It’s an uninhabited, roadless and raw landscape that, Beno said, is essentially an open-air museum, filled with ancient structures and relics dating to the arrival of the first Polynesian navigators 1,700 years ago.
This was exactly the type of experience I was hoping to encounter when I arrived on Rapa Nui a day earlier in search of off-the-radar adventure after some time spent in Chile. When a Santiago-based friend suggested a little-known hike along the island’s northern coast, I was in.
But first there was the 2,300-mile, six-hour flight from Santiago straight out into the Pacific. Halfway between Tahiti and the South American continent, Rapa Nui is technically part of Chile, but in many ways worlds apart. The singular identity of islanders is marked by cultural differences like the common use of the indigenous Rapanui language and its colloquial mixing with Spanish, which locals call Rapañol.
Once I arrived, I settled in at Explora, a discreet upscale lodge near the main town of Hanga Roa that was a pricey proposition ($950 a night), but ultimately worth it because of the extensive menu of adventures included with each stay.
Poring over the lodge’s extensive collection of trail maps on my first afternoon, I chatted with Beno in Explora’s airy, stylish living area about my interest in taking on the most challenging trek on offer.
He said that Rapa Nui is considered the most isolated inhabited island in the world and that most visitors (and locals) never make it to that rough-hewn side of the island. With a slight grin I couldn’t quite decipher, he confirmed it was also a personal favorite and he would be happy to take me.
Early the next morning, after driving a two-lane road that turned to a red dirt track after 15 minutes, we parked and set out near an ancestral platform called Ahu Te Peu, its fine stonework marking the site of a once-thriving community.
Heading north, we walked through pastures, at first an easy amble shaded by occasional stands of eucalyptus trees. Open grassland then gave way to seemingly endless obstacle courses of lava rock. It was hard to focus on the trail, with striking views of the cerulean Pacific churning in torments to our left, and on the right, the otherworldly slopes of Terevaka.
As we crested every rise, it became impossible not to anticipate the singular sighting that can be experienced only on Rapa Nui: the island’s rock stars — the massive, brooding monoliths known as moai. They were quarried and skillfully carved out of a porous volcanic rock called toba, beginning around A.D. 1000, to serve as sacred ancestral totems.
Unlike other parts of the island, the region we were exploring this day is notable for the fact that everything is still as it was before the restorations mentioned by my guide began 60 years ago.
That’s when the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl initiated the first reconstructions (assisted by Beno’s great-grandfather Pedro Atan) of a few of the more than 800 moai spread across the island, all of which had been toppled several centuries earlier during inter-tribal conflict and following contact with outsiders.
What the Terevaka region offers instead is the undisturbed heritage that is the essence of Rapa Nui, a place once ravaged by war, waning resources and colonial-era pillaging by the likes of Peruvian slavers.
A few minutes out of the lava rock obstacle course, we encountered a discovery that validated the spot-on travel advice I received months earlier from a well-traveled friend who had done the trek. “You’ll need a good guide,” she said. My choice to research and locate Beno, the explorations manager and lead guide at Explora, was about to pay dividends.
As my friend’s words about the sublime subtleties of the discoveries made during her experience played through my mind, Beno raised a eucalyptus branch like a pointer toward a massive stone outcropping 20 yards ahead.
It looked for all the world like a natural feature of this rugged terrain. Beno informed me that it was a moai, about 20 feet long, most likely toppled accidentally when its carvers were moving it from the quarry to its stone platform, known as an ahu. Moving closer, he indicated the neck, head and still-visible details of an ear of this sad figure, forever face-planted in the rich volcanic soil of Rapa Nui.
There are no ropes or glass cases protecting this archaeological treasure on a gusty slope in the middle of the Pacific, so I got close and examined the fallen moai. Our only witnesses this day were a few caracara birds wheeling overhead.
I asked Beno how he felt about leaving these and the many other undisturbed moai toppled in this area in a state of gradual decay. “I don’t agree with restoring the moai and platforms continually,” he said. “They will never be restored as they were before, and they hold our ancestors.” The idea of archaeologists, or anyone else for that matter, clambering over what are essentially ancestral burial sites clearly disturbed him.
In addition to these sphinxes of the Pacific, I was struck by a silence in which the cry of a caracara soaring in the distance was clear and piercing, and the click of a camera as disruptive to a meditative thought as a car horn. For the first three hours we saw no one. It was utter solitude, punctuated by gusts of bracing, salty wind and the insightful comments of Beno, such as how the distance between the lower lip and chin of the moai determine the different epochs (those with longer chins are more recent).
Near an area called Vai Mata, we encountered another remnant of early Rapa Nui history, the stone foundations of “canoe houses,” ancient shelters for the royal clans who lived in this area centuries ago. An untrained eye would have trouble deciphering these oblong outlines of large carved stones set firmly into the sod, but Beno walked me over to an exposed example and explained that they were the foundations of dwellings that were shaped like upside-down canoes, echoing the attachment to the sea of the local culture.
Centuries ago, these dwellings would have included roofs made of wooden beams and thatch of hau hau, a native plant, and even featured lanais made of ocean-smoothed rocks. Showing the reverence Polynesians have for stones and their living mana (or energy), Beno explained that foundations like these were named and passed down through generations.
In what became a pattern throughout the day, we would encounter something striking or unusual, like an ahu platform with a strange prow structure set in the front, and Beno would provide a thoughtful explanation. In this case, it was Ahu Poe Poe, one of the few boat-shaped ahus, a true rarity.
A few minutes after we left the site, we caught sight of the only other hikers we would see all day. From a distance we watched as they approached, looked around briefly, then left. They most likely had no idea what they had just experienced.
Something similar happened a short time later when we neared a cluster of large volcanic rocks sprouting ferns. I had walked right by, but Beno called me over and, with a stick, pushed aside one of the ferns, revealing the narrow entrance to a cave, one of a countless number of such subterranean passages throughout the island. In centuries past, the caves were used as refuges such as during the inter-tribal wars and 19th-century slave raids.
A few miles on and halfway through our journey, we rounded blustery Cabo Norte. If you look at the island as an arrowhead, we were at the tip, pointing due north into the Pacific.
A sharp wind buffeted whitecaps below and clouds raced across a dramatic horizon, summoning a vastness that gave me a true sense of the isolation of this place. It also deepened my respect for the skilled navigators who reached the island at a time when some other cultures dared not venture into the open ocean for fear of falling off the edge of the earth.
We placed our rucksacks down and took a break at this mystical spot. Beno spoke of varua, or local spirits. He shared how, when he was younger and planning to camp in remote areas like this, his grandmother would offer prayers related to specific spirits and ask permission for him to be there, so there would be no problems. I assumed this had been taken care of, because we were having an amazing day.
Stops were frequent, sometimes just to soak up the views and the palpable mana that seemed to vibrate everywhere. Other times, there were notable relics to examine, like centuries-old landmark stones to mark boundaries and fishing spots or ancient petroglyphs, like one particularly well-preserved example of a tuna that faced the sea.
The route eventually became a gentle downslope through pastureland where curious cows stared at us stoically.
After cresting the last of a series of lava-strewn gulleys, we caught a glimpse of our destination — a stretch of shell-white sand called Anakena Beach, one of only two white sand beaches on the island. Tradition holds it was here that the first navigator discovered Rapa Nui, a great chief named Hotu Matua, who landed with his sailing canoes and started the first settlement.
Home to a grouping of towering moai restored by Heyerdahl’s team, the beach was simultaneously welcoming and jarring after a seven-hour hike on Rapa Nui’s wild coast. Small, colorful dots came into view: people and cars, which seemed incongruous, implausible even, after the wind, water and ancient relics that had been our touchstones all day. I had definitely crossed the invisible threshold back into the modern world. It made sense to make the best of it, so after reaching the beach, I dropped my bag and swam into the surf.
Gliding in the clear water, it occurred to me how prescient my guide’s time-travel reference had been. Sure, I was back in the modern world — I had a cold Mahina beer waiting for me on the beach. But I had also traveled more than 1,000 years in a day, and I had the pictures to prove it.
IF YOU GO
Explora’s Rapa Nui lodge (explora.com/hotels-and-travesias/rapa-nui-chile) pairs upmarket amenities — including refined, locally sourced cuisine and spacious, well-appointed rooms — with an impressive list of adventures. More than 20 explorations are available to guests, like island treks and bicycle and boat tours led by multilingual local guides. All activities, meals and alcoholic drinks from the bar are included in the price, which starts at $2,300 for a three-night minimum stay.
For information on Rapa Nui, check resources offered by Unesco (whc.unesco.org/en/list/715) and Chile Travel (chile.travel/en/where-to-go/easter-island), the country’s official tourism board. The Unesco website has photos, videos and a detailed overview of the historic and cultural significance of Rapa Nui National Park, a collection of noteworthy sites covering approximately 40 percent of the island. Chile Travel’s website has a photo gallery, suggested Rapa Nui itineraries and a travel planner.