We can finally take a stab at this question after our four day journey to the island.
Half of this entry will be written by Patience, the other half by Ian (we will leave distinction to the reader). So, what is Easter Island?
1. A speck in the Pacific - Easter Island may have 60,000 tourists a year, but it ain't easy to get to. The island is over 1,000 miles from the nearest populated point (Pitcairn Island) and is over 2,000 miles from Chile. The island comprises a triangle about 15 km to a side, and is composed of volcanoes that will one day subduct into the ocean, along with the entire island. We took a five hour flight from Santiago to Honga Roa, the only town on the island and the only place to stay.
2. An unsuspecting land of legend - Captain Cook puzzled over why anyone would want to live on Easter Island after discovering the speck in the 1700s. The island has almost no trees and is covered in hills overlooking rocky cliffs that make agriculture and fishing difficult. The hostile land belies the legends that it holds. Upon Cook's discovery, only about 2,000 Rapa Nui people remained on the island, down from an estimated 15,000 at one point. The Rapa Nui civilization peaked and plummeted after overusing its resources and descending into conflicts between two levels of a Polynesian social hierarchy. Little remains of the Rapa Nui culture besides the language and a thin line of oral legend, and an impressive amount of HUGE stone statues scattered around the island.
3. An open air museum - From the natural scenery to the hundreds of statues (moai, as they're called), Easter Island is truly an open air museum and an archaeological treasure. Moai ring around the perimeter of the island, facing into the island. They are giant stone humanlike figures carved from volcanic rock that weigh several tons each. To this day, no one knows how the statues were moved from the rock faces from which they were carved to the beaches they protect. Be it aliens or clever lever systems, the mystery surrounding the moai and their movement adds to Easter Island's mystical feel. We explored many a moai on Easter Island and also went to where they were carved, Rano Raraku (see full story below).
4. Hitchhiker's paradise - Easter Island is not only a paradise for giant stone statues, but also for hitchhiking, regular hiking, and stray dogs. The island is, with the exception of Honga Roa, a Chilean national park, and is littered with trails and overgrown paths along cliffs and up volcanoes. The few roads are frequented by tourists who rent cars and some friendly locals, so hitchhiking is easy. We hitchhiked successfully four out of four attempts during the trip: once with two Chilean women, once with a local fisherman, once with some multinational bros, and once with a Rapa Nui family. Hiking free range across open land was a great way to get away from it all. We saw many a crater and picked up a few dog companions along the way.
5. Isla de Pascua - Easter Island has been annexed by Chile following a turbulent history of war, plague, and slave raids. The island functions as a Chilean resort, to the expense and benefit of the local Rapa Nui people. Chilean control has caused many property conflicts and some vehement protests by locals. Tourism is the island's only source of income, and as such is embraced by everyone. Most things are imported to the island besides a small selection of local produce, and prices are high -- triple Chilean price. That being said, we camped and cooked and ended up doing the trip quite cheaply. Enough with definitions, what did we actually do?
We landed on Thursday morning, and wandered around the only city (Hanga Roa) for about an hour before finding our campsite.
Once settled at the "Mihinoa" campground, complete with a kitchen, lockers, bathrooms, and a lawn for tents to be pitched, we feasted on peanut butter sandwiches and began a hike up the coastline to see our first moai. You can see them all over the island, but there's a fair concentration of them right where the city is. We saw three within our first hour of walking. We ate dinner at a little restaurant on the edge of the city that served delicious Chilean-style food (although we did our best to distance ourselves from Chile, the predominant fair was still empanadas and pollo asado). Then we walked back to the campground as the sun set, played some cards, and went to sleep.
The next day our goal was to reach Orongo, a ceremonial village east of the city. After buying some local-grown bananas (which were shorter, thicker and more delicious than any bananas I've ever had, grown in an agricultural cave by some sorcery), we started a hike there from the city. A dog started following us, which apparently is a very common ocurrence. We ignored him, figuring he would lose interest after a couple minutes- but he followed us for the entire three-hour hike to Orongo! The hike was lovely, guiding us through fields, forests, and up a volcano to the breathtaking view of a vast oceanside crater.
We walked around the edge of the crater to the ceremonial village, Orongo, where the Rapa Nui people resided long ago . A collection of very low stone houses had tiny crawlspaces for doors. They rested on a cliff overlooking a bare rock island a bit off the coast - apparently back in the day, competitors used to race across the treacherous waters to this rocky speck, climb the steep rock walls and seek the egg of a certain species of bird. The first one to bring an undamaged egg back would determine who was the "Birdman", ruler of the island, for the following year. A strange standard for one's government, but it worked for them.
After touring the stone ruins, we had lunch overlooking the crater, and then started walking. The dog that was still following us picked up three new dog friends, who joined him in his dogged (haha) pursuit of us.
They probably would have followed us all the way back to Hanga Roa if we hadn't caught a ride with two Chilean women. The dogs watched us climb into the vehicle with dismay and ran hopelessly behind the car until it was out of sight.
We returned to Hanga Roa much earlier than expected- the trip to Orongo was expected to take all day, but it only took about 5 hours. We went to an ice cream shop, and were wondering what to do with ourselves for the remainder of the day when a French man interrupted our musings. He explained that his family of four wanted to go on a boat tour of the southern shore, but the tour company would only take them out with five or more willing customers. He asked if we wanted to join, and we did! Snorkeling was included, and though the family weren't interested in submerging themselves in the notoriously cold Pacific, we were down, and were given wetsuits and goggles to try on.
Out in the water, we were dropped off by the boat near the island where Rapa Nui used to race to get bird eggs - sheer cliffs surrounded us, and huge ocean swells lifted us like we were tiny corks. There wasn't much to see in terms of marine life- some brown coral, needle fish, a couple little yellow fish- but the water was incredibly clear, clearer than anywhere I've ever snorkeled before.
After snorkeling and a windy boat ride back, we were tired. We trudged back to Mihinoa, showered and hung out for a bit (I read a few chapters of Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy).
A Canadian couple (from Northern Alberta) who had already been on Easter Island for 10 days engaged us in conversation. Hearing that we were planning to go to Anakena Beach the next day, they offered to split the cost of a taxi with us, which we readily agreed to. We met up with the couple the next morning around 9, got a taxi and enjoyed a scenic ride along the mountainous coast to Playa Anakena.
Our time at Playa Anakena can only be described as a perfect beach day - the sun was hot, the water was clear, and the moai were, as always, watching us silently. Ian and I hiked around grassy hills surrounding the beach to get a good view, then settled down in the abandoned lifeguard tower for lunch, where we saw a herd of wild horses run across the beach, like something out of a storybook:
Around 2 we reunited with the Canadian couple and started a trek to Rano Raraku, the quarry where the Moai were originally carved hundreds of years ago. It would've been a long walk, but we were driven halfway there by a friendly multi-lingual native who was on his way to go spear fishing, and the rest of the way by a truck-full of international bros (there's no other way to describe them- one was from Alberta and our Canadian friends bonded with him).
Rano Raraku was possibly the coolest thing we saw while we were on Easter Island. First we passed an ahu (platform) with 15 moai. It was incredible.
Then we went up to the quarry - there were moai sticking out of the ground for miles around the site, moai that had broken while they were moving them, moai that for no known reason had been abandoned only a few hundred feet into the journey. There were huge gaps in the walls of stone where moai had clearly been carved out- and even some half-carved moai that had never been finished, including the enormous one chillaxing in the picture below.
We also visited a big crater lake, which was, of course, breathtakingly beautiful, and then caught the taxi back to Hanga Roa. That night, Ian and I went to a "no-frills den with momma-style empanadas" (as described by Lonely Planet) and had huge, delicious fresh tuna empanadas for dinner.
The next day, we were uncertain of what do with ourselves: it was raining, and we were tired, but felt like we couldn't waste away one of our precious days on the island playing cards inside. We decided to make the wet trip back to the empanadas place, where we were given free tea with our meal by the kindly owner who recognized us from the night before. We played a few rounds of Vietnamese cards on the porch until the rain gave way to sunshine, then decided to embark on a hike along the coast as far as we dared to go.
We saw dramatic cliffs, crashing waves, and sea caves (one of which we took shelter in temporarily when a brief spurt of rain threatened our dryness). It was awesome. Once we reached our destination (another "ahu" platform that turned out to be just an ahu, with no moai on it), we treked back through the countryside instead of following the coast. We got a little lost, had a few nerve-wracking encounters with cows, and after finding our way to a paved road through a neighborhood got a ride from a Rapa Nui family back into the heart of Hanga Roa.
Since it was our last night, we decided to splurge on a slightly fancier dinner. We went into one of the central, touristy restaurants, where they politely overlooked our mud-streaked pants and wind-swept hair and served us a hamburger and fish.
Then we went to sleep.
The next day, our flight didn't leave until 3 so we took a quick hike to the sea caves west of our camp site, and discovered an outdoor swimming pool, beautifully paved and maintained in the midst of a labyrinth of volcanic rock. Its water came from the ocean that crashed up from the rocky coastline below.
Then we packed up our tent and sleeping bags, had some pollo asado with french fries at a restaurant by the airport, and said goodbye to the island for ever.