Why Easter Island is worth the schlep
Ah, Easter Island. Shrouded in mystery, tainted with tales of cannibalism, and of course synonymous with those giant head statues. The only other thing you probably know about the island is that you have no earthly idea where it is — or what it has to do with Easter, for that matter.
We landlubbers don’t like to feel dumb, and our planet is enormous. So it’s understandable that for most of us, Easter Island remains out of sight, out of mind, and out of our Google search history.
But I’m urging you to reconsider. I don’t own rental property on the island nor do I work for their tourism board. I’m just a girl who was lucky enough to visit a few months ago and be utterly blown away. So I figure it’s my civic duty to prevent you from vacationing in Cancun yet again when places like Easter Island actually exist.
First the bad news: No matter where you live in the world, it’s a bit of a schlep to get there. Easter Island is one of the most remote places on Earth, nearly 1,300 miles away from its closest “neighbor” (the tiny Pitcairn Islands to the west). Swim nearly double that distance in the other direction, and you’ll finally reach the closest mainland: South America.
If any of that sounds far away from you, it probably is. But remember that Easter Island’s remoteness is the very thing that shaped its unique culture and artistry. So the journey there makes you understand and appreciate the destination even more. Plus, we’ll all be traveling to Mars soon, so think of this as a warm-up.
Luckily swimming to Easter Island is entirely optional, as a breezy six-hour flight from Santiago, Chile runs daily. Which brings me to the bad news, part deux: LATAM Airlines (part of the oneworld alliance with American Airlines) is the only carrier that flies to Easter Island’s single-runway airport. No market competition means we have to pay a pretty penny to ride in their swanky Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Don’t be a moron like me and wait to buy airfare just one week in advance, hoping for last minute deals as a flexible traveler. Set a price alert on Kayak at least 3 months out from your desired travel date, and book the moment it drops below a number you can rationalize to yourself after a few drinks.
Remember that a slew of recent studies have confirmed what we suspected all along: spending money on experiences (like travel) makes us infinitely happier than spending money on stuff.
If you don’t live in Santiago, you’re going to have a layover there no matter what, so it’s a great excuse to spend an extra day or two in the Chilean capital. Mountain-view vineyards are a quick Uber ride outside the city!
Now the good news, assuming ‘good’ means ‘spectacular’. I feel giddy just writing this. Since there are so many amazing things about Easter Island, I shall gush in organized fashion with a Buzzfeed-style list.
14 REASONS TO SCHLEP TO EASTER ISLAND:
1 There are no cannibals. Definitely not today, and almost certainly not ever. It’s a myth that has been compellingly debunked by scientists and historians.
2But speaking of eating, I hope you like delicious seafood, plucked from the sea daily. Don’t watch The Little Mermaid or Finding Nemo before your trip or you will feel needlessly guilty about eating so much of it. We’re talking freshly caught ceviche, Chilean sea bass, and other local fishies you’ve never even heard of. Try Haka Honu, an adorable beachfront restaurant that was practically my second home on the island. The party in your mouth will compete with distracting views of the ocean, sun-kissed surfers and some very large, old statues.
3 Speaking of statues, your new favorite four-letter word will be ‘moai’. I purposely didn’t list them as #1. Too predictable. But yeah, the statues. They deserve to occupy every spot on this list, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just say it’s as if Stonehenge had a baby with Michelangelo’s David.
887 giant babies, actually. That’s how many are sprinkled throughout the whole island, many proudly standing upright, many lying facedown, likely toppled during a period of civil war on the island shortly after the invasive arrival of Europeans. Moai creation is thought to have occurred between the 10th and 16th centuries as a way to commemorate tribal leaders, which the ancient villagers believed would bring protection and good fortune. This is why most moai stand facing inland as if watching over their living kin.
4 The local islanders will completely restore your faith in humanity if you’ve lost it lately. There are 6,000 residents today, about half with aboriginal descent and half from the Chilean mainland.
Even if you don’t request airport pickup, someone from your hotel will surprise you at the airport with fresh flower leis (the fact that I’ve just ruined the surprise will not detract from the joy you will feel in that moment). They will proceed to give you a quick driving tour of the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, so that you can get your bearings. They will treat you like family, perhaps better. They’ll go out of their way to drop you off somewhere, to help you find anything, or to tell you about life on the island. At the end of your stay, they’ll insist on driving you to the airport and send you off in traditional style — with leis made out of local seashells.
5 The beaches rival anything you’ll see in Hawaii or Bali (I’ve been lucky enough to see all of the above so this isn’t hyperbole.) Polynesian waters are not exactly strangers to paradise — Tahiti is just a hop, skip and 2,600 mile jump away, with flights connecting to Easter Island once a week.
6That warm, turquoise water isn’t just great for swimming — Easter Island has decent surfing spots!
7 That warm, turquoise water isn’t just great for swimming and surfing –Easter Island has world-class snorkeling and scuba diving!
8 Whistle-blowers. I don’t mean like people who tell on you when you’re doing illegal things. It’s much more charming and harmless than that. There are islanders whose job it is to hide in the bushes near the larger Ahu’s, or platforms, and gently scare the bejeezus out of you by blowing a loud whistle if you happen to get too close to the statues. Like lifeguards when you wade too far into the ocean. The locals are understandably protective of their ancient monoliths, but rather than fence them off with intrusive enclosures that ruin the view, they have opted for this classier, less conspicuous method of policing tourists.
9Fascinating history. This is a good time to mention that Easter Island got its name because some knucklehead Dutch explorer happened to stumble ashore on Easter Sunday in 1722. Apparently creativity hadn’t been invented yet, and the locals weren’t much help, as they’d never felt the need to name their homeland. Turns out when you’re so far away from all other lands, with no neighbors or visitors, you don’t really need a name to distinguish yourself from nothing. (Adam and Eve could have simply called each other ‘man’ and ‘woman’ until they started procreating.) Understandably, true locals don’t call their home Easter Island but by the Polynesian name Rapa Nui (pronounced “rah-pah”, not “rape-ah” — seems worth noting).
10 The old volcanic quarry where every single moai was created, Rano Raraku, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Here you can get up close and personal with dozens of statues that never made it out of “the factory”. Rent a car and go early in the morning before the first tour groups arrive. You’ll have the place to yourself, like a boss.
11 The hotels and guesthouses are locally owned and operated, with charm off the charts. With the influx of tourism in the last few decades, many are quite new and luxurious without excess. Book lodging at least a few months in advance to guarantee plenty of great options at reasonable prices. I found the rankings and reviews on Booking.com and TripAdvisor to be very accurate. Consider what kind of experience you want — e.g. a relaxing, quiet getaway overlooking the ocean near some moai, or further inland with a short walk to the center of town and ample shops.
12 The moai statues understandably steal the show on Easter Island, but there’s a giant crater lake cradling the southwestern coast that would make any other island famous. Rano Kau crater was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when a now extinct volcano erupted, creating an impressively large bowl of nature’s soup. The lake’s rare bacterial inhabitants are being used to develop cancer-fighting drugs. What’s not to love?
13Easter Island is a hiker’s paradise, with miles of uninhabited trails that take you to majestic moai, deserted beaches and hidden caves. Remember that time you had the world’s most exotic, mysterious island to yourself? Most tourists usually cluster near the town and on guided tours of the major sights, so rent wheels to cover more ground and explore off the beaten path. As if you needed another excuse to ride around on a quad 4x4.
14 I could try to describe the feeling you’ll get, standing in front of a towering human-faced statue, forged from volcanic ash hundreds of years ago, how you’ll marvel at man’s obsessive ingenuity and at the sheer beauty of nature that surrounds you. But words truly can’t describe it. So it seems you have no choice but to see it for yourself.
So there you have it. Two reasons not to visit (schlep ‘n splurge), fourteen reasons to forget those first two and make you feel like you’ve won the passport stamp lottery.
Which reminds me — Easter Island’s only post office will gladly stamp your passport with the official insignia, so that months after you return home, you can look at it and know that it wasn’t all just a crazy, beautiful dream.