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A Heady Experience
It's a speck in the Pacific, thousands of miles from the mainland and barely populated. But on Chile's Easter Island, you're never alone.

By Maryann Haggerty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005

Anakena Beach is a glittering little palm-fringed cove where families picnic beside the white sand. As one of my fellow visitors observed while we sipped pisco sours -- the high-powered alcoholic drink of Chile -- Anakena looks the way the South Pacific is supposed to look.

Unlike any other pretty beach in the world, though, it sits below a row of Easter Island's famous moai, the giant stone statues that eternally stare at passersby. Even while children shout, Europeans sun and local women hawk snacks and drinks, those ancient presences loom, dignified and more than a little spooky.

On such a small island -- the most remote permanently inhabited spot on the globe, some 2,300 miles off the South American coast -- you can't avoid other human beings, either the living or, overwhelmingly, the long dead.

My husband and I visited recently because we had happened upon a bargain deal from an Internet travel agency that combined a few nights in Santiago, Chile, with three nights on Easter Island, a whirlwind trip to a place that could well be considered the end of the Earth. (The native people, looking from the opposite direction, once viewed it as the center of everything. One spot is called Te Pito o Te Hen ua , or the navel of the world.)

Let's be clear about this: Three nights is not enough time for a relaxing journey to a unique place, no matter how small. With a visit that short, there are things you give up -- mostly interaction with contemporary residents, in favor of their ancestors.

Still, three nights is what most people have, because Easter Island usually is part of a longer South Pacific or South American trip. Just about any mainland Chilean who hears that you are heading there has the same reaction: "Ay, es muy linda!" -- it is very beautiful. That may have more than a little to do with national pride, because most of the island is not beautiful in a conventional way. There are no lush tropical forests. Most beaches are black and rocky, and monotonous grass covers the sides of dormant volcanoes. The sun is strong, and the wind never seems to stop.

But it does have the moai, and for me, that was enough.

On Easter Island, a triangle-shaped volcanic upthrust 13 miles long and 10 miles wide, a society once developed unlike any other on the planet. Prehistoric people who never discovered metal tools carved massive statues out of volcanic rock. The biggest one was more than 30 feet tall. There's an unfinished one that would have been about 65 feet. The best guess among scientists is that statue building began around 1100 and continued into the early 1700s.

Somehow, the people moved the statues for miles from the crater where they were carved and stood them up. They were centers of ceremony, focal points of power and memorials to the revered dead. As the centuries went on, each generation of statues was more immense. They were the ancestors, and my ancestors were bigger than your ancestors.

And then, at some point, for some reason, the people knocked them all down.

By the time European explorers, slavers and missionaries arrived in the 18th century to deliver the final blows, the island was in miserable shape. There were no trees. Food was scarce. Many animal species were extinct.

Modern archaeological theory holds that Polynesians, sailing from the settled islands far to the west, happened upon lonely little Easter Island just once. Their descendants lived in isolation for centuries. Almost all the statues faced inward, toward the people who built them, not out to sea, whence no one ever came.

What that means: The people of Easter Island destroyed themselves.

Humans felled the trees to farm and support the moai building-and-moving business. At the height of this culture, according to the best guesses, there were 6,000 to 8,000 inhabitants. With not enough food, wars erupted. It's easy to imagine how, amid chaos and deprivation, people could have toppled the moai that were in some way responsible for the whole mess. And, indeed, it seems the toppling was done with spite, even hatred: In many cases, the necks of the statues were deliberately broken, their eyes gouged out.

As if there hadn't been suffering enough, in 1862 Peruvian slavers came. Slaves who were eventually returned to the island brought smallpox. By the beginning of the 20th century, Easter Island had about 200 inhabitants. They were restricted to the tiny village of Hanga Roa, while the rest of the island was leased to a British sheep farming company. The sheep ate the last of the shrubs and grass, and the winds blew away whatever fertile soil remained.

Today, tourism is about the only industry. People now travel those once unimaginable distances to see the statues, scores of which have been hoisted up again by archaeologists intent on proving one or another theory.

Easter Island, also called Isla de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui in the native tongue, now has about 3,500 residents. They're descended from the remaining Rapa Nui people as well as mainland Chileans. They almost all live in Hanga Roa, a seaside village of colorful one- and two-story buildings, perhaps six or 10 sprawling blocks long and half as wide, with some paved roads. The roads are heavily traveled -- even though the distances are short and you can walk just about everywhere in town, residents drive a lot.

The story we heard--who knows whether it's true?--is that the filming of the 1994 Kevin Costner-produced flop movie "Rapa Nui" (no, you didn't see it) brought so much cash to a place where there's not much to buy that everyone ordered cars from the mainland.

The night we arrived on Easter Island, after a 5 1/2 -hour flight from Santiago, we wandered to the bar of our hotel, a cluster of cottages backing onto the ocean road. In a mix of my shaky Spanish and her shaky English, the owner and I reviewed the basics -- where we were from, how long we were staying. And then she took out a big coffee-table book of photos to show me where we would be going.

As the book made clear, we would see moai.

Hanga Roa has its charms, but you're not there to see the town. To get to the moai, which are all over the island, you can rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle for about $60 a day or take the many guided half- or full-day tours. With our tight schedule, we opted for the tours. It's not a setup that allows much flexibility or privacy, but someone else is navigating the unpaved roads and making sure you get at least the basics.

Our days started early, because the most common of the island's four or five bird species is the chicken. And no matter what you have been led to believe, roosters don't all crow at dawn. Some like to get a jump on a hard day's crowing while it's still dark.

Our first morning's drive was a sampling of sites -- a few standing moai, a few fallen ones, some caves and pictographs -- a taste of the dead civilization, and a chance for our guide, Tina, to bring everyone up to speed on the basic story, in English and Spanish.

The next day, we were up with the chickens for the most spectacular reminders of the old civilization -- a morning spent largely at Rano Raraku, the quarry from which the moai were carved.

Inside the crater of that extinct volcano, and along its slopes, are hundreds of statues in all stages of creation, each with a somber face, stylized ears and hands held to its sides. No photograph can capture the scale of it, although every visitor had to try. Some statues still lie on their backs, part of the rock. Others were abandoned as they were being moved down the hill. This procession of stone heads explains why, in Rapa Nui legend, the moai walked from their birthplaces to their ahus , or platforms.

However, inescapably, real life overtook legend. On Rano Raraku, the moai stopped walking. The details are cloudy, but it's easy to speculate. There came a time when the islanders could no longer support the artisans. In the aftermath of ecological disaster, in a world with no trees and little food, who needed more statues?

If Rano Raraku stuns with its otherworldly beauty and its sobering message, Ahu Tongariki tells another story.

The 15 moai of Ahu Tongariki stand at Easter Island's edge, their weather-beaten gray backs turned to the sea. They keep watch on an empty, wind-swept plain beneath an endless sky.

With so many of the old ancestors lined up on one platform, it's easy to see that they are all different. Stylized, yes, but different. There's one with a pot belly. There's one with an upturned nose, another with a long chin. Some of the looniest Easter Island theorists say space aliens made the statues. But here, it's obvious that, like those who created them and destroyed them and then, many years later, restored them, they were all human.

It was summer south of the equator, and sunset came late, but tours still ended before 5 p.m. Easter Island is on its own offbeat version of daylight saving time, which makes sunset even later. That meant we had several hours of daylight each evening in Hanga Roa.

The motif of the town, of course, is moai. The downtown square is Plaza Hotu Matua, after the legendary king who the Rapa Nui say first settled the island. It has its own single moai, re-erected in the 1940s, according to the Easter Island Foundation. It's a bit of a botched job -- the statue faces out to sea instead of inland, and it sits atop its red topknot instead of vice versa.

As we took photos of Hotu Matua, little children from the nearby school played near the moai's base. They didn't pay us much attention -- just two more gringos with cameras.

That first night at the hotel, as we flipped through the picture book, the owner had made one recommendation we took to heart: For pictures at sunset, go to Ahu Tahai.

The grouping of three ahus, each with its own standing statues, is on the edge of town, a short walk across an open pasture and past the cemetery. The statues are positioned, obligingly enough, with their backs to the sea and the setting sun. We made it our mission to be there for both of our Easter Island sunsets.

On the first walk to Ahu Tahai, we found a pleasant-looking restaurant with outside tables on its front porch. Now, most of the restaurants of Hanga Roa are pleasant-looking places, with interchangeable Rapa Nui names and interchangeable menus of fish and chicken. What this one had was a location that let us relax in the shade, with big bottles of Chilean beer, while we watched everyone else wander to the statues.

We set up camp, occasionally flagging down folks we had come to recognize. There was the usual tourist chatter -- Where are you from? Where are you going? -- but one dominant theme: We were there for the moai.

And so, as sunset approached, we cut the conversation short and headed to Ahu Tahai. Visitors were sprinkled around the field that surrounded the moai, in groups of three or four, each looking for the perfect photo angle or the perfect place to commune with the old spirits.

And there, as the wind whipped voices away into the empty Pacific, lonely night fell one more time around the ancestors.

Details: Easter Island

 

GETTING THERE: With rare exceptions, the only way to Easter Island is via a 5 1/2 -hour LanChile flight from Tahiti or Santiago, Chile. From the United States, the launching point is Santiago, the lively Europeanized capital 8 1/2 hours by air from Miami. Spending a few days there on the way south breaks up the trip and prevents you from being too exhausted to enjoy Easter Island. On the way back, you can skip the Santiago stayover, but be prepared to spend a minimum of 20 hours in transit. On the plus side, there are minimal time zone changes, so jet lag is less of a problem than you might imagine.

LanChile (866-IFLYLAN, http://www.lan.com/ ) offers a Washington-Easter Island flight for $1,741 round trip; with a Santiago overnight, the fare jumps to $1,999. Other airlines, including United and American, fly between Dulles or Reagan National and Santiago starting at $1,094 round trip; LanChile flights between Santiago and Easter Island go for $803. The tour packager we used, Go-Today.com http://(www.go-today.com/ ), is quoting trips that include Santiago and Easter Island beginning at $1,924 per person double, including lodging, transfers and tours on the mainland and the island.

Chile requires U.S. citizens to pay a $100 entrance fee.

GETTING AROUND: Lots of small group tours and rental cars are available, through hotels or at companies along the main streets. You can also rent motor scooters and horses. Taxis are abundant. Most roads are unpaved or poorly paved.

WHEN TO GO: Easter Island's climate is mildly temperate, not tropical. The cooler, rainier season is winter (our summer), but rain is possible year-round.

STAYING THERE: All of Easter Island's businesses and services are in Hanga Roa, including hotels, although some, including the Iorana Hotel http://(www.ioranahotel.cl/ ), near the airport, are a longish walk from the center of town. For a list of dozens of lodging options, see the Web page of the nonprofit Easter Island Foundation ( http://www.islandheritage.org/ ), which also provides loads of other information.

We stayed at the Hotel Taha Tai (011-56-32-551-192, http://www.hotel-tahatai.co.cl/ ), a pleasant 40-room cluster of single-story buildings near the ocean. Rooms were comfortable but not luxurious, with private baths. The hotel -- with a sunny breakfast room, makeshift bar and several healthy roosters next door -- is one of the island's pricier ones, with doubles starting at about $110 per night. That's about the norm for one of the higher-end hotels, all of which are small by international standards.

Bed-and-breakfast-style residencial es charge about $25 to $60 per night. Rates for all lodgings may fluctuate by season.

WHERE TO EAT: Easter Island's restaurants are simple, with an emphasis on fresh fish and Chilean produce. Almost all of them are clustered on Hanga Roa's two main streets, particularly near the intersection across from the caleta , or harbor. Just pick what looks good, or what someone recommends. Don't worry whether you're being steered someplace where a cousin or buddy works. A cousin or buddy works everywhere. A simple lunch typically will cost $5 to $10; a dinner entree $10 to $18.

MONEY AND SHOPPING : Prices are higher than on the Chilean mainland -- steep by South American standards but not outrageous compared with U.S. cities. The official currency is the Chilean peso, but most places also accept U.S. dollars. There is an ATM in town, but don't count on it working. Restaurants, smaller hotels and some other businesses may not accept credit cards or may add a surcharge.

You can buy film, batteries, snacks, bottled water and sundries in town. Souvenirs are everywhere, too, with the widest selection at the crafts market across from the church. As for variety, there are carved moai replicas in wood or stone, in sizes from refrigerator magnet to lawn ornament. They truly are hand-crafted; you can watch women making them. Many of the moai-themed T-shirts and baseball caps, however, are labeled "Made in China."

INFORMATION: The Chilean national tourist office, Sernatur ( http://www.sernatur.cl/ ), has an outpost on the island, but you'll probably find more usable information through the Easter Island Foundation ( http://islandheritage.org/ ) or the Chilean Tourism Promotion Corp. http://(www.visit-chile.org)/ .

For English speakers, the most popular guidebook appears to be Lonely Planet's "Chile & Easter Island," which includes 21 pages on Rapa Nui. Most other Chilean guidebooks also include a small section on the island.

Other helpful books are " The Enigmas of Easter Island," by John Flenley and Paul Bahn, in which two scientists summarize studies of the island; " The Mystery of Easter Island," by Katherine Routledge, a firsthand account of an early 20th-century expedition; and "Easter Island," by Jennifer Vanderbes, a much- praised novel.

-- Maryann Haggerty

© 2005 The Washington Post Company