Feature

This week’s travel dream: The surprising rewards of Easter Island

The island's enormous statues of heads—887 in all—are spread across the 65-square-mile landscape.

The moai statues of Easter Island possess “transformative qualities you can never understand, or fully feel, until you see them up close,” said Jim Farber in the New York Daily News. There are 887 of the enormous heads spread across the 65-square-mile island, and plenty of mystery surrounds them. How did the people who carved them, some 500 to 800 years ago, move the extraordinarily heavy stones from the quarries? And why did those people disappear?

Easter Island is so remote that “you feel like an explorer” just by boarding a plane in Chile to reach it. The island, known as Rapa Nui to its 5,000 mostly Polynesian residents, lies five jet hours from Santiago, the nearest airport. Flying in, I’m thrilled by how much of the island’s surface remains “blissfully barren.” Wild horses gallop across a green landscape that rolls “down to the dark turquoise Pacific, dotted by pops of orange from the African flame flowers.” Development is largely limited to one tiny town, Hanga Roa, so even when a cruise ship arrives, you never get the feeling that “the sanctity of the statues has been violated or hemmed in.” I skip taking a guided tour and instead explore the moai myself. Before visiting, I assumed that every statue would be similarly blank-faced, so I’m struck by “how individual they are,” and how the shifting light constantly modifies their effect. These heads “have character to burn.”

The quarry where the statues were carved is eerie. “It feels like entering a factory that suddenly stopped production at the height of demand.” Sure enough, most of the moai that were carved never made it out of the quarry, including the largest one, which stands 69 feet tall and weighs 270 tons. What stopped the work? A new theory blames disease, and ecological destruction caused by ship-borne rats. But while pondering the competing theories, I notice that the moai actually look more at home in the quarry than elsewhere. Out in the fields, I thought of them as haunting. Here, they can seem “wise or inquisitive, stern or questioning, or even, in a certain light, whimsical.”

Doubles at the Explora Rapa Nui (explora.com) start at $4,770 for three nights, including meals and guided explorations.

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