Stone Sentinels of Easter Island

The "traveling moai" stands guard at Ahu Tongariki

Before flying to Rapa Nui, I watched the Oscar-nominated movie Kon-Tiki which chronicles Thor Heyerdhal and his ballsy real-life high seas voyage on a balsa wood raft. He sailed in 1947 from Peru across the Pacific Ocean to prove ancient people from South America migrated westwards to Polynesia - a theory now proven wrong since current archaeological, linguistic and genetic data supports otherwise.

While my own voyage took a mere 5 hours from mainland Chile, Heyerdahl and his crew took a grueling 101 days to reach Raroia atoll in French Polynesia far away to the northwest of Rapa Nui. Heyerdahl's voyage showed even a primitive raft can sail on a restless ocean the same way ancient people did when they first came ashore on a lush Rapa Nui sometime between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D. - this after having sailed eastward from one of the islands in French Polynesia. Oral history mentions Te Pito O Te Henua as the island's original name, meaning "navel of the world" (the name Rapa Nui only came about in mid-19th century).

Ahu Nau Nau
Ahu Nau Nau (with visible petroglyph on platform)

Years after establishing themselves amidst abundant natural resources, the settlers began carving moais or statues out of volcanic rock. It wasn't just because they have nothing better to do with their hands. Ancient Polynesians believed in ancestor worship. By carving statues to honor an important deceased member of family or tribe, that person's mana or spiritual power is thought to offer protection and influence events long after death.

Mana however seemed more like a ticking time bomb. As the Rapanui carved more statues, with each tribe trying to build bigger ones, ecocide gradually crept into the island. Large swathes of giant palm trees were cut for firewood, farming, house-building and of course, transporting moais. With diminishing resources and no nearby island to move into, Rapa Nui erupted into tribal warfare and even cannibalism.

Ahu Ature Huki: first toppled moai
restored on Easter Island by Heyerdahl
Moais, standing tall, mysterious and proud on ahus or platforms, became the next victims. Ahus were  considered sacred as these were mostly the burial sites of Rapanui ancestors. However, as tribal feuds escalated, the Rapanui lost their belief and respect for these monoliths. Warring tribes began toppling each other's statues as an act of revenge. The last time any outsider ever saw upright statues were in 1838.

There are currently 887 moais scattered in various sites around this 63-square mile island. Some are restored, many are still toppled while a whole lot remain half-buried in their volcanic quarry with only heads sticking up.Those restored were done so by archeologists from 1950s onwards.

Anakena Beach

In order for visitors to see the most important ones today, one needs to spend at least 3 full days at this far-flung UNESCO World Heritage site and choose these options: 1) rent a car and brave a do-it-yourself tour 2) join a bus tour with bilingual guide in Spanish/English or 3) get a private tour. Entrance tickets can be bought at the airport or in Orongo and Rano Raraku for 60 USD (foreign visitors) and 20 USD (Chileans) - valid for 5 days.

In my search for a guidebook prior to the trip, I found "A Companion To Easter Island" written by James Grant-Peterkin, a Scotsman who actually lives there. As soon as I got hold of a copy, I found out the author himself does conduct private tours. Since it's expensive, I e-mailed him about sharing costs with other travelers. Luckily, 3 others (who I found out later were on the same flight as me) were eyeing the same guide and was looking at doing the same thing I had in mind.

Ahu Te Pito Kura and a toppled moai
James trying to get mana from the  "Navel of the World" stone

We eventually agreed on having James guide us for the next 3 days for $340 per person (including lunch). It's still costly for sure but what better way to explore and  understand a mysterious destination like Rapa Nui than be guided by the author himself? The next day after my arrival, James picked me up at the hostel and soon met up with the three others: Angie, Chris and Harlan - all from the US.

Since James first visited Easter Island in 1996 and thereafter conducted fieldwork related to his Spanish Linguistics study at Cambridge University, he felt a connection that has never been severed. He not only live on the island for more than a decade now, he speaks Rapanui like a true local. More importantly for me was his valuable knowledge about the island. He even knew just when to properly time the visit to avoid tourist buses as well as get the best light for photography.

Wild flowers abloom
view of Poike

After leaving town past the airport, James drove us for about half an hour to Anakena Beach - the widest of the two white sand beaches where the original settlers came ashore. This was the site of the island's first settlement. Unlike the rest of the island's coastline, the water here is calm. Today, coconut trees imported from Tahiti make it look like a Polynesian beach paradise.

Past the palm trees and right in front of the beach  is Ahu Nau Nau, painstakingly restored in 1978 by the island's first Rapanui archaeologist Sergio Rapu. Because these moais were discovered buried in the beach, most of the intricate details were saved from the harsh elements of nature: small hands resting on abdomen, prominent eyebrow ridge, longer ears, longer nose, red pukao (topknots) on oversized heads.

Ahu Tongariki
Ahu Tongariki

Close by is another platform with a single moai sporting a rather primitive look. This is Ahu Ature Huki, the first moai in the island to be re-erected by Thor Heyerdahl and his team in 1956. Heyerdahl wanted to apply his theory on how the moais were raised by their builders unto the platforms. It was a tedious task given a moai's average weight is 12 tons (the heaviest is 86 tons!).

It was a pleasant day, the sun was out and soon other visitors trickled in. Swimming wasn't in my mind and so were the others in my little group. We just walked further, past old stone houses and sat on the grass overlooking the beach - one of the most relaxing vistas I've seen in a long time. James was in no rush himself to lead us back to the car.

Sacred stones
My cheesy moai moment

From the beach, we traveled on the northeast coast to Ahu Te Pito Kura, an unrestored platform with a solitary moai left to lie after being toppled more than 200 years back. This fallen statue called "Paro", weighing almost 80 tons and 10 meters tall, is the largest ever which came out from the Rano Raraku quarry and raised unto a platform. Its own topknot lies nearby as well.

To the side of this platform and right along the rugged beach is a large round stone with four smaller stones called "the navel of the world'. It doesn't look much but local legend dates this back to the time of Hotu Matu'a - the first Rapanui king - who allegedly brought the stone with him from another island in Polynesia. It is supposedly rich in mana so, as cheesy as it may look, we each took turns pressing our palms against the stone trying to harness energy from it.

Rano Raraku
Rano Raraku crater

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island but all its 3 main volcanoes and some 70 lesser cones are all considered extinct. Poike was the first volcano to erupt three million years ago. We drove on dirt roads rimmed with blooming wildflowers to a gorgeous bay with a great view of this extinct volcano. Since we were the only ones there, we stood in awe listening to the sound of pounding surf like a cadenza in a concerto.

If the moais were all standing up today and pitted in a beauty contest, then surely Ahu Tongariki will win hands down for its immensity and scale. There are 15 moais standing tall and proud, like badass sentinels watching over the entire island. This ahu is the largest, stretching 220 meters from end to end which makes it the granddaddy of all Polynesian ceremonial platforms.

Head-hunting at Rano Raraku quarry

Ahu Tongariki was restored in the mid-1990s by Chileans with work funded by the Japanese government. As a gesture of gratitude, the Chilean government allowed one moai to travel to Japan and be part of a temporary exhibit in trade fairs. Upon its return, this so-called "traveling moai" was permanently placed at the entrance to Ahu Tongariki.

Our last stop was the main quarry for moais at Rano Raraku. These incomplete sculptures with half-buried torsos are iconic of Rapa Nui. In the old days, this was the showroom for tribal leaders - where they peruse on designs and hope on snagging the best one worthy to be erected on the ahu. We spent the longest time here, walking along the paths, gawking at these big heads poking out from the side of this ancient volcanic crater. Truly the highlight of the day.

If only these stones could talk

Rano Raraku's stone is made of hardened volcanic ash known as tuff. Since the material is softer, it was  easier to work with (compared to basalt which is another material used) although carving one large moai alone using stone tools was still a major undertaking. It took a team of Rapanui sculptors supervised by a master carver to complete the task in about two years. Imagine the worker's frustration when a finished moai gets disapproved by a tribal leader?

There are 397 moais in the quarry and plenty more now buried after many years of soil erosion from the slopes above. Some were still in the process of being carved, lying there like an enormous project still waiting to be completed. From our perch on the crater side, James pointed at what used to be the "moai road" where  finished statues were transported. A good number got broken in the process, not making it to their final destination. They lie there where they were left off, like a roadkill for posterity.


  1. OMG, this is incredible. Another wow adventure. I have seen these images before online but I couldn't place them, until I saw them here today. I'm sure I wouldn't forget where they are and what they are from now on. You my friend are a trailblazer.

    1. Being such an out-of-the-way destination, I'm so happy to finally make it there. So thankful for that airfare deal from American Airlines. Hope you make it there too!

  2. I've earlier learned that the moai used to have eyes, however, as the living conditions worsened, the locals removed them, together with toppling some of them. It's interesting to see these various local beliefs and practices and the implications these have on the local ecosystem. Now, I think there's only one moai that still has eyes, and the rest are blinded. I wonder whether you've seen it?

    1. Thanks for pointing this out! Yes,there's only one moai with a set of replica eyes copied from what was discovered in Anakena beach during an excavation work. Originally the eyes were made of white coral and red scoria for pupil. My previous post has a picture of me with the Japanese girl in front of that moai in question.

  3. watching a movie about your destination is a unique way of psyching yourself beyond reading travel books, magazines and online sources. iba ka, dennis! plus an author of a guide book as your private tour guide to a destination that's on the bucket lists of most travelers? you are amazing! it's obviously a serendipitous moment having him as your tour guide with your co-passengers on board as your travel mates. incredible!

    these bits of stories make your adventure blog posts a cut from the rest.
    and of course, hats off for taking those postcard-perfect photos! i had another "i-wish-i-took-those-pictures" envy :)

    seriously, i learned a lot from this post. you've been so inspiring!

    1. Having James as a guide was a splurge for me but it was really worth it. Something as enigmatic as the moais do need a good guide. I mean James' book was already very detailed but having him explain things further was quite an advantage. The 3 others who shared the private tour with me felt the same way at the end.

  4. Hello Sir! I came across the name of your site from other pinoy traveler's blog sites and thrilled to finally have the opportunity to read your journey! I just love your photos. I seriously am a fan! I would also like to visit so many places during my lifetime! Thanks for this share and please consider me a fan! Also, I heared you are from Davao, If I'm right then hello kababayan! Hoping you can go back home to the many new discoveries here in the city.

    Safe Travels!

    1. Hi Micole, thanks! I'm from Davao, born & raised there so you know what that means: bisdak . Lol! There are some changes in the city I'm well aware of - hopefully I get there for Christmas this year!


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