HEADLINE
Easter Island rocks
STANDFIRST
Tourism on the tiny island has been steadily climbing in the last two decades and another
new hotel complex is due to open soon. Scott Snowden took the chance to visit before it
really takes off
MAIN BODY
About half the size of the Isle of Wight and over 3,500km from land – more than the distance
from Abu Dhabi to Athens – Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to give it its proper name, is an almost
certain entry on most people’s Places I’d Love To See list. Made famous by the enormous
stone statues, called moai that were carved from volcanic rock over 1,300 years ago, it has
the same mystical magnetism that radiates from Stonehenge. These giant, granite guardians
stand over the island, seemingly safeguarding its inhabitants.
The small, almost equilaterally-shaped island is rich with history. More than 1,000 years ago,
Polynesian explorers crossed vast distances across the South Pacific and found their way to
this tiny, remote place. Eventually, the island was “discovered” by the Dutch on Easter
Sunday in 1722 and after centuries of slavery and exploitation, it’s now a part of Chile and the
native culture is finally returning.
The population itself numbers under 4,500 and is roughly divided into two: native Rapa Nui
and those who have left behind the big city lifestyle of places like Santiago and chosen a
back-to-basics existence on this peaceful volcanic plateau. The only pocket of civilisation is a
little town – the only town – called Hanga Roa. Here the locals go about their daily business
at a very gentle pace, catching up on a little grocery shopping or perhaps making their weekly
connection to the rest of the world in one of the few establishments with an internet outlet.
In fact, most of the day-to-day activity you’ll see is geared in some way around the tourist
industry, with many visitors either sauntering around the town, or gathering at the quaint
harbour, waiting to soak up the breathtaking coastline from the sea, or even from underwater.
Only during February does Rapa Nui feel a little full. This is the time of the Tapati Rapa Nui, a
two-week long festival that includes a spectacular series of traditional music, dance, cultural
and sports events around the island and is the most popular attraction in the annual tourist
calendar. However, all that pales in comparison to an imminent event not long away.
On July 11, Rapa Nui will be suddenly cloaked in darkness as the narrow path of a solar
eclipse passes overhead. This hasn’t happened on the island since 591 AD - before the first
moai statues appeared. A week-long “total solar eclipse festival of tribal and cosmic arts”
called the Honu Festival is planned, plus a number of events and celebrations, not just limited
to Hanga Roa, but all over the island.
It will be spectacular, there’s no doubt about that, even hypnotic, as the celestial ballet we are
such a small part of continues in the skies above our humble planet. However, the potential
onslaught of cosmic crusaders will be somewhat restricted by the flight from Santiago to Rapa
Nui: the little LAN Airbus A318-100 that lands at Isla de Pasqua airport only holds 120
passengers and only flies between four and seven times a week, depending on the season.
Thus many thousands will be prevented from descending on the island as a result of simple
seat availability.
Granted the solar eclipse is an isolated incident, but the numbers visiting Rapa Nui each year
are steadily increasing. Built to service this growing industry, the Explora hotel is currently the
biggest on the island. Only completed a few years ago, it’s been constructed solely from local
materials such as volcanic rock and black pine on a site that’s inappropriate for agriculture
and has no archaeological remains, plus it proudly boasts a Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the US Green Building Council.
It might not be the cheapest hotel you’ve stayed at, rates start for a three-day minimum at
around AED 8,500 per person, but it will certainly be the most memorable. Not only is the
interior design stunning, but every one of the 30 organic-themed bedrooms has a magnificent
ocean view. Rates are also inclusive of all meals, all drinks, morning and afternoon organised
excursions and airport transfers.
The tours provided by the Explora are probably the best way to see the island, as this
prevents any potential headache of trying to arrange something upon arrival. Added to which,
you’ll be accompanied by a native Rapa Nui tour guide, armed with an infinite knowledge of
the island and its history, able to answer any questions you care to ask. Comfortable walking
shoes are essential as the tours consist of a series of day-long hikes around the spectacular
sights of the island.
The main tours include the Rano Kau crater - the largest of the three volcanoes that formed
Rapa Nui. Almost a mile across with a fresh water lake at its centre, its grassy slopes are
littered with hundreds of abandoned moai; the Ahu Tongariki - the largest of all the moai
platforms, each called an Ahu, with 15 colossal statues restored after a tsunami back in 1960;
and the Ahu Nau Nau on the picturesque Anakena beach – where four of the seven restored
figures have what are called Pukao topknots or head-dresses, which were added to give an
even greater sense of grandiose to the giant, stern-faced statues.
A multitude of other activities are also on offer, aside form those organised by Explora. It is
possible to hire a car or four-wheel drive, and some visitors do, but frankly it really isn’t
necessary. The best of the island is only accessible by hiking and a small number of taxis
roam the streets of Hanga Roa at night, providing a more-than-adequate service.
Several diving centres provide trips out to select spots with beautiful coral reefs and all levels
of experience are catered for, from beginner to those who might have their PADI certification.
One of the more established is the Mike Rapu Diving Centre, the owner of which is something
of a celebrity on the island. Not only is he one of the most successful and respected native
Rapa Nui businessmen, but he also held the South American record for free diving for a
number of years.
The Explora won’t be the biggest hotel on the island for much longer however. It’s soon be
dwarfed by another hotel being constructed on the cliff top overlooking both the town and a
coastline spot where the waves crash spectacularly against the rocky cliffs. The Hangaroa
Eco Village & Spa is, as it names suggests, more of a self-contained settlement, than a
conventional hotel. Within the complex is a pool, museum, spa, boutique, movie theatre,
restaurants and bars and 75 rooms. Not due for completion until the end of the year, this too
will receive a LEED certification and the tourist board are keen to highlight much of the
energy used will come from turbines and solar panels, all hotel cuisine will feature indigenous
ingredients and the local population will make up the majority of the staff.
The Rapa Nui are extremely passionate about their island and their heritage. Many put on
evening performances at select venues to small groups of tourists, proudly demonstrating
traditional rituals and culture over a customary dinner cooked using ancient methods. During
a stay it’s imperative to take in at least one show. One of the best is called Te Ra’ai at the
Restaurant Etnico Rapa Nui. Performances here are only three times a week, but a chance to
watch the Hoko tribal war dance, which has an understandable similarity to its Maori
equivalent, should not be missed.
There are a number of places to eat in town should you fee the urge to explore and all the
food is supplied locally. Fish features prominently on the menu as the island is home to more
than 100 species. The big establishments will take credit cards, but that’s about it. The
accepted local currency is US Dollars and Chilean Pesos and there’s a couple of ATMs in
town. Don’t expect much in the way of nightlife as Hanga Roa falls asleep quite early. In
addition, try to avoid a Sunday in your visit, this is the native population’s personal day; no
tours will run on this day and nothing will be open.
Getting there from the UAE is no mean feat, it is after all the most remote inhabited island on
Earth and, with stopovers, you’re looking at potentially 30-plus hours of travelling. The
principle place to aim for is the capital city Santiago in Chile, and there are a few different
ways to get there. The quickest route will not be the cheapest, in fact quite the opposite. The
most inexpensive way is to probably to go through Europe, typically Frankfurt, then Dallas
Fort Worth, then onto Santiago. However, Emirates flies regular ultra-long haul flights from
Dubai to São Paulo. From there you can transfer to Santiago and onto Rapa Nui itself.
BOXOUT
The moai are massive, monolithic human figures carved from volcanic rock between the
years 1250 and 1500AD. They represent living faces (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa
ora ata tepuna) and most still stand near Rano Raraku, the main moai quarry. However,
many were transported - using means that are debated even today - and set on giant stone
platforms called “ahu” around the island's perimeter. The statues still stood, safeguarding the
lands of the particular clan that had erected them, when the first Europeans arrived on the
island, but almost all would be later pulled down during conflicts between clans on the island.
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text - Scott Snowden