Pondering the mysteries of Easter Island

Associated Press Published: October 9, 2012
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EASTER ISLAND, Chile (AP) — From its famed giant stone statues to finding a good, affordable hotel, Easter Island is full of mysteries.

There are ancient questions, like how the statues were transported, and why the island lost its trees. And there are modern puzzles, like what $1,600 a night will get you in a hotel and why roads aren't better marked for visitors touring the island.

Perhaps it's fitting that riddles still exist on the most remote inhabited island on earth: a Chilean territory in the South Pacific, 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) to the west of the South American continent.

Yet I hoped for answers. After flying nearly 20 hours from New York, and having one of our group shaken down for a bribe by a customs' agent, I wanted to not only see the sites, but understand them.

My airplane reading was a recent issue of National Geographic magazine, which outlined six different theories on how a people with no wheel and no draft animals were able to move massive statues weighing up to 100 tons (90 metric tons) as much as 11 miles (18 kilometers) across the island. I arrived better informed, but no wiser.

We were greeted in the Polynesian tradition with flower leis, then given a brief tour of the town of Hanga Roa, home to most of the island's 5,500 residents.

With more than 50,000 visitors a year, the island is home to an assortment of restaurants, car rental agencies, markets, souvenir stores, watersport shops and small hotels, and since everything is imported to the island, prices are high.

Our hotel, like most, was tucked in tight between homes and businesses. Ranked on TripAdvisor as one of the best, for $150 a double, it was clean, but the neighbors were loud at night, and the resident roosters were loud at dawn. Although the roosters belonged to the hotel, we wondered if they were bachelors: Nary an egg was seen in the monotonous breakfast.

It had been a challenge to plan the trip. Little independent information is available online, and Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as the locals call it, is but a few pages in most guidebooks. Most hotels appeared Spartan, while the luxurious and all-inclusive Explora is $1,600 a night. A new option, the waterfront Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa, at $550 a night, looked lovely and was rooster-free.

Aside from the hotel, we arranged one other thing in advance: a daylong outing with James Grant-Peterkin, author of the book, "A Companion To Easter Island."

His tour took us around the 63-square-mile island (163 square kilometers), introducing us to the moai statues. Although they are often referred to as heads, they are in fact whole-body carvings made by descendants of the first Polynesian settlers hundreds of years ago. Just what they represent and why they were toppled in the century after the first European explorers arrived in 1721 is another unknown.

Fewer than 50 of the statues have been re-erected by archeologists, and the most impressive of these is a site where 15 colossal moai stand on a ceremonial platform more than 700 feet (about 213 meters) long. With their backs to the pounding surf, this is a favorite spot to watch the sunrise.

Just down the road is the National Park of Rano Raraku, the quarry where the moai were carved. A path winds among the 400 statues, completed to varying degrees. Whatever their reason, there is no doubt that workers stopped ahead of schedule, leaving a stone graveyard to what was once a sophisticated civilization.