Formed 3 million years ago by an underwater volcanic eruption, the island of Rapa Nui is a mere 63-square-mile triangular speck deep in the South Pacific—2,237 miles from the coast of its home country, Chile.
Visiting the island, made famous by its mysterious statues known as
moai—and commonly known by its colonial name Easter Island (after Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on Easter Sunday in 1722)—takes some well-rewarded effort. Nothing prepares you for a meeting in person with those statues; their weirdness and size are only emphasized by a barren landscape overrun with wild horses. The ghosts of history and the island’s remoteness create an almost spiritual vibe.
There’s more, though: beautiful beaches, epic surfing, world-class diving, and a Rapanui people determined to preserve their Polynesian heritage. It’s well worth the long haul.
Ahu Tongariki, also known as the Fifteen, is a line of moai on a 720-foot-long ceremonial platform called an
ahu. This is the largest collection of statues on the island, each with a different appearance and build, and believed to embody the deified spirits of ancestors. The highest, at about 46 feet, wears a red headdress known as a pukao.
Given their size, you may think the moai were meant to intimidate outsiders or scare ships from approaching the coast, but the moai actually face inland, looking over and protecting the lands of a respective clan.
Photographer: Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images
Rano Raraku Volcano
Located in the southeast of the island, Rano Raraku, one of Rapa Nui’s three main calderas, is also known as the quarry, or “moai nursery” if you’re being cute. Here, on its slopes, all the island’s moai were carved from tuff (volcanic ash, which is easier to work with), before being transported as far as 11 miles away. This was no easy feat considering the statues weigh 20 to 300 tons and were likely dragged using wood and rope, perhaps even standing up, which may explain the local legend that the moai “walked” to their final locations.
Photographer: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images
The capital, Hanga Roa, is a fishing port on the southwest coast dotted with colorful boats—and the occasional sea turtle. It’s a bustling little place (particularly on a Saturday night), with lodges, bars and restaurants, and ample stores where you can grab your moai head souvenir. Hanga Roa also has its very own full-scale moai overlooking the
While most of the island’s coastline is rocky, it does have two beautiful beaches: Anakena, on the northern coast, and nearby Ovahe.
Anakena offers everything you’d expect from a tropical paradise: white coral sands, crystal-clear and calm waters, and a grove of coconut palms (admittedly imported from Tahiti). What’s not so typical is the great Ahu Nao-Nao—seven moai in a line sporting red pukao, their backs to the sea. It’s believed to be where Polynesian settlers arrived in canoes (the coast was undoubtedly a welcome sight after weeks navigating the Pacific) and possibly viewed the island in the same way the seven moai do today.
Photographer: Victor Ovies Arenas/Getty Images
Explora Rapa Nui
Overlooking the Pacific, the 30-room, all-inclusive eco-luxe lodge
Explora Rapa Nui was constructed from pine and local stone to blend into the surrounding landscape. Its cylindrical design, with huge windows, was created to help guests best view the breathtaking location. A menu of 20 safari-style excursions (meaning one in the morning and one in the afternoon) with expert local guides includes hikes, bike rides, horseback riding, fishing, and snorkeling, plus all the requisite moai stops—some of the best ways to experience all Easter Island has to offer. From $2,343 a night.
The Tapati Rapa Nui festival is celebrated in the first two weeks of February each year to promote local culture. Seen here is Haka Pei, a competition as dangerous as it is basic. Participants dressed in scanty loincloths cling to plantain trunks as they hurtle down the side of Maunga Pu volcano at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour … without brakes or any means to steer. No surprise it’s one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the festival.
Photographer: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images
Orongo Stone Village
Nestling on the crater lip of Rano Kau, the stone village of Orongo, meaning “the Call,” was originally a place for initiation rights rather than an actual settlement. Its importance grew with the emergence of the so-called Birdman cult, when resources became scarce and islanders lost faith in the protection of the moai.
Tribes gathered in Orongo before embarking on an annual Birdman competition, a ritual that continued into the 1800s. A member of each tribe was picked to scramble down the cliff face, swim dangerous waters to the nearby islet of Motu Nui, and return with an egg collected from the sooty tern bird. The winner was awarded control of Rapa Nui for a year.
Photographer: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images/Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Right on the cliff at the edge of 53 houses, made of basalt stone slab, is a building known as Mata Ngara’u, where priests conducted rituals and ceremonies. As many as 1,700 rocks in front of the property have petroglyph engravings of birdmen, the Makemake creator god, and female fertility symbols.
Photographer: Michele Falzone/Getty Images/AWL Images RM
Horses were introduced to Rapa Nui by Catholic missionaries in the 19th century, and about 6,000 of them run wild on the island today—that’s more horses than people. It makes for some magical moments when you realize you have equine company on a solo visit to a moai site or the beach. (It’s less magical when you come across one that’s suffered a fatal fall from a rocky cliff, a sadly not-so-uncommon occurrence.)
Photographer: Luis Davilla/Getty Images
Local surfer Uti Araki catches a wav e on the west coast of Rapa Nui. S trong waves that build in the North Pacific, as well as even more powerful swells generated in the South Pacific, find their way to the remote island, considered a world-class swell magnet in surfing circles. It’s not for the fainthearted, though, with breaks right on the rocks.
Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku is the only moai with eyes, painted as part of a restoration undertaken by American archaeologist Dr. William Mulloy from 1968-1970. But it wasn't until 1978, when one was found on Anakena beach, that it was discovered they were made of white coral with a red scum pupil. You can view it at the island’s Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum.
Photographer: Ruben Sanchez @lostintv/Getty Images
The original moai eyes were made of white coral with a red scum pupil.
Photographer: Michael Melford/Getty Images/National Geographic Creative
Mokomae Araki inks a traditional design. Younger Rapanui are reconnecting to the island’s ancient civilization via tattoos derived from woodcarving, tapa (barkcloth), or rock art. Originally, Polynesian tattoos had a spiritual significance, and needles were made out of bird, hen, or fish bones, while ink was created from natural products such as burnt ti leaves and sugar cane. Traditional tattoo designs are also proving popular with visitors seeking the ultimate souvenir.
Rano Raraku Moai
About 400 abandoned moai, in various states of completion, are scattered around the quarry at Rano Raraku. A winding path allows you to walk among the moai, all of which have gigantic bodies that were buried by erosion, giving the impression there are only carved heads.
Photographer: Gavin Hellier/Getty Images/AWL Images RM
Tapati Rapa Nui Festival
During the Tapati Rapa Nui festival, Hanga Roa is separated into two clans who compete against each other in everything from traditional canoeing construction—followed by a race (Vaka Tuai)—to body painting with natural pigments (Takona) to performing songs that tell epic stories (Rui).
Photographer: DEA / W. BUSS/De Agostini/Getty Images
Given Rapa Nui’s remoteness, the water surrounding the island is crystal-clear: V isibility can reach up to 200 feet . Abundant and unusual sea life—green sea turtles, the Easter Island spiny lobster, the Titeve Kapovai balloon fish—plus underwater caves and coral reefs make diving a must.
There are plenty of scuba diving centers to choose from, all located in Hanga Roa. PADI-certified divers might want to include the site of a submerged moai on one of their expeditions. Fascinating yet fake, it was made for a 1990s Chilean TV show but was later filled with cement and sunk more than 65 feet.