Midway between Chile and Tahiti lies Easter Island- an incomprehensibly remote speck of green in the endless Pacific. The Polynesian settlers discovered a paradise of temperate climate, abundant food, and utter isolation. They called the island Rapa Nui– the Navel of the World- and for centuries they prospered and carved the megalithic moai statues to line the coasts with the images of their ancestors. But as the population grew, so did the extravagance of their monuments. The island’s forests were cut down to provide rollers for construction, and the local birds and fish were hunted to extinction to support the peak population of 15,000. Deforestation led to erosion and agricultural collapse. Civil war erupted over remaining resources; the old religion was abandoned and the moai cast down. Without large trees, vessels could no longer be built for fishing, much less escape. Trapped on a paradise-turned-Malthusian-hell, the islanders resorted to cannibalism. When Europeans made first contact on Easter Sunday, 1722, only 2000 inhabitants remained.
Three centuries later…
“Algo para tomar con su postre? Vino, whiskey?” asked the flight attendant.
Free scotch in economy? Why do I have to leave civilization to find civilized air travel?
I accepted the glass and felt even more satisfied at having saved $300 by booking through LATAM Airline’s Spanish site instead of English. I looked around the cabin at my fellow passengers- predominantly honeymooners, retirees, and islanders returning from mainland Chile.
The immense plane touched down at dusk, and I descended the stairs to the tarmac. After arid Santiago, the verdant humidity of the Polynesian air was striking. Until that moment I’d hardly believed I was going to Easter Island. I doubted anyone in my family had preceded me here, so I planted a mental flag when my foot touched ground.
The baggage carousel was packed with ice chests- the daily passenger flight from Santiago is also the island’s source of fresh food. I stepped outside the airport to meet my Airbnb host, who greeted me warmly and placed a lei of orchids around my neck. I shared the five minute ride to the bed and breakfast with another guest- a German electrical engineer named Roland who had already visited some 90 countries. We made plans to rent bicycles and explore the island the next morning.
The Western Shore
The island is a rough triangle only twelve miles per side, with extinct volcanoes at each tip. Most of the land is national park, with only the small settlement of Hanga Roa near the airstrip in the south. Roland and I rented mountain bikes and rode north on a dirt path along the coastal cliffs. Within minutes we reached the first moai.
We dismounted and approached as close as we dared.((Everyone knows the story of the German tourist who accidentally snapped off a moai’s ear and got fined $100,000.)) Eerie remnant of a bygone civilization! Possibly erected by ancient aliens!((The secret of the statues’ construction and transportation was demonstrated by a Czech engineer with a penchant for amateur archaeology. He joined up with renowned Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl of Kon Tiki fame to test it out back in the 80s.)) The moai are the iconic reason why people make the pilgrimage to Easter Island. I could feel one of the boxes on my bucket list filling in, but I knew this first statue was nothing particularly special as moai go. I didn’t want to spend too long gazing in contemplative awe when there were more awesome monuments yet to gaze at.
On our way to some particularly scenic cliffs, I noticed an intriguing hole in the ground.
I’d read that this part of the island was honeycombed with caves formed from lava tubes and crawled through the dark on hands and knees until the tunnel widened and light appeared. The cave opened directly onto the cliffs.
We spent about ninety minutes exploring the nearby caves.
These caves were used as refuges during times of inter-clan war, and later when slavers came.
In places the ceiling had collapsed and plants grew in the circle of sunlight.
Mo’ Moai, Mo’ Problems
After some more quality spelunking, Roland and I biked farther inland to Ahu Akivi, a site unique on Easter Island insofar as the row of moai face seaward rather than inland. The site is also unique for its astronomical significance; the statues are precisely aligned to face the setting sun on the spring equinox.
It looked like rain was coming, but the park rangers said it hadn’t rained in weeks. We entrusted our bikes to the stone giants’ protection and proceeded on foot to toward Terevaka, the tallest of the island’s three volcanoes.
We heard a screech from the trees above the dirt path, and a bird dived toward us. We leapt out of its way, but the creature circled around for another pass and dived again- so close that it brushed us with its wing tips.
We hurried through its territory until the bird retreated above the thickening fog. The bird stalked us through the mist for an hour as we climbed the volcano.((Apparently it was mating season, but also these birds are real dicks about their territory.))
Two farmers on motorcycles nearly ran us down in the low visibility, but stopped to warn us that a heavy rain was coming. By then visibility was about thirty feet, but Roland and I were committed to reaching the summit on principle, regardless of the lack of grand panoramic vistas.
I led the way back down Terevaka as the rain soaked us head to toe and got us so lost it took us twice as long to find our way back to Ahu Akiva. The mist prevented us from using landmarks, so the best we could do was walk downhill and follow the sound of the ocean. We wandered through pastures strewn with volcanic rocks- it looked like the surface of Mars had been overrun with plants.
After biking back to Hanga Roa for some well-deserved hot showers, we biked to the nearest row of moai beside the village graveyard. We were treated to an impressive sunset- the only sunset I’d see in ten days, as it would turn out.
The next day I met up with Colin- a Canadian globetrotter whom I’d met earlier that week in Valparaiso- and the three of us left around 5am in a rental car to catch the iconic sunrise behind Ahu Tongariki (the longest line of standing moai).
Unfortunately for me, an eight-day span of unseasonable rain had begun that night.
Nearly all the popular travel photos of Easter Island are set in sunlight, but seeing fifteen eerie moai silhouettes emerge from the gloom was also neat.
From there we drove a few minutes north to Anakena Beach where the Polynesian settlers had made landfall. The moai present are some of the few with their red stone hats restored to their heads. How the islanders raised and balanced these multi-ton blocks atop the already impressive moai is a testament to what feats humans can accomplish- and the lengths we went to to kill time before Netflix.
Over the rest of the day we toured a dozen other archaeological sites to “check out more wet rocks” as I put it. The waves shone unnaturally bright blue as they crashed against the volcanic coast.
The club scene in Hanga Roa was pretty limited, so my companions and I settled down on the porch of our B&B to swap stories and listen to the rain over Stolichnaya and orange Fanta.
The next day we did much the same as rain inundated the island.
Rano Kau Crater
But the day after that we endeavored to hike the volcanic crater Rano Kau. Both my companions had military experience, and I was twenty years their junior, so we felt mutually ashamed to let the rain keep us in.
Since we were climbing a hill in South America, it goes without saying that three stray dogs materialized to accompany us. This was business as usual, until they encountered a herd of feral cattle to attack. My inner caveman yearned to join the wolf-brothers in the hunt, but the rest of me waited until the dogs and cattle were distracted by some other hikers so we could slip past.
After a soggy trek we reached the summit, whereupon we beheld the volcanic crater in none of its glory. Clouds and fog obscured everything beyond fifty feet, and when we tried to peer over the lip into the crater updrafted mist buffeted our faces. I sought for a silver lining; at least we’d had some decent exercise. We agreed it beat sitting in an office.
As we turned to make the muddy slog back down, the clouds literally parted.
We laughed aloud in astonished joy. The natural spectacle- rainbow, crater lake, the Pacific ocean, everything- was such a contrast to the underwhelming gray fog from a minute before that it felt like the universe was deliberately messing with us. In that moment my brain rejected the idea that such beauty and grandeur could exist, *and* that I’d happen to be present on Easter Island of all places for the ten minute window during which it could be seen.
I scrambled to snap some photos while mentally screenshotting the scene. I’d come to one of the most remote places on earth and witnessed rare and powerful beauty- such are the moments that stand out not just in a trip, but in a life.
Just as quickly as they’d left, the clouds returned. We hiked back to town through hours of rain and mud, still giddy from the experience.
The next day we all agreed that Rano Kau had kicked ass, so we hiked there again to explore the eastern rim.
We also found a red Toyota pickup truck, clearly deposited by a flying saucer or a guerrilla marketing campaign:
We reached the southeast corner of the rim, from which an exceedingly narrow, slick, crumbling path leads to the ceremonial village of Orongo, from which the rites of the Birdman were organized.((Much more about the Birdman to come in Pt. 2)) Roland ventured a few steps down the path, but one doesn’t visit 90+ countries without some sense of self-preservation. We walked back assuring ourselves that we’d have hiked it if it hadn’t been slick from the rain.
The walk back was uneventful, save for the asshole birds’ brief cameo.
Colin, Roland, and I- along with a globetrotting British retiree named David- enjoyed another couple days of hiking and exploration before parting ways.
For six months I’d traveled with an ever-changing coterie of wonderful and interesting companions. Soldiers, teachers, businessmen, students, Instagram stars, philanthropists, a dreadlocked troubador- and so many more- but I had always planned to finish my journey in my own company.
I wished my friends bon voyage and moved to a private Airbnb house to plan the last days of my journey.