Rapa Nui and the moai

Distance to major cities

For those of you who couldn’t locate it on a map, Rapa Nui (as locals call it) or Easter Island is a Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. In the middle of the Pacific and 2,000 km away from the nearest inhabited island (which has a population of fewer than 100), it is one of the most isolated and remote inhabited islands on the planet. A post in the street reminds me that we are 13.201 km from my hometown, Madrid. Easter Island was annexed to Chile in 1887, although it has the status of “special territory”, with laws that might differ from those in the mainland.


In such a remote location, the rapanui have developed a distinctive culture of their own, over at least 7 centuries without any contact with the outside world. This unique culture is one of the drags of modern tourism, added to the good climate and the possibility to relax for a few days in a Polynesian island. Not bad!! 🙂

In spite of the development of tourism, the island hasn’t lost its charm and peace. There are no resorts, big hotels or restaurant chains, everything is run on a small scale by the local community. It is expensive, however, since almost everything has to be imported from Santiago de Chile, a 5-hour flight.

A trip to Easter Island is good for soaking up its rich and enigmatic history; perhaps that’s what makes this destination so special. The lack of written accounts prior to the arrival of Europeans makes tracking its history a difficult task. According to oral traditions, the first settlers, who are believed to have come from Polynesian islands, would have been guided by Hotu Matu’a, the first Ariki (king) of Rapa Nui. The society developed with the population divided in clans, and a very stratified class system.

Somewhere between 1200 and 1500 the rapanui society reached its zenith. Population peaked at between 10,000 and 30,000 people. They built around 300 ahu (ceremonial stone platforms) that housed hundreds of moai. A destructive crisis occurred later. It is thought that overpopulation and the massive construction and transportation of hundreds of moai contributed to deforestation and depletion of the island’s natural resources. Competition emerged between different clans for control of the scarce resources, what caused warfare and the toppling of rival clans’ moai, leading to the destruction of their ancestors’ heritage. They even resorted to cannibalism.

When the first Europeans arrived at the island on Easter 1722 (hence its English name), there were only between 2,000 and 3,000 rapanui left. But the population was to dwindle even more. Many rapanui were enslaved and taken to work in South America, others died of epidemics such as tuberculosis brought by the Europeans and others fled with catholic missionaries for Tahiti. All that factors decimated the rapanui population, and there were only 110 people left in 1877. No priest remained, and without them rongo rongo, the only scripture in Polynesia, was left unexplained ever since.

The main legacy of Rapa Nui’s ancestral culture are the famous human statues carved from rock known as moai, usually placed over ahus (ceremonial platforms). There are about 600, although most of them were not even completed and lie unfinished at the quarry. Others were toppled as a consequence of tribal conflict and, finally, about 50 moai have been re-erected on their ahus. Most of the ahus are along the coast, with the moai looking to the interior, as if keeping an eye on what happens on the island.

Moai standing on an ahu in Anakena

Their meaning is still uncertain. The most accepted theory suggests that they would represent deceased ancestors, so as to project their mana (energy) to their descendants. Not knowing for a fact their meaning only adds a touch of mystery and interest. What do they represent? How were they built? What are they looking at? The answers to those questions will probably never be completely understood.

As the moai are spread all over the coast, the main route is to circle the island along the coast, stopping frequently to see the moai, and also climbing any of the three volcanoes in the island. The island is not big; however, it is not possible to cover it by foot. It is possible to rent any kind of vehicle imaginable: bicycle, motorbike, 4×4, quad… This way, you can visit the island at your own pace, preferable to a tour. Activities on offer include scuba diving (in the most crystal clear waters I’ve ever seen, in the middle of the Pacific ocean), surfing, horse riding and many others.

I went for the bicycle, since I like to go slowly and breathe fresh air, as well as exercising a bit. After cycling around the island 3 times, I was beat, so I decided to take a well-deserved rest in Anakena beach:

Anakena beach

As you would expect, the beach is also guarded by some moai, that stand on a ahu over some rocks on top of the sand.

On the other side of the island, there are some caves. Here also, the turquoise water is absolutely crystal clear, spotless in the middle of the immense Pacific Ocean. From one of these caves, the rapanui used to perform the annual competition called Tangata Matu (bird-man) where a number of young men from different clans competed to be the first to return to the island with the first sooty tern of the year. The boss of his tribe would become leader of the island for that year.

One of the caves in the South of the island

Tourists were spread through the island during the day, but all convened near the village at sunset in this spot to see the sunt set behind the moai:

Sunset over the moai

Sunset near Hanga Roa

Sunrise at the opposite side of the island is just as beautiful, but that is left for the very few who wake up and cross the island before the sun rises. Anyway, it wasn’t possible to sleep much more: the hostel became full of cockerels at sunrise, and nobody could sleep further! 🙂

Well, I think this post is a little bit too long already, but this destination deserves it. In my opinion, it is worth travelling there and soaking up the mana (energy) of the island. It isn’t beach tourism, although it does not lack this either, but it is much more than that. It is also a good place to meet other travellers, because the laid-back feeling the island brings it about. Many tourists come for 3-4 days, enough to see it all quickly. But it is advisable to stay 5-7 days in order to enjoy it at a more relaxed pace. Those who stayed over a week felt a bit bored in the end.

From Easter Island I flew to Lima, to start a route around Peru. I’ll tell you about that in my next posts.


Chile – The scenery in Atacama

The region of the Atacama desert is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been to.

The bus journey from Salta (Argentina) to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) is an attraction in itself. From the road you spot snow-capped mountains, desert landscapes, high plateau lakes and even this immense salt lake, which all the passengers were gazing at:

Salt lake in Northwest Argentina

High plateau lake on the road to San Pedro

The village of San Pedro de Atacama is small and very touristy. Nearby, there are mountains, geysers, lakes, salt lakes, hot springs, dunes good for sandboarding and an endless number of other attractions. The small village is packed with hotels and tour operators.

Arid desert

The Atacama desert is the most arid in the planet. In the middle of it, some points have not registered any rain for up to 4 years. In town, there are plenty of posters prompting visitors to use water resources responsibly.

Cycling through the a road in the desert

Unfortunately, I was in a rush and I left without having seen many of the highlights of the region. What I did, however, was renting a bicycle and cycling towards one of the most impressive: the Moon Valley. This desert landscape is protected as part of a Natural Reserve.

In the National Park there is a circuit going through the salt lake, a canyon, mountains and rock formations.

Rock and salt formation

Perhaps the star of this National Park is this huge dune:

Great Dune

On the road, I could also spot some amazing landscapes with snow-capped mountains in the distance:

Snow-capped mountains in the horizon

And so I ended my cycling day through the desert with a couple of kilos less I guess, from how sweaty it was to pedal in the heat!! But naturally it was worth it. I don’t want to overload this with photos but the landscape was really spectacular.

I left San Pedro so quickly because I had to reach Santiago to take the first flight of my round-the-world ticket, to Easter Island… more to come in the next post.

Paraguay/Argentina – Iesus Hominum Salvator

Between 1609 and 1818, territories now belonging to Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil witnessed one of the most ambitious social experiments ever undertaken: the attempt to civilise indigenous guaranis through the establishment of the Jesuit Guarani Missions.

Emblem of the Jesuit order

There were 30 villages organised by the Jesuits adding up 141,182 inhabitants in 1732. All those settlements had their own school where guaranis learned art, culture and professional trades. Music, sculpture, dance and other arts flourished in the Missions. The historical assessment of this project is very controversial: some highlight the benefits that Missions brought to guaranis such as protection from slave traders, the diffusion of culture, arts and advanced agriculture techniques; others see this undertaking as an annihilation of traditional guarani lifestyle and part of the exploitative system of colonialism.

The truth is that guarani culture didn’t go extinct by any means, and guaranis kept their traditional religious practices, despite the efforts of Jesuits to convert them to Christianity. Why? The guide in San Ignacio (a guarani) put it this way: in that village population reached up to 5,000 inhabitants, and there were never more that 2 Jesuits. Today, there are still guaranis living isolated like centuries ago, and guarani language is an official language in Paraguay, spoken as much as Spanish.

In 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all the Spanish territories. The Missions decayed short after, under the bad administration of the new secular directors, and were finally abandoned altogether.

Today, we can appreciate the remains of some of these villages, although most of them are not preserved. The Argentinian province of Misiones and the South of Paraguay host the best-preserved ruins. It is worth going there to visit them and imagine how life must have been like in the Missions.

From Iguazú I travelled to Posadas, capital of the region of Misiones, and to San Ignacio, that host the most visited mission: San Ignacio Miní. It was established in 1610 in territories now belonging to Brazil, but had to be relocated twice after attacks by bandeirantes (slave and gold traffickers). A guide explains all the details of life in the Mission, which is really interesting. There was one big main square. To one side, the church, the residence of the Jesuits, the school and a cemetery; to the other, the houses of guaranis.

Facade of the church in San Ignacio Miní

After visiting San Ignacio and Posadas I crossed the frontier with Paraguay and reached Encarnación. The following day, I jumped on a bus and got to the ruins of Trinidad, equally well preserved.

Ruins of Trinidad

The visit was very different to the one in San Ignacio. There was no guide or tour around, and almost no other visitors. However, as it has a very similar layout to the one in San Ignacio, more explanations were unnecessary.

So there I was, all by my own in the whole complex, in a very quiet environment. I stayed reading for a while up in the bell tower. I thought I was having visions when I saw a married couple and their 7 small children going up the stairs. They were dressed like 19th century (kind of like Amish but leaner), with their wicker basket and speaking American English.

Mennonite family from Massachusetts

‘How the hell did they arrive to such a place?’, I wondered. When they were getting down, the father asked me if I could speak English and we started talking. I told him a bit about the history of the Missions. He said they were from Massachusetts, they belonged to a religious group called Mennonites and had come to Paraguay for a few months as part of an exchange with Paraguayan families of their church. Really weird to find this family there, they were like utterly out of place.

We continued to explore the ruins separately. I enjoyed my visit to the Missions. It is somewhat original and you can imagine how life would be in that time, and think about that kind of undertaking. Visiting those two missions seemed enough to me. There is a whole circuit, but as I mentioned, they were pretty much alike at the time, and those two are probably the best preserved.

Another feature of Paraguay is the unbearable heat. To overcome that, I went for the national drink, a good tereré (iced mate).


Brazil/Argentina – The Iguaçu Falls

After a few weeks in the big cities of Sao Paulo and Rio, I took a U-turn towards a setting of an incredible natural beauty: the Iguazú Falls.

The waterfalls are just in the frontier between Brazil and Argentina. Parts of it belong to Brazil and others (most) to Argentina. Thus, to see the whole thing you need to visit both National Parks, managed by two different countries. It is difficult to take sides on which side is better, and actually it is quite a controversial issue. In Argentina, you can wander really close to the falls along several paths. The Brazilian Park offers a great panoramic view of the falls that are actually on the Argentinian side. So you have to visit both to get a full impression of this amazing scenery.

As I was coming from Sao Paulo, I stayed in Foz do Iguacu and visited the Brazilian side first. I shouldn’t make any comments since the photos speak by themselves:

Iguacu waterfalls

Iguacu waterfalls

Hydroelectric plant at ITAIPU

Another interesting visit in Foz do Iguacu (at least for an engineer like me) is the huge dam and hydroelectric power station of Itaipu, in the frontier between Brazil and Paraguay. Its 14,000 MW of installed capacity made it the largest in the world, until the completion of the Three Gorges dam in China. In Itaipu they insist that, measuring by electricity generated (not by capacity) it still ranks as the first in the world.

Each generating unit has a power equivalent to a nuclear plant

Each generating unit has a power equivalent to a nuclear plant

This massive plant supplies 17% of the energy consumed in Brazil and 80% of Paraguay’s. Both countries hold the rights to 50% of the electricity generated, although Paraguay (a small country) resells a large part of its share to Brazil.

The following day I crossed the frontier, changed currencies and left Brazil after 1,5 months in the country. I stayed in the Argentinian village of Puerto Iguazu. This town, just as its Brazilian neighbour, lives out of the inflow of tourists that come to see the Iguazu Falls.

I spent the next day in the National Park with more and better views of the Falls:

View from below one of the waterfalls

View from above one of the waterfalls