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Myths Come Alive on Easter Island

Myths Come Alive on Easter Island
By Rebecca Carter

At the age of 12, Kristy Keyes saw a video in her geography class and never forgot the island with “those weird statues”. The island, known in English as Easter Island, was named by Dutch mariner Jacob Roggeveen after he landed on what is now known in Spanish as Isla de Pascua and by the indigenous culture as Rapa Nui. It is also referred to as Te Pito or Te Henu, meaning the navel, or center of the world. Located in the middle of the south Pacific Ocean, it is the most isolated island in the world.

Kristy, who is now a Georgetown University student and an intern at the U.S. embassy in Santiago until next month, went to Rapa Nui and definitely came away wiser. She says the success of her trip was mostly due to her “wonderful” guide Jan, who “shared his vast knowledge with enthusiasm and insight.”

Although only 117 square meters, Easter Island has played a key role in ongoing debates about the origin of New World civilizations. Islanders say the origin of the first settlers is clear: Polynesian King Hota Matua sent out seven explorers who founded Rapa Nui. The seven famous Moai (tall stone statues) that seem to stand watch over the Pacific Ocean form a long-lasting tribute to those settlers, the so-called Long Ears. It was later settlers, the darker-skinned, heavier, Short Ears who carved the Moai in the image of their Long Ear rulers and thus made Easter Island famous. The exact dates of the arrival of settlers and the construction of the Moai are lost in the mists of time, with suggestions ranging from 450 to as late as the 16th century.

The sight of the Moai standing tall in their original glory is spectacular. Yet all such standing statues on Easter Island were re-erected in about the last 20 years after toppling or being pushed over long ago, perhaps by Short Ears who rebelled against their rulers long ago.

A tour of Easter Island is not limited to the marvelous Moai. There are petroglyphs carved in cliffsides, a legacy of the “birdman cult,” caves once used as kitchens by indigenous peoples and the freshwater crater on Rano Kau volcano. A hike up another volcano Rano Raraku, offers a spectacular view. And in the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, an artisan market offers Moai miniatures in abundance.

Visitors can travel the island by car, mountain bike, horseback or by foot, and most hikes are of easy to moderate difficulty.

Kristy stayed at Hotel Iorana, a four-star hotel just outside Hanga Roa with a beautiful view of the coast. She says the peace on her patio epitomized a phenomenon that she came to love on the island: “even during the day you could hear the silence.” The lodgings included half board, while dinners are extra and cost about US$10.

There are several seafood restaurants in Hanga Roa, and Hanga Roa hotel is considered to have the best restaurant on the island. It also offers a Rapa Nuian music and dance performance on Saturday nights.

Lan Chile flies from Santiago to Rapa Nui twice per week, and tickets must be booked seven days in advance. You can stay from five nights up to a maximum of three months. Lan Chile currently offered a bargain fare of US$600, through Nov. 30. All hotels are busy this month, but don´t let this stop you from going. Most people on Rapa Nui make a living from tourism, and it’s always possible to find rooms in houses when you arrive.

Kristy´s package was booked with Turavion (Av. Apoquindo 3000, third floor, Las Condes, Santiago, phone 3300800). Turavion works with local tour company Kia Koe, where you should ask for her five star guide, Jan. (Avda. Policarpo Toro no number, Isla de Pascua, phone 56-32-100282). Her four nights and five days, including lodgings and two half-day and one full-day guided tour cost US$490.