I included Easter Island on my trip because I was so curious about it, and it turned out to be easy to do on the way to Chile, whereas for most people it´s an expensive flight or two to one of the most remote populated places on Earth. I knew about as much as most people – that it was small, remote, and had a lot of big stone heads on it. There is that movie, Rapa Nui, with Jason Scott Lee in it, but I never paid any attention to it, and apparently neither did anyone else. I half imagined the only way to get there would be in a biplane piloted by a mad Chilean who would land us on the high street, dodging horses as we skittered to a halt to be greeted by a gruff customs official with an unfeasibly large moustache and a cigar the size of a demi-baguette – but it turns out they have a proper airport, and the plane was a very modern Airbus on its way to Santiago. Furthermore I can confirm that Easter Island has one ATM, Internet access, cars, and wheelie bins. Reality has almost always been more mundane than I expected things to be, except for India.
Leaving Tahiti, I boarded the flight to be greeted by LAN Chile air stewards wearing scary black and red uniforms that made them look somewhere between concentration camp commandants and dominatrixes, but maybe that´s just my twisted mind. Easter Island was the first sniff of land we saw since Tahiti, and you get an idea how small the island is when the runway virtually cuts across the whole thing. The airport is one of those very small places where you walk off the plane down steps and across the runway, not through a tunnel that makes you feel like a gerbil in one of those combi-cages that´s all connected by tubes. Outside the airport I met a friendly lady called Sandra who took me back to her residence, a ten minute walk from the airport in Hanga Roa, the only real settlement on the island. Guest house (residence) owners are waiting at the airport every time a flight comes in, shouting “Sir! Sir!” across the arrivals hall, even as you stumble numb-headed and back-packed around trying to remember where you put your passport.
They speak Spanish in Easter Island, as it´s part of Chile and many if not most of the people there now are Chilean, after most of the original Rapa Nui were wiped out by in-fighting, disease, cannibalism (apparently), and being taken from the island by waves of slave ships. My Spanish wasn´t too hot after I got my GCSE in it over ten years ago, and I also kept getting confused after only just having got the swing of French on Tahiti, so I kept saying Oui when I meant to say Si. The quality of Spanish used by the average tourist is pretty poor unless they´ve been practicing for a while, so questions will be asked in Spanglish, e.g “Hola Señor, donde est the bathroom, por favor?”. The locals often answer Spanish questions in English, presumably as they´d rather not listen to you mangle their language for the next five minutes or look embarrassed at them before saying “No hablo mucho Espanol, sorry…”
After propositioning Camilla and Sanita outside a restaurant in Hanga Roa, I had people to share a jeep with to explore the island, so we took off in a 4×4 to see the sights – while Easter Island is pretty small, it´s not all walkable unless you take whole days to do just that, so the preferred way of getting around is a hire car. Four or five car hire places in Hanga Roa for a place the size of Easter Island may be overcrowding the market a little, but that´s obviously where the money is.
The stone heads, Moai, are to be found all over Easter Island, looking inwards from the sea – over eight hundred of them in all, half of those unfinished, lying around Rano Raraku, the volcanic crater from which they were carved. Most of the Moai at major sights of interest are once more standing tall, after having been toppled during inter-clan conflicts on the island in around the sixteenth century. Easter Island is mercifully free of souvenir vendors at every site of interest – you just drive up and take a look with relatively little hassle. My first sight of the Moai felt a little like a dream come true – they are impressive, big (most are several meters tall), but more than that they are a symbol of a place that was always a very, very long way away, and to see them it´s still a mystery quite how, and why, these giant monoliths were carved from the hillsides of Rano Raraku and erected all over the island. Rano Raraku itself is fascinating – half-finished Moai stand still embedded in the sides of the hill, some now no more than giant faces peering skywards from the grass.
Easter Island has a nice feel to it, with locals who are neither obsequious nor aloof, just friendly and relaxed. You get the feeling that because so many people don´t get a chance to come here, it´s never more crowded than one or two flights a day can make it, the place is running at a happily relaxed pace. The bars and restaurants are expensive – not compared to home, but compared to a budget destination I suppose. That said, Te Moana in Hanga Roa served great food and cold beer, had great staff (and, sorry, but they were all beautiful), and had live music most nights – altogether a more appealing proposition than trying to cook with the overpriced, wilted vegetables from the local supermercados.
While there, I also got to go snorkelling in crystal water just off the coast, with clear visibility twenty meters down to the ocean floor, to see my old favourites, parrot fish. The coast of Easter Island is another great feature of the place – dramatic, jagged outcrops of volcanic rock jut into the water where they are pummelled by runaway trains of waves, huge, tsunami-like monsters that churn the surf up so much it goes as white as milk. Easter Island even has a beach of clear waters over pinkish sand, where fish swim around your feet and vendors sell barbecued chicken, cold Sprites and souvenir mini-Moai, a row of Moai looking inland at the back of the beach as if they disapproved and turned their backs on the whole thing.
On Easter Island I saw one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life, and it was a complete surprise – it almost made going there worth it all on its own, and when Camilla, Sanita and I reached it after over an hour´s uphill walk from Hanga Roa, we all went silent. The volcanic crater at Rano Kau on the Western tip of the island was an utterly unspoilt place of simple, stunning natural beauty, with an emerald lagoon in the base, and a view out to the endless Pacific through a break in the wall of the crater. It´s places like this, that I had never really heard about before, that blow my mind. Just don´t tell anyone about it.
Next, Chile for one night, and Argentina, one of my favouritest places yet.