Scratch your head over Easter Island’s oddest wonders.
Easter Island is one of the strangest places a traveler can visit. A dot in the middle of the South Pacific, “Isla de Pascua” is challenging to reach—you can only fly in from Santiago, Chile, or Tahiti—and spans a mere 63.2 square miles. Yet in a normal year, around 100,000 tourists arrive here, drawn to its peculiar landscapes and moai statues. From googly-eyed stone men to a cave of cannibals, the ancient Rapa Nui people left behind relics that are fascinating to behold. To this day, archaeologists are still unraveling the mysteries of their culture. Take a hop to Easter Island, and let your imagination run wild as you puzzle over these 11 attractions.
INSIDER TIPTravelers must have a National Park Ticket to access the island’s best-known sites including Orongo, Rano Raraku, and Tongariki. You may purchase a ticket upon arrival at Mataveri Airport, and it currently costs $80 in cash for non-Chileans.
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Tongariki is Easter Island’s largest “ahu,” or ceremonial moai mound, as well as its most perplexing. Gaze upon 15 towering stone-faced figures, standing side-by-side. Each moai has a slightly different look—one is taller, another wears a “hat,” and some have “pierced” earlobes that were embedded with obsidian. Researchers still aren’t certain if they represent elders or gods. Nor do they know why all the statues were toppled in the 18th century. However, the islanders undoubtedly believed the moai contained “mana” or spiritual force. You’ll get a sense of this power at Ahu Tongariki, particularly as the sun rises behind their silhouettes and illuminates their inscrutable faces.
INSIDER TIPBring a flashlight, and arrive at Tongariki while the stars are still in the sky. This way, you won’t miss a minute of the magnificent pink and orange dawn over the 15 statues.
Poike Volcano Ditch
Poike, the oldest of Easter Island’s three extinct volcanoes, has become a destination for hikers and horseback riders. Most pleasure-seekers pass by Poike Ditch, a long trench on the lower slope, without realizing it was the supposed location of a strange and bloody battle. According to legend, there were two groups of warring people on the isle, known as the “long-ears” and “short-ears.” The long-ears lost the final fight at Poike Ditch, and they were exterminated. Researchers say it’s unclear if the conflict ever took place, or who the two groups represent. According to one theory, the defeated “long-ears” were Peruvian migrants who were killed off by Polynesians or later arrivals to the island. Others suggest the battle was between two indigenous clans, and that the thin, laboring “short-ears” wiped out the rich and stocky “long-ears.”
Ana Kai Tangata
The coastal cave of Ana Kai Tangata is a natural beauty, with a mouth that opens to turquoise waves, and walls painted with red and white birds. But its name translates to “the cave where men were eaten,” hinting at a more frightening history. By the 18th century, the islanders had cut down almost all of Easter Island’s trees, and resources were in short supply. Many researchers think that as a last-ditch effort to survive, some locals turned to eating human flesh. The old tales tell of cannibals who lived in this cave and performed ceremonial rituals before consuming their victims.
INSIDER TIPFood remains expensive on Easter Island, since most of it is imported to this remote location. Travelers on a budget can consider bringing authorized packaged foods in their suitcase, to save on dining costs.
Rano Raraku is one of the most bizarre sights on the planet, with hundreds of giant grey heads poking out from rolling green hills. You might be surprised to learn that these moai have bodies as well, which were buried by soil as the centuries passed. Easter Island’s statues were mainly carved at this stone quarry and then moved to locations miles away. How did the ancient people manage this feat, when each moai weighed up to 80 tons? According to native stories, the gods made the statues stand up and walk. The truth is not far from fiction—researchers believe the islanders tied ropes around the figures and swayed them back and forth to move them. Just last December, scientists found remnants of fertile soil and crops under Rano Raraku’s moai, sparking a new theory that they may have served as agricultural protectors.
INSIDER TIPDon’t deviate from the path at Rano Raraku, or a security guard on a horse will chase after you and give you a stern warning.
In the early 18th century, the Rapa Nui lost interest in the moai and pivoted to a Birdman Cult. This centered on a perilous contest, which took place every year at the dramatic cliffs of Orongo. Competitors dove into the ocean and swam to the nearby islet Mota Nui, where they fought to be the first to return with a sooty tern egg. The young men risked death from falling onto rocks or getting devoured by sharks. The first to bring back an intact egg was crowned the Birdman, and his clan became the leaders of Easter Island for the year. The winner, on the other hand, got a rather “bird-brained” reward. He was not allowed to bathe, had to shave his head and grow his nails long, and was confined to a cave with a priest as his only contact until the next competition.
Easter Island’s landscape looks especially bizarre at Puna Pau, a small volcanic crater and rock quarry. With green domes under a cheerful blue and white sky, the scenery looks remarkably like Level 1 of a Mario Brothers game. A handful of red-brown boulders sit on the grass—if you squint, you might mistake them for Goomba mushroom villains. Easter Island’s inhabitants cut down its trees over time, creating a barren land by the time the Dutch arrived in 1722. With today’s technology, why does the scenery remain Nintendo-esque? The island’s rainwater drains quickly through the volcanic soil, and strong winds make it difficult for trees to take root. The free-roaming cows and horses also tend to eat up any new sprouts that people plant.
At Tahai, you might be surprised to find a moai staring at you with what appears to be a startled expression. Known as Ahu Ko Te Riku, this stocky fellow looks very different from the typical stone man because of his wide, bulging eyes and reddish-brown “hat.” In the late 1970s, archaeologists discovered that the flat-faced moai originally had coral eyeballs, which fell out over the years. When Ko Te Riku was restored, he got his white and black peepers back. Most moai also originally wore “pukao” on their heads, but since they were made of delicate scoria volcanic rock, they tended to break off. Some historians believe the pukao represent a man’s hair in a traditional topknot. Others suggest that the islanders were so enthralled by European hats that they put them on their statues.
INSIDER TIPTahai is one of the best spots on the island to see the sunset. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, and enjoy the glowing rays as they dip into the ocean behind the moai.
Rano Kau Crater
Rano Kau, a mile-long volcanic crater filled with murky water and reeds, doesn’t exactly resemble a fountain of youth. Yet it’s become the obsession of longevity-seekers, thanks to the discovery of a compound in this bacteria-filled pond. In 1972, scientists isolated rapamycin, a compound from a soil bacterium found only in Rano Kau. Since then, doctors have used it successfully to treat a rare lung disease and prevent organ transplant rejections. Recent experiments showed that rapamycin can significantly extend the life-span of mice. Spurred by these results, some bio-hackers are now taking rapamycin as an anti-aging supplement despite the risk of side effects. Whether it contains eternal youth or not, the gigantic vegetation-filled caldera is a wonder of Easter Island.
Ahu Nau Nau
Easter Island’s intriguing moai make for compelling photos, and also tend to bring out the worst in tourist behavior. The stone men are sacred to the local culture, and visitors are forbidden from going up close or touching them. Unfortunately, in recent years, some Instagrammers have climbed the statues to take selfies or pretended to pick their noses. Perhaps the most egregious incident happened in 2008, at Ahu Nau Nau. A Finnish tourist broke off the ear of one of the seven moai and was caught when he tried to take it home as a souvenir. Easter Island’s mayor called for “an ear for an ear,” but the tourist got to leave with his body intact after paying a $17,000 fine. This moai at Ahu Nau Nau has since been restored, but tourist misdeeds continue to be an issue for preservation.
INSIDER TIPOnly a thin, low wood barrier separates tourists from Ahu Nau Nau. Take care to watch where you’re walking, or you may inadvertently cross the line.
Easter Island’s culture extends to its Cementerio. Unlike a typical graveyard in the U.S., this local graveyard is a cheerful and colorful scene. Look for a wide-eyed moai holding a cross, and two guitars that honor a fallen musician. Some of the tombstones resemble curved cave homes, lovingly decorated with tropical flowers. Notice how the art merges native symbols with Christianity, such as a crucifix erected on a moai’s “pukao” hat. Located by the ocean, this unusual burial ground is an unexpectedly pleasurable spot to take a stroll.
The Road to Rano Raraku
Most travelers stay in Hanga Roa, the city on the west side of Easter Island, and drive east to see the archaeological sites. As you take the winding road to Rano Raraku, you’ll come across the puzzling phenomenon of “sleeping moai.” These stone statues are lying face-down or on their backs, with some protected by cages. Researchers believe these moai fell while they were being moved, and couldn’t “get up again” as they were too heavy to be lifted. Others were half-carved and abandoned, perhaps because the artist encountered a fault in the rock. Regardless, it’s an uncanny sight to see these moai “slumbering” on the side of the road.