Easter Island

Contributing editor Bob Payne claims he had been trying to get an assignment to Easter Island for so long that they were probably still carving the statues when he first asked. The wait was worth it, he says. "It really is one of the world's great outdoor museums." But to Payne, the most interesting links to the island's history were not the giant stone figures but the descendants of the people who created them. "They have a strong sense of their past," he says, "and a strong sense of their island's cultural value to the rest of the world."

Although Payne has traveled to more than 100 countries, he says that the Easter Island moai are the icons of faraway travel: "Until you've touched those huge stone monoliths, you don't feel like you've been to the ultimate remote destination."

Head Count There are nearly 900 stone moai on Easter, scattered all over the island. Most of the sculptures are nearly identical, although there are variations. The most impressive site is around Rano Raraku, the volcanic crater on the eastern end of the island. All the moai were carved there, and nearly 400 still lie around in various stages of completion. At Ahu Tongariki, on Easter's southeast side, 15 moai stand with their backs to the sea. Other moai gathering spots include Ahu Akivi (seven moai on a hillside, all facing the water); Ahu Nau Nau (seven standing moai at Anakena, four with red topknots); and Ahu Ko Te Riku (one large moai with a topknot ¿ the only one whose eyes have been restored). Technically, there is a $10 entry fee covering all island archaeological sites, but Orongo is the only collection station. Ante up ¿ you'll feel better, and the park can use the support.

Beach Time There are only a few small beaches along the rough volcanic coast, but Payne says that the white-sand cove at Anakena, on the north end, is worth the trip. ("It's pretty and has historical significance; it's where people first landed on the island.") You can enjoy a picnic there in front of a row of seven moai standing with their backs to the sea.

Room Key The best way to get to know the islanders is to stay in one of the many residenciales, the local version of a bed-and-breakfast. Doubles ($30 to $60 per night) can be arranged on-line (see "Web Headings" on page 169) or at the airport. Payne stayed with Julio Lagos and his wife, Maria, who takes great pride in her flower garden. But if you want to talk about it with her, you'll have to do so in Spanish. Send E-mail to mahina@entelchile.net

What's to Eat Payne had fresh grilled fish for nearly every lunch and dinner. ("Everything else is shipped from the mainland and tends to be expensive," he says.) The Chilean wine is good and reasonably priced.

On the Road Taxis are plentiful, but the most convenient way to see the moai is with a rental car ($70 per day for a Suzuki from Insular Rent a Car). It's possible to drive the entire circular coast road in a few hours, but you'll want to take your time to explore the sites. For a native's perspective, hire a licensed guide ($50 a day). You can arrange for one at Hanga Roa's tourist office, your hotel, or the airport. Take water and snacks, because there is nothing outside the village to eat or drink.

Read It and Leap The classic adventure Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft is the true story of the journey Thor Heyerdahl undertook to prove that Easter Islanders could have come from Peru. Some of the best travel information is found in Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island, by Wayne Bernhardson, and there's good historical background in An Uncommon Guide to Easter Island: Exploring Archaeological Mysteries of Rapa Nui, by archaeologist Georgia Lee. The Easter Island Foundation has a wide variety of books for sale on their Web site; click their link on the Easter Island Home Page. (See "Web Headings," below.)

Easter in the Big Apple From December 12, 2001, through August 4, 2002, the art of Easter Island will be on display in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island" will feature more than 50 works dating from the 13th century to the late 19th century. Included will be stone images, wooden sculptures, cloth figures, and examples of rongo-rongo, the island's as yet undeciphered script.

Special Screening Although Rapa Nui, Kevin Costner's 1994 film about Easter Island history, was a commercial failure that archaeologists and historians criticized for inaccuracies, Payne says that its visual impact makes it worth watching. The documentary Secrets of the Lost Empires II: Easter Island (produced by the PBS series Nova and available from amazon.com), proves that the moai could have been transported on logs.

Web Headings Check out these Web sites: the Easter Island Home Page (www.netaxs.org/trance/rapanui.html) has great travel and accommodations information and links; www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/index.html has excellent historical info, plus descriptions of top sites, and photos; and www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter is the place for more history, plus coverage of controversies and archaeological sites.

Cash Flow Restaurants, residenciales, and rental-car companies tend to prefer, if not require, that you pay with cash, so bring plenty. (Some hotels accept credit cards.) There is no ATM on the island, and the bank has odd hours and poor exchange rates. Payne advises buying pesos in Santiago, Chile. Dollars are often accepted.