My fascination and obsession with Easter Island developed since I was a little kid. I used to read many travel guidebooks and articles about the highlights of Easter Island sites and history. So when I had a chance to fulfill my lifetime goal to run seven marathons on seven continents, I obviously picked the Easter Island Marathon as my South American race. And I’m glad that I stayed for almost two weeks to explore all of these Easter Island attractions.
Due to the high flight cost, getting to Easter Island is often out of reach for most budget travelers. You have to make it a priority if you do want to visit Easter Island. Read Six Things to Consider Before Your Easter Island Trip, which might be a good help for those planning an Easter Island trip. It tells you about how to get to Easter Island and Easter Island flights.
As you can guess, the majority of Easter Island’s highlights center around the famous Moai Statues – the giant heads. There are approximately 470 stone heads scattered around this tiny island.
If you are one of the lucky ones who is ready for your own Easter Island tour, you can do it yourself by reading this brief explanations of each Easter Island attraction.
Background – a quick Easter Island history
Rapa Nui’s first settlers came from the surrounding Polynesian islands around 300-700 AD. Due to the isolation, they developed their own subculture, while is still somewhat rooted in Polynesian culture.
Modern European settlers “discovered” the island on an Easter morning of 1722, and renamed it Easter Island. As is the case in many areas of the New World, these visitors brought diseases with them that killed many of the native Rapa Nui people. Then, the slave trade in the mid 1800s in South America and Europe further depleted the Easter Island population to barely 110 people by the year 1877. Sadly, many of the answers to the Easter Island mysteries remains unanswered. Why did they carve hundreds of stone heads? How did they move them around the island without modern technology?
Easter Island statues are almost always facing away from the ocean and are erected on top of a platform call Ahu. The Moai were intended to safeguard and overlook the village and its inhabitants. Many of the Ahus also served as burial chambers for royal families. At the height pre-European exploration, around Year 1200-1500 AD, there were several tribes within Rapa Nui. Not surprisingly, they competed for power and natural resources, while maintaining the tradition of carving stone heads from the same quarry in the middle of the island. They attacked different villages and toppled the loser tribe’s Moai from their platforms.
Chile annexed the island in 1888 and remains part of the country’s special region to this date. Rapa Nui was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site registry in 1995 for its cultural importance. Today, almost 5700 people live on Easter Island, alongside over 470 of their stone-headed guardians.
Ready to explore the island to see some cool heads and beyond? Here are some highlights of Easter Island.
Highlights of Easter Island – starting at Hanga Roa
This is Easter Island’s capital. Its tiny Mataveri International Airport is within walking distance to pretty much anywhere in town! Tourism on the island generally begins here . The main road is a strip where the majority of restaurants, grocery stores and Easter Island tourist information is located. It’s the only place where you’ll find Easter Island hotels.
Likely, the first moai you’ll spot here is Ahu Hotaki, located across from the post office (where you can see letters to the Easter Bunny) and the soccer field at the edge of Hanga Roa’s harbor. Most visitors are anxious to see them all, so don’t worry – you will see many, many more of the Rapa Nui stone heads outside Hanga Roa.
Ahu Tahai is a short 10 minute walk from Hanga Roa. This is the closest (somewhat reassembled) complete ahu (platform) near Hanga Roa. This was one of my favorite spots on the island. I really enjoyed sitting and watching the beautiful, deep, colorful sunset as it lowered itself into the Pacific.
Note: Be careful where you step on the grass. Not only do tourists wander here, but this green pasture is also a prime hangout for roaming horses, goats and dogs. Sometimes they leave behind some fresh “fertilizer” that can ruin your romantic evening. Thankfully, I didn’t step on any. Also, no romantic evenings here for me *sad face*
Moais were erected to protect and watch over homes, mostly next to the water. But the seven Moai at Ahu Akihi are erected on top of a hill, overlooking the ocean. These seven are believed to actually be looking at home of Rapa Nui’s ancestors – the Marquesas Islands, some 2,000 miles away.
Many moais wear blood-red hats, called Pukao. Pukao are made of a porous and light reddish stone that is quarried in Puna Pau. You can still see some of these “hats” laying around on the grass. They were on their way to their intended destination, but never quite made it.
This is the quarry where all of the Moais were born. There are many different Moais in all of stages of production here. These include those who started to “walk” to their intended platforms but, sadly, never made it to their Ahu homes. When the excavation and preservation of the island started, they even found leftover tools laying around. This added to the mystery of Easter Island. Why would the inhabitants leave the island in such a hurry and leave everything behind?
From the top of the quarry, which is the end of the official path, you can see the massive Ahu Tongariki in the distance, with the Pacific Ocean background as a backdrop
This is also one of the few places on the island where your ticket will be checked and stamped.
There are two parts of the quarry. Many lot of visitors don’t even realize that you can get to the inside part of this ancient crater. If you are part of an organized tour, your guide may likely discourage you from going to the back side of it, as they have an obligation to keep to the tour schedule. I was told that the path was closed, and is not open to public. This is definitely not the case – just follow the well-marked signage.
Ahu Tongariki is the highlight of Easter Island. After a massive 1960 earthquake and tsunami destroyed whatever left on this lowland landscape, a Japanese crane company TADANO stepped up the challenge with helping out with the restoration. As the result, Ahu Tongariki is the most restored moais in one row on the island.
These 15 massive, restored Easter Island moais are a wonder to observe. Definitely take your time and enjoy walking around this amazing site.
Ahu Te Pito Kura
Te Pito Kura means the “navel of light.” Here, you’ll find a smooth rounded rock, about the size of a small coffee table about 3 feet high, that conjured a lot of Easter Island legends. This rock was said to be brought there by boat by the founding king of Easter Island, from his native land of Hiva. Unlike other rocks on Easter Island, this rock has a high concentration of iron that causes strange compass behaviors. It also retains and radiates heat.
This magnetic and supernatural energy, called mana, is often “captured” by visitors who put their hands on the smooth rock surface. It is believed to increase female fertility. In fact, so many visitors have tried to have sex on this rock that it is now surrounded by a rock fence to prevent people from getting too close to it.
This Ahu hosts the biggest Moai on the island – Paro. Paro is now laying down, but he would stand 9.8m tall. His red pukao hat rests nearby. For comparison, the largest Moai, “El Gigante”, still lays in Rano Raraku quarry. His height is 21.6m.
Playa Anakena (Anakena Beach)
Easter Island is covered by volcanic rocks and sand; therefore, there are only two places on the island where you can find idyllic white sand beaches. These two beaches are located on north side of the island. If you go, don’t expect them to be grandiose. You’ll be a little disappointed. One of my favorite Ahus is located at Anakena Beach. There are two Ahu platforms and several moais. Ahu Ature has one Moai, while Ahu Nao-Nao has seven.
Orongo and Rano Kau
Orongo is a fully reconstructed site of Rapa Nui village at the southern end of the island. It is separated from the rest of the major sites. Unfortunately for them, the majority of visitors skip this tiny portion of the island, which is directly south of the capital. This is the home of the basalt Moai, “Hoa Hakananai’a,” which means hidden or stolen friend. It now resides in the British Museum in London, one of the few moais ever leave or stolen from the island.
Rano Kau is the crater of an extinct volcano located next to the Orongo Village. This steep, almost perfectly-coned crater creates its own micro climate. And this area is the home of many unique species of plants and insects that can’t be found anywhere else in this world. The last toromiro tree that grew inside the crater was chopped down for firewood back in 1960. That event raised concerns of ecological preservation of the island. Thus started the reintroduction of tree species and sheep on the island – not necessarily a good thing.
Ahu Tepeu and Ana Kakenga
This is another area of the island many visitors decide to skip. There are hundreds of ahus and moais scattered on the ground, waiting to be restored. The lady at the Visitors Center lady warned me to be careful, as there are not much signage. It’s also a strenuous hike to get there.
The path is only for hikers and occasional horses. No vehicular traffic is allowed through here. However, there is an unexpected makeshift check point with a ranger to take your ticket. You also have to sign a visitor’s log to pass through the hiking path.
The jewel of this area is the Ana Kakenga. This is a lava tube that used to be inhabited by the people of Rapa Nui, and it is famous for having two big windows facing the ocean. It reminded me of the Flintstone’s house on a cliff. Don’t forget to bring lights with you! In order to get to the cave, you must find the hole in the ground that only fits a person without a backpack. It’s a tight squeeze that probably won’t appeal to you if you’re claustrophobic. The experience though is truly rewarding!
Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum
This small but impressive museum is dedicated to the conservation of Rapa Nui’s cultural patrimony. It’s a great place if you seek a deeper understanding of Easter Island’s history and artifacts. Here, you can meet the only female Easter Island Moai, as well as the only surviving coral eyes that once adorned the statues.
The Moai Dive Site
Yes, in addition to all that, you can even scuba dive here! There are many great Easter Island diving sites, but the Moai Dive Site is definitely one of the highlights of Easter Island for me. I described it in a separate post about Easter Island SCUBA Diving. The experience at this site was neatly summed up by a conversation I heard from a fellow diver and her divemaster:
Diver: Is this a real moai?
Dive Master: Yes, of course it is.
Diver: But it was carved for a Hollywood movie and purposely sank after the production in the 1980s?
Dive Master: That’s true – but it was carved from a block of stone by the Rapa Nui people. Of course he is a real Moai; he’s the youngest moai of all.
The famous Motu Nui and Motu Iti, two inlets famous for Rapa Nui’s Birdman competition, can be viewed closely by doing one of the dives nearby. Jacques Cousteau visited this very spot during his diving expedition on Easter Island back in the 1970s.
Come to Easter Island – and stay awhile
On average, visitors stay on Easter Island for two or three nights. And to be honest, you probably can see the major attractions within this time period. If you’re an explorer like me though, you may want to consider to staying longer. Trust me – it is worth it to stick around for a few days longer to explore the hidden parts of the island that don’t get into the documentaries. Yes, getting to Easter Island can be challenging, but travel here is easier to arrange if you make it a priority and put some time into it!
Have you visited Easter Island? Tell us your stories of this wonderful piece of world history!
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