Easter Island is one of those remote places that many people simply just don’t visit. Ker & Downey makes it possible to explore this little island 2,000 miles from nowhere on Majestic Chile, the experiential journey of a lifetime.
Traveling to the world’s remotest places carries the overtones of a pilgrimage. It takes time, it takes determination, and it takes faith–that at the destination, you’ll encounter not just a place, but the spirit of a place. It’s a chance, in a secular world, to have a close brush with the sacred.
Easter Island is one such pilgrimage place. It lies 2,180 miles off the coast of Chile, a 63-square-mile triangle of extinct volcanoes in the South Pacific vastness. (Next stop: Tahiti.) From the United States, getting here requires an overnight flight to Santiago and then a five-hour flight to Rapa Nui, as Easter Island is known in the local language. The payoff comes in the chance to experience one of the world’s enduring anthropological mysteries, the moai, monolithic figures carved from volcanic rock that have stood watch on the coast of Rapa Nui for centuries. You could say they are the Stonehenge of the South Pacific.
There are 887 moai strung along the perimeter of Rapa Nui, all of them carved between 1250 and 1500 by descendants of the Polynesians who arrived here between 200 and 400 AD. The moai were long referred to as “Easter Island heads,” partly because the head constitutes 60 percent of the figure, but also because the only moai left standing by the late 19th century were buried to the shoulder, making the head even more prominent. The rest of the moai had been toppled between 1722, when Rapa Nui was discovered by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday (hence its western name), and 1838 in a series of pyrrhic conflicts among the island clans.
Anthropologists have determined that the moai are representations of deified ancestors, yet so many other questions remain that the figures remain palpably shrouded in mystery. What drove the Polynesians to invest so much time and effort into creating them? How were they transported from the quarry at Rano Raraku to the coast, given that the figures weigh as much as 86 tons? (The island’s surviving oral histories say that tribal leaders enchanted the moai into walking across the island, while the best theory to date put forth by anthropologists posits that the figures were ferried upright, using a system of wooden sleds and ropes.) And why were almost 400 incomplete moai, including one that is 70 feet long and weighs close to 300 tons, abandoned at the quarry?
But mostly it is the appearance of the figures themselves that still confound: the long, planar nose, the fishhook curl of the nostrils, the pouting lips, severe jaw line, and deep-set gaze. These faces seem imperturbable, indomitable, impenetrable.
So you come to Easter Island to peer into a remote past and also learn about a tragic more recent one: western exploration and exploitation that led to the importing of disease, the exporting of the native peoples as slaves, and the wiping out of 97 percent of the population by 1877.
Yet when you come here with Ker & Downey, your base is a hotel that is all about the future: the 30-room Posada di Mike Rapu, a luxury lodge run by Explora, a Chilean enterprise that has distinguished itself for its commitment to green practices. Indeed, Mike Rapu is only the second hotel outside of the US to obtain a silver LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (in February, 2009).
“Even before we considered LEED certification, Explora conceived the design, construction and operations of the hotel to meet the most rigorous standards of sustainability,” says Nicolas Gordon, the company’s Chief of Maintenance, Energy and Environment. “Our previous hotels,” he continues, referring to Hotel Salto Chico in Chilean Patagonia, and Hotel de Larache in the country’s Atacama Desert, “were designed for sustainability and integration with their natural surroundings. We wanted to go even further on Easter Island.”
The design of Posada de Mike Rapu was inspired by the enormous volcanic stones that form the base of some moai and that are so prominent in the ruins of Orongo, a village built on the rim of crater 1,000 feet above the sea.
“We designed a structure of varying heights to flow like the horizon, using curved walls as the principal element. The idea was to connect ground and sky,” says architect Jose Cruz Ovalle. That was not as easy as he makes it sound. “We were in proximity to various ruins, so the use of dynamite was forbidden,” says Gordon. “Everything had to be done with small machinery, and in some cases by hand, including special modifications to the hotel’s concrete slabs.”
A stay at Mike Rapu brings the guest into contact with the island’s long past through daily excursions, many of them on foot, led by native guides. Of course, the moai figure largely in the trips—one walk covers the Ara O Te Moai, the route along which the figures were transported–but the itineraries also take in the island’s extraordinary natural and cultural sites, places like Ranu Kau crater, Orongo, and Tangata Manu, site of the annual Bird Man competition. Originating in the late 19th-century, the competition was a kind of Iron Man triathlon. The contestants had to descend the cliffs of Ranu Kau, swim through shark-infested waters to one of the small offshore islands, find a sooty tern egg, and return to the top of the crater with it intact. The first man to come back became the leader of the island until the next competition.
Today Rapa Nui is an emblem of responsible tourism. Rapa Nui National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, composes 40% of the island. There are strict laws regarding development. And the Easter Island Statue Project now protects the moai, long left to the ravages of time and chance, so they can cast their spell centuries hence.
Explore Easter Island yourself with Ker & Downey’s Majestic Chile itinerary or completely customize your very own bespoke Easter Island journey today.