and Terevaka) where trees are planted. These areas can be accessed only by feet or horseback riding. Accessing recuperation zones with a vehicle is strictly forbidden.
Most of the west-coast cannot be accessed with a vehicle and, thus, hiking or horseback riding (limited availability) are options.
Scuba diving and snorkelling is popular, even it's now restricted on some areas (near the islets Motu Nui and Motu Iti). There are diving centres that rent the equipment and organize boat tours for diving: Atariki Rapa Nui, Orca and Mike Rapu Diving.
An often overlooked but particularly fascinating and "other-wordly" aspect of Easter Island is its extensive cave systems. While there are a couple of "official" caves that are quite interesting in their own right, there is also real adventure to be had in exploring all of the numerous unofficial caves on the island, most of which are found near Ana Kakenga.
CONAF (the organization maintaining the national park) has classified caves as dangerous and park rangers have been regulating access to caves since March 2014. According to park rangers, there's a danger of collapse, especially in the case of Ana Te Pahu which runs under a road. Consequently, tour operators will no longer lead their clients to the caves (cave visits are now replaced with other archaeological sites). At the moment, there are no fences that prevent access and local guides can visit the caves with individual clients even though certain precautions and limitations are applied.
While the openings to most of these caves are small (some barely large enough to crawl through) and hidden (amid a rather surreal lava strewn field that has been likened to the surface of Mars), many of them open up into large and inhibitingly deep and extensive cave systems. Note of caution: these caves can be dangerous in that quite a few run extremely deep. A person left without a torch will be immersed in utter blackness with little hope of finding their way out soon... if ever. The caves are also extremely damp and slippery (the ceilings in some have collapsed over time from water erosion). Additionally, subtropical rain should not be underestimated. Climate changes very rapidly and a risk of getting surprised by rainwater suddenly flooding into caves with only a limited space to move should be taken into consideration.
Nightlife on the island is less active than in cities and the main attraction is definitely a Polynesian dance shows. Kari Kari on main street, Vai Te Mihi near the cemetery and restaurant Te Ra'ai outside Hanga Roa have their performance around the year (excluding a vacation period and Tapati when they participate festival events). The discos, Toroko and Piriti, are the locations where you might blend in with locals if that's what you're looking for.
Big sea turtles can also be seen near fishing boats.
Tours are the most popular way to explore the island. When you travel with a group, or at least with a local guide, you'll cause less stress to the environment.
Local, native, tour guides can also show you aspects that you might otherwise never see or hear.
Travel agencies typically sell vacation packages that include accommodation and tours. However, only locally owned companies can legally provide their services tax-free (invoices they give you refer to law 16.441) meaning that you'll avoid VAT and other taxes when you contact operators directly.
There are 4 well-established local tour operators, each of them having at least a decade of experience each.
The tourist information office might also get you connected with a freelancer but professional guides work mainly for the major tour operators.
Some guidebooks refer to operators that do not exist any more. Typically, newcomers and individuals, mostly foreigners, launch their own business, advertise aggressively on the web, operate a few years and then, disappear.
When dealing with a minor company or individual freelancer, you should always have a service description and total cost in written form just to be on a safe side. Additionally, legal companies in Chile, including Easter Island, have a RUT (9 digit code).
Trekking is fairly easy on Easter Island. It's not necessary to hire a guide for this activity, you'll only need a simple map and some advise from hotel reception or park rangers (especially considering the local laws and regulations).
In most cases, trekking can be considered as a complementary way of seeing (the rest of) the island after visiting the most famous archaeological sites.
The most popular trekking options are recuperation zones and, thus, cannot be accessed with any kind of vehicles (even the old paths are still partially visible, it's forbidden to access those areas):
Since there's only one village, Hanga Roa, on the island, artisan markets and shops are all located near main street.
Souvenir-sellers are also selling their products, same items in most cases, near entrances of the archaeological sites.
The official currency is the Chilean peso (CLP) but, unlike on the mainland, you might pay in cash using US dollars (USD).
Some guidebooks inform that you might use euros (EUR) but that information is false even some souvenir shops really take your cash. However, gas station will change euros with reasonable exchange rate (and is more convenient than banks).
When buying souvenirs it is best to use cash. Often the vendors will have a very high minimum charge or will tack on a service fee for using a credit card (about 10-20%). This is only if the vendor accepts credit cards at all; many small vendors will only accept cash.
There's total of 2 ATMs on the island. ATM in front of Banco Estado on Tu'u maheke, Hanga Roa, which only accepts Cirrus, Maestro and Mastercard branded cards but NOT Visa. The ATM of Santander on Policarpo Toro accepts Visa, Cirrus, Maestro and Mastercard. Previously, there used to be an ATM in the departure hall of the airport, as well as inside of the gas station but both have been removed (the end of July 2013).
The local bank can do cash advances against a Visa card, but the bank opening times are limited (Monday to Friday, 08:00-13:00) and the lines can be long, especially in the end of month.
Restaurants of Hanga Roa are located on the main street and near harbour, but there's a few others scattered in the surrounding areas.
Traditional food includes Curanto and Tunu Ahi.
Menus tend to be limited, as most of the food on the island needs to be imported which also explains the price level of the island. Even at the less fancy restaurants, entrees start at USD$20 and go up from there. The range of fish, though, is considerable - as is true for most of Chile.
There are 2 species of lobster. The big one is referred as an actual lobster and the small, equally very delicious, is referred as it's native name "Rape Rape". Currently, lobster is protected and restrictions are applied when it's off-season.
Local tuna can be recognised due to it's white meat and is highly recommended. Octopus and several species of fish are all delicious.
There are also several grocery stores with limited supplies (only a few can be considered as actual supermarkets) where visitors can pick up snacks, limited sundries, booze, etc.
Like the souvenir vendors on the island many restaurants do not accept credit cards or will have a high minimum charge. Tipping is also appreciated (10% is considered polite). However, check your receipt before doing it since some restaurants add an obligatory service fee to your bill (in those cases you do not have to tip).
Less expensive options include sandwiches and empanadas. Also, you may find a local bakery and make your own sandwiches. Those on a backpacker's budget or seeking simple food can try the following options:
Chilean speciality, pisco, made from fermented grapes is the unofficial drink of the island, as well.
However, pisco sour, which is pisco mixed with lemon juice and egg whites might be a better option unless you're used to whisky or rum. Drinking pisco straight has less of a kick than Vodka, although Chileans would not advise it.
On the island you might also try papaya sour, mango sour or guave sour depending on season. All of these are natural juice mixed with pisco.
Another common cocktail is the piscola - pisco with coke.
There's also a local brewery called Mahina producing both artesanal pale ale and stout. It was out of production almost 2 years between 2012 and 2014 but currently operating again.
Accommodation on Easter Island can be categorized as follows:
Places in this category are "guest houses" even if they describe themselves as hotels.
These hotels are safe choices even they are quite basic. The difference between upper middle-range hotels is obvious even the price is almost the same.
One of the most confusing things is that several hotels claim to be located near to beach. However, that is very misleading since the main beach Anakena is approx. 20km away from Hanga Roa and there's no single hotel near to it (terrain nearby is protected by law as a part of the national park).
These hotels are good options even backbackers might look other direction. The service, amenities and properties itself are in a perfect balance for those who seek quality with a reasonable price.
These hotels have restaurants offering breakfast, and often dinner as well.
The high-end options of the island prefer to refer to themselves as 5-star properties but since there's no international standard for star ratings this might be discussed further.
Another alternative if you are travelling with the family or in a group is to stay in cabanas.
LAN airlines has regular flight from and to Santiago de Chile (daily), Lima (currently discontinued) and Tahiti (weekly). If you are departing for a foreign country from the airport, there will be a small exit fee, which must be paid in cash.
If you've managed to sail to Easter Island on your own, a logical next stop would be the Pitcairn Islands of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame, one of the island's "nearest" neighbours and a much better contender for "most isolated", with no air access and no tourism at all.