Easter Island Travel | TravelQuest International
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Easter Island Travel

It’s said that Easter Island rocks. And it really does, thanks to a stunning collection of gigantic stone statues scattered across this tiny, triangular island. Known as moai, these impressive stone figures are draped in mystery. Nearly 900 of them were carved from the side of a volcano, transported throughout the island, and erected on pedestals made from small stones. Why were they carved? What do they represent? How were they moved? And why were they toppled more than 200 years ago?

In October 2024, join TravelQuest’s Atacama Desert and Easter Island Annular Eclipse tour and witness the magnificent moai for yourself. During our Easter Island travels, we’ll visit several of the island’s key archaeological sites, explore the quarry where carvers turned slabs of volcanic rock into statues, and discover the history and culture of the people who first settled the island more than 800 years ago. Then we’ll prepare for a special treat—an annular eclipse of the Sun on October 2nd, with annularity lasting almost 6 minutes.

Explore this and other types of eclipse travel

The Island’s Backstory

Easter Island is one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands, located some 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) off the west coast of Chile. There is controversy about when the first settlers arrived—perhaps as early as 400 A.D. but certainly no later than 800 A.D. Regardless of when, it’s clear that the original inhabitants came from a sea-faring culture, likely Polynesian. They were adept at long-distance navigation across the open ocean using sea-worthy vessels.

The name Easter Island was coined by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who ‘discovered’ the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. He visited for a week (history’s first Easter Island excursion) and estimated there were at least 3,000 inhabitants on the island. His party reported “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height”—the moai. But 50 years later, when Captain James Cook stopped at the island, his crew reported that many of those Easter Island statues had been toppled and smashed. It’s now believed that tribal warfare was responsible. In the 1860s, slave raiders carried off nearly half the population; disease devastated the rest. By 1877, only 111 people remained on Easter Island. Ten years later, the island was annexed by Chile. Since then the population has slowly recovered. The modern (and local) name for Easter Island is Rapa Nui, and it currently has the status of a “special territory” of Chile. Not surprisingly, Easter Island travel and tourism is the main source of income for those living on the island.

Easter Island
Easter Island is a tiny, remote volcanic island. Hanga Roa, its only town, is seen on the western (left) shore toward the bottom of the image. (Courtesy ESA)
Anakena Beach
The beach at Anakena where, according to oral tradition, the first Polynesian settlers landed. (Courtesy abriendomundo)

The Remarkable Moai

During TravelQuest’s four-plus days on Rapa Nui, our Easter Island excursions will focus on the moai. There are more than 900 of these massive stone megaliths scattered across the island; it’s what Easter Island is famous for. An “average” moai is 13 feet tall and weighs about 14 tons, but the largest (never erected) is nicknamed “El Gigante” and comes in at 72 feet tall and weighing between 145 and 165 tons. Most were carved from the soft volcanic tuff in a quarry found on the flank of Rano Raraku, one of three extinct volcanoes on the island.

Sometimes the moai are referred to as the “Easter Island heads.” This is a misconception based on photos of moai buried up to their shoulders on the slope of Rano Raraku. Actually, all of the “heads” have full bodies that were covered and concealed due to natural soil erosion through the centuries. When archaeologists excavated some of these buried “heads,” they found full bodies with petroglyphs etched into the backs of the figures. In fact, it’s obvious that these Easter Island statues are more than just heads when you look at the ones that are upright, standing on raised platforms of stones and rubble called ahus. The ahus are believed to be sacred ceremonial sites with open courtyards on their landward sides.

Almost all moai face inland, likely so they can watch over the village of the tribe that owns the ahu and erected the moai. Only the seven moai of Ahu Akivi look toward the ocean, but it’s thought that they were actually looking toward “their” village, now in ruins, that lay between the ahu and the ocean.

But what did the moai represent? Unfortunately, there are no written records to help explain the significance of these giant monoliths. Anthropologists believed the moai statues were built to represent the spirits of chiefs or other high-ranking individuals who held important positions in the history of Rapa Nui. They’re certainly not accurate human representations with their over-large heads, heavy brows, elongated noses, protruding lips and elongated ears. It’s likely they were stylized representations of powerful individuals—mystical repositories of sacred spirits.

Moai on Rano Raraku
Although it looks like these moai have only heads, their fully carved bodies lie beneath ground level. (Courtesy Carlos Aranguiz/iStock)
Moai carved abandoned credit Paul Deans
The head of a partially carved and abandoned moai in the quarry at Rano Raraku. (Courtesy TQ/Paul Deans)
Tongariki moai ocean credit Paul Deans
The 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki are typically placed—they gaze inland with their backs to the ocean. (TQ/Paul Deans)

Elsewhere on Easter Island

On Rapa Nui, there’s much more to see than just huge moai carved from volcanic Easter Island rocks. On the southwestern tip of the island is Orongo, an abandoned village of low, stone-walled, sod-covered buildings that sits on a ridge between a large volcanic caldera and a 1,000 ft drop to the ocean. In the late 18th century, this ceremonial site was the center of a unique birdman cult.

There are petroglyphs located in every sector of the island. On our Easter Island tour we’ll stop at several sites including Papa Vaka on the north shore. Here, a large number of impressive petroglyphs depict a diverse collection of ocean life. One of the few moai erected inland is Ahu Huri a Urenga. It appears to be oriented toward the location of the rising Sun on austral winter solstice (June 21st). This lonely moai is also exceptional because it has two sets of hands, the second carved above the first. And we’ll explore the village of Hanga Roa, including the ceremonial site of Tahai. This is where we’ll watch the 2024 Easter Island annular eclipse of the Sun on October 2nd.

Papa Vaka petroglyphs credit lovelypeace
Petroglyphs abound on Easter island. Ocean life is depicted at the Papa Vaka site. (Courtesy lovelypeace)

Atacama Desert & Easter Island Annular Eclipse

TravelQuest’s 2024 Easter Island Eclipse tour first takes us to Chile’s capital Santiago, then on to the coastal gems of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, and finally into the Atacama Desert for three nights of spectacular stargazing. For Northern Hemisphere stargazers visiting Chile, the southern night sky is a treasure trove of bright stars, dazzling star clusters, and lovely nebulae. In late September, the showstopper is the Milky Way. High overhead, the brilliant galactic core is an amazing sight, with its millions of stars interspersed by dark dust lanes and flecked with nebulae and star clusters. Rising out of the southeast are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, while sinking into the southwest are the Southern Cross and Omega Centauri. From our hotel grounds on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, this is a celestial spectacle not to be missed.

Then we cross the Pacific to Rapa Nui. Here, our Easter Island travel itinerary includes visits to numerous moai and other historical sites before settling in to watch the annular solar eclipse. You would not expect to see many solar eclipses from this 630 square mile speck of land in the southeastern Pacific Ocean—and you’d be right. Since 800 A.D., by which time Easter Island was definitely inhabited, there have been only five annular eclipses visible from its shores. The last one was in 1788; the next isn’t until 2345.

An annular eclipse occurs when the new Moon passes directly across the face of the Sun but never completely hides it. At mid-eclipse, the Moon is surrounded by a ring of brilliant sunlight—the so-called “Ring of Fire.” Indeed, the word annular derives from the medieval Latin “annularis,” meaning “pertaining to a ring” or “ring shaped.” We’ll watch the eclipse from our private site in Hanga Roa near Ahu Tahai, where several Easter Island statues stand with their backs to the ocean. Here we’ll witness more than six minutes of annularity. According to Jay Anderson, TravelQuest’s eclipse meteorologist, “Easter Island is not noted for its sunny weather, yet for this eclipse, it provides the best viewing anywhere along the track. Twenty-one years of satellite data show that October 2nd skies would have easily shown the eclipse on 12 days, an average of just under 60 percent. With a little movement, as many as 15 days would be “eclipse-worthy,” especially as the Sun will be nearly 70 degrees high in the sky.”

Mysterious moai. Dark night skies. An uncommon eclipse. Our Easter Island tour for the 2024 annular eclipse, with pre-eclipse stargazing in the Atacama Desert, is a one-of-a-kind experience. Easter Island travel is on many bucket lists, but our special trip has limited available space. If you’ve always wanted to see these Easter Island statues, why not combine your visit with an annular solar eclipse. You can learn more about this tour on our Atacama Desert & Easter Island Annular Eclipse webpage, or you can directly reserve your place on this exceptional trip.

Southern Milky Way credit Denny Morse
The Atacama Desert’s night sky showcases many lovely celestial sights that are always below the horizon for northern stargazers. (Courtesy Denny Morse)
Mid Annularity 2023
At mid-eclipse, the silhouette of the Moon is surrounded by a brilliant circle of sunlight; annularity’s “Ring of Fire.” (TQ/Rick Fienberg)
Tahai & Hanga Roa credit miralex iStock
Our viewing site in Hanga Roa’s Tahai ceremonial site will be under the watchful gaze of these moai. (Courtesy miralex/iStock)

Header image by BreatheFitness/iStock