Easter Island – or Rapa Nui – is not an obvious choice for the budget traveller but is probably near the top of every intrepid traveler’s list of must–see destinations. Accessible by air only from Santiago de Chile or Tahiti, just getting there requires determination, stamina and a healthy credit limit. So the chances of it appearing on your round-the-world itinerary might well be reduced to zero when you discover that you also need a $60 tourist pass to see many of the island’s “best bits”. It’s a bit like paying for an all-you-can-eat barbecue and then finding out that it only includes the salads.
But do not despair. A visit to Easter Island is well worth all the determination, stamina, and credit you can throw at it, and let‘s face it, when are you next going to have enough time to visit one of the most magical, mystical and mysterious places on our planet if not on your gap year? So here are five quintessentially Rapa Nui things you can do without having to buy that pricey tourist pass. Yes, they are all absolutely free:
1. The 15 Moai of Ahu Tongariki
If you saw nothing else on Easter Island apart from the giant carved heads at Ahu Tongariki you would leave the island a happy person. The fifteen enigmatic statues, guarded by a sixteenth known as the travelling moai as he is frequently sent overseas for exhibitions, stand with their backs to the tumultuous Pacific Ocean, facing the mountainside quarry where they were all carved and from where, according to legend, they walked to this 200 metre platform, their final resting place.
Each moai is unique and the tallest bears the signature iron-rich red stone top-knot representing the traditional hairstyle of the Rapa Nui people. Not only is access to the site completely free, if you time it right you won’t have to share the experience with anyone else.
Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki is one of the most spectacular you can experience anywhere, the day’s first light spilling over the Pacific horizon and spreading out between the silent statues. But if you can’t afford the transport and can’t hike or cycle there in time for day-break, don’t worry – they are an unforgettable sight at any time of day and the journey along the wild south coast road is almost as memorable as the destination.
2. The Beach at Anakena
Easter Island is unquestionably Polynesian and it is firmly rooted in the South Pacific, so you would expect a bit of beach life and surf culture to make your south sea island trip complete, right? No worries.
Despite the almost barren volcanic landscape and rocky coastline, just a few miles northwest of Ahu Tongariki you will find Playa de Anakena, a perfect white sand beach with towering coconut palms – imported from Tahiti – and crystal clear waters, warm enough to snorkel in all year round. And making it a truly Rapa Nui beach experience, there is even a family of perfectly restored moai standing guard as you sunbathe. No charge.
3. Turtles in Hanga Roa Harbour
You might be tempted to take tales of families of sea turtles paddling around Hanga Roa’s small boat harbour and swimming alongside local children with a pinch of salt. Well that’s your choice but it costs nothing to stroll down to the harbour and take a look…just in case.
If you go prepared with your swimming togs and a towel, it could even be you splashing around the dinghies with some of the friendliest giant sea creatures you are ever likely to meet…
4. The Crater of the Rano Kau Volcano
You may have to pay to visit the quarry and moai-carving heart of Easter Island around the crater of Rano Raraku but within walking distance of Hanga Roa town is another of the island’s dramatic volcanic peaks, Rano Kau. The good news is that climbing this one costs nothing more than a bit of physical exertion.
The moderate walk starts amidst banana palms and dazzling lupins on the road heading west out of town. Rising quickly through colourful bush-land and groves of fragrant eucalyptus trees, the path gives sweeping views across the entire island and its turbulent shoreline. But the views en route are merely a dress rehearsal for the main event – the view inside the ocean-side crater itself.
The deep, water-filled abyss is dotted with flat grassy islets and reeds, and its steep, jagged walls are splashed with the dazzling blooms of tenacious bougainvillea. Take your camera and maybe a packed lunch – you might want to stay and admire the view while the falcons swoop into the crater before your very eyes.
The return trip will take a few hours, but you won’t feel short-changed by your climb up unforgettable Rano Kau.
5. Sunset at Ahu Tahai
Most accommodation on the island is in Hanga Road, so as day comes to an end it is good to know that there is a handy spot near town to catch the dying rays of the sun, and on a good day an Easter Island sunset provides a truly spectacular show. A short walk north of town takes you to the moai of Ahu Tahai where you can watch the sun slip slowly into the South Pacific beyond the silhouettes of five centuries-old statues.
Even with a mediocre light show the setting and atmosphere will turn the occasion into an experience that you are unlikely to forget. It is also a great place to meet fellow travellers with whom you can share a pisco sour or a bottle of Chilean sauvignon and a plate of super-fresh ceviche in one of Hanga Roa’s bars. Whatever you choose will taste that much sweeter considering the all money you will have saved on your free Easter Island attractions.
By Simon J Hare