Land of Moai

Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
Trip End Sep 04, 2011

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Where I stayed
Camping Mihonoa

Flag of Chile  , Valparaíso,
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My RTW itinerary is a long, world discovering list of various destinations scattered around of all inhabited continents, with two of them rising above the rest - Rapa Nui and French Polynesia. With their staggering beauty, enigmatic origin and immense distance from any developed world, these remote islands have unquestionable right to boast with their exclusivity status. While others just dream of coming to this part of the world, I was blessed with a chance to see, to get the hands on, simply, to experience how it feels to be here. The words come short while expressing how excited and emotional part of the trip it is for me; the part which almost did not happen.

Back at Santiago airport, I went through a horror, which almost turned the upcoming days into "wanna be", rather than the reality. Hear that! After spending an hour in an endless check-in line and with the boarding pass in my hands, I took a course to the nearest ATM to 're-fill' my wallet. As it was out of money, I grabbed all my staff and started walking to the other side of the terminal where I also saw a few ATMs. Half way almost there, in the moment full of panic and anxiety, I realized that my hands are empty! After a quick search through all my carry-on bags, I started running back to the first ATM in a hope to find the passport and boarding pass. Already from a distance of a few meters, I knew I am in a BIG shit. Obviously, there was nothing. In a state of the sky-high panic, fed with thoughts of losing flights to the most prestigious destinations (with Rapa Nui flights sold out for months ahead, missing this one would inevitable result in not getting on the one to French Polynesia), I found the policewoman to get me out of troubles. Already reconciled with badly, so badly, blowing up the best part of my trip, she took me to the airport information booth. I wished I had been British citizen, but the passport they had there was not mine. With me almost in tears, we went to check the unfortunate scene, the ATM. As nothing was found there, she asked me to once again search my carry-on bags, while I let her go through my jacket. Then, one of the most joyful moments of my life happened……….she was suddenly holding a small, dark-red booklet with the Czech Republic emblem on it! Guys, even today, I have no idea how my passport ended up in that jacket tied around my waist (it means that pockets were somewhere around my knees). However it happened, my joy level at that moment could be measured in m3. I was so happy and relieved that it was the first time I was hugging a police officer. The idea of instead of being here in French Polynesia, I would be stuck in Santiago waiting for a new passport is blood freezing. Without any exaggeration that was one of the worst moments of my life.

Almost 5 hr flight from Santiago over the deep-blue vastness of the Pacific Ocean opens the door to the southernmost Polynesian island, Rapa Nui. This triangle-shaped summit of an extinct undersea volcano is the world’s most isolated island with the closest inhabited piece of land being Pitcairn Island 2,075 km west, but mainly, it is a homeland of monumental, world-known ancient statues called Moai. Lined up mainly on the cost line, these massive statues are the reminder of the original Polynesia inhabitants who settled the island sometime between 7th and 11th century. Their society was split into a few clans over which an ariki, high chief, had a great power. Practicing the Ancestor Cult, the statues represent deceased clan leaders or ariki, who were providing everything the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune, etc.) and the living, through offerings, could provide the dead with a better place in the spirit world. Unlike often incorrectly assumed, Moai are not overlooking the ocean, but on the contrary, they are in-land facing watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea. You will find only one ocean facing ahu (ahu is a stone platform on which Moia stand) on the entire island, an in-land located ahu Akivi. Other notable ahu with standing moai are Nau Nau on Anakena beach and Tahai. I will come back to all these further down in the entry. 

The first moments on Rapa Nui could be hardly better: a warm welcome by the camping owner, wreath orchids hang on my neck, and the sun over my head. Gosh, those orchids smelled so beautiful that I was dipping my nose in them every minute. Due to the Christmas time and limited availability of budget accommodation, Rapa Nui was the first destination I had made a reservation for. A great pick of mine was Camping Mihinoa, a lovely, family run place right on the shore with the stunning view at the endless ocean, and close to the main village. Unlike most of guest here who opted to sleep in tents, I checked in the room with a private bathroom. Nothing fancy, but still much better than spending days in the sun burned tent. Not only that Rapa Nui is beautiful, but it is also considerably more expensive than the rest of Chile, so be prepared to open your valet wide: a night in your own tent - $12, my room - $43, the cheapest dinner at a restaurant - 10,000 pesos (ie more than $20), etc.  Surprisingly, I had to pay even for using the camping’s wi-fi – in this respect a charge of 5,000 pesos went on my bill. To keep costs reasonable, almost all budget travelers, as well as Chilean families arriving here, stock themselves with bags, or even containers, of food.  The same do the locals on the way back from the mainland. Initially, I thought that all those people at the Santiago airport checking in huge cooling containers and cardboar boxes must be paying a fortune for excessive luggage weight. As I was later said, the baggage allowance for Rapa Nui flights is not 15kg, but astonishing 40 kg, which is a fair gesture towards the locals, who are able to bring a lot of considerable cheaper food (mainly meat, though) and clothes from Santiago. Unfortunately, living on an island is still very pricey.

Having plentiful of time to explore this 25 km long and 12 km wide strip of land, I took the rest of the first day fairly easy visiting just the main village called Hanga Roa. It is a small settlement where most of the Rapa Nui’s almost 5,000 inhabitants live, and which takes you no more than 20 minutes to walk around. Its center is just one main street with a few restaurants, convenient stores, and car rent places. Besides that the village also has a bank, post office, firefighters; school; actually everything which is needed in the 21st century.

Having a busy itinerary in front of me, I started the next day with the three hour hike to one of the island’s three extinct volcanoes. Not knowing what to expect, I sweated my way up there through beautiful tropical gardens with palm trees, and grassy volcanic slopes dotted with small islands of woods. The moment I reached the rim of the volcano simply took my breath away; a spectacular scenery of the volcanic lake, covered with clumps of water plants hiding there from hostile ocean winds, inside of the crater with like-from-an-artist chip revealing  a view at cobalt-blue Pacific waters . Armed with this unique beauty, Rano Kau is apparently, and I would agree, the most picturesque place on the island.  On the western part of the rim is an entrance to one of the most important pre-historic site on the island, a ceremonial village of Orongo. This stone settlement is the most visible symbol of the Bird Man Cult, which replaced the Ancestor Cult during the 16th century.  This new social and political system believed that ancestors still provide for their descendants; the medium through which the living could contact the dead was however no longer Moai, but human beings chosen through a competition. Orongo entrance fee of 30,000 pesos ($ 65) is anything but low; however it also grants you an entrance to the Moai’s quarry located in the southern part of the island.

The second highlight of the day came in the afternoon. Equipped with the rented bike, I hit the north-bound, dusty road to finally meet enigmatic Moai.  Just a few minutes pedaling from the camping, still at the Hanga Roa outskirt, is one the three most important ahu called Tahai. What is interesting about this complex of seven Moai is that one of them has a hat (so called Pukao); it is also the only Moai with eyes.  But do not you think that these spectacular statues have been standing there untouched for centuries. On the contrary, most of statues were toppled by the mid of the 19th century, as a result of fierce inter-clan wars. What a paradox; the same people who built Moai were, at the end, destroying them. They did not even need ‘help’ of barbarous Europeans, usually wrecking everything unknown or Unchristian. With almost all statues lying face down, all of today ahu sites with standing Moai must have been restored and statues re-erected between 1955 and 1990-ies. As I was said, even eyes of Ko Te Riku, how is the Tahai’s Moai called, were reconstructed just for the tourism reason.

 A few km further north of Tahai is a lava tunnel cave complex, which ends with two ‘cliff windows’ providing quite scary outlook at the east shore. This cave, as a few others, was used mainly as a shelter during the wars. At this time, I was already walking, as the left pedal of my bike simply fell off.  With 2/3 of my trip still ahead of me, I could do nothing else than to push the bike. Would you believe that some people thought that taking off the pedal is the way how I secure the bike against a theft!!  After visiting ruins of the royal village at Ahu Tepeu, and another lava cave at Ana Te Pahu, I finally reached Ahu Akivi, one of the few in-land ahu and the only one with moai facing the ocean.  As per the legend, these seven statues represent the same number of the first Polynesian explorers who first embarked on the island. I tell you that looking at photographs of these giants is already impressive, but seeing them in person is truly a unique experience. It was just me and them, nobody else; me and a few centuries of mysterious history.

On day No. 3 I become motorized. With the plan to explore most of the southern and eastern part of the shore, there was no other option unless I wanted to grill myself under the sun. A few last instructions, refilling the tank, and I was ready to scooter my way through the island. It was a long day during which I stopped at a few ahu sites with mostly fallen Moai, but also at three sites which make the most Rapa Nui’s post-card images. The first of them was the quarry on the slopes of Rano Raraku. Looming high above the landscape, this fascinating mountain is the birthplace for 95% of almost 900 Moai sculptured between 12th and 17th century. Visiting the quarry stuns you with the surreal scene full of standing, lying, leaning, or even kneeling Moai resting there in silence. It is one of those places, where you can spend hours wandering around while admiring persistence and skillfulness of the pre-historic artists. For your information, only a quarter of the statues were installed, while nearly half still remains in the quarry and the rest elsewhere on the island, probably on their way to their final locations.

Carved out from the volcanic stone, Moai are not just heads, they are complete torsos of figures kneeling on bent knees with hands over their stomachs, whose historical value and beauty can be only matched by their impressive parameters. With the biggest Moai ever erected weighing 82 tons and being 9.7 high, the way these pre-historic giants had been moved to their final locations remained a mystery for centuries.  Local legend says that the statues arrived at their locations by themselves - that they actually "walked". On this account, I must proudly say that it was, at that time, Czechoslovakia, which left an unforgettable footprint on Rapa Nui. I was only ten, but still clearly remember the name of that young Czech engineer who joined the Thor Heyerdahl’s 1986 Rapa Nui expedition to solve this unanswered question once forever. His name was Pavel Pavel.  Using 17 people and system of ropes and logs, he is the one who made Moai walk, and he is also the one, who seeded in my mind a desire to once visit Rapa Nui.

Already from the slopes of Rano Raraku was well visible my next stop, probably the most famous and impressive Rapa Nui’s ahu – Ahu Tongariki. 220 m in length and surrounded by incredible scenery of almost vertical cliffs with roaring waves clashing against them and topaz blue Pacific in the background, this ahu is a heavenly pedestal for 15 Moai. Upon the first closer view of the site, I simply had to pull over the scooter and admire this pure beauty. It is really a spectacular place, which was totally devastated by a tsunami which hit the island in 1960.

From here I crossed a few km land strip to end up on the eastern cost. This side of the island may not that rich on ahu sites, but has other interesting points of interest, such as lithic site ‘Naval of the World’ with its round water worn beach boulder, or Papa Vaka, which is a ceremonial site with up to 12 m long petroglyphs carved into lava flows. Not only pre-historical sites make Rapa Nui well-worth to visit. With rocky, mostly vertical coast line mercilessly whipped by the Pacific waters beautifully shading in various colors of blue, the whiteness and softness of Anakena beach is a paradise of its own.  Set into the picturesque scenery of this white-blinding beach and the sun relieving shade of close-by palm grove , ahu Nau Nau could hardly wish for a better location.  What is interesting about this site is that its solitary standing Moai was the first one to be raised back upon its place in 1955.

This long day, full of Moai encounters, was not yet yet.  Known for its fabulous sunsets, I came back to ahu Tahai to experience another artistic performance of the Mother Nature. What I am going to tell you, have a look at the pictures……….

Very surprisingly, Rapa Nui was the location where I heard, and not only once, the Czech language. It started with young backpacker couple taking the same flight from Santiago, continued with three steroid-like dudes seen in Rano Raraku, and ended with a girl and her mum watching Tahai sunset right next to me. I will probably get a fierce condemnation, but in all three cases I pretended to be a foreigner. Those are my country mates, but their behavior or attitude is rather regrettable.  First, I overheard the conversation of those two backpackers with a local guy telling him that: “this is my first and the last time in Chile”. On the question why, they responded: “this country is way too expensive in comparison to other South American countries”. Oh yeah, you dam ass! Before starting your trip, do a bit research and find out if you can afford to travel there. What kind of impression we (the Czechs) leave abroad, if we talk this shit. The same ‘cup of tea’ were those three steroid guys. Their genuine wondering how come that a souvenir magnet can cost the whole $2 left me speechless. Real idiots! They had money to fly here, but are hesitant to pay miserable 40 Czech crowns for a magnet! How embarrassing. Fortunately there are some fine travel ambassadors of the Czech Republic out there, like me for example ….haha.

Day No. 4 started really early. Hoping to get some great images of the sunrise over ahu Tongariki, I hopped at my scooter already at 5 am. The early wake-up call fully paid off, as I met there four lovely and caring Chilean girls who were more than happy to talk. Having said that the sunrise is around 6.30 am and with heavy clouds on the sky, all five of us left the ahu around 7.15 am thinking that we were unlucky with the weather. What a surprise it was to see the Sun rising on the horizon a few minutes after leaving the site. I screwed up this one, but on the other hand, and more importantly, I was accompanied with four fun-loving girls interested to spend the rest of the day together. What a lovely start to the day it was! With just a few hours left before returning our vehicles, we rushed to hike the island’s highest point, extinct volcano Maunga Terevaka with the top at ‘breath-taking’ 507 masl. We were bit unlucky with the rainy weather, but had a lot of fun up there. My God, those girls were in an admirable shape, as they almost run up the mountain.  After past days full of sightseeing and running around, the girls proposed to take a taxi and to stretch ourselves for the rest of the day on white sand of Anakena beach. Yeah baby, it was the bikini time….haha. With subtropical climate and the sun that intensive that sometimes I thought it wants to burn holes into my skin, dipping yourself into cool waters of Pacific Ocean was a brilliant idea. Talking to the girls also let me to get a valuable inside into the Chilean society. We spoke about the Pinochet dictatorship, our lives, and how conservative country Chile is, etc. With all of the obviously having boyfriends, they openly claimed to be virgins with ‘no sex’ rule till the wedding day. Apparently, around 50% girls in Chile have the same morale values. Shit, we are so promiscuous back in Europe. After what was said, it was no surprise to hear that Chile has no abortion tolerance and that average number of kids in a family range between six to eight. All those girls were actually from families of eight or ten and hoping to have a family of the similar size by themselves! Wow…….with these figures back in Europe, there would be absolutely no need to continuously increase the pension age. Not only that we had a great time together, but I also learned something about the country I was visiting.

To finish the day in a style, the girls invited me to join them at their place for a dinner.  The only thing I had to do was to find their pension, location of which I had been shown earlier that day. Believe or not, but I never found it. I was walking back and forth on rock-and-dust roads of outskirt Hanga Roa, but with almost no daylight left, my striving was meant to be doomed. From high point, my mood suddenly ended up in low-lands. For once, I could have a company in the evening, and I blow it so badly. There was no goodbye, no contacts taken….….nothing. I was quite down for the rest of the evening.

With nothing else on my visit list, I spent the next, and last, day in Rapa Nui just hanging  around the town, resting and waiting for the evening flight to Papeete.

Since the Pavel Pavel’s expedition, I have had a desire to once land on Rapa Nui and to witness the mysterious beauty of the island and its Moai. Many things changed during these years, but the desire inside of me have never extinguished.  After almost a quarter of century, and travelling through half of the globe, I got my ‘ticket’ to this open-air museum of the human genius and greatness. The museum which overshadows most of world’s other monuments, and which overwhelms you with its uniqueness and size. On the travelling side, Rapu Nui will surely remain one of the most prestigious locations I have ever reached. It is a traveler’s achievement I am sincerely proud of, as I finally made it into the land of my childhood dreams…… .

As Rapa Nui was my last Chilean destination, it is also time to summarize. I must confess that I had very high expectations from this country stretching throughout half of the continents. I cannot explain why, but besides Bolivia, it was my second most desired country in South America. It might be due to that constant zig zagging between Chile and Argentina (I entered the country three times), or the size of it, but I have never found that ever needed bond to the place. I simply did not feel that traveler’s excitement when exploring Chile (besides Rapa Nui).Torres del Paine was nice, but Argentine part of Patagonia is nicer, more picturesque; then there were bohemian Valparaiso and hectic Santiago; and, of course, unforgettable Rapa Nui. I cannot say that would be something wrong, but…….. I think that I will have to give Chile second shot one day…..Rating cannot be more than: 60%.

Greetings from Tikehau, French Polynesia

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Faran on

Pete, I have to say... that was ehmmmm... a well-written entry, I might almost call it article. I think it definitely was one of the best, at least from my initial feeling, exciting from a stylistic point of view, interesting for the reader and so on... as you know, I got a couple of things to say...

You start off with that stolen enigmatic origin stuff, but then move right to the lost-wallet story, creating such a climax for the reader right at the beginning, I was feeling with you man, almost shivering, loosing that stuff while on your trip to the remotest area of the world... shoooot! (btw... I would loooove to hug a police officer as well).

Whenever I think of Rapa Nui, I think of that movie with Bruce Lee s son, and the Bird Man Cult where he wins that race. I have seen it several times, but man, it s been a while. But regarding the statues, Ariki or whatever, I also read a book about climate change or sth similar dont remember, and apparently the people of Rapa Nui logged all their trees over centuries and centuries (also and mainly for their cult), leading to deforestation. Deforestation leading to less habitat for whatever animals they had, and especially to erosion, washing away the earth and with it the minerals in the ground, i.e. less fertile fields. And thats how they fucked their society up, population becoming less and less and leading to these clan fights that you mentioned where they tossed over all the statues (btw, the book hints at the fact that this is what s eventually gonna happen to our world, nowadays, as well...)

What else? Mate, I admire your motivation to get up and do all those hikes, trips and see all that stuff. Respect. I feel like an old man when I hear that, I feel like I ´used´ to be like that, not anymore. Keep it on.

Hearing the Czech language, duuuude, not so surprising to me. After all, have you already forgotten the Paval Pavel-heroics? Nooo, you have not! I know for a fact though that you admired the steroid guys... glad we all know you were made for export!

And, as always, your girls sections are priceless. I always feel with you...


luxguy on

I am glad to hear that you like it, and even found some useful info inside. Let me know, if you have any questions or anything I can help with. Take care

luxguy on

Man, you just put a big smile on my face, and filled me with an appreciation. I did not know it is so good entry, but glad to hear you enjoyed reading it. Will do my best to keep up this standard of writing.

Christine on

I stumbled on your blog as I am planning a trip to Easter Island in March. I agree with your friend's comments- what a great piece of writing. Thank you!!

luxguy on

Christine, I am glad to hear you like it. I am very sure you totally fall in love with the island. What a great place it is! Enjoy your travels

luxguy on

I am really glad you liked it! Yes, the place is totally awesome, and I wish everybody could experience that beauty.

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