The taxi arrived in the pre-dawn darkness, as promised. 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 its most epic sunrise view. 

I scrambled to gather my things, and struggled briefly with the fidgety lock on the door. The door mechanism gave, and I sped up the drive and into the car, greeting Alex with a quick buenos dias

Why I visited Tongariki, Rano Raraku & Anakena in one trip

The main attractions of the UNESCO Heritage Site of Rapa Nui National Park are dispersed across the triangle-shaped island. I did not know this beforehand, having assumed that the island was walkable-small.

On the southwest corner lies Rano Kau and Orongo, with Ahu Tahai relatively 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 major sites: the largest ahu at Tongariki, the site of Easter Island’s magnificent sunrise; Easter Island’s very first ahu at Anakena; and Rano Raraku, the site of the mysterious Easter Island heads half buried into the hill which captured the world’s imagination. With proper planning, you could easily do these three in one trip.

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 to have 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 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 option. Not only do all the car options run on petrol, the fuel also had to be shipped a very, very long distance to the island on likewise hydrocarbon-powered ships.

I had the option of renting a bicycle. I considered the likelihood of myself waking up and then mustering the energy and willpower to bike a long distance before dawn. Hahahahaha… as if! Let’s be realistic, girl. You’re not a morning person in the best of times**. Besides, the thought of ‘bike touring’ recalled unpleasant memories at the time. But I digress.

The other consideration was that the transport option would have to do for the whole day, because I was also going to additional sites. Easter Island actually gets quite hot in November. I’d be biking to Rano Raraku, then Anakena, and then all the way back. It didn’t sound palatable.

Finally, I could hire a local Rapa Nui guide. I’d still be going by car, but it would be more sustainable in the sense of islander employment and respecting indigenous ownership of their own heritage sites. My host had left contact details for 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. 

15 standing moai at an angled silhouette at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
Unbelievable as it may seem, I managed to drag my sorry ass before dawn, and got to Tongariki for the absolute must-do experience of Rapa Nui.

Being stumbled upon by Alex, the taxi driver

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

But in the end, I got to Tongariki and the other northeast sites with none of these options. And it was all because… I went scuba diving

Not being able to resolve the transport question, I decided I might as well go scuba diving around Easter Island. A dive schedule opportunity forced me to change my plans for the day. I needed to return to my Airbnb quickly to get ready for a dive, and then 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

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.  

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

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. 

He 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, edges dusted with vapour and mist. 

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

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, 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 Rapa Nui civilisation.

But I did not know why.

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. 


Mata’a, the technology of war

The second Rapa Nui artist I met had given me a magazine. I wandered into his studio in Hanga Roa while exploring the town. Upon learning that I had come from so far away, he rummaged in his store of books and periodicals and found a bilingual magazine about the island. He insisted that I take it; he did not want me to leave without bringing back some knowledge of Easter Island’s Polynesian people. 

Within, was the legend of the Rapa Nui spears, the mata’a. During the tribal wars, a battle was fought for four days. The flashpoint of this particular hostility was the destruction of a tribe’s banana plantation. The stakes were high, since the men of the losing tribe would be killed, whereas the women and children would be enslaved by the victors, and all their goods captured.

Chief Eta was fretful during the evening truce, thinking about the morning when the battle would resume. The enemy was more numerous, and the battle unequal. As he walked home, he cut his foot on a rock. A deep wound bled from the sole of his feet. He had stepped on a sharp black stone – obsidian. Taking a piece of obsidian home, he toyed with an idea. He replaced the gourd at the tip of his lance with the sharp volcanic stone. 

The mata’a of his tribe drew blood in the following battle and carried them to victory. And the wars on Rapa Nui have been bloody ever since. 


Photography tips for the sunrise at Ahu Tongariki

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 perfectly 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 the one with a clean sky. 

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. 

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

But, that inevitably 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 to the ahu, 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 I discovered that photographing Ahu Tongariki was 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
The magic hour

Illuminating a mystery of Easter Island’s moai

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

Richard remarked on 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 to me, relaying the documentary’s conclusion. “Apparently, the theory goes that the islanders turned their backs to the sea and became an insular culture after they arrived, and so the moai have their backs to the sea.” And then, supposedly, when the Europeans arrived, the Rapa Nui turned outward to the world again, and that explains why the moai of Ahu Ariki faces the sea. 

I reserved comment at the time, but was sceptical. If true, the Rapa Nui would be the only Polynesian people – famously maritime – to renounce the sea. 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 just have to ask another third 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, an 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 relatable 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 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, they would obviously face inland, towards their village. (Ahu Ariki has an additional reason.)

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 if they were 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, and not assume.

'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
Still watchful

Notes:

*When slow travelling and in individual arrangements, I sometimes purposely do not haggle. I have found that when you agree 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 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 respecting local rules when abroad! 

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. 


Do you wake up for sunrises? Onward to Part 3, as Alex takes me to the quarry of Rano Raraku

'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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