Rapa Nui: How to get away from tourists in a place that doesn’t have many tourists

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South America » Chile » Easter Island
December 10th 2016
Published: December 19th 2016
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I was fascinated with this place as a kid. Despite it being a dream to visit ever since, I wasn’t sure I would ever get here. I’m fairly confident that I’ll one day get to all the places that I’ve always wanted to, but Rapa Nui / Isla de Pascua / Easter Island is so remote that I couldn’t say if I’d ever make it. Well, I made it. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it may have been even better than I hoped.

It’s a whopping 5.5 hour flight from Santiago giving you ample time to gaze down upon blue nothingness. There is not even a speck of land on the way and if you keep going in any direction you won’t find any more land for another 2075 km (tiny Pitcairn Island way off to the west, which itself has only 75 inhabitants).

The island is a triangle, each side being about 18 km long, with an extinct volcano in each corner. You can never not see the sea and often you can see it on more than one side. This ever-present vast blueness makes the remoteness extremely tangible and I felt that if you were suddenly dropped here from wherever in the world you would immediately be aware that you are in the absolute middle of nowhere. The Polynesians know Rapa Nui as the “Navel of the World” which seems meaningless until you get here and then it seems to make perfect sense.

You would think that on such a little island you would be constantly with the other tourists as you herd around the famous sights selfying away collectively with a moai over your shoulder. Well, you may be glad to hear that you can actually get completely away from the tourists. Not that there are that many tourists anyway; there’s only a plane or two a day, and most people don’t get off the plane but continue on to Tahiti. Nor are there many locals. The island has a population of just 6500,of whom almost all live in Hanga Roa, the island’s only settlement.

If you haven’t heard of Rapa Nui / Isla de Pascua / Easter Island then I will reluctantly permit you to continue reading and here is a very short history (from memory so this might be a bit wrong – I’m currently in Cote d’Ivoire with zero to no internet so can’t fact check): Polynesians arrived in canoes about 1000 years ago, they erected massive stone figures or moai, they used up all the natural resources then started killing each other and toppling the statues, Europeans showed up around 1700, disease and enslavement shrunk the population further, Chile stuck their flag in in 1888 and some Chileans moved there growing the population, a Norwegian called Thor (what else?) re-erected many of the statues, the mystery surrounding the statues (what were they for? how were they built? why were they destroyed?) was written in many books read by a small boy from Yorkshire alongside his readings about the Nazca Lines, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle and other such global mysteries, many years later he actually showed up!

There is only one real road on the island that takes you all the way along the east coast, halfway along the north coast, then back south to Hanga Roa through the middle of the island. Most people hire a car for this; we hired bikes. The weather forecast gave good weather on day one then rain for the next three days so we decided to try and get around all the major sights on this first day. The cycle ride took us out past the end of the runway to Ahu Vinapu. Not a very famous spot and looking like just a pile of stones from our first view. After we parked the bikes and wandered over, there in the grass and only just protruding from the earth was my first moai! I was quite speechless with excitement! In hindsight, that was probably the poorest example of a moai we saw during the whole five days on the island. It was just a head snapped off its body, it wasn’t very big, it was almost completely buried, its features were mostly weathered away, and it lay there in the shadow of some massive oil storage tanks under a light drizzle. But I shook with pleasure.

Pootling up the coast we were surprised to see ahu (the big altars on which the moai stand) every kilometre or so. The hire cars were just driving past but we would stop and explore every one. Now the Moai were much bigger and were complete, though were lying face down as they had been toppled forwards away from the sea; all the moai had originally been constructed facing inland. The topknots (round red rocks that went on their heads) had often rolled some way away from the toppled statues. Despite being only a hundred metres from the road we generally had these sights to ourselves.

The first time we came across any number of tourists was at Rano Raraku, the quarry where all the moai were carved prior to transportation and erection around the island. Close by is the long row of moai at Ahu Tongariki with another car park full of tour buses and hire cars. Despite these two locations being impressive, it was quite a shock to see so many people. And there weren’t that many, we were just used to having a place to ourselves.

We had several stops to look at the wild Pacific smashing into the rugged coastline and didn’t reach an actual beach until late in the day. But what a beach! It’s the only one on the island and immediately jumped into my top 5 in the
Volcan OsornoVolcan OsornoVolcan Osorno

Part of a really nice hike from Petrohue in Chile's Lake District.
world. Anakena is pure white sand, palm trees, a little volcanic cone, a set of moai across the back and a lone moai at one side, gin clear water, and few people; exactly how a Pacific island beach should be. We were able to stay till after 7pm as it didn’t get dark till about 8 though the rain clouds we had seen lingering here and there finally caught up with us on the cycle back. It was a long climb then a long freewheel back to town where we arrived soaked, knackered, but extremely content. Later map analysis revealed we had done 55 km!

However, I wasn’t planning on talking about any of this, I wanted to tell you how to get away from the already not many people and see parts of Rapa Nui that few see.

The forecast thankfully turned out to be wrong. That first day that was meant to be the only sunny day was actually the only day we got wet. You could always see a black cloud hovering over some part of the island but the ancient Polynesian Gods obviously favoured us as we were
Palofitos at Castro on Isla ChiloePalofitos at Castro on Isla ChiloePalofitos at Castro on Isla Chiloe

The town being famous for colourful stilt houses and fantastic seafood.
generally underneath a blue bit. The rain commonly seemed to sit above Hanga Roa which was deserved given how much the shops and restaurants charge (fair enough, almost everything has to be flown in but a quid for a tomato and a fiver for an empanada is a little steep).

Really good hike number 1:

It doesn’t start off that good; a long drag on the side of the road alongside the runway, round the end of the runway, past the oil tanks, to Ahu Vinapu that I mentioned earlier (where we saw our first moai). Then, beyond the ahu is a gate, go through it and keep walking. I should probably point out that I don’t know whether you are actually allowed to do this or if it’s private land. We never saw a single other person and there were few footprints on the very vague path. The path often disappears altogether but just keep the sea on your left and you can’t go wrong. The cliff gets higher and higher and the view becomes more and more stupendous. Occasionally clouds blew in reducing visibility to about ten metres and we
Mural in ValparaisoMural in ValparaisoMural in Valparaiso

One of a million great examples of street art for which the city is famous.
would end up heading more up than around to keep away from the cliff edge and the precipitous drop.

The aim of this hike was to get to the crater sitting at the top of Rano Kau volcano and the third highest point on the island at 324 m. There is a road and a path going up the front of it from Hanga Roa but we like an adventure.

Just as our path seemed to disappear altogether we came across a spooky looking little forest and on the other side was a well-defined track. We followed it thinking we still had a long way to go, particularly a lot of height still to gain and suddenly we were on the rim of the crater! We couldn’t believe how straightforward it had been. We were on the ocean side of the perfectly circular kilometre-diameter crater looking down into its dark boggy depths and looking across at the distant silhouettes of other tourists on the opposite rim. You cannot walk all the way round the rim as it narrows and dips to a knife edge separating crater from ocean. This point was quite an uncomfortable place to stand. I’m
Lago Todos los SantosLago Todos los SantosLago Todos los Santos

Stopping to take in this view almost made us miss the last bus back to Puerto Varas. We had to run the last 15-minutes.
usually ok with heights but the cliff is 300 m above the sea and getting even within a few paces of the edge made me go quite wobbly. We sat up there for ages till the light started fading then walked round the rim before finding a track which intercepted the road and took us home.

Really good hike number 2:

Haggle for a taxi to Anakena Beach then panic the driver by saying you don’t need a return pick up later because you’ll be walking back round the north and west coasts. This is after you’ve ignored your hotel owner and others (all of whom rent cars) who will tell you that hiring a car for the day is cheaper than taking taxis – it isn’t. Get off at Anakena Beach and start walking round the coast with the sea on your right to the left (westwards) of the beach. Turn around a lot to appreciate how stunning Anakena Beach really is and appreciate that at this time of day (it was about midday) there are still more moai on the beach than people.

Despite being forecast rain this was the sunniest
Ahu AkahangaAhu AkahangaAhu Akahanga

The moai all faced inland so were toppled away from the sea with the topknots (the round things on their heads) often rolling a long way.
and hottest day we had on Rapa Nui. The Lonely Planet recommends this hike saying it will take you seven hours and the pathless cliff tops necessitate the need of a guide. We walked further than LP’s route (all the way back to the town centre rather than just to the first popular moai site a few kilometres north of town), stopped many times for picnics on clifftops with stunning views and to explore the frequent archaeological sites, and it took us six hours. The path is often faint where it crosses the ankle breaking boulder fields but keep the sea on your right and you can’t go wrong.

After a few days on the island you get your eye in and can pick out the difference between a pile of stones and a ceremonial site. Even here on this remote coast, where we passed only one very remote house (the owner of which shouted us over to point out the prettiest route rather than to tell us we shouldn’t be there), there was so much to see. Fallen moai, petroglyphs, ahu, lava tubes used as dwellings or hiding places and the foundations
Being a grown up at Viña Neyen, Colchagua ValleyBeing a grown up at Viña Neyen, Colchagua ValleyBeing a grown up at Viña Neyen, Colchagua Valley

Unfortunately, this wine has ruined wine for us it was so good. £50 a bottle (we only had two small glasses and that was still £15).
of old settlements. Many of these impressed us more than the frequented sites by the roads. And because no one comes over here you were free to explore them as close as you wanted (the popular spots have warning signs keeping you some distance away), though you still shouldn’t get too close so as not to offend, i.e. don’t climb on the moai numbnuts!

What I should warn you about are the bones. Not just the odd bone here and there but whole carcasses with the meat gone and the bones bleached white in the Pacific sun. It begins with a mysterious gate of doom lined with skulls. We weren’t sure about going through it as it looked like the beginning of some Hollywood horror film. We persisted, more bones followed, often dotted around the ahu like some sort of sacrifice. No explanation can be offered but they’re everywhere. Don’t let it stop you.

Basically, this is a fantastic cliff top walk with stunning scenery but there happens to be the added bonus of untouched and mysterious archaeology every few hundred metres.

So those are my recommendations for Rapa Nui. Oh, and go
Magdalena pretending not to pose at Viña Neyen, Colchagua ValleyMagdalena pretending not to pose at Viña Neyen, Colchagua ValleyMagdalena pretending not to pose at Viña Neyen, Colchagua Valley

This was our favourite stop on our 50 km bike ride around the vineyards of Colchagua Valley. We had a cycle amongst the rows of vines at Neyen which was lovely too.
diving. The 30 m visibility was the best I’ve ever seen anywhere on Earth and when we surfaced the guide said the vis was bad that day – it’s usually 50 m!

Additional photos below
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Rano RarakuRano Raraku
Rano Raraku

The quarry and workshop where all the island's moai were carved out of the volcanic tuff (solidified ash).
Close to Saltos del Petrohue Close to Saltos del Petrohue
Close to Saltos del Petrohue

Near Volcan Osorno in Chile's Lake District.

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