A few months ago, I found myself standing on a grassy hillside on Easter Island, looking up at a giant stone head. The scene was uncannily similar to those I'd sketched in colored pencil as a kid, when I was obsessed with the place, mostly because I'd been poring over copies of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku. He had explored the island on one of his quests across the Pacific in the 1950's, and made it a centerpiece of his theories about the South American origins of Polynesian civilization. The theories had long since been discredited, but my curiosity about the totemic statues and the people who made them had persisted. So there I was.
Fifty years before, Heyerdahl's expedition members had camped in tents along a lonely beach; there are now at least a dozen hotels to choose from. Commercial air travel to the island began in 1967, and these days passenger jets make frequent stopovers on the 12-hour run between Santiago and Tahiti.
Yet even in 2006, the journey to Easter Island feels like sailing over the farthest edge of the earth. The plane leaves Santiago at dusk and chases the setting sun westward. For five hours, you fly across one of the emptiest expanses of ocean on the planet—thousands of miles of lightly ruffled blue, with not a scrap of land in sight, nor even a ship. Then, suddenly—just as the sun seems poised to sink below the horizon, just as you wonder if the plane is going to fly until it runs out of fuel and then drop into the sea—a green form rears up from the deep like a sea monster, craning its long neck forward, its humped body behind. It is the island.
Rapa Nui, as the natives have called this place since long before a Dutch ship sighted it on Easter Sunday, 1722, is about the size of Staten Island, but the thousands of miles that separate it from the next human settlement seem somehow to magnify it many times over. And it exerts a disproportionately strong magnetic pull on the imagination of the outside world.
In the months before my departure, I discovered that there were two different reactions I would get when I told people I was going to Easter Island. Some would squint vaguely and say, "Where's that again?" But others would get a faraway look that told me they'd also read Heyerdahl's books. In fact, one friend—the novelist and painter Allan Gurganus—immediately announced that he was coming with me to the South Pacific.
I was glad to have Allan and his painterly eye along for the ride on the morning after our arrival, as we drove in a minivan with Jojo, our guide from Casas Rapa Nui, the Explora property where we were staying. Casting a glance over the green hillocks strewn with black boulders, he declared, "It's like a Constable landscape—with lava."
The high, nearly treeless meadows, crisscrossed by tumbled stone walls, sloped toward dark bluffs where the surf thrashed and sighed. Overhead, great cumulus clouds sailed past on oceanic crossings. To complete the picture—of a bit of Cornwall come to lodge somehow in the midst of the Pacific—skittish brown horses grazed here and there. But then Jojo pointed to something that complicated the art-history lesson just a bit.
Lying on its back in the tall grass was a toppled giant of volcanic stone, its eroded eye sockets gaping sightlessly at the clouds. This was our first encounter with the island's thousand colossal statues, known as moai, some of which are more than 30 feet high and weigh as much as 20 tons. The one before us had been abandoned centuries ago after it broke in the process of being moved from one side of the island to the other. The palm-trunk rollers and bark ropes that—according to archaeologists' best guesses—were used to transport the statue had long since decayed. Now it was stranded in the meadow, alone but for the browsing horses and the buzzing insects, and us.
Standing there, it was easy to see why some people talk of space aliens or superhuman races and why the modern-day Easter Islanders—descendants of the statues' original builders—insist that the moai walked on their own across the island. Yet the most remarkable thing about them is not their size. Despite all the photographs I had seen of moai, I had never, until I stood there in front of one, realized what profound and powerful works of art they are. It was as though they were the original human sculptures, of which everything else—from ancient Greek kouroi to Christo's Gates in Central Park—was a pale, secondhand copy.
In my travels to many places, I have never been anywhere that felt so much like a waking dream—not just now, as I write this, from a distance of several months and 8,000 miles, but also while I was there, experiencing it. During the long mornings and longer afternoons of the antipodean summer, we'd wander across the cliffside meadows and craters of dead volcanoes. Accompanying us, often, were a guide and a few other guests from the lodge. But, somehow, I still always felt alone. Our fellow travelers, oversize though some of them must have seemed in any other setting—the Chilean billionaire's daughter, the New York online-media tycoon—appeared to shrink here against our shared backdrop. It was like standing at the bottom of a bowl that contained the entire world.
The young, locally born guides from Explora seemed themselves almost to be part moai, with angular, beautiful faces and heavy-lidded eyes concealing semi-secret thoughts. "Some people say you can see the curve of the earth from here," Jojo told us.
That was the evening that the Explora guides took us hiking out to the far southwestern tip of the island, where the rim of the extinct volcano Rano Kau looms above the sea. Here, in centuries past, the young men of the island performed the ritual of the Birdman, a phenomenon almost as strange as the moai themselves. Elders would sponsor competitors, who raced one another down a 1,000-foot rock face, then swam across more than a mile of open ocean to bring back the egg of a sooty tern from an offshore nesting island. The elder whose racer was the first to return with one of the fragile eggs tied safely in his headband became the island's Tangata Manu, or Birdman, for the next 12 moons.
Today, the island's culture and people seem poised between the prehistoric and the postmodern. With surprising speed, increased connections to the outside world have brought a degree of sophistication. Hanga Roans knew enough to be impressed a few months ago when one of the creators of The Simpsons sojourned on the island. Yet they get only two channels of television via satellite from Chile, plus a local station. And when young islanders strip off their Western clothes to swim at one of the palm-fringed beaches, they reveal bodies tattooed with symbols of ancestral gods, as in the days of Melville's South Pacific.
As an emblem of this odd counterpoise, I found Easter Island buzzing with talk of reinstating a version of the Birdman race—only this time, it would be under the corporate sponsorship of Red Bull, the beverage manufacturer. Jojo—who boasted of his prowess as a swimmer and climber—seemed equally excited about winning tribal glory and becoming an international soft-drink flack. More alarmingly, the 4,000 residents were also abuzz over a local businessman's proposal to build a casino on the island. Ultimately, the plan was rejected (it failed to get the necessary approval from Rapa Nui's council of elders), but there is little doubt that it would have changed this place profoundly, bringing commercial glitz to an island that doesn't even have a movie theater.
For now, as we stood at Rano Kau, such possibilities felt remote. The lodge had prepared a picnic for us there, but I strayed off alone to the edge of the lake-filled crater. The sun was sinking beyond the thin rim, setting the rippling Pacific aflame. Within the hollow of the dead volcano, the water already lay in shadow, its surface shifting black and opalescent. An ocean of darkness, side by side with the ocean of light.
Our home base was an unpretentious, one-story house on the outskirts of Hanga Roa, the island's lone village. Explora opened it to guests only last year, as temporary quarters, to use while the company prepares more luxurious accommodations at a spot a few miles away. (The new lodge is set to open in late 2007. Construction was delayed while Explora waited to see if the proposed casino would become a reality and thus threaten its high-end, eco-friendly operation; they have now begun building.) We'd come back there in the late afternoons and sit on the patio with cocktails. The everyday life of Hanga Roa jostles up against the edges of the small property, and often, as we sat and sipped, we'd be able to watch a woman hang her laundry on a clothesline strung between two palm trees, or a barefoot boy lead a horse by its halter across a field.
One Saturday, we went into Hanga Roa to check out the island's nightlife, which we'd heard—albeit with some skepticism—would be worth the walk. And indeed it was. At our first stop, the Topatangi pub, a small band was jamming hard—Polynesian music with a bluegrass rhythm. One local explained to me that the American soldiers who were stationed here during the Cold War left behind a permanent love of country-and-western music among the islanders. We danced with the Chilean tourists, with the local girls, and with a woman in a towering blond beehive who was rumored (we never found out whether this was true) to be the wife of a European head of state.
Around 3 a.m., we ended up at a seaside disco. Inside, a sweaty crowd of Rapa Nui kids moved joyously beneath disco balls. But the strangest sight was outdoors, where a row of horses stood tethered beneath the trees, patiently awaiting owners who'd come in from remote farmsteads to go clubhopping in town. "Parking your horse at the disco " Allan said bemusedly. He had never seen anything like it.
All over Easter Island, you can find facsimiles of the moai heads in every conceivable form of tiki-flavored kitsch: carved chess sets, pisco bottles, after-dinner chocolates, and the painstakingly copied stone replicas that adorn the pricier tourist spots. Yet not one of them resembles—even for an instant—the real thing.
The longer we stayed on the island, the more we were drawn back, again and again, to one spot: Rano Raraku. Here, at the crater of another extinct volcano, is where the stone was quarried for the colossal moai, most of which were then moved to be set up as sentries on stone platforms ringing Rapa Nui's coast. But for some unknown reason many of the finest of the sculptures were left on the grassy hillside beneath the crater. And though all of the moai on the shoreline platforms were toppled by later generations of islanders, those at Rano Raraku were allowed to stand.
Scientists still debate the statues' true meaning, along with much of the island's prehistory. DNA testing has definitively disproved Heyerdahl's theory of pre-Columbian voyagers from South America: the island was settled by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, probably between 400 and 600 A.D. The oldest carbon-dated statue is from the year 800; the latest is from 1500, when, historians speculate, internal warfare brought their production abruptly to a halt. In recent years, many writers, including Jared Diamond, have turned Easter Island into a parable on environmental degradation: the moai-builders, they say, depleted the island's trees and other resources in their race to construct as many of the colossi as possible, leaving the island desolate and famine-ridden.
Today, the statues are mainly threatened by erosion, of the volcanic stone they're made from and of the soil beneath them. UNESCO designated Rapa Nui a World Heritage site in 1995, and the World Monuments Fund added the island to its "most endangered" watch list in 1996. Easter Island's archaeological sites have yet to be completely explored and interpreted and need to be preserved for future generations, says Norma Barbacci, director of field projects for the WMF. Initiated by the University of Chile, preservation of the moai has begun—the statues are being hardened with chemicals—at a cost of about $10,000 each. "It's very labor intensive," explains Georgia Lee, cofounder of the Easter Island Foundation, which promotes scholarship on the island. "There are a thousand statues; they've treated three or four. But it's important—otherwise, in 1,500 years they'll just be lumps of stone."
One day, as I was standing by the stone corpse of a toppled moai, a skinny Russian tourist in sunglasses appeared suddenly from behind a pile of boulders. "What is your teory?" he asked me intently, gesturing at the ruins around us. "What do you tink?" The truth, oddly enough, was that, even knowing the outlines of the island's history, I found the moai more interesting as art than as artifacts.
Allan and I would wander among the statues at Rano Raraku for hours—he making sketches, I scribbling in my notebook—as hours crept imperceptibly past. A couple of times I tried to sketch the moai myself, which only confirmed what complicated and difficult artworks they are: the interplay of planes and curves, the definitive lines of mouth and brow creating something that could not be replicated. And I was in good company, I learned: a century before, the artist Max Ernst and writer Pierre Loti had tried and failed as well. Perhaps they were seduced by a false idea of the "primitive," projecting a simplicity onto the moai that just wasn't there. The culture that created these images, I realized gradually, could no more be called primitive than could the culture that adopted as its religious icon two pieces of wood nailed in the shape of a cross.
On our last full day on the island, we went to Rano Raraku in the midafternoon. On the slopes above us, the moai stood at angles, their faces tilted this way and that, as if each were following its own particular planet or star. On the gentler slopes below, others lay sleeping like scattered sarcophagi.
We stayed for seven hours, until long after the sun had set and the moon risen, just watching the monoliths in the changing light. We had one of the great places on the earth completely to ourselves—the only signs of life among the moai were a few horses, and an occasional kestrel or frigate bird sailing far overhead. As the long shadows of the afternoon gave way to warm rain, then to sunset, then blue dusk, then night, it was like watching a ballet or a film—until we finally, reluctantly, left the statues, standing black and glyphlike, solitary against the sky.
When to Go
May is the wettest month, but subtropical weather prevails year-round. High season is in January and February.
Fly to Santiago, Chile, then take a five-hour Lan Air ?ight from there.
Where to Stay
Casas Rapa Nui
New nine-room Explora property, with luxury amenities.
Hotumatua; 56-2/206-6060; www.explora.com; from $1,230 per person, double, for three nights, including meals, daily excursions, and airport transfers.
Hotel Hanga Roa
Modern amenities and a lively bar.
Pont Ave.; 56-32/100-299; www.hotelhangaroa.com; doubles from $195.
Where to Eat and Drink
Popular spot—with live music—on a street dotted with restaurants and bars.
Atamu Tekena Ave; 56-32/551-694.