An Illustrated Visit to Easter Island - Atlas Obscura
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An Illustrated Visit to Easter Island

article-imageCarved heads at Ranoraraku (all illustrations and photographs by the author)

Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, happens to be a bit off track from everywhere else, but when one is staying at Santiago de Chile for one reason or another for a period of time, a visit is an almost irresistible temptation. In fact, there are only a couple of flights a week and they are quite expensive for a five hour trip, but it keeps massive tourism from the place, which is only 63 square miles. 

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During my four day trip, I had a few things on my to-do list: scuba diving, the petroglyphs at Orongo and, of course, visiting every moai monolithic statue I could find. And, in my case, drawing them, too. I didn’t carry much with me during the trip, so I had to manage with a small notebook and a ball pen at the time, that I filled with 5-7 minutes sketches of everything that caught my eye. Later, I turned some of the sketches into larger watercolors at home, although I’ve since found a way to do it all on site in the last few years.

Arranging all the activities I was interested in once I arrived to the island was easy enough. I booked a couple of dives at the local diving center. The water was actually colder than I expected, but the visibility was excellent and there were large sea turtles around. 

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Orongo is an easy hike away from the village of Hanga Roa and can be easily visited in a single morning. Many petroglyphs there represent birds, probably because the representative on earth of the creator Make-Make was visualized as a bird man. In fact, a small islet named Motu Nui can be seen from Orongo. Each year, the champions of each clan would jump into the sea and compete to swim to the islet and return with a seabird egg. Until they reached the beach, it was encouraged to win by any possible means. The winner got the title of Tangata Manu (“Bird Man”) and went into seclusion for a year, entitled to gifts of food and other tributes. 

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Moais are spread out all over Easter Island, but the causal observer will soon notice that most upright ones have had their necks fixed. Although oral histories include references to an earthquake, it is also reported that many were purposefully toppled. Moais were village protectors, so the first thing an enemy clan would do to attack a village would be to push them out of their standing platforms (“ahu”). Due to the wedge-shape of the ahu and the moai itself, most broke their necks during the crash.  

Moais were usually carved at Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater in the Rapa Nui National Park, and transported on tree trunks to their destination. It seems this transportation method led to deforestation and, then, to the wars that further ravaged the land.

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Only when moais arrived to the village they were supposed to protect were eyes added, so they would start watching their own villages. This is why almost all moais are oriented inland, except one near Hanga Roa. In some cases, moais are positioned according to different criteria: for example, in Ahu Tongariki all moais face sunset during the Summer Solstice. 

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So this is basically how my journey to Rapa Nui came to an end. After a generous serving of curanto and as much tropical fruit juice as I could drink in four days, I went back home with a pocketful of sketches, a cool Rongorongo wood carving, and a better understanding of the island and its people. And, of course, yet another of my dream destination out of my to-do list.

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Click here to view more of Cris Urdiales’ illustrations from her world travels.