The Story of Rapa Nui
Easter Island is a destination shrouded in mystery, an island isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres away from anywhere else.
It’s the type of place you see on travel brochures or TV programs, a Polynesian island with enigmatic massive stone figures that were somehow moved across the island with only primitive technologies.
The names “Easter Island”, and the equivalent “Isla De Pascua” in Spanish, commemorate the European discovery of the island on Easter Sunday of 1722 by a Dutch exploration vessel.
Rapa Nui is the native name for both the island and the people who inhabited it, and coincidentally also a delicious chocolate store from Bariloche in Argentina.
Sheer isolation, and the fact that LATAM Airlines has a monopoly on flights from the Chilean mainland, means it is an expensive place to visit.
Most travellers stay from a few days up to a week, which gives you plenty of time to see all the sights and take in the mystique.
While it certainly isn’t backpacker budget friendly, it can be visited without completely breaking the bank if you follow some key tips.
Getting to Know the Island
The first things to know about Rapa Nui is that it is super laid back. Not even just a little bit. A lot.
We visited in late April which is outside of the peak season of December to March so that probably exacerbated it, but we didn’t get the feeling it would significantly change.
Opening hours of just about everything are super fluid, with shops and attractions regularly opening or closing whenever they want, regardless of any posted times.
Once you get used to this cultural difference you can take a deep breath, relax and just roll with it.
Chile bought and annexed Easter Island in 1888, so the currency is the Chilean peso, and Spanish is the main language spoken on the island.
Hanga Roa is the one and only town on the island, and it isn’t big.
There are two banks in town (Banco Estado and Rio Santander) with ATM’s for withdrawing cash, although most traveller’s would have come through Santiago so are likely to have cash available.
There are also currency exchange options but as we didn’t use them we can’t comment on the rates they offer.
Most budget accommodation doesn’t include internet, but there are basically 3 locations where the Chilean government provides free Wifi – the main plaza, the government administration building (near Banco Estado) and the tourist information centre on the coast (near Rio Santander).
It is sketchy, with inconsisent speeds and dropouts, and we spoke to people that couldn’t connect to it at all, but it is free.
There are also a couple of internet cafes in town, but by all reports they weren’t particularly more reliable (“oh it’s not working? It does that, just wait a few minutes”).
Getting To The Island
Book ahead, and don’t book one way!
The first tip shouldn’t be a surprise, as there are limited flights with high demand all year around so there aren’t any last minute deals.
The pricing system LATAM uses also seems to penalise you for short trips, with trips a week and above quite a bit cheaper.
While Easter Island isn’t the cheapest place to spend your time, if you have the flexibility for the longer stay then it can save you money overall.
Many other sources mention checking business class fares as in certain cases they can even be cheaper than economy, but either way they are much better value than on other routes if you feel the urge to splurge.
The second tip comes from the experience of an American couple we met on the island.
They were trying to fit in a last minute trip before he headed back to the USA, so they got one way tickets to the island.
What happened next was a lovely example of the relaxed nature of Rapa Nui.
You can’t purchase tickets from the island to Chile online, you need to visit the small LATAM office in town. There you get to draw your deli style ticket to be served, you’re probably thinking maybe 20 minutes to half an hour until you realise there’s about a 100 tickets in front of you. You go have lunch for an hour and a half and return, it’s moved 5 tickets. You come back the next day, they’re not open 2 hours after the opening time. Once they eventually open, they decide to close shortly after for lunch. After 3 days of this it hits Friday afternoon and they tell you as they close the door in your face that they don’t open on weekends so you’ll have to come back Monday. Oh and the numbers start again.
In the end they managed to buy released tickets through a friend of the lady from the hostal, probably a good thing as the only other option was a twice yearly ship.
Moral of the story – don’t buy one way tickets to Easter Island!
Getting A Roof Over Your Head
The cheapest way to stay on Easter Island is camping, of which there are now a few options.
There is only one place with dorm style accommodation, and they apparently frequently book out a long way out.
The main other options are hostals or if you can get a group of at least 4 then cabanas can also offer a very competitive price.
There are of course also many hotels available, but for budget travellers the most important factor is that your accommodation includes a kitchen, as budget eateries are not plentiful on the island.
We brought most of our food for dinners with us from the mainland, and then supplemented with some fresh food on the island.
We highly recommend other budget travellers consider this as almost everything is flown in from the mainland so you have a lot less choice and pay a premium.
Lunches were a combination of leftovers, empanadas from the bakeries and Chilean style takeaway meals at Club Sandwich.
It was just us two so we booked a private room with shared bathroom at Hostal Mata through AirBnB for about $50 AUD / night (~$37 USD), which we were very happy with.
They also offered the cheapest camping if you didn’t have your own gear as they included everything for about $12 USD / night in low season.
The other big bonus was they got us much better rates, particularly for car hire.
It is worth booking at least your first night on the island ahead, even in low season.
Almost everyone seems to offer an airport pick up service, complete with complementary lei.
Considering how close everything is it’s not really needed, but we were taken on a brief drive through town and all the important spots pointed out.
If it isn’t high season you could probably negotiate lower rates direct after the first night or two.
The best way to get around the island is to hire a car and drive, it gives you the freedom to explore and join the masses for sunrise at Tongariki.
It is also quite expensive, so if possible the best idea is to find like minded people to share with, and limit the days you use the car.
Before we visited the island we weren’t sure how long we’d need, or what our options were if we didn’t have a car.
Most of the island that can be visited with a vehicle is very flat, with the exception of Orongo / Rano Kau, which are both a fairly easy hike from town.
That means if you don’t mind riding 30-50km in a day, you could feasibly use a bike to see the whole island.
Personally we chose the car route, we hired one of the multitude of Suzuki Jimny’s for 2 days which we think was the perfect amount.
If you only had 4 or less days on the island it would be worth considering another day, but as a days rental is the full 24 hours it gives you quite a bit of time.
It is worth noting that most of the hire cars are older manual 4WD’s, and there is a big premium for an automatic car (about $30 USD).
There are 2 ‘big’ car hire agencies Oceanic and Insular, and then many other places with a handful of cars in varying condition.
The standard rates for a car started at 50,000 pesos per 24 hours ($105 AUD / $80 USD) but with the help of our hostal it went down to 35,000 pesos.
As far as we understood no one offers insurance on the island, but given the condition of the roads and the cars you rarely get above 60 km/h.
The real danger is the multitude of free range animals.
Horses, cows, chickens and dogs roam whereever they want, whenever they want.
It wasn’t unusual to have to stop and let a herd of horses pass, but just like everything on the island you take it as it comes.
Let’s face it, ultimately you want to visit Easter Island to see the famous Moai statues.
With 2-3 days you can visit all of the restored Moai sites and the other major points of interest.
But there is plenty more to do and keep you amused if you have a bit more time on the island.
Our first stop was the museum at the Northern end of town, which is small but gives you a decent introduction to the background of the island (dual Spanish / English signs).
We highly recommend a visit early on in your trip to set the scene.
It’s also very suitable for budget travellers – it’s free!
There are two locations that can only be visited once per national park pass, which at a steep $80 USD each (April 2018) you don’t want to be paying twice.
The first, Rano Raraku, is the location of the quarry where most of the Moai were carved, and it is one of the most interesting spots on the island.
The other is Orongo village, where the Birdman Cult that rose in significance later in Rapa Nui’s history was centred.
The island is composed of 3 main volcanic peaks, and there are therefore some interesting craters to be seen.
Rano Kau is definitely the most impressive, with a water filled crater and a thriving micro-ecosystem, and is not to be missed.
It can be reached on a short drive from town, or about a 1.5 hour hike, and then an easy ~45 minute hike around the crater to the East side.
There are also many caves as result of the island’s volcanic origins.
Ana Kakenga (Cave of Two Windows / Caverna de Dos Ventanas) has two branches that run to the cliffside and open up looking out over the ocean.
The Ana Te Pahu (Banana Cave) is named such because they used to grow bananas inside it due to the protected environment it created.
Our favourite part though was you could walk all the way through and come out a tiny exit at the end.
Then you had to work out where you were, which was harder than you might expect, but well I guess you know we made it back.
All of the Moai statues were knocked over during a civil war due to overuse of resources, but some have been restored mainly as a result of international support from countries including Japan.
The most impressive locations are those with restored Moai, i.e. those that have been returned to standing.
In descending order of impressiveness, using the completely subjective scale of what interested us;
Ahu Tongariki – The darling of the island and postcards, 15 restored Moai stand guard in a line, and tourists flock there for a great sunrise photo.
Ahu A Kivi – These Moai supposedly represent the 7 Polynesian explorers that first discovered the island for their king, and thus are the only ones that face the ocean.
Ahu Tahai – Its location next to Hanga Roa mean the crowds stream in, but it is a lovely experience nonetheless. It is also possible to take the short walk up to the lone restored Moai a little further north, or sit and have cocktails at Tahai Sunset like we did.
Anakena (Ahu Nau Nau) – At the only real beach on the island there is a group of 7 and a single lone Moai.
There is also a mix of restored original and modern standing Moai in Hanga Roa and surrounds, but they can’t match the others for majesty.
There are many more unrestored Moai sites scattered aroung the island, with some marked on the official map.
We quickly found that all the maps we’d received were a bit different, and each of them had something uniquely useful.
Our highlights were Ahu Vinapu for its Inca like awesome stonework and Ahu One Makihi where you could get up close to a very well defined Moai on its back.
Besides viewing the Moai located there, Anakena beach is a great place for relaxation and sun baking if the weather is good.
In Summer it would definitely be packed, but we actually had the beach to ourselves one day with the weather looking a little questionable.
There is a shuttle there that runs roughly hourly for $14 USD return, which if you don’t have a vehicle and you’re travelling solo may be an option.
If you want to get a bit more active the main sporting activities are hiking and snorkelling/diving.
The three main hikes available are;
- Terevaka: The path to the highest point on the island (a grand 514m high) starts at either Ahu Aviki (3.5km one way) or a signposted point along the main road from Hanga Roa to Anakena (4.5km one way). It is actually quite an easy hike of about an hour from Ahu Akivi, with a small crater followed by the actual ‘peak’ giving you great views to almost all of the coastline of the island.
- Poike: We didn’t do this hike on the far east coast but there are also at least two different access points, with the highlight being the Cave of Virgins
- North-west coast: From Anakena beach around to Ahu Te Peu there are many unrestored Moai and a rugged landscape. We started this hike but reached a gate and weren’t sure of the cultural sensitivities of pushing on, so we gave up and returned to Anakena and hung out on the beach.
There are many companies offering snorkelling or diving trips, but due to Callum getting a bit sick we didn’t manage to try it out.
If you have your dive ticket there is a submerged Moai in a bit over 20m water depth, although it is really only a movie prop and not the real deal.
Prices were fairly high, with snorkelling from 15,000 pesos each if we combined with a group or 30,000 each if we wanted a private trip, and shore diving starting at 20,000 pesos.
We did manage to see a turtle while we were sitting on the coast, so if you can get cheap or included snorkel hire you could simply check out the water near town like we saw many people doing.
On the cultural side there are a few different things to do.
There is a large festival in February that celebrates the culture of Rapa Nui, but you should know about it if you’re visiting specifically for the festival!
Outside of this period a classic tourist attraction is to attend one of the Polynesian dance shows, with Kari Kari being the original but there are also many other offshoots with shows on different nights.
If you’re on a backpacker budget skip the dinner and get a show only ticket, it cost us 15,000 pesos each ($33 AUD / $25 USD) but was surprisingly enjoyable.
The other option is if your visit covers a Sunday is to attend a 9am mass at the town church.
We didn’t make it as we were trying to sort out our car hire, but is apparently a nice mix of the Christian religion and native customs.
Inside the church they were showing plans to build a much bigger turtle shaped church, but the plans were from 2016 so not too sure how likely they are to come to fruition.
Last, but definitely not least, the island has its own microbrewery Cervecería Mahina.
You can taste the two beers around the island, they produce a tasty Porter suitable for warmer weather and a friendly Pale Ale.
Best of all you can take a short walk from the town church to Mahina and get a personal tour.
This isn’t a massive shiny commercial operation, it’s a charming, passionate affair in a biggish shed that suits Easter Island to a tee.
We paid 5,000 pesos each and got a brief run through of the brewing process and their set up through to the labelling stage – which is 100% done by hand!
Luckily our guide spoke pretty decent English as our Spanish is very lacking.
The head brewer Salfate interjected occasionally to offer the correct English word while he continued to go about his work, presumably trying to perfect a new recipe for his yet to be released IPA.
Of course every brewery tour needs some samples, and this one delivered – they cracked a bottle of each of their brews and we tried them fresh.
Now all that’s left to do is arrange your own trip.
If you’re travelling on a budget book your flights as far ahead as possible, book accommodation with a kitchen and take as much food from the mainland as possible.
Limit how long you hire a car for, and try and share it with others if possible, but don’t miss out on the freedom it grants you.
From an archaelogical point of view there is still a significant amount to discover about the island.
And then there’s that little contentious point of how the Rapa Nui moved the Moai into place – were they ‘walked’, rolled on logs or were children imbued with the mana of the clan and carried them?
Culturally and socially it feels like the island is still coming to grips with what the future looks like.
Should more Moai be restored which quickens the degradation processes, or should they be left to reflect the reality of the civil war?
How many tourists are sustainable?
Easter Island was not quite what we expected before we flew there.
We went for the mysterious Moai, and we found a very welcoming people.
It was certainly a very special place.