Most everyone has an image of Easter Island – of gigantic stone heads with jutting jaws, hats and expressionless eyes, staring out over the most remote inhabited island in the world. For more than 800 years, they have been Easter Island's guardians, a secret to all but the ancestors.
What many don't know is that nearly 1,000 of these monolithic sentinels, known as moai (pronounced mow-eye) are thought to have protected the people of this Pacific island, which lies 3,700 kilometres west of Chile and 4,000 kilometres from Tahiti. The statues were said to represent the spiritual energy – or mana – of each tribe's ancestors. When the clans fought, they knocked over one another's moai to disrespect the ancestors. In 1960, a freak tsunami toppled others.
Since then, some moai have been restored. Now there are 397 located in the stone quarry and another 380 scattered around the island. It's a mystery why these huge monoliths were created or how they were moved from the quarry, often as far as 15 kilometres away.
I've always been fascinated by these enigmatic statues, so I booked a five-day adventure trip with a Chilean tour operator that offered luxury accommodations, gourmet meals and daily small-group hikes.
The first morning, six of us set out with our two local guides, Tsinga and Uri. Almost immediately, I spotted a colossal stone head lying face down in the grass. Next to it two horses grazed. More toppled moai were scattered like dead soldiers on a battlefield. I couldn't hide my disappointment. Is this why I had flown 15 hours on three planes to the farthest place on Earth?
My disenchantment was short-lived. At the stone quarry were dozens of upright moai giants buried to their necks in the earth, some twice the size of an upended SUV. I stood beneath one that wore an incredibly human expression. Here were the remnants of a lost culture, every bit as phenomenal as Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat but intensely more intimate, without another tourist in site except our small group. The only sound was a hawk screeching overhead.
Uri, a 24-year-old woman wearing a Nike cap and a yellow flower behind her ear, led us up to the quarry with 28-year-old Tsinga, whose dark hair was twisted into a bun on top of his head. I could see how the reddish hats on the moai represented topknots, the same as their descendants still wore. "Look at the rockie," Uri said. I knew she meant rock. We paused before a 20-metre statue lying on its back, staring upward. "It weighs 270 tons," she said. "You see? It was never finished because it would be impossible to move it. It is still attached to the rockie."
As we trudged up the steep path behind the quarry, Tsinga explained the history of Rapa Nui, the name locals call the island. Westerners call it Easter Island only because a Dutch explorer landed here on Easter Day in 1722. Some anthropologists think 10,000 to 20,000 people lived here, while others say it was only 3,000 to 6,000. What is known is that around 1200 AD, the Rapa Nui started building moai. Anthropologists think they cut down the trees to help move the moai vast distances. Tsinga shook his head. "They did not use trees," he said. "They moved themselves by mana."
No matter how they were transported, in the process, all the natural resources on this island, three times bigger than Manhattan, were used up. By the time the Europeans arrived, there was scarce wood, water, food or safe anchorage, so none of the explorers, including Captain Cook, stayed. Peruvian slavers arrived next to kidnap and kill the Rapa Nui. A civil war killed many more locals, and by the end of the 19th century, the population was only 111.
Today, there are more than 6,000 people on the island – along with 7,000 horses and 5,000 cars, Tsinga said. "They don't need all those cars," said Tsinga, "but they want them and everything else – computers, cellphones, designer clothes."
Each day we'd hike two to four hours, sometimes crawling through lava tubes or entering a hidden cave perched over the rocky coastline. Once we trudged up a steep volcano to look at ancient petroglyphs and beehive-like stone houses. Often, we made our own trails through grassy pastures, with cows and horses running off when we came near. At one beach, the touring company staff greeted us with snorkelling equipment, beach chairs, chilled wines and a buffet picnic. Another time we shopped for souvenirs in the main village of Hanga Roa with its smattering of restaurants, crafts shops and a Catholic church.
On our last day, shortly before sunset, we headed to see the seven restored moai near the village. I asked Uri how she thought the statues were originally moved, and she said, "You know how you sometimes think you can't do something but you really try and then you can?" I nodded. "Well, that's how I think they moved them," she said, "by mana. Not like Tsinga thinks, but their mana gave them physical energy. I think everybody just took a deep breath and moved them inch by inch, mile by mile."
Church bells chimed in the distance as we arrived at the moai jutting over a rocky cliff near the sea. Out on the ocean, six people in a canoe paddled just beneath the sinking sun, their bodies in golden silhouette. There was something almost spiritual about standing here with the moai towering over me. "How lucky you are to see this every day," I said to Uri.
"I hope we stay lucky," she replied. "A local businessman is trying to build a casino."
"A casino? Here?" She nodded. I imagined a gaudy building with blinking neon signs and the jingling sound of slot machines. It seemed so out of place on an island with no fast food restaurants or even stoplights.
As the sun sank, we returned to the van. Tsinga put on a CD, a ballad sung in the Rapa Nui language. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, especially the chorus, which I began to hum: "Hapa'o ta tou i ke henuanki."
"What do the words mean?" I asked.
"They say, please protect the land because new people are coming and draining our people's thinking – now they want cars and casinos," said Tsinga.
I thought about the five perfect days I had spent here – hiking through the silent countryside to see the moai and petroglyphs and deserted beaches. Rarely had we witnessed another car, just an occasional horse and rider or a colt or cow. And I thought how little it would take to ruin this peaceful, timeless place. Even the mana of the stone giants would be unable to save it. "Hapa'o ta tou i ke henuanki," I sang, louder.
Later, back at home, I followed up to see what had become of the casino plot. In 2005, Chile passed a gaming law opening the door to a casino. The only locals who approved were those who would benefit by leasing their land. The rest objected, afraid they'd lose their cultural identity and that the enterprise would bring too many tourists to the island. Eventually, the Chilean Gaming Control Board rejected the idea on the grounds that it would not satisfy the terms of its license.
I like to think Tsinga's singing helped as well.
The writer was a guest of Explora Rapa Nui, a luxury lodge with 30 rooms, all with ocean views. The three-night minimum rate is inclusive of all meals, an open bar and all excursions and guided hikes. Prices from $2,343 (U.S.) to $2,520 for three nights per person; explora.com. The hotel did not review or approve this article.