The Marvelous Mystery of Easter Island

Halfway between Tahiti and the coast of Chile sits one of the most iconic islands in the world. At just over 60 square miles, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it’s known in the local language, may be small, but the impression it imbues is colossal. One of the most remote inhabited places on Earth, this tiny island in the southeastern Pacific has a history that is as captivating as it is mysterious.

Like a natural, open-air museum, Easter Island crawls with striking stone structures and architecture that serve as windows into the ancient civilization that once thrived there. In total, the island is home to about 900 statues, 300 ceremonial platforms, and thousands of structures built for everything from agriculture to housing to funeral rites.

Among these are the island’s most famous inhabitants: the towering stone figures of humans with oversized heads, known as the maoi, which loom over the island like eternal, stoic sentries. These remarkable ancient structures paired with the natural beauty of the island’s dramatic cliffs, verdant flora, giant lava rocks, and the boundless blue ocean encompassing it, provide Easter Island with an aura of utter otherworldliness.

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Eager to experience Easter Island’s marvels firsthand, the Blue Parallel team recently traveled to Chile’s capital city, Santiago, and from there flew five hours west across 2,300 miles of ocean to reach the island. They then checked into their hotel, the Explora Rapa Nui.

Explora features award winning architecture that aims to blend Easter Island’s unique geography and heritage with a modern touch. From the lodge, guests can take in breathtaking views of the island’s landscape and panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean. Accommodations include a spa and pool area, perfect for relaxing after a long day of exploring the island, and locally sourced cuisine accompanied by excellent Chilean wine.

In addition, Explora offers guests more than 20 different guided hikes, bike rides, fishing, and snorkeling adventures. Soon after the team arrived, they met up with an expert guide to explore the island and learn about its extraordinary history.

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Believed to be originally settled by Polynesians around 300 A.D., the settlers developed the island into a flourishing society, where they built the majority of their iconic structures between the 10th and 16th centuries. In 1722, the first-recorded European discovery of the island was made by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, who reached its shores on Easter Sunday, which is how the island got its name. (One might say it’s lucky that he didn’t first reach the island on Boxing Day!) By the time Roggeveen arrived however, the once thriving society of Rapa Nui had greatly diminished and its population was dwindling. The reason for this decline is shrouded in mystery, but some archeologists believe it was due to overpopulation and deforestation.

Today, the island’s inhabitants include the descendants of the indigenous Rapa Nui as well as immigrants from a broad range of backgrounds. This has led to a relatively diverse population of about 6,000 inhabitants. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, a great portion of the island is now protected within the Rapa Nui National Park.

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On the first day of their journey, the team explored Rano Raraku, an enormous volcanic crater which was once a valuable quarry for the Rapa Nui people. For half a millennium, up until the turn of the eighteenth century, this quarry supplied the stone used to carve more than 90 percent of the moai structures. Today, nearly 400 maoi sculptures still remain within it.

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Next, the team went to see the main attraction of the island, Ahu Tongariki. The most impressive shrine, Ahu Tongariki is home to 15 towering moai, including the largest erected maoi on the island, weighing in at 86 tons. Carved with great skill out of porous volcanic rock called toba, most archaeologists believe that the maoi represent the spirits of the ancestors of the ancient chiefs and other high-ranking Rapa Nui. Here, the maoi look their most imposing as they stand along the coast, framed by the endless azure ocean with their backs to the sea.

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The team then hiked along the edge of the Rano Kau crater, where they took in spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the interior of the gaping crater. The Rano Kau includes a crater lake, which is one of the island’s few natural bodies of fresh water. Hiking along the crater, they eventually reached Orongo, the ceremonial village where the ancient society once practiced the Tangata Manu (birdman) competition. Much like the island as a whole, this ancient competition is steeped in mystical and mysterious origins.

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It is believed that the race occurred over roughly two centuries, starting in the mid 17th century, and was implemented to determine who would be the new king of Rapa Nui. One representative from each tribe on the island would race each other across the island’s treacherous terrain, scaling cliffs, swimming through inlets, and scrambling up rocks to retrieve an egg from the native manutara bird. When the first athlete finished the race and returned with the egg, unbroken, the chief of the tribe they represented would become king for the following year.

Although Easter Island is small, it has a variety of different landscapes that are worth exploring. As you travel up to the northern coast of the island, you can discover the most uninhabited, remote regions. In this secluded area, you can meander through pastures covered in the shade of eucalyptus trees that give way to seemingly endless obstacle courses of lava rock. From the coast, you can take in fantastic views of the deep blue Pacific contrasted against the otherworldly slopes of Terevaka, the largest of the three main extinct volcanoes that form the island.  

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 Interested in visiting Easter Island? It takes two full days to visit all of the main archaeological sites, so we recommended staying a minimum of three nights.