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Land of Mystery at the End of the Earth

An overlooked destination in Chile that will really surprise you

article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

"Here I am, out in the Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere.  My souvenir may or may not be a tattoo.  I trekked to the island's best artist today and he wasn't in.  It is a hit or miss process here—no appointments."  Thus read the postcards I sent from Easter Island's single tiny post office.  I stamped each with a commemorative depicting the moai I'd come so far to see, and, further validating my journey, I paid a dollar more to have my passport rubber-stamped with three Easter Island imprints.

Before leaving on this trip, I decided that my souvenir would be a tattoo on the inside of my ankle.  Not too daring, but since I am a woman of a certain age, daring enough to startle my adult children.

After striking out on a tattoo (the artist was unavailable), I strolled beside the dusty street and browsed the Municipal Market of the island's only town, tiny
Hanga Roa, and discovered a lovely hand-carved wooden bowl shaped like a fish.  Instead of purchasing it on the spot, I decided to look around more, and then return on my last day when, if it was still there, I'd buy it.

Easter Island's mysterious statues, known as moai (pronounced "moh-eye"), have intrigued me since I was an anthropology major in college.  I tied in my visit as a side trip package from Santiago, where I was attending a convention.  Anticipating exploring this isolated Polynesian island located about 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile thrilled me for months in advance.

Since this speck of an island is accessible by air only from Santiago, Chile or Papeete, Tahiti, and since either flight takes more than five hours, it isn't easy to reach (especially if you're seated at the front of the cattle section next to a teething baby).

Deplaning banana republic-style, directly onto the tarmac, fed my get-away-from-it-all fantasies.  Being greeted by the near-perfect temperature and a gorgeous lei made of pungent orange-red marigolds and magenta bougainvilla fed my soul. 

More than 800 moai are scattered around the island.  At one point they all were knocked over by warfare.  U.S. anthropologist William Malloy, from Wyoming, started reconstructed them in the 1960s and '70s.  Now, many of the giant statues are once again facing inland from atop raised platforms--as the ancestors originally placed them so they could give their protective mana, or energy, to the community (the exception is a few in the island's center that face the sea).

Finding the moai and understanding the historical implications is easiest with a guided tour, though many visitors opt instead to rent a four-wheel drive and use a guidebook for information.  Motor scooters are also a popular way to get around the small triangular island (it measures only 13 miles long by 10 miles wide and is just 1,677 feet at its highest point).  Many roads are unpaved, which helps keep traffic slow, and you can literally see forever, making it easier to avoid accidents.  Though I took a guided tour each of the two full days I was on the island, I recommend taking a tour one day and exploring on your own with a rented vehicle another day. 

I liked that my touring began at the
Museo Anthropologico P. Sebastian Englert, named for an early island priest who is buried next to the town church.  Guide Nena Delgado relayed helpful facts that put some of what we'd see later in perspective.  We learned that Rapa Nui--as the island is called in the indigenous language, and which means "fertility"—is the only Polynesian island that created a written language.  Fish-shaped wood tablets carved with symbols are displayed but undecipherable because the only natives who could translate them were captured centuries ago by invaders and died as slaves in Peru.  We also learned that reported cannibalism was merely an attempt to capture an enemy's "mana." Over two days, my group visited the island's most fascinating sites:  Ahu Nau Nau, a row of seven reconstructed 15th-century moai--four with colorful red top knots—located above spectacular palm-fringed Anakena beach; Ahu Tongariki, with 15 moai in a striking lineup atop one platform; and Volcan Rano Raraku, the quarry that is the island's top sight and where 887 stone statues were carved into the hill's side (397 remain here unfinished, and 92 lay abandoned where they fell as they were being moved).

Being on the island on a Sunday allowed us to attend mass at the town's simple lava-rock Catholic church.  A priest visiting from Ireland presented the service in English as well as in Spanish and Rapa Nui (the local language).  The priests wore leis, the congregation wore jeans and t-shirts, and the ceiling fans stirred a breeze as the choir sang to accordion and drum accompaniment reminiscent of a Cajun dance hall band.  It was mesmerizing.

Further good fortune had us in town when the Matato'a cultural show was happening (the group often is on the road around Polynesia).  I was convinced it was going to be a smarmy Polynesian review but found myself instead wowed by the energetic mix of traditional story-telling and Rapa Nui dances accompanied by contemporary plugged-in music.  Families with young kids, many of whom obviously knew the performers, were in the audience along with us tourists.  Their legs wrapped in mini hula skirts, the male dancers stomped hip hop-style, giving off an electricity that definitely reached those of us in the front row.  They actually reached out and touched me, and others, and made bold eye contact.  (According to Nena, they had plenty of mana and were passing it on to the audience via this touch and eye contact.)  And these virile guys were not afraid to allow a few stray pubic hairs to show through their decorative body make-up.  By the end of the performance, their bodies glistened with perspiration.  Their lovely female dance partners were much lower key.

Back at the tattoo parlor at around 11 a.m. on the morning of my departure, I was told that the artist was still sleeping.  I took that as a sign that I must search on through Polynesia for my tattoo.  I headed to the market and again found that bowl I'd wanted.  Bargaining got it for me at a good price, and it now rests gently on my glass coffee table holding sweets and memories.

They don't smile as much as the Hawaiians and the spirit of aloha is absent, but the Easter Island natives are friendly.

Where to Stay
Hotel Ótai
TahaTai Hotel

More Information
Latam Airlines (formerly Lan Airlines) flies here several times weekly from Santiago and Papeete.
Easter Island Foundation

Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles:  101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers; updated 2020

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