Since 1935, much of the island of Rapa Nui has been designated a national park administered by CONAF, the Chilean forestry and national park authority. Almost everything outside the immediate vicinity of Hanga Roa and Mataveri Airport lies within the park parameters and so the majority of the island’s moai, ahu, caves, quarries, volcanoes, beaches and other ancient sites require the purchase of a ticket for entrance to the park. These tickets can be purchased at the ranger stations at Rano Raraku and Orongo. Rangers patrol the park and can help with visitor information with many speaking english to some degree. Leaflets and information brochures can also be picked up at the ranger stations at Orongo and Rano Raraku and there is sometimes a ranger posted at the Tahai Complex with information booklets.
The entrance fee is USUALLY US$10 and the ticket is valid for the entire duration of one’s stay. However, during my visit the island was gearing up for a solar eclipse and the admission charge was raised to a whopping US$60!!! This really irked me at the time as it seemed to me a bit extreme and extortionate (who can come all the way to Easter Island and then not go to see the sites) and after expecting to pay $10 I was surprised and really annoyed at having to pay $60 when the week before it had $50 less! What was even more annoying was that I wasn’t even going to be there for the eclipse...it wasn’t happening for another month! The ticket was also changed from being valid for the entire stay to one visit per ticket to Orongo and Rano Raraku. I visited Rano Raraku several times to catch it at different times of the day but had to plead and practically beg the person at the office to let me enter on the same ticket I had previously used...ridiculous considering the ticket should have been valid for the entire stay.
Don’t want to sound like a moan having experienced one of the most special and exotic places on earth for the price of a meal and bottle of wine back in Ireland. Looking back on my time on Easter Island that $60 will go down as some of the best money I ever spent and of course the amazing things I witnessed on the island was worth every cent. However this does not excuse the greed and economical extortion exhibited by CONAF at the time. Locals that I spoke to were not happy with the price hike either as it took business away from small local businesses, with budget travellers less able and willing to spend money and buy local produce. Word from the locals was that most of the extra money from the price hike wasn’t even going back into the community and Rapa Nui conservation and preservation efforts but into the coffers of the government back on mainland Chile.
Not sure if the fee has gone back to normal now but it was supposed to be for a limited time. I hioe for everyone’s sake the price has been reduced.
Just off the south-western corner of the island lie the three motus or islets of Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao. While you can’t land on any of the motus due to their protected status as nesting grounds for seabords, there are fantastic views over the three motus from Orongo and they have played an important part of the island’s history.
At almost 4 hectares, Motu Nui is the largest of the three offshore islets and is basically the summit of a 2000m high underwater volcano. Motu Nui played an important part in the make-make cult and in particular the tangata-manu competition where competitors had to swim as far as the island to find the first egg of the sooty tern and return to the main island (see separate tips on Orongo and the Birdman cult for more info). The island has two caves which contain paintings and carvings and there is also the remains of a small ahu. Today the island acts as an important protected area for colonies of sea birds and casual landing on the island is prohibited although you can charter boats to circle the island and you get close to the island on diving trips to the area.
Motu Iti is also part of an underwater volcanic mountain and lies close to Motu Nui about a mile off shore. In the past, Motu Iti was an important source of obsidian, which the locals used for tools and decorative purposes as well as the moai eyes (see tip on Ahu Ko Te Riku).
Motu Kao Kao is basically a sea stack which rises majestically from the ocean and is one of the most popular dive locations on the island, although due to difficult conditions we didn’t dive here. We have the Open Water certificate but it is advisable to at least have the Advanced certificate to attempt dives of Motu Kao Kao. Stick to the dive sites closer to Caleta Hanga Roa with the Open Water cert. (see separate tip on diving Easter Island)
Apart from the interesting stone houses at Orongo, visitors to the island flock here to view some of the island’s finest rock art and petroglyphs. There are thousands of petroglyphs carved into the volcanic rock of Rapa Nui and examples can be found all over the island. Some of the petroglyphs date from the time of the ‘moai’ culture but the most famous and beautiful examples of rock carving come from the time of the make-make (Birdman)cult and can be seen at the Orongo ceremonial village. The most famous motif used throughout the collection of petroglyphs at Orongo is of the tangata-manu or birdman, a half man, half bird figure which represented the make-make culture. Other important petroglyphs depict ‘komari’ (fertility) symbols and make make. The best place to see these petroglyphs is at the Mata Ngarahu sector at Orongo. This was the ceremonial centre of the village where ‘priests’ carried out important rituals before and during the tangata-manu competition. This was also the location of the virgin’s rock, where the White Virgin (see Poike Peninsula Tip and Birdman Tip for more information) was chosen by a priest. Standing on this oddly shaped rock (see other pics)the virgin was examined and chosen with the shape and size of the virgin’s vagina a deciding factor in the choosing of an appropriate virgin who would become the bride of the successful Hopu.
Perched high above the crater of Rano Kau is one of the island’s most enigmatic places. Orongo village is located on the southern ridge of the volcano on a cliff overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific far below and looking out over the three small islets, or motus, Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao.
Orongo was a ceremonial village comprising of about 54 stone houses connected to the make-make cult, more commonly referred to as ‘The Birdman Cult’(see Local Customs Tips for more on the birdman cult) The village was occupied and used for only a few weeks every year at the beginning of spring during the time of the make-make cult although evidence suggests that there were dwellings here at Orongo since the 16th century. Orongo became the focus of a new political and religious order after the clan warfare and inter tribal rivalries led to the abandoning of traditional ‘moai’ based religious expression.
A walk around the village of Orongo is one of the highlights of any trip to Rapa Nui and there is a huge amount to see and learn about in the area. Apart from breathtaking views seaward towards the motus and inland over the fantastic crater of Rano Kau, the village itself is a spectacular sight. Restored between 1974 and 1976, the village consists of about 54 stone houses built from flat stone slabs quarried from the crater walls. (The quarry can still be seen today). The houses were simple, elliptically shaped buildings with one room and corbelled ceilings. Outside each house was a grassy terrace where ceremonial music, dance and song was performed in the weeks leading up to the tangata-manu competition. The houses were covered in earth and grass to protect them from the elements on this highly exposed point of the island. Several of the houses have been left unrestored to show how the houses would have been found and one house has been restored as a cross section to show how the interior of one of the houses would have looked. Because of the restrictions on space on this most precarious of perches, the stone houses of Orongo were built stepped ontop of each other with one house’s grassy terrace serving as the roof of the one below it.
All the houses at Orongo are orientated towards the religiously important motus to the west.
One of the houses at Orongo is linked to the controversial Moai Hoa Haka Nana La. This moai was stored at one of the Orongo houses before being taken/stolen from the island. The moai is now displayed in the British Museum and is the subject of fierce controversy, with a huge number of people advocating its immediate repatriation to the island. The British Museum has remained steadfast in its refusal to return the moai stating that its suberbly preserved, present-day condition is due to the protection and safety afforded to it by its conservation and guardianship. Personally, I don’t think the British Museum has any claim to the moai, but it isn’t the first thing in the British Museum to have been plundered from the four corners of the world. Incidentally the name Hoa Haka Nana la means ‘stolen/lost friend’!
While there are around 70 small volcanoes and volcanic vents on Rapa Nui but it is the three principal volcanoes of Poike, Tervaka and Rano Kau that give the island its triangular shape forming the three vertices of the land. Nothing will prepare you for your first gaze across the mile wide crater of Rano Kau and down onto the glassy surface of its freshwater lake.
Forming the south-western tip of the island, Rano Kau is not the highest point on the island, that distinction belongs to the 507m high Maunga Terevaka. However, Rano Kau is arguably one of the most dramatic points on Rapa Nui and a walk along its upper ridge gives sweeping views across the island and out over the vast, blue emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. Standing at a height of about 330 metres, but feeling like much more, you can look down on the stunningly beautiful lake with its patchwork of totora reeds and marshland and across to the ceremonial village of Orongo perched on a ridge on the southern side of the volcano. Trying to describe the beauty and sense of awe you feel when gazing across the caldera of Rano Kau is like trying to describe the taste of vegmite to someone who has never tried it...impossible. Of any place I have ever visited, photos of this place just can’t do it justice because it’s not just the beauty you experience at Rano Kau. It is peace, serenity, power, spirituality, and just about every other emotion possible, bar disappointment!
Rano Kau is a special place on an island full of special places.
Following the track east away from Ahu Te Peu and the coast, you will soon come across signs for Ana Pahu. Like many of the island’s caves, the ana was created when rock solidified around flowing molten lava and created a hollow lava tube. One of the more interesting of the island’s ‘public’ caves, the site once acted as a kind of island greenhouse and horticultural area. Because of the sheltered and humid atmosphere created in the cave and at its entrance, plants, vegetables and fruit grew abundantly here. Sweet potatoe, taro, mahute and banana trees have been grown effectively here in the past and some can still be seen as you make your way down into the cave.
Inside, the cave opens out to reveal an extensive underground complex, which was used for shelter, growing plants and food and as an important source of fresh water. The cave proved invaluable for locals who could collect and store rainwater which filtered through the lava rock and collected on the cave floor. People would collect the rainwater during the rainy season and this could be used during drier periods.
The trek along the western coast of the island is well rewarded with another remarkable ahu site. While none of the moai have been re-erected, Ahu Te Peu is more notable for its outstanding masonry and construction techniques. The ahu platform has similarities to that of Vinapu, with the same skill and craftsmanship displayed throughout the construction. As at Vinapu, the precise masonry has had some theorists and archaeologists draw comparisons between the stone work on Rapa Nui and that of the Incas in South America, which in turn has led some to conclude a possible link between the two cultures.
As well as the impressive ahu platform at Te Peu, the site gives a great insight into a typical traditional village as the remains of many stone buildings can be seen here and you are free to wander about the site freely, although as at all the heritage sites on the island, you are forbidden from climbing on the sacred ahu platform and touching any of the artefacts. The village displays fine examples of ‘hare paenga’ and ‘hare vaka’ (boat shaped houses), ‘manavai’ (traditional greenhouses), ‘hare moa’ (hen houses) and ‘umu pae’ (earth ovens). A particular ‘hare vaka’ of note is the 40 metre long building known as ‘Ko Te Hare Mangai a Tira Koka’. According to local tradition, this house was supposed to belonged to Tu’u Ko Ihu, who was a reknowned wood carver and creator of the ‘moai kavakava’. (See Local Customs Tips for more on the moai kavakava)
As if this were not enough to warrant a visit to Ahu Tepeu, the site also offers visitors the unique chance of getting up close and personal to several giant moai heads. The heads which have cracked from the moai bodies, are lying upright and staring bleakly back at the ahu, as if hoping for the day that someone will restore their dignity and reinstate them to their rightful place atop the ahu. Remember that although you can get very close to these heads, it is important that you don’t touch any of them.
Further along the western coast you will come to Ana Pora, another lava tube cave used as both a dwelling and ceremonial centre. Like many caves, the entrance is reinforced with additional stones and rocks to provide more cover and protection. After an initial stoop this cave opens out into a head high cavern. You pass through a passageway of stones which opens out into a large arched room. This cave would have been used for shelter during bad weather and times of war. There are many local legends detailing the use of these caves or ‘ana kionga’ during times of strife and war. The presence and use of these caves may explain why early visitors to the island, including Captain Cook, noted only a small population present on the island, mostly men. It is now believed that the women and children could have possibly been hiding in these caves during these early visits by European explorers.
Easter Island has a huge number of caves and lava tubes buried underground and while there are a number of caves or ‘ana’ which can be visited by tourists, the vast majority of these caves are hidden with their entrances a deeply guarded secret. Many of these caves are owned by local families and their exact locations have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. It was only after reading Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Aku Aku’ did I become fully aware of the importance of these family caves which were used as hiding places and storage rooms for important family treasures most notably strange stone statues which are described in detail in Heyerdahl’s book and some of which are on display in the Kon Tiki museum in Oslo.
Ana Kakenga is one of the caves which can be visited by tourists and is located on the western coast about 3km outside Hanga Roa. The entrance into the cave is through a narrow cluster of rocks and while the interior is tight for a few metres it does open out further along and you can stand fully upright. Make sure you bring a flashlight as it is very dark for most of the 50 metres until you reach the end where the cave tunnel splits into two passages overlooking the sea. Both of these passages end with a sheer drop over the cliff face...tred carefully. At the mouth of these caves you are treated to stunning views up and down the coast and out towards the open ocean and Motu Tautara.
Following the western coastal trail you will come to this area covered in volcanic, rocky outcrops. Searching through the uneven ground and grass you will be able to spot a variety of petroglyphs and carvings. The name ‘Te Pu Haka Mako’i’ literally means ‘holes to roll mako’i seeds’ which refers to a traditional game which local children used to play. Like the petroglyphs at Papa Vaka, these carvings depict items and animals important to the local islanders. Depictions of turtles, fish and canoes can be seen scattered around the area. The engravings can be hard to find but there is an information sign close to the track and the petroglyphs are located in the field behind...keep searching and you’ll stumble across them. Not entirely sure of the originality of some of the carvings...some of them look very fresh but then again I’m no expert on rock art!
Once one of the most important villages and ceremonial sites on the island, today Hanga Kio’e is often overlooked by visitors more anxious to make a bee line for the obvious attractions of Rano Raraku , Tongariki and Orongo. Located just north of the Anthropological Museum, Hanga Kio’e is only a short stroll outside Hanga Roa and so even if not venturing further along the western coast, Hanga Kio’e is still worth a look. At the site are the remains of various traditional houses ‘hare paenga’ and two restored Ahu dating from the 17th century. Ahu Akapu has an impressive re-erected moai but the second ahu has just a small stump of its moai remaining. According to local tradition, each new king or ‘ariki’ of the island had to live, for a time, near Ahu Akapu and attended a school nearby, where he would be taught the ancient art of reading and engraving in the ‘rongo-rongo’ script.
Apart from Hanga Roa and the aforementioned Tahai complex and Anthropological Museum very few people venture along the rugged western coast of East Island. This is a shame as apart from another couple of interesting archaeological sites, caves and rock art the area is blessed with magnificent and rugged coastal scenery which makes for a perfect hike. It is possible to hike all the way to Anakena but you will need a half day to do this hike including stops at the many sites along the way. We hiked as far as Ahu Tepeu and back in one very enjoyable afternoon stopping off to check out caves and petroglyphs along the way. The only other people you are likely to meet along the way are a few locals out checking on their horses which roam freely in the area. However be warned that you are also likely to come across the carcass of a dead horse or two as the animals are generally left to rot and decay where they fall. While you may not actually see the carcass you will most certainly smell it!
Although not quite as picture perfect as pretty Anakena, Ovahe Beach is still worth a visit, especially for people who prefer their beach bum experience in solitude. Ovahe is close to Anakena but doesn’t receive a fraction of the visitors due to its more isolated location, lack of archaeological sites and absence of shade. Nonetheless it does warrant attention as, although small, it is a very pleasant place to relax on gorgeous sand and take a refreshing dip. It also boasts a number of small caves to poke about in. You are practically guaranteed to have the place to yourself especially outside the peak tourist season and weekends.
Another often overlooked site on the northern coastal loop is Puohiro or ‘Hiro’s Trumpet’. This odd site is home to a rather unimpressive looking rock. What makes this site so special are the holes which have naturally formed through the rock. Local legend has it, that blowing through a certain hole in the rock produces a deep resonating sound, which echoes through the waters around the island and stirs all the fish into a frenzy making it easier to catch them. However, after trying hard to produce a sound from the rock, it appeared to me that you would need the lungs of Hotu Matua himself to get a sound resembling anything more than a rather rude burping noise from this particular rock ;)
East of Anakena, just off the main round island road, is another interesting archaeological site known as Papa Vaka. The site is principally a rock art site containing a variety of engraved figures, symbols and implements which have been carved into the outcrops of volcanic rock. The petroglyphs here, show the Rapa Nui peoples deep respect and knowledge for the sea and the importance of marine resources to the islanders. Among the carvings, there are depictions of fish, octopus, fish hooks and of course the traditional Vaka or canoe. The fish hooks are interesting as they show a definite link between Rapa Nui people and other Polynesians contradicting the conspiracy theorists who claim that the Rapa Nui were in fact a South American peoples. The fish hooks depicted in the petroglyphs are very similar to examples found all across the Polynesian triangle from New Zealand to Hawaii.
Although the site is right by the main road, many tour groups skip this site due to time restraints and so you will probably need your own transport to get to the site. The good news is that it is very easy to find with a convenient, well marked sign hanging by the road.