IF YOUR TRAVEL tastes run to out-of-the-way places and out-of-the-ordinary sights, you can hardly get farther out than Easter Island, Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands.
Some months ago my wife and I (in a group of a dozen) began a chain of four consecutive explorations - which also can be taken separately and in any sequence - called the Patagonia Expedition of the Society for the Preservation of Archaelogical Monuments. The Society is a Seattle-based tour wholesaler "specializing in cultural and wildlife expedition." It donates "a portion of the profits to preservation projects throughout the world," according to an official.
We took the whole package, at a total round-trip cost from Washington of $4,146 each (plus personal expenditures for souvenirs, drinks, etc.), were gone exactly five weeks, including very short stopovers of our own and did so in the standard order:
Santiago, Chile, then Easter Island with its famous stone heads; the Chilean-Argentine lake country, offering magnificent Andean scenery ranging from rain forest to glaciers, plus fascinating bird life; Patagonia, including Tierra del Fuego, the pampas and the Valdez Peninsula with its sea lions, sea elephants and millions of penguins; Buenos Aires and Quito, en route to the Galapagos Islands for more birds, more sea lions, the famous land tortoises and iguanas plus the marine forms of both; and, in addition, the adventure of a week on a 70-foot schooner.
Different? Decidely. Uncrowded? Yes. Tiring? A little. We had a good many boring, wasted hours in tiny airports and some very tiring night flights. Getting on and off the Galapagos schooner, sometimes several times a day, was strenous. The islands require walks across lava rock and a certain amount of climbing; there's also some plowing through deep sand, both here and on Patagonia's Valdez peninsula. Rather rugeed for a group whose average age must have been around 70. But we made it and enjoyed it.
Because of lack of daily air service, we had to fly from Miami to Santiago on a Monday and stay there until Thursday, when we took the five-hour flight to Easter Island. The first and last days were, as usual when flying, pretty much wasted. On Tuesday and Wednesday we got in tours of Santiago and the Chilean countryside, including visits to two museums (excellent), a winery, a village renowned for its pottery and wickerwork, and dinner at an ancient haciendaturned-restaurant with folklore entertainment as well as Chilean drinks and food.
Easter Island is certainly about as out of the way as any traveler can go. Located in the South Pacific 2,000 miles west of the Chilean mainland and another 2,000 miles east of Tahiti, without a harbor or even a decent landing place, ringed with rocks and with but two beaches on the entire shoreline, Easter Island has been all but unapprachable for the tourist. Less than eight years ago I heard Sen. Allen J. Ellender give a slide-illustrated lecture on his visit to Easter Island. As I remember, he commented that they were lucky to be able to land since, more times than not, ships stopping there could not get their launches ashore through the surf. At that time, visitors had to live in tents or find a friendly islander with a spare room.
Now all that has changed.There's a weekly Santiago-to-Papeete plane that stops at Easter Island both going and coming, plus another weekly plane that just makes the Easter Island-Santiago round trip. I heard, too, that at least one German charter plaen had visited the island with a two-day stopover for its tourists; dountless there will be other such charters as tourist accommodations increase. There's a nice, one-story hotel with plain but adequate rooms, each double with private bath, a small swimming pool, a bar and a dining room, serving (among other goodies) the huge, fresh-caught rock lobsters that team off the shore.
Tiny, isolated , volcanic Easter Island is roughly the shape of and isosceles triangle with an area of only 47 square miles. There is on village, which spreads out a mile or so. There is one dirt road with spurs to the various points of interest: the quarry, the beach, the petroglyphs and stone houses, the war ditch, the erected and grouped stone heads. The island once had a population of up to 30,000 people, Polynesians of some kind. Then came the white men in their ships, bringing disease, a new religion, some new blood, slavery and eventually destruction. At one point the population was down to fewer than 150, the majority of them children. But today there are some 2,000 native Easter Islanders there, plus about 500 permanent outsider residents, mostly from the Chilean mainland.
First we visited the so-called quarry. This is not a deep hole, as the name implies, but a large cliff rising up from fields dotted with lava boulders. Here's where the great statues around the island originated. It was from this cliff-side that the famous stone heads were quarried and here 55 of them remain, some buried to the chin, some standing clear as if ready to be moved, the most gigantic reclining in the shallwo niche from which it was being carved when all carving stopped forever.
For this traveler, this is one of the great sights of the world. What is truly impressive is the quarry's overall effect - the sheer size of the cliff face, the magnitude of the work, the solemnity of the silent statues. The 55 remaining giant stone heads - enigmatic, enormous, challenging, offer in an instant's glance full justification for the time, trouble, expense and inconveniences involved in getting to Easter Island.
If we had done and seen nothing else then it would have all been worthwhile. But we did see and do more. We visited the so-called Inca wall, whose construction is like that of Machu Pichu. We climbed the ruins of several of the temples and walked through the crematory area with its hollowed-out great stone on which (presumably) the bodies were cremated.We drove around the bay shore to examine close up the seven statues just visible from the hotel - five great stone heads in a row facing inland towards a ruined temple, with two solitary heads (including the only one we ever saw with its red stone "hat" in place) on nearby hiltops. Another day we went far inland to see the most famous and mostphotographed group of seven statues in a long row, perched on a shallow wall of flat stones. We stopped to look at a still longer row of fallen statues by a seaside ruined temple, to take pictures of the herds of horses that run wild across the lava boulderstrewn grass, to visit the fishing village and to browse in the souvenir shops.
On still another day we went to the beach and inspected the statue raised by the Heyerdahl expedition. This is the site proposed by the Chilean government for a deluxe tourist hotel (they are even talking about a gambling casino) calculated to draw more visitors and more foreign exchange, even at the expense of destroying temple ruins, moving the Heyerdahlerected statue and overcrowding the little beach. Progress is invading Easter Island, so hurry, hurry hurry!
Incidentally, our local tour guide, Chilean archeologist Dr. Edmundo Edwards, derided most of the legends and socalled mystery, particularly the Heyerdahl theories and his book Aka-Aku. At the famous Poike Ditch, supposedly the site of the 1680 battle that wiped out the "longears," Edwards pointed out that no bones or other evidence of battle had ever been found, that the excavated dirt had been thrown behind the ditch instead of in front where it would form a defensive rampart, and that the ditch was more than two miles long, thus obviously indefensible by the lengendary small group of"longears."
Edwards also told us the words "longears" and "shortears" were mistranslations. The Polynesian word "long" also meant "high" and the word for "ears" had the same sound as the word for "born" (as with "sleigh" and "slay" in English). Thus what the Easter Islanders were really calling the statue people was "high born," the archeologist said. According to Edwards, many Polynesian tribes have artificially lengthened ears, as do the Kikiyus of Kenya to this day, and this was true of all Easter Islanders. The war, then, was between the highborn aristocrats and the lowborn serfs, who, upon winning, toppled the statues of their defeated overlords.
Less famous than the stone heads are Easter Islands' petroglyphs. We saw them at the halfunderground stone houses on one of the high clifftops overlooking the islet, which was sacred to the birdman cult. This cult, expained Edwards, produced carvings as well as petroglyphs, but the small, wooden carvings were stolen, destroyed, or removed to such places as the British Museum. No trace of them remains on Easter Island, except for the replicas carved by the local people and sold as souvenirs. Finally, the Easter Islanders did have one surprising accomplishment, which has now become a mystery - a written language of their own, carved into slabs of wood (again, all now in museums except for replica souvenirs), which no one has been able to read for about 100 years, since the last man who could do so died without a translation having been recorded.
Blumberg, a retired executive of The Washington Post, lives in Bethesda.
NEXT: Patagonia and Galapagos.