It had been my dream since childhood: to visit one of the remotest places on Earth with the fantasy name of Easter Island. My dream began when I read about Thor Heyerdahl's explorations in the South Pacific and his long sailings on simple rafts and boats to prove theories about the origins of the people on Easter Island. (His belief that they came from South America was proved wrong; they came from Polynesia.) From when I saw a spread in National Geographic of giant stone heads with their tight-lipped looks of calm emerging from the earth, I'd wanted to see that island for myself.
I didn't actually believe I would ever get there. Sometimes dreams are just for fun. But as I planned a month-long trip through South America for this past winter I realized it would end in Santiago, Chile. That city has one of only two airports in the world with tourist flights to Easter Island—the other is in Tahiti—so I knew this was probably my best hope of getting there. Not that traveling to Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, as it's called again now, is a quick side trip. The flight takes about five hours one way. We needed to register proof of our return flight and our accommodation before we were allowed to get on the plane. With the expense of the airline ticket, plus the high cost of food and lodging on the island, I wasn't sure I could manage the trip. But I found a blog post on how to visit the island cheaply and shared it with my traveling companion who had the foresight to book one of the cheapest accommodations, a campground by the ocean where we could glamp on cots in a tent for three nights. With that confirmed and a promise to each other that we'd carry Chilean cash and food from the mainland as suggested on the blog, we committed to going.
As our airplane descended on a clear morning, I peered constantly through the window seeing nothing but miles and miles of ocean. And then out of nowhere, a cliff-faced island appeared. Landing on that mysterious, magical island thrilled me like no other landing has. It felt both surreal and right to finally be on Napa Rui. But as we followed the line in the airport to pay the $80 fee to visit the sites, I wondered if reality would live up to my dream.
Good luck held. At our place to stay, they gave us not a tent, but an apartment complete with our own kitchen where we could prepare our meals. It didn't take long to explore the main street of the only town, Hanga Roa, where we were accompanied by one of the dogs that wander freely on the streets. Someone had warned us that the wild dogs on the island could be dangerous, but this one was the gentlest of souls and we were sorry to lose him when we stayed in one of the shops too long.
Before sunset we headed to Tahai, the site of a cluster of the statues or moai on the outskirts of town. It's there where I first saw how fragile these relics had become with their missing pieces and stone pitted by the sea. A row of small boulders laid on the grass were all that kept the tourists back, but not always successfully. Locals talk of tourists who've tried to climb the statues to chip off a piece of an ear as a souvenir. The latest regrettable social media photo phenomenon was to stand close enough with a raised finger so it looked like the Instagrammer was picking the nose of a moai. As I stared at the statues standing on their platform or ahu, like strong, rigid sentinels, I felt anger at those who showed no respect for their sacredness. But that evening, laid-back tourists and locals stretched out on the grass to watch in wonder as the moai became backlit by a glowing orange light.
The next morning the sun was shining for our big day; we'd splurged on a private guide who would take us into the sites and explain the history to us. Benjamin, a young man who grew up on the island, showed up with a friend who would drive us around. We felt in good hands. Benjamin could tell us about the slow pace of life on the island as well as stories of the moai, which he clearly was proud of. Islanders call the moai in the British museum, "stolen friend" and they want it back. Benjamin was headed off to university in the spring and, although Rapa Nui is a Chilean territory, he felt no connection to the university in the bustling capital of Santiago. Instead he'd head to Hawaii for his studies where there was a natural affinity between those islanders and his and a pace of life he thought he could manage. But he felt sad he had to leave at all.
We drove along the rugged seacoast, past sharp volcano rocks offshore that make surfing a challenge. We stopped on roads while wild horses crossed with the slowness of animals that knew no harm would come to them.
At our first stop I realized that reality would live up to my dream, perhaps surpass it. A wide, beautiful green slope against a sharp rock face rose in front of us: Rano Raraku, the quarry where the statues were carved. Everywhere we looked, statues emerged out of the grass, some straight, some at angles, about 400 of them, the largest grouping on the island. One unfinished statue lies still attached to the rock face.
As we wandered on pathways past them, I tried to listen to the facts that Benjamin was telling us but I really wanted to tune him out, to be still with the statues and imprint the memory of being there on my brain. I often fell back but still learned about the debate on how the statues were moved from the quarry to the land of families who would erect them as symbols of power and prestige. Variations on ropes, tree trunks as rollers and pulleys have been suggested but no one knows for sure.
The statues left behind, the ones we could almost touch, are not "activated," as Benjamin put it. It was only when the moai were moved to a burial site, set on a platform over the bones of family members, given coral eyes and sometimes a red stone hat, that they were believed to possess the power to protect. But in some ways, the statues left behind appear to have more power today. When the island became inhabited around 1200 AD it didn't take long for the population to grow; eventually violence between the clans broke out as resources grew scarcer. In the fighting, many of the statues were pulled off their platforms to deprive enemies of their power.
In the quarry, however, statues remained slowly buried by dirt until, in most cases, only their heads remained visible. Digs have discovered that the bodies of the statues remained intact under the earth. And now with the risk of rising seas from climate change, the quarry statues on the hill have a better chance of avoiding this new threat. As I stood on that open slope that was once covered with trees, I felt like I was in history lesson on what environmental damage could do to a landscape and a culture.
At Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform of fifteen statues, sitting below the quarry hill, we learned of the damage the sea has already done. As an archaeological project was underway to remount the statues toppled centuries earlier, the 1960 earthquake that hit Chile hard sent a tsunami which pushed the pieces of the statues inland. It took international teams years to sort through the rubble and restore the platform to its previous glory. But now the statues of Ahu Tongariki stand with their back to the ocean and it's not hard to imagine them succumbing to rising waters.
Wherever we went to see the moai, in the field at Ahu Akivi or at the paradise-like sand beach of Anakena where six of the best preserved statues with carvings on their back stand near the first statue to be re-erected by Thor Heyderdahl in the 1950s, I felt a sense of gratitude. I was thankful for the Islanders and archaeologists who have preserved and guarded these treasures of history. I felt fortunate to be seeing them before a threat like over-tourism, climate change, or natural environmental upheavals damage them further.
I had always been so focused on seeing the statues that I hadn't paid much attention to one of the most fascinating aspects of Easter Island. Benjamin took us high above a spectacular shoreline with a steep-sided crater filled with fresh water and vegetation. Orango was the centerpiece of the Bird Man cult that brought a strange form of democracy to the island in the 1800s after the violence that tore it apart. The cult was built around finding the first egg laid by a sacred bird each spring, a bird that no longer comes to the area. Painted competitors from each tribe stayed in stone rooms on the highland, many of which still remain, until the bird appeared; then they would swim out to the islets where the bird laid its eggs. The winning competitor was the man who was able to strap the first egg to his forehead, swim to the cliffs, and make the dangerous climb back to Orango. His master would become Bird Man for the year, a de facto leader.
I left Easter Island feeling light. It had been the perfect end to a carefree month in South America. News reports told us of a virus that had shut down parts of China before striking in Iran and Italy. To us at the time, that danger seemed so far away, especially on a magical island in the middle of nowhere. It was only when I got back home that the reality of the virus confronted me with the growing knowledge that I wouldn't be going anywhere for some time and that I might have to cancel a long-planned trip to Egypt in the fall. Just as a trip to Easter Island had seemed a dream for years, travel anywhere now seemed like one. As I watch virtual tours of places I can't go to, however, and dream about where I'd like to go next, I remind myself that travel dreams can become real again. We just may have to wait for them.
Debi Goodwin is the author of the non-fiction book, Citizens of Nowhere. Her memoir on grief and gardening, A Victory Garden for Trying Times, was published by Dundurn Press in Canada in 2019.
The Stones of Genghis Khan - James Michael Dorsey
Micronesia's Mysterious Nan Madol - Brad Olsen
Tanna: The Isle of Curious Cults - Stephen M. Bland
A Climb To the Mountain of Fire in New Zealand - Debi Goodwin
See other South America and South Pacific stories from the archives
Books from the Author:
Buy Citizens of Nowhere: From Refugee Camp to Canadian Campus at your local bookstore, or get it online here: