Day 11: Rapa Nui
Now that we are further north on the globe, the sun rises at around 7:30AM, which means we are greeted by the Easter Island dawn as we woke for the day. Thanks sunshine! At breakfast, we were expecting the dining room to be crowded (like last night), but everybody already cleared out and we had the place to ourselves. We grabbed our packs, and met our guide Estefan in the lobby along with Chase, our hiking cohort for the day.
We drove northwest to our starting point near Ana Te Pahu (the lava cave system we saw yesterday) and started the hike by taking a quick detour to another cave Estefan wanted to show us if we were up for it. Well, since there were just three of us on the hike, we pretty much told Estefan we’d gladly see all the secret menu items he might not usually include for a larger group… and he did not disappoint.
Starting with the cave, we climbed our way down from the surface, past a couple feisty tree branches, and into a small section with a natural water reservoir – the like of which the Rapa Nui people would use to get fresh water.
Then we went even further into the cave, through a narrow and short tunnel, emerging into a larger opening with a pool of water. This new area was pitch dark. With only our cell phone flashlights available for light, we oriented ourselves by the sound of dripping water coming down through the ceiling, and the splash made when Estefan threw a rock in the general direction of the deep pool of water.
Crawling back out of the cave, we returned to the path and started the “official” hike, which follows the island’s north coast for about 10 miles through areas that once belonged to the Miru, the most powerful tribe in Rapa Nui. The area is not visited by many tourists and we only saw one other “wild human” on the trail the entire day.
There may not be many people, but the area is an archeological paradise. Most of the moai we saw on this hike were on the ground, probably because they were knocked down by tribal fighting, fell down by accident in travel, or were worn down by erosion and the weather. However, a few moai we saw were still “standing” because they were essentially turned into building blocks in platforms built to put new moai on top of them.
One way the Rapa Nui people kept their belongings safe was using caves as storage rooms. We were able to explore one of these caves (“we” being Jo) with a very small entryway, but once inside, it opened into a nice little space.
It is relatively easy to tell when each moai was made. The oldest moai are smaller and primitively carved. Many of the older moai are also cut from different stone, such as basalt. The newer moai are bigger and carved with more detail. We saw a variety of moai from different generations along the trail, featuring different sizes and material.
Having found a nice space on the high cliffs with a fantastic view of the ocean, we stopped for lunch. We’ve been hauling these backpacking chairs all the way from Chicago, and were finally rewarded with the perfect opportunity to use them. We may have even convinced Estefan to get one.
After our hearty lunch, we continued on with the hike. The caves make fertile ground for banana trees, and Estefan spotted one with a few ripe enough to become tasty hiking snacks. Next we saw a giant ramp (Ahu Atanga) at the northernmost part of the island that probably was designed to resemble a boat, given that the area was once the main fishing hub/port of the Rapa Nui people.
The Rapa Nui have three types of burial grounds. The most commonly seen is the basic flat platform with the moai on top. The second is a mountain-shaped structure that rises to a high point in the middle. The third is a wide, steep slope with a small moai at the top. This kind is rare and little is known about it, hence, Estefan joked this ramp is the best evidence of aliens having visited Easter Island.
We continued eastward and saw a variety of notable archeological items, including a cave with hieroglyphs on the ceiling, carvings in the surrounding rocks (such as turtles and tuna), and additional platforms possibly used to denote tribal boundaries. We also saw the coastal walls of a half-crater, and inquired about the colorful vegetation.
The final location of the hike was Anakena beach, one of two sandy beaches on the island. The area was once the capital city for the royal family (literally translated to “King’s Landing” from the Rapa Nui name). There are several restored moai on a platform near the beach that were well-preserved by the sand.
These moai (Ahu Nau Nau) have red-ish top knots (carved from different stone), representing hair worn in a bun on the top of the head, also known today as a “man bun.” Since they were built around the year 1100, one might say the Rapa Nui were pioneers in this hairstyle. The moai were first built in the year 880, so these are among the most recent. It is clear to see how much more detailed the carvings are. They even started adding decorations such as pierced ears, back carvings, and the top knots.
After spending a while looking at the moai at the beach, and sharing some delicious ceviche Chase ordered from the roadside cafe, we returned to the hotel. Wanting to relax in the jacuzzi after the hike, we learned it is not heated in the winter. But hey, the jets worked wonderfully, and it was refreshing.
Tomorrow, we’ll start the day with a hike to the rim of a crater and we’ll learn about something called the Birdman competition (which we don’t believe has anything to do with Michael Keaton). In the afternoon, we’ll check out the quarry where the moai were made, and where the majority of the statues remain today.