When we told friends, family, an co-workers we were going to Easter Island, we got various looks, puzzled and incorrect responses, and other’s (not wanting to feel stupid) simply saying ‘That’s nice’! To be honest, we didn’t know exactly where it was either, but it has been on my bucket list for years. A quick “Easter Island” primer:
Isla de Pascua, (as called correctly by its Spanish name) is a small island approximately 2,300 miles from Santiago Chile, making it the most remote inhabited island in the world. The island is triangular in shape, and has one international airport with a runway running nearly the width of the island at it’s narrowest point. The runway we learned from the locals was lengthened years ago and paid for by NASA, as an alternate landing point for the Space Shuttle program, due to it’s remote location.
When we were in the cab heading from our Santiago Hotel to the Santiago Airport for our flight to Easter Island, we commented to the driver we were going to Easter Island. We got quite a puzzled look and we soon figured out it is called “Isla de Pascua” by the Chilean’s as that is the Spanish name for it, and we were using the English name, which many people don’t understand in translation.
Easter Island lies about midway between Santiago and Tahiti, and forms a triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island, which is referred to the as Polynesia. The photo shown below was taken in the archeological museum on Easter Island, showing the island’s position relative to the other islands.
Most people think of Easter Island as a place with all those ‘heads’, but it’s so much more than that. Without going into it’s long and lengthy history, I will refer a link to Wikipedia on that for further information, although even that article doesn’t mention specifically the reason for lengthening the runway. It is noted in the Wikipedia article, and as we were told on the island by our local tour guide, there are close to 900 statues called Moai. We would discover over our 2 1/2 days of touring the island, that they were built over hundreds of years, by different tribes, with the Rapa Nui being the original natives. At one point the island population was almost wiped out due to a variety of reasons (supply, rats destroying vegetation, tribal fighting, disease etc), but the island has rebounded, and is today very ecologically friendly, wanting not to repeat the mistakes of yesteryear.
The island has only one flight a day from Santiago most days, although they do have one flight a week to and from Tahiti. In high season, they may have a second flight certain days, but for the most part the single flight is the norm. Captain Steve (DOS) did a bit of research on this, which was really interesting. Apparently only one flight can be inbound to the island at a time, due to the possibility the runway could be blocked by an airline crash or some other issue blocking the single runway, as there would be nowhere for the other plane to land. There wasn’t even a taxi area per se, our 787 just turned around on the same runway.
In my last post I talked about the five hour flight over, and arriving at the hotel. In future posts, I will show some of the sites we saw over our 4 night stay on the island at the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa, however in this post I’m offering a quick overview of the island and traveling tips.
As I mentioned before, we traveled to Easter Island during the off-season; i.e. winter season, which was quite mild and balmy; i.e. temperatures in the low 70s daytime, and cooler, rarely below 60 at night. The weather changed frequently throughout the day, so you couldn’t really rely on the weather forecasts that much, and a lightweight jacket, cap, and sunglasses are a must. I point this out as we wanted to see the most spectacular ruins on our first day as it was supposed to be the sunniest day. As it turns out, it wasn’t but the weather was still cooperative; i.e. no rain, but overcast and a bit windy – understandably as there is nothing to slow the wind down for 2,300 miles!
Also, on our last tour day, we had to switch the morning and afternoon tours around due to the morning rain and off-the-road muddy conditions. Our local tour guide was outstanding (as was the driver) and picked us up at the hotel each morning at 9:30am. We did a leisurely paced morning tour (although it included much walking and hiking), and we were brought back to the hotel for lunch around 12:30pm, giving us a couple hour relaxation break before touring again in the afternoon around 2:30pm or so. As lunch was included at the hotel, this offered us a chance to rest our legs, and have a nice meal, while we reflected on our morning tour. We had the same group of four to six people each day; a Chilean couple, a Chilean mother and infant son, and ourselves. The Chilean woman came only on the first day, as the baby was understandably getting a bit cranky at the long sightseeing day.
Which leads to another couple of The Steve’s Travel Tips: Wear comfortable walking shoes or boots, even hiking boots. Also, Dress in layers, at least in the off season as the temperature and weather conditions very greatly during the day and site of the island you are visiting.
I even wore a lightweight cashmere sweater the first night to dinner, although that was mainly for the walk from the room to the restaurant, which was a few buildings away. Probably overkill on the sweater, but The Traveling Steve’s always seem to overpack, so might as well use our gear!
Touring the island can also be quite windy. You are touring Easter Island over many different types of terrain (everything from grass pastures to steep dirt or rock trails, quarries, and even rock caves down by the water.) This is not a place to tour for the elderly or people with limited mobility, so if you are thinking of going, please go while you’re still healthy and able to walk freely. Otherwise you can enjoy some of the sights from a distance, but it’s definitely not a wheel-chair friendly place to visit.
Take photos of the signs in areas were you are visiting, so you will remember where you were on the triangular-shaped island (as well as any place you go on holiday in general).
There are really only a couple sets of two lane roads across and diagonally across the island, but unlike anywhere else, there were no traffic jams! (The limitation of only one flight a day keeps the crowds down, and the whole island population is only around 5,000). The top portion of the island is for hiking only, as there are no cars allowed there.
Approximately 70% of Easter Island is designated by Chile as a National Park, while the other 30% is agricultural and residential. There are signs, and stones marking off the areas you are not permitted to walk or touch, to preserve the archeological remains, as well as for your safety! Please abide by them – our tour guide saw a woman almost fall off a cliff as she chased after some money that blew away, and she didn’t realize how fragile the cliffs are. Stay on the tracks!
Because it’s a National Park where you will be touring, a visitor must purchase a park pass, and carry it with them at all times. While there were really only two places that were even staffed at the entry gate, you still want to carry the pass in case a park ranger should ask for it (even though we only saw them at a couple sites), which never happened for us during our stay. And with the exception of the photo below (taken at the entrance gate to the query) where the different types of rocks used to build the statues are available to hold, do not handle or touch any of the rocks on the island.
The island is so remote and lightly populated (annual tourists make number only 90,000 people) on top of the 5,000 that live there, so most of the places we went, we were literally the only people around for what seemed like miles. Our tour guide told us the other tour guides all know each other’s routes for the day, and coordinate together, so as to not have crowds – really a great idea you wouldn’t find in busy tourists areas.
It is possible of course to rent a car if you would like to go on your own, but unless you are fluent in Spanish and have a plan of action, I would definitely recommend a local guide or tour company. There are a couple local (non-chain) car rentals companies in town.
At our hotel, the Hangoaroa Eco Village and Spa, the daily tours were included with the all-inclusive package, and we got so much more out of this not only seeing and understanding the sites, but interesting local island trivia as well. Also, some of the places we went, were quite off the beaten path, and we either wouldn’t know you could drive there, or if we did, would be scared we’d damage the rental car in the process. Our advice is to stick to a local island guide and like us you will be so glad you did. (Our guide is wearing the blue jacket).
I’m going to end this post with a little bit of island trivia our guide told us on the 2 1/2 days we toured with her. I will show some of the tour sites in the next few posts so they aren’t so long to read and show different parts of the island.
For now, some Island trivia provided by our guide:
- Approximately 5,000 plus permanent residents on the island, many of Rapa Nui descent
- Only Rapa Nui descendants can own land on the island, Even if you sell your property it must be to someone of Rapa Nui descent.
- Most islanders know each other, at least by face; that is you see the same people over time you know they live there, vs a tourist who typically stays 4 days or so.
- There is a wide range of accommodations, ranging from Tents and hostels, to small inns, and just a few luxurious resorts. (Our resort – the Hangaroa Eco Lodge and Spa had to have been the nicest on the island – I can’t imagine anything being better!)
- There is usually just one flight a day. There is one LONG runway.
- There is one gas station on the island. The gas prices are surprisingly about the same as they are in Santiago as the gas isn’t taxed.
- Cargo ships visit once a week to offload goods, and send back material such as plastics to be recycled. The island doesn’t have the equipment to recycle enough of the plastic material so it is sent back to the mainland via ship or air for that.
- In most areas, the mailing address is the same for all people on that street, as they know everyone anyway.
- Local establishments include a pharmacy, supermarket, a few shops and restaurants, tour offices and rental car places (no chain type establishments anywhere) and are located in the three or four blocks of the town.
- While there is a hospital, there is a shortage of specialists. Ophthalmologists, for example are flown in every six months or so, and the locals schedule their appointments around that for availability.
- There is no cruise dock for ships; only a small ‘port’ for boats to unload. An earthquake in 1985 in Chile diverted plans for the port to be built, as the funds slated for the port were diverted to more urgent rebuilt efforts on the mainland.
- Approximately 8 – 12 cruise ships a year do come to Easter Island, although not all of the succeed in getting to ‘land’. Mostly smaller ships, although occasionally round the world cruises stop, however the problem is the sheer distance to the island, but more importantly debarking passengers, as there is no cruise ship dock; the passengers must be tendered in to port. As you will see in some later photos and video I took, the waves can be quite rough, rendering a stop ashore for passengers not possible. After sailing for several days to get to the island, and not being able to depart the ship to tour Easter Island, does not make for a profitable, or easily accessible destination by ship. Also, the island has limited infrastructure, and a ship calling there can easily overwhelm the island’s resources (i.e. tours, taxis, shops, restaurants), as there is normally only a 300 passenger flight a day, not a few hundred to thousands of cruise ship passengers stopping by.
So next post we’ll tour our ‘neighborhood’ by the hotel we are staying at. . .
To be continued . . .