Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Few areas in the world possess a more mystical pull than this tiny speck of land, one of the most isolated places on Earth. It's hard to feel connected to Chile, over 23oo miles (3700km) to the east, let alone the wider world. Endowed with the most logic-defying statues on the planet – the strikingly familiar moai – Easter Island (Rapa Nui to its native Polynesian inhabitants) emanates a magnetic, mysterious vibe.
But Easter Island is much more than an open-air museum. Diving, snorkeling and surfing are fabulous. On land, there's no better eco-friendly way to experience the island's savage beauty than on foot, from a bike saddle or on horseback. But if all you want to do is recharge the batteries, a couple of superb expanses of white sand beckon.
Although Easter Island is world famous and visitors are on the increase, everything remains small and personable – it's all about eco-travel.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Easter Island (Rapa Nui).
Nearly covered in a bog of floating totora reeds, the crater lake of Rano Kau resembles a giant witch's cauldron and is a wild greenhouse of endemic biodiversity. Perched 300m above, on the edge of the crater wall on one side and abutting a vertical drop plunging down to the cobalt-blue ocean on the other side, Orongo Ceremonial Village boasts one of the South Pacific's most dramatic landscapes. It overlooks several small motu (offshore islands), including Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao.
Known as 'the nursery,' the volcano of Rano Raraku, about 18km from Hanga Roa, is the quarry for the hard tuff from which the moai were cut. You'll feel as though you're stepping back into early Polynesian times, wandering among dozens of moai in all stages of progress studded on the southern slopes of the volcano. At the top, the 360-degree view is truly awesome. Within the crater are a small, glistening lake and about 20 standing moai.
Beach bums in search of a place to wallow will love this postcard-perfect, white-sand beach. It also forms a lovely backdrop for Ahu Nau Nau, which comprises seven moai, some with topknots. On a rise south of the beach stands Ahu Ature Huki and its lone moai, which was re-erected by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl with the help of a dozen islanders in 1956.
The vast majority of Rapa Nui falls within the boundaries of this national park. Think of it like an open-air museum with mysterious archaeological sites and scenic hikes through barren volcanic cones. Spending the extra cash on a guided tour, or on an islander who can explain what you are seeing, is a very worthy investment.
The monumental Ahu Tongariki has plenty to set your camera's flash popping. With 15 imposing statues, it is the largest ahu ever built. The statues gaze over a large, level village site, with ruined remnants scattered about and some petroglyphs nearby; some figures include a turtle with a human face, a tuna fish and a birdman motif.
At the eastern end of the island, this high plateau is crowned by the extinct volcano Maunga Pu A Katiki (400m) and bound in by steep cliffs. There are also three small volcanic domes, one of which sports a huge mask carved into the rock that looks like a giant gargoyle. Also worth looking for is a series of small moai that lie facedown, hidden amid the grass, as well as the Grotto of the Virgins (Ana O Keke).
Ahu Tahai is a highly photogenic site that contains three restored ahu (ceremonial platform). Ahu Tahai proper is the ahu in the middle, supporting a large, solitary moai (large anthropomorphic statue) with no topknot. On the north side of Ahu Tahai is Ahu Ko Te Riku, with a topknotted and eyeballed moai. On the other side is Ahu Vai Uri, which supports five moai of varying sizes and shapes. Along the hills are foundations of hare paenga (traditional houses resembling an upturned canoe, with a narrow doorway).
This well-organized museum makes a perfect introduction to the island's history and culture. It displays basalt fishhooks, obsidian spearheads and other weapons, circular beehive-shaped huts, petroglyphs, funerary cists and a rare female moai. It also features replica Rongorongo tablets, covered in rows of tiny symbols resembling hieroglyphs.
Unusual for its inland location, Ahu Akivi, the first scientific restoration on the island (in 1960), sports seven restored moai. They are the only ones that face toward the sea, but, like all moai, they overlook the site of a village, traces of which can still be seen. The site has proved to have astronomical significance: at the equinoxes, the seven statues look directly at the setting sun.