Today’s blog is the first of many travel guides highlighting the cities I visited on my month-long trip through South America. I’m starting with Easter Island, my first destination and by far the highlight of my trip. Let’s dive in and find out why everyone should visit Isla de Pascua, as the Chileans call it, in today’s Easter Island travel guide.
Once upon a time long, long ago, I watched an episode of In Search Of about the mysterious stone sculptures of Easter island. As a child I was fascinated by all things weird and wonderful, and Leonard Nimoy’s description of this fantastic place always stuck with me. Easter Island was on my bucket list for years, and I am pleased to report that it lived up to all my expectations.
Easter Island: How Long Should You Stay?
I spent five days on Easter Island and I consider this to be the minimum amount of time necessary to photograph the island properly. Most travel guides will tell you to spend three days there, but I wanted to take my time and – as I did with Angkor Wat in Cambodia – be able to return to places to photograph them again if need be. It turns out that the extra time came in handy because I had rain all day on February 24. The rain was heavy and persistent enough to the point that I couldn’t go outside with my camera. February is generally a good time of year, weather-wise, but it does still rain frequently.
Easter Island is a small place and you can drive the entire island in an hour, but it all depends upon why you are there in the first place. If you are just on Easter Island to lie on the beach and soak up the Polynesian ambiance, then three days will probably do it. If you want to photograph the perfect sunrise, then it is always nice to have a second chance to get the perfect shot. Be generous with your time.
Easter Island: When Should You Go?
The weather is wonderful all year round in Easter Island. Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons on Easter Island are the exact reverse of what we have in NYC. So, summer in Easter Island is from December to March. This is also the most expensive time of the year to visit. The coldest months are in July and August, and the wettest time of the year is March through June with May receiving the most rain.
The Tapati Festival: To Go or Not to Go?
The biggest happening on Easter Island is an annual cultural event called the Tapati Festival. Translated as ‘Rapa Nui Week,’ this two-week long festival celebrates the dance, food, and sports of the Rapa Nui people. The 2019 festival was held February 1-16 and I deliberately avoided it. Yes, I missed out on the cultural events, but on the other hand, the island was a lot less crowded when I visited. As I mentioned, Easter Island is a small place. It can feel very crowded very quick when you have an onslaught of tourists. Indeed, Easter Island has begun limiting the number of days visitors can spend on the island for just this reason. I knew I wanted to spend my time photographing the landscape and not fighting the tourists, so for me this was an easy choice. Furthermore, you can still take part in the dancing and cultural activities to a limited degree by attending Rapa Nui performances such as the Kari Kari Ballet.
Easter Island: Hotels
If you are used to luxury while traveling, you are going to be sadly disappointed by what you find on Easter Island. It’s an island, so hotels can charge whatever they want. The result is three-star hotel rooms going for $150 to $300 a night. The only thing spectacular about the rooms is the price. Still, unless you’re going to be camping on the beach you don’t have many options.
The Hostal y Cabanas Mangai Rapa Nui was my original hotel on Easter Island. When I searched online, the price of the room was reasonable and the reviews through Trip Adviser and Google were pretty good. Arriving at the hotel, I knew I was in for a major let down. The room itself was basic, but the hotel was nothing more than a converted house. The hotel was about a 10-minute walk from downtown, but the biggest disappointment were the roaches I found in my room every day. I am a Floridian, so I’m used to a roach or two. But finding three roaches a day in your hotel room seemed a bit excessive. The final deal-breaker was when I woke up one morning to hear something flying around the room. That turned out to be a flying roach that landed on my head. I frantically swatted it away and the roach promptly landed in my bed. The critter wouldn’t die, and after about 100 slaps with my slipper it finally gave up the ghost near my pillow. That was it, I was out of there. For $78 a night, this roach motel was not worth it.
Luckily, the hotel I moved to next was a little slice of tiki paradise. The Hotel Manavai cost $230 a night, but it was worth every penny. The rooms were spacious and the bathroom was clean. The hotel is surrounded by luscious gardens and even has a pool. Breakfast as well as airport transport is also included. In comparison to stateside hotel rooms, $230 a night is probably a bit steep, but my stay also didn’t include any roaches smacking me on the forehead.
For your trip to Easter Island, make sure you book a hotel that is near Atamu Tekena Street, the main street in town. This is where all the shops and restaurants are located and it really is the heart of Easter Island. The nicest place to stay on Easter Island is the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa, but I have to caution you against booking this hotel. The hotel is located 15 minutes walking distance from the main part of town and the edge of the hotel near the waterfront is surrounded by ugly graffiti. The hotel just isn’t inviting from the outside. For the $739 per night price you are better off staying in the middle of town.
Easter Island: Restaurants
When I was doing my research for this trip, I quickly understood that Easter Island was an expensive destination. Everything has to be flown in to the island, and the residents know they have a captive audience of rich tourists. As such, prices are through the roof for everything from food to hotels. I thought I might save some money by buying food at the local grocery and having a daily picnic. That turned out to be a wrong assumption. The grocery stores had precious little food on the shelves and the prices of things were exorbitant. For the lack of choice, poor quality, and high prices I instead decided to simply bite the bullet and eat at restaurants.
So that’s exactly what I did. Expect to spend $40 at every meal. The only good thing about dining at restaurants on Easter Island is that the portions are usually large, and you can end up taking half the food with you to eat on the road. In terms of local cuisine, the ceviche is top notch, and I can recommend Makona Restaurant as an excellent place to go for dinner. Places to avoid include Haka Honu (crazy expensive for what you get), Empanadas Tia Berta (the worst empanadas I’ve ever had), and Te Moana (great view, blah food). The best pisco sour I had on my entire trip can be found at Au Bout du Monde. This restaurant has a wonderful roof deck, and the pisco sour is of a slushy consistency. The locally brewed beer, Mahina, is some of the best I have ever tasted. Finally, Tuava Cherry Ice has the best ice cream on the island. As usual, I found that the reviews on Trip Advisor were not accurate. Go with your gut, and if the restaurant is fully booked, then it’s a good sign that the place is worth your dollar.
Easter Island: Car Rental
To see the sights on Easter Island, you have two choices: go with a guided tour or drive yourself. As you all know, I am not a fan of tours so I elected to rent a car. Driving around the island was fairly easy since there are only small roads to navigate and precious little traffic. That said, the road surfaces are horrible. In particular, the road from Ahu Tongariki to Anakena Beach is covered in gigantic potholes, and you should be very leery of dirt roads. As such, it is imperative that you rent a car with a high wheel clearance. In addition to the potholes, if it rains on the island you will be driving through massive puddles and at one point I had to drive through a creek to get to the other side of the road.
The driving conditions are no joke. The most common car to rent on Easter Island is the Suzuki Jimny, but in my opinion these cars simply aren’t sturdy enough. I saw two cars that had flipped over during my stay, so do yourself a favor and upgrade to a more rugged vehicle that can handle the bad roads. Also, pay attention when driving. Besides the potholes, the roads themselves are not hazardous. I have a feeling that this car accident was the result of the driver simply not paying attention.
If you are going to rent a car, then make your reservation early. There are only so many cars available on Easter Island, and more importantly, if you are looking to rent a car with automatic transmission these cars account for only a small fraction of the available vehicles. Most of the cars available for rent have manual transmissions. I had originally counted on my hotel (Hostal y Cabanas Mangai Rapa Nui) to rent me a vehicle since they said they offered that service on their website. Nope, the hotel had no cars for rent. Apparently this is a common ploy from hotels on the island, so make a reservation through one of the major car rental companies instead. You will find that the car rental company websites are difficult to navigate and appear less than professional. Still, you don’t have many other choices. I rented through Oceanic Rent A Car, which is located on the main drag in town. This is one of the most popular car rental companies on Easter Island. The price for two full days of use was $307. Note that you should make sure you have car insurance through your credit card since the car rental companies do not offer any insurance. You break it, you buy it. Renting a car for two to three days is all you need as everything in town is walkable.
Easter Island: Entertainment
In terms of entertainment, the main draw to Easter Island are the moai sculptures in the Rapa Nui National Park. No doubt you will be spending most of your time driving around the statues. There are locals left and right offering guided tours. I did not partake in any of the tours, and while I probably missed out on the inside story of the Rapa Nui culture, you could always do your research back home as I did through YouTube. The ticket to enter the park is $80, and you should purchase it at the airport just as you get off the plane. Apparently there is an office on Atamu Takena Street selling tickets as well, but I would highly advise you to buy your ticket as you get off the plane since places tend to have interesting hours on Easter Island. A Rapa Nui National Park ticket is valid for 10 days, but remember that there are two locations – Orongo and Rano Raraku – which you can only visit once on your pass. If you want to visit these locations more than once, then you will need to purchase a new pass. I’m not sure why you can only visit these spots once, but it seems to be a way of limiting the number of tourists. I will discuss the archaeological park in more detail on my next blog post.
In addition to viewing the moai sculptures, you should also soak up the Polynesian lifestyle and go swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Anakena Beach is beautiful, but I recommend taking a dip in Hanga Roa which seems to be where all the locals go.
In terms of nightlife, you should visit one of the native dance performance companies. While in Easter Island, I saw both the Kari Kari Ballet and the Te Ra’ai dance groups. I found both performances entertaining, and would recommend going to both. The Kari Kari performance was a bit more authentic in terms of the dances performed, but the Te Ra’ai performance included a traditional Rapa Nui meal. There’s not much else to do at night on Easter Island, so you might as well go see some dancing.
One bit of warning if you are going to go to the Kari Kari Ballet: while I found the dancing immensely enjoyable, seating for the performance will make you claustrophobic. The theater packs people in like sardines, and by the end of the evening I felt ill from a lack of air flow plus my knees were killing me. Seating is stadium style on a first come, first serve basis, so get there by 7:40 PM in order to be first in line for a center seat. If you have booked a dinner package with Kari Kari — and I didn’t because the online reviews said the food was not worth the price — then you get to sit in seats at the front of the theater. Everyone else sits in the stands, and you need to be aware that there is a center pole running through the theater that prevents a good view. I had a great seat just to the left of the pole, but it still got in the way occasionally.
In comparison, the seating for Ta Ra’ai was spacious and the theater is of a more manageable size. The food served at the buffet was tasty, though beverages are not included in the price of the buffet. My only caveat about Te Ra’ai is that some of the dances incorporated western-style moves like the waltz. It was a bit odd to see couples in Rapa Nui native dress waltzing around the stage, but that was only for one dance segment.
Easter Island: Shopping
The main shopping areas in Easter Island can all be found along Atamu Tekena Street. But unless you are a fan of brightly colored sarongs, you may not find much to buy on Easter Island. The one thing you have to purchase during your trip is a tiny replica of the moai sculptures. (I brought back three.) Note that the going rate for the small moai sculptures is 2000 Chilean pesos. I saw that the little statues were being sold for 6000 pesos at Rano Raraku, so don’t buy them there.
There is a strip of vendor stalls at the intersection of Atamu Tekena and Tu’u Maheke Streets, and this is where I purchased all of my souvenirs. When you walk down the strip of stores at this market, know that the prices increase as you get closer to Te Pito o Te Henua Street. The best shop I found on the island is located in this strip – the Mahatua shop. The woman who runs the shop makes beautiful handcrafted accessories.
Finally, you might check with US customs to see if you can bring back items incorporating bird feathers. My guess is no, and there are lots of feathery things for sale on Easter Island.
Watch what you pack in your suitcase. Chile has a notoriously long list of things you can’t bring in or out of the country. In particular, know that you can’t bring back any native artifacts, rocks or plants from Easter Island. Also, I was flagged twice at Chilean airports for having an aerosol can in my checked suitcase (dry shampoo, in case you’re curious). Ask your airline before you check in to see if you need to bring your aerosol cans with you on the plane.
You can drink the water on Easter Island, though note that it has a mineral taste to it.
Don’t expect to have internet. The internet I had at the roach motel was slow, and at the Hotel Manavai it was practically non-existent. This means no uploading to Instagram and no streaming videos. Plan ahead and have at least three to four posts scheduled for situations where you are off the grid.
If you’re like me and fall asleep to YouTube videos, then not having the internet also means a sleepless night. Make sure you download enough movies and entertainment on your laptop before you leave the States. One tip: Amazon Prime allows you to download videos to your phone and watch these later without the Internet; this was a lifesaver on my trip.
Electrical outlets were a challenge on Easter Island. I found that the prongs of the outlet converters I had were too thick for the outlets of Easter Island. I jammed them in the outlets anyway and everything worked, but it was a tight fit. Furthermore, make sure you bring with you both an outlet extender – NOT a surge protector (I fried mine on my last trip to Thailand) – and multiple outlet converters so that you can have multiple things plugged in at once. The hotel rooms in Easter Island do not have enough outlets for my electrical tastes. Also, note that most of the outlets only have two prongs, so make sure you bring a converter for your laptop plug so that you can change your three-pronged plug to a two-pronged plug.
Bring your own instant coffee. Throughout Chile I found that brewed coffee was a luxury, not a staple. I found the best instant coffee I have ever tasted on Easter Island: Lavazza Prontissimo Intenso. Not only does it taste like the real thing with no chemical aftertaste, it smells like the real thing.
Learn from me and leave your car window open to avoid locking yourself out of the car. The key fob I had for my rental car would spontaneously decide to lock the car.
Two things that will probably affect your schedule on Easter Island: Sundays and spontaneous rain. Most stores and restaurants are closed on Sundays. Also, rain seems to pop up out of nowhere on the island. While I was there, the sun would be brightly shining overhead and then it would start to pour. Bring a rainproof jacket with a hood.
You will get a horrible sunburn unless you use suntan lotion. I received one of the worst sunburns of my life on this trip without even realizing it. I went home after my first day on Easter Island and looked like a lobster.
Watch out for the slippery gravel. On my first day on the island I was walking down a slight embankment while wearing tennis shoes. Before I knew it my feet had completely gone out from under me and I was face down sucking gravel. I busted open my knee, but luckily never lost hold of my camera (priorities). I figured that I made a blood sacrifice to the Rapa Nui gods in order to get good photos.
You can escape to paradise, but you can’t escape the cockroaches. They are everywhere on the island. The roaches are much bigger than we have back home in New York City and definitely on par with what they have in Florida. Luckily, that’s the worst thing I had to deal with on the island. There are no spiders, snakes, or animals to worry about except horses and cows in the morning when you’re driving in the dark. The dogs roaming around Easter Island are all quite friendly. With the exception of one dog who was quite bitey in a friendly manner, all the dogs were sweet and loved to be petted.
Would I go back to Easter Island? I feel about Easter Island as I did about Angkor Wat: I spent just the right amount of time, and saw everything I needed to see. That said, I feel like the perfect sunrise/sunset/moai portrait still eludes me. Yes, I would come back if for nothing else than to take more sunrise shots at Ahu Tongariki. I have to say the colors in the sky in this part of the world are stunning and my visit to Easter Island encourages me to take more trips to the Pacific.
For those of you planning a similar trip, check out my day-by-day itinerary. If you have any questions about your travel plans or can offer some feedback on your own adventures in Easter Island – drop me a line! I love to hear from fellow travelers and dream of returning to Polynesia some day.
Next week I’ll discuss Easter Island from a photographer’s perspective. I’ll go through each of the main sculptures in the archaeological Park and tell you the best time of day to hit each one, which ones aren’t worth your time, and how best to plan your trip to the park.
Wednesday, February 20
- Leave NYC and arrive in Lima, Peru for an 11-hour layover
- Leave Lima for a connection in Santiago, Chile
Thursday, February 21
- Flight from Santiago to Easter Island
- Rent a car and drive the entire island
Lunch: Empanadas Tia Berta
Dinner: Hano Hako
Hotel: Mangai Rapa Nui
Friday, February 22
- Sunrise: Ahu Tongariki
- Rano Raraku
- Try to find the Easter Island Eye
- Ahu One Makihi
- Ahu Akahanga
- Ahu Huri A Urenga
- Sunset: Tahai
Dinner: Neptune Island
Ice cream: Mikafe Gelateria
Hotel: Mangai Rapa Nui
Saturday, February 23
- Sunrise: Ahu Tongariki
- Anakena Beach
- Ahu Akivi
- Ana Te Pahu
- Ahu Te Peu
- Return rental car
7:45 p.m. – Kari Kari Ballet Cultural Rapa Nui show
Hotel: Hotel Manavai
Sunday, February 24
- (Rain all day)
- Ana Kai Tanata
- Swim in the ocean
Dinner: Au Bont Du Monde
Ice Cream: Tuava Cherry Ice
Hotel: Hotel Manavai
Monday, February 25
- Sunrise: Ahu Tahai
- Mirador Hanga Kioe
- Parroquia de la Santa Cruz (the main church on Easter Island)
- Ahu Vinapu
- Mirador Rano Kau
- Buy stamps; get passport stamp
- Hanga Roa city
7:30 p.m. – Te Ra’ai dinner and show
Lunch: Te Moana
Hotel: Hotel Manavai
Tuesday, February 26
- Morning flight to Santiago
If you would like to see more travel photos from my portfolio, then please visit my website – www.Kelly-Williams.com