After 25 hours of traveling, we arrive on Easter Island at 6:50 on a Sunday morning. We descend the stairs to the tarmac, walk to the terminal, and immediately make a rookie mistake.
By the time we have them, most of the remaining passengers are in line. So, it takes about an hour to get through the arrival process. Next time, one of us waits in the immigration line and the other goes to the booth for the tickets. We chastise each other with a tsk.
One thing that is a bit disconcerting is a sign at the ticket window that informs tourists the tickets are good for five days with the exception of Orongo and Rano Raraku (the quarry). Those two spots only allow one visit per ticket. This is the first I have heard of this. I am concerned because I know we will go to Rano Raraku once on a tour and then want to go back when we have a car and can visit at our own pace.
We know that these are fragile places, thus the need to limit the amount of wear and tear but when we have traveled so far, we are hoping the rule won’t be enforced. Selfish? Yes. But we are paying 3 times what locals pay for admission, and I am happy to pay the extra cost but I want an extra hour or two on our own in the park in addition to the tour time.
Edith, the owner of the Taura’a Hotel is just out the front door of this tiny international airport waiting for us with our names printed on a sign and a traditional lei greeting. Off we go into the darkness. The hotel is a short drive away but it’s so dark we can’t really see anything.
Our hostess gets us settled into our room then exits. Her day is just starting and so is the second half of ours. We make a quick perusal of accommodations then eagerly jump into the shower to wash off the travel mung. A great way to kill the few minutes until the 7:30 breakfast service.
Our corner room is clean and in good repair. Initially we are disappointed that there isn’t any air conditioning but we open the screened windows on two walls and immediately get a nice cooling breeze from the almost constant wind.
The bed is king-size and comfortable. Also included: a desk, a college dorm size refrigerator and a coffee pot with a couple of cups and packets of Nescafé. Next to the refrigerator is a wooden statue, a perfect place to hang our flower leis.
Happily, the bathroom appears to have been recently renovated. The tiles and grout look new. The shower has ample hot water with liquid soap (that never seems to lather up) and shampoo dispensers on the wall. There is a western style toilet, a pedestal sink, and a hair dryer. Free WiFi provides a pretty fast connection to the Internet when the power is on. Noticeably absent are a TV, radio, and clock.
The hotel itself surrounds a courtyard with a fake ahu and replica moai (pronounced MOE-eye). The hotel’s sign and the backside of one wing faces the main street but the entrance is on an alley-ish dirt road. There are restaurants, shows and shopping within walking distance.
I chose this hotel after reading many glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. We are paying $150 US/$75.000 CLP a night for this place including breakfast. I booked it through an email conversation with Edith. She requires a deposit of one night by cash through her bank or credit card. I chose to use a credit card but she never charged the card until we checked out. My guess is that she holds onto the info if we are no-shows.
The plan is to hit the ground running. After breakfast, first on the schedule is the 9:00 am Sunday service at the Catholic Church. Everything I’ve read says it’s something to be experienced. Then we want to dive right into a tour of the southern coast.
But the island works at a different pace with a different plan. We need to adjust.
Because of the recent time change to daylight savings there is confusion as to what time it is. Every time I think I have a handle on it, I am unsure. At breakfast, other travelers are having the same problem. Most of them arrived yesterday so we get a chance to pick their brains over breakfast, a meal we sit down for at what turns out to be 8:50 instead of 7:50 as I thought.
Edith says we can go to church and she can feed us when we get back but coffee beckons. Nescafé in the room does the opposite of excite us. I will never understand why so much of the world drinks this vile version of “coffee”.
A French press full of strong coffee does the devil’s work and we wind up skipping the church service altogether. There are also enticing fresh rolls and butter, an omelette, watermelon and the freshest, sweetest bananas, probably picked from those trees out back.
Some of the other guests staying at the ten-room Taura’a join us in the sunny breakfast room. No one seems to be able to determine what the fruit is that makes up the freshly squeezed glass of juice, orange with a hint of mango maybe?
We all introduce ourselves, explaining points of origin and itineraries. Travel tips, suggestions, and experiences fly around the bright, tiny room. We are shocked when everyone bitches about my beloved LAN Airlines and I have to admit, I have witnessed their complaints elsewhere.
While it’s usually wonderful once on the plane, their customer service can suck. When I made the reservation, I had to give them my e-mail address and phone numbers. But, the main complaint is that they never contact anyone with schedule changes or flight cancellations even though they have contact info.
I only found out about our flights’ time changes because I “Liked” them on Facebook and saw something about re-checking schedules because of daylight savings. Luckily we have plenty of time built into our layovers so the changes don’t affect us. We arrive one hour later and will leave one hour later, giving us a longer last day and shortening our return layover in Lima.
One couple heading to Tahiti from here is not as lucky. They just found out, by accident, that their flight has been cancelled so they have to cut their 4-day stay on Easter Island short by 2 days. LAN will not be refunding them their non-refundable hotel nights on E.I. but is putting them up at a luxury resort in Tahiti. The couple races from breakfast to jam two days of touring into one. When I see the husband in the evening they have come to terms with the changes in the plan and are embracing it.
At 9:45, Edith asks us to come to her office when we finish eating. We’re done so we head right over to discuss tour options.
The tour I want is, of course, not running today. It’s been rainy and this is the first nice day so it’s a good day to do the West Coast tour to see the caves ($60 US/ $30.000CLP). The caves, a result of old lava tubes and porous volcanic rock, can be slippery when it rains so today is the day to get out there.
They are also doing the Orongo half-day tour ($45 US/$22.500CLP). Amazingly, we can do both in one day!
By the way, the forecast for our whole trip is rain and thunderstorms – 100% chance of storms on most days. While that may be true on some parts of the island, we experience only one short cloudburst before the unrelenting sun comes out again. It looks like the forecasts are generated in Valparaiso, Chile, on the mainland 22-hundred miles away. A good reminder that not everything online is true.
Edith also confirms what we suspect. Do not flush toilet paper down the toilet. Place it in the covered trashcan nearby. We’ve seen this before in Central and South America but a lifetime of North American habits are hard to break so we know a few sheets will get flushed by mistake.
The tour is leaving in moments so we dash out the door with two bottles of water each. A native Rapanui woman who’s nicknamed China is our guide.
Volcano Rano Kau is our first stop. Easter Island has three large volcanoes at each apex of this triangular crop of land in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. There are another 70 to 100+ smaller volcano cones scattered around the landscape. They are considered extinct and even with all kinds of wild guesses; scientists think the there hasn’t been an eruption in at least 700 years and maybe even 2,000.
The dirt road leading up to Rano Kau is so bumpy we have to take it really slowly. Some of the ruts really qualify as ditches. We weave from one side of the road to the other searching for the smoothest ride.
We skip the first overlook of the town of Hanga Roa because of the traffic on the road. The dirt is dry so every car that passes kicks up a dust storm. We are assured that we will have the same view from higher up. And we do.
The impressive view of town evaporates as we catch our first glimpse of the volcano crater. It is so beautiful, it takes my breath away. Standing on the craggy rim of the crater with the wind blowing at a pretty steady 25 mph clip is an amazing experience.
The bottom of the crater is filled with fresh water and marshy plants. On the far side, the wall by the sea dips down where the lava escaped to the ocean.
The many shades of green against the blue water and the blue sky are stunning. It’s hard to peel us away but China promises more great things further up the road.
Orongo is the first place where we need to show our park tickets to gain entrance. After signing our names in a large book and getting our tickets stamped, we walk around the building to a path that leads up to the ceremonial village where the Birdman Competition took place. This era replaced the moai building period.
The walk up is stunning. The cliffs on the right drop down to the Pacific Ocean. There are three islets (or motu) not far from shore. Motu Kao Kao is the tall skinny one. The small one is Motu Iti and the big one furthest out is Motu Nui.
Way, way, way, back in the day, young men representing each tribe would scale the cliffs and swim to Motu Nui to wait to get the first egg to be laid by a bird called the sooty tern.
There are conflicting versions of both the rules of the competition and the reward to the winner. But, it seems the chief of the winning tribe lived alone (with a servant or priest) for a period of time, maybe 5 months, maybe a year, and then continued to remain an important person in island society. But you know what? I have heard and read so many stories with conflicting information that I’m just going to fall back on that familiar saying that “nobody knows.”
There seems to be a consensus among experts that support crews for these competitive young men lived in caves as they awaited word that someone had an egg. We pass the remnants of these as we climb higher. At the end of the path is the payoff. This is where the priests and other big shots lived. Only five people are allowed in this area at a time so we have to wait a minute or two.
Petroglyphs of fertility symbols and their god are carved into the stones overlooking the ocean. The petroglyphs frame a great view of the three motus.
Again, the black and grey of rocky cliff covered in varying shades of green against the blue ocean is pure tourist eye candy.
This is just the beginning of incredible sights we will see on this island and does tons towards raising our expectations.
Vinapu is our next stop. As we cross the field from the parking area, we can see the six massive moai knocked down like someone bowled a strike. Their topknots or pukao, made of red scoria stone, have rolled away from their heads.
But that’s not all to see here. A walk around to the back of the ahu or platform the moai stood on reveals more treats. Back here is the head of a buried moai. Presumably, his body is below ground. What’s different about this guy is that his eye sockets have not been carved. He could have been damaged en route to his ahu or he could have been rejected for another reason…nobody knows. But what the experts are pretty sure of is that he never saw the top of an ahu.
Moai were sculpted in the quarry and possibly “walked” upright to their ahus or platforms. They are made in the image of dead chiefs and important people. The moai look over the dead man’s village and tribe.
Eyes sockets were carved when the moai were in place to “bring them to life.” Coral eyes with red scoria stone irises may have had ceremonial uses. Only one set has ever been found and it’s in the local museum. There is one moai on the island that has replica eyes to show what they looked like. That’s on the west coast, in town not far from the museum.
The ahu itself is another mystery. The theory is that it could be Incan because of the way the ahu is constructed but natives don’t buy it. Their DNA traces back to Polynesia. And Incan walls are made with giant stones with perfect seams. These stones are thinner just giving it the look of an Incan façade.
It’s an uphill hike to Puna Pau, the topknot quarry. Here is where the precisely balanced pukaos were made. A few are finished and waiting to be matched with a moai. This red scoria stone is made red from a high content of ore. The topknots were not hats but more of a hairstyle that was big in the day. Long hair tied in a bun on top of the head.
We are starving. We haven’t had lunch because there really isn’t any place to get anything without going back into town. China goes routing around in the bushes a picks a few guavas but they are not hitting the spot. All they’ve really done is make my hands sticky. Now is when I realize that it would have been smart to pack some baby wipes.
What would really be welcome about now is a Rapa Nui version of Starbucks, but it’s not to be. I am so happy that I went to Trader Joe’s and bought a bag of individually wrapped portions of a handful of cashews. These packets of nuts are lifesavers. We scarf down 2 bags apiece.
On our way to our next wow spot we stop for a nice view of the town of Hanga Roa in the distance just to get our bearings.
A dirt road brings us to Ahu Akivi. This was the first ahu and moai restoration project on the island. And this is our first glimpse at standing moai on an ahu. We’re standing in the middle of a field and the wind is blowing pretty hard and here are these seven giants.
Strangely, we are slightly uninspired. It’s kind of like seeing the pyramids for the first time. Yeah, they’re cool but they look like all of the pictures we’ve seen all our life. It was a bit underwhelming. I’m hoping this is just the jet lag setting in.
Another brilliant thing I packed are flashlights. I brought three and we use every one of them in our next stop at Ana Te Pahu. Ana is the Rapa Nui word for cave. This old lava tube is known as the garden cave.
When we arrive, there are a couple of tour buses in the parking lot, which is unusual. The only other place we saw larger crowds was at Orongo. And when I say large crowds I mean 30-50 people. That’s what’s cool about this place. We have almost every sight to our little group of eight and rarely more than a handful of other people.
We climb down into the cave and the tour bus people are in the first room. Then they go into the second room and turn around. Back to the bus for them.
Our spelunking adventure takes us through all of the rooms. Parts of the cave roof have collapsed bringing in light at various intervals. And in those spots, plant life abounds. There’s even a bunch of banana trees in one section. Pretty cool.
When we emerge, there are grazing cows with long horns that start to head our way. (Or are they bulls if they have horns?) We hustle back to the car with visions of being gorged by these bad boys. They follow us a good part of the way back to the car and then they veer off to go their own direction.
Throughout the day, China fills us in on what it’s like to live here. She tells us that the indigenous people live in paradise. Tourism is the main employer but if someone doesn’t want to work or can’t, they have a safety net being surrounded by lots of family. Life is not hard here.
But as in many remote areas, alcoholism and domestic abuse is bad. Years ago, a cargo boat loaded with supplies came once a year. So once the booze was gone, it was gone. Not anymore. With planes and ships from around the world, they have access to alcohol year round.
Women are often beaten by their men. Bill, an Aussie and co-owner of our hotel with his wife Edith tells us that when he first arrived on the island and started dating, women would tell him that he could beat them. He’s trying to break the cycle with his daughter. He bought her a house so she doesn’t have to worry about having to stay with an abusive man because she had no place to go. Land gives power. She can kick an abuser out.
The lack of food and sleep is catching up with us. We are hungry and tired. I read great reviews on TripAdvisor about a Japanese bistro called Kotaro. Happily, it’s just a few blocks from our hotel, on the paved road near the airport.
I love the atmosphere. It’s only 5:00 (I think) so we are the only people here. Francisco, the owner, studied cooking in Japan. He gives us a giant table that is more outside than in. There’s a roof but no windows. The seats have a great design element of slats backed by a yellow substance, maybe plastic. Upon closer examination it’s just plywood painted black with drips of paint everywhere. It’s so stylish, yet so rustic!
Francisco tells us that since he’s been open, the place is in forever flux. Besides being chief cook and bottle washer, the restaurant is a constant construction project. He spends all of his time here, seven days a week, so he see things he wants to change. This has been going on for five years. He says he is constantly seeing ways to improve the room, the flow, everything.
Settled into our titanic table that easily seats ten, I start with the last Japanese beer in the place. Mike goes local with a Chilean beer called Escudo.
The Shrimp Thai ($12,000 CLP) calls to me. It’s shrimp in a thick yellow curry sauce made with coconut milk that is more Indian than Thai or Chinese. It comes with a salad of onions, carrots, green onions and cabbage.
Both meals come with a small appetizer, rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables.
The appetizer is a delicate raw red snapper ceviche with onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and rice vinegar, I guess. I ask Francisco what’s in it and this charming man says he doesn’t remember any of the ingredients except love. I believe him.
Delicious dinner. Don’t know if it’s the food, Francisco, the atmosphere or because we are starving and exhausted but this ticks all of the boxes. Only Asians come in while we are dining on the early evening we are here. We take this as a good sign.
Francisco tells us that most ingredients come from the mainland. The roosters and chickens on the island are wild and eat cockroaches so they don’t taste good. Nor do the cows that wander on dusty roads looking for water and food. Francisco says they get too much exercise so the meat is tough.
One thing to note is that his exchange rate is much higher than almost every other place we visit. The rule of thumb here is that if something is $10.000 CLP, it’s $20 US dollars. Our bill for Kotaro is $30.000 CLP but it’s $67 US. We save about $7 and pay with pesos.
People on this island seem to let all animals run free. Probably on the scent of our delicious dinner, a pack of stray dogs escorts us most of the way back to the hotel. We don’t really interact with them and they are not threatening to us. Just along for a stroll hoping we’ll drop some food, I suppose.
After 25 hours of traveling, not one but two tours climbing to the tops of volcanoes and shimmying, bent at the waist through caves, we are done. Mike conks out as soon as his head hits the pillow.
I follow him about 40 minutes later as the sky is getting darker and darker with no real light pollution. With such a short time here, I desperately want to see the sun set over the moai by the beach but I’m done.
As I drift off, the screened windows are wide open. We’re told there is little incidence of crime here because everyone knows each other and many are related, so we feel safe. Its 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the wind is blowing in gusts of 25 mph keeping us comfortable without air conditioning.
The hundreds of stray dogs are having a lot of conversations and no one tells them to go to sleep so they bark all night. Well, Mike says they stopped barking when I stopped snoring but I don’t want to believe that there is any correlation. I think it’s the roosters. Once the cock-a-doodle-dooing starts, the dogs fall silent.
Oh, and not counting the ground-bound chickens, we are surprised that we saw only three birds today. Just like us, I think it’s a long way for them to fly.
Coming Up: More OMG sites and getting rubbed by furry beasts in the dark.