Wandering in America del Sur

Chile-Travelogue  |  Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

Magical, Mysterious and Mystical Moais

Leaving Santiago far behind, the continent of America del Sur began to recede in the distance as we began to travel west. So far west in fact, that we would fly 3700km into the South Pacific before arriving our our destination, Isla de Pascua, better known to the world as Easter Island. One of the most remote places on earth, the nearest island, Pitcairn Island is still almost 2000km away - kinda gives new meaning to the phrase, "way out there"! And where else would you take of your very best friends, Kristine, who had come all the way from Washington DC to visit, but to a land, far, far away?!

Flying by the seat of our pants, we landed in light tropical rain, hitting the ground, giving off that slightly sickly sweat smell of tar, while the humidity was palpable. Without reservations we began the hunt for a good value which is very hard to find where everything is imported and prices are through the roof, but since it was low season, we were in luck. Lots of residenciales had rooms and we were able to find one for a semi-reasonable price and while it was basic, it was clean and the garden looked exotic in the dark. Were hoping that daylight would not reveal any secrets! Slept fitfully while we tried to adjust to the humidity and night time fighting ritual of the local dogs, all the while trying to imagine the island and its treasures.

Little is known about Isla de Pascua which adds to the mystique of the place, however, it seems as though it may have been colonized in the 4th or 5th Century by people from the Marquesas, 3200 north west as the canoe paddles. There were definitely different clans or ethnic groups known as the "long ears" and the "short ears" based on the custom of earlobe elogation which was common at that time. Throughout the years clan warfare continued, but despite this, the population grew and gave rise to different classes including a warrior class, upper class, slave class and artisans who made the incredible stone statues that are almost all that survives of this time.

Unlike other polynesian islands, Isla de Pascua did not have an abundance or either fruit, or fish and when the population grew, it began to place considerable pressure on the scarce resources of the area. And when the first Europeans set foot on the island in 1722 on Easter (hence the name!) and then in 1774, Captain James Cook, the islanders were already in trouble. Cook reported them as being hungry, lean and miserable. However, the clan wars had led to many of the statues, known as Maoi, being toppled. By the mid 1800s, none of them stood at all.

Adding to the unhappiness, was the general raping and pillaging by other nationals, Europeans and Peruvians who captured men to use as slaves in other countries - over 95% who died before returning to the island. And of those captured, most of these were the "learned men" or Maori and when they died much of the culture died with them. Subsequent rule and domination by Catholic missionaries, the French and Chile from 1888 who annexed the island, were equally devastating to the people. It has only been recently that changes are occuring and that the quality of life and socio-economic status is improving - at least from the perspective from some, but it is hard to know for certain as a tourist just dropping in.

But despite the remoteness, 20,000 tourists make the journey every year and few are disappointed and quickly into the first day we grew to understand why. The landscape of the small island is stark with few trees and remnants of its volcanic beginnings. Our drive out of town begins with our chatty tourguide, an Aussie married to a Rapa Nui (islander) who is keen to showcase the best of the island starting with a drive out to the rugged coast where the surf crashes violently as the Moai listen, facing away from the ocean, casting their eyes and protection on the villages instead.

The coastal route is paved with Moai - over 300 - in all stages of preservation - mostly built near the ocean, near the settlements. Sitting on Ahus, platforms of stones held together by retaining walls, Moai were build from 2 - 21 m -equivalent to a 7 story building! Each Moai was distinct, but shared some common characteristics with elongated heads, prominent noses, long ears and elaboratively carved backs.

There is nothing quite like wandering through miles of coast littered with ruins of Moai, fallen, standing, half carved, and half buried all set off by brilliant sunshine, the crash of the surf in the distance with water of such a turquoise colour that you swear you must be looking at it through a polarizer but you aren´t! And because of the low season, the ability to wander freely almost completely alone in your thoughts - allowing you to make up your own mind about just how these Moai were transported from the quarry where they were carved to their homes along the coast since theories are all that exist!

And just when you become Maoi-ed out, as our guide Bill, suggested, there are other things to discover, equally interesting, but different - the Rapa Nui of caves, the legend of the Birdman, the crater lake, and the topknot quarry.

Day two started off with tropical rain while we were eating breakfast, but as quickly as the it had come, it was over, the sun breaking through and shining gloriously upon us as we got ready to continue our tour with Bill and a very friendly American family, Carl and Kristen and their very chatty and charming daughter, Juliana, who entertained us all! We started out caving and later splunking bending our bodies into pretzel shapes and being thankful for our hard hats that protected our heads as we felt our way down deep, dark, slippery caves that opened onto the ocean and bright, bright sunshine! The sunshine wasn´t the only reward, some of the caves were covered in paintings that told stories of the past life of the Rapa Nui.

Later we wandered through ruins of long and narrow boat shaped houses where islanders slept, close to each other accessed only by very narrow and low doorways and the quarry where the topknots were carved that were placed on the heads of some of the later period Moai statues. Up on top of the quarry with its red, clay soil, we enjoyed a scenic vista of the entire island and the town of Hanga Roa (population 3,500) laid out at our feet.

Later, another vista, the top of the crater lake of Rano Kau with its floating reeds, where all the town´s water came from and where the water level is constant. The near perfect circle seemed surreal and above it, the ceremonial village of Orongo is perched above the sea, with petrogylphs telling of important rituals, particularly that of the birdman cult.

One of the most important ceremonies associated with this cult, was the yearly competition to procure the first egg of the tern which bred on a tiny islet offshore from the village of Orongo. Each young man hoping to meet this challenge would descend the steep clifface to the sea, and swim out to the island with the help of a small reed raft. The first one to find the egg would become the birdman and be enshrined with powers and great status. Looking down on the island, you could imagine the ritual taking place and hear the men in action.

And when you have finished with touring, you can always hang out in the small town and shop for your own personal Moai to bring home, or dive in the crystal clear waters with visibility of over 70m, or if that´s not your thing, there is swimming at the town´s small beach, appropriately called Playa Pea with the local families. And then there is always hanging out at the local restaurants and eating lots of excellent seafood, but be aware of those without any locals or tourists! Not recommended as we found out! And keep your eyes open for the lovely tableware with the ever present, LAN (Chilean airline) logo ... hmmmmm ...

And if you´re wondering where all the tourists are and it´s your last evening, don´t forget to wander out of town towards the cemetery, to watch the last embers of daylight go down on the island, illuminating the Moais with their watchful glances and giving them life again. And as you walk back in the dark with only the dogs for company, you will feel even more so than when you arrived that the place is filled with more mystique and magic than fact and you hope it stays that way for it is one of the few places left like that on earth and it is always good to actually have to use your imagination again.

And in the morning you will fly out in the rain, as you came, and you will feel just a little different than when you arrived, your own personal stone Moai as a carry on and a reminder, heading for the mainland and back to a different reality. Gazing on at the new tourists stepping foot on the island, you will envy them because you know that they too will be bitten by Moai magic and will go away changed as you have.

Kristine and her new friend

Kristine and her new friend

The Moais on their Ahu at Tongariki overlooking the ocean

The Moais on their Ahu at Tongariki overlooking the ocean

The only Moais facing the sea at Ahu Akivi

The only Moais facing the sea at Ahu Akivi

Feasting on local seafood and the Sunday afternoon soccer games across the street

Feasting on local seafood and the Sunday afternoon soccer games across the street

Our favourite Maoi friends, half buried

Our favourite Maoi friends, half buried

A spectacular vista

A spectacular vista

With our new little buddy, Juliana

With our new little buddy, Juliana

The cult of the birdman, preserved in petrogylphs

The cult of the birdman, preserved in petrogylphs

The gorgeous beach at Anakena and the glorious South Pacific

The gorgeous beach at Anakena and the glorious South Pacific

Maoi magic at sunset

Maoi magic at sunset

Splunking the Isla de Pascua way

Splunking the Isla de Pascua way

© Allison Webb, 2005
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The trip
 
Description:
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Details:
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Ecuador
The Author
 
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 15 years.