Orongo – Easter Island, Chile - Atlas Obscura
Unusual adventures and hidden discoveries. Explore our 2018 trips now »

Easter Island, Chile

Orongo

This was once the center of the Birdman cult, and is now a World Heritage Site. 

The ruins of the “Birdman” cult are scattered throughout Easter Island.

As tribal rituals go, that of the Birdman on Easter Island is right up there with the stuff of Hollywood.

Each year, contestants were selected as competitors for the title of Birdman. Each contestant would then sponsor a representative of their choosing who would be challenged to scale the dangerous face of the Rano Kau cliff, then swim shark-infested waters to the small island of Motu Nui. There, the task was simple: find eggs laid by the elusive Sooty Tern.

The first to find an egg for their sponsor was declared the winner. In turn, the sponsor (but not the one who did all of the work) would be crowned as the Birdman, or Tangata-Manu. The title allegedly earned the victor and his clan all of the benefits of a god during the year that he held the lofty title. 

Know Before You Go

Leaving the main town, Hanga Roa, to the south, you will pass several restored moai before coming to the Ana Kai Tangata cave. Then begins the gradual climb to Rano Kau crater and on to Orongo on top of 1000-foot cliffs. It can take a bit of leg and lung power, but is well worth the opportunity to take in the magnificent viewpoints.

From Rano Kau, it’s a 15-minute walk to Orongo, where historic stone dwellings cling to the side of the cliff overlooking the ocean and the site of the Birdman Competition. The era of the Birdman Competition on Easter Island occurred post-Moai. For one and a half centuries, tribes participated in the games, with the last race taking place in 1866.