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Cruise Diary: Mysterious, Mystical Easter Island

Day 37 – Feb. 11:

Remote, exotic, mysterious, mystical, Easter Island is also known as Isla de Pascua – meaning Easter Island in Spanish, as it was annexed by Chile – and as Rapa Nui in its Polynesian culture. It is, well, a holy grail type of place among the world’s most experienced travelers. This tiny speck of land – 63 square miles – in the middle of the Pacific (2,300 miles from Chile and 1,200 miles from its nearest neighbor, Pitcairn Island) was by known accounts first seen by European eyes when Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch navigator, came upon it in 1722. Those who have studied Easter Island calculate that Polynesians settled here around 700 A.D., said marine historian and author Revell Carr, one of our Explorations Team enrichment lecturers aboard the Amsterdam. It is also believed that the large Polynesian-style “moai” sculptures that have made Easter Island world-famous were created between 800 and 1600 A.D.

These impressive and intriguing “moais” that may have been erected to honor ancestors were the main reason why Easter Island had been on our “wish list” for the trip of a lifetime for years. When we started planning for our world cruise and saw that Easter Island was on the Amsterdam’s itinerary, well, we did not have to look any further! Big swells at the main town of Hanga Roa when the Amsterdam approached, made Captain Jonathan Mercer go to “Plan B” and we headed for Anakena Beach at a bay on the sheltered side of the island. Even on the sheltered side, we found a bit of a swell, but the Amsterdam’s crew devised a system whereby we would go on a tender, transfer onto a second, anchored tender, get off on a floating platform and then on to land. And Humberto, Duffy (“our bear that went around the world”) and I, along with other Amsterdam’s passengers were able to get off on Easter Island! What a thrill!

Me and Humberto stand in front of a moai with eyes in Hanga Roa.

Me and Humberto standing in front of a moai with eyes in Hanga Roa.

Two big-head moais in Rano Raraku.

Two big-head moais in Rano Raraku.

We headed to the national parks where Easter Island’s “moais” are found in large numbers on a shore excursion purchased onboard as Easter Island’s infrastructure is not advanced and taxis may not always be available. Most of the island, with its three volcanoes, lakes and villages, is national parkland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our tour, Easter Island Mystical Moai Statues & Highlights, part of Holland America’s World Wonders Collection of shore excursions, made several stops including one at the ceremonial site of Tahai in Hanga Roa, where we could see restored altar-like platforms (or “ahus,” where the statues are displayed and which are sometimes burial sites and thus always considered sacred by the residents of the island) and the only statue with its eyes inserted. Barbara, our port guide on the Amsterdam, said the eyes, made of shell and stone materials, may have been inserted in the old days for special festivals, ceremonies and other occasions only. The reason? It was feared that the eyes would be stolen if left on the statues at all times. Our local guide in the tour, Niko, explained that in the traditions of the island it is believed that if you steal the eyes away from the statue you steal the soul of the ancestor being honored by it. Many of the eyes are believed to be in private collections, and thus likely never to be seen again.

At a first, quick glance, the statues – that may have been created to honor ancestors as part of a cult that believed that ancestors were the source of the good things that happen to people in life – appear to be the same, but upon closer inspection differences become apparent. One statue may have elongated ears, another one may have a different headdress, others may be female. Scientists have yet to solve many of the mysteries surrounding the “moais,” including why they were built (one theory is that the cult believed that if you honored ancestors with a “moai” the ancestor would reward you with good fortune), and how these heavy volcanic material works of art (some “moais” weigh as much as 82 tons) were moved to their present positions by members of a Stone Age culture. Many theories have been advanced including that they were rolled into place on tree trunks by those who worked on them.

Other theories include everything from extraterrestrials beaming them down to the island, to the statues themselves becoming animated and walking to their present positions, according to the oral traditions of the island. The “moais” were, according to local lore, depositories of “mana,” a supernatural quality that provides well being and protection to the people. That could perhaps explain why all the statues are facing towards the land, instead of the sea; to protect the people living in Easter Island. Some “moais” stand alone on an “ahu;” others stand in a row on large “ahus.” Still others stand on the ground by hillsides, some half-buried by years of exposure to the elements – thus giving the impression of being just “big heads” but the torso and the rest of the body are simply underground.

Another shot of the big-head moais in Rano Raraku.

But whatever the enigma or enigmas surrounding the statues, one thing is undeniable: they capture the imagination and never let go. Two other stops in our tour included the quarry at Rano Raraku, on the slopes of an extinct volcano that yielded stone for the “moais” and still has 397 statues in various stages of completion. A few minutes from the quarry, is the restored platform of Tongariki, with 15 re-erected statues and an impressive 656-foot-high platform. An unbelievable, haunting sight! The tour ended back at Anakena Beach, a fine strip of pink sand, graced by two restored “ahus” and “moais.” Another, lesser-known, aspect of Easter Island is its hundreds of petroglyphs found in caves. Some off these depict the “Birdmen,” who were half-men-half-bird and were involved in tribal competitions to capture the egg of a frigate bird. The runner that brought the egg back to his chieftain ensured his reign for a year, Niko said. Some believe the “Birdmen” may have been part of a cult that found favor around the time of the ancestor cult and perhaps replaced it, thus causing the cease of “moai” creation. Another enigma to ponder during a visit to Easter Island!

Humberto and Duffy in Tongariki

Me, Humberto and Duffy in Tongariki.

Freelance travel writer Georgina Cruz and her husband Humberto are currently sailing on Amsterdam’s 112-day Grand World Voyage and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout their time on board. She has logged 174 voyages to all seven continents and visited more than 100 countries.

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