The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Rapa Nui Blog, Part 6: Easter Island (Part 2)

There are two more major sights: Rano Raraku—the volcano quarry where the moai were “born”—and Rano Kau and Orongo, the center of the Birdman Cult. Both were very cool.


Rano Raraku is the volcano in the middle of the island where all of the moai were carved. There are hundreds of moai still in the quarry in all states of completion: some that are finished and were waiting on the hillside to be moved to their ahu, others are only just begun and still attached to the rock. These are perhaps the most familiar “heads” (a misnomer—it’s just that their torsos have generally been covered over time). Everywhere you look you see faces and other body parts emerging from the rock. It’s almost like a “Where’s Waldo” game: you can look at the same rock 5 times and then see something you never noticed before. Actually the whole island is like that…but nowhere more than Rano Raraku:

There were some wild horses around (as you may have noticed). This one was just standing there and literally scratching his ass on a poor moai’s chin until someone finally shooed him away—so funny yet so sad:

This is officially the tallest standing moai on Easter Island:

I told you that it makes me hurt on the inside when they fall face first:

Here you can clearly see two moai still in the rock:

If this one had been completed, it would have been the biggest ever:

How many partially carved moai can you find in this picture? (Hint: there are at least 6! Click to enlarge if you wish):

As you hike up the side of the volcano, you get quite a view:

At the top you can see inside the crater where a lake has formed—and even more moai:

I honestly don’t know what this guy was up to, but he suddenly appeared:

So it is pretty cool to see moai in various states of completion in what they call “the nursery”. All of the finished ones standing around were waiting to be transported to their ahu, and one of the great unanswered questions about Easter Island is how the ancient Rapanui moved the statues. Most likely they rolled them on logs, but other theories include sledges and even aliens. But if you ask the natives how the moai got to their platforms, they look at you like you’ve asked a silly question and give you their simple answer: “They walked.”


Back to our story of Easter Island…after the rise and collapse of Rapa Nui and its colossal statues, a new religion developed among the remaining people (probably around the 16th or 17th Centuries): the Birdman cult. Every Spring a migratory bird called the Sooty Tern nests on a tiny islet off of Easter Island called Motu Nui. A representative from each tribe on the island then competed in the Birdman Competition: they had to climb down a steep cliff to the ocean, swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, retrieve an egg from a Sooty Tern’s nest, and return with it unharmed. The leader of the winner’s tribe became Birdman for the next year, a high ceremonial post. The ceremonial village of Orongo developed as the base for this competition, at the top of the volcano known as Rano Kau. You can drive to the top, and this volcano’s lake-filled crater was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw. So big, so delicate, so colorful—no wonder they thought it was a holy place:

Here’s the entrance to Orongo. I like the turnstile, which they had at a lot of places (as if crowd control were an issue here):

Here are some of the ceremonial houses at Orongo, perched on the edge of the volcano with the crater on one side and the sea (and Motu Nui) on the other:

They must have been a very small people:

The real highlight here is the petroglyphs carved into the rocks at the jumping off point for the Birdman Competition. You can see the prominent use of the “birdman” motif, and Motu Nui in the distance:


Here’s one more restored ahu: Akivi. This is the only one that is inland and faces the sea (you may have noticed that all of the others were on the coast with their backs to the ocean):

So those are some of the major highlights of the island. The entire place is really almost like an archaeological dig: sometimes you just stumble upon ruins, and find yourself looking for faces in every stone. The weather was beautiful and you were never far from the pounding surf. There is some diving and the such to do, but I didn’t. I just wandered among the living remains of this amazing island.

There is one town on the island, Hanga Roa. This is where my hotel was (and just about everything else). It’s a very cute little town of very friendly people, about half Chileans from the mainland and half native Rapanui—rather reminiscent of a small town in Hawai`i. Here’s a few shots….the main street, Atamu Tekena:

This empanada stand was run by a woman who sang along to Spanish radio and managed to serve you with one of her small kids in each of her arms. I went there for a dinnertime empanada just about every night:

In case you can’t tell by the hustle-and-bustle, “Down-town” Hanga Roa is clearly labeled:

Here’s the biggest supermarket, where I stocked up on provisions:

The firehouse:

The local disco:

The local laundromat/car rental agency (so convenient! and such an obvious pairing!):

Like so many other Chilean cities, Hanga Roa had a large population of random dogs:

This entire class of uniformed schoolchildren hitched a ride (really, I saw it happen) in this pickup truck. And on my school trips we always took pre-planned busses, like suckers:

I didn’t actually go in this place, but I was both intrigued by a “Tuck Shop” and frightened by “Pastry Bakemeat”:

Finally, here’s the cemetery—right on the ocean, with stunning flowers and crafted stones. Perhaps the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen. Which must be why people are dying to get in (HAHAHAHA!!!! Oh, that old saw.):

So, whatever happened to the Rapanui? Well, the island was “discovered” by Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722 (hence the name). By then the population had not quite recovered from their own civil strife. Over the next 150 years, various Western influences including the Spanish, Americans, Peruvians, and whalers kidnapped natives from the island and sold them into slavery. They also brought diseases such as smallpox against which they had no natural immunity. At one point there were only about 100 Rapanui left (out of a peak population of 10,000). Chile laid claim to the island, and no one complained because no one really cared anymore about this barren, unpopulated speck. There are now about 4.000 inhabitants, about 3,000 of them of Rapanui.

What is the draw of Easter Island? It really is unlike any other place on Earth. Its sheer isolation is part of its charm. So is its haunting beauty. So is the fact that so many questions remain unanswered. Here you can see the birth, apex, and fall of a civilization all at once: the half-carved beginnings of moai at Rano Raraku, those that are standing tall at the reconstructed sites, and those that lie in ruins over the remains of generations of islanders. Certainly there are also environmental parallels that would make Al Gore proud: no one realized in their own short lifespan the effect that they were having on their own world, nor could they see the benefits of trying to ameliorate it. But as generations passed, their land could no longer support them and this led to their eventual destruction.

But the bottom line is that it is both haunting and beautiful, exciting and relaxing, Inspiring and reassuring, tiny and huge. It is a land of contradiction and simplicity. It’s just really cool, and I would go back in a minute. And someday I will. And the same goes for Chile—though there is nothing “Chilean” about Easter Island other than its ownership, Chile as a whole was a friendly and amazingly diverse country which I would gladly visit again—and will. I hope you will too.

Just watch out for the surly breakfast lady at the O’tai.

Postscript 1: What’s shaking?

Yes, there was a tremendous earthquake in the north of Chile while I was there…but I was far away in Easter Island and didn’t feel it a bit (or even know about it until I got a text message from Karen, the only person who apparently cared!) It was in an area I hadn’t even visited (but will on my next trip because it is another stunning area, the Atacama Desert to the north). So I was unaffected, but my heart certainly goes out to my adoptive fellow Chilenos!

Postscript 2: A few parting shots:

Here’s a bank slip. I took out $200,000!!!! Well, that’s in Chilean pesos (about 500 to the dollar)…but it was still exciting to be a multi-millionaire for a few weeks!

At Mataveri airport on Easter Island on my way home: the moai is cool, but is the apparent gravestone really necessary when you’re about to board a flight?!:

The blankets on LAN (the Chilean airline) actually had security tags! Not that I would ever steal one (right, Missy?). But it does give a new meaning to the term “security blanket”! HAHAHAHA!):

Apparently “Danky” is an alcoholic ice cream treat, but it sounds more like a pejorative adjective to me (“Did you see those danky socks she had on?!”):

“Bilz” and “Pap” are two local popular sodas. My tour book said that they “defied description” so you just had to taste them for yourself. So I did:

Bilz is easy to describe. Imagine cherry Triaminic (or other cough syrup) watered down and carbonated. Yum!.

Pap is a little harder (And “Mini Pap”, as I purchased, sounds more like a gynecological test for midgets). It reminded me of the time I was in Norway and had a cold. I bought a roll of vitamin C tablets and popped one in my mouth. Not having been able to read the package, I realized only then that they were “effervescent tablets” that you were supposed to dissolve in water first. It foamed up in my mouth and I almost choked to death. That’s kinda what Pap tastes like!

During my final day in Santiago, I climbed the lovely park/hill/castle of Santa Lucia for a view of Santiago:

You can just barely make out the Andes in that shot. Here’s what Santiago apparently looks like on a rare, clear day:

I thought that they made an interesting choice of tissue box in the Delta lounge at the airport in Santiago:

On the flight home I was awake when we passed over the Equator! Here we are at 0:04 degrees north of it:

And here’s what the Equator looks like from the window:

Thanks for tuning in…I hope you had as good a time as I did!


  • Doug,
    Once again your writing and photo's are great.
    I know what it takes takes to get one good looking woman. You have what it takes to get two!
    "The Trader"

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:11 AM  

  • wow, thanks so much for this detailed resume' of your time in easter island! you have partially satisfied my curiosity for this place, i am absolutely intrigued by its mysteries, and I'm dying to visit. thank you again. :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:36 AM  

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