There’s something special about Rapa Nui that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not just the “Big Head” stone statues (moais), though they are awesome. Bryan and I have been to many islands before but Rapa Nui is different. This place is more than just your typical pretty, tropical island. Rapa Nui is tranquil, wild, wonderful, and mysterious. It’s not commercialized – there isn’t a single high-rise or chain-name hotel. If you’re looking for a vast array of beaches and nightlife then Rapa Nui probably isn’t your place. But if you’re looking for something out-of-the-ordinary and spectacular, Rapa Nui is it.
Rapa Nui is a special territory belonging to Chile. But you feel like you’re thousands of miles from South America and you really are – nearly 2,200 miles west of Chile. Rapa Nui is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. The island’s nearest neighbors are on Pitcairn Island, nearly 1,300 miles away with less than 100 residents. Although a territory of Chile, Rapa Nui is actually part of Polynesia – the huge triangle of islands including Tahiti and Hawaii (among many others) The Spanish language, the Completos (big hotdogs we had in Santiago), and the occasional Chilean flag are the only reminders that you are still technically in South America. Both the languages of Rapa Nui and Spanish are spoken on the island.
The astronomical prices on food and almost everything else remind you that you are far from the South America mainland. $10 for a milkshake, $8 for a package of cheese?!? We’re definitely not in Bolivia or Peru anymore. The food is expensive because almost all of it needs to be imported from the faraway mainland. Bryan and I have no idea how the locals can afford to live on Rapa Nui. It reminded me of our honeymoon in Tahiti nearly 8 years ago. We went to bed hungry every night in our $1,000 a night overwater bungalow in Bora Bora. 🙂 This time we had a plan after hearing numerous recommendations from friends and fellow travelers. We were going to bring our own food and avoid the outrageous prices. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out. Chile has strict rules about bringing food in from other countries so we couldn’t grocery shop ahead of time in Peru. By the time we landed in Santiago, it was almost midnight and all of the grocery stores nearby were closed. So we had to buy food on the island – even just some pasta, ingredients for sandwiches and a couple sodas were over $50 USD! But it was still much cheaper than going out to eat.
The high prices were the only aspect of Rapa Nui that we didn’t enjoy. We were able to find an adorable oceanfront cabana for a pretty good deal. We ended up with a brand new 6-person family suite all to ourselves with a view of the ocean and several moai for about $55 USD (including breakfast). We decided to rent an ATV as our ride for a few days. The island isn’t that big but the beach and the archaeological sites are far from the town where the majority of accommodations are. I loved riding on the back of the ATV with the huge blue waves crashing on the black volcanic rocks, the enormous moai along the shore, the wind whipping through the miles of tall grass and yellow flowers, and the wild horses galloping in the distance. Rapa Nui was formed by volcanoes so the island’s landscape includes lava fields and extinct volcanoes, some of which are now lake-filled craters (such as Rano Kau). It was pure paradise. At many points, we were the only people for miles. The only traffic was caused when a few stubborn cows or horses decided to stand in the middle of the road and not move. The only downside of an ATV was that everyday I was covered in thick brown dirt everywhere except for my eyes. I thought I was getting a tan, but it was just a layer of filth. 🙂 For some reason, Bryan wasn’t dirty.
Renting the ATV allowed us to explore the island at our leisure. There was no way we were going to do a group tour like the terrible one we went on in Cusco! We are not the type of travelers that enjoy following a tour guide with a bright yellow flag. Now we just had our ATV and a map of the island. It was kind of like a scavenger hunt for the moai (big head guys) and other archaeological sites. So what’s the deal with those big head guys, anyways? The early Rapa Nui people constructed the moai from around the mid 1200’s to 1500. There are 887 moai on Rapa Nui! The moai were believed to be a representation of the ancestors of a clan, as well as a symbol of the clans’ power. They were carved out of rock in a quarry using stone tools that weren’t much harder than the rock they were carving. Some of the moai had eyes made of white coral and red scoria stone and some had top-knots (hair-do’s) of red scoria. Everywhere we went it seemed like someone was “staring” at us off in the distance. There isn’t a written record and very little oral record of Rapa Nui so a lot of the theories are just speculative. There are several differing theories about how the Rapa Nui people transported the massive completed stone moais all the way from the quarry to their ahu (ceremonial platforms) by the sea. Either way, it was quite an impressive feat. The largest moai is nearly 72 feet tall and weighs an estimated 145-165 tons!
Sadly, all that hard work by the Rapa Nui came crashing down when clan wars broke out. The tribal wars were believed to be caused by overpopulation and competition over the limited resources. The lack of trees due to deforestation can still be seen today. To hurt the other clans’ morale, the warring clans would topple each other’s moais. The slave raids and the diseases brought by European colonizers further devastated the Rapa Nui people. War, Erosion, and the weather have taken their toll on the moai and the other archaeological sites on the island. I feel very fortunate to have been able to see and experience them first-hand. The outlook for the moai and the petroglyphs (carved symbols in the stone) is not good. Erosion will continue and the lichens that grow on the stone are also damaging. They won’t be here forever so we must enjoy and protect them while we can.
Rapa Nui is pretty calm in the evenings. But with the price of beer and other drinks, we didn’t plan to go out much anyways. We did go to an entertaining show with Rapa Nui tribal dancing and costumes. The male dancers’ outfits were pretty skimpy – just a small cloth thong and some body paint. The show had a hula/tribal/strip club feel to it, but we enjoyed it (except for the part when they tried to get audience members to participate). 🙂
This afternoon we fly back to Lima, Peru. I’m sad to leave our little paradise on Rapa Nui. I’m going to miss falling asleep to the crashing waves (perhaps my absolute favorite sound). But good things await us! After a 30-hour bus ride from Lima to Guayaquil, Ecuador (that’s the bad part), we fly to the Galapagos Islands! This is what I’ve been looking forward to most on our trip. I can’t wait to see the iguanas and giant tortoises and scuba dive with the sea lions and hammerhead sharks! 🙂