Sunday, November 11, 2007

Easter Island / Rapa Nui / Isla de Pascua

After my 2nd deployment to Iraq in 2006, I spent several weeks decompressing in Tahiti and decided that Easter Island was one of those storied places that needed a visit. I didn't want to run the risk of deciding several years down the road that it was an I-need-to-go place... shelling out several thousand dollars in the process to get back to the South Pacific. Easter Island is a place you will occasionally see a picture of- as a grainy black & white shot from some explorer of yesteryear or a random archaeologist on a quest to find the real answers behind why island natives cut down all their trees, or how they ultimately reached this incredibly remote part of the globe.

In planning the trip, I learned a critical thing about Easter Island: There are only two ways of getting there. By boat or by plane.  The tiny and spectacular Easter Island finds itself located roughly halfway between French Polynesia and Chile, until only recently accessible to modern civilization. Hosting three names: Easter Island (western), Isla de Pascua (Chilean) and Rapa Nui (native), this volcanic speck among a vast ocean was first discovered by Polynesians around 700~1000 AD, traveling several thousand miles across open ocean by catamaran. Establishing a thriving community and losing interest in further settlement, these new owners of Rapa Nui did not see another set of foreigners until April 5, 1722 (Easter), hence the western name. 

The western coast of South America lies 3,600 km away and tiny and remote Pitcairn Island of Mutiny on the Bounty/ Fletcher Christian fame is the closest land mass, a distant 2,000 km to the west. Taking a boat- while unique and expeditionary, and originally the only way to reach this place- would also require either blind luck in stumbling across a container ship that just so happened to be transiting the island, or by chartering a yacht. Given the weeks of sailing involved, bad luck in the lottery, lack of a last name that ends in Hyerdahl and no desire to end up with really sore rowing arms, a plane seemed to be the best travel option.

Not surprising by any stretch, there is only one airline that flies to Easter Island: LAN... and even that is a relatively new experience. In 1966, the Mataveri (Rapa Nui International Airport) expansion was funded by the US military, who built a runway and Air Force base, thereby supporting limited charter flights to the island. Commercial traffic didn't begin until after 1986 however; the US again funded a runway expansion to prepare the airport as an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. As bizarre as this seems, it was logical in a bygone era when NASA wanted to prepare for re-entry contingencies that might arise where a shuttle came down outside of it's window and needed to find one of the established Transoceanic Abort Landing Sites. While flying in to that airport on a pinhead-sized island nothing larger than a speck in the vast Pacific, steep, jagged cliffs rising up from a rough coast with water depth close to 2,000' just a few hundred feet out to sea seems like a difficult landing for any pilot, not to mention a 75 ton, bultibillion dollar glider. Truly? No pilot flying a Space Shuttle would really want to make a long shot choice on this place if they could avoid it, and once the Vandenberg shuttle launch plans were scuttled, the Easter Island TAL contingency became a long shot for any use.

Either way, the runway expansion led to larger aircraft and greater options. Soon after, tourist flights began and even the Concorde visited Easter Island in the late 1980s. Today, LAN offers two flights weekly with one more in the austral summer season to cater to tourist demand from Chile. The usual routing is for a Tahiti-bound flight from Santiago to stop over, refuel, and then continue on to before turning around and repeating the layover on return. I ended up departing Tahiti at 01:00 on a Monday morning, arriving at 11:35 thanks to time zones and a 6 1/2 hour flight. When the map showed we were right over Pitcairn, I looked out into the inky blackness for what must have been 20 minutes. Not a thing, no matter how hard I scanned the horizon for even the faintest of twinkling lights from one of it's 50 residents. It's just that small and that remote. There's a reason that the island hasn't caught on as a tourist destination in the years since John Adams was found there, the lone English survivor of the Bounty mutiny 18 years after the rag-tag group of Tahitians and English burned the Bounty along the craggy shoals in an attempt to hide from the Royal Man-o-War that were out hunting for them. Pitcairn is truly unique and about as far-off as one can get save Antarctica.

Before long, the sun rose, airline breakfast was served, and we were preparing to land. I filled out my entry visa and then the plane started its descent. I hadn't locked on a hotel room yet, although I had read in my trusty Lonely Planet guide that there were a few reasonably priced hotels in Hanga Roa, the main town on Easter Island. I decided to roll the dice and plunk down a hotel name from the guide book knowing full-well that I still hadn't quite made up my mind as to whether or not I was just going to hoof it around the island for the 2 1/2 days I was there (my return flight that I HAD to make was Wednesday night at 22:30. If I missed that flight, I was stuck until the following Sunday). But as the plane made it's final descent toward the airport, I saw that the island is definitely larger than I originally believed and made the call to hit a hotel. I had read somewhere that you can rent a 4x4 to drive to the sites and figured that I'd have much better luck doing that in order to see as many sights as I could given limited time.

When a plane lands, everyone on Rapa Nui knows it. Almost all of the island's cab drivers are waiting to transport the 6,800 annual tourists (yep, that's it) to their hotel rooms, and processing through customs with only a carry-on bag, I hooked a $4 cab for the quick drive to my hopeful hotel, even though I later learned that I could have walked the same ground in 10 minutes. The airport is quite literally at the edge of this sleepy little town. Even at that, calling Hanga Roa a town is a bit of a stretch. The entire community is about 3/4 of a mile long and 90% of the island's ~3,700 permanent population lives there. Barely paved, the two main roads are dotted with little restaurants, no international brand named anything (this was quite refreshing), a few Internet cafes, and one ATM that is quite possibly the most confusing bank machine I have ever failed at using.

However, there are no shortage of tourist targeted local artisan craft stores that sell an unending variety of Moai miniatures, carvings and paintings. The only movie theater that I could find played one movie twice a week: Rapa Nui, starring Kevin Costner. In all, it's a great little place when in the off season but I hear it gets crowded once the tourists from South America arrive. It constantly reminded me of 1999 Siem Reap with no industrial background noise, motor scooters, friendly yet isolated locals and an almost outpost and laid back type feel. Even though this is technically a Polynesian island, the early spring air night coupled with distant noises quite literally made me feel like it was Halloween in a northeastern town. I don't really know how or why that was, but perhaps it was 50 degree temps, a gentle wind rustling the leaves and distant dogs barking occasionally. And these weird, almost spooky statues looking down on you or out to the endless horizon.

At the Tahiti airport and on the flight in I did a bit of research on the hotels and there are only about 7 (~36 B&Bs) ranging from one room to multi-room annexes. Prices vary, but for mid-October they were very price reasonable. During off season, there is a bit of flexibility in picking and choosing the hotel once in town although from November thru February I would think it's very difficult without advance reservations. I ended up scoring a room at the Hotel O'Tai and absolutely loved it for the price (~$80/night). The hotel staff were also extremely helpful in making dinner reservations and locking on my rental 4x4 for the trip, a rickety little number but did the trick in allowing flexibility in getting around the island with ease. The other place I would recommend is called Villa Manavai- those places are centrally located in the town proper, are reasonably priced, and are well maintained by proud and caring owners.

Villa Manavai plays the Kevin Costner B-grade flick called "Rapa Nui" in their hotel lobby although I can't remember when they have show times. I think if I go back I'll probably go there and see it for the novelty of it if anything. Apparently there was some resistance to the movie when Costner & Co showed up but they essentially employed 1/2 the island for the movie, conducted a thorough cleanup, and made a sizable donation to the preservation society upon their departure so people there like the movie in a campy, fun sort of way. From what I hear the movie isn't entirely accurate, as in several hundred years of events are featured as happening in a relatively narrow span of time and there is undue focus on cannibalism, but it apparently does give you a good idea of what life was like several hundred years ago. I have to admit that I was extremely happy to once again have found a place where no McDonald's, Sheraton's or other International chains had invaded and where locals were competing more with themselves than with a multi billion dollar Starwood or Sol Melia corporation. But, some of the hotels can use some work and others are pretty basic. If you aren't ready to consider the bare basics, then there might be some culture shock but on the whole it wasn't that bad.

Speaking of which, the Hotel Iorana, I think the one hotel that targets itself to tourists and which spends money advertising to the outside world is a dump! It might be rated high for some reason, but if you look at it firsthand it's amazing how much of a state of disrepair it is in compared to other hotels that are much less in price. I drove through there for sheer morbid curiosity and was shocked at how small and crappy the rooms were. Think of a King Oscar highway motel that was built in the 60s and hasn't been renovated since, but has been battered by sea air and the elements.

At the hotel, I immediately asked about renting a car and had read in the guidebook that most places have extra cars that they'll rent out to hotel guests. No worries on an Int'l Driver's License, not needed- just a little charm and Q&A session chat with the hotel front desk. Having wheels provides the ability to explore the island tenfold over guides or bike, neither of which I wanted to try out to be honest. If you bring your tour book and a road map (it's not like the place is interlaced with roads.. as long as you keep the ocean on one side of the car you'll be back downtown in an hour) you don't need to take the tours that'll overcharge. You can then wake up at the crack of dawn to get to places like Tongariki for sunrise or kill several hours at Rano Raraku w/o being on a timeline. I paid $30/day for a rental 4x4 that was a beater, but very effective and definitely wasn't a gas guzzler (gas was like $4/ gallon).

The location is so remote that on several occasions it's entirely possible to find oneself spending all day without seeing a soul.. but still touristy enough to see a tour bus fly up to Tongariki and 20 tourists pile out, take a whirlwind of pictures and then take off like a shot and a cloud of dust to the next site. After waiting for these sorts to head out, turn to the gentle sounds of surf, wind in the grass and don't be surprised to find a band of wild horses wandering past moai, grazing while light rays beam down through the breaking cloud cover. Seriously! This place is crazy with scenes like that, and even now, back in the States and the day-to-day craziness of shopping, bills and everything else, it's nice to think of a place like Rapa Nui where time slows down and simple scenes roll over and over in the mind's eye.

The road that borders the island turns gravel right after you pass the airport, and by touring in counterclockwise fashion, the sites start to pop up one at a time as the road slowly winds along a cadmium blue ocean coastline. Fallen moai after fallen moai lead to the standing moai of Tongariki, remnants of old "Long Ear" houses, funeral platforms, etc. It's sort of like an Easter Egg hunt when you kick off because you stop and stare, and then all of a sudden you realize that a stand of rubble are the ruins of a Polynesian village. It's truly amazing and you feel how remote you are, staring out at the horizon and just picturing how far away you are from just about everything.

Taking the coast road route, the first major archaeological stop is Rano Raraku where the islanders carved the moai- a sort of moai quarry with 400 still remaining in varied states, from those still imbedded directly in the rock to those that were in the process of being moved to their future homes. The largest of the moai are here, all 21 meters of it still locked into the volcanic tuff when it's artisans stopped working on it. As you approach the front side of Rano Raraku, it's amazing to see all of the moai that you have seen in textbooks over the years. This is truly the Easter Island of imagination. Literally hundreds of moai stare out at the horizon, at you, and out from their rocky prison. Following a path up and around, you quickly realize that this quarry is the site of an ancient volcano as you stare down into the eroded crater now turned into a quiet and tranquil pond. Pushing through brush, reeds and brambles along the rim, the trail takes you past several hundred more moai in the same state. It becomes clear quite quickly that at one time in a bygone era, this was the site of a tremendous work effort with workers tirelessly chiseling away at the rock to free their creations one at a time.

Moving along the coast, the next site is Tongariki restored in the 90s by the Japanese after interisland conflict toppled the statues and then a tsunami hit the site in the 60s, leaving the area in a state of disrepair. There are 15 giant moai here- some small, some fat, some tall. Each one of the 15 is unique in its own way and only one of the moai have had their pukao top knots reattached by the Japanese team although several can be seen scattered around their base. Like almost all moai on Rapa Nui, these statues are facing away from the sea. I learned that moai were typically erected in order to look down onto a village area, and were carved to look like tribal elders. So these 15 giants were likely caractures of elders from the village at this site, and given from how funny some of them looked it must have been a hilarious looking crew. On a ridge overlooking Tongariki, there is a small, 5' tall moai separated from the collective. As it turns out, this is the "Travelling Moai", who was traveled further than any other moai, including the ones that are now gracing museums across the globe. After first moving from Rano Raraku, this little guy was used by Thor Heyerdahl in "walking" experiments to determine how the islanders originally moved the statues. It was then sent off to the Worlds Fair in Osaka, Japan in 1960.

Anakena is a site where Thor Heyredahl re erected a moai back in 1956 via traditional means and learned that it took 9 men close to 48 hours to erect just one statue. The remainder of these moai are in one of the most pictueresque sites across Rapa Nui- right on a sun-drenched beach with swaying palm trees and wild flowers.

A remote site with the only sea-facing moai is Ahu Akivi, located at the center of the island and on high ground. Despite being several miles inland, this site looks out across fields and hidden settlements that are only visible to the trained eye in the form of building cornerstones and ancient foundations.

Heading back to town is Punapao, where the islanders carved the top hats from a different variant of lava that is much lighter and redder in color. Despite being on the opposite end of Rapa Nui from Rano Raraku, the polynesian settlers would roll these top hats across the island to marry up with their moai.

For sunset: the best location are the moai right on the ocean at Hanga Roa at a few varying sites. There are several moai within walking distance and if you hustle, you can hit several as you move along the coastline. The farthest site is roughly 3/4 mile away from the town center and the closest site is quite literally next to the dive shop boat marina.

For sunrise: Getting up early and making the trek to Tongariki and Rano Raraku are best for first light and if you wait a few moments beyond when the sun crests the horizon, you can score some dramatic images. While the last thing you want to do in the morning is wake up in the pitch darkness to drive 30 minutes down a dirt road, it is well worth the effort. I bitched about it all the way up until the sun came up, knowing full well that it was a complete crap shoot. And then I felt like I had just won the lottery.


I decided to go scuba diving while there and in retrospect would recommend Orca Dive Shop. They aren't as pushy as their neighbors and cost a few bucks more but their gear is better and they are a little more professional. Besides, they have this ridiculously cool logo, and as a complete sucker for a slick marketing campaign, I'm sold. If you can, do two dives to knock the price down a little bit but more than that isn't necessary b/c they take you to basically the same place- just a little further down the shoreline. While there I saw massive sea turtles, rays, and unique and very large reef fish but nowhere near the abundance or vibrant colors of what you'll experience in French Polynesia. I'm assuming that the relative size of the marine life is due to the colder water and also the fact that half a million miles from anything out here, there's plenty of room to grow.. and grow.. and grow. As for the diving, you end up hopping into this little pontoon boat for a quick and extremely fun ride straight through the high surf located at the harbor entrance. There is a bit of a current and coupled with the thick wetsuit that keeps you bobbing like a cork for a few minutes in cold water until you become waterlogged it's fairly busy trying to get down to depth. But once you are there! The dives are in uber clear water that you can see forever in and it is almost deceptive. I looked down into the water and assumed I had a 40' deep bottom that turned into 110' before I hit sand.

Mercado Artesenal is the best place I saw for buying moai statues- you'll see then everywhere but they have the best variety for price. The building is literally row upon row of necklaces, moai, wood carvings, paintings and various other chotchkies that you can pick up. As with everything else here you need to work in cash because of that ridiculous surcharge that everyone throws on, claiming "processing fees". I understand that there may be a lag in payment, but is it really going to kill them if that $20 doesn't come through for 30 days? Maybe I'm being nieve about it and it will in-fact take food off the table. But given even hotels and the dive shop pulled that story line I'm thinking it's more due to a cultural mistrust of plastic payments that I encountered all over Vietnam the 1st time I went there.. and then 2 years later everyone accepted Visa/ AMEX without a second glance. Even with the volume and price competitiveness of Mercado Artesenal, I found the best quality wooden moai were being sold by a overweight and dreadlocked islander who sold his statues by the sunset at one of the larger Hanga Roa sites. Both times I wandered down to see sunset he was there with a couple of his braddahs smokin da ganja mon. Maybe that made him easier to negotiate with (he was very easy on the pricing) but his location, quality and unique appearance landed him a picture and quotes in a USA Today article so he's doing something right.

You can grab cheap food in any one of the streetside cafes in downtown Hanga Roa and it will only set you back a few dollars. Interestingly, I noticed that a Coke cost the same as a side order of fries, which seemed a bit odd to me that both would be inflated. I understood Coke given import costs, etc but fries? Maybe potatos are scarce in South America or they are imported direct from France. Who knows but I can only imagine what that would do to the Big Mac Index if it were ever applied to this place.. which I doubt it ever will. Lunches are a bit cheaper than dinner under some strange Rapa Nui algorithm that makes food more expensive when the sun goes down. Via Lonely Planet I learned that Aloha Restaurant was considered to be the top end joint in town, complete with night life once the kitchen closed so of course I had to go and see what this place was all about. Monday night it was closed so I settled for another place that served quality food from the exact same style of menu I had eaten from during lunch.. for a few bucks more. Then finally on Tuesday night I made it into Aloha and while the fish was good, I found it to be a bit overpriced if you look at the amount of food you get. No night life on Tuesdays, either. I resigned myself to having a beer and then head back to my hotel room to read and chill out for my last day on the island. Oh, here's a fun thing to do- if you get the chance, swing by the post office and for about a buck they'll put some cool stamps in your passport. They are campy and at the time I thought they looked a bit odd to be thrown into my official passport rather than into a scrap book. But in retrospect when I now flip through my passport I stop on the page that has three "Isla de Pascua" stamps that some Chilean Post Office lady stamped in there.

Before I knew it, I had one last sunset and then a long flight back to Tahiti. Just like the Grand Canyon, I must have taken 50 pictures but it was worth it- this was by-far the most impressive sunset I had on the island of the 3 that I saw. Interestingly, just like sunrise the geographic location of the island coupled with odd time zone placement made sunset occur at an abnormally late time- like 21:00. In Easter Island bizarro world the sun rises late like Iceland in the winter and sets late like Seattle in the summer. I was a bit worried that I was pressing it in making my way to the airport for that final flight out before I'd be stranded, but after seeing the sunset and burning the last of my Chilean pesos on those last few moai carvings from Rasta islander guy I thought it was well worth it. Thanks to the small nature of the town and airport, I had more than enough time to get back to the hotel, turn in the rental 4x4, grab another $4 cab to the check-in counter and land my boarding pass with plenty of time to spare.


Once back at the airport and loaded heavy with moai souvenirs, carvings and a bottle of local Pisco decked out in an ultra-fabulous moai-shaped decanter, I found that I had to actually hand carry some souvenirs and check through my carry-on bag which I had packed carefully with the more fragile items. Wandering around the airport, I found the local cafe' and headed inside to grab a soon to be scarce seat while the now-landing LAN 767 was being offloaded and fueled. As 300 Chileans heading to Tahiti milled about the trinket shops in the quarantine area I noticed something about the bar that truly explained this place: while we were seated in the secured part of the airport, the bartenders had a bar that literally serviced our side and by walking around a little tabletop island could then service customers who were there waiting for people in the "main" part of the airport. No security, no cameras, no effective barriers, really. It just seemed to sum up an idyllic place at one of the far corners of the planet where life is simpler and safer. After a little while I boarded, looked back one last time, and flew out. Easter Island was fun and unique, but this place is way to special to do alone.