Enigmatic Easter Island lies in the South Pacific, some five hours off the coast of Chile. It’s said to be the most isolated inhabited place on Earth, giving it an aura of inaccessibility which belies the fact that, thanks to regular commercial flights, a trip to this evocative island is by no means limited just to the most intrepid travelers.
Though the sheer mission of traveling to the most remote corner of the Earth is an attraction in itself, the real draw of the island is the iconic statues for which it is famed. Known in the local dialect as the moai, these monolithic figures represent deified ancestors and are thought to have been carved between around 1250 and 1500 AD. There are a staggering 887 of them, many of which are still set in the hillsides of the quarry from which the compressed volcanic rock was taken to create them. The most impressive, however, are those which stand lined up on ceremonial platforms known as Ahu. These are to be found on the coast around the island, with the figures facing inland keeping watch over their living clan. The heaviest weighs an impressive 86 tons; to put that into perspective, the heaviest of the standing stones at Stonehenge is only 30 tons!
The history of Easter Island is steeped in mystery. Nobody knows for sure when the first settlers arrived, though DNA tests have shown that the present-day Easter Islanders are of Polynesian descent and probably arrived in large numbers. Indeed, legend tells of a people displaced from an island being enveloped by the sea. When they first came ashore after their long ocean voyage, archaeological evidence shows that they would have found an island paradise rich in flora and fauna – a vision quite at odds with the barren landscape which characterizes the island today. For this reason, Easter Island is often seen as a stark reminder of the effects of human occupation on fragile ecosystems; overpopulation and deforestation have left the island with virtually no trees and an economy which relies heavily on tourism. However, with UNESCO World Heritage status, the island draws in around 50,000 visitors a year – a figure expected to rise over the next decade – making tourism a reliable source of income for the remaining islanders.
So, what is it actually like to visit Easter Island? Well, there’s no getting away from the fact that the journey is a lengthy one. First, you have to get to Santiago, Chile, and from there it’s another five hours or so by plane to Easter Island’s airport at Hanga Roa. But this is not difficult to arrange, and once you’re there, you’re certain to deem the slightly arduous journey more than worthwhile. Arguably the best method of exploring the island is on horseback, and horses, bikes, scooters, and jeeps are all available for hire. The ideal way to visit Easter Island is as part of a longer trip, perhaps incorporating other Pacific Islands (there are flights to Tahiti from Easter Island) or South America. This will enable you to make the most of being out in this remote part of the world. Many operators of tailor-made holidays run optional extra trips to Easter Island as part of a visit to Chile; Audley Travel, for instance, offers Easter Island tours as part of a South America itinerary. But however brief your visit, this truly unique island is guaranteed to leave you awestruck, with the inscrutable faces of its astonishing statues etched into your memory for life.