Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Easter Island – Rapa Nui – Isla de Pascua

By whatever name you refer to it, Easter Island has always held a certain mystique for me. Perhaps it is the sheer remoteness of the island or the enigmatic moai (stone statues) for which the island is renowned or maybe even because so little is really known about the island and the indigenous peoples who inhabited it and named it Rapa Nui. I only know that it is one of the places I have longed to visit. Located about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) off the coast of Chile in the middle of the Pacific, the small volcanic island was once considered one of the most isolated places on the planet. Now, it is connected to mainland Chile via daily flights from Santiago and these flights are packed with islanders and tourists alike. The flight is long, about 5 and a half hours but I spend my time reading voraciously about the island, the history, the geology, the people and what to see and do. I kept glancing out of the window at the blue Pacific below and my list of activities got longer. Tom looked over and commented that we only have 4 full days and “that is quite a list”. I agreed but kept on adding to it until…land was below us. I put away the books I was reading and retrieved my camera. I did not want to miss the first aerial photographs of the island. Hmm, did I mention how tiny it is? The plane swooped across the entire land and was out to sea again before I could ready the camera. The pilot banked steeply and turned to approach the runway from the opposite direction. By now, we could make out the terrain and runway which runs the width of the island on the south side, one coast to another, west to east. I was able to get some shots of Orongo, a sacred ceremonial site as the plane lightly touched down and the pilot immediately applied the brakes bringing the plane to a screeching halt with seemingly only feet to spare before dropping into the ocean. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned it but, I have a distinct fear of flying, particularly of takeoff and landing. I have flown a lot but have never quite come to terms with the idea of a monstrous metal object carrying several hundred people and God only knows how much cargo, lifting off, hurtling through the air at 500 plus miles an hour and then dropping back to land without there being more accidents. I know all the statistics about the safety of flying but I am always relieved when I have my two feet firmly on land again. And what land. Land of the moai (stone statues) and of ahus (burial sites), of anas (lava tube caves) of petroglyphs and of volcanoes. Easter Island. The plane is parked just a short walk from the terminal and as we come down the steps, the sun is shining brightly. The island from what little we see looks vibrantly lush and green. As we wait for our luggage, we chat with a few people from the plane. One thing struck me was the number of single people, both men and women who for whatever reason were travelling alone. Mike is from Michigan and is staying on the island for 4 days. Although he is not at our hotel we exchange information and he tells us he is interested in splitting the cost of a car rental and touring with us for one of the days. We had been told by the hotel to stop at the CONAF booth at the airport and purchase our national park pass. Since most of the island is designated as a national park, you need a pass and we had been told that it is checked at various sites and that the easiest place to get it is the airport. The passes are $60.00 US dollars each and I viewed it as more of an island tax. We were warned that there were two sites that we could only access once with the pass, at Orongo and at Rano Raraku. All other sites could be visited as often as we wanted. The hotel had said that someone would pick us up and sure enough a jovial islander was holding a sign with our name displayed as we stepped out into the brilliant sunlight. “Lorana” he said as he draped beautiful fresh orchid leis around our necks and gave both of us massive bear hugs. “Welcome to Easter Island. My name’s Teddy” and with that Teddy became our friend, impromptu guide and historian for the rest of our stay. Besides us, he also picked up Mark, a Canadian from Ottawa who worked in some sort of government position and was travelling alone and a young Japanese couple who remarkably were only going to spend one night on the island before going back to the mainland. Seemed like a long way to come for just one night but they explained they were on a two week world tour and were trying to make it to as many places as possible. Just listening to their itinerary made me exhausted. We are staying at the Tupa Hotel. As advertised on the internet it is on a cliff with great ocean views and walking to the main building and reception, the pathway is crowded on both sides with beautiful succulent flowers and plants: lilies, orchids, irises, hibiscus and other exotics in a dazzlingly array of colors. The reception area is a lounge with a fabulous view of the grounds and ocean but exploring will have to come later as we are quickly checked in by the extremely efficient but very friendly and helpful, Constancia. We told her we would be back later to get some help with our itinerary and plans for the next four days. Our room overlooked the courtyard and was sparsely furnished but clean and would be fine for our needs. We quickly unpacked and set off to explore the grounds and the nearby town of Hanga Roa. We also wanted to inquire into tours and car rentals. We had come up with a plan that we would take a full day tour the first day, just to get a feel for the island and then rent a car and explore ourselves for another. We were also interested in doing some snorkeling and scuba diving which we had read is some of the best in the world. Heading back to the reception to chat with Constancia, we had an unexpected surprise with remarkably good luck. It seems that everyone who books into the Tupa Hotel knows this fact but us. The hotel is owned by Sergio Rapu, a former governor of Easter Island (his sister in law now holds that title) and is a well known archaeologist who is often interviewed about the history, laws and well anything that has to do with the island, in general. As we entered the reception area, he introduced himself to us and settled us at a table with a map of the island and proceeded to give us a quick history lesson telling us places of interest to see and an archeological overview of the area. He quickly told us that organized tours were not really necessary and showed us on the map how to get around the island easily. He asked if we had purchased our park passes and said they would be checked and marked at both Orongo and Rano Raraku but we could be asked to produce them at any time, so to be sure to carry them with us when travelling. The hotel had two rental cars available and we reserved one for the next morning, we found out later that the hotel rentals were much less expensive than renting in town. We also asked for some suggestions on restaurants and besides telling us that in general the food on the island is good, he gave us the name of a couple of his personal favorites. He also told us that he is at the hotel much of the time and if we have any questions about the historical sites or the island, just find him and he will explain more to us. As we left the hotel we could hardly believe our luck. What good fortune and chance that we had stayed at the Tupa. Tom was as pleased as I was and we hoped it would be a good omen for our time here. We decide to walk into town which is only about a 10 minute stroll and check out some dive shops and somewhere for dinner. It is getting late and it is Sunday so many places are closed but we find plenty of people walking around and we encounter our first moai. The stone statue will be the first of many that we will see over the next few days and not the best but we are nevertheless excited at seeing it and take quite a few photographs. There is a small restaurant by the water at Playa Pea and we decide it is perfect for dinner. Sitting at a table outside, I can hardly believe my luck. Easter Island. As we order a pisco sour – Chile’s national cocktail – we toast our vacation and settle down to eat and plan our next day.

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