By Joan Larsen
A dream had played in my head since childhood. Books of the time tantalized me with the stories of what I was soon to read was ‘the most isolated inhabited island on our earth.’ I knew even then that I must set foot on Easter Island. But it was well over half a lifetime before I stepped on its shores.
It did not disappoint.
A small volcanic island lying in the vast Pacific Ocean – five hours west by plane from Santiago, Chile – well, getting there was an adventure in itself. If you fly due West, you find the sun never sets. You stare down at a featureless ocean, looking for the signs of a lone rock, a reef, a tiny atoll that would signal the impending destination. The ocean remains empty.
But suddenly, our plane begins its descent. On a plateau overlooking the ocean, we see our first carved figures called moai that have drawn us there. Small island, short runway? Not here. Unbelievably, the airstrip at Easter Island is actually the longest in Chile after being upgraded by NASA some years ago as an emergency airstrip for the space shuttle.
There is a bit of apprehension. The feeling of having arrived in nowhere. But passengers are welcomed warmly, greeted by an expectant group of experienced local tour guides, eager to take us to our lodgings and settle us in. It turned out that a four night stay would seem to be the absolute minimum as we found there was more to see and do than we ever could imagine.
Can you imagine awakening to the sight of wild horses grazing outside your picture window? And at nightfall, I would silently watch the sky fill with stars, uninterrupted by light pollution. Choosing the quite new Explora Rapa Nui eco-lodge proved to be a smart choice for us as middle-aged travelers with a yearning for all the all-inclusive adventures that could be provided.
Only with the knowledge of expert archaeological guides, so freely given, would we would leave with the expertise that we craved. For Easter Island – unlike the mostly solved mysteries of other archaeological sites – is a total enigma. An entire culture vanished almost with a trace, leaving the island nothing but the countless stone sculptures known as Moai— and a lot of questions yet to be answered.
Each morning we set out like explorers with our local guides, hiking up to Rano Raraku quarry where the moai statues are being excavated. This is where the remains of an ancestor-worshipping culture that dates back to 700 A.D. began. Today you see archaeologists at work and visit with them, intrigued by the several theories of how these statues – now recently found to have complete bodies, each one different – have been transported and placed all over the island.
Those tales are stories all to themselves, once heard – not forgotten. Ever.
The guides are invaluable, taking you places no other tourists on Easter Island go, unveiling the mysteries of this far-flung island we had come so far to know better. With their help,for the first time in life, I spelunked safely into a cave that opens to the ocean, summited an extinct volcano filled with a lagoon whose rim I hiked around, rode horseback — there are 7000 horses on the island (!) — and lounged on a white beach, soaking up the sun, with a Chilean pisco sour in hand while my husband investigated the world underwater.
It was only when I looked around and saw a 20-foot, 15-ton sculpture staring back at me on that beach, that I knew – without any doubt – that Easter Island is one of a kind, never to be forgotten.
We and our new-found wonderful friends there agreed that this is an ethereal land in itself – beautiful and uncrowded. But it is a veritable living museum that will fascinate you, continuing to turn in your mind long after you are home once again.
For the intrepid traveler, Easter Island is a “must”. . . but the visitor, after flying as far as Chile, should not return home without visiting the Lake Country of Chile or Patagonia – two excursions that have no equals. Another option – direct from Easter Island – is to fly westward to the islands of Tahiti, a place I will always call paradise, before returning home.
Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”