The taxi arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, as promised. I scrambled to gather my things, and struggled briefly with the fidgety lock on the door. That morning, I was going to see the famous Easter Island heads at the Rano Raraku quarry.

But we had to leave before dawn, because Ahu Tongariki was close by, and one does not fly to the most remote place on earth and fail to catch the most epic Easter Island sunrise. 

The door mechanism gave, and I sped up the drive and into the car, greeting Alex with a quick buenos dias

Tongariki, Anakena, and the Easter Island heads

The main attractions of the UNESCO Heritage Site of Rapa Nui National Park are dispersed across the triangle-shaped island.

On the southwest corner lie Rano Kau and Orongo, with Ahu Tahai nearby for the signature Easter Island sunset. Ahu Akivi, the only ahu site where the moai face seaward, and the quarry of Puna Pau, are along a separate road running past the island’s high point, Maunga Terevaka.

But on the northeast there are no less than three sites you could do together – the largest ahu at Tongariki, the original ahu at Anakena, and Rano Raraku, the site of the mysterious Easter Island heads half buried into the hill that captured the world’s imagination. 

Rano Raraku Easter Island heads peeking out of the ground at Rapa Nui's moai stone quarry
The Easter Island heads

Daybreak over the Rapa Nui east coast

The day began to kindle as the taxi came upon the road running along the eastern coastline of Easter Island. The sky seemed reasonably clear of clouds, save for a low bank on the horizon and smoky puffs suspended over the water. That’s lucky. I did not summon all my willpower to get moving this early, for a disappointing sunrise! 

The horizon began to radiate orange, shading to yellow and coral. I watched the cloud puffs slowly stretch out with the ocean wind. They seemed to me as horses, in slow gallop across the sky. 

I was glad I found Alex. This early in the day, it was good to be taken to Tongariki, rather than having to do it of my own volition. 

View of the day breaking over the Pacific Ocean from a taxi headed to Ahu Tongariki for the sunrise
Glad I’m not driving

What is the most sustainable way to go to Ahu Tongariki?

The northeast sites are just far enough that it’s not practical to walk to them. So I had carefully considered my options from the moment I settled into my Airbnb.

The easy way was to rent a car. My host had recommended Oceanic for the fairest prices on the island. But, while the most convenient, it was quite expensive and the least sustainable. 

Another option were the bike rentals. I could bike it? Hahahahaha… as if!

Easter Island actually gets quite hot in the daytime in November. Besides, the thought ot ‘bike touring’ recalled unpleasant memories at the time. Besides, in order to reach Ahu Tongariki for the sunrise, not only would I have to wake well before sunrise, I would need additional willpower to bike all the way too. Let’s be realistic, girl. You’re not a morning person in the best of times**.

While I’m not super keen on tour companies, I could hire a local Rapa Nui guide. It might not be cheap, but it would be more sustainable in the sense of direct islander employment and supporting indigenous ownership of heritage. My host had left the contact details of a registered female guide who could do a tour in English. And that had been my #1 option… except I never got a call back despite trying many times. 

I had half-hoped that the stone artist would offer to take me to Tongariki. But while Napoleon recommended Ahu Tongariki highly, he did not offer to take me for the sunrise. 

Alex the taxi driver

In the end, I got to Tongariki and all the other northeast sites with none of these options, because… I went scuba diving

A dive schedule opportunity forced me to change my plans for the day. I needed to return to my Airbnb quickly to get suited up for a dive, and return to the quay pronto. So I flagged down a taxi, when I normally would have walked the distance. And before I left him, the friendly Alex Cataldo handed me his card, which cited taxi tour services. 

It was a lightbulb moment. I was not interested in the itineraries on the card. But would he do more of a customised day hire arrangement? I told him what I wanted to see – the sunrise was key. He gave me a price, and I did not haggle*. 

Waiting for the Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki

Looking across the field of Ahu Tongariki while waiting for the archaeological complex to open | Easter Island, Chile
Waiting for the sunrise

We arrived at Tongariki well before sunrise. The park complex was gated, and was not yet open – I had not expected that. I could see a few other people who had likewise arrived early, milling about. It was the off season on Rapa Nui; there were not so very many.

Just within, I could make out the solar-powered ranger’s office, thatched in the Polynesian style, and another low hut to the side of it.  

Alex indicated that I had to wait for a little while until the ranger arrived to open the park. No matter. The important thing was that I was not late for the sunrise, and it would not be extinguished by rain. 

Park ranger facilities in the compound of Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
Park ranger quarters

Alex waited by the car while I walked about in the dim lustre of dawn, glad for the solitude. I do like the dawn, you see. But it’s simply not very often that I would get all the way through to wakefulness at that time of day.

The grass smelled wet with evaporating dew, and began to glow verdant at the approach of the magic hour. A lone tree thrown into sharp silhouette against the rising light. On the other side of Tongariki bay, the volcanic headland of Poike rose as a steep bank of wall, its edges dusted with vapour and mist. 

Through it all, Alex left me be.

This is the number one reason why I might take an individual guide, but think 10x before taking a tour. It is a rare tour that will let you buy this empty space, to buy the silent time that allows you to drink deep from the magnificence you came to savour in the first place. 

Finally, the ranger arrived. 

Tongariki is the largest ceremonial altar on Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui captured my imagination mainly from pictures. I knew very little about moai, before I came to Rapa Nui. All I knew was that the people who wrote articles about these statues marvelled over them, calling them ‘Easter Island heads’. And a faraway, enigmatic location, is exactly what a bucket list destination looks like for me. 

From those articles, I knew that the Rapa Nui islanders were somehow able to carve out these massive standing statues, and that some of them lie buried in hills. I knew that the island’s ecology had been lost, leading to the loss of the civilisation.

But I did not know why.

A fallen Easter Island moai lying face up in the compound of Tongariki, guarded by wooden railings in Rapa Nui National Park
Loss of ancestral protection

It was on Rapa Nui itself that I learned that the moai were part of the local religion of ancestor reverence. They represented the elders of the clan, and were erected on ceremonial platforms called ahu, where they continued to preside over the daily lives of their clan.

Then – because the Rapa Nui are human – at the height of the civilisation, competition, envy, and showing off disrupted the co-operation that an isolated existence demanded. Wars followed, during which the competing tribes tried to weaken each other by toppling rival moai, so that they would lose the mana protection of their ancestors. 

If that were so, with 15 moai still standing, the tribe that held Tongariki must have been powerful. I don’t know if it had always been the clan with the largest ahu, but Tongariki’s altar is certainly the largest one left. 

15 standing moai at an angled silhouette at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
That’s quite a significant mana power-up

Photography tips for the Tongariki sunrise

The sun woke slowly, peeling open its resplendent rays little by little. The clouds gathered overhead, but stayed high.

I prefer this, actually, compared to a perfect clear sky. There is more drama when the rays of the sun interact with cloud and vapour. And when the clouds move, the whole sky changes. As a result, you get many sunsets or sunrises in a single day, rather than just one with a clean sky. 

Tourists watching the sunrise behind the Tongariki moai crowding together in front of the altar, Easter Island
Drawn to the feature attraction – and this is the off season

As the horizon began to brighten, casting the moai into sharp relief, predictably the tourists moved towards the platform, crowding close, angling for that close-up sunrise shot. It’s a universal phenomenon with a world-class star attraction – everyone wants to come close. 

But inevitably, that means having to wait and jostle for position, because a lot of other people are doing exactly the same in the same sort of space. You can only go so close, because there is a guide line beyond which tourists are not allowed. 

It’s worth while to step back and think. I mean, literally, step back. Tongariki complex is a wide, wide open grassy space. Few people thought of it, but photographing Ahu Tongariki is far more satisfying from a distance. More angles, more options – and more room for everyone. 

And don’t worry about the lighting. The magic hour is indeed magical and forgiving. No filters required. 

Epic Tongariki sunrise with a moai head silhouette blocking the sun in the foreground and the row of Tongariki moai in the background
Tongariki sunrise

Illuminating the mystery of the moai

When I told my colleagues in the Netherlands where I was headed to after my work trip with them, there was much friendly envy.

Richard remarked about the mysterious Easter Island heads, and the moai platforms. There was a documentary that he had seen, that commented on how all of the moai on the altars had their backs to the sea. All, except Ahu Ariki. The facing direction of the moai was conveyed in the show as a great mystery. 

“Quite odd for an island culture,” he had said. “Apparently, the theory goes that the islanders turned their backs to the sea and became an insular culture when they arrived, and so the moai have their backs to the sea.” And then, supposedly, when the westerners arrived they turned outward again, and that explains Ahu Ariki. 

Perspective view of Ahu Tongariki at dawn under a clouded sky with boulders scattered in the foreground | Rapa Nui National Park
The coastal moai all face inland

I reserved comment at the time, but was sceptical. It was a nice theory, but it does not explain why the culture went through the trouble of making the moai in the first place.

Sometimes you have to ask another 3rd world person.

Not knowing the purpose of something before trying to explain aspects of it makes you prone to conjecture based on nothing but projection and stereotyping. Very often, the academic invests an elaborate and esoteric reason for things that are done by cultures they perceive as lesser and foreign, when the actual reason is simple and practical. 

Indeed, once I learned what the moai represented (which turned out to be very similar to ancestor revering cultures in Asia), it was not mysterious at all. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Rapa Nui’s rejection of the sea, or exploration, or any such philosophical existential reasons. 

If the moai were supposed to preside over their descendants and receive ritual dedications, then obviously the facing side of the moai has to be towards the worshipper. Where the coastal moai are placed, are obvious locations to achieve this outcome. 

Red topknot/hat portions of the moai, fallen to the ground | Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui National Park
Hat pieces, or possibly topknots of the moai, now fallen

Of course, I myself am not immune to this tendency to assume and project. As Alex drove me around the coastline, I noticed neat little mounds at intervals by the edges of the low cliffs. They seemed carefully constructed, not tourist rock stacking or indifferent piles.

I jumped to the conclusion. I asked Alex what they were. Were they shrines? 

No. They were just shore markers, to help canoes at sea fix a guide point for coming back in. And that is why you should ask.

The Easter Island Heads at Rano a Raraku

The quarry site of Rano Raraku is very near to Tongariki. The images you have probably seen of the ‘Easter Island heads’ usually came from this very site. And the reason why there are so many moai heads all over the place is made plain once you learn that this is the main quarry site of the Rapa Nui, as well as its stone carving workshop. It’s where the Rapa Nui carved out the moai before they go to their respective altars all over the island. 

The Maunga Eo escarpment juts out of the ground prominently – it’s clear where the stone supply comes from.  We arrived before the site’s opening times, and had to wait again for the ranger. The morning sun was just beginning its summer glare. At the feet of the escarpment I could make out the famed Easter Island heads sticking out of the grassy slopes. From that distance, the giant heads looked tiny.

Rano a Raraku entrance sign with Maunga Eo escarpment rising in the background | Rapa Nui National Park, Chile
Rano a Raraku

The moai quarry of the Rapa Nui

When the ranger finally opened the gate, he stamped my entrance ticket to Rapa Nui National Park (obtained at the airport). This is one of only two locations where the ranger stamped my ticket. (The other was at Te Pito Kura).

I assume it means that you only have one chance to visit Rano Raraku per visit to Easter Island. The moai quarry of the lost civilisation is obviously a heritage site of sensitivity and importance. Once inside, there are extremely clear signage requesting visitors to only keep to the assigned paths, and never cross over the guide ropes.

How clear, you ask? Well, it comes with a series of ‘shame fame’ images of past tourists posing irresponsibly and sometimes disrespectfully, with red arrows pointing out their sins. 

Part of a sign explaining prohibitions in the moai quarry site Rano Raraku and images of tourists behaving badly | Rapa Nui National Park
Not the kind of fame you want

Why are they so picky? You might say, it’s just one little touch. One time, standing on the stone. But the cumulative impact of those touches by thousands of tourists, speeds up the wear upon the stones. The long term result is heritage destruction.

That’s not to mention the disrespectful posing. While the Rapa Nui are no longer ancestor worshippers, nonetheless they respect the beliefs of their forefathers and that the statues were intended to represent elders of their people. This is not the site for whimsical artsy-cutesy images, let alone crude ones.

The evolving art styles of the Easter Island heads

I had assumed that the Easter Island statues were all the same style. Maybe there are individual slight differences, to represent different ancestors. But as far as I knew, the overall style was consistent. 

This is not so. At the quarry, I learned that the styles evolved. Over time, different ‘looks’ came into fashion. The kneeling one was especially interesting, and apparently rare. I didn’t really see the thin one around the island either; but I guess that style would have easily smashed to pieces in the moai-toppling era. 

The surprise ‘Easter Island heads’ discovery that isn’t really a surprise

I keep calling them the ‘Easter Island heads’. It’s the term everybody uses. The term gives the impression that these were moai busts – head and shoulder carvings – lying around the quarry.

Consequently, it was a ‘surprise’ when UCLA archaeologists ‘discovered’ that actually they weren’t heads at all. They ‘discovered’ complete moai, only that the bodies have been buried into the ground by soil erosion over time. 

If the reporting is faithful, I want to smack them. You would know this, immediately, just by looking at it.

Easter Island heads at quarry site Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui National Park
SMH… Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean you can’t tell it’s there

None of the standing or fallen moai all over the island were constructed by putting together pieces of stone body parts. They were all carved from a single block of stone. Therefore, it stands to reason that the only moai quarry site on the island, would also have whole moai.

If only the heads seem visible, obviously the bodies are underground. Just because you didn’t personally see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as obvious

I can understand having to wait a century to get together enough resources to excavate the body. But I cannot accept that people who are supposed to specialise in the subject, did not know that the bodies must exist, until 2017. I mean, are you kidding me.

Having seen the moai platforms, and the various lesser sites around the island, the headline should have read ‘UCLA Team Finally Confirms Longstanding Theory that Moai Bodies are Buried Underground’! 

Partially carved moai still embedded in source rock in Rano a Raraku quarry, Rapa Nui National Park
Carved out of the hill

The moai mystery that is actually a mystery

Now let’s talk about the moai mystery that actually deserves to be called that. How did they move the giant statues over the rolling island landscape to the ceremonial platforms? 

The Anthropological Easter Island Museum near Tahai is worth a visit just for this one question. Various theories came in and out of fashion, from logs to skids to ropes. But according the islanders themselves, oral history has it that the moai simply walked to where they needed to be.

For a long time, this was dismissed as the superstition of a less advanced culture. But the current theory in fashion is that the moai were pulled upright, and moved from side to side in a controlled fashion across the landscape. The moai would indeed seem to ‘walk’. 

Of course, the most traditional accounts say that it is mana that made the moai walk to their positions. For my fellow Malay readers, this is basically the same as saying that the statues were moved with ‘tenaga batin’. Yet another way that the Malay and the Polynesia are related.

Tourist path within Rano Raraku | Rapa Nui National Park
The walking path

The secret lake of Maunga Eo

There was a curious trail connected to the web of tourist paths, but it led away from the slopes of buried moai. I couldn’t make out what the signs meant, but it seemed to indicate that something was at the end of the trail. 

It was just an earth path, nondescript and running past some portions of shrubbery valiantly re-colonising the empty landscape. I followed it as it meandered around the hill and past a wire fence wrapping around stout timber posts. And yet there was no end to be seen. 

Conscious of the sun and the rising heat of the day, I nevertheless pressed on. The land became even more barren than before, shedding first its sparse shrubbery, and then even the grass-clad ground. 

Path leading up to the conservation zone at Rano Raraku | Rapa Nui National Park
The mysterious path

Then the earth path began to climb, looking less and less like a true path and more like a gully cut through the naked hill by repeated rains. The ochre soil began to stain my shoes, and I began having some misgivings that the way led anywhere. Perhaps I should re-read the signs. I really ought to have downloaded the Spanish dictionary onto my translation app. 

But I topped the rise, and turned with the path. And there, glittering beyond the expanse of stripped earth, was a surprise.

An oasis lay before me. Reeds lined it, looking soft and fluffy. A breeze, crinkling the surface of the water opaque with fine ripples. Around it was a halo of green grass, bright to near-iridescence. It must be one of the precious conservation zones of Rapa Nui.

In fact, it was Rano Raraku’s crater lake. 

Pond in the conservation zone of Rano Raraku | Rapa Nui National Park | Maunga Eo
The secret oasis of Rano Raraku

I ventured halfway, but stopped, suspecting fauna in the rushes. Remembering the conservation signage at its sister crater lake at Rano Kau. This miracle oasis was precious to this ravaged island. It might be too sensitive to be approached.

I gazed at it for a while longer. Then, with a full heart, I backed away, and returned the way I came. 

Carbon offset information to Easter Island

I went to Easter Island as part of a longer journey around the world. Had I gone close to my original plan, a return flight from Kuala Lumpur to Easter Island via Sydney and Santiago produces carbon emissions of approximately 17,414 lbs CO2e. It costs about $87 to offset this. 

Notes:

*When slow travelling and in individual arrangements, I sometimes purposely do not haggle. I have found that when you agreed to ‘overpay’ for something, the other person’s own sense of fairness often tries to make up for it. He or she often has nothing more to sell than the product being offered, so he will often begin to offer from himself. Invaluable connections such as local secrets, personal insights, life stories, thoughts and favourite things are unlocked when you choose to be generous – and then wait. 

**I seriously considered simply spending the night within the Tongariki complex, just so I would already be there for the sunrise. That’s how little of a morning person I am! Alas, it is strictly against park rules, and the local park rangers take their job seriously – something that Asia UNESCO Site guardians could emulate more. In fact, I was amused by how explicit and firm the English translation of the restrictions were on the tourist map, compared to the Spanish. We can guess which language group has issues with rules when abroad! 


Are you intrigued by enigmas? Pin this travel story for your collection!  Onward to Part 3, as Alex takes me to Anakena beach where the Rapa Nui settlers first landed

'Ahu Tongariki: Sunrise over the Easter Island Heads' travelogue on slow travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Easter Island head at Rano Raraku against the morning sun | Rapa Nui National Park, Chile | The moai quarry of Easter Island | Maunga Eo moai workshop
'Ahu Tongariki: Sunrise over the Easter Island Heads' travelogue on slow travel blog Teja on the Horizon | moai ceremonial altars of Rapa Nui | Ahu Tongariki silhouette against the dawn sky | Rapa Nui National Park, Chile | Easter Island sunrise

14 Responses

  1. Christie Hawkes says:

    Wow, what beautiful photos, Teja! It would appear this experience was well worth getting up before dawn for. I found your blog through a comment you left on 3 Sisters Abroad, and I am so glad I did. Thank you for sharing your amazing experience. Happy travels!

    ~Christie

    • Teja says:

      Thanks for coming by! It was an incredible morning and rest of the day indeed. Check back soon later in the month – I’m writing a few more on the non-moai experiences of Easter Island!

  2. federica says:

    This is a very fascinating story. I have never heard of the lake near by before.

  3. I enjoy reading your thoughts on sustainability within your post as well as the history behind Easter Island. I thought it was intriguing to hear your thoughts about what has been uncovered and what still remains a mystery. Sometimes, I think it’s better to not have all of the answers–it’s what makes the world captivating and worth preserving!

    • Teja says:

      Thank you ! Yes, I do try to give a taste of what it’s like to be in the moment and actually make choices considering sustainability. That it isn’t a one-answer thing, there are compromises you might make in different situations, but it’s the mindset that is key!

      Agree, there are things that are lost with time, and different things could be equally true, depending on which piece of information is missing! And this experience should make us realise that, with such a limited perspective, dogma is just a form of arrogance.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for including sustainability in your travel writing. I hope to get to Easter Island someday.

    • Teja says:

      Thanks! Yes, I thought I’d contribute something a little different, and hopefully maybe inspire some people – readers and writers alike. It’s less obvious than direct sustainability tips, but I thought I’d make visible what it’s like to actually apply those tips in real life travel.

  5. Penny says:

    The continuous jostling of crowds at monuments used to perplex me a bit. I’ve learned to step back and realize that no matter which way I twist it, I’m adding to the crowd too. So now I wait, watch and take pics with the crowds in them. Sometimes I get lucky and get a really good one. Sometimes not so much. At the end of the day, the minds eyes captures far more and that’s the way I’m comfortable with. :)

    • Teja says:

      Agreed. In this particular instance, seeing if there were other ways to capture the scene that isn’t the same as the images I’ve already seen, was extremely rewarding. I found that the shadows cast by the moai masked the crowds. Yes, the people are all still in front of the platform in *all* of the shots! And of course, the one I used as my blog banner is actually improved by that human silhouette in the slit between moai, I think!

  6. upasana says:

    This is such a brilliant post and the hint of medieval remains of the place is surreal. The pictures are gorgeous especially the ones with the rays of the sun beaming through the statues.

  7. Candy says:

    Gorgeous photos! Thank you for sharing your story!

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