We almost skipped an organized tour of the island’s top spots and rented bikes to do the tour on our own. When I finally grasped the size of the island, saw that it was dotted with volcanic mountains and cinder cones, and got a sharp reminder from Kris that I’m not Lance-freaking-Armstrong, we opted for an Easter Island full day tour.
The all-day bus tour lasted from 9:15am until 4:30pm, made stops at six moai platform sights and included an English speaking guide. (Lunch was a self-provided brown bag lunch.) We were the only Americans on our tour, but our Rapa Nui tour guide was fluent in English and able to translate his passion about his people, land and history.
Easter Island History
Moai – 1250 AD to 1500 AD
Throughout the tour, much information was shared – and myths dispelled – about the Moai, enormous stone statues, that are unique to Rapa Nui. First, they are not gods, but rather each represents and honors a great tribe leader after their death. They face inland – not the ocean – toward their community as a means of watching over their people. All moais were carved from the same quarry, Rano Raraku, and then transported and erected on the platform (called an ahu).
It wasn’t until the moai were standing that they were given eyes. It was a symbolic opening or waking the spirit. The topknot, which wasn’t originally used, is meant to represent the hair, not a hat. The stone used for the topknot came from volcanic rock of a different quarry than the one used for the bodies.
Over time, the moai increased in size. They started fairly small, but increased in height and detail over the years. The competition of bigger and better moai is a fine historical example of keeping up with the Joneses.
Over a thousand moais were carved over a period of about 500 years, but not all of them were erected. At one point during the moai era, all those standing were pushed to the ground by human hands (not natural forces). When they were pushed over, they often broke at the neck (the weakest point). In the tumble, they also lost the coral eyes (only one original eye remains and is on display at the local museum) and the topknot, which due to its shape, would often roll far away.
Much restoration took place on the island from the 1950s to 1990s, but not all moai have been restored in order to preserve details for future archeologists.
Easter Island Full Day Tour
Easter Island Tour Stop 1: Vaihu
The Vaihu platform has been left unrestored and the 8 moai lying face down have been untouched for nearly 300 years when they were toppled. The exact reason for the destruction of the moai is unknown, but the best theory is that as resources became scarce, the several island tribes began warring with each other. The conquering tribe would show dominance by pushing the moai face forward to the ground. The symbolism was that the conquered tribe’s spiritual leader (the moai), who could no longer see them – and thus could not protect them. While it is a sad state to see these moai in, it is important in the understanding of a nearly lost story.
Easter Island Tour Stop 2: Akahanga
This area gives great insight into how the people lived on the land. It features an unrestored platform, home to 12 moai, and evidence of shelter and kitchens for the tribe. Very visible are the 13 outlines of ‘boat houses.’ The long and skinny homes with a single narrow opening were only meant for sleeping. Imagine people snoozing end to end. The ‘kitchens’ are 3×3 foot underground ovens heated by volcanic rocks (like the curanto). A nearby cave was used for protection from elements, as well as foreigners (both other tribes and explorers).
Easter Island Tour Stop 3: Tongariki
Tongariki is the granddaddy of all platforms. It’s the largest platform on the island with 15 standing moai…plus one more lying broken in the pasture, which was never stood upright. It is a remarkably grand and awe-inspiring sight. The dedication and beliefs of the people who created, carved, and carried these colossal tributes is astounding. It is slightly overwhelming and it boggles the mind that a primitive, isolated society had the capacity to create such grandness, but the evidence is standing there…all 15 of them.
Easter Island Tour Stop 4: Rano Raraku
The quarry from which all moai were carved is another jaw-dropping scene. Nearly 400 unfinished moai litter the grounds, looking like chess pieces scattered on the lawn. Nothing has been restored or changed, but left exactly as they were. It looks as if one day the workers just dropped their tools and walked off the job.
Many moai lay broken at the bottom of the hill, which probably occurred in transport. It is believed that they were left abandoned as the spirit would have escaped at the breakage and, therefore, a new moai would need to be carved.
The moai at Rano Raraku are in various stages of creation, from obtaining final details to not yet being detached from the quarry walls from which the ‘artists’ carved them from. No one knows for sure, but it is estimated that it took 1 to 2 years to complete a single moai. How exactly these giant men (weighing up to 70 tons) were transported all over the island is undetermined, but regardless of the many theories, one thing can be agreed on: it wasn’t an easy process.
Easter Island Tour Stop 5: Te Pito Kura
Te Pito Kura is the that platform where Paro stood. Paro is one of the only moai whose original name is known. It is also the largest of all moai to have stood at 10 meters high and weighing 70 tons. (Bigger moai were carved, but never left the quarry.) Paro is one of the last moai known to be standing, as reported by a French explorer in 1838, but sometime soon after that it was thrown face first into the dirt where it lays today. the topknot – also huge – is measured at 2 meters in height and weighs 10 tons and lays nearby.
The secondary sight at Te Pito Kura is The Naval of the World. Although some (including our tour guide) consider it to be a gimmick, it was interesting nonetheless. The five large, smooth and rounded rocks – one in the center and four surrounding it serving as ‘chairs’ – have magnetic qualities. The stones heat up in a hurry under the hot tropical sun and play havoc on compasses.
There are many mystical theories about the positioning of these rocks next to the platform, but most locals don’t believe the hype. How and why they are there remains a mystery, but not a magical one.
Easter Island Tour Stop 6: Anakena
It’s not hard to imagine why this powder sand beach with clear turquoise water was a ceremonial sight. Even though a bit on the chilly side, we couldn’t resist jumping in (or, in Kris’s case, diving in) and taking a swim in the tropical paradise.
The moai on the restored platform at Anakena are some of the best preserved on the island. When they came crashing down, they landed on the soft sand and were subsequently covered by said sand, which protected them from the natural harsh elements on the island. The detailed etching of ears, nose, fingers and even an apparent belly button are amazingly preserved.
Our top tips for your trip to Easter Island
- Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
Click here to read about sunset at the Tahai platform and click here to read about Rano Kau and Orongo, which weren’t on part of our Easter Island full day tour.
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