With sleepy eyes after an overnight flight from Lima, Peru, my two sons and I were looking forward to meeting our local guide, Amanaki Rata, a Rapa Nui descendent. While waiting, we noticed a poised woman with flowing, jet-black hair sauntering through our hotel lobby. She smiled at each person she made eye contact with, including us. We were hopeful this welcome burst of energy was our guide, and she was.
Amanaki introduced herself and enthusiastically asked questions about us. Her voice was deep and pleasantly strong. She expressed delight at the opportunity to lead a young mother with two boys, ages twelve and thirteen.
Within minutes, she directed us to her open-top jeep to begin the tour, instinctively checking with the boys to see if they needed to use the washroom. The three of us were quickly energized as we set off on our Easter Island adventure.
This Chilean island, located in the southernmost part of the Polynesian Triangle, has been the subject of mythical tales and controversial debate since it was first spotted by European explorers on Easter Sunday in 1722. There are a plethora of questions scientists and archeologists have unsuccessfully tried to answer for over a century. They often call Easter Island an “open-air, archaeological museum.” As we traversed the pitted road on this remote piece of land in the South Pacific, we eagerly anticipated whatever lay ahead of us. We already knew that Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, was notorious for the many unanswered questions on how and why over 600 years ago the Rapa Nui, the native inhabitants, built and sculpted hundreds of giant, stone statues called moai.
We were hiking the quarries at the Rano Raraku Volcano, where the stoic statues were originally carved, when my youngest son asked, “When is lunch?”
Amanaki soothed him. “Soon!” she said. “Would you like a traditional meal?”
“Yes!” they exclaimed. “We have tried street food in Ho Chi Minh, pastries in Paris, and haggis, neeps, and tatties in Scotland. We love local food!”
Amanaki smiled. “Fantastic! My ancestors ate fish and rats, and it’s all you can eat!” They both snickered at the joke, but continued walking in silence.
We reached the apex of the quarry. It was a dramatic, sudden entrance into the past, the ancient idols hidden yet protruding from the ground like they had sprouted from the earth. We learned they are composed of consolidated volcanic ash. Some stone busts were covered with grass and moss while others were still buried. These stones were shaped over a period of five centuries by a civilization that later destroyed them. This baffled the boys. They could not understand why anyone would want to destroy something so enchanting and enormous. It was impossible to fully grasp the uncertainty of this island.
Amanaki explained to the boys how the steep cliffs made it nearly impossible for fishing when the Island was first inhabited. Generational advances allowed fish to be added as a staple in the island diet. Polynesian foods included many varieties of fish, vegetables, and fruit, which were wrapped in banana leaves to prevent burning while being cooked over an open flame or underground with hot ashes.
The boy’s bellies rumbled at the mention of food. We settled on lunch at the marina, no rats involved. My little rascals held out hope for ice cream and Amanaki used her leverage to alter their plans for an ordinary scoop of vanilla and urged them to try lúcuma, a flavored frozen custard made from indigenous fruit and known for its pumpkin-like taste. While we sat near the waterfront, the boys asked how these gigantic statues “traveled” from the quarry to their ceremonial platforms sometimes as far as fifteen-miles away.
“Even the native people are uncertain,” Amanaki said. “In every place on Earth where huge megalithic pieces of statues or stones were transported, the explanation of how they were moved involves the use of logs, ropes, and a lot of people. There are over three-hundred moai in different states of completion that never left the quarry.”
At dinner that evening, we met many people from eclectic backgrounds who had traveled from all over the world to experience this enigmatic island. We instantly connected with a Brazilian family from Salvador, a city in Bahia, Brazil. The mother was a doctor and the father was an international business correspondent. Their family mantra mirrored ours: work hard, play hard. We had many great conversations about life, living, and love. Their daughter, Nina, a couple of years older than the boys, became their partner in crime. This tactical threesome would meet up daily after our tours to play cards, wander trails, and search out mischievous missions. The boys even assisted the hotel chef in making a Brigadeiro, a Portuguese chocolate delicacy for Nina’s birthday.
Each morning, Amanaki would surprise us with a basket of warm papaya mango muffins made from a secret family recipe that she could not, and would not, divulge. As we headed toward the most photographed location on the island, she told us how her family is one of the oldest clans still living on the island. I had just taken the last bite of my mouthwatering muffin when we arrived at the largest ceremonial platform. The raised stone surface boasts fifteen boulder busts and showcases them against a glorious cobalt backdrop, the Pacific Ocean. It was breathtaking. My oldest spoke up, “We visited Stonehenge, but these stone statues are so much better and way different.” He and his brother ran off to take pictures of the scenery, a setting punctuated by its abundance of native island dogs.
I stood there, unable to take my eyes off the majestic and mystical presence of the moai looming over the ocean. They stood peacefully erect. I was sure they actually do protect the island as the folklore claims. I saw the boys from a distance, scampering as Amanaki motioned for them to not feed the animals any of her grandmother’s muffins.
Amanaki felt it was important for the boys to understand the geological history of Easter Island, which was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions. “Rano Kau,” she said, “ the island’s most noted volcano, is a major geological site.” As she described the island’s delicate ecosystem and how the volcano is the highest point on the island, I was preoccupied with the 360-degree view of the earth’s largest ocean on the planet. We were standing on the crater’s rim, when my youngest son noticed a sparkly stone bulging out of the soil.
Amanaki nodded and explained that natural obsidian covers the island. “It is an igneous rock, formed when the volcanic molten lava cooled and hardened into a crystallized structure.” As the sunlight danced on the scattered obsidian rock formations, unbeknownst to me, the boys were covertly shoving these treasures into their pockets. Disappointed when I discovered the glass-like objects in their suitcases, I encouraged each of them to return the rocks to their rightful home in their rightful places.
As we drove back to our hotel, I found myself contemplating the mystery in front of me. To be in the presence of these puzzling stone giants left me in pure astonishment. I hoped that astonishment would be the treasure for generations of visitors to take home from the island. I hoped the answers to unanswered questions that countless scientists and archaeologists have been debating for years would forever lie deep within their haunting beauty.
Each evening after supper, we convened in the sitting room of the hotel and talked of our discoveries that day with our fellow adventurers. There would be nonstop chatter, from endless sightings of ancient ceremonial centers, to volcanic craters, petroglyphs in slate caves, lava formations, fascinating clues to the Orongo birdman cult ceremony, and of course, the mystical moai and their mysterious creators. Each day we spent with our guide was educational and captivating. It stirred the spiritual energy of the island and our buoyant curiosity of our travel acquaintances.
On the final day, we were on our own to explore. The Anthropological Museum was a short walk from our hotel and worth a visit. We saw the only intact moai eye ever found, carved from white coral. Walking back to the hotel, we met our Brazilian buddies and asked them to join us for a lúcuma cone. As we watched the kids swing and teeter-totter at a community playground, I couldn’t help but breathe deeply to absorb the fresh oceanic air and stare at the one-eyed moai from a distance. I think we all wished they could share the story of their existence, but part of me hoped the mystery would last forever.
We said our final goodbyes to Nina and her parents. As they loaded their van, they kindly presented the boys and I each with a Brazilian Wish Bracelet. We were given a vibrant pink ribbon, knotted properly around our wrists to ensure the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. Pink was the chosen color to represent friendship.
Amanaki decided to join us for a farewell dinner at the hotel. After our meal, the four of us sat on the wooden patio around an outdoor fire pit. I savored my last sip of Carménère wine, sensing the energy of the island, and knowing its cultural legacy will remain within me for a lifetime.
Reflecting and reminiscing, the flames dwindled and the four of us looked up suddenly, and almost simultaneously. Captivated by the blanket of stars sparkling overhead, we became a bit misty-eyed, knowing our time together had come to an end. We had created a transformative bond. We were fortunate to have shared this invaluable experience with our guide, an outstanding human being, and a representative of the Rapa Nui community.
Speculation will continue to swirl, and stories will continue to unfold for centuries. However, our time spent with Amanaki will never be forgotten. She made us feel like we were part of her Rapa Nui family. Her countless acts of kindness will live on in our hearts, as will her ancestral stories of the moai. We will cherish our adventure, but most importantly, we will cherish those spots where tour buses never travel.
We realized Easter Island will remain an unfinished puzzle. Sometimes it’s the mystery that is the joy, not the answer.
Photos by author.
Shannon Hogan Cohen has always had a special place in her heart for storytelling. She has a passion for life and learning which drives her appetite for adventure. She lives in Del Mar, California with her husband and two teenage boys.