Easter Island, a small volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is world famous for its giant statues called moai. The moai were built during the 13th- 16th centuries by the island’s inhabitants (the Rapa Nui people) in honour of their ancestors. The moai stood on stone platforms called ahus. All of the moai on the platforms were toppled by the Rapa Nui in the 1830s due to tribal wars and a loss of faith in their ancestors.
During the late 1900s, moai at several sites were restored to their original platforms by locals and archaeologists. Today, Easter Island is a territory of Chile and has two official languages: Rapa Nui and Spanish. Most people in the tourist industry can speak some English.
The island is called Easter Island in English because the Europeans landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722. In Spanish, it is called Isla de Pascua. However, the locals prefer to call it Rapa Nui. The island’s population is 7000 and is a mix of native Rapa Nui people, Chileans, and foreigners.
How to Get to Easter Island
Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth. You can only fly to Easter Island from Santiago, Chile or Papeete, Tahiti. I flew to and from Easter Island on LATAM airlines from Santiago, which took about 5 hours. You can get a lower price by booking in Spanish on the LAN Chile website instead of in English. Unlike in other South American countries such as Ecuador, where you would have to pay the difference at the airport if you accidentally purchased a fare for Ecuadorian citizens, there are no residence-based airfares in Chile.
Check the prices for both Economy and Business Class as sometimes Business Class tickets are actually cheaper or the same price for Easter Island. By booking in Spanish on the LAN Chile website, I flew Business class for a lower price than Economy and enjoyed a reclining flatbed seat.
There are many fascinating archaeological sites on Easter Island. Here are 12 must-see places on the island:
Ahu Tahai is the closest moai site to Hanga Roa. As it is just a short walk from town, it is a popular place to watch the sunset for both tourists and locals.
At Tahai you will find three ahu (ceremonial platforms). The first one has five moai and is called Ahu Vai Uri.
The next one, Ahu Tahai, has a single moai. It is very old and eroded as its platform was built around 700 AD.
The other single statue wearing a pukao (hat) is the Ahu Ko Te Riku. It is the only moai on the island that has eyes. The eyes are made from white coral and the pupils from obsidian. It is believed that eye sockets were carved onto a moai once it was on its platform. Next, during a special ceremony, his eyes were inserted. Then the statue was considered to come alive and it could use its mana (spiritual power) to protect its tribe.
Ahu Akivi is known for being the only platform with moai facing the sea. All other moai have their backs to the ocean and face the villages where their ancestors came from.
Ahu Akivi has a significant location as it is near Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island. Most other ceremonial platforms are on the coast. The statues on this platform are the same shape and height, creating a sense of balance. Ahu Akivi is aligned so that the moai look at the point where the sun sets during the austral spring (September 21st) and their backs face the sun at dawn during the fall equinox (March 21st). The best time to visit Ahu Akivi is at sunset because the sun illuminates the statues, highlighting their features.
The seven moai represent the seven people who were sent to explore the island before King Hotu Matu’a arrived to colonize it. After having a dream about the island, the King sent them to locate it, study it, and select the best area to disembark.
Ahu Akivi was the first ceremonial platform to be restored, and set in motion the restoration of more platforms. As the platforms were restored to their former glory, the island began receiving international attention which attracted researchers and tourists to visit.
Te Pito Kura
According to legend, this special stone was brought to the island by Hotu Matu’a, the first king of Rapa Nui, from his native land of Hiva. The rock supposedly contains a spiritual, magnetic energy called mana. Due to its high iron content, this stone warms up more than surrounding stones and causes compasses to behave strangely. Some people believe that touching the stone increases fertility. Visitors used to be able to touch it, but this is now forbidden after some tourists misbehaved.
Once considered a sacred and secret place, Puna Pau crater contains a quarry of red scoria. This soft, easy to carve rock was used to make topknots (or hats) that crowned the heads of some moai as well as their eyes. Around the site you will see large red cylinders lying around.
A short walk from Ahu Tahai or the museum is Hanga Kio’e, where you can see a single moai called Ahu Akapu. You can also see an eroded piece of a moai on Ahu Hanga Kio’e.
Sebastian Englert Museum
The Sebastian Englert Museum is a short walk or drive from Hanga Roa town. There are many carving tools on display, mostly made of basalt and obsidian. These tools were used to carve all the moai on Easter Island. You can also see the moai eye which was discovered on Anakena Beach during the restoration of Ahu Nau Nau.
An interesting artifact on display is a female moai, one of only twelve that have been found on Easter Island. The torso was discovered in 1956 and it was on display in the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo until the head was discovered in 1988. After that, the torso was returned to Easter Island so the female moai could be complete. Check out the Rongo Rongo replica tablets that show the Rapa Nui writing system. There are only 27 tablets in existence, and none of the originals are on Easter Island. The Rongo Rongo language still has not been deciphered.
On the south coast of the island is Akahanga, where you will find the remains of an old village by the sea. You can see the foundations of several boat-houses, which have an elliptical shape.
Nearby stands Ahu Akahanga, a large unrestored platform 18 metres in length. On the ground there are 13 moai that once stood proudly on top of the platform. They were toppled both face-up and face-down, unlike other destroyed platforms where the statues were knocked over face down to hide their faces.
With 15 moai in front of the ocean and cliffs, Ahu Tongariki is the most impressive ahu platform. It is an amazing place to watch the sunrise.
At some point during the last couple of hundred years, these 15 moai were knocked down. This historical site was damaged even further by a huge tsunami that struck Easter Island in 1960. A giant wave more than 10 metres high hit the coast. The force of the wave pushed some of the statues more than 100 metres inland. Sadly, the tsunami swept away some important artifacts from the Tongariki archaeological site and they are now lost forever.
In 1988, after an employee from Tadano crane company saw the Governor of Easter Island talking about his dream to see the moai statues back on their platform and wishing for a crane on a television program. Tadano donated a crane that was capable of lifting the heavy statues (the heaviest weighs 88 tons)! Between 1992- 1996 the site of Ahu Tongariki was carefully restored.
The moai at Ahu Tongariki come in a variety of shapes. Some are tall, some are short, some are thin, some are are wide, and they all have different expressions. Formerly, all 15 moai had a pukao hat on their head, but now only one has a pukao. The rest of the pukao were too eroded.
Near the entrance you will see a single moai that is known as “the traveling moai” as in 1982 it was sent to Japan to appear in an exhibition in Osaka.
Anakena Beach is one of only two sandy beaches on Easter Island. It is where the first king, Hotu Matu’a, landed with a two-canoe settlement party more than 1300 years ago. Surrounded by tall coconut palms imported from Tahiti, Anakena is the perfect place to spend some time relaxing on the beach. There are food kiosks and washroom facilities.
At Anakena, there are two important moai sites: Ahu Nau Nau and Ahu Ature. Ahu Nau Nau is the best-preserved platform on the island because the toppled statues were buried under sand for many years, protecting them from damage. As a results, the ears, fingers, nipples and noses of those moai are far more defined than most moai. There are also distinctive patterns carved onto the backs of the moai. Three of these moai have topknots.
Ahu Ature Hiki is a lone moai that was the first statue to be raised on the island in modern times. In 1956, a Norwegian explorer called Thor Heyerdahl wanted to test the theory that moai were raised using long poles as levers and stones for support. With a team of a dozen islanders, the statue was raised in 18 days. This showed that a well-trained team could have raised statues in less time.
Rano Raraku volcano is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, on par with Machu Picchu, Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids. This is the quarry where the moai were carved and sculpted and where the world-famous “stone heads” are located.
The rock in the quarry is a unique type called Lapilli tuff. This porous rock formed by volcanic ash was ideal material for moai carving. First, the general shape of the moai and its face were carved. Then it was detached and lowered into a pit so that the carvings on its back could be finished. After carving was completed, the moai were transported to the ahu (ceremonial platforms).
At Rano Raraku, you will see many moai that are buried up to their shoulders or noses. Underneath the ground, these moai have bodies that were slowly buried by soil over the years due to erosion. This is why some people mistakenly think that the moai are only giant heads.
Te Tokanga is a 22 metre, 200 ton moai. It is the largest moai ever carved on Easter Island. For some reason, probably because it was too heavy, it was never removed from the quarry.
At the highest point of the quarry you will see a breathtaking view of Ahu Tongariki and the ocean.
At Rano Raraku you can see a very special moai called Tukuturi. He is unique because his features are more realistic than any other moai. He has a round face and a beard and is kneeling with his hands on his legs. Tukuturi was sculpted from rock from Puna Pau quarry, which is completely different from the material used to sculpt the other moai.
Near the entrance to Rano Raraku, you can take a short walk to see the crater of the volcano. On a slope near the volcano, you can see more moai that are facing the lagoon. Until a few years ago, tourists used to be able to walk on a path near those moai but the path has since been closed to protect the fragile moai.
From Orongo Village, which is perched above steep cliffs, you can see spectacular views of the three islets in the ocean nearby. Orongo Village is a ceremonial village of 50 stone houses that was only inhabited seasonally every September during the days before the Bird Man Ceremony (or Tangata Manu Competition).
During this competition, representatives from different clans would compete to collect the first egg of the manutara bird, which was considered sacred. They had to climb down the steep, 1000-ft cliff and swim out to the islets on reed floats. They would camp and wait until the first egg of the season was laid, and the first man to collect one would be the winner. The winner would become governor of the island for the year. The competition was held until the end of the 19th century.
Located next to Orongo Village, this impressive lagoon was formed after rainwater accumulated in the volcano’s caldera. The lake is covered in many floating totora reeds.