Tapati Rapa Nui: Easter Island's iconic festival in images

Colorful, spectacular, grandiose – words do little justice to the annual Tapati Rapa Nui, Easter Island’s greatest festival and a vibrant celebration of the island's Polynesian culture.

For about two weeks in the first half of February, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) comes alive with a series of music, dance, cultural and ancestral sport contests between two clans. Each one puts up a candidate who stand for the title of queen of the festival. This year, Tapati festivities take place from January 29 until February 13.

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A Tapati festival contestant sleds downhill during the Haka Pei contest © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Rapa Nui's Tapati triathlon: Taua Rapa Nui

Easter Island has its triathlon – the Taua Rapa Nui – which is one of the most impressive competitions during the Tapati festival and draws crowds from around the island. It's held in the magical setting of the Rano Raraku crater and consists of three traditional races: the Pora, the Aka Venga and the Vaka Ama.

The Pora race

Paka racers paddle across the lake at Rano Raraku crater © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Pora racers paddle across the lake inside Rano Raraku crater © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

The Pora is the first race of the Taua Rapa Nui triathlon; it consists of paddling across the lake inside the Rano Raraku crater on a reed boat. All competitors are dressed in traditional costumes and adorned with body paint.

The Aka Venga race

The Aka Venga event is the most physically challenging of all events © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

The Aka Venga race is the most physically challenging of the Taua Rapa Nui events © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

The Aka Venga is the second race of the Taua Rapa Nui triathlon. The contestants run around the lake carrying two banana bunches on their shoulders – it's considered the most exhausting of the triathlon's three events.

The Vaka Ama race

A Vaka Ama contestant © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

A Vaka Ama contestant © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

During the last leg of the Taua Rapa Nui triathlon, the Vaka Ama race, contestants swim across the lake using a small reed raft as a board.

Takona: the art of body painting

Takona, Rapa Nui a body-painting custom © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Takona, a Tapati body-painting custom © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Also part of Tapati's festivities is Takona, a body painting contest that's taken very seriously by young men. They use the technique of mixing natural pigments and clay. The aesthetics and symbolic significance of the designs are taken into consideration by a jury.

Haka Pei contest

A Haka Pei racer prepares to launch © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

A Haka Pei racer prepares to launch © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

The pinnacle of the Tapati celebration is without a doubt the Haka Pei. A dozen male contestants, wearing nothing but body paint and a breechcloth, speed downhill on a makeshift sled (feet first, like a luge) made of two banana tree-trunks lashed together with twine on the steep, 120m-long slope of the Cerro Pui hill. The speed can reach a hair-raising 70km per hour.

Horse races

Tapati Festival contestants race horses bareback © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Tapati festival contestants race horses bareback © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

The horse races, which take place along a coastal track, will take your breath away. The bareback riders tear along the racetrack several times.

Traditional dancing

Youth perform a traditional Rapa Nui dance during the Tapati Festival © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Youths perform a traditional Rapa Nui dance during the Tapati festival © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

During the evening, dancing contests take place on a huge purpose-built stage in a vast field by the seashore just outside the island's main town of Hanga Roa. Each night, a number of groups participate in exuberant Polynesian routines, with ukuleles jangling and drums pounding long into the night, while judges mark their performances.

Culinary and cultural delights

Traditional Rapa Nui dishes like - are served at Tapati Festival gatherings © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Beef (pictured above) and fish are prepared in an umu tahu (barbecue) and served at Tapati festival gatherings © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Events during the Tapati festival also include traditional meal preparations as well as arts and crafts displays. Tourists are welcome to join the umu tahu, a massive barbecue and a community meal, which usually consists of beef and fish. During Tapati, numerous craftspeople exhibit their handicrafts such as shell necklaces, baskets and wood- and stone-carvings.

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