Rapa Nui, known more commonly as Easter Island, is one of the most secluded destinations in the world. Since the Dutch arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722, the mysteries of this otherworldly oasis have fascinated curious travelers from all over the world. Most intriguing are the massive stone statues, or moai, scattered all over the island. Their mystery may never be solved for sure, but they are a huge part of this remote island's appeal. Chile may now lay claim to Easter Island, but this tiny land holds tight to its Polynesian origins. From the prevalence of both the Spanish and Rapa Nui languages to the popularity of ceviche and underground-cooked bundles of meat, the unique heritage of this island is a kaleidoscope of cultures worth exploring.
All three volcanos on the island are extinct and open to hikers, each with its reasons for being worthy of a summit. The Poike is the oldest volcano with access to several caverns where ancient rituals were performed. Terevaka is the largest, and a hike to its highest point provides 360-degree views of the entire island. The most popular hike is at the Rapa Nui National Park, where the volcano Rano Kau overlooks the seacliffs to the ocean. The crater at the top of the volcano has its own microclimate, which means that unique flora and fauna call this area their home. The ruined ceremonial village of Orongo is also closeby and offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the prehistoric Rapa Nui people.
On any given island paradise, most sunsets will be epic and beautiful. Nonetheless, there are several opportunities on Easter Island to photograph a sundown you won't find elsewhere on the planet. Rapa Nui's only town, Hanga Roa, is home to the Tahai ceremonial complex and three altars, or ahu, bearing a total of 15 moai. Tourists flock to this site each evening to see the bright orange sun dip below the horizon behind the Ahu Vai Uri. Pick out the perfect spot on the grass and delight your senses as the sky rapidly changes colors, and the shadows slowly darken the faces of the giant moai.
The ancient culture of Easter Island is mostly a puzzle to modern-day scientists, and the traditions that remain are a blend of modern influences and some oral tradition. Today's Rapa Nui are protective of their heritage and celebrate their pride with festivals and elaborate performances. Allow the musicians and dancers to impress you with their lively beats and energetic performances. Women shake their hips, swaying elaborate feather or grass skirts while the men don a variety of headdresses and menacing expressions. Some restaurants will present performances with a traditional Pascuense feast, or you can find an after-dinner show. Check online for details, or ask the locals for a recommendation.
One of the greatest mysteries of Rapa Nui is the specific meaning of the moai to the prehistoric peoples. These stone idols were moved to locations all over the island from the quarry at Rano Raraku. Scientists know that the statues were carved on-site and weren't transported until after completion, but production was suddenly abandoned in the 18th century. The tribe left their idols scattered along the slopes of the volcanic crater. Some moai lie toppled over while others have been buried up to their shoulders and necks after years of erosion. A few statues remain unfinished and appear as if they are asleep in rocky tombs on the mountainside. Enjoy the peace and quiet as you wander this ancient worksite, and pay your respects to the sleeping 'El Gigante,' the largest of the moai trapped in stone.
With an area of about 62 square miles, Easter Island can easily be explored on four wheels in less than one day. Traffic on the roads is virtually non-existent, so you can focus your concentration on the breathtaking vistas and secluded photo opportunities. The drive between Vinapu and Vaihu is particularly mesmerizing, with sweeping views of waves crashing onto the rocky coastline. Feel free to pull over and capture some lovely portraits among the coral trees, and keep an eye out for wild horses. These majestic creatures are known to wander the island, often befriending the local stray dogs.
Sunrises are a special event that attracts tourists year-round, and the best place to watch the dawn is arguably at Ahu Tongariki. Located near the Rano Raraku volcano, the island's largest ahu displays 15 moai against the backdrop of an open sky. The moai's hulking silhouettes sharpen and come to life as the morning light brightens the day. Make sure you purchase a ticket ahead of time, since the area is considered a national park. Plan to be on Easter Island between December and March when the sun rises directly behind the statues to a dramatic effect. Depending on the time of year, the sun sometimes rises as late at 9 a.m., leaving you more chances to hit the snooze button.
Hundred of volcanic caves have been discovered throughout the years, most of which were used by the Rapa Nui people for centuries. Ana Kai Tangata is well-known for several reasons. This cave's opening is easily accessible and overlooks the ocean; from this spot, you can enjoy a gorgeous view of the skyline and crashing waves even during the high tide. Inside the cave's inner vault, you'll find yourself standing underneath a collection of ancient cave paintings. The colorful images depict a migratory seabird that became the main icon of the Rapa Nui's Birdman cult. Entrance into the caves is safer in numbers, so be sure to book a tour before arriving. You're less likely to get lost, and you'll learn more about the mythology of Rapa Nui.
Though most of the beaches on Rapa Nui are layered with volcanic rock there are a few exceptions, such as the pink sand beach at Ovahe. This site's isolated location makes it tough to find, but the quiet intimacy makes it a perfect spot for meditation or lovebirds seeking privacy. The more popular Anakena Beach is like something out of a dream. The fine sand of the coral white beach beckons with promises of peaceful relaxation. Not far away, the watchful moai stand guard over the beach and all who come to delight in the scenery. The sparkling turquoise waters are the perfect temperature for swimming year-round; once you step foot on Anakena Beach, you may never wish to leave.
'Navel of the World' sometimes refers to Easter Island's location in the middle of the ocean. It's also the name of an important ceremonial site at Te Pito Kura. This large boulder is situated on a cliff overlooking the vast ocean. The Rapa Nui believed this massive stone possessed supernatural energy, while some couples sought its power to increase fertility. Tourists are no longer allowed to touch the stone, but they can marvel at the ancient structure while visiting the moai, Paro. Paro is the largest statue on the island to have been moved from Rano Raraku, and he remains toppled over since the 19th century. Be sure to stop by the Navel of the World, and hopefully, you'll catch some good vibes before heading back to town.
Over the generations, Polynesian and Chilean recipes have meshed to create the Pascuense flavor that you must taste to believe. Ceviches made with the fresh catch of the day are flavored with coconut milk or soy sauce, and tuna patties are like empanadas stuffed with fresh tuna, cheese, and tomato. If you're craving a traditional food experience, try the Umu Rapa Nui. Locals stack meats, fish, and vegetables such as sweet potatoes and taro underground with firewood and hot stones. After hours of slowly tenderizing, the finished meal is enjoyed by the community. The Tapiti Festival in February hosts a special dinner where locals and tourists are invited to share an authentic Umu Rapa Nui.