Chile - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 389 (199)

Easter Island

Friday 1st April (2005)

Our Easter Island bound flight was only about half full and we were lucky enough to get a three seat centre row all to ourselves. I tried to get horizontal just as soon as the seatbelt sign was dimmed. Sandy eventually moved into another seat and I did my best to get as much sleep as I could. I would have succeeded too if it weren’t for the excited Russian speaking woman sitting in the row behind me mouthing off throughout the entire flight. I may have caught an hour’s worth of sleep segments altogether during the five-hour flight.

The plane seemed to taxi in a straight line for a very long time before coming to a halt after landing. Apparently, Easter Island has a long enough runway to serve as a backup and emergency runway for NASA’s space shuttle. I’d estimate that only about half the passengers disembarked the plane here at Easter Island, with the rest continuing on to Santiago. With our completed landing cards at the ready, we stepped out onto the tarmac and the most remote landmass on the planet. In doing so, this was the realisation of a dream long in the making. and even though I was very tired from the flight, I still managed to catch myself quietly chuckling internally for having finally reached this new milestone. That’s another life’s to-do list item that I must now cross off the list - not very many remaining now.

Our first impressions of Easter Island are that it is something of a sub-tropical remote island with few trees but lots of low-lying tropical vegetation and grassland. It is so far very reminiscent of Thailand and Cambodia.

Immigration formalities were particularly slow but we were also amongst the first off the plane so we weren’t particularly bothered. The luggage belt was encircled with accommodation booths, most of which were manned by people trying to catch our attention. One such booth had the name of the pension that I had chosen from our guidebook. We spoke briefly with the nice man sitting in it after collecting our luggage. He tried to tell me that there were a lot of tourists on the island and that this was why he wanted to charge us US$35 (€26,92) for the room, as opposed to the US$30 (€23,08) as listed in the guidebook. I told him it didn’t look particularly busy, which was true, and he soon buckled back down to what is clearly the going rate of US$30 (€23,08). He then summonsed over a taxi to take us just around the corner to the pension. The very old driver drove very slowly. I don’t think he even got out of first gear but judging by the state of the car, it may now have had any other functional gears anyway. The pension that we arrived at looked a little ragged and was a bit overgrown with vegetation. The room was a bit musty and the bed a bit hard but certainly nothing that we couldn’t handle. The real killer, however, was the absence of any kitchen or cooking facilities. I queried him about this and he tried to feed me a line of crap about this being a new system on the island with no kitchen facilities in the pensions. This blatant lie was so clearly transparent that I think he actually felt embarrassed. He sort of suggested there was another pension just around the corner and so we got back into the taxi again. As it turned out, this second place was literally just around the corner and looked very similar from the outside. Still, it had a kitchen and our room has an ensuite bathroom. With the aid of our YHA cards, we secured the same US$30 (€23,08) room rate for the four nights that we will be here. The owner of this house doesn’t appear to speak a word of English but we’ve managed so far with just a spattering of Spanish and liberal doze of body language. I’m sure we’ll manage somehow. Sandy went to catch up on the sleep she lost during the red-eye flight and I went for a stroll into town.

The small town of Hanga Roa is the only settlement on the island, save for the odd house dotted here and there. Pretty much all of the three thousand, eight hundred inhabitants of the island live here, although you wouldn’t think there were that many people to see the place. There are just a few streets but the small town is quite dispersed. In total, the town is little more than four square Kilometres. This is clearly a very poor place with nearly 100% of its revenue being derived from tourism. Almost everyone here relies either directly or indirectly on the tourism trade. There are a few shops scattered about the place but the choice of goods on offer is very limited. There are a couple of general stores and quite a few souvenir outlets selling carved wooden curios and lava stone carvings of the standing Moai that have made Easter Island significant so disproportionately to its size. There’s just one petrol station, bank and post office in town and the electricity goes out at certain times. The people here, however, seem very friendly and laid back and, although English does not appear to be very commonly spoken, communications isn’t too difficult for basic needs.

Hanga Roa sits in the southwest corner of the roughly triangular shaped island, which is formed from the conjunction of three long-since extinct volcanoes. Much of the island is covered in volcanic rock from past lava flows with grassland stretching out over the flows. The lava stone can be found lying everywhere. There are a few options for getting around. The guidebook suggests that it would take three days to comfortably walk around the island but there are taxis that you can bargain with too. The preferred method appears to be renting a Suzuki four-by-four Jeep and I noted several of these vehicles driving around as I wandered about the place. The going rate for a Jeep is between US$50 (€38,46) and US$70 (€53,85) per day and I popped into the small tourism office to inquire about renting one for the time that we will be here. The young girl there spoke passable English but told me that I had to visit one of the many shops that had a Jeep rental sign out front. Apparently they are all the same price so it shouldn’t matter where I chose to rent from. Strangely enough for a tourism office, she had no maps of the island.

The tourism office is right near the waterfront and this is where I saw my first standing Moai. In fact, there are a couple of them there and they are very enigmatic indeed. One of the smaller volcanoes on the island is apparently the quarry from where these figurehead statues have been carved right out of the rock face. Somehow, these stone figures have been moved around the island to be erected where they currently stand, although confrontational events of times past has meant that many of them have been toppled. Some of them are thought to have been nearly three thousand years old and this raises many mysteries as to just exactly who it was that built them and how they were moved. Many theories abound as to whom, why and what but just as many disagreements too.

I noted a couple of diving operators near the waterfront area so I may yet have a crack at diving whilst I’m here. On my way back to the pension, I also stopped in at what looked like an artist market, where several rows of market stalls were adorned with the local artist’s wares. The prices listed were not particularly cheap but I didn’t want to get into a haggling match without first learning a bit more of the local customs so I didn’t ask for prices as I walked around.

Even before I set foot on the island, I had already decided that we would rent a Jeep to move around so I popped my head into one of the shops that had a Jeep rental sign and tried to negotiate with the Spanish-speaking woman there about a rental. Even though neither of us spoke each other’s language, we engaged well enough and agreed that I would return in an hour to collect my Jeep for the arranged price of US$200 (€153,85) for the four days. The woman was very nice and seemed quite laid back about the whole thing.

Back at the pension, Sandy was still drifting in and out of sleep and it didn’t take me long to doze off myself after putting my head down. By the time we both woke up again, it was now several hours later so we shook ourselves awake to walk back into town to collect our Jeep. There was a relatively clean looking Jeep parked outside of the little shop where I had earlier spoken with the nice lady but the shop itself was shut. In fact, from what we could tell, all the shops were shut. Might this be there afternoon siesta?

In the meantime, hunger was starting to tighten its grip and we wandered around until we found a small restaurant. As is the case with pretty much every other place we’ve seen here so far, nothing was posted in English and we did our best to order what we thought were a plain chicken sandwich and a plain steak sandwich for lunch. What came out was close enough. A couple of young Japanese tourists wandered onto the restaurant’s front deck as we were eating and were clearly in the same boat as we were. They ultimately ended up ordering what they wanted by pointing to what we were eating. We got talking to them about how they were going to move around the island and even offered to share our Jeep with them. Although extremely grateful for the offer, they instead decided to jump onto one of the many, guided tours that depart daily from Hanga Roa.

By now, the Jeep rental shop was open again so we went to collect our four-by-four. It was a bit rough and ready but seemed sturdy enough to meet our needs for the next few days. It has just under half a tank or fuel and the woman sort of tried to tell me to return it with a similar amount. Unless I’m very much mistaken, she also told me to just leave it parked at the airport, itself just a couple of minutes' walk up the street, with the keys still in it when we leave. I thought that was very trusting of here but, then again, whose going to steal a Jeep when your live in a very small town on a very small island in the remotest part of the world’s largest ocean?

Even though the island is small, our driving progress is likely to be slow with dirt tracks and off-road surfaces and I wasn’t sure just how long the less than half full tank of fuel was going to last us so I decided that we would drive over to the petrol station to put some petrol in. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Not on Easter Island! We arrived at the island’s one and only filling station and there was just the one very old style pump with an attendant sitting there in a chair right next to it. There were a couple of other vehicles on both sides of the pump waiting to get fuel so I went inside to browse around. The shelves were half empty and the atmosphere was very sleepy and laid back. I bought and paid for a couple of bottles of water before it hit me that nobody was getting any fuel pumped. I asked the cashier and she told me (mimed would be a better word) that the island’s electricity is off and the pumps won’t start working until six o’clock. Since it was now ten to six, it didn’t seem like too much of a hardship to sit and wait for a while so this is what we did. It didn’t take long before there were quite a few vehicles of varying description now waiting for the power to come back on so that they too could refuel. Kids were now running around and playing between all the cars and Sandy had a great time feeding some of them with some snacks that we had previously stocked up on. We sat there for the better part of an hour and a half before the power finally kicked in but you could tell from the relaxed and laid back attitude of everyone else at the pump that this was all part and parcel of life on Easter Island. Nobody seemed to mind the wait at all and when the power did come on, they slowly got into their vehicles as the pump boy went about trying to put fuel into as many vehicles as he could as quickly as he could. I put US$20 (€15,38) into the tank and that just about filled it completely.

We had planned on doing a little bit of exploration of the island but it was now starting to get dark so we drove off in search of a restaurant instead. We found a place near the waterfront but the food was not terribly great there. The German owner did, however, give us a much more favourable rate of exchange for paying in US Dollars and explained that we would be much better off taking some local currency out of the town’s one and only ATM. This way, we would get something like six hundred and fifty Chilean Pesos for every US Dollar that we spend, as opposed to the rather poor five hundred that all the shops and restaurants give. Everyone here takes US Dollars as well as Chilean Pesos but it’s only been Chilean Pesos that I’ve received as change so far from anyone.