Isolation with company

Easter Island Easter Island

This is the third unplanned detour in my trip (after Antarctica and Rurre), and my second out of South America (Easter Island is part of Oceania, though it belongs to Chile) – coming this late, it meant sacrificing a bit of my original plans (northern Peru), but after seeing an extremely cheap flight from Lima, I just had to take the opportunity. Yes, it’s cheaper, almost half the price to fly internationally to Easter Island than to fly from Chile! I even saw Chileans on my flight.

I met up with Tor and Mikkel in the airport, and we shared our experiences from the last two weeks – I had known in Rurre that they would also head to Easter Island, on the same days that I was considering at the time. (I waited to enter Peru before buying my ticket just 10 days before the flight, a risk that paid off as it was far cheaper.) Seems as though we have a very similar itinerary.

Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish, Rapa Nui in Rapa Nui) is one of the most inhabited isolated places in the world with a population of 5000, and also the most remote inhabited place in general – quite convoluted titles, but it’s firmly in Polynesia, roughly 4000 km from Tahiti and 3700 km from Chile and Peru. The closest inhabited place is Pitcairn Island, 2000 km away with its less than 50 inhabitants…

It’s almost hard to tell how isolated it is though, since the flight was 5 hours and I slept through it all (minus the random dinner at 2:30 am). Wake up, bam, Easter Island. Despite there being absolutely nothing around us, I felt like the continents were, you know, just past the horizon or something. Oh, how transportation has progressed… Another weird thing is that it’s only 2 hours behind Chile, or the same time as Peru. It’s like flying from Toronto to Vancouver without changing the time. As a result, we arrived at 6 am in complete darkness, and the sun didn’t rise until 9 am. It took one whole hour to get through customs…

The island is expensive, and the cheapest place to stay is a campsite that also happened to have dorms. (I shelled out a little extra for the dorm, hehe!) However, I think the campsite’s probably got the best location out of any accommodation on the island, including the fancy resorts – it’s RIGHT by the ocean, in an area full of rocks and crashing surf, endlessly watchable. I couldn’t believe it when we arrived and waited for the sun to come up – not just the location, but a double rainbow that ended right in front of us! What a welcome.

After grabbing some empanadas, Chilean pesos, and a five-day bike rental, Tor, Mikkel, and I decided to head off to one of the smaller circuits on the map – reach the nearby Ahu Tahai, hit up the caves at Ana Kakenga, the fallen moai at Ahu Te Peu, then up to Ahu Akivi for the line of seven moai facing the sea. Just as we left the campsite, a dog followed us. We noticed that he seemed to need to pee every few metres, and thus I named him Liquid – the name stuck. Despite the heat and the fact that we were on bikes, he was absolutely insistent on following us, panting heavily the whole way.

When we got to Ana Kakenga, we realised that we all forgot our headtorches. Liquid was more than happy to run into the caves, given the shade, so we followed him in. The cave was about 50 metres long, and we needed to use our camera flashes to navigate – we were tripping on everything and bumping our heads onto the ceiling. But what a reward! Two windows to the sea. We sat there for quite sometime and had our lunch break, listening to the waves and enjoying the view in the cool shade of the cave.

The road up was quite punishing – dirt, rocky, and relentlessly uphill. Not a huge incline, but given the heat and the poor condition of the road, we were quite exhausted and it took us about 4 hours (including our lunch and various photo breaks) to reach Te Peu and Akivi. We stopped frequently to take pictures of the scenery with no one around – rolling hills, wild horses, tall grass, coastline, crashing waves…almost too much to take in! Akivi was also spectacular, although I really wished I was able to see it during sunset!

We were exhausted, but luckily for us, there was a straight downhill, paved road back down to Hanga Roa (the only town on the island, where everyone must stay). Poor Liquid couldn’t follow us fast enough though…we didn’t see him for two days after that! (I later found out his real name is Uri, after he suddenly reappeared at the campsite with a limp several days later. He’s still Liquid to me.) We did a quick pass-through of the town, passing the church and stopping for some amazing ice cream. They offer some strange fruit flavours, written in Rapa Nui. When I enquired about what they were in Spanish and English, I had never heard of most of those fruits anyway. If anyone can tell me what a “hai’a” is or a “tuna” fruit (cactus?)…I’d be grateful.

The next morning, we had another rainbow directly in front of us. Is this normal?!

We met Stephanie (Boston) at the campsite, and she joined us for a walking excursion to Orongo, a ceremonial village on the far southwest end of the island. Right before Orongo is Rano Kau, a stunning volcanic crater full of lakes with a small window to the ocean. Given its shape and position by the ocean though, plus the rather dreary weather, it was VERY windy.

Orongo is the site of the second cult practice of the Rapa Nui people. (The first practice being the more famous one – ancestral worship, the moai construction and proceeding competition between clans to build more, using so many resources that it wiped out most of the population.) Every year until the late 1860s, men would JUMP off the giant cliff in Orongo, swim to the nearby island of Motu Nui, grab a frigate bird’s egg, and try to be the first one back to Orongo. Of course, many people died just jumping off that cliff alone… The winner would be tangata-manu, or “bird-man”, the leader that would be kept in isolation, and that all clans must respect and feed for a year. Crazy. I might be confusing my stories here, but I think the tangata-manu (either him or some other leader) also has access to a virgin kept in a cave for a year so that her skin would be pure white. Oi.

Orongo is also a prime example of the houses the Rapa Nui used to build – all made of stones, and all with doors so small you have to crawl through them. There are also petroglyphs on the site: the bird-man and Make-Make (creator god) were especially prominent and a common motif.

Given the poor weather, we opted to relax for the afternoon after returning to the campsite, but I did an additional evening bike ride to see Hanga Roa and just watch the crashing waves and surfers on that giant coastline. Wonderful evening.

I was offered that night to join a group of Australians (Tim, Brendan, Anthea) the next morning to see the sunrise at Ahu Tongariki, the most famous moai on the island (15 in a line). However, when I woke up with them at 7:30 the next morning, they realised they didn’t have enough room in their van that they were sharing with a French couple. Feeling a little bit reckless, I decided to just bike in the dark.

I don’t know what I was thinking! Biking with a headtorch and not being able to clearly see the street signs is a problem already, but it was 20 km to Tongariki (on a good paved road, at least) and I left the campsite at 7:45. Sunrise is just shy of 9 am.

But having started already, I couldn’t bear the thought of returning…so I kept going, thinking it’d be nice anyway to arrive at Tongariki even after sunrise. And as it started to get bright, the bike ride was splendid and peaceful, with no one on the road, and the only sound was my bike and the waves. But by 8:30, with only 6 km of progress, I was exhausted! I was very very lucky – given that I had seen no vehicles for quite some time (I left far later than most people who were DRIVING to Tongariki for sunrise), a truck rolled by…and I stuck my thumb out.

And they stopped. (Well, I also kinda swerved my bike into the middle of the road…) Whoo, hitchhike! I was picked up by three Ukrainians who were filming a TV special on Chile, and they were heading to Tongariki for sunrise as well. We made it with 5 minutes to spare, and the Aussies were certainly befuddled as to how I could bike so fast!

What a beautiful sunrise.

easter-island

With the rest of the morning ahead (but unfortunately no food with me, and I had skipped breakfast), I opted to bike the 20 km back to Hanga Roa and make frequent stops. The first site – Rano Raraku, a crater known as the birthplace of moai, where they are carved. Moai are scattered all over the hillside. With barely anyone there as the site had just opened for the day, I spent a good hour and a half wandering around the moai and the crater lake. (Some Americans offered me cookies, yay!)

After a few hours of biking and stopping and biking and stopping, I needed to take a dip. Since the island is so isolated, it’s super safe (I figure anyone who commits a crime would get lynched or thrown off a cliff, right?), so I just left my bike on the side of the road and walked to the coast down a few rocks where I was sure no one from the road (or anywhere, really – there’s no land for thousands of kilometres!) could see me. I found a rocky bay, and decided to jump in…sans clothing. Heh. Check that one off my bucket list.

There were a few more moai stops on the long way back to town – Akahanga in particular, with 13 fallen moai and a cave. The island is just littered with moai, whether standing, fallen, or broken, and the sheer commonness of it really took me aback.

I reached the campsite at 1 pm (note that I left at 7:45) and quickly devoured lunch. But by 2:30…and the whole day ahead of me…what else to do? I opted to bike to Anakena Beach, 18 km away. Hopefully I could hitchhike, right?

Wrong. Sniffle. That was a torturous uphill ride…although the last 4 km were steep downhill. It took me an hour and a half, as I was already exhausted from over 25 km of biking on hilly terrain already, and I don’t bike regularly. Seeing the ocean again was a sight for sore eyes.

The beach was wonderful though, and definitely more than comparable to the best in Southeast Asia – white, soft sand, few people, crystal clear water. Knowing that they would probably be there, I found Tor, Mikkel, and Stephanie, and joined them for a few hours just dipping in and lying on the beach, then taking photos at Ahu Nau Nau, the line of moai standing by the beach. We found Tim, Brendan, and Anthea as well, who offered to give me a ride back (they saw me at the campsite at lunch, and they had rented a car much later to head to the beach)…but they didn’t have room for my bike. Sigh.

So…another 18 km back, right? And the first 4 km were sheer torture – what was steep downhill for us just hours earlier became steep uphill. Stephanie and I struggled and had to walk our bikes up since we were both tired, but Tor and Mikkel easily drew ahead. Fortunately for us stragglers though…a kind Rapa Nui family in a truck stopped and picked us up! Whoo! I’ll never forget the hilariously incredulous expressions on Mikkel and Tor as we passed them, sitting comfortably in the wind in the back of the truck. The family dropped us off about 10 km on the way, but the rest of the ride back to town was a gentle downhill slope and quite easy and relaxing for us anyway. We made it back to town around 7:45…so I had a 12 hour day with over 45 km logged. Pretty much collapsed on my bed that night.

I really needed a slow day the next day, but I joined Anthea, Brendan, and Tim for a hike up Maunga Terevaka (507 m), the tallest hill on the island. It only took one hour, and the scenery was great – we could almost see the whole island and the Pacific Ocean on all sides, and there were plenty more rolling hills, endless vistas, and horses abound. Quite windy at the top though, and I was a little underprepared without a jacket.

I spent the afternoon being very lazy, chatting with Stephanie, Jacob (Denmark), and Josh (Tanzania/Vancouver Island). All three wanted (or in the case of Jacob, just received) tattoos – after all, Polynesia is where the practice all started – so we checked out some pretty amazing designs at the tattoo parlour and they made their appointments. The practice is so common here; most islanders have some form of intricate designs somewhere on them.

On the advice of Aaron and Lara (Florida), I decided to try some snorkeling in the most unlikely place – the harbour, right by the boats. They nonchalantly mentioned seeing plenty of sea turtles there in the last two days. Incredulous, I just had to see for myself – so I headed down to the harbour at 6:10 pm. The dive shop renting snorkels only offered full-day rentals (CH$10000 or US$20) or four-hour rentals (CH$5000), and they close at 7 pm…but after the owner saw that all I wanted was to swim around the harbour, he lent me one for free. Whoo!

I jumped into the water and put on my goggles, put my head under water, then swam about 5 metres. Boom. A giant sea turtle, swimming RIGHT below me. It clearly wanted to play. I followed it a bit (it was so close it was hard NOT to touch it), then after he disappeared…wow. So happy. I felt like returning the snorkel right then and there, but I didn’t want to seem rude after having it for all of 3 minutes, so I swam around for another 20 more, running into another (or the same) turtle and a few schools of fish. The water around the harbour was a little murky and the waves were large, so I was more than happy to finish up after seeing the turtles.

I think my life is complete already. I returned to the campsite and couldn’t stop gushing to anyone who would listen. The Aussies had gone scuba diving (too expensive for me to afford at this point), and saw another turtle sleeping on the beach just a two minute walk away – they suggested I go check that one out too.

And indeed, there was a baby leatherback turtle there, just lying on the shore! Aaahhhh! And then a moai right near it, and it was sunset! What a day – my final full day on Easter Island.

Well, that day got longer. Stephanie, Tor, Mikkel, and I had a feast of frozen-pizza-on-a-stovetop (the oven wasn’t working), but then we joined a host of others to a show at a nearby bar starting at midnight. Cheery sunny Polynesian music (I couldn’t tell whether it was in Rapa Nui or Spanish, I was that tired) and extremely energetic dancers…but it seemed like they were playing the same song for about an hour. Exhausted by 2 am, I left and called it a night hours before the others.

My last day on Easter Island was bittersweet – I didn’t want to leave! Five days is just barely enough time to see everything, especially if you don’t have a car. I bought a few souvenirs, checked out the museum, said goodbye to everyone, and then it was off to Lima again.

I think I definitely need to come back here someday.

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