When: Nov 2012
I associated it with the Moai stone figures and knew it was pretty off grid, so in an attempt to go somewhere ‘different’ whilst travelling through South America, we booked flights on a whim over two-thousand miles across the Pacific ocean.
Easter Island is tiny – just 15-miles at its widest point – with a single shabby, but charming town called Hanga Roa located on the south-western shore. The pace of life here is certainly different. On Sundays the entire isle seems to sit still. It’s a place of contrasts between old and new: at one end you can feel part of the wider world thanks to wi-fi connections in many spots (albeit a slow satellite speed), yet it’s common to see locals riding horses down the street to do their shopping, and no underground drainage system means toilet paper gets disposed of in waste bins. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888, yet practically Rapa Nui has maintained a lot of its heritage, and the native clans still weald a great deal of authority. All the local people we met during our stay were spirited and friendly, and we received great kindness when our luggage failed to arrive on our flight!
A volcanic landscape framed by dark rugged coastline, where wild horses and stray dogs roam freely, Easter Island is no Hawaii. The flora and fauna is rather barren thanks to a historical deforestation hundreds of years ago. Efforts are being made now to promote a more diverse ecosystem, but these kind of ventures can take many years to come into fruition. And unlike many other Pacific islands, Rapa Nui can’t really be considered as a ‘beach destination’ either. There are only a couple of beaches scattered across the entire island, and they have little to no facilities. But what draws visitors here is the mysterious remnants of ancient times. Stone-carved Ahu (ceremonial platforms) and caves offer glimpses into the island’s past, and can be enjoyed in relatively tranquil settings compared to more ‘mainstay’ tourist traps.
All flights to the island are hosted by LAN airlines and leave from either Santiago (most frequent and technically ‘domestic’), or Lima in Peru. Alternatively there is a weekly flight connecting to Pape’ete, Tahiti, but this was really expensive when we looked into it! Due to travelling via Peru, we had a long stay of 8 days on the island (which at the time operated just two flights), so arrived early on a Sunday after the 4.5 hour flight, and left on the same flight in the evening a week later. Most flights to the island seem to land, reload, and then return the same day.
10 Tips for visiting Rapa Nui
1. Set your expectations
Firstly remember you are visiting a remote island, so the choice and price of food and basic commodities are high. The food was nothing to write home about, with limited ingredients, but fresh fish such as mahi mahi and tuna. In one restaurant we paid $12US for a local beer! For an average meal in town expect to pay somewhere near $25-30 for a main course and $4 for a soft drink. It may have been a wise move to have brought a few snacks with us.
2. Hire a local guide
It’s a great idea to start your trip with a local tour. We took a semi-private tour with Peter, our Swiss B&B host, and another couple who were also guests. The tour provided an excellent insight into island life, as well as setting the historical background to the Maui, and also gave us pointers for other places to explore. There are hotels that offer larger minibus group tours but these seemed less personal / flexible.
3. Hire some wheels
If you have more than a couple of days it’s a good idea to rent some wheels. A handful of places in town rent out bikes, but be warned that the roads are ‘rustic’, and when it rains a bike isn’t so great! On the advice of Peter we hired an SUV – which was a very informal arrangement involving an on-the-spot exchange of cash for keys – but Insular Rent A Car now have a website where they take reservations for cars, ATVs, and dirt bikes. The car gave us the means to reach the main Anakana beach, which is 12 miles from town on the north shore, and to drive up the Rano Kau volcano – which could also have been reached by a tough day-hike if we had been less lazy! We hired the car for 3 days at a cost of $60 per day, plus fuel.
4. Stay in boutique or homestay accommodation
It’s probably obvious to say, but not only are there no Four Seasons in Rapa Nui, there wasn’t even any chain hotels last time I checked. Personally I think this very fact is part of the charm. There are some hostels dotted around town for the budget-friendly, and on the other end of the spectrum, a handful of hotels which seem crazy-expensive for what they offer. I recommend looking for independent b&bs, or self-cattering arrangements, many of which come with detached bungalows. We choose Hare Swiss, located down a dirt track of a road, approx 20-25mins walk out of town. Our experience there was excellent – a fairly simple, but clean and spacious room, with a sea view, and very helpful local hosts. More and more hotels are opening all the time though – a new 5-star ‘eco resort’ recently opened, which charges over $800 per night! Hotels offer packages with tours and possibly meals included (for which you will likely pay a high premium), but what’s the point of travelling all the way to Easter Island to choose the ‘easy’ option?!
5. Sightseeing the Moai
Not everyone realises this before they arrive, but the Rapa Nui had toppled all the original Moai figures by the mid-nineteenth century due to internal rebellions. This means that the statues you see today are either reconfigured, or in some cases rubble. The largest standing are at Ahu Tongariki, and are quite a sight! It is best to go in the later afternoon after the main tours have passed through for a better photo, or at sunrise to capture their majestical qualities. Other must-sees are the quarry where the Moai were mostly carved from at Rano Raraku, and Orongo where you will learn about the Birdman cult practised until the 1860s. If you like caves there are many dotted around open to explore, but be warned there is no safety equipment provided so be careful – Ana Te Pahu was fairly vast. You will be requested to show a Rapa Nui National park pass to enter Rano Raraku and Orongo. These are easiest to purchase in the airport arrivals, and cost $80 US for adults and $40 for children (valid for 10 days).
6. Remember that Easter Island isn’t really a ‘Beach holiday’
There are technically just three beaches on the island, and water access elsewhere is extremely difficult due to the jagged coastline. In reality there is only really one main beach at Anakana, and you may still have to pay to use the rest rooms. There are a few food stalls that open at lunchtime. There is another smaller but charming beach at Ovahe a few minutes away, which requires a short climb over rocks to access (not great in flip flops). These are really the only options as the beach in town is tiny and not more than a playground for small local kids, I wouldn’t plan on spending a day there.
7. Evening entertainment is on the light-side
Apart from eating out, the only other evening entertainment on offer during our stay was offered by a couple of companies that hosted dance shows. Not typically our thing, we went along more to support the local industry, but ended up enjoying it much more than expected. Kari Kari in the centre of town provides a 1-hour native dance show which felt like a highly energetic cross between the Hawaiian Hola and the New Zealand Haka. It doesn’t take place every night, and is a good idea to book in advance. Our tickets cost $20pp. There is another company that collects you from your hotel and provides food and a show for around $70pp. on alternative days. Both companies receive very good reviews on Trip Advisor. Other than these options, perhaps pack some evening entertainment of your own!
8. Pack for all weather!
A word of warning here – it rained A LOT during our time on the island, at least 3 days were full of torrential rain. Therefore when packing remember to bring some waterproofs, sensible outdoor shoes (as the coastline is largely rough terrain), and a sun hat for when it’s hot and exposed. Note that basics such as sunscreen and toiletries are pricy to buy locally (there is a pharmacy in town but closes on Sundays and for siesta). A small flashlight or head torch would be useful if you plan on walking outside the main strip of road at night. Add to all that a good book, and some ‘back-up’ entertainment such as already-downloaded pod-casts – just in case the weather lets you down – and you should be good!
9. Don’t rely on a credit card
The local currency is Chilean pesos. Generally it is cheaper to pay for goods in pesos due to shops offering varying exchange rates, but US dollars are also widely accepted. There are three cash machines – one at the airport, and two attached to banks that dispense pesos, but two of these were out of service at different points of our stay, and one only accepts Mastercard. Some hotels and restaurants accept credit cards, but not everywhere, so bring some cash as a reserve. The tipping etiquette in restaurants seemed to be a standard 10%.
10. What’s the ideal length of stay?
This depends on the amount of activities you want to do. If you are limited for time and have a car or tour you could see the most significant sights in 1-2 days. If you prefer to spend time hiking, on the water, or just adjusting to the slower pace of life I would recommend 5 days – that way if bad weather hits you don’t miss out!
I’m glad we made the trip to this quaint, mysterious island. It took a few days to adjust to ‘island time’, and I did find some amenities and choices limited, but we were in one of the remotest inhabited islands on earth, and I appreciated the unique ‘unspoilt’ experience.