Everything You Need to Know About a Trip to Easter Island
Located more than 2,000 miles west of South America, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. It marks the southeast corner of the Polynesian triangle, with Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the southwest.
The island covers 63 square miles of land, nearly half of which is in Rapa Nui National Park, and it’s home to approximately 900 mesmerizing moai statues, often called Easter Island Heads. The giant, monolithic carvings are scattered around the island, some standing proudly against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, while others are buried up to their necks in soil.
Despite the obvious draw of the statues, they aren’t the only reason to take a trip of a lifetime to Easter Island. Being so remote means there’s a certain secluded calm here, and though typical amenities like air conditioning and instant Wi-Fi are lacking, the wild horses roaming the hills and dinners spent gazing out over the Pacific more than make up for it.
Bonus: though technically it’s meant to represent Moyai, a statue in Tokyo, the moai-like emoji is waiting to caption your Instagram photos when you do get back online.
A Rough History
It’s long been thought that the first people to come to Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for Easter Island, arrived between 300 and 400 AD. But recent studies are questioning this line of thought, suggesting instead that no one arrived for another several hundred years. And later, as resources began to dwindle on the island, starvation and resulting warfare nearly caused the population to go extinct.
On Easter Day in 1772, Dutch Explorers landed on the island and dubbed it Paaseiland, meaning Easter Island. The next hundred years were not kind to the people of Rapa Nui: It’s thought that soon after, there was a civil war, then a slave raid, and then an outbreak of small pox.
In the 19th century, Chile annexed Rapa Nui (or Isla de Pascua as it’s known to Chileans), and in 1965 the people of Rapa Nui became Chilean citizens. Today, many Chileans live on the island as well, with Rapa Nui (the name of the indigenous people as well as the island) making up only about half of the approximately 6,000-person population.
Things to See—Other Than the Moai
Internationally, the most recognized feature of Rapa Nui are the moai: those giant stone shrines that dot the island. Rapa Nui National Park, which covers nearly half the island, is the best place to see the imposing carvings. Built between the 10th and 16th centuries, the island contains what UNESCO (which lists the park as a World Heritage Site) describes as “one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena in the world.”
A tour of the national park is the best way to see the moai without missing the details that only a local guide can share. Independently, a 10-day ticket to access the park costs $80.
Though you can see moai all over the park, there are a few favorites which are must-see spots for any visitor. Ahu Tongariki, on the southeast shore of the island, is home to 15 moai, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and silhouetted against the sky. Not far inland, Rano Raraku is an impressive volcano where hundreds more moai, in various stages of carving, still stand.
Activities on Easter Island
Another great stop on the island is the Father Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum. It’s the only museum on the island and, though small, boasts an impressive collection of ancient fishing hooks, a white coral moai eye, and mata (obsidian stone tools). The museum, named after a Catholic missionary who studied the archeology of Rapa Nui, is a good place to start your trip. In addition to artifacts, it walks visitors through a history of the island and of the art collection. Visits are free, although donations are accepted. Opening hours can vary so check before arrival.
Though much of the coastline is rocky, at Ahu Tongariki you’ll find Playa de Anakena, a beautiful, white sand beach with turquoise water. Not only is it fringed with palm trees, but it’s also guarded by resident moai, so you’ll never forget where you are.
And Rano Raraku, with its collection of moai, is impressive. But it’s not the only volcano on the island. A visit to Rano Kau is also well worth your time—and it does require a few hours of hiking. Trekkers will be rewarded with stunning views of the island.
Another great spot for adults and children alike is right in town. The Hanga Roa harbor is a perfect place to see sea turtles. If you stop by while fishermen are hauling in their catch and cleaning the fish, you can spot the turtles floating just beneath the surface, waiting to snack.
Places to Stay
Though the population of Rapa Nui is small, there is a surprisingly large selection of accommodations to choose from. Most of the hotels are located central to Hanga Roa.
Hare Noi is a few minutes walk from the center of town. Friendly staff members go out of their way to make guests feel at home, the property has views from a hill over the water, and the poolside spa offers traditional treatments featuring local banana leaves and volcanic soil. The restaurant is also a favorite for guests of Hare Noi, and those staying elsewhere.
Another favorite for visitors is Hotel Altiplanico. The bungalows are about a 30-minute walk out of Hanga Roa, but the coastal views along the way—and welcome drinks upon arrival—make up for any inconvenience. Rooms are bright and airy, with open-air showers and private terraces.
One thing to note is that even the more upscale spots typically don’t have air conditioning, but temperatures are mild enough to keep rooms comfortable.
Where to Eat
There are plenty of places to dine on the island, and most are in town. Be prepared for slow service, and plan accordingly if you are eating before meeting a tour guide.
La Kaleta, which sits right on the coast for a great view, is a visitor favorite. The menu is written on a chalkboard outside the restaurant and changes daily, making the food is similarly fresh.
Nearby, Te Moana also offers beautiful ocean views. Portion sizes are slightly larger here than many of the other restaurants, and it is also slightly more expensive. They specialize in fresh seafood, including oysters and ceviche.
Another favorite for visitors is Neptune Island Restaurant. Guests can dine on the veranda or inside the restaurant and enjoy views of the Pacific from either spot. The staff here is friendly, and prices are modest.
Secrets of Easter Island
Without hesitation, the stone moai heads are some of the most recognizable statues in the world. But the carvings aren’t actually just heads. Because some of the most widely photographed statues are those buried up to their necks, many people don’t know the moai are monolithic, full-body carvings. The statues, some of which stand up to 32 feet height, were carved to honor important people after their deaths.
Moai were carved using a tool called a toki: a chisel made of rock. The best quality toki were made from a very hard stone known as hawaiite, which was only found in the Rua Toki-Toki quarry.
One of the biggest enigmas of Easter Island is how ancient Rapa Nui were able to move the gigantic stone statues from their carving site to the places they would eventually stand. Most people believe they were rolled on logs from one site to another using a relatively. An archeologist once tried to recreate this means of transportation, and successfully moved a moai with the help of only 25 people.
How to Get There
Though flying to Rapa Nui isn’t hard, per se, it is a long journey. After all, it’s one of the world’s most remote, inhabited islands. The only airline that flies here is LATAM, a Chilean airline headquartered in Santiago. That means travelers must necessarily fly through Chile.
It takes nearly 11 hours to reach Santiago from New York or Los Angeles, and nine and a half from Atlanta. Flight schedules are also limited, so flight delays can mean a long wait in Santiago’s airport. From Santiago to Hanga Roa—the capital of Easter Island—the flight is five and a half hours, and there are about a dozen flights each week.
American passport holders don’t need a visa as long as they plan to stay for less than 90 days. Though the island is endemic for Zika, the Center for Disease Control still recommends women who are either pregnant or planning to become pregnant plan carefully and discuss their travel plans with a doctor. Otherwise, only the standard travel vaccination recommendations apply.
How to Get Around
Getting around on Easter Island can require some pre-planning. Very little of the island has cell phone reception, so while taxis often drive around looking for passengers, a better option is to pre-book before setting out on your daily adventure. The same applies for pick-ups from the airport, which can help you avoid potential scams.
Rental cars are also available on the island, but few offer insurance, and roads can be difficult.
One of the best ways to see the island is to book a tour, both for convenience and for an insider perspective. There are many options for both private as well as group tours (the latter being more environmentally friendly), lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
If you do have environmental concerns and are up for a bit of adventure (and a workout), you can go by bike, foot, or even horseback. Because some places aren’t accessible by car, going on a horse or by foot can allow you to reach some of the island’s hidden treasures.
Spanish and Rapa Nui are the most commonly spoken languages, but some people in the hospitality industry also speak English.
Easter Island’s Currency
The official currency on Easter Island is the Chilean Peso (CLP; approximately 645 pesos to one U.S. dollar). There are only two ATMs on the island (though not all credit card types are accepted), and there are a handful of places to exchange currency. Visitors should be aware that the exchange rate on the Island won’t be as favorable as what is available in mainland Chile, so it’s advisable to withdraw and exchange enough cash before flying from Santiago.
Still, if you forget, don’t panic. Many local businesses will accept U.S. dollars (though at a higher rate than you would pay in pesos), and several hotels and restaurants also accept credit cards.
The daily cost of staying on Rapa Nui can vary widely, but more highly rated properties tends to be a few hundred dollars per night. A meal, meanwhile, can cost upwards of $50 per person. Bargaining is not a part of the culture on Rapa Nui, and neither is tipping.
When to Visit Easter Island
Because the island is located in the middle of the Pacific, visitors will find there’s often a cool ocean breeze, and the temperature is fairly consistent throughout the year.
Easter Island’s summer is between December and March. During the warm, humid season, the temperatures typically hover below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter, however, is similarly mild, with temperatures rarely dipping below the mid-60s.
Really, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Easter Island, though if you want to stay dry, avoid traveling in April, when the island gets most of its rainfall. The driest months are between October and February.
In addition to the great weather, there’s another reason to travel to Easter Island in February. Tapati Rapa Nui is the island’s namesake festival that began in the 1970s as a way to celebrate culture and heritage. During the celebration, there are several competitions, including one between two women to become the queen for a year, as well as canoeing, horse racing, and a chance to try Haka Pei—a sport where people use a banana leaf to sled down Rapa Nui’s steepest hillside.
The Best Easter Island Souvenirs
Vendors selling souvenirs won’t be hard to come by in Hanga Roa, but if you prefer to wander through markets to collect treats for friends at home, head to Mercado Artesenal. Located on Ara Roa Rakei, this market is loaded with handicrafts made by local artisans. Small moai, carved from both stone and wood, are a favorite, given their prominence in local culture. And there are plenty to choose from. Visitors can also buy more traditional souvenirs, including T-shirts and jewelry.
At Feria Artesenal you can find a similar type of souvenir, though vendors also hawk produce and fresh-caught fish in the mornings.
Tamure Rapa Nui is a small shop that sells clothing and jewelry. It’s located on Atamu Tekena and is slightly more expensive than other stores on the island, although travelers also prefer the slightly higher quality items. Colorful floral wreathes and Polynesian-print textiles are sold alongside carved bone earrings and woven fiber bags.