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Easter Island, , (other)

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Name:Easter Island
country: Chile

In case any of you didn't see the cover of the NY Times Travel Section on Sunday, 12/14/03..... a FULL 2 PAGE ARTICLE!

(I have pictures but don't know how to download them to this site). IF SOMEONE CAN HELP ME, LET ME KNOW...THE PICS ARE OF THE TIKIS....

Easter Island: a Faraway Land Steeped in Mystery

David J. Simchock/Vagabond Vistas
Rano Raraku, the moai quarry, on Easter Island, where unfinished megaliths stand.


Published: December 14, 2003


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Slide Show: Easter Island

In Travel


It was nighttime, and as the plane from Santiago hovered above the small island, I could see the yellow galaxy of porch lights and street lights in Hanga Roa village, population about 3,500, the sole developed area on Easter Island. I had been traveling for 24 hours, almost 7,000 miles from New York, to reach one of the world's most remote inhabited islands, and, as the plane finally touched down on the runway, I was exhausted - and exhilarated.

No one arrives on Easter Island by accident. It is on the way to nowhere, and it is next to nothing. Chile, the country that has overseen it as a province since 1888, is some 2,300 miles away. You must seek out Easter Island. I did because I needed answers: I was at work on a novel, my first, and had chosen Easter Island as the setting. In the course of my research, I found myself falling in love with the island's history.

And that is why people go there: Easter Island has a unique and beguiling past, fragments of which are strewn across the landscape, physical clues to a centuries-old mystery.

The island, some 63 square miles of grass-covered volcanic rock in the South Pacific, was settled by Polynesians around 400 A.D. Their descendants had no known contact with the outside world until 1722, when the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen anchored off the island, naming it in honor of his arrival on Easter Sunday.

Roggeveen made known what he had seen: a barren island where hundreds of enormous human-shaped statues, called moai, lined the coast. What perplexed him was how such a primitive people, on an island devoid of timber and pack animals, could have moved such megaliths. Roggeveen's reports sparked the interest of other voyagers, and soon ships from Spain and England and France were headed there. But by the time Capt. James Cook arrived in 1772, something important had changed - the moai were all lying in the grass. This, of course, spawned another question: What had caused the statues to fall?

To visit Easter Island today - the inhabitants call it Rapa Nui - is to explore these mysteries up close, to wander through a centuries-old open-air archaeological museum. The town of Hanga Roa is small, consisting of mostly simple one-story homes and basic shops, nestled in one corner of the island's triangular landscape - the rest is rustic and generally uninhabited. The moai still line the coasts, toppled except for the roughly three dozen that have been restored upright in recent years. Almost all the sites are without ropes, barriers or signs. The ruins remain au naturel, and the statues now standing look as they did when Roggeveen first saw them.

I decided to begin my visit at the moai quarry, an extinct volcanic crater named Rano Raraku, about eight miles outside the village. I had been told to go early to avoid the tourist buses, and I was there, via taxi, by 9:30 a.m. on a sunny October day, completely alone.

Quiet definitely improves the experience of this site. Here the island's famous megaliths were carved from the crater's soft volcanic tuff, and some 394 statues remain unfinished in this vast volcanic workshop, some still attached to the inner rock, some upright on the crater's outer slope, as if frozen on their way out. These quarry moai reveal an interesting pattern: the statues here are markedly larger than those on the coast. The largest, El Gigante, measures some 65 feet and is estimated to weigh up to 270 tons, while the largest moai ever erected on the coast measures about 32 feet, leading archaeologists to believe an "obsession" in moai building was under way and ended abruptly (carving tools were left at the site, though they have since been removed) at the time the coastal statues fell.

What caused the islanders to abandon their statue building? And why were the statues toppled? Scholars think the moai were most likely moved to the coast by means of the timber of trees that were extinct by the time Roggeveen arrived. Pollen analysis has revealed that thick-trunked palm trees once forested the island; their trunks were probably used as levers or rollers to manipulate the statues. Many scholars assume that moai building played a critical role in the island's deforestation, and that environmental collapse was a factor in the abandonment of the effort.

From Rano Raraku, it's a short walk toward the coast to Tongariki, where a Chilean archaeologist directed the restoration of a row of 15 moai, completed in 1995, with workers using special resins to piece together the decaying statues. The moai were hoisted into position by a hydraulic crane built and donated by the Tadano Corporation of Japan (a reminder of how impressive a feat it was to move the statues without mechanical power). The sight of these towering figures on their original ceremonial platform, or ahu, begins to suggest the magnificence Roggeveen saw, when hundreds of such statues skirted the island, facing inland, worshiped by the islanders as sacred chiefs and divine ancestors.

Anakena, one of the island's two sand beaches, is on the north shore. (Legend says that the first king, Hotu Matua, landed his canoe here.) This is a great place for a picnic lunch, beneath the grove of coconut palms; shade is a rarity on this mostly treeless island, and should be enjoyed when found. Just beyond the beach stands the very first moai re-erected, restored in the mid-50's by Thor Heyerdahl (author of "Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island"). Anakena is a great place for a swim, but if you prefer a slightly less crowded beach, Ovahe is just down the road. The water at this small, secluded cove is crystal clear and calm. On the way back from Anakena to Hanga Roa is Puna Pau, the quarry for the red scoria topknots (pukau) that once crowned the moai.

At the day's end, I stopped in at Tavake, an informal restaurant on Atamu Tekana Street, where I tried my first pisco sour (Chilean brandy mixed with lemon juice and sugar), along with a portion of fresh-caught tuna ceviche. Tuna is one of the better choices, along with anything with avocado (the islanders grow the most delicious avocados I've ever tasted), poi cake (which tastes a little like cornbread, but is made with taro and banana or guava and is a traditional Rapa Nui dish), any meat cooked in the traditional curanto earth oven or the rich and satisfying empanadas (a Chilean influence).

I FOUND several options for evening activities. If it's a weekend, a visit to one of the island's two discos is a great way to mix with the locals, but these get going late, around 11 p.m., so a nap back at your room isn't a bad idea. Or have a drink at the Aloha Pub, a great bar. Two nights a week, the group Kari Kari performs at the Hotel Hanga Roa. With their feathered headdresses and white-painted bodies, these singer-dancers put on a vibrant and impassioned show combining traditional and contemporary Rapa Nui music.

I was there in October (and returned again last November), which is low season, and crowds were not a problem either at the night spots or the archaeological sites. The tourists I did meet were from all over - Japan, Europe and South America, many from mainland Chile. Because of the town's small size, you are likely to keep running into the same people. And it's worth chatting with visitors who have traveled so far to reach this island - they have interesting stories of what drew them. I met a Brazilian man who said he had been dreaming of visiting the island since reading "Aku-Aku" 30 years earlier.

Visiting the various moai can occupy a few days, but there are other sites that tell the island's story. At the outskirts of Hanga Roa sits the Father Sebastián Englert Museum, named for the Bavarian priest who spent much of his life here. Its prize display is the coral "eye," discovered in 1978, that ended centuries of speculation about whether the moai once had eyes. Last year, just beside the museum, a library was opened in honor of William Mulloy, an American archaeologist who was a leading expert on Easter Island until his death in 1978; it provides an abundance of literature, photographs and old films.

And there are many archaeological sites unrelated to the moai. Orongo, on the rim of the largest volcanic crater, dates from the mid-16th century. This ceremonial village was the axis of the cult of the birdman, a religion centered on a creator god, Makemake, that replaced the ancestor worship of the moai religion. The birdman cult initiated an annual event in which young men competed to find the sooty tern's first egg of the season.

Petroglyphs of a half-bird, half-man figure and Makemake adorn the rocks near this site, and the ceremonial houses where the participants would sleep still remain. On the road back to Hanga Roa is the coastal cave Ana Kai Tangata, rumored to have been the site of cannibalism, but notable mostly for the beautiful bird paintings on its high-vaulted ceiling.

One of Easter Island's most glorious sights has nothing to do with its archaeological offerings, but everything to do with its history. Terevaka, the largest of the three major volcanoes, is the island's highest point, some 1,670 feet above sea level, and from the summit you can see the horizon line, unbroken, for 360 degrees. Residents have traditionally called the island "Te Pito o Te Henua" (the navel of the earth), and from this vantage point it certainly feels as if you're standing at the world's center. You are reminded that the moai were all originally positioned with their backs to the sea, facing inland, toward this "navel."

The island also offers a range of sporting activities. There are two stores right by the coast, Orca and the Mike Rapu Dive Center, that rent snorkel or diving equipment. One morning I went scuba diving off Anakena and saw a wide variety of coral and colorful fish, and I have been told by experienced divers that the diving from Motu Iti and Motu Nui, two islets off the island's coast, is spectacular. Also, the waves there are immense, as can be seen in the 1993 documentary "Easter Island: Forbidden Surf," which features the surfer Laird Hamilton and others riding the fierce whitecaps on boards and kayaks.

For landlubbers, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding or caving are options. My guide took me to Ana o Keke, the cave of the virgins, where young girls were once sequestered in order to become pale for religious festivals. And the brave can explore some of the more challenging lava tubes. Squirming into one with my excellent guide, Ramón (of Haumaka Tours), I couldn't move my arms for quite a distance, in the pitch dark, until it opened onto a beautiful, bright, spacious cavern on the coast. It is said that during times of strife, the islanders took to living in caves, and in some you can even see evidence (usually skeletal remains of food) of their habitation.

On Sunday, Mass is celebrated at the Church of the Holy Cross in Hanga Roa. The singing is often in Rapa Nui, the island dialect, and the church is decorated with an array of wooden figures carved by local artists in which traditional Roman Catholic imagery is mixed with island motifs: the beautiful crucifix above the altar shows the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus's head in the form of a seabird.

While Easter Island doesn't fit the stereotype of a lush South Pacific hideaway, its scenery is breathtaking nonetheless. Gorgeous sunsets cast a splendid array of colors over the landscape, and at almost any coastal spot, a picnic is a treat. People have compared the island's grassy hills to Scotland or Wales, and because it is unforested and relatively flat, you can see for miles. Traveling across it feels like moving through a desert of grass, the three volcanic craters punctuating the horizon.

THE treelessness is part of Easter Island's singular environmental story. Centuries later, Easter Island is still in the process of rebirth. Attempts have been made to reintroduce the Sophora toromiro, an indigenous tree that hasn't grown on the island for decades, and to plant new trees, like eucalyptus, that might provide a protective barrier against coastal winds.

As we drove past a Chilean government building on my last day, my guide pointed to a cannon and told me the story of how in 1991, the French issued a set of postage stamps celebrating French Polynesia, one of them depicting Easter Island. Alarmed that France might have intentions of bringing their province into its domain, Chile swiftly sent three warships to the island.

It turned out to be a simple mistake, an artist's geographical confusion, but the story reveals how fervently the islanders, and even the Chilean authorities, guard the moai. Only by traveling across this faraway landscape can one fully appreciate the enormous accomplishment of creating these statues, and begin to meditate on the mysteries associated with them.

Visitor Information

Getting There

LanChile, (800) 735-5526, http://www.lanchile.com, operates flights to Easter Island, from Papeete, Tahiti, or from Santiago, Chile. Flights run approximately twice a week and take about five hours from Chile, six from Tahiti. A round-trip ticket from New York to Easter Island starts at about $1,200, depending on time of year.

When to Go

Peak season is the Southern Hemisphere summer (December to March), when temperatures average 80 degrees. Winter months, June to August, are mild, and temperatures rarely drop below 57 degrees; rainfall can be heavy. The two-week Tapati Festival, with traditional Rapa Nui performances and competitions, is held in early February.

Getting Around

You can book a seat on a group tour, and jeeps, bikes, motorcycles and horses are available for rent. It is also possible to take a taxi to a site and arrange a pickup later. Walking along any of the island's three coasts is a great way to explore the sites; it takes four to five hours. Jeep rentals run roughly $50 a day, at 650 Chilean pesos to $1. A taxi to the beach at Anakena from Hanga Roa costs about $15. Dollars can be exchanged at the bank near the caleta (bay) or at the gas station on Hotu Matua Street. Most people in contact with tourists speak some English.

The following can arrange tours: Haumaka Tours, (56-32) 100-274, e-mail [email protected]; Mahinatur, (56-32) 551-514, [email protected]; and Kia Koe, (56-32) 100-282, [email protected].

If you prefer to plan your own itinerary, consult the Easter Island Foundation at http://www.islandheritage.org. Sernatur, (56-32) 100-255, http://www.sernatur.cl (in Spanish), the island's Chilean Tourist Office, near the bay, is also a useful source of information.

Where to Stay

Accommodations on the island range from residenciales, a room attached to the home of a Rapa Nui family, to deluxe hotels. I have always stayed in residenciales. Most recently I stayed at the friendly O'Tama Te Ra'a, off Atamu Tekena Street, (56-32) 100-635, [email protected], where a room with private bath and breakfast is $35.

I have also stayed at Mahina Taka Taka Georgia, phone and fax (56-32) 100-452, [email protected], a quaint guest house in the northern part of town, with four comfortable rooms with private bath for $30 a person (breakfast included).

Hotel O'Tai, (56-32) 100-250, fax (56-32) 100-482, [email protected], in the center of Hanga Roa, has 35 rooms, from $83 to $145, and a pool, restaurant and bar.

Iorana Hotel, (56-32) 100-608, [email protected], about a mile from downtown, has a tennis court, two swimming pools, a bar and restaurant; the rooms, all with ocean views, cost $134 to $329.

Accommodations can be arranged upon arrival at the airport, but it's not advised to wait that long during peak season. Camping is permitted only at Anakena beach.

Where to Eat

Ariki o Te Pana, an empanada cafe on Atamu Tekena Street, draws a local crowd; a hearty meal of tuna or cheese empanadas and an Escudo beer costs less than $10.

Playa Pea, Avenue Polycarpo Toro, has a superb ocean view; beef, chicken and tuna dishes cost about $10.

The Taverne de Pêcheur, on the caleta, is expensive, offering some of the island's best-prepared seafood; entrees cost about $15.

JENNIFER VANDERBES is the author of "Easter Island" (The Dial Press), a novel.

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[ Edited by: Alansumac on 2003-12-15 00:39 ]

[ Edited by: Alansumac on 2003-12-15 00:41 ]

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