A Travellerspoint blog


Getting away from it all

Easter Island, Chile

sunny 80 °F
View Round the World on nhilde's travel map.


We just got back from spending four days on the most isolated inhabited island in the world, Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, the name used by the indigenous people who first settled there in the 5th or 6th Century). Although the island was beautiful and the history is fascinating, Jake and I both left with mixed feelings about the place.

First, though, a little history about the island. (Note that this is a grossly oversimplified version of what has happened over the past 1500 years.) The original settlers of Easter Island came from Polynesia, most likely the Marquesas Islands. The journey apparently took 120 days, with no stops on land! Once they arrived, they decided to stay (I wouldn't have wanted to turn around and go back home either). Over time, the people started to construct the moai - or "giant head statues" in layman's terms - for which the island is best known. The statues were meant to represent important ancestors and were thought to protect the community from evil. All of the moai pointed inland, towards the villages.

One of the moai at Tahai (and the only one on the island currently with eyes!)

Me with a moai head at Rano Raraku, the quarry where all the statues were carved.

The society reached its peak somewhere around 1500 or 1600. Unfortunately, some of the Rapa Nui's practices - such as chopping down trees to transport the moai, and slash-and-burn agricultural techniques - were unsustainable, and eventually led to food shortages and limited natural resources. Faced with starvation and no way to leave the island (all of the trees were gone), villages began to fight amongst themselves. And the best way to bring down a neighboring village was... to knock down their moai! By the mid-1700s, when Captain James Cook first reached Easter Island, all but one of the moai had been knocked down. (The ones that are currently standing have all been restored by various archaeologists from around the world. Good thing too, because the "destroyed moai" - the ones that are still knocked down - are pretty boring to look at.)

The largest restored set of moai, at Tongariki. The Japanese paid for the restoration of these statues. PS: check out the cruise ship!

...And some "destroyed moai". Not so interesting...

The statue-building cult slowly died out and was replaced by the Birdman cult, which is worth a quick mention. Each spring, the Rapa Nui people would gather at the ceremonial village of Orongo to determine who would be the leader for the next year. Men who were in the running for the role would compete in a race down the cliffs of the island and through one mile of shark-infested waters, to a small islet off the coast. They would wait there for the sooty tern (a type of bird) to lay their eggs. The first man to return to Orongo village with an unbroken egg would be the winner and the leader for the next year. Now that's meritocracy!

Petroglyphs in Orongo village

Okay, I know I'm droning on but I really loved learning all this stuff. One last thing - in the 1800s, ships from Peru came to the island and took about 1,000 people - a quarter of the population - as slaves. Several years later, the Peruvians succumbed to global pressure to return the people, but only 15 survived the ship ride back. Those 15 brought smallpox with them, and nearly wiped out the Rapa Nui population (which fell to about 120 people in the late 1800s). The oral tradition and knowledge about the island largely died with these people, which is why there is still so much mystery surrounding Easter Island.

Today, the island's population is slightly less than 5,000 (with about as many horses and stray dogs). The people seem to identify themselves more as Polynesians than Chileans, although that is slowly changing over time, particularly as more and more Chileans move there.

Now, for the lowdown on our impressions of the island. Overall, we had a good time there, but the isolation got to us a little bit. We kept thinking that we were in the Twilight Zone or on the island in "Lost", and we both had completely irrational thoughts about never being able to leave! That wouldn't have been entirely bad, as the island's natural beauty is just as breathtaking as the moai statues scattered throughout the terrain. Some definite highlights were the amazing volcanic crater near Orongo village:


...the beautiful beach at Anakena, where the royals lived in ancient times:


...and the dramatic coastline of the island:


Our hotel was also very nice, if a little too "rustic" for our tastes (read: no hot water, ants everywhere, and very low ceilings). Luckily, our room had a little kitchenette, so Jake was able to cook some of our meals.


The low point of the trip was our last day, when it rained for most of the day. We had booked in for a full day tour of the island, but returned to our hotel drenched and defeated by mid-afternoon. Luckily, we were able to drown our sorrows in some of the island's finest Cristal, available at $1500 a pop!

$1500 Chilean pesos, that is. Or, around US$3.

Posted by nhilde 19:27 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Chillaxin' in Chile

sunny 77 °F

We've had a few relaxing days here in Santiago and the city has exceeded our expectations (though this could have something to do with the excellent weather).
There's not a tremendous amount to do here, but we've still tried to stay busy to avoid the effects of jet lag after our 14 hour flight from Madrid. After arriving on Thursday morning, we set out to explore the area of Providencia where we're staying - a really vibrant and livable neighborhood with restaurants, bars and shops. We also made it up San Cristobal Hill - one of the city's tallest hills - via gondola thanks to some fellow (north) Americans who had bought two too many tickets and were able to enjoy the great view from the top (only clouded by the unfortunate layer of smog over the city).
Above it all on Cerro San Cristobal

We took advantage of San Cristobal Hill again yesterday morning (it helps that its just behind our hotel) for a little run/hike. It was great until we met up with a group of 8 stray dogs who decided to join us for the descent and started fighting with each other on the way down. We couldn't shake them and finally had to jump into a cab to cover the final 200 meters to the hotel and lose them.
Yesterday afternoon was the highlight of our time here as we had the opportunity to visit La Moneda - the presidential palace. Tours are actually free and available to anyone and we were lucky enough to have a private one. At the end, we even got a gift from the state of Chile - a book of the excellent sculpture collections that are in the palace courtyards (maybe this was where our $260 in entry fees went). After the palace, we were finally able to change those crazy tickets of ours into e-tickets (we had to wait until we had 16 flights or less left), and will hopefully be problem-free for the balance of our travels.
Yes, la Moneda does mean money in Spanish and the place used to be a mint

Today we wandered through the bohemian neighborhood of Bella Vista, ending at La Chascona (the wild-haired woman) - one of Pablo Neruda's houses.
This isn't the Neruda house, but we thought it still looked neat

All in all, it's been a nice break in our trip here and in summary:
Pros: Weather, people, "livable"-feel, La Moneda
Cons: Smog, limited attractions, Those damn dogs!

In case you were itching for more, our Santiago photos are now up on MobileMe.

We don't expect to have internet in Easter Island, but Nicole will post a nice big update when we get a chance

Posted by jkirsch 18:21 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]