Meet the Moai of Easter Island
Rows of these mysterious giant stone heads, gazing out to sea, inspire travelers to venture to this remote, magical island in the South Pacific.
It's all because of the vintage globe I got in college. A friend and I bought it on a whim at an antiques store and sat around one night drinking beer in my tiny New York City apartment and idly spinning it. When the world stopped on a speck of land in the middle of the South Pacific, I got curious. "Isla de Pascua"—Easter Island, the spot with those mystical giant stone heads, like the ones I'd seen decorating the bottom of my neighbor's aquarium and making cameos on The Simpsons. The place seemed like the Bermuda Triangle—mere globe-trotter's lore. But there it was, the most isolated populated island on the planet. For someone living in a city of 8 million, the concept was captivating. I decided someday, somehow, I had to visit.
Years later, my world-wandering cousin called. She had a bunch of soon-to-expire frequent-flier miles. Did I want them? Um, yes! I immediately started trying to find the most far-flung place I could jet to. Dubai? Shanghai? Mumbai? I was deep in my research when memories of my old globe flashed back.
"Welcome to Rapa Nui," said my driver, referring to Easter Island in the vernacular, as we worked our way through the tiny airport on the outskirts of the only town, Hanga Roa. I'd made the two-day journey solo—not a single friend was interested in accompanying me halfway around the world to a place with so little to do, not to mention such steep airfare. That said, I felt far from alone: The airport was astonishingly crowded, especially considering it was near midnight and only a handful of passengers had disembarked. "People hang out to see who arrives," my greeter explained, as I looked around at perhaps a quarter of the island's 4,900 residents. "It's an excuse to socialize." Families, boisterous groups of teens, and even energetic seniors were milling about the parking lot and lawns, chatting and greeting tourists. Tranquility, no—but a warmer welcome than I ever could've imagined.
Named by a Dutch explorer who landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722, Easter Island was actually settled centuries earlier, likely by curious Polynesians drifting eastward in catamarans, and later by South American migrants. Nobody knows for sure. As with most things about this island, from its volatile history involving colonial meddling and an ecosystem collapse to the origins of its hybridized language to the story of the moai, or monolithic lava-rock figures, there's speculation but no consensus. And that's what makes it so fascinating. Not to mention the inherent loneliness of the place, both geographically and culturally: Years of disease, coupled with massively depleted resources, at one point nearly wiped out the population (in the late 1800s, barely 100 islanders were left). It's a destination with solitude built into its DNA.
In the light of day, things got more curious. As I scanned the volcanic coastline and grassy hills from the patio of my hotel, the Vai Moana, not a single palm tree blocked my view. The hotel, too, was more minimalist than tropical, with simple tiled floors and all-white linens. My first impression was Scottish countryside rather than South Pacific. Then, in the distance, I saw the distinct outline of giant heads.
Most of Easter Island—a mere 15 miles wide and seven miles long—is a World Heritage Site. Crammed into that compact space are more than 800 moai, each of which, it's said, took a team of six men more than a year to complete, and as many as 250 to transport and raise. The challenge of moving the moai, I learned, might explain the island's deforestation: A theory goes that during the heyday of moai construction, all the jungles were felled for wood to create a transport system of rolling logs greased by sweet potato pulp. Shockingly, none of the statues are in the least bit protected from the elements or vandals. Still, it's an unspoken rule for visitors to heed the don't-upset-the-spirits vibe and keep their distance. That first day, I set out on foot and quickly encountered the best-known moai. Standing at attention in uniform clusters atop platforms that fringe the shore, they face landward, silently observing. Tales abound about why these commanding figures were created—and range from the spiritual (to memorialize ancestors), to the reverential (in honor of powerful chiefs), to the far-fetched (the work of industrious extraterrestrials).
I spent entire days traversing from one coast to the other without encountering a single human being. The sense of quietude was at first unnerving, and I often met up with other solo travelers for meals on the main drag and moai-trekking. But then I started to like being alone. One morning, I toured Orongo, a petroglyph-filled ceremonial village hugging the edges of a peninsula (complete with a vertigo-inducing 800-foot drop straight to the sea). Another, I hit one of only two publicly accessible beaches, a remote crescent with an undertow that made reading more appealing than bodysurfing. Afternoons, I'd invariably be under the rusty corrugated-metal roof of a café, eating empanadas or ceviche and sipping a piscola, a crisp cocktail of Coke and pisco, a woody spirit that's the unofficial national drink of Chile. At the markets, Ferria Municipla and Mercado Artesanal, I came away with two favorite purchases: a tubular Polynesian drum called a toere and a swath of batiked fabric that multitasked as a picnic blanket and a pareu. For my last day, I had saved one of the island's most compelling spots: Rano Raraku, the collapsed volcano where most of the moai were quarried. As I scaled the slopes to take in the eerie crater lake hidden behind the hills I was walking on, I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of partially carved moai. Close to half of the island's statues are here, some lurching forward, others nearly toppled, all frozen in various states of completion.