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.
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.
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.
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.
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