In the footsteps of the Incas – part 1

In the footsteps of the Incas – part 1

It has been a lifetime dream to walk in the footsteps of the Incas along steep valley sides and over the rocky mountain passes and reach Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It’s impossible to capture the ongoing breathless wonder of the four day adventure with the awesome guides, porters & fellow hikers in my Peru Treks Inka Trail family,  or that feeling of your first glimpse of this incredible citadel in the clouds, but here goes…

Day 1: Piscacucho to Wayllabamba, 12km

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Top 10 tips for visiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) 

Iorana! Here we go with Choco’s top tips for visiting Rapa Nui. I don’t need to list the best archaeological sites to see – there’s plenty of info out there on that – but my personal thoughts on making the most of your trip.  Tip Zero, obviously, is GO! It’s the most unique place, with a fascinating fusion of ancient and modern, RapaNui, Polynesian & Latin American cultures, set in an equally awe inspiring landscape. 

1. Push the boat right out, and give it at least a whole week, or more! I was there 8 days and it still didn’t feel long enough. It’s the most remote inhabited island in the world, you’ve probably paid a fair bit just to get there, so why not take enough time to really enjoy it. English travel groups notoriously try to squeeze it all into a three-day tour package – yes, you can see all the highlights, but you’ll probably be so busy racing from site to site, there’ll be almost no time to just let Rapa Nui soak into your skin.

2. Make yourself independent with a copy of James Grant-Peterken’s excellent A Companion to Easter Island – especially if you are, like me, more inclined to independent discovery than being bussed around on a tour. I found it an invaluable friend, from history to best times of day to visit the busier sites to walks and restaurant recommendations. James lives on the island, he knows what he’s talking about. My now very dog eared copy was boughtbefore travelling, but there’s a kindle edition now, andgift shops on the island sell it.

3. Get ready to spend (and save) money – Easter Island’s isolation means it’s not cheap but it IS DEFINITELY worth saving for! It’s US$60/CLP54,000 just to enter the national park, food and accommodation are not cheap. I saved by staying in a hostal with guest kitchen, then bought eggs, cheese, yoghurt, bread and fruit for breakfasts and packed lunch. There are some good smaller cafes offering menu del día options for less than £10, including good fresh fish dishes. And for a cheap filler, no-one quite makes a queso-atún empanada quite like Tía Berta – Rapa Nui’s best pasty is filling and cheap, oozing with cheese, onions and juicy fresh tuna. Delicious!

4. Get some wheels. It’s really worth hiring a car, a scooter, a quad bike etc, and avoid the crowds by visiting the best sites in the early morning and late afternoon when the light will show off their better features, as well as taking you to the beach, or for some great walks. Its particularly worth making sure your visit to Rano Raraku is early morning (go after the sunrise at Tongariki maybe), before the tour buses arrive. You can hire a pedal bike, but three separate people I met did that for one day, then traded up to a scooter! If hiring an vehicle it’s definitely worth shopping around as prices can vary, and deals can be struck.

5. Eat the raw fish, drink the pisco! Easter Island has some truly great restaurants, specialising in fish and seafood (I particularly liked Te Moana and Haka Honu, both in the harbour area). I have never tasted such fresh, delicious raw tuna and sea bass in my life, and here it comes in vast portions, often plentiful enough for two to share with an additional side dish. There are plenty of variations of marination and the Moai sunset bar at Tahai also does some good spin in a pisco sour with a great view of the Moai to round off your day.

6. Go crater crawling.
If visiting the volcano at Ranu Kau and Orongo, it’s really worth the 1-2 hour walk around the crater edge to the far side of Kari Kari (ie. opposite direction from Orongo). The spectacular view of the crater, with the precariously perched village, the sheer cliffs and the jagged motus poking out of the bluest sea, is really not something you want to miss.

7. See the sun rise at Tongariki
. On Easter Island, it ain’t much of a hardship to get up before dawn because in order to synchronise office hours with Santiago, island time runs just two hours behind Chile mainland time. At the time I was there the sunrise was about 8.15 – with the skies turning peachy pink and orange a little before that. The shimmering shards of golden light behind the 15 giant moai is truly a sight to behold.

8. For the best sense of just how isolated the island is, and a breathtaking 360 view of the whole island and its craters and crags, take a morning to climb Mount Terevaka. It’s a relatively easy walk (just wear a hat and take water!), mostly on grassy track, about 1.5-2 hours up and a bit less to get down again, so up to 4 hours total. There is nothing but nothing but sparkling blue ocean all around. So. Much. Ocean. 

9. Bring, beg, borrow or buy a snorkel and mask
, so you can check out the underwater life, especially the array of interesting fish and giant turtles. A family of the latter almost daily hangs out amongst the boats in the harbour, catching the fish heads and scraps from the fisherpeople. Just check out my Chilean friend Christian’s one minute video and you’ll see what I mean. At Ovahe and Anakena beaches the areas by the rocks are where the interesting fish lurk.

10. See a show!
I went to see Kari Kari, the most established professional group on the island, conveniently with its own venue just across the road from my hostel Inaki Uhi. Tickets there were CLP15,000 (around £19 at the time of travel). It was packed with great, and quite revealing traditional costumes and accompanied by ukuleles, drums, conch shells and heartily sung harmonies, the whole show was full of life, sexy & cheesily cheeky, all around entertaining and just put a smile on my face and the sunshine into my heart.

I could go on with recommendations! I haven’t even mentioned the two lovely beaches at Anakena and Ovahe, for example!  Or Terangi, a great guide who works for Rapanui tours. If you’ve been to Easter Island, I’d love to know what you think, and please add your own highlights in the comments section! If you’re thinking of going there, and want to know more, get in touch!

Moais and mysteries

Iorana! I’ve arrived on Rapanui, or Easter Island.

“Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are sea and boundless sky, infinite space and a great silence.” (Katherine Routledge)


The seed of my long held desire to come to Easter Island was sown when I was 18 or 19 and somehow, in a college class about languages of France, my utterly delightful and eccentric lecturer, Dr Veronica du Feu, managed to turn the conversation to a comparison to Rapa Nui, then in danger of extinction with only around 2000 native speakers. Over the next couple of years, however much I enjoyed linguistics class she was teaching (she also taught psycho linguistics and phonetics), it was her unrelenting enthusiasm and passion for Rapa Nui that I remember her for. Her ‘magnum opus’ Rapanui, A descriptive grammar was finally published in 1996.

Arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world (Tristan da Cunha also makes this claim), Easter Island or Rapa Nui was formed by three volcanic eruptions – the volcanoes are long dormant but today give it its triangular shape, its ragged, black volcanic rock base and terrain pimpled with small cones.

However, it is the famous moai (statues, and ‘big heads’) that most people come to see. Who built them and why? Why so many? Why so massive? And why, when explorers reached the island in the mid 1800s, had they been toppled?

Ahu Ahurangi

Having arrived from New Zealand, I was immediately struck by the similarities between Rapa Nui and Maori – in both the word for ‘sea’ is moana, for food ‘kai’ and for people ‘tangata’. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that the early settlers came from South America, it’s clear now that they must have originated from the same group of Polynesian islands as the Maori.

Arriving here in boats some time around 700 to 900AD, they would’ve found a richly palm forested island but with no mammals, and no fruits or vegetables as there were no bees to pollinate them. They would’ve had to live on whatever plants they brought, the animals they introduced and fishing. Resources must have been scarce. Settling in villages, usually next to a suitable bay, with caves created by lava tubes for extra shelter, boat shaped houses with tiny entrances were constructed to protect them at night or from rain, but it was otherwise an outdoor life. Typically, the houses were for the rich, the caves for the poor.

The carving of statues to honour your ancestors, so that their spirit continues to protect the tribe is known throughout Polynesia. Here on Easter Island that practice seemed to reach epic proportions as different tribes sought to show off their relative power, amidst increasingly constrained resources. When a chief died, statues were commissioned from the volcanic quarry at Rano Raraku, where hard basalt rock provided the tools, and softer compacted ash-volcanic rock the materials. The statues were then transported over land, probably upright, which is why the legend (and some people’s grandparents today!) says they walked, and many of them toppled and broke along the way – toppled moai are dotted all around the island. Arriving at the villages, the statues were erected on ceremonial ‘ahu’ or great stone platforms, with the tomb of the dead chief below. The final touches were added on-site, sometimes coral eyes and a red rock topknot representing hair (not a hat!), separately carved and transported from a completely different quarry at Puna Pau. Statues always faced into the village, to look over the people, and not out to sea, as some artists depicted. The whole process probably took a year to complete and carbon dating shows the statues becoming increasingly large and elaborate, with neck, stomach and back tattoos added to the designs.

A sense of scale – can you see me?!

It must’ve required huge amounts of human effort, the artists and carvers, people to transport and erect the statues. According to my Rapanui guide, resentment between the rich and poor of the island started to create conflict between tribes. Meanwhile, wood cut down for fire and transportation, and rats and sheep trampling on seedlings and eating the palm seeds started to delude the island, creating even more pressure for resources.

When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived in 1770, his reports say many of the moai were standing, but just four years later Captain James Cook’s expedition noted that quite a number had toppled. 1838 was the last time a visitor reported one standing. So, what happened? There were no significant earthquakes or tsunamis that can explain. Many believe that inter-tribal conflict saw them pushed over, most probably fuelled by the dwindling resources for survival. This theory is backed up by the fact that they are nearly all face down, suggesting a deliberate desecration. Or maybe the islanders just got frustrated that their ancestors were no longer providing for them. 

Hundreds of unfinished statues, including one of 21m, are still lying half carved in the rock, or standing but buried up to their necks around the quarry at Rano Raraku, as Thor Heyerdahl’s experimental excavation of one (now filled in again to protect from the harsh elements) proved. Maybe, in a struggle for survival the tribes just ran out of resources to pay the artists and transport, and other priorities took over. 

Ranu Raraku, statues buried up to their necks
Can you imagine how big these might have been?

In 1862 the island was raided by Peru for slaves, over 1500 of fittest people were taken and only a handful returned, also bringing foreign diseases which further decimated the population. The island was in a dire situation. In 1888 chief Atamu Tekena signed a document agreeing to its annexation by Chile. Just as I discovered in the Maori Treaty of Waitangi, the translation into RapaNui leaves quite a bit to be desired in helping islanders understand what they were actually signing up to. The Rapanui were only given full Chilean citizenship in 1966.
However, 150 years later, the infamous moai have given this island a whole new lease of life. Life has changed here considerably in just a few decades – my guide told me his own grandmother grew up in a cave. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of moai have been restored upright to their platforms, with great examples at Tahai near the town Hanga Rao, at Tongariki on the south east coat (some of the largest here) and Anakena on the north coast (not as large but more ornate and better preserved). They are now bringing around 90-100,000 tourists to this island every year, to see the moai, to surf in the gloriously turquoise breakers, and dive in waters that are abundant with fish and turtles and some of the clearest anywhere in the world.

Anakena, where the ruling families lived. Moai here are more ornate. Note the long ears, denoting wealth!

For an island with a population of just 7-8000 residents, the tourist boom is certainly providing employment, reducing its historic isolation, and supporting the continuation of the Rapanui culture. But it must also be creating new resource pressures to provide fuel, clean water and sewage for so many people. Despite the wind, I’ve seen no turbines here, and few solar panels in evidence – all electricity is diesel generated from imported oil. A government subsidy scheme for renewable energy could be a decent investment into longer term sustainability. It may even require some cap on the number of visitors, which is growing exponentially year on year.

Can people learn from the lessons of the past, and steward this island’s natural resources more carefully for future generation? I really hope so because this island, named after the day of Resurrection, with its toppled, buried and re-erected moai, and fascinating cultural story, is a jewel that deserves to keep shining in the Pacific blue skies for all eternity.

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai

(PS. Apologies for this blog’s poor image quality – wifi on Easter Island is slow & limited  so all pics are rather compressed and still took hours to load!)

Carpe the f***ing diem


One week to go til I set off on my big adventure…

So, the idea of taking time out from work is also meant to be a break from my über-planned life to date, in which I’ve never been out of work for a single day since I left university, and slogged away at my great and interesting jobs almost without pause since the summer of 1987.

Throw caution to the winds… throw plans out of the window, and just go with the flow…and see what happens. What turns up.

It lasted about a week.  It turns out I can’t live without a plan. I was almost cracking up with the strain of not knowing what I was about to do next. Lost and anxious. My good friend Shirley in Boston came to the rescue. “Carpe the f***ing diem”, she said.

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