The Mysterious Moai of Easter Island, Chile

by Melania Parnisari, Hotel General Manager, Crown Princess

Melania's favorite Moai in Easter Island
Melania's favorite Moai in Easter Island

Ever since childhood, Easter Island had captured my imagination.  I’ve always been an avid reader with a strong interest in history and ancient civilizations, so this mysterious land with its unique stone sentinels called to me.  I longed to see more than just the printed pictures of one of those iconic heads; I wanted to stand in its shadow.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be working aboard the original Royal Princess cruise ship during its South American cruise season.  My contract ended in Valparaiso, Chile, and instead of heading right home, I flew to my ultimate “bucket list” destination, on my own.  Everyone thought I had lost my mind.  I simply could not explain to anyone’s satisfaction the meaning this place had for me.  Nonetheless I set off on a solo adventure that became one of my most memorable travel experiences ever.

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in the local language, is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands – its nearest neighbor is Pitcairn Island, which is more than 1,200 miles to the west.  South America is about 2,300 miles away, and is the main gateway for flights to the island (you can also fly from Tahiti).  Getting there is something of a quest and the flights are usually full.  When I checked in for my flight I was offered very generous compensation to give up my seat.  But I turned them down without hesitation — no way was I going to miss out on this experience!

I had booked a room at a small family-owned hotel, and they picked me up at the airport. I quickly discovered that everybody on the island is very friendly, and eager to share their history and heritage with visitors. The locals appreciate that most visitors are keenly interested in learning about the island.

Easter Island got its current name when Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen visited on Easter day in 1722.  But long before he came, Polynesian settlers found the island and took the art of carving mystical figures to new heights.

Those giant heads I saw in all the pictures? They’re called Moai, and on my arrival, I couldn’t wait to see one for real.

Although many have tried to solve the mystery of the Moai, there are still many theories to explain their presence.  I came to learn that the island has nearly 900 of these giant heads in various stages of completion.  On an island that’s only about 63 square miles – that’s a lot of statues per mile!

My hotel was only a few minutes’ walk to the sea and one of the Moai sites.  I quickly found my favorite spot, called Ahu Tahai.  In the late afternoon I’d walk over, sit on the grass with my book and watch the sunset and wonder…

The Moai give one many things to wonder about.  They are carved from the local volcanic rock and the style and size evolved over time.  Some think that the bigger the need, the bigger the statue to appeal to the gods.  Or maybe each neighboring clan chiefs kept trying to outdo each other with bigger and bigger Moai. The smallest ones stand only about four feet tall, but the largest tower like skyscrapers more than 30 feet high. They weigh between 14 and 80 tons, so the work it took to move them boggles the mind.

The first time I stood in front of one of these sculptures, I felt like a tiny, meaningless mosquito…. I had tears in my eyes, silly me, thinking of how little we know of our past, of the culture of people we know nothing or little about.

Each statue is quite unique.  Not only are they different sizes, but each has literally a different look – the body shape, the nose. Most no longer have the coral and stone eyes, but many still have red “hats” or pukau – which were carved in a different quarry from the statues themselves.

However, I didn’t only see a sculpture; I saw an ancient culture and a timeless puzzle. I felt the same way the first time I visited the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. How could they build these statues without modern technology?  What drove them to this?  My mind reeled with “whys” – plus a few “maybes” and “what ifs” for good measure.  At the same time I felt somehow at home, at peace with myself and the rest of the world in such a magical place.

The Moai everywhere are amazing, but the place that stunned me most was the Rano Raraku quarry.  Hundreds of Moai in various stages of completion are scattered everywhere — some standing, some lying down as if abandoned. There’s even one single Moai carved in a sitting position.  Here you can walk up close, touch them and wonder about who last worked on each statue.  Nobody knows why they stopped carving, but maybe they just got too big — Rano Raraku also features the biggest Moai ever carved – about 70 feet long — and it lies unfinished on the slopes still attached to its original rock.  It just deepens the mystery.

The statues not in the quarry are dotted all along the coast of the island, forming something of a ring around its shoreline.  What surprised me was that many statues don’t gaze out to sea (as I did regularly), but instead face inland, looking over a ceremonial area.  The Moai are mostly grouped on Ahus – stone pedestals on which they stand.  I found Ahu Tongariki the most stunning.  Here 12 Moais stand one next to the other in a neat row with the sea directly behind them.

While the Moais are the “headliners” of local attractions, there is more to see and do on this tropical island.  At one end there’s a beautiful white sand beach called Anakena.  There was talk of building a five-star resort here, but as far as I know the locals have blocked it.  There is a Moai site here, but the beach also sports a “magic” rock that radiates heat and, so they say, positive energy.

Volcanoes have left lava tubes and several interesting caves on the island, which were apparently used as refuge during the battles between tribes, and later to hide from slave hunters.  Today, many people like to explore them for the interesting artwork on the walls.

The ceremonial village of ‘Orongo also fascinated me with its story of the birdman cult which hosted an annual race to collect the first sooty tern egg of the season. The now abandoned site sits atop a hill facing the three little islets. In order to complete the challenge, young men had to climb down the very steep cliffs, swim over to the islets and collect the egg, then return. The first one to make it back would secure control of the island’s resources for his tribe for the year.  It was clearly very dangerous, with sheer cliffs and extremely strong currents to battle.

Wherever I went, I found I wasn’t really alone in my solo adventure.  It was easy to make new friends, and I met several other solo travelers, who like me, were on their own quest.   It was nice to share impressions over dinner or during an excursion. In my short time on the island, I collected new friends from Chile, Argentina, Germany, France and Switzerland.

After five days I was supposed to return to the “real world,” however, the only flight connection was delayed and I was “forced” to stay another day.  Apparently this situation is quite a routine, and extending isn’t a problem because any new guests will only arrive on that delayed plane, so our rooms were still available.

I loved the extra day which gave me the chance to do a jeep tour to the highest point of the island – Mount Terevaka. When we reached  the top of the mountain, a brilliant rainbow arched across the sky. This last amazingly peaceful image of Easter Island was what I took with me to the airport and eventually back home.

I was so lucky to return to Easter Island last year during the World Cruise on the Royal Princess.  The island has developed a lot in the 11 years since my first visit, but the magic and the mystery remained.  I was told that visitors still like to watch the sunset from “my” spot facing the Moai with the ocean behind them.

I still can’t completely explain why, but I have never felt better in my life than the time I spent in isolated reverie in my beautiful special spot by the Moai.