In the early 1800s, in an attempt to unite the few residents who remained on Rapa Nui after nearly 200 years of tribal wars, the chiefs of the Pacific island inaugurated an annual sporting event known as the birdman race. They selected the finest young athletes from their clans for the competition, in which contestants raced down a steep cliff along a narrow dirt path before paddling on tiny planks across two miles of shark-filled waters to Motu Nui island. The first to swim back to Rapa Nui with the egg of a manutara bird was rewarded with a beautiful virgin, and his chief became leader of the island for a year.
Today, petroglyphs honoring the birdmen—depicted as human-bodied beings with avian heads—adorn the rock faces at Orongo, the cliff-top site on Rapa Nui where the competition commenced. Tito, a native tour guide who has led a group to Orongo from the nearby Explora adventure lodge, identifies the rock paintings while relaying the racers’ tale. He points out the island of Motu Nui offshore, as well as the path the racers followed to the ocean. As daunting as the birdman course appears, however, it is neither the most awe-inspiring nor the most celebrated of the cultural spectacles on this volcanic island 2,200 miles west of the Chilean mainland.
Rapa Nui (navel of the world), a province of Chile that is better known as Easter Island, is probably the most isolated inhabited land on earth. Shut off from most of the world for centuries, early residents of Rapa Nui developed a unique culture that is most dramatically represented by the nearly 800 gargantuan stone carvings, called moai, that dot the island. Marked by their long pointed noses, giant ears, topknots, and rounded torsos, the moai depict native leaders, who even in death, their followers believed, continued to watch over their tribes. Islanders carved the statues—some of which are as tall as 70 feet and weigh as much as 120 tons—during a period from about A.D. 800 until the outset of civil war in the 1600s.
For decades, Rapa Nui’s moai and Polynesian culture have attracted artists and adventurers to these remote shores, most notably Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, whose first voyage to the island was in 1955. But until recently, travelers to Easter Island (a name contrived by Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen, who landed there on Easter Day in 1722) were relegated to rather primitive lodgings. Explora, a Chilean company that operates upscale adventure resorts in the Atacama Desert and Torres del Paine National Park, recently transformed two houses into Easter Island’s first high-quality accommodations. The company also broke ground on a new ocean-view lodge that promises to mark a significant improvement upon even its Explora predecessor when it opens in 2007 or 2008.
As at Explora’s other Chilean properties, however, the lodging on Easter Island serves simply as a base for the elaborate excursions the adventure firm organizes. Explora offers three-, four-, five-, and seven-night Rapa Nui packages, all of which include meals and beverages (lunch may consist of a picnic of seafood, salads, cheeses, purple sweet potatoes, and fine Chilean wines), as well as two daily outings to the island’s cultural and natural attractions.
Among the many tours available through Explora is a trip to Ahu Tongariki, where 15 massive moai stand on an ahu, or stone altar. Other excursions visit the island’s caves (where natives hid during the clan wars), volcanic lakes in the interior, remote sections of the black lava–studded coast, and cultural sites such as Rano Raraku, the vast quarry where the natives carved the moai. Four hundred of the giant stone figures remain half-carved in the quarry, lying or standing exactly where their sculptors abandoned them at the outset of Rapa Nui’s 200-year war.