The image of the giant stone heads of Easter Island has been engraved on my mind for as long as I can remember – even as a child, there was something mysterious and amazing about the idea. Seeing them for myself has always been on my list and yet, if I’m honest, I never quite expected to actually travel there. I simply haven’t looked into it until recent times, and was shocked to find that this island, considered one of the more remote locations in the world, happens to be the proud owner of one of the largest runways in the Pacific.
This runway, the most remote in the world, was completed in 1987 and crosses the entire width of the island, quite literally from coast to coast. It was provided by NASA as an optional failsafe landing zone for the space shuttle, but had the side effect of massively boosting tourism on the island thanks to the ability to land planes as large as 767’s with plenty of room to spare. I would not at all be surprised to find that the paved surface area of the runway is easily 2-3x the total paved surface area of all roads on the rest of the island.
Thanks to this runway, I was shocked to find that I could fly round trip from Lima for only a few hundred dollars. I missed out on the super cheap economy tickets while waiting for confirmation of my plans, but I did end up scoring a $650 round trip business class ticket only two days before leaving… hard to top that for affordability!
The island itself is a pretty interesting experience, somewhat unique in many ways. Shockingly, even though almost the entire economy is supported by tourism you will find practically none of the “sell” you encounter anywhere else in the world. If you want to do something, they will help you do it – otherwise they will leave you alone. If you want to buy a trinket, no problem, there are plenty of people selling – but no one will bother you to buy. If you want a guide and stories they are there for the taking – but if you explore on your own, no one will try to rope you into a guide.
It makes for an incredibly laid back “tourist” experience, where you can do whatever you want at your own pace without ever feeling any pressure or forced expectation. For this alone I recommend a visit here… though of course, it wouldn’t matter without the island itself.
Easter Island is the top of three volcanoes in the middle of the Pacific with a unique history of overpopulation followed by implosion caused by both internal and external forces. After all the trees on the island were wiped out by overharvesting and vermin, the population was decimated by warfare, slavery, and sickness. It is unlike anything else you will encounter in the Pacific or anywhere else, though it does bear a minor resemblance to some areas of New Zealand.
The coastline is almost completely composed of jagged volcanic rock, with high cliffs on the western and southern edges matched against shorter but equally rocky areas on the north and east coasts – there are only two very small sandy beaches on the island, and even here the waves can be harsh enough to stir up sand and impede a laid-back beach experience. When the tide is coming in, especially on the north or west coasts, the waves smash themselves against a rock with an intense fury born of thousands of miles of open water. It was not uncommon during my stay to see waves well over twenty feet exploding forty or more feet into the air upon crashing into the coast.
As most of the coastline is lacking sand, instead formed of this dark volcanic rock, the water itself retains an incredibly deep blue hue that is quite unlike anything I have ever seen on a coast before – it looks exactly like the ocean you see when you fly above empty waves in the middle of nowhere. It’s stunning, shocking, and humbling.
The rest of the island is equally different from a stereotypical “tropical paradise.” It is almost completely covered in bright green grass, in most places cropped short by the grazing animals scattered all over. On most of the island there is very little evidence of the volcanic heritage, with oddly shaped rolling hills dotting the countryside, covered in the same green grass. The effect is evocative of an old video game world in an badly designed engine that can only render endless green grass. I could not help but constantly make comparisons to the green hills of the default Windows background…
In a few areas, rock does jut out of the island – where it does, the effect is always profound. A fifty foot high mountain of rock becomes massive, its size and strength amplified unrealistically by the surrounding empty grass. Along the northern coast, the volcanic rock seems to be covered by a much smaller layer of dirt, breaking through often and preventing the grass from completely taking hold. When traveling through this area you have the strange feeling that this is how it should be, a feeling of safety and acceptance coming over you compared to the constant unreality of the rest.
There is one small area in the middle of the island where trees have been replanted, giving you a small taste of what this Pacific island would look like without man – dense, nearly impenetrable trees and underbrush providing not just shade but choking the light almost completely. When traveling through this forest you can’t quite help but feel a betraying tinge of gratitude that the trees were mostly removed, allowing you to experience the island undressed.
The moai are fascinating, and denote an amazing cultural history that is its own unique mystery. Better left to experts such as Jared Diamond (who discusses Easter Island in his fantastic book “Collapse”), I won’t attempt to discuss the complexities of the history. Suffice it to say that within a very short period of time in the last century, the population of the island was almost completely decimated and almost all historical knowledge was lost (killed, actually).
Much like the pyramids, how these primitive cultures created these massive stone statues and transported them all over the island isn’t quite known for sure, nor why the culture that stood for hundreds of years turned on itself in a period of warfare that resulted in almost every moai on the island being toppled. What we have left is a series of guesses and an island full of the bizarre evidence of this giant megalith building culture, in many places carefully restored over the past twenty years.
To me, the most amazing thing is not that these megaliths were built – the larger ones taking over a year to be carved from the rocks by teams of sculptors. It’s not even the stunning reality that this culture could work together in such a fashion as to transport these statues weighing tens of thousands of pounds miles across a hilly island with primitive technology. It is, in fact, the macabre that amazes me: What does it say about human nature when a small, almost completely self contained society can transition from extensive mutual aid, respect, and general peace into all out warfare and almost complete self annihilation?
It should have been a utopia, a perfect island with people leading perfect lives. Instead, it was destroyed – the destruction started within, and was ended by the horrible selfishness and evils of “civilized” missionaries, slavers, and landowners. The island is scattered with the remnants of this cold reality, and yet there is hope to be found in the way the locals have improved their life, the way societies of the world have helped to rebuild the island and their culture.
Perhaps the island may have a happy ending after all? I know my visit there was full of such, and I think the island and its people are deserving of more.
Stay tuned for:
Part 2: Exploring Easter Island
Part 3: Tips for Going There
Part 4: Expenses