Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Easter Island/Santiago November 2012 - Exploring Easter Island And Hanga Roa

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

With three full days bookended between two half days, we had just enough time to see all the major sites on Easter Island. Depending on your own preferences, however, three days may be not nearly enough to explore every amazing ruin and vista, or it may be entirely way too long on a tiny island out in the middle of nowhere. For me, it was just right.

I had done some research before arriving, so I knew of the main things I definitely wanted to see. But it wasn't until I started talking to other travelers and pulled out the official park map that I realized just how many points of interest there really were on Easter Island. And let me say, there are tons of stuff to see. You could literally spend two weeks there and not see everything, despite its small size and proximity.

I will give an overview of my itinerary on the island, but keep in mind that there were plenty of things we missed and places we would have liked to visit. However, we did try to hit all of the must-see spots and a few of the more obscure locales.

Day 1:
We agreed to take it easy on the first day after some long flights and the red-eye to Easter Island. By the time we were settled in at Kaimana Inn, it was almost noon-time already, so we decided to grab lunch first and then simply explore the town of Hanga Roa in the afternoon. There are actually many things to see in the immediate area, and it makes for a simple introduction before exploring the rest of the island.

Avenida Te Pito O Te Henua towards the harbor

It's a short and leisurely stroll to the harbor area, which, in many ways, seems to be the central gathering place in town. In fact, the very first moai you are likely to encounter is located here. After a quick lunch, we strolled along the waterfront and saw numerous surfers braving the cold waters. I also visited one of the two banks in town a few blocks away to exchange my U.S. dollars. Be aware that bank hours are extremely erractic, often shutting down the entire afternoon. The small post office just up the street from the harbor is a fun place to get your passport stamped and send out some postcards.

Surf lessons for the local kids at the harbor

Along the waterfront

Street market

There are two artisanal markets all within walking distance, and they offer plenty of interesting souvenirs to purchase. However, be aware that many items sold on Easter Island are not actually made there. In fact, I would venture to guess that a majority of the souvenirs are mass-produced on the mainland. We did run into a little shop just off the main road called Rapa Nui Natural Products that sold some cool island-made goods such as hand-made soaps, chocolates, and preserves.

After a very mild afternoon of walking around Hanga Roa, we had dinner at an amazing Japanese restaurant called Kotaro (I'll talk more about it at the end of this post) and grabbed some dessert at a nearby coffee shop before heading back to the hotel.

Day 2:
The next morning, six of us from the hotel began our day tour of Easter Island with Marcelo, the owner of Kaimana Inn. This tour provided us a broad overview of the most popular sites. In addition, having a guide really helped us understand the history and significance of the ruins. Marcelo did a wonderful job answering all of our questions. Unfortunately, it was forecast to rain that day, and the cloud cover indicated this as well in the morning.

We first drove along the southern cost, stopping at Hanga Te'e and then Akahanga to view some of the toppled moai that have not been restored. All of these statues were in fact left in this manner until recent government projects within the last few decades significantly restored many of them to their original standing positions.

Toppled moai at Akahanga

We continued on to Rano Raraku, the quarry where all the moai were carved and moved from to reach their final destination on the shores. This famous site is where pictures of the moai buried in the hills all come from, and it was a thrilling view to behold. Dozens if not hundreds of moai in all states of construction can be seen here, with many more abandoned while being transported down the hill. From a distance, it almost looks like these statues are walking towards the sea. Very impressive indeed. Be aware that Rano Raraku is one of two sites on the island that require a paid ticket to enter. If you didn't pre-purchase your ticket at the airport, the entry fee will be $10 more here ($50 vs. $60 USD).

Rano Raraku

Moai abandoned in the midst of carving

Tongariki in the distance

It began to rain just as we left Rano Raraku, and for the next hour, it didn't let up. We tried to wait it out at Tongariki, the site of the most famous collection of restored moai, but with no pause in the downpour, we decided to run out of the minivan, take a few pictures, and continue on. Luckily, we still had two full days, and we definitely planned on heading back to see the sunrise at Tongariki, so it wasn't a complete loss.

We drove up the northeast coast and stopped at Te Pito Kura, otherwise known as the Navel of the World to the Rapa Nui. This site contains the largest moai ever completed, but it was never restored after being toppled, so it may be a little hard to appreciate the true size. A bit further down the walking path is the famous magnetic rock that was brought to the island by the legendary founder, Hotu Matu'a. However, it is more likely to have local origins. Many people believe the rock emanates spiritual and healing powers.

Magnetic rock

Just northwest of Te Pito Kura is one of only two white sand beaches on Easter Island, Anakena. It is a beautiful location that is good for swimming... but sadly, the weather was still uncooperative when we arrived. The rain was coming down hard, and the strong winds were unbearably cold. We had to settle for a few pictures of the beach and restored moai, which stood just a short walk inland.


After a quick lunch of empanadas at one of the food stands near the beach, we began our trek back to Hanga Roa through the middle of the island. Along the way, you can see Pu'i hill, from which brave contestants slide all the way down during the annual Tapati Festival in February. You can also climb all the way up Terevaka, the central volcano and highest point on the island. That in itself is probably a half-day event, and we didn't have time to do the strenuous hike. We arrived back at the hotel in the late afternoon, and relaxed for the remainder of the evening.

Day 3:
Luckily, the weather cleared up on the third day, and we were treated to stunning blue skies. It was a great day to do the hike up to Rano Kau, the extinct volcano at the southwest tip of the island. There is a road that also leads up to the edge of the crater, but the hike is definitely the more scenic way to see the area. On the trail leading from Hanga Roa to Rano Kau, there is a small cave called Ana Kai Tangata, located at the bottom of the sea cliff where you can see some cool petroglyphs. The huge waves crashing along the coast is a spectacular sight to see as well.

Ana Kai Tangata

Follow the signs towards the hidden pathway that leads to the Rano Kau trail. It actually cuts through several private gardens, so be careful of where you go. This is a fairly strenuous hike, but quite short in length. Much of the trail lacks any tree coverage, so wear a hat and bring lots of sunscreen, especially on a hot day. About halfway up, there is a large area of reforestation that is perfect for taking a break. In addition, the views of Mataveri International Airport are amazing here. I was lucky enough to see one of the LAN flights take off!

Trail up to Rano Kau

View of Mataveri International Airport

Once at the top, you are treated to a spectacular view of the mile-wide Rano Kau crater lake and just a peak of the blue ocean beyond a section of collapsed wall. From this location, a must-do walk along the crater edge leads to the ceremonial village of Orongo. Like Rano Raraku, you must have an entry ticket in order to visit the site. Until the mid-19th century, Orongo was the center of the birdman cult, which hosted an annual race to bring the first manutara egg from the islet of Motu Nui back.

Rano Kau crater lake

Trail along the crater edge

Vegetation inside the crater

View of the crater from Orongo

Rano Kau was one of the most breathtaking sites I've seen in all my travels, and it is definitely worth a half-day visit. Do the hike up if you are physically capable... it makes the view that much more rewarding. The trek down the mountain was a lot faster, and we arrived back at Hanga Roa in the early afternoon.

Restored dwelling in Orongo

Motu Nui islet

In preparation for the following day, we decided to rent a car so we could make it to Tongariki at sunrise, and visit some other points of interest. Rentals are very expensive on the island, and made even more so since we didn't know how to drive a manual. For about $90 USD, we were able to get a small automatic SUV for one full day. Luckily the process was quite easy, and a local driver's license and insurance were not required.

Rental car

After eating dinner at one of the pricier restaurant on the island, La Taverne du Pecheur (more on that below), we took in the Kari-Kari show, featuring local music and dancers. Many of dancing styles were borrowed from Tahiti and other Polynesian cultures, so it's difficult to say for sure what aspect of the show was authentically Rapa Nui. However, it was still a lively performance featuring beautiful costumes and festive music, so it may be worth the $20 USD and an hour of your time.

Kari-Kari show

Day 4:
On the third full day, we woke up at 5:00 AM in preparation for the sunrise at Tongariki. If you are not accustomed to driving in rural areas, the pitch-black surroundings on the way there may come as an unpleasant surprise. Despite using the high beams, all you see is a short expanse of road ahead of you and nothing else. Driving in this environment in unfamiliar territory can be a bit unsettling. Even when you arrive, it's hard to ascertain if you are in the right location. Luckily there were already a few other cars parked in the lot across the road from Tongariki.

Sunrise at Tongariki

Since the sun rises in different locations throughout the year, there isn't a perfect spot for pictures. Just test out different angles once the first light begins to appear. Be very careful where you walk, however, as horses graze throughout the area and there are infinite piles of manure everywhere you go! Unfortunately, it was very cloudy again the morning we went, so the sun wasn't visible at all. However, the colors in the sky were still breathtaking, and the brief rays of sun breaking through the clouds in the horizon provided some nice shots.

We took our time at Tongariki, taking tons of pictures and even pretending to pose alongside the moai by using some tricky camera angles. You can get the pose just right from the left side of the statues, on top of a small dirt mound (do not actually step onto the ahu, as that is forbidden). Despite being one of the most popular spots on the island, it never got too crowded. After about two hours of enjoying the stunning views, we drove back to our hotel for breakfast.

In the late morning, we set out again in our rental car, heading just northeast of Hanga Roa. First, we stopped at Puna Pau, the quarry where the red topknots (pukao) of the moai were carved. These are the headpieces, or more accurately, the hair of the moai, which were completed at this site, then transported to the final destination separately. From there, we continued north on the small road to Ahu Akivi, the only instance of moai being situated inland, as well as the only example of moai facing towards the ocean. Ahu Akivi is older and smaller, but nonetheless interesting due to its unique location.

Puna Pau

Ahu Akivi

Finally, we drove a little further northwest to see Ana Te Pahu, a series of lava tubes and caves. Be very careful when driving on the dirt road here, as it is in terrible condition. I honestly didn't know if our car would make it since the shocks and tires were seriously getting beaten up. Fortunately, nothing bad happened, and we soon found ourselves descending into a sinkhole in the flat terrain. Inside the sinkhole, there was lush vegetation, and different pathways leading to a number of caves.

Entrance to Ana Te Pahu

While parts of the lava tube ceilings have collapsed, allowing some light to enter, it is still an absolute requirement to have a flashlight or headlamp if you really want to explore the caves fully. Do not go into the caves without a light source. Luckily, I remembered to bring my headlamp, and we explored the area for a good hour or so before climbing back out.

After a short rest back at the hotel, we decided to get a little more use out of our rental car by heading up Tahai, just north of Hanga Roa. This is an amazing location to see the sunset, as it directly faces the west, and has a large open field with a number of wonderfully restored moai. One of the moai even had its eyes replaced! If I had more time, it would have been lovely just to sit here for an afternoon reading and admiring the views.


Unfortunately, we had to return the car to town before the sun fully set at Tahai. So we did that first, then walked over to the harbor area and a little further north to catch the last rays of light along the coast. It was without a doubt one of the beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. For dinner, we visited Kotaro once again before heading back to the hotel.

Sunset at the harbor

Day 5:
On the last day, we really didn't have much time to do anything else besides some last minute souvenir shopping and packing our luggage. Our departure time was at 2:10 PM, and we wanted to be ready for check-out by noon. In the morning, we visited the large artisanal market at the end of the street leading up from the harbor. There, you can find all the miniature moai statues your heart desires.

Walking back down the street, there were also many small shops selling more locally-made souvenirs. I had better luck here finding less mass-produced items as gifts for family and friends. After a quick check-out at the hotel, Marcelo drove us to the airport and even walked us up to the LAN counters. Finally, he left us with a small parting gift as we bid adieu.


I wanted to add a quick word regarding restaurants and dining on Easter Island. While food is expensive and quality not so great, there are a few standouts that I have to mention. First and foremost is Kotaro, really the only authentic Japanese restaurant on Easter Island, and hands-down the place with the best atmosphere and food in general.


For many years, the chef and owner, Francisco, worked by himself, building the actual restaurant (consisting of a small, beautifully decorated open-air structure) and cooking all of the food along with serving his customers. With a steady rise in popularity, he has enlarged the restaurant space as well as hired a few hands to help take care of service. However, he still stops at each dining table, making recommendations and small talk with his guests. Francisco is definitely a character... very gruff, slightly abrasive, yet always honest and direct.

Francisco, owner and chef

We ended up going there twice for dinner, and I'm so glad we went the second time because he had some of the freshest sashimi I've ever tasted (he literally carried the whole fish into the restaurant)! The first night we went, I tried a stir-fried dish that was also very good (since he didn't have any fresh sashimi readily available), and my friend ordered the hand-made ramen. Best of all, everything was reasonably priced for the quality of the food.

I loved the eclectic music selection that he plays at a fairly loud volume... although some people may be bothered by it. Also, be ready for relatively slow service because Francisco still pretty much cooks everything by himself. Kotaro is the only restaurant I would wholeheartedly recommend on Easter Island... the food, ambiance, and interaction with the chef just made it the perfect experience.

Fresh sushi and sashimi

Unfortunately, I felt like the other dining options lagged far behind. We tried a number of restaurants in town, and they were just decent for the prices charged. Probably one of the more expensive places was La Taverne du Pecheur, specializing in seafood and pasta. While the dish I ordered was actually quite good, I didn't think the high prices were justified. The service was extremely slow as well, despite us arriving right when they opened. In fact, we were the first customers there. The restaurant does have a nice view of the harbor from the second floor balcony though.

La Taverne du Pecheur


Spicy shrimp pasta

There are some options for a quick and delicious meal that won't break the bank on Easter Island, my favorite of which were several food stalls right next to the athletic field across from the Hanga Roa harbor. For less than $10 USD, you can get a huge empanada stuffed with shrimp, tuna, or other types of meat. There were also plenty of other choices like burgers, steaks, and pasta. This was a great place to grab a simple lunch.

Food stalls next to the athletic field

Empanada and tuna burger

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