Earth : Oceania : Polynesia : Easter Island
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. As a part of Chile, it is a domestic flight from Santiago and passports do not need to be presented on arrival when arriving from the Chilean mainland. Flights do arrive from Tahiti, and your passport will be needed for those arrivals.
Still, it is rather "out of the way" for most people, with a minimum of 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 USD400-1200 round trip from Santiago. If you are just looking for fares from Santiago to Easter Island, the lowest fares are normally only available on the local Chilean website (in Spanish only). In recent times, the price for Business Class has often been lower than economy. Make sure you check the price in both classes!
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.
LAN flights to and from Santiago de Chile, Chile generally operate daily, with extra flights during the high season (e.g. late Jan/early Feb for the Tapati Festival). There are also fewer available flights in June. LAN is currently operating their latest Boeing 787 to the island, with good entertainment options for all passengers. The runway at Mataveri Airport is huge even if the terminal is not, and contains every modern security requirement for an airport including staffing by the Chilean PDI (Federal Police). In Hanga Roa, LAN airlines has a public office which usually can handle any travel requirement you may have when outside mainland Chile.
If possible, consider a layover in Santiago after returning from Easter Island. There is a small chance you will be denied boarding your flight out if there is a medical evacuation needing seats, and a scheduled layover gives you more options if you are bumped. The flight sometimes leaves the island late, causing potential problems with onward connections on the mainland.
When arriving in Santiago from a foreign country, pick up your bags, clear customs/immigration, and make your way upstairs to the departures level and recheck in for the Easter Island flight. Make sure you check your bags in at Santiago Airport at least 1 hour and 20 mins before departure. They WILL close the position at that time, so ideally you want at least 3 hours layover time. Follow all check in times at Mataveri Airport for the return. If in doubt, ASK. After all there is only 1 flight a day and you can't afford to miss it.
Easter Island is relatively small, so it is possible to get around fairly easily, even though public transportation is not available. That of course is except for taxis, which are plentiful and very cheap. In fact, the flat rate pricing make taxis a great island bargain. The usual flat rate is CLP2000 for any pick up and drop off in Hanga Roa, so to be picked up from your hotel and taken to a restaurant in town is the princely sum of only CLP2000 (around USD $3.00) and the same to be taken back. Places slightly outside town maybe CLP3000. Taxis come in minutes and are fast and accurate. Meters are not used. The flat rate applies to a pick up and a delivery so if you say you want to go to Restaurant X and when you get there it is closed it is still assumed you will pay the 2000 pesos and again after the driver takes you to your new destination. Taxis can take you to further out destinations, but this is not recommended as a one way trip to a popular moai site outside of town could easily run you CLP30,000 or more. Moreover, cell phone coverage is only in Hanga Roa, so you would in fact be stranded unless you make expensive arrangements for the taxi to wait for you, or to return at a specified time. Taxis are a mix of vehicles ranging from new vehicles to old beaters, all at the same price.
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 is also a Hop-On Hop-Off bus called "Ara Moai" departing from the Catholic Church.
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 offer any insurances for the island even for residents. 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. Rental prices on the island are firmly in the high end bracket with even the smallest cars generally starting in the CLP50,000 per day range and quoting up to CLP100,000 or more for premium vehicles. Still, considering the spectacular sightseeing and relatively small size of the island renting a car can be good value and is worth fitting in your schedule for a day to augment your organized tour; 2 - 3 days if self touring. Fuel runs approximately CLP800 per litre.
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. This is common in rural areas.
Bicycles are also available to hire around CLP8000 for 4-8 hours, 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. The roads to all major sites are paved at least to their parking areas. Most places will require a passport to hire a bike as a guarantee.
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. Driving in Hanga Roa is part art as well as science since the roads are quite narrow, the drivers very speedy and the streets poorly signed, if at all. The downtown is quite compact however. Once in town it is walkable, but relying on walking everywhere might not work out for you since the town is spread out generally, and hilly in parts with poor sidewalks. There are no traffic lights in Hanga Roa.
There are plenty of stray dogs but since they're not aggressive, a strict voice with a gesture should shoo them away. They want a handout but mostly do not growl or bark and are approachable and receive human contact well. They don't fear humans but usually will go away when you ask loudly. The stray animal problem is something of a shame about the island. Dogs are sometimes found lying dead in parks, etc.
The biggest tourist attractions on Easter Island are the Moai 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. Recently a German tourist who broke the ear off a moai was criminally charged and punished with a fine of USD100,000.
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, although not all of them had moais, so as you drive around the south coast of the island every mile will contain sites with 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. The opposite lip of the crater, where some of the moai were carved, is one of the most dramatic sites on the island but, unfortunately, currently off-limits.
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. Nearby are other viewpoints of Hanga Roa.
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 (priced at USD1), several small BBQ joints with cold drinks, and a shaded picnic area. The waving palm trees imported from Tahiti complete the calming effect. Anakena includes 2 ahus with the Moai. Be careful walking under the trees, as coconuts can fall. Anakena is believed to be the place where colonizing tribes first arrived on Easter Island and is considered Easter Island's societal birthplace.
The second beach is a hidden gem called Ovahe, east from Anakena. This beautiful and desolate beach is surrounded by breathtaking cliffs. 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.
Occasionally, great waves wash away all the sand from Ovahe that slowly returns along with waves. This last occurred in 2012.
Some sources mention 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 it's dark is ill advised.
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 prohibitively 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 (some ceilings have collapsed over time from water erosion). Additionally, subtropical rain should not be underestimated. Climate changes very rapidly and there is a risk of getting surprised by rainwater suddenly flooding into caves with only limited space to move.
Nightlife on the island is less active than in cities and the main attraction is definitely 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 in festival events). The discos, Toroko and Piriti, are where you might blend in with locals.
Big sea turtles can also be seen near fishing boats.
Group tours are the most common way to explore the island. Considering the lack of public transportation, sharing a tour with a group of travelers is an efficient way of reducing environmental stress. Tour companies provide private tours, as well.
Local, native, tour guides can also show you aspects that you might otherwise never see or hear.
Travel agencies 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 a few 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. Some of the companies are small and, typically, a guide might work on his/her own, depending the season. While marketing names for tours, as well as tour routes, might be slightly different, there's hardly any real difference between them.
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). Take into account that the given rates typically exclude park entrance fee.
Trekking is fairly easy on Easter Island. It's not necessary to hire a guide for this activity, although to see some of the hidden archeological treasures along these routes it may be advisable. If you choose to do so without a guide you'll only need a simple map and some advice 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 vehicle (even the old paths are still partially visible, it's forbidden to access those areas):
Every year the local community organises a two-week long festival celebrating local customs. This festival is primarily for the benefit of the Rapa Nui people, but tourists are welcome to watch, and the events are all free. The dates of the festival change from year to year, but generally starts at the end of January or the start of February.
Events are varied, and in 2016 (which ran from 29 Jan-14 Feb) included horse racing, reed-board surfing, singing, dancing, poetry reading, dramatic arts, road races, and tradiational arts & crafts amogst others.
The exact timetables for the Festival might be hard to obtain in advance, but guides are handed out upon boarding flights to Easter Island during the festival. Flights and accomodation fill up faster, and are priced higher during the festival, so make sure to book early. It's the world's largest Polynesian festival.
Since there's only one village, Hanga Roa, on the island, artisan markets and shops are mostly located on the main street, church street or nearby.
Many small local vendors set up their own tables at the big sites where the tourist buses stop and are worth a look if you want local crafts or souvenirs not clearly mass produced elsewhere. Souvenirs available at the airport also, but are clearly mass produced goods.
The official currency is the Chilean peso (CLP) but, unlike in mainland Chile, you might pay in cash using US dollars (USD). Almost all hotels and businesses accept USD, but do the math to check which one is better for you. Taxi drivers accept only small USD bills but might have no change.
Some guidebooks refer that you can use euros (EUR) but that information is false even though some souvenir shops readily take your cash. However, gas station will change euros using a reasonable exchange rate (and is more convenient than banks).
When buying souvenirs it's 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 a total of 2 ATMs on the island. The ATM in front of Banco Estado on Tu'u maheke, Hanga Roa 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 the gas station but both have been removed (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 at the end of month.
One of the most peculiar things on the island is that banks (and, thus, CONAF and almost all businesses) are very picky when it comes to condition of USD bills. Bills are not considered valid in case of rips, tears, markings or otherwise old and weary. Those bills you might save for some other destination. However, when you accept USD yourself (or exchange money before visiting the island), you should keep this in mind.
There is no 19% VAT on Easter Island unlike in mainland Chile.
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, entrées start at USD20 and go up from there. The range of fish, though, is considerable - as is true for most of Chile. Pizza and other comfort foods are available kitty corner to the Catholic Church. Large pizza will set you back CLP14000-22000 however. Plenty of choice of toppings and really a full menu also.
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 its 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. It should be noted that it is difficult to shop in the food stores on Easter Island. They are all quite small and stock varies. Many items are not out in public and must be asked for with the staff. If you can, bringing canned food with you from the mainland, or drinks, makes good sense. This saves you paying island prices but also supplies you with what you want.
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. About CLP4000 at a restaurant.
Another common cocktail is the piscola - pisco with coke.
There's a local brewery called Mahina producing both artesanal pale ale and stout. It's sometimes out of production due to limited capacity. Yummy and bottles make super island souvenirs. Despite of its name and local owner, brand Akivi is produced in mainland Chile (brewery is located in Quilpué). The same goes with wine brand Anakena.
The going rate for a can of soda pop at a restaurant or hotel seems to be around CLP1,500 - 2,000. Might as well buy the beer for the same price.
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 and are quite basic. The difference between upper middle-range hotels is obvious, even though the price is almost the same.
One of the most confusing things is that several hotels claim to be located near the beach. This 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 backpackers might give them a second look. The service, amenities and properties themselves are a good 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.
In practice, there's no street crimes in Hanga Roa. Thus, well-behaved tourists have nothing to fear. Tourists who need police help can contact the local office of the PDI (Chilean Federal Police) just outside of town by a short taxi ride, open until 6pm. However, be warned the officers tend to speak only Spanish. If you've lost your passport you can file a report there for 500 pesos and also replace your visa form; its times like these where a photocopy of the lost document will be invaluable. Presentation of this report will allow you to board the plane back to Santiago, the rest is up to your embassy.
It's dark in the morning during winter months (June-August) and it might be chilly at nights until spring (September-October). Sun protection and something against wind should be taken into account, depending the season.
Hepatitis shots are suggested by the CDC for Easter Island visitors, mainly due to street food vendors and tropical water supply. Easter Island officials insist the water is safe, but some say it has a funny taste and therefore could upset your stomach. Best avoid tap water and street food until you know how it will affect you. Better hotels will prepare all foods and beverages with the tourists stomachs in mind and therefore will be safe as will most restaurants. Day trips by organized tour companies often include a prepared lunch. These too should be safe as many tour companies are associated with hotels and get their foods from the tourist hotel kitchens, but if in doubt, ask.
Easter Island has lots of stray dogs. It is advisable not to let them get close since some of the dogs are unpredictable. Get rid of stray dogs with a combination of a commanding voice and a strict gesture. If you get bitten by a dog, get to the hospital for a rabies shot.
Visitors to Anakena beach should be cautious walking under the palm trees. It can be breezy and coconuts can fall and hit you. Furthermore, Anakena beach has a number of very exotic looking food and drink vendors that would be fun to patronize, but always keep in mind there is no running water in that part of the island, so hygiene and food safety should be a particular interest to you in choosing what to buy. If you have decided to get the hepatitis shots before coming to the island, keep in mind they take three shots and several months before full protection can be claimed.
Be aware that some of the island sites are reached only after long walks, sometimes steep and potholed. Always get the opinion of your guide. Too many 700 metre walks will tire you quickly. Visitors will enjoy their visit more, especially to key sites, if some degree of physical exertion does not present a problem. Visitors who have trouble walking, using stairs, or use wheelchairs will have their visit considerably curtailed. The trails and accesses just do not support wheeled transportation. Stairs can be very steep and fairly narrow, with people going up and down on the same set. Steep overlooks sometimes do not have safety rails. Most trails are not paved and can be narrow. Walking off trails is not permitted and will attract complaints from your tour guide as well as being against park rules.