Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Easter Island
The isolated island was named “Easter Island” by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who first saw the island on Easter Sunday in the year 1722. Today, Easter Island is best known for the hundreds of gigantic stone statues that are lined up all around the coast. These surviving statues – called moai – are some of the only remains of the island’s native inhabitants. Most were thought to have died off more than 150 years ago due to the slave trade and disease brought to the island by European colonizers.
Today, the moai are by far the most popular reason for travelers to visit Easter Island. Much like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids at Giza, archaeologists are not entirely sure how the moai were transported to their final locations, which makes these big-headed statues all the more interesting.
But driving/hiking around to see the moai aren’t the only things to do here. Visitors can also expect to find many archaeological sites scattered all around the island (many near the burial grounds that the moai are associated with), as well as volcanic craters, caves, white-sand beaches suitable for surfing, snorkeling and even scuba diving.
With its stretch of white sand fringed with Tahitian coconut palms, a backdrop of grassy hills and ocean waters that rarely dip below 64 degrees F (18 degrees C) even in the winter months, few places come as close to paradise as Anakena Beach. One of only three beaches on Easter Island, Anakena also plays an important part in the history of the island. It was here that King Ariki Hotu Matu’a first landed on Easter Island and later, the beach became a spiritual center for the Miru tribe–the remnants of which can be seen in the seven beautifully restored moai of Ahu Nau Nau and the single moai of Ahu Ature Huki that overlook the beach.
Aside from its striking setting and dramatically situated moai, the main draw to Anakena Beach is, of course, the ocean and the warm, clear waters make the ideal spot for swimming, surfing and snorkeling.
With 15 gigantic stone-carved moai lined up on a 200-foot-long platform and a remote location framed by the looming Rano Raraku volcano and the crashing ocean, Ahu Tongariki is nothing short of spectacular. For many visitors, this is the star attraction of Easter Island, and looking up at the towering figures, the largest of which stands 14 meters tall, it’s hard not to be in awe of the Rapa Nui people, who achieved the seemingly impossible feat of carving and moving the 30-ton stone boulders to their waterfront perch.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial site ever made on the island, featuring the largest number of moai ever erected on a single site, and each statue is unique, with only one featuring the iconic red-rock “pukao,” or ceremonial headdress. Even more astounding, considering the size and weight of the statues, is that the site was almost completely destroyed by a tsunami in 1960, with the rocks flung more than 90 meters inland. The ahu has since been painstakingly restored, a project that took Chilean archaeologists Claudio Cristino and Patricia Vargas five years and was finally completed in 1995.
One of Easter Island’s most unforgettable landmarks, the ancient volcano of Rano Raraku is home to the island’s largest and most important archaeological site. Known as the quarry, this was where the island’s iconic moai were carved, using the naturally formed tuff (a soft rock made from solidified volcanic ash), and then distributed around the island.
About 95 percent of all the island’s moai were carved at Rano Raraku, and although the site was abandoned in the late 18th century, it remains littered with a remarkable 396 incomplete moai. Wander through the quarry and you’ll find half-carved statues, sculpted boulders perched high up on the quarry walls and moai half buried in volcanic tuff, leaving just the heads poking out of the ground. Most unique are Moai Tukuturi, a small, round-headed statue on its knees, and El Gigante, the largest known moai, which reaches an incredible 71 feet (21 meters) in height, weighs an estimated 270 tons and remains attached to the rock face.
Perched on the edge of the gigantic Rano Kau crater, the long-abandoned village of Orongo Ceremonial Village is suspended between two wildly contrasting landscapes. To one side lies the murky crater lake and barren lava fields of an ancient volcano; to the other, the bright blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, dotted with the tiny isles of Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kau Kau.
Believed to have been used from the late 1600s until the mid 1800s,Orongo Ceremonial Villagewas a ceremonial village of the Rapa Nui people, used solely during the annual Tangata Manu, or Birdman Ceremony. Renowned as one of the islanders’ most important events, the ceremony was held in honor of the god Make-Make and included a competition in which villagers paddled out to the neighboring isle of Motu Nui to steal a prized manutara egg and swim back to shore.
Today, visitors can still view a series of petroglyphs honoring the cult of the birdman around the village and also explore the well-preserved ruins of Orongo, home to about 48 low-lying oval stone houses.
Restored by archaeologists William Mulley and Gonzalo Figueroa in 1960, the seven grand moai that make up Ahu Akivi are among the most visited attractions of Easter Island. Dating back to the 15th century, the moai are thought to have been built in three stages and are unique in their placement—not only is Ahu Akivi one of few moai sites located inland, but the moai are the only ones on the island that face toward the ocean.
Legend has it that the seven identical moai of Ahu Akivi were built in honor of the seven explorers sent to discover the island by founder Hotu Matu'a; thus the statues look out to sea toward their home land. Another theory on their placement is that the site was used as a celestial observatory—the moai face the sunset during the Spring Equinox and look away from the sunrise of the Autumn Equinox.
A trio of ahu (ceremonial platforms) lining the seafront with their backs to the ocean, the Tahai Ceremonial Complex is one of the most visited historic sites of Easter Island and an important part of the UNESCO-listed Rapa Nui National Park. Like many of the island’s moai, the Tahai statues toppled over in the 18th century, but the site was among the first to be restored, a task undertaken in 1974 by American archaeologist William Mulloy, who is now buried on the site.
The moai at Tahai are known for their unique designs—the Ahu Tahai, with its solitary weather-beaten moai stands at the center, flanked by Ahu Ko Te Riku, a single moai featuring painted eyes and a pukao headdress, and Ahu Vai Uri, with five moai of various sizes. The most spectacular time to visit the site is at dusk, when the coastal moai are dramatically silhouetted against the blazing sunset.
Archaeologists have long pondered the origins of Easter Island’s iconic moai, and the ancient stone quarry of Puna Pau provides an important piece of the puzzle. Carved into the sides of a volcanic crater, Puna Pau is the spot from which the red volcanic rock, or scoria, was mined and used to sculpt the “pukao"—the distinctive topknot that caps the heads of some moai.
Dozens of pukao have been found around the island, all of which were made at Puna Pau, from where they were transported to the most important ahu (ceremonial sites)—no easy feat, as they measure between two and three meters in height and width and weigh up to 11 tons, and archaeologists are still unsure how this task was achieved. Today, around 30 of the pukao rocks can still be seen in and around Puna Pau, many of them adorned with petroglyphs.
An eerie cavern burrowing into the sea cliffs, Ana Kai Tangata is almost entirely hidden from view, camouflaged by the rocky coastline and lapping waves. Step inside the cave and you’ll soon realize why the spot is so renowned—the looming arches of black-rock are etched with an elaborate series of bird drawings, painted with a blend of natural earth and animal fats.
Thought to have been used by the island’s earliest settlers, the cave’s history remains a subject of speculation among archaeologists, but the name, which translates to the ambiguous "man eat cave," and the paintings, lend themselves to a number of theories. Most notable is the subject matter of the paintings—the manutaras, or black terns, depicted were also the focal point of Orongo’s annual Birdman ceremony, which took place during the autumn equinox and pitted Rapa Nui hopus (chiefs) against each other in a competition to retrieve a sacred manutara egg.
A short walk along the waterfront from Hanga Roa and overlooked by a lone moai, the sleepy harbor village of Hanga Piko is the main cargo port for Easter Island and the center of its small fishing industry. Most visitors come to Hanga Piko to enjoy a boat tour around the island, taking in coastal sights like the Tahai moai and the ceremonial village of Orongo before sailing around the offshore isles of Motu Iti, Motu Nui and Motu Kao Kao.
Back on dry land, Hanga Piko’s sole attraction is the weather-worn moai of Ahu Riata, but visit in the morning and you can watch the fishermen returning with their day’s catch, then pick up some fresh fish and seafood from the stalls along the quay.
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