Sunday, June 19, 2011

Easter Island (Isla de Pascua to the Chileans or Rapa Nui to the locals)

Our flight to Easter Island was an early one and we were collected by the taxi taking us to the airport at 4:30am.  It’s probably worth mentioning that we had managed to save ourselves about a hundred and fifty quid each by booking our flights online with LAN and saying our card was Chilean even though it isn’t and via the Chilean version of the website rather than going through as a UK user.  The guest house let us leave some nonessential stuff behind which was good as we had also stocked up on provisions for the island where everything would be more expensive.  We arrived at the airport in good time where surprise surprise our desk wouldn’t be open for another hour.  We watched Banksy’s excellent documentary ‘Exit Through the Giftshop’ on the laptop whilst we waited and the tiredness began to kick in having done an allnighter.  There was nearly a major mishap when on bad instruction we joined the massive queue for international customs with only a last minute double check saving us, we strolled right through at domestic.  
At last we were on our way and even managed to get a bit of sleep on the plane.  We were flying low in the sky long before we came into land and a few people even applauded when we did.  We stepped off the plane into glorious sunshine and that nice humidity that we hadn’t experienced since Asia which was great considering this was their winter!  Being the only commercial flight to arrive that day it didn’t take long to grab our baggage although there were a couple of nervous moments as a police dog sniffed around on the carousel and although we had a kilogram of steak on the top of my bag it wasn’t bothered so we gathered that it must have been looking for drugs.  We waited a short while for a taxi whereupon we overheard another person asking for the same destination of Rosie’s Guesthouse so we all jumped in together and our Easter Island experience was underway.

The approach to Easter Island

First impressions were that it was very green and tropical looking.  The houses and businesses were few and far between and altogether pretty basic, kind of what you might expect to see on a Lilt advert (you don’t really see those anymore do you?).  Having come from bustling Santiago we didn’t really notice driving through the island’s main town of Hanga Roa as it all looked very rural.  When we arrived there was some confusion in that although we had been dropped off and given rooms by a charming old lady they looked different to what we had seen in the photographs, better in fact.  Having taken them following the usual quick inspection we had a moment of panic that we were in the wrong guesthouse.  It turned out that we kind of were but it didn’t matter as the old lady was a member of the same family and it would be the same price only we were now staying in Tahai hostel.  The native residents look a lot like the Maori that we encountered in New Zealand and speak Rapa Nui, a dialect with its roots in Cook Islands Maori which is in fact their first language over Spanish.  We decided to walk into town to kill some time before we could afford to crash into bed but it was hard to acknowledge where the town began as there are just small shops lining the streets.  
The next challenge was to find somewhere reasonably priced to eat as our new mate from Finland called Risto was especially hungry.  We found a place advertising empanadas for 1,500 which was amazing when compared to the prices for most lunches which were around 10,000 or a hefty twelve pounds fifty…  They were pretty good and didn’t last long so we continued through town until we happened upon some protestors that were quite placid by normal Chilean standards.  They were local Rapa Nuins who wanted their independence from Chile.  We asked a friendly local to explain but he was difficult to understand as he had had a few Escudos and was very passionate but none too clear.  I believe the gist of what he was saying was that they didn’t like the Chilean influence on their island, the usual talk of corruption and the state selling their land and a general lack of autonomy for locals.  When we managed to get away we strolled along the beautiful coastline in search of an ATM which was easy enough to find, it was great to be sucking up the fresh air again after Santiago and with the waves crashing against rocks it really was a world apart.
Risto and me wandering the streets

A horse and its owner taking a break

We began to watch some local football on a rugged pitch practically on the coast itself, it was a beautiful setting with our first glimpse of a ‘moai’(stone statue representing the head of a lineage) overlooking the game.  It was amazing to see but we were too tired to be sightseeing so we grabbed a seat with the midday sun beating down on us.  After twenty minutes or so of the ball being kicked around by people looking way more like ‘All Black’ rugby players and the ball bouncing around on the bobbliest of bobbly overgrown pitches the field was invaded by a pack of dogs.  Dogs on the pitch were quite a regular occurrence and they often needed to be chased off which was usually the job of the referee. 
I tried to get a decent photograph of the pooch pitch invasion by going round the other side but with little success.  It did provide the opportunity to chat with some of the residents who were mainland Chileans working a two months here and ten days in Santiago contract whilst building a hospital.  They were really friendly and when Kate and Risto came over they offered us some of their drink which was a cheap wine mixed with cola that the locals call ‘jote’ or ‘black vulture’, it wasn’t too bad but not my personal preference.  They were meeting up the next day to listen to the second leg of the Chilean cup final game on the radio as there is no cable TV here and we were offered to join them so we accepted.  We did a bit of grocery shopping (just some bread thankfully as things cost at least double the mainland price) before returning to the guest house for some well needed rest.

Dogs and football

Hanging out with the locals drinking jote

On the 12th June we decided to get our bearings around town on another glorious hot and sunny day.  There was a buzz in the air because it was election day and locals were busy either campaigning or casting their votes.  The firm favourite was a friendly large lady whose face was plastered to many a lamppost, figuratively speaking.  After visiting the island church we actually got to meet the local celebrity herself or at least take a picture before chowing down on some greasy empanadas from a van nearby.  Because there were some moai and ahu (sacred platforms they sit on) nearby in a town called ‘Ahu Tahai’ we decided to pay them a visit. 

The island's church with tribal designs similar to Maori equivalent in NZ

The election candidates

The firm favourite
We walked along the coast until we came to a pretty graveyard but we could see the moai in the distance so having taken a couple of pictures we quickly made our way there.  They were an amazing sight to behold.  Positioned tightly on the coastline the moai of Tahai look solemnly inland over what would have originally been a village whilst the sea roars in the background.  They are in various stages of degradation although I believe delicate restoration has taken place on most so as to retain their character.  On some you can depict finer detail on the faces whereas some just look like weathered rocks that have been positioned to look important.  Needless to say we went on a mission to take lots of photographs and gaze at the statues in awe, it turns out I was a bit too close as a conservation worker whistled me away from afar…  We spent quite a lot of time here then carried on our coastal walk before heading back to meet with our new friends for the football match. 

One of the petroglyphs on the west coast

The traditional graveyard

Kate making her way to the moai

The standing Tahai moai

Posing overlooking the statues
We listened on the radio as the crowd cheered as did players on the pitch upon hearing the news of goal after goal going in for Universidad de Chile!  We had obviously gone to watch the wrong game back in Santiago or we are bad luck charms because the final result was a 4 – 1 win for them away from home meaning that they won the cup on aggregate, a brilliant turn around!  Another more local bonus was that one of the residents mentioned that there were sea turtles in the small harbour nearby so we went to check them out.  Lo and behold there were at least five hawksbill turtles swimming around in the shallow waters and nibbling away at the green seaweed growing on the rocks.  It was great to be able to see them without getting our feet wet or spending a penny.  Even when a mother and child having a dip noticed and swam right up to them they still didn’t seem too perturbed until for some reason they started splashing at them whereupon they swam away, we still had the pleasure of being amongst them for half an hour or so.  That evening we went back to the Tahai moai with Risto to watch the sunset with a cerveza or two amidst a powerful red sky which was an ethereal experience.  We later saw on the news the violence that followed the football result in the Classico.  Over 150 public buses were destroyed and there had been widespread violence as seen here which apparently happens every year, they love a good riot.   

Hanging out with tutles at the harbour

The Tahai moai at sunset

The third day was yet again a cracker and we decided to head to the National Park of ‘Ahu Raraku’ or sometimes known as ‘The Nursery’ in order to visit the area of land where most of the moai would have been quarried and carved before being relocated to their relevant villages and half of all the moai on the island still reside there to this day.  It was a staggering 30,000 pesos or forty quid or so to enter, but this also gave us the right to access the second national park of ‘Orongo’ south of where we were staying.  Our plan was to get a taxi to the park and walk back as it was quite a distance away and walking both ways wouldn’t have been possible if we wanted a good amount of time to admire the statues in the park.  Along the coastal route we saw tens of wild horses and cows that we more often than not in the road, not to mention the spectacular views and occasional cluster of moai scattering the shoreline.  

Approaching the park we could see the moai dotted around the side of the dormant volcano which was a spectacular sight.  Having purchased our entrance ticket we continued into the park and took an initial route up a dusty, short but steep slope until we were inside the crater looking over a lake and even more statues could be seen positioned high up on the slope to our right.  As there were no signs restricting us getting any closer we ventured towards the moai and got a good eyeful of the amazing historic monuments now stood right in front of us.  Having made our way back we then scaled the eastern side of the volcano, stopping to admire the statues on either side of the path along the way.  The majority of statues were impressive but the highlights included ‘El Gigante’, an unfinished moai still embedded in the rock which was relatively massive in scale and two or three large and clearly detailed statues just off the path.  Where the path snakes around at the eastern tip there stands the only example of a Moai with carved legs and it is possible to view the 15 moai of the ‘Tongariki’ site far away on the coastline below.
Inside the crater, you can just about see the moai on the slope

A moai being excavated inside the volcano

Kate with some moai on the outside of the volcano

'El Gigante' still unfinished

Some more examples of the moai

The only statue that has legs carved

View from the volcano with Tongariki moai dotting the coastline

The island is like a gigantic open air museum and nowhere was this more evident than when we left the site and decided to stop for lunch.  We headed into a coastal cave for shelter from the wind only to discover some cave art!  The walk back was brilliant, not only for the spectacular scenery but also for the exercise and fresh air which is non-existent in Santiago.  We set off to walk around 2pm with sunset usually around half past six so this gave ourselves a bit of time to get back to town.  We definitely took our time clambering over rocks and grassy slopes to get to the historic sights which were plentiful along the route.  All the way it was possible to see far inland as there were practically no buildings or trees blocking the picturesque rolling hills.  For some reason there were horse bones all along the coastline, usually on the rocks on the seafront but sometimes you could see where the carcasses had been burned on a fire.  We later found out that they had quite a few accidents with tourists renting cars driving too quickly and getting into accidents with the horses so perhaps these were the remains of the unlucky ones. 
The cave and drawings where we stopped for lunch

One of many toppled moai we encountered on our walk

Some of the wild horses

The remains of an unfortunate horsey friend

The waves crashing against rocky shore
Some more toppled moai and their sombreros seen on our walk

We thoroughly enjoyed the walk and whilst we were starting to ache and it was getting dark we would have been happy continue however the offer of a lift from a friendly old man was too good to refuse so we hopped in as he drove us the reminder of the way back into town and not always on the correct side of the road.  For dinner we made our own churasco which is a steak sandwich with avocado and tomatoes on locally baked bread which was messy but delicious.  Whilst it was made clear that the kitchen we were using belonged to grandma she was still kind and helped us to find what we needed and we tried our best to break down barriers and make conversation.  It turned out that she had an astounding eleven children in total, many of the family ate in the kitchen with us and this was definitely turning out to be more of a homestay than a hostel which was great.  
On our fourth day on Easter Island we hiked from the guesthouse up to the amazing crater of the ‘Rano Kau’ volcano south of where we were staying in Hanga Roa, not before stopping at the small town harbour again where we were lucky enough to get another glimpse of the turtles which we now assumed were full time residents here.  The walk was hard work but again satisfying to be outside in the fresh air with amazing views to be had at every point along the way.  In total the walk took around two hours before we reached the volcano summit which was in my mind the most spectacular and breath-taking view on our trip to date.  The volcano was of an enormous scale with a lake at the bottom and a walkable path along its perimeter which leads you to the other national park of ‘Orongo’.  As we made our way open mouthed along the path and on occasion scarily close to the steep volcano slopes the wind was blowing us about (fortunately in the direction away from certain death).  Feeling utterly windswept but loving every minute we entered the office for the national park and got our tickets validated in order to proceed. 

More wild horses on our trip to the volcano

Picture taken from the top of the volcano
A shot of the volcano

The site of ‘Hoa Hakananai’ in Orongo (yes I know it is all starting to sound a bit like a chimpanzee clearing its throat) consisted of a reconstructed village of small stone structures hugging the cliff face.  This was also the site where the legendary ‘Tangata Manu’ competition took place to bring back the first egg of the Sooty Tern Bird from the tiny neighbouring islet of ‘Motu Nui’.  This wasn’t without its danger and I would much rather them than me because the cliffs were treacherously steep and the seas especially rough, reportedly many of those who didn’t fall or drown were eaten by sharks.  It was nice to see how these structures would have looked especially when compared to one that had been left as it had been found after the American looters visited which amounted to a pile of rocks.  The Brits aren't blameless either and a statue from Orongo currently sits in the British museum although islanders were reported to have helped it onto the boat in 1868.  At the end of the cliff stand the petroglyphs dedicated to the birdman cult, which though the detail had been significantly weathered down there was still enough clarity to make out the pictures and enjoy them for what they were.  Tracing our steps back along the volcano we enjoyed the walk downhill and back towards our local moai for sunset which was a totally different affair from the last one with some heavenly beams of light orienting on the statue itself.  For dinner we were given lots of fish by the family which they said was called ‘Pisci’ which along with being an extremely lovely gesture was absolutely delicious.

Islet of Motu Nui where the bird-man contests took place

Stone masonry work that was destroyed and restored by the yanks

Some of the petroglyphs

Kate tucking into an empanada

The sunset

On day five we set off on our bikes which we had rented and collected the previous night with the intention of visiting the fifteen moai based at the site of Tongariki along the same route that we had walked to get to the first national park of Rano Rakuru a couple of days earlier.  Kate had had a little accident on getting the bike back to the hostel the previous night banging her bum going off a steep curb so we weren’t sure what she would be capable of.  After a bit of a cycle we came to a fork in the road and decided to do what we were informed to be a different, shorter and therefore more convenient route to visit other sacred sites and leaving the fifteen statues for the next day.  We had also been delayed in the morning by our first experience of rain on the island which came down heavily but made way for the sun later on albeit with the odd grey patch here and there.  Whilst this route was supposedly shorter it was definitely hillier than our original plan but we still enjoyed cycling around.  Our first stop was a site called ‘Puna Pau’ where the hats for the Moai were originally quarried.  It would be a bizarre sight to see these cylindrical red stone artefacts out of context, some of which were lying on the grass and others still in the quarry and all waiting to be transferred to their owners around the island.  Whilst we were here we saw the daily LAN plane come in before making our way back to our bikes and onwards to our next destination.

The hats that never reached their destinations

Hats still in the quarry where they were carved

The town of Hanga Roa and the runway in the background
‘Akivi’ was the name of the next sight which housed seven Moai facing inland, the only ones to do so.  We sat and ate our picnic on the grass in front of them prior to heading towards the coastline for the final stretch of the loop where some of the island’s most interesting lava tube caves can be explored.  Prior to reaching the coast we came across the first cave which was a large collection of caverns that stretched under the landscape below fields, paths and a road.  It was here that the original settlers collected drinking water and even planted banana trees.  We were able to climb down and venture quite far in as we had brought a torch and whilst there wasn’t a great deal to see the further in we got it was still fun.  

The moai at Akivi where we stopped for lunch

In the banana cave
Once we had reached the coast I’m especially glad that we managed to find the two windows cave as the entrance consists of a very small opening in the rocks at ground level that is easily missed.  Having taken off our backpacks in order to enter through the gap, we turned on the torch and headed in whilst trying to stay low to avoid banging our heads.  Eventually the light from outside penetrated the cave orientating from two gaps in the rock which overlooked steep cliffs and the angry waves below.  Being as brave as we could we stepped towards the gaps for a photograph before heading back out again glad to be on top of the caves rather than in them.  At our usual sunset spot an exceptionally friendly dog had a funny habit of running over to us and immediately rolling on his back for a belly rub, but we were soon asked to move on by a grumpy trogger of a warden for drinking beer even though we had done so the past two nights without any problems, even so we found a nice spot amongst the rocks which made a pleasant change and it was nice to watch silhouettes of kayakers paddle along the perimeter as the sun set.  We made traditional ‘completo’ hot dogs for everybody that night and it was nice to repay the favour for the fish the previous night.

The 'lights' at the end of the tunnel in the two windows cave

By one of the openings to the cliff
Here we could see a fisherman down below

Kate emerging from the cave
Cycling down a nice country lane

Watching the sunset with an escudo

On our final full day we still needed to visit the fifteen Moai of Tongariki and we were yet to visit ‘Anakena’ beach though again the weather was letting us down with rainfall throughout breakfast and lots of cloud cover.  We had returned the bikes as Kate’s bum injury was a bit too much to consider another full day of cycling.  We had considered sharing a quad bike but alas a taxi was the cheapest option even though it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.  Having asked a taxi driver or two for their fair we eventually found one which wasn’t a complete rip off and made arrangements to drive to Tongariki where they would wait for ten to fifteen minutes before heading up to Anakena and then returning to pick us up at six that evening.  Having made a deal we got into a cab and quickly began chatting to the driver, sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in English as we were all keen to practice.  He was a nice guy and we exchanged lots of information about our relative islands, he was not a native and as a result was not able to buy a house which we also discussed was similar to Jersey.  Even though his son was born on the island he has the same rights as a mainland Chilean in that he still isn’t allowed to buy property either.  He was excited that my dad also drives a taxi at home and was asking a lot of questions about how much it pays which I couldn’t really answer!  I’m not surprised that all these laws are in place it is important that this island is protected from development.  Easter Island is a fair bit bigger than Jersey yet the previous census counted a population of just below five thousand residents and once you get out of the town there is barely a building in sight. 
When we stopped at the fifteen moai of Tongariki it became apparent that they were perhaps the most spectacular display of statues outside of the national park.  Although it was apparent that restoration had taken place (a 1960 Tsunami has previously levelled them and they were subsequently resurrected by the Japanese), the sun had come out and was now shining down on these gigantic and proud faces from the past.  There was also an impressive stand-alone moai along with a toppled example in the grounds too.  Having taken in this impressive sight it was time to continue towards the north coast to the beach. 

Local band seen before the taxi, guitarist on the left was from our hostel

The fifteen moai of Tongariki

Some more hats that had fallen off heads

All of the gang

Risto had left the previous day but before he departed he was very vocal about how much he had enjoyed the beach and how surprised he was by its poor attendance when he was there.  It was apparent that Risto’s review was apt as we stepped down the dunes amidst coconut trees, golden sands and turquoise waters while even more moai stood in the background with their backs to the beach watching over Rapa Nui.  Whilst the sun was out it often dipped behind clouds all the while contending with the wind that caused the temperature to drop significantly from time to time, even so we weren’t to be put off having a dip and had a nice refreshing swim.  The water wasn’t too bad it was just getting out that was the problem!  We waited for a window of sunshine before legging it ashore and drying ourselves off as quickly as possible.  We finished our day with a walk around the bay taking a couple of photographs before giving our driver a tap on the window to wake him from his slumber and head back home dodging a few wild horses on the way.

More moai positioned at Anakena beach

Our artist's impressions of moai on the sand

The beach at Anakena

A horse looking lost on the road at night

Our hearts were slightly heavy to be leaving the next day as we packed that evening.  Whilst we hadn’t had a bad day here we felt satisfied with the time we had spent and staying any longer would have simply been indulgence on time we didn’t have on an island that we couldn’t afford to live.  The following day gave us time to have a lazy morning and a cooked breakfast especially because the flight in was delayed, Fatima’s daughter was on the inbound flight from Santiago and told us that it had had to turn back due to technical issues with the plane.  Our flight was therefore a couple of hours late so we relaxed in the kitchen and introduced the family to the British delicacy of eggy bread.  The previous morning Fatima had tried some marmite (albeit vegemite as it is called in New Zealand, we all know that it’s marmite really…) so she was brave to go near anything else we offered.  They really loved it and watched Kate intensely as she made up batch after batch and will undoubtedly be cooking up some of their own with their freshly baked bread in the future.  Before we left they gave us each a necklace which we found extremely kind, Kate’s is made of small shells and mine has a small carved figure of a Moai and Fatima even gave us a lift to the airport.   Whilst the Tahai hostel had originally seemed claustrophobic and wasn’t even the same name as what we had booked, it turned out to be one of those slightly challenging but overall more intimate experiences that you always get much more out of.  Even though we wouldn’t be leaving Santiago airport until after eleven that evening, we planned on booking our bus tickets for the eight hours or so trip to Mendoza in Argentina the next morning, famous for its wine and steak at price that isn’t moai high! 

Round the dinner table with the family


1 comment:

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