Monday, May 9, 2016

Hiking Easter Island: Getting off the Beaten Path (Literally)

As we previously noted, Easter Island is not large, so we left our rental car behind from time to time (only once with the keys locked inside it) to hike across a large swath of the island.

One afternoon, we set off to hike to the top of the highest point on the island.  Maunga Terevaka, at 511 meters above sea level, is not actually that high, but it promised 360-degree views of the entire island and surrounding ocean.  As soon as we pulled into the nearby parking lot, the sky opened up and the rain started to pour.  We huddled in the car as the rain streaked down the windows, attempting to reach our best meteorological assessment of whether the rain would let up anytime soon.

As we waited, several dripping wet stragglers appeared, hiking down the trail out of the fog.  Eventually, the clouds cleared and we decided that it was as good a time as ever to start our three-hour trek – Stephanie, at least, had planned ahead and brought her raincoat.

We headed up the trail, winding through fields and even a few patches of hardy trees.  Soon enough, we were caught in yet another torrential downpour and a cloud bank obscured the trail.  Somewhere along the way, we managed to turn onto the wrong trail (there are seemingly no trail markings on Easter Island).  We eventually decided we were on the wrong track and turned around, but not before leading a family of Dutch tourists who had followed us astray.  Despite confessing our mistake, they kept heading up our original path and we never saw them again...hopefully they made it home safely.

We kept our heads down to escape the sideways rain and wind, occasionally asking one another where the top of this supposed mountain might be.  From the top of one volcanic crater, we could see another higher peak, and continued on our way, encountering a few lost Spaniards en route.  (Not only were the Spaniards lost, but they had made the questionable decision to hike in their flip flops.)

Once we finally reached what we determined to be the top, we thought we would just have a picture of the clouds to post on the blog, much like our visit to the Grand Canyon.  However, as we waited, the ocean surrounding us on four sides gradually became visible.  We were finally certain that we had reached the highest point on the island.

Hiking to Rapa Nui’s highest “peak” was simply preparation for our second hike, tackling the remote northwest corner of Easter Island.  Armed with an imprecise map and some comments from a TripAdvisor forum, we set off just prior to sunrise from Anakena Beach for what would be an almost fifteen mile expedition.

For the next several hours, we felt like the only people on the island as we followed the rock strewn “path” along the coast.  (Fun fact: Rocks cover the surface of Easter Island, primarily because they were once used for lithic mulching, a form of farming in nutrient-poor soil such as that of Easter Island.)  Along the way, we encountered several wild horses and various unexpectedly menacing cows.

We were also constantly on the lookout for archaeological artifacts.  We’re sure there were several objects we overlooked given that Easter Island’s archaeological wonders tend to blend in with the plethora of regular rocks dotting the landscape.  Regardless, we found remains of villages, toppled moai, and petroglyphs.

For the better part of the day, we followed horse and cow paths along the coast, diverging from the path only to avoid the most menacing bulls guarding their territory.  We climbed over or under various sections of barbed wire, although it was not clear what was being fenced in (or out) in the desolate landscape.  We were glad that we had started our day early since there is limited shade on Easter Island (an unsurprising result of deforestation).  We even welcomed the occasional rain shower and brisk gust of wind, as well as multiple stops for peanut butter and jelly and Daim bars.

The hike offered a magnificent sense of solitude as well as gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean.  The lack of a clearly marked path brought an added sense of adventure, particularly when we suddenly found ourselves at the edge of the island staring down a vertigo-inducing precipice.  Fifteen miles was a bit farther than we had imagined and we were definitely happy to see the roof of our bungalow in the distance as we approached the end of the day.

If you’re interested in completing these hikes yourself, here’s our advice.

Maunga Terevaka:  Park your car at Ahu Akivi and head up the trail.  Although there’s a sign at the beginning of the trail, there won’t be any further directions for the rest of the hike.  Whenever the trail splits, pick the side that looks like a walking path and ignore the paths that look like they have been made by tires.

Northwest Coast:  Have a taxi drop you off at Anakena and follow the dirt road that dwindles to a path to the left/west of the beach.  Keep following this path, such as it is, all along the northwest coast.  It’s practically impossible to get lost with the ocean constantly on your right.  You’ll eventually reach signs of civilization at Te Peu, an archaeological site on the west coast north of Hanga Roa.  From there, you can take the dirt road to Ahu Akivi to catch a taxi back to town or keep hiking south toward Hanga Roa.  Many guides and books tell you to do the hike the other way around (starting at Haga Roan and ending at Anakena) so you can end the day with a swim at the beach.  We opted to do the hike the other way around so we could have the sun on our backs instead of up front.  Also, doing the opposite of what most travel books recommend tends to result in a more solitary experience rather a hike full of other tourists.

Hiking is a great way to explore Rapa Nui.  And regardless of the route, we can guarantee you will find a moment when you will get to appreciate exactly how in the middle of nowhere you are, with nothing but the Pacific Ocean in every direction.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Easter on Easter Island: Moai Safari

When we realized we had a few days off for Easter Week, we took a look at both the map and the LAN flight schedule to see what would be the best locale for a short adventure.  When we found incredibly cheap frequent flier mile flights to one of the most remote locations in the world, we were sold.  Plus we determined that #easteroneasterisland would be a clever and (shockingly) underused hashtag.

We arrived on the 63 square mile island via a comparatively large Boeing 787 Dreamliner out of Santiago.  The immense plane seemed out of place amidst the scenery, although it was less incongruous once we taxied along the runway to park alongside the one other commercial flight that occasionally lands on Easter Island – Air Tahiti.  At least we didn’t need to worry that the runway would be too short for the large plane; NASA installed a world-class runway a few decades back, just in case a space shuttle ever needed to land on Easter Island.  That’s never happened, but the runway is still there.

Even for those of you who don’t know much about this remote island, odds are you’ve heard of or seen pictures of its famous megalithic statutes.  There’s a great deal of mystery regarding Easter Island and its people, both known as Rapa Nui.  Myths surround the island's history, including the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers on the island, the rise of their civilization, and their eventual demise – but mostly, their famous statues.

The classic version of the tale of Easter Island is a story of environmental and societal collapse, of a civilization that used all of its resources to build, transport, and erect its now famous colossal statues.  When the Rapa Nui arrived on Easter Island in their dugout canoes several centuries ago, the island was densely forested.  (Side Bar: There were actually many more trees on the island than we expected – presumably they’ve all been planted in the past few decades.)  The traditional story is that after settling on the island, the Rapa Nui began the process of deforestation – clearing the trees for farming, building settlements, and, of course, transporting and erecting enormous statues.

The climate on Easter Island is certainly hostile, particularly in the absence of shade and nutrient providing trees.  There is no source of natural water other than the volcanic craters and there are only two natural beaches along the rocky shore.

More recent research, however, has shown that perhaps human-driven environmental devastation isn’t the entire story.  For example, it’s likely that the rats introduced to the island when it was settled contributed significantly to its deforestation.  Furthermore, it’s been shown that the statues could have been moved without the use of logs at all.  (Take a look at this YouTube video for a great illustration.) 

The final form of devastation to the island was actually contact with Europeans, who first arrived on Easter in 1722 (hence the name).  Contact with this Dutch ship and later Europeans caused a downward population spiral, primarily due to the infectious diseases the Europeans carried with them.   Meeting the Europeans for the first time also seems to have set off a vast disillusionment among the Rapa Nui, who, after that first meeting, toppled almost all of the megalithic statues standing on the island for no apparent reason.  The coup de grace was the arrival of Peruvian slaving ships in the 1800s; they rounded up almost all of the remaining Rapa Nui and forced them into slavery on the guano-covered islands off the coast of Peru.  The few survivors that ever returned to Easter Island brought along a small pox epidemic (small pox blankets anyone?) that caused the Rapa Nui population to dwindle to an all time low of just over one hundred people.

The tragic story does not end there, however.  In 1888, the island was annexed by Chile by means of the “Treaty of Annexation of the Island” – a treaty that is still contested by many Rapa Nui as the designated “king” who signed off the island was actually appointed by the Chilean government.  Easter Island was then rented to the Scottish Williamson-Balfour Company as a sheep farm, while the local population was confined under strict travel restrictions to the small town of Hanga Roa.  It wasn’t until 1966 that the Rapa Nui were granted Chilean citizenship.

Because over 97% of the population died in the span of a decade, much of the anthropological history of the island has been lost.  The stories and myths surrounding the enigmatic statues are limited, particularly because there was no written language.  However, the massive statues, or moai, are generally believed to represent Rapa Nui ancestors.  They face inland rather than out to sea, watching over the remains of Rapa Nui villages and are placed on platforms, or ahu, under which human remains are buried.

Side Bar: For those of you interested in reading more about Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, we highly recommend the following materials:

Collapse: The standard story of the environmental collapse of Easter Island.  It’s also standard reading in at least one Williams College economics class.

The Statues that Walked: A more recent analysis of the traditional story of Easter Island – a must read for anyone visiting Rapa Nui.

A Companion to Easter Island: The best guidebook for the island, hands down.  This book describes every archaeological site and serves as a tour guide all on its own.

We decided that the best way to explore the island would be to rent a car and find as many statues as possible, creating our very own “moai safari,” much like our “temple safari” in Bagan.  We spent a total of 4 days and 5 nights on Easter Island and feel like we explored the whole island.  We think that anything less than 3 days would be somewhat wasteful given how far you have to travel to get there, but anything over 5 days could get boring – it is a small island after all.

On our first day, we set off in our rental car to drive around a loop of the island and see many of its main sites.  We recommend taking this drive in a clockwise direction as it seems that most of the larger group tours drive the other way.  We also saved the larger sites of Rano Raraku and Orongo for early morning visits on other days.

It’s difficult to do justice to these impressive statues in a simple description, so we’ll let Giorgio’s fantastic photos speak for themselves.

We found moais at the beach…

…moais at the edge of the ocean…

…moais that were about to fall into the ocean…

…moais at sunrise…

…moais at sunset…

…moais that had toppled over (kerplunk!)…

…moais awaiting transport at the island's quarry, Rano Raraku… 

(All of the island's statues were carved out of the rock at Rano Raraku and laboriously transported along moai roads to their final locations throughout the island.)

…hats for moais (also known as pukao)… 

(These "hats" are probably designed to be the top knots worn by the Rapa Nui and were carved out of the rock at a separate quarry, Puna Pau.) 

…inland moais…

…lonely moais…

…moais surrounded by wild ponies…

…moais and ahu that were erroneously believed to have been built by the Incas…

…hidden moais…

…a (comparatively) tiny moai visible in the distance from our bungalow…

…plus a few petroglyphs, caves by the ocean, cave paintings, and a stone that may or may not be the naval of the world.

One of our final stops was the ceremonial village of Orongo, the location of the Rapa Nui "bird man" ceremony, a more recent tradition which effectively took the place of moai construction.  Competitors would swim off the coast of Rapa Nui to the adjacent islets in the hope of capturing the first manutara (sooty tern) egg of the season and winning the title of bird man.  It's also the site of a pretty beautiful volcanic crater.


PS: There’s also a stolen moai at the British Museum – we stopped in to see it while visiting Anna this April.