Easter Island. Rapa Nui. Isla de Pascua. Whatever you call it, it is a mysterious gem in the middle of the south Pacific Ocean. I mean it’s really in the middle of nowhere, with being about 3,756 km (2,340 miles) to Santiago, Chile and 4,231 km (2,646 miles) to Tahiti and 1,922km from Pitcairn Island, the closest inhabited place to it. Fun fact: Pitcairn is trying to recruit new residents since the population has dipped so low – as in, to 45 people – in the past few years – read more on that here: http://www.immigration.gov.pn/
Here’s what I knew about Easter Island before we went there:
1) there’s Moai there (the big stone heads)
2) it’s technically part of Chile, and
3) …Ok…that’s about all I knew.
So why go? Seeing those big, beautiful stone dudes was on my bucket list. And Easter Island is pretty expensive to get to if you’re traveling around South America as a student or a poor, newly-employed attorney. It was more expensive to go there for a weekend than to go to Rio de Janeiro for a week. So, let’s just say it was on the list but wasn’t do-able until my friends and I started seriously talking about a South America trip this year.
First – how does one get to Easter Island?
You fly, obviously. But, not so obvious is the complete lack of variety when it comes to airlines and direct flights. You basically need to fly on LAN and fly from either Santiago, Chile or from Tahiti. There’s one flight a day, in the morning around 11am. And that’s it. You miss it, you wait until the next day. So when our flight departing New York’s JFK was late in leaving (because – get this- the plane was on the other side of the airport and took an hour and a half to DRIVE TO THE GATE), we knew we were going to be cutting it close and our 2.5 hour layover in Santiago was shrinking.
Pro-Tip #1: arrive in Santiago the night before your flight to Easter Island, or leave at least a 4-hour window between your connection’s arrival at the airport and your scheduled departure.
We nearly missed the flight, and after some begging/pleading/nearly crying to the LAN employees at Santiago airport, we made our connection. I don’t recommend starting your vacation that way. I’m typically probably way too nice to airline personnel, but this was a moment where I almost truly lost it. Mainly because we were promised by the flight attendants and the desk staff in New York that we’d make our connection without a problem, even with the delay. So give yourself a good cushion!
So the plane you take to Easter Island is a jumbo jet – a 787- for some reason, I was thinking that there would only be a small plane since it seems like a semi-unpopular destination. Nope. Big plane to tiny airport, which is quaint but big enough for its purposes. We followed the advice I had read by buying our national park tickets at the airport before we entered the baggage claim area. One less thing to think about later!
Pro-tip #2: Change some money before you land on Easter Island because a National Parks ticket is cheaper if you buy it directly in Chilean pesos, rather than American dollars.
Second – Where does one stay on Easter Island?
Although there are some beautiful hotels on the island (explora Rapa Nui comes to mind!), we had opted for an AirBnB for our stay, which included our gracious host, Miguel, picking us up from the airport and greeting us with leis. It hit us that we were really in the South Pacific then.
Miguel drove us through the main streets of Hanga Roa (the main town) and then up a maze of streets to our accommodations, which was a bungalow in a little compound outside of Hanga Roa where he and his 12 siblings lived. It had been raining when we arrived and we learned our first Easter Island lesson – the power goes out pretty easily if it’s windy or rainy enough. So we altered our shower schedule, which was kind of a shame since we had been traveling for 16+ hours straight.
Pro-Tip #3: Bring some wet wipes just in case there’s no hot water or electricity and you need to freshen up. Remember – you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Our bungalow was adorable and was great for its purpose – somewhere safe, quiet and clean to sleep. From walking around the island and looking around online, it seems like most places to stay on Easter Island fall into that category. Everything’s a little dated, but most folks don’t come here for an ultra-modern luxury hotel experience. In my opinion, anyway. And “quiet” is a relative word – every morning we were awoken by roosters crowing loudly…inches from our bedroom window.
Third – What does one do on Easter Island?
Once we were settled in, we had a leisurely seafood dinner overlooking the water in Hanga Roa, and our first night featured a traditional native dance and cultural show by Kari Kari Ballet where we were able to soak up a good dose of the local culture and culture of the Polynesian region in general through music and dance. And lots of mostly-naked dancers with amazing bodies and really cool tattoos. Just saying.
With only about 48 hours on Easter Island, we had to maximize our visit and I had fortunately done some research ahead of time and found a nearly full-day tour for our one and only full day on the Island with KavaKava Tours. We chose the Sunrise Moai tour, which would pick us up at 6:30am and whisk us around the island for 6+ hours, hitting the highlights of the Moai sites with our guide, Javier. More on that by separate post in a bit.
Pro-Tip #4: Book a tour in advance so you don’t risk a tour selling out and having to see the island yourself, if you haven’t rented a car.
Although the tour was focused on the big beautiful stone dudes, we learned even more about the troubled history of the Rapa Nui people and the Island, suffering from internal clan and tribal warfare (mainly over power and natural resources) and then later at the hands of various explorers and conquerors including the Dutch, Spanish, British, French, Peruvians, and the Chileans (in a way), including the evil sheeping company (the Williamson-Balfour Company) which appropriated the land, and confined and overpowered much of the native population during the early 1900s.
It was time very well spent. I was worried that we would be suffering from serious FOMO (for the slow folks out there, that’s “fear of missing out”) since we were not doing any of the Birdman Cult sites, but I feel like if you are thinking of it in terms of a music record, then the Moai is the hit single and the Birdman cult stuff is the B-side. Just my opinion – if you think I’m wrong, tell me so in the comments! Just to be clear, we would have done the Birdman stuff on the second full day, had we been able to stay another night.
Our third and last day was unexpectedly extended by a super long flight delay – thanks LAN! – which gave us 6+ more hours on the Island to enjoy. We capitalized on the delay by extending our plans to visit Anakena Beach, planning on a more leisurely day with lunch at the beach-side restaurants.
FOURTH – What does one eat and drink on Easter Island?
Like most places worth visiting, this is not an ideal place to be a vegetarian. Seafood is the name of the game, and the ceviche is delicious! The local specialties also include fried tuna and cheese empanadas, which, of course, we had to try for lunch at Club Sandwich and a small restaurant at the beach.
We managed to eat dinner at Tataku Vave, and Haka Honu, which had fresh seafood and offered beautiful views. I’ll post more on these later.
For breakfast there are a few bakeries on the main street in Hanga Roa like O Te Ahi and the pastries are much like those found on the mainland – different breads, etc. A local favorite is the poi, a banana bread that is dense, delicious, but a little too sweet.
Booze is ubiquitous and, as with mainland Chile, the Pisco sour is pretty much on every menu. The most delicious daiquiris were at Haka Honu, made with fresh watermelon and a LOT of rum. They also made great frozen pisco sours. We visited an oceanfront bar and restaurant (La Kaleta) and had a drink which the waitress told us was a “traditional” drink called a Mea Mea. We found out later that “Mea” means “red”. And it was just that – a bright red KoolAid-type concoction with some mint and too much sugar. You might want to pass on that. Trust me.
There’s a local brewery – Mahina – which, unfortunately, was in the process of relocating when we visited (March 2016), so they were not currently distributing and we couldn’t try it. Total bummer! I consoled myself by drinking Cristal (not the champagne) and Escudo.
Fifth – How does one get around on Easter Island?
Taxis on the island are pretty cheap and run on flat fares (3000 CLP I think?) unless you’re going out to places away from Hanga Roa (like Anakena Beach). I’d recommend a data plan that allows you to make phone calls so you can order taxis by mobile if nobody’s around to help call for you. You can’t just hail them on the street. However, a mobile phone won’t help you order a taxi if you’re at Anakena Beach or one of the more remote areas of the island – there’s zero cell service. So make arrangements with the taxi who drops you off to pick you up at a certain time, because even the locals have no way to call a cab for you.
Renting a car on the island sounds like a good idea but if you’re risk-averse (like me), the fact that zero auto insurance is available on the island is a bit of a risk that I was unwilling to take. As someone who’s gotten into a bit of a fender bender on vacation before (Portugal 2005 – hitting a parked car on the other side of the street while parallel parking on a narrow street in Lagos – not my proudest moment), I just won’t do it. The roads are generally good on the island but there’s no lights in many places and with so many horses, cows, dogs and chickens free roaming, it’s a bit scary. Cabs are cheap enough, so I say stick to those if you can.
Here’s what I know about Easter Island now:
1) It’s absolutely worth the 16+ hour trek from NYC to have seen such natural beauty and learn about the mysterious and special culture of the Rapa Nui people.
What are you waiting for? Book a trip to go see for yourself, now!
Have you been to Easter Island? Tell me about your trip in the comments!