Penguin viewing on Isla Magdalena

Magellanic Penguins on Isla Magdalena

My last stop in Patagonia was Punta Arenas, which I was visiting mostly to use the airport to fly up to Buenos Aires. But Punta Arenas is also a destination in its own right for excursions, primarily to see penguins. While talking to other travelers on the way down, I heard a lot about trips to Isla Magdalena from Punta Arenas, so that was my one goal while I was in town.

Isla Magdalena is literally an island of penguins. Every summer, they migrate from the southern coast of Brazil down to this island, a 4,000 km journey that takes around 2 months in the waters along the coast. Here, they reproduce and raise their chicks until they are strong enough to make the trip back to Brazil in February – April.

To get to Isla Magdalena from Punta Arenas, you take a 2 hour ferry through the Strait of Magellan. There are a number of companies that offer this excursion, but I was worried that I might not be able to go because it was high season and I had not made a reservation ahead of time. Thankfully, the host of my hostel directed me to Comapa, where I was still able to purchase a ticket online for 50,000 pesos ($85).

The ferry left from the Tres Puentes ferry terminal at 2pm. For almost the full two hours on the way there, they broadcasted information about Magellan, Punta Arenas, Isla Magdalena, and the penguins in Spanish and English. A few facts that I caught:

Isla Magdalena is a small island with scarce fauna and only one building, a lighthouse, built in 1902. The average temperature reaches 0 degrees Celsius in the winter and 8 degrees Celsius in the summer, when the penguins live there. One main reason why penguins like this island is because they need lots of daylight to reproduce and fish, and the sun is up from approximately 4:30am to 10:45pm here. Penguins make up most of the inhabitants, but seagulls and other birds also live there, and they are the primary predators of the penguins because they feed on their eggs.

Altogether, the island has something around 58,000 couples of penguins. The males arrive first, in September, and find the previous borough or one that is similar. 15 days later, the females arrive. They lay the eggs, which take 40-45 days to hatch, and the couple takes turns incubating the eggs and raising the chicks. Come February, the chicks molt and are ready to leave the island first. Juveniles (penguins that are 3-4 years old) follow, and the adults are the last to leave the island in April because they need more time to lose their feathers and to recuperate from breeding. They can live up to 25 years, repeating this cycle each year.

The Magellanic penguins are very social, staying in groups to fish. Underwater, they can reach 45km/hr, go to depths of 45m, and stay submerged for up to 3 minutes.

Along with the facts were the rules, which they repeated at least 5 times, just to make sure they are hammered into your brain:

  • Always walk on the path. Do not extend arms or cameras outside the path
  • Do not or sit down on the path because it blocks other people from walking on the path, and because fleas, ticks, and other unidentified critters from the penguins are on the path.
  • No eating, smoking, or throwing garbage.
  • No photos with flash
  • No selfie sticks
  • Stay at least 1 meter away from the penguins, to “not stress them” (exact words)
  • Conaf only allows us visits of up to 1 hour on the island, subject to weather and tides.

Soon, we saw the island in the distance.

Almost exactly at 4pm, we landed on the island. Little dark figures and holes dotted the entire island. Like a dense colony of prairie dogs — but penguins!

There is a circular pathway from the ferry to the lighthouse and back, which we had to stay on and which we had the hour to complete. Even though you are confined to a path, you’re definitely walking amongst the penguins! Sometimes they were just a meter or two away, and sometimes their nests were right on the other side of the rope. I hardly needed my telephoto lens at all for pictures!

Every once in a while, a penguin would decide to cross the path. It would look intently at the other side with an anxious wiggle and scurry across when people stopped to let it through.

It was hard not to snap a picture of every penguin in sight. But the guides from the ferry shepherded us along, giving consistent reminders of “keep moving, please,” and “it’s already been 20 minutes, we need to complete the circuit and be back on the ferry in one hour!”

The circuit itself is so short that you could probably complete it in under 5 minutes with ease, but with all the penguin distractions, an hour flew by like nothing. They are fairly serious about the 1 hour time limit, since we were all ushered back on the ferry in the end. The ferry departed just a little behind schedule, at 5:05pm.

I was sad to leave, but understand the hour time limit. Having human visitors no doubt disturbs the natural environment and the penguins’ activities, and I’m incredulous that we get to visit the island and walk amongst the penguins in the first place. But I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to do it, and I hope that the island can remain mostly unspoiled for centuries to come!

Penguins on the coast of Chiloé

Penguins on the coast of Chiloe

When I first got to Chiloé, the kind host at my hostel explained all of the places to see and activities to do in Chiloé, which was super helpful because I hadn’t done much research beforehand. To my delight, one of the top things to do inChiloé is to see penguins out on the north West Coast of the island. Yes please!

There are two options to go see the penguins: one is to book a tour beforehand, which includes transportation to the beach as well as a guided boat ride for a closer look at the penguins. The second is to take the public bus out to the beach and find a guided boat ride amongst the many companies there. The do-it-yourself approach runs to 11,000 pesos, or $17.70 (even less if you haggle for the tour and hitchhike back, like some of my more hardcore roommates at the hostel). Versus a minimum of 15,000 pesos ($24.15) minimum for the tour, and up to 20,000 pesos ($32.20) if you want it in English. I was tempted to book the tour and simply pay a convenience fee of 4,000 pesos, but couldn’t justify more than that… so I ended up taking the bus instead.

For something that is apparently so popular, getting to the penguins isn’t as easy as I expected. Thankfully the host of the hostel gave me the bus schedule and instructions, because I couldn’t find any specific information online. There was only one bus making one trip a day, leaving from Terminal Rurales at noon (1pm on weekends) and returning at around 5:30pm.

I made my way to Terminal Rural, which can only be described as a warehouse filled with buses to all of the smaller ares of the island (makes sense why the station is called Rural, I guess). The bus that I wanted went to Puñihuil and costed 2000 pesos ($3.22).

The warehouse bus terminal

A little less than an hour later, we arrived at the Puñihuil bus stop. More accurately, the bus drove off of the road and right onto the beach, where we got out and took in the beautiful sight of a sandy black beach dotted with small green islands.

As expected, there were many companies offering tours, but I had gotten a recommendation the previous day from fellow travelers at the hostel who had found a company with guides that spoke English. So along with two of the only fellow English speakers on the bus, we headed for Turismo Huaihuen.

For 7000 pesos, or $11.30, (I tried the haggling thing, and it didn’t work), we bought the half hour boat tour in English. We had just arrived at the same time as a bus-full of middle school aged children, though, so we were all put on a boat together.

Our English-speaking guide doubled as the Spanish guide as well, he just simply repeated what he said in English. Or forgot to, until I asked him about the couple of Spanish words I picked up from his most recent explanation.

To get on and off the boat, the companies use a very unconventional method: they load the passengers on what is basically an elevated cart, and workers push the cart out into the water to where the boat is waiting. I guess in the absence of a dock, this is not a bad option!

We zoomed out to the small islands, where the penguins were hanging out close to the shore. The boat floated about 5 meters away, in perfect range for my telephoto lens.

A couple of penguin facts:

  • We saw two types of penguins, the Humboldt and the Magellanic. They look very similar because they come from the same family and can even intermix, but you can tell them apart because the Humboldt has one stripe and is more grayish in color, whereas the Magellanic has two stripes and is more black.
  • The penguins start reproducing at about 4 years old, and can live for more than 20-25 years.
  • The penguins supposedly have one mate for life, but if that mate happens to not make it’s way back, the egg’s gotta be fertilized, man. So the penguin is not so choosy about its replacement mate at that point, and a lot of hybrid penguins might result.
  • From one study where they put a GPS on a Magellanic penguin, they found that it dove underwater for 3 minutes to a depth of 100 meters. 1.5 minutes to make its way down, 25 seconds to swim and catch a fish, and another minute to resurface.

Occasionally a penguin would jump in the water, but it would need to contemplate it first:

Along with the penguins, we also saw all kinds of other wildlife!

The Cormorans, who can both dive to a depth of 25 meters and fly.

The flightless steamer duck, which is the largest duck in South America. From a distance, it looked like it was at least 2-3 times the size of a normal duck.

Pelicans

And vultures!

This area is definitely teeming with wildlife. When we went to the souvenir shop afterward, the guide showed us wildlife pictures that he took himself, of whales and various birds and otters. Unfortunately, the otters all died out a couple of years ago because a local salmon factory dumped a lot of waste in the area, which raised the toxins in all of the shellfish and poisoned the otters, who rely on shellfish as their main food source. Hopefully the rest of the wildlife (especially the penguins) are safe and being protected somehow.

The boat tour ended much too quickly, and suddenly my new companions and I found ourselves back on the beach at 2pm, with no transport back until 5:30. I could see why some other people hitchhiked, because it was pretty chilly on the beach! We walked around a bit, and then went inside a restaurant to eat and wait for the bus.

At 5pm we went back out to the beach, since we didn’t want to miss our one and only chance to get back to Ancud. We weren’t so sure that this bus was going to come, but thankfully other people arrived to wait with us. There was also a man with a walky talky assuring us “5 minutes” every 5 minutes, so we were somewhat less worried.

The walky talky man pointed at the other end of the beach and said that the bus would come from that direction. But from where…? We had hiked out to the far end, where it just turned into rocks, and there were no roads going up inland from the beach except for the one we came on, which we were standing at. But lo and behold, a little past 5:30, the bus out of nowhere towards us on the beach. I wonder if it just parked here somewhere and waited? If that was the case, it could have left earlier. Just saying.

It was a long day with surprisingly few tourists, but a worthy one! The couple that I talked to had seen the penguins on Magdalena Island, but they also agreed that it was a worthy trip. Here, you can see the penguins in a completely different and unexpected environment, among a lot of other wild birds. The public transport options aren’t great (read: there are none), but I’m also just glad that there was public transport!

Preparing Curanto al Hoyo, a Traditional Chilean Dish

Traditional curanto in Chiloe

I booked a week in Chiloé, an island off of the lake region of Chile, and was concerned that it might have been too much time to dedicate to the island. But after arriving in Ancud and getting a rundown by the host in the hostel of all the things to do on the island, my itinerary for the week filled up quickly. One of the unexpected treats of Chiloé was curanto, a traditional dish that I got the opportunity to both prepare and taste.

Curanto is an ultimate meat-lover dish of mussels, clams, pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, and bread. Or, put another way, a gout sufferer’s nightmare. It’s cooked with hot stones in a hole in the ground, without any seasoning.

A big plate of curanto

The hostel introduced me to Luis and the other friendly people at El Meson Chilote, one of the only restaurants that cooks the curanto the pure, traditional way and does it year round. I think. Disclaimer: my entire time spent with El Meson Chilote was in Spanish, and since I had an estimated 40% comprehension rate, a lot of things went straight over my head and some might just be slightly wrong.

To begin with, we went to a secluded beach to pick the nalca leaves that are used to cover the curanto (at first I thought that Luis, our guide, was saying “narco,” but upon plugging that into the translator app in my phone, figured out pretty quickly that it was not the case).

Nalca plants growing on the beach

The nalca is a Chilean rhubarb that grows all throughout the area. It is used for the curanto because it can withstand high temperatures, adds flavor to the food, and a third reason that I didn’t quite pick up and could only interpret to be that the nalca doesn’t explode. We went to the beach specifically to get the nalca because beach-side nalca allegedly added some sea-infused flavor.

Luis hacked off around 12 leaves, and we carried them back to the van. They’re pretty big!

Back at the restaurant, he showed us the hoyo (hole) of the curanto al hoyo. While we were out picking the leaves, they had already lit a fire with the stones to heat them up. Luis quickly picked out all of the wood, and then began the preparation process.

Hot stones ready to go for the curanto

First, he poured in 3 buckets of seafood, clams and mussels. Then potatoes, chicken, pork, sausage, and finally pieces of bread. All a very quick process, completed in less than 2 minutes!

Adding meat on top of the seafood layer
Covering the meat layer with a leaf before adding the bread

As a last step, Luis covered the pile with the leaves that we had picked, and then put pieces of earth – champa? – on top to keep the steam from escaping. Voila, done! And now we waited for it to cook.

Topping the curanto with leaves and packed earth

During the wait, we were given drinks (I think of pisco mixed with juice from the nalca, but I’m not exactly sure. Probably should have ascertained before I drank it).

Mystery (but very good) drink

Luis gave us an explanation of curanto and its history. All in Spanish. I caught some things but not a lot, which killed me because I’m the weirdo that takes detailed notes on all of the tours. But here’s a shot at some curanto history and background that may or may not be true:

Curanto dates back to almost 7,000 years ago, and is a pre-historic food developed by the Chono people of Chiloe island. We know this because a 10,100-year-old (maybe, I’m not completely confident with numbers) petrified curanto was found with the same nalca leaves and seafood.

Originally, curanto consisted of just seafood. But 5,000 years later, the Chono people mixed with the Mapuche on the mainland, and they started cultivating potatoes, which were added to the mix. All of the other ingredients came even later:

Bread – 200 years ago
Meat (chicken, pork) – 500 years ago
Potatoes – 2,000 years ago
Seafood – almost 7,000 years ago

Unfortunately, vegetables never got added to the mix, unlike the cozido of the Azores.

An hour and a half passed by quickly (or, you know, not, if you were trying desperately to hang on to and interpret every word), and soon the curanto was almost done. I asked Luis how he knew, and he said it was a mixture of three things: checking the temperature of the dirt layer, looking at the water droplets that have formed on the dirt due to condensation, and intuition.

The unraveling process:

Curanto unwrapped

And the feast that we were waiting for!

I didn’t need to understand Spanish to enjoy the curanto, though I do wish I could have understood more of the history ofChiloé that Luis explained, since it would have made a great introduction to the area. Regardless, it was altogether a wonderful meal and a great treat. Afterwards, I did have to skip dinner, load up on fruits, and do an extended workout session. But worth it!

Hiking in Huerquehue National Park

Lago Torre in Huerquehue National Pakr

Nearby Pucón is Huerquehue National Park (pronounced something like “were-que-weh,” though I haven’t heard anyone say the actual name out loud yet). No companies mention it or offer tours to go there, presumably because they can’t make any money from it. But the park is very easy to get to via bus, and from an online search I saw that there are a couple of good hikes.

There is only one bus that goes out to Huerquehue, with the first trip at 8:30pm. I found bus information on this site, and made my way there in the morning.

Entrance to Huerquehue National Park

The bus took about an hour and dropped us off at the front gate of the park, where we paid the entrance fee (5000 pesos, or $8 for foreigners). There were two rangers there to help explain the trails in the park. The two most popular ones are the Los Lagos Trail and the San Sebastian trail, but unfortunately the top part of Los Lagos and the entire San Sebastián trail were closed because of snow. Thankfully the bottom loop of Los Lagos, which took an estimated 5 hours, was still open.

The first half of the trail ran along a lake and though an area with some campsites, services, and other construction for an hour or so. Then it goes upward into the forest, where you reach a second “Welcome to Huerquehue” gate with an empty ranger station and a bathroom.

A second “Welcome to Huerquehue” gate

This is where the climb starts, about an hour and a half of zig zagging up the mountain.

Along the way are viewpoints of Volcan Villarrica in the distance:

And there are two waterfalls that are both about 15 minutes out of the way down into a nearby valley, but are definitely worth the side trip. They also splatter you with cold mist if you need cooling down!

A detour to the Nido de Aguila waterfall

Finally, the trail reaches the first lake, Lago Chico. It’s crystal clear and looks extremely inviting…

First glimpse of Lago Chico

And apparently it is, as a stray friend tested out.

My hiking buddy that went for a dip in Lago Chico

The trail flattens out from there, and leads to the two other lakes:

Lago Verde, where I sat and had lunch by the water.

Lago Verde

And Lago Torro, a beautiful view that I was loathe to leave behind.

Lago Torre

I had to start down fairly quickly, though. There are only two return buses in the afternoon until they add a third, later bus in December (and I just happened to go on November 30, go figure): one at 2:10pm and one at 5:10pm. The one at 2:10pm seemed a little tight, but then waiting another 3 hours for. 5:10pm seemed like a long time… I had made great time going up, so I figured I would shoot for the first one.

I left the top at 12:30pm and planned to leisurely make my way down. This worked quite well, until I got to the 2nd ranger station with 20 minutes left to spare and the realization that I had severely underestimated the length of the first half of the hike before the climb started. I half ran down part of it, and then finally resolved that I would rather miss the bus than risk injury.

2:10pm came and went, and what little hope I was holding onto that the bus might have perhaps waited was dashed when I heard a loud engine in the distance at 2:16pm. Surely that was the bus leaving, and I was so close! I arrived at the entrance at 2:25pm, just 15 minutes after the bus departure time.

But lo and behold, I saw a bus sitting just beyond the gate. Could it be the 2:10pm bus, or just the next bus waiting to leave at 5:10pm? I approached the bus and asked the driver what time he was going to leave, and he replied, “right now.” I couldn’t believe my luck!

“Not many people on the 2 o’clock bus, huh?” I asked, and he said “nadie.” Why, I wondered, did they have this bus then? I guessed because the bus needs to make the return trip. But as we wound down the road, I started to understand. Locals stood by the side of the road waiting for the bus, and they all personally greeted the driver and the other passengers when they came onboard. This first afternoon bus must be a key part of the daily life and schedule of the locals that live near the national park.

20 minutes later, I was passed out. When I opened my eyes again, we were back at the bus station in Pucón – I must have been much more tired than I thought. I made it back early, but it was definitely a rushed hike. There’s a reason no one aims for the 2:10pm bus. I learned my lesson: leave plenty of time, and you’d rather wait at the bus station (or, better yet, up at the amazing view) than rush to try to make an earlier bus.

Termas in Pucon

There are hot springs all around Pucón, and visiting hot springs is one of the biggest activities to do here. All of the big tour groups offer several termas packages, some combined with other tours of the area and some just to the hot springs and back.

The most popular hot spring is Termas Geometricas, which also, unsurprisingly, is the most expensive. It costs 35,000 pesos ($56) to go to because it is a large collection of the most natural pools, and it’s located about a 2 hour drive out of Pucón one way. However, that sounded a little steep to me for a couple of hours in a hot spring, so I decided to pass.

Luckily, there is a public bus that goes to a bunch of the other hot springs. I got a recommendation from my hostel to go to Los Pozones, at the end of the bus line, because it was natural while some of the other hot springs were composed of mostly manmade pools.

I found information about the bus to the hot springs on this super helpful site. The first bus left Pucón at 10:30am and costed only 1500 pesos ($2.40). About an hour later, it dropped us off at Los Pozones, and the bus driver told us that the next bus back would be at 2:30pm.

The bus between Pucon and Los Pozones

Very well timed, because there is 3 hour maximum stay in the hot springs themselves. That’s about as long as I can imagine staying in a hot spring anyway, so that’s perfect!

It costs 8,000 pesos ($12.90) to get in before 8pm, and 10,000 pesos ($16.10) after 8pm. This is apparently the place to go for a night soak, and I saw companies offering a night excursion here, leaving at 9pm and returning around 1am. Well, I was sure I wasn’t missing out on too much by going during the day.

Entrance to the Los Pozones hot springs

After paying for the ticket, you walk down a ways to the hot spring.

Path down to the hot springs of Los Pozones

Los Pozones has five pools total, all of varying temperatures. The first one you come across is also the biggest one, and the hottest. I couldn’t stand to be in there for more than two or three minutes.

As you move inward, the pools generally get cooler and cooler. The second hottest pool is titled “Sol de enero,” the January sun, and for good reason. It’s also hot, but closer to standard hot tub temperature, so you can stay in it for up to about 5 minutes.

All the way at the end is the coolest pool, Agua de Luna. It’s cooler, but still warm, and it’s also the deepest pool that you can swim around in. Coming here in between hot soaks is a nice refreshing break.

Soaking in one of the pools. Had it all to myself!

There were very few people total, since it was mostly just the people who arrived by bus and a few other people who drove themselves over. Thus, in most of the pools, I was either the only person or I shared the pool with 3 other people at most. Night time soaks might be most popular here, but I think going in the day is the time to go.

Surprisingly, 3 hours passed by extremely fast. Soaking in the hot springs was a great way to relax after a long day’s hike up the volcano, and good preparation for the next day’s excursion. And as a plus, I had avoided the high prices and crowds at Termas Gerometricas while still getting a great experience. Definitely recommend Los Pozones!

Hiking the (Active!) Villarrica Volcano in Pucon

Pucón is a small, touristy mountain town in Chile where you can book a variety of excursions and activities, from rafting to hot springs to national park visits. The most popular activity, however, is climbing to the summit of the Villarrica Volcano, which makes a beautiful backdrop for the town on clear days:

The Villarrica volcano is just one of the 2,000+ volcanos in Chile, and one of the only 500+ active ones. The last eruption was in 2015, when the volcano shot lava 3km high. It’s closely monitored for potential future eruptions, and there is a special volcano alert system in town:

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to climb to the top of the volcano, and you can do it in a day trip. You need special gear and a guide, though, which costs around 80,000 CLP no matter which agency you book with. There are probably around a hundred agencies to choose from, because every second shop seems to be a tour agency that offers the volcano tour. I chose one called Antu becuase it only had 5 star reviews, and more than 100 of them.

For all of the volcano tours, you have to be in Pucón the day before in order to get fitted for equipment. At 7:30 on the day before the climb, I went to the Antu office, met some fellow climbers, and got shuttled to the owner’s house a little outside Pucón, where all the gear was kept.

Volcano climbing gear
Volcano climbing gear

The hiking boots are the most important piece of gear, and I was worried that they might not have shoes small enough to fit me. But thankfully the owner had a 13 year old daughter who wore US size 4 shoes, so I lucked out. Although they would have found shoes that fit elsewhere regardless, since there was also a Brazilian man in the group with the opposite problem – they had to bring in special European size 48 shoes for him.

While we were there, the staff also showed us the gear that they provided and helped pack it for us:

  • 30ish Liter backpack to fit all the gear and any personal items we wanted to bring
  • “Diaper,” a piece of thick cloth that wrapped around your butt and thighs, to slide down on
  • Piece of plastic to slide down on
  • Thick water resistant pants
  • Windbreaker jacket
  • Buff
  • Bandana
  • Work gloves
  • Water resistant gloves
  • Crampons
  • Gas mask

In addition to the gear, they gave us a list of recommended items to bring:

  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Fleece
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Leggings/hiking pants
  • At least 2L of water (I don’t drink much water, so I found this to be way too much and ended up carrying an entire liter of water up and back down again)
  • Lunch
  • Snacks
  • 10,000 CLP if we wanted to ride the lift

With that, they sent us back, with instructions to be ready for pick up at our accommodations at 6:30 the following morning.

Come 6:30am, we were taken back to the owner’s house to pack the backpacks with our personal items. When everyone was ready, we all piled into a big van that drove about 30 minutes to the base of the volcano. This was as far up as cars could get, so it was the starting point for all of the other tours as well.

Starting point for the hike up the Villarrica Volcano

We hiked the first 30 minutes or so on rocky gravel, until we arrived at the base of a chair lift. The lift is not always open, depending on weather conditions. But when it is, it costs 10,000 pesos ($16) and bypasses 400 vertical meters, or around 1 to 1.5 hours of hiking. It’s totally optional, but I’ve read accounts of people who decided not to take the lift and then had to increase their pace for the rest of the hike in order to make the summit. It seemed a worthy investment to me, and to the rest the group as well.

Riding the chairlift with our packs in the front

From the top of the chairlift onward, we hiked on snow. The guides instructed us to hike in single file, following the pre-made footsteps in the snow. They also told us to use the ice picks as shortened walking sticks, always on the uphill side. Just like this, we slowly zigzagged up in a single line, like a long caterpillar making acute angles.

Hiking up the volcano in single file

Along the way, we saw smoke rings rise from the volcano crater above. Our guide explained that only 10 volcanos in the world produce rings like this, as the conditions have to be just right. An auspicious day indeed!

The fading smoke ring

Halfway up, when we took a break on the ridge, I had a bit of a problem…what do you do if you need to pee? There were no facilities, of course, and I hadn’t expected any. But there wasn’t exactly anything to hide behind, either. I raised my issue with the guide, and he found the next best solution: we hiked about 50m away from the rest of the group, where I got a bit of privacy behind a small ridge.

And a side benefit, I also got a good photo op with nobody in the background:

The second half of the hike up was decidedly harder than the first. Maybe because we had used up a lot of energy, and maybe also because it got steeper and steeper. I was really glad at this point that I had taken the chairlift and saved valuable energy to use here instead.

The view made it worth it!

Right before going to the summit, we left our backpacks in a pile, taking only our cameras and the gas mask just in case.

Up at the top, we slowly approached the crater. Unlike the rest of the volcano, the crater has no snow on it, so you can see all of the rocks in a multitude of colors. This, we were warned, was the most dangerous part of the volcano. There are no guardrails, and some areas that might look solid could still be dangerous. So we followed our guide up in single file, taking great care to stand far away from the crater.

You have to get close enough to the crater, though, to see what truly makes this volcano unique: a big red hole at the center of the crater that blows smoke and occasionally lava!

Lava from the crater of the volcano

The best mini-eruption we saw:

Apparently it’s not always possible to see lava, and sometimes you can only stay at the crater for just long enough to snap a picture before you have to descend. We were lucky because we were able to stay at the summit for 15 minutes, see lava, and also make do without using our gas masks because the wind mostly blew in the other direction. There were times when we caught a whiff of the gas, though, and I can absolutely believe that the gas masks would be a necessity!

When we had all gotten our fill of the summit, we moved on to the other highly anticipated activity: sliding (formally, glissading) down the volcano. I think more than a few of us, myself included, were not so sure about this part. All along the way up we passed chutes that we guessed we would be using later, and they didn’t look the most comfortable or safe.

But it was time. We put on our gear, and the guides gave us a quick briefing on how to slide down. Bend your knees as you slide. Hold the ice pick on your side, so far back that it’s almost behind you. Stick the end of the pick into the snow behind your butt, and press down on it to slow down. Simple enough, I guess…

Geared up to slide down the volcano

My first slide was not super successful. I started off sliding just fine, but soon completely lost control. I mean flailing like a starfish and unable to control my speed out of control… but at least I still managed to hold onto my ice pick. They didn’t tell us what to do in this situation (flip around on your stomach and lean into the end of the ice pick, which I got from my dad later), since I guess they figured we couldn’t realistically be out of control for too long. Thankfully that turned out to be right, andthe hill soon flattened out a bit so I could recover my speed. Not the dignity, though, that was left somewhere up the mountain.

For the next few slides, I gradually figured things out. By the time I got a good grasp on it and started having lots of fun, though, the hill had majorly flattened out. Even using the plastic, which helped us slide better, at some points it was all I could do to keep moving forward by leaning back and rowing myself down on both sides.

Some tips for glissading that I wish I had figured out sooner:

  • Keep your knees together. For the first few slides, I found that I was accumulating basically all of the chute debris between my legs. There was a small avalanche of snow, piled up to a meter long, that I was pushing down the hill. This slowed me down quite a bit, until I could get some of the snow out of my way. How? By keeping your knees together, as the guides had originally instructed. This allows the snow to move to the sides, out of your way. Ah.
  • Leaning back makes you go faster. Counterintuitively, you’re more in control when you lean forward, whereas leaning back gives you less control. I learned this from skiing but apparently forgot it when it comes to glissading. Learned it again quite quickly though.
  • Bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the ground to go faster. Again, this reduces the friction and prevents snow accumulation.

Before we knew it, we were already almost at the bottom! At about halfway down the chairlift, we ran out of hill to glissade, so we had to make the rest of the trip by foot. It was another 1 hour or so before we reached the bottom. Around 5 hours up, and 2 hours back. Not bad at all.

We all piled into the van again and went back to the owner’s house to return and sort all the gear. He invited us up to the roof for a beer and some snacks, a great end to the excursion.

Post-climb celebration

Without a doubt, this trip up the Villarrica volcano has been one of the highlights of my trip thus far. I couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, the smoke ring, and the lava. Seems some of my good travel karma finally paid off!

Hiking from Anakena to Hanga Roa, a third of the way around Easter Island

Because I had a few extra days on Easter Island, I looked into other activities that I could do. The first one being — of course — hiking, since It’s one of the cheapest activities and I seem to have a penchant for finding mountains (or hills) to climb wherever I am.

The company that I booked the sightseeing tours with offered a few hikes around the island, including one that wrapped all the way around the coast from Anakena beach (in the NE) back to Hanga Roa (the main town, in the SW), covering about 1/3 of the circumference of the island. The hike followed the coastline through some archaeological sites that were inaccessible by vehicles, and it took an estimated 5-7 hours. Sold! The only problem was that it costed $180 to do the hike with a private guide...yikes.

But some research yielded that it was entirely possible to do the hike on your own. After all, it’s basically impossible to get lost, since all you have to do is walk along the shore line in one direction. How bad could it be? I was up for the challenge!

Transportation

The main logistical problem with the hike is transportation. Turns out that hiring a private taxi to go anywhere outside of Hanga Roa, even to go one way, is very expensive. I also wanted to go back to the quarry at Rano Raraku (to see it on a sunny day, since it rained when I went there on the tour) before getting dropped at Anakena, and the taxi company fare for this proposed itinerary was 50,000 CLP (almost $80). That was higher than the price for some full day tours!

I figured that I could probably get a better rate by asking taxi drivers directly, and if not, then there was no harm done either. So I went to town and flagged down random taxis, leading with “No es para ahora, pero tengo una pregunta para mañana” (“Not for now, but I have a question for tomorrow”). It worked - I got a quote of 40,000 CLP ($64) and finally one for 32,000 CLP ($51). I snagged that last one, with fingers crossed that I had managed to communicate all the accurate details in Spanish. I learned lots of Spanish in high school but also never practiced it after, so traveling in Chile has been quite a test of what I remember (answer: not much, but bits and pieces are coming back).

The taxi driver agreed to pick me up the next morning at 9am. I waited outside at 8:55, and at 9:20 was just about to give up and start the taxi courting process again when he appeared. Phew! Despite a later start than I had requested, everything else went according to plan. The driver took me to Rano Raraku, waited outside for me for an hour, and then dropped me off at Anakena. Seems my Spanish isn’t so terrible after all.

Anakena

Apart from being the starting point for the hike, Anakena is also a gorgeous beach - and one of the island’s only sandy beaches. There are palm trees, white sand, turquoise waters, everything you would expect from and island paradise!

But my main interest was in going hiking, not going to the beach, so I stayed just long enough to soak in the beauty and fuel up with a tuna empanada before setting off at 12:30.

Fuel for the hike

The hike

The road at the start of the hike, running down the West side of Anakena

The beautiful ocean scenery starts right away

Burial site with flowers

0 hours, 0 minutes

The hike starts right from Anakena, up a road that comes in from the west. The first thing I see on the road is a campground, and then ruins from an old village, including a burial area with flowers.

I mean you no harm...

The road goes on

0 hours, 20 minutes

Still on the road, I pass through a herd of grazing cows. Cows get a little unnerving when they all turn and stare at you until you pass out of sight, and I am all of a sudden very aware of the additional risk of being gored by a bull.

Unidentified (by me) petroglyph

0 hours, 40 minutes

The road ends, and I stumble upon a petroglyphs carved in one of the rocks. Not entirely sure what it is, but pretty sure it’s a petroglyph!

The first ahu

Yellow rocks built into the ahu

0 hours, 50 minutes

I find the first pile of rocks that I can easily identify as an ahu, with chunks of yellow rock that likely used to be Moai.

An abandoned ranch

1 hour, 40 minutes

Brightly colored, moving dots appear in the distance near what looks like a ranch, the first building I've seen in more than an hour. Could it be...? Yes, people! They also left from Anakena earlier in the morning and are on their way back. Their goal was not to go all the way to Hanga Roa, but to go moai hunting off the beaten path along the coast.

I feel slightly guilty because I’d been too busy admiring the sea to keep an eye out for moai. But I resolve to do a better job of looking out for archaeological artifacts thereafter.

The moai I almost missed

2 hours, 15 minutes

Not much luck on the Moai front, even though I’ve been more conscious about scanning for them. I see two more dots in the distance, higher up on the hill than me. They pause, maybe to take a break, and I figure I might as well hike up to them to say hi.

Only when I get within 10 feet of them do I realize that the rock they’re standing next to is a Moai. Wow, I’m doing a great job at this. Lucky they were there, or I would have passed it completely.

Inside the cave with Make Make carvings

Make Make carvings, as advertised

A close up of a Make Make carving (definitely a phallic symbol)

2 hours, 50 minutes

I check maps.me and see lots of sites marked in the area. Some of them are not entirely accurate (which I should have guessed, given that some ahus are marked in the ocean), but I investigate a pinpoint marked as a cave and labeled “w/ Make Make carvings,” and, to my surprise, find exactly what was advertised.

Fallen moai at Ahu Vaimata
Fallen moai at Ahu Vaimata
Fallen moai at Ahu Vaimata
A moai that almost made it to Ahu Vaimata
200m away from the ahu - so close, but yet so far!
Remains of a boat house next to the abandoned moai

3 hours, 20 minutes

Given the success of the cave, I see another point up on the hill marked “Moai” and decide to investigate. I go almost half an hour out of my but can’t seem to reach it, and eventually give up.

10 minutes later, though, I do stumble across Ahu Vaimata: a Moai abandoned facedown, just 200m or so away from an ahu with lots of other toppled Moai.

The narrow strip of storm clouds, right over my head

Toppled moai

3 hours, 45 minutes

Rain. What?? The forecast was supposed to be clear! But there is one narrow strip of rain clouds that formed as the clouds hit the side of the volcano that I’m walking around, and of course, I happen to be right under it.

And, of course, it follows me. For the better part of an hour. Of course.

But I pass another toppled moai along the way. 

Moai heads facing upwards

Horses by the coast

4 hours 45 minutes

While still drying off from the rain, I find a big Ahu with multiple fallen Moai. Now here’s an archaeological site!

Ana Te Pora cave entrance

Inside the deep Ana Te Pora cave

5 hours, 15 minutes

All of a sudden, I encounter a sign that announces that I’ve arrived at Ana Te Pora. I enter the cave and find a gigantic cavern that’s got to be more than 40m long, though I am too nervous to go more than 10m deep inside it.

The narrow entrance to Ana Kakenga
The two windows at Ana Kakenga
View through one of the windows at Ana Kakenga

5 hours, 30 minutes

A little ways down, I come across an entire group of middle aged Chilean ladies. The sudden appearance of people comes as a bit of a shock, and I don’t see any cars or moai in sight. I try my best to ask what they’re doing here and they point me to another cave, which I find out from a sign is Ana Kakenga, a.k.a the “cave of two windows."

This one is narrow, unlike the one I just visited, but it has two openings that lead to the cliffs. A natural dwelling with a seaside view!

First parking lot I passed

Beautiful view down the coast

Town coming up in the distance!

6 hours, 0 minutes

Are those — yes, they are! — cars! Meaning (1) I’m close to roads, but also (2) still far enough from town that people prefer to drive to get there. That second point is just a tad disheartening.

Tahai Moai
Couldn't be happier to see Tahai!

Tahai Moai
Tahai, the final end of the hike

6 hours, 45 minutes

At last, Tahai! The popular sunset moai site on the edge of town, just a mere 10 minutes away from my guesthouse. Arriving at 7:15pm, 6 hours and 45 minutes after I set out from Anakena, I make it here much closer to sunset than I’d originally intended.

Overall a rewarding hike, but most definitely not one to be underestimated. Usually when I see estimates for hiking time, I fall on the shorter side of the spectrum and often manage to beat the beat the estimate. This was the first time I clocked in on the longer side, closer to 7 hours than 5, and I wasn’t sure how to feel…but I don’t know if it would have been possible for me to make 5 hours, even if I knew where everything was and headed straight for it.

Besides, the exploration was all part of the fun. I do, however, recommend going with at least one other person, just in case you twist an ankle on a rock hidden in the grass, get caught in a crumbling cave, or, god forbid, get gored by a bull. But if you have a spare day on Easter Island and haven’t gotten your fill of archaeological sites, this hike is a great way to visit the less accessible sites of Easter Island.

The Birdman Cult of Easter Island

Houses at Orongo

Easter Island is mainly famous for its moai, but it also had a lesser known period of history called the Birdman Cult period. The Birdman Cult emerged in the mid-1700s after the moai-based social order collapsed, and had its own fascinating traditions.

Once a year, all of the clans on the island would gather for a competition to decide who would hold the political, economic, and military power of the island for the next year. They each chose representatives who competed, sometimes to the death, to be the first to bring a particular bird egg back intact to his king. That king then became the Tangata Manu, the one with all of the mana and power for the next year. For more history of the Birdman Cult and Easter Island in general, click here.

Orongo

Orongo was the ceremonial center of the Birdman Cult period. It sits on the side of Rano Kau, an extinct volcano, and looks down to the small islands where the competitions took place.

Birdman cult competition islands from Orongo
Motu Nui Island where the Birdman competitions took place

During the competition, the kings, queens, and priests gathered and lived here to watch. On average the competition lasted 3-4 days, though on at least one occasion it lasted as long as 3 weeks.

Houses at Orongo

The houses here were small and flat, with only a couple of small crawl holes for entrances. They hardly seem fit for kings, but they also make sense – if the leaders of rivaling clans are all gathered here in one spot, safety’s got to be a big priority. You would only need one person – even someone as small as me – to guard the crawl hole, and no one could go in or out.

Houses at Orongo
Ceremonial houses at Orongo
Houses at Orongo
Inside a ceremonial house at Orongo

During other times of the year, the village emptied but was sometimes occupied by scribes. Scribes of the Birdman Cult developed the only form of Polynesian written language. However, the language died out after about 100 years because the masters were kidnapped during the slave raids of the 1800s.

Orongo has a lot of art, both painted inside the houses and carved into rocks around the area. The Birdman petroglyphs was the main motif, but there were also heads and symbols of Make Make.

Petroglyph at Orongo
Clearest accessible birdman petroglyph at Orongo

Rano Kau

Right next to Orongo is the Rano Kau crater, 1.5 km wide with a 1km wide lagoon that is 11 meters deep. The patches of green in the lagoon are water weeds that originated in South America, which is evidence that the Rapa Nui had contact with the continent.

Rano Kau crater

Rano Kau crater

The oldest evidence of humans on the island is also found here in the lagoon, where layers have accumulated over time. A 3000 year old layer contained pollen of banana and taro root, two plants that could not have been present on the island unless they had been brought over by humans. They might have tried to colonize the island and died off or only used the island as a waystation to reprovision. However, no human artifacts or remains were found to substantiate the claim that humans were on the island 3000 years ago.

Ana Kai Tangata

Ana Kai Tangata was a nearby cave that was also part of the Birdman Cult ceremonies. Here, the kings of each clan revealed their Hopu Manu, the warriors that would represent them in the competition.

This cave is also one of the rare places where you can see Birdman paintings. However, in recent years, the cave has started to crumble, so you’re advised to get in, snap a picture, and then quickly get out!

The Moai of Easter Island

This is a collection of the moai and ahus (ceremonial platforms) that I saw visited around Easter Island. For facts and history of the moai, click here.

Anakena

Anakena is one of the only landing harbors on Easter Island, and it is the one that King Hotu Matu’a and the original settlers used when they arrived on the island. The clan that subsequently lived here was historically powerful, both because they were direct descendants of the king and because they had a monopoly of the harbor.

The moais at Anakena are about 50m in from the beach.

This single moai was made earlier than the rest, in the 1300s. It is special because it was the first moai to be re-erected in history. Two local men told archaeologists of an old pry-and-wedge method, and they successfully used it to re-erect the moai in 17 days with only 12 workers. Today, most believe that the Rapa Nui originally used this method to erect all of the moai.

The row of moai hail from the 1400s. Their backs are decorated with carved loincloths and spiral designs on the butts, which is not seen on many moai. However, it’s possible that all of the moai originally had designs like this on their backs, and they are simply no longer there because the statues were toppled face-down, so the backs eroded more.


 

Rano Raraku

 

Moai at Rano Raraku

Rano Raraku is the volcano that served as the standardized quarry for the Moai, and it is where more than half of the Moai still remain today. Some of the Moai are still half carved into the mountain, while others dot the hillside. These abandoned Moai, left in various stages of production, supply key information as to how the Moai were made.

The standing Moai were originally just buried at the base for the final touches. But the mountain has eroded around them over time, so now only the faces are showing. Archaeologists have dug up some of the statues and found that under the ground, they are almost perfectly preserved with smooth yellow skin and intricately carved hands. But these have been covered up again to preserve them.

The largest moai that is fully finished and ready to transport is Piro Piro, which stands at 38ft tall. It never left the quarry, however, as funds probably ran out before it could be transported.

The overall largest moai ever attempted is El Gigante, which still lies embedded into the mountain side. If finished, it would measure something around 70ft tall and 280 tons. Experts say that workers likely would never have been able to move this statue with the technology they had, something that the masters and stoneworkers must have known at the time. Thus, this might have been a classic project to keep the workers busy during the decline of the Moai period.

Towards the end of the moai period, there was almost serial production of the moai. This can be seen in areas like these, where there are 5 moai carved in a space of less than 5x5 meters.

Another cool feature of this area is the negative of a moai face that is in the corner (difficult to see in the picutre). Here is where the archaeologist Heryerdahl carved a test moai to determine how hard the stone was and how difficult the Mmoai would have been to carve.

Moai Tuku Turi is one of the rare kneeling Moai. There were many kneeling statues before 1200, but once a single quarry was standardized and the statues had to travel long distances, the standing statues became the standard because they were most efficient to transport.

This statue dates from the 1300s, and legend goes that it is of a master carver that was cursed to be crippled by the same witch that made the statues walk. It was found after a local man told the archaeologists that there was a statue here that was different than the others. Shortly after, the same local man suffered a stroke or a like illness and was paralyzed from the waist down. Some say this was a curse from the statue for exhibiting its shame.

More pictures of Rano Raraku:


 

Ahu Tongariki

Ahu Tongariki at sunrise

Ahu Tongariki

Right next to Rano Raraku is Tongariki, the most impressive lineup of moai on the island with 15 moai standing in a row. This is a popular place to watch the sunrise, which I was fortunate enough to do with new friends from the hostel.

The biggest currently standing moai is here, weighing in at 72 tons and 30ft tall. It is among the statues made during the richest period, numbers 11 and up from left to right. Statues 4-10 were the oldest statues, while statues 1-3 were the last to be made. The decline of the economy is clearly reflected in statues 3, 2, and 1, as each statue was smaller than the last.

This entire area was completely wiped out in 1960, when a 9.6 earthquake in Chile caused tsunamis which even reached Hawaii and Japan. Here on Easter Island, there were 10m tall waves. Thankfully, no one was hurt because the tsunami hit the East side of the island, where nobody lived, but Tongariki was right in the path of the tsunami.

The ahu (platform beneath the moai) was totally destroyed. All 15 moai originally had topknots, which were also damaged beyond repair. But the moai themselves were fortunately saved because the people had toppled them facedown and they had accumulated dirt around them. During the tsunami, they were not knocked over, moved, or otherwise beaten around. In 1992-1996, Tongariki was restored, with the ahu rebuilt as a replica of the original one.

Also at Tongariki is a separate statue that stands on its own. This is the traveling moai, a moai ambassador of sorts that was exhibited in different places in the world to teach people about and generate interest in Easter Island.

When the tsunami destroyed the ahu, it unearthed some pieces of older statues that had been built into the surrounding area. One of these pieces is an unusual moai that had a small torso with stubby hands. Because the moai represent idealized beauty, this was very strange and likely intentional. One of the theories is that this could have been a dwarf that was born into nobility and ended up as a leader, a la Tyrion Lannister in popular fiction.

More pictures of Ahu Tongariki:


 

Aka Hanga

Down the coast lies Aka Hanga, once one of the richest and largest villages. It has an impressive row of statues that span more than 300 years, but they are all still toppled and have not been restored yet.

One of the statues on a separate platform was abandoned while it was being raised, giving archaeologists insights into the methods that the Rapa Nui used. When found, it was face down on a pile of rubble, in the middle of being erected using the pry and wedge method. It was abandoned weeks or perhaps even days before it was raised - so close, but yet so far.


 

Vinapu

 

Even further along the coast is Vinapu, unique because it has the “Incan wall of Easter Island”: an ahu with perfectly fitted blocks, similar to Incan techniques.

The presence of this wall has led some to wonder whether the Rapa Nui might have originated from South America. Some coincidences exist in the oral histories of the two groups, as the Incans also had Legend of a diety with red hair who sailed off and was never seen or herd from agin. Could this be Hotu Matu’a? Well, we do know that the Rapa Nui had contact with people from South America, and it’s more likely that some people went to South America, saw the Incan rocks, and decided to replicate them back home.

This village in particular was 9 miles away from the quarry as the crow flies, but a moai had to be transported 30 miles around obstacles to reach it. It was a rich village, but smaller, less wealthy villages could easily afford much bigger moai simply because they were closer to the quarry. Thus, they had to find another means to show off, so they compensated with large stones, which didn’t have to be transported as far, and unique stonework to stand out.

Vinapu is also home to a rare female statue (it looks pretty darn phallic to me now, but I take the guide’s word for it). The head is gone and it was destroyed by a catholic missionary with an axe, but you can still tell that it’s female because there are breasts and a symbol for vulva. It was probably made during the birdman cult period and not the moai period and used as an amulet for fertility. Only around 10 female moai have been found, as they were usually made in wood, kept indoors, and depicted pregnant and/or deformed female forms. 


 

Puna Pau

Puna Kao

Puna Kao

Puna Kao

On the other side of the island from Rano Raraku is Puna Pao, the quarry for the red pukao, or topknots. Around 20 pukao lay abandoned here, with the biggest one weighing in at 28 tons - twice as heavy as the biggest transported pukao.


 

Ahu Akivi

 

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Aviki

Ahu Akivi is home to the only row of moai that looked outwards to the sea instead of inward towards the villages. The story behind this is that the 7 moai represent the 7 explorers that King Hotu Matu’a sent ahead of the expedition to find and prepare the island. Hiva lay to the west of Easter Island, so the 7 moai looked to the west as they waited for the rest of the party to arrive.

However, scientists believe that Ahu Akivi is actually an observatory. It is part of a set of 3 ahus that function as a sun calendar with 12 months. Standing with all 3 ahus line up in a row, the 7 statues of Ahu Akivi tell which month it is depending on where the sun sets. On the winter solstice, June 21, the sun sets on the head of the 1st moai. One month later, on July 21st, the sun sets on the head of the 2nd moai. The sun continues moving over until December 21st, the summer solstice, when it sets on the head of the 7th moai. Then, it moves in the opposite direction for the next 6 months.

The statues were all built around the same time, so it was likely a joint effort between multiple villages to create a calendar. The nobles probably kept it as a secret to manipulate information, which could be why the true purpose of Ahu Akivi was lost over time and the legend of the 7 explorers endured.

 


 

Huri a Urenga

Another atypical Ahu that might have been built as an observatory instead of for traditional purposes is Huri a Urenga. It faces east, and is positioned so that its shadow falls directly in front of it or behind it on the solstices.

The statue is also unique because it has 4 hands. All statue deformities likely had meanings, but the significance has unfortunately been lost over time.

Behind the statue is a crematorium, the only one that has been reconstructed because it was never actually used. Even so, it was still built because crematoriums seemed to be an important piece of the ahu configuration.


 

Tahai

Sunset at Tahai

Last but not least is Tahai, a moai site right outside of Hanga Roa. This is a popular place to watch the sunset, and it’s also home to the only modern day statue with eyes.

This statue honors William Mulloy, an America archaeologist that conducted research and restorations on Easter Island in the 50s and 70s. He played a pivotal role in spreading the word of Easter Island and the importance of its artifacts. Mulloy wished to retire on Easter Island, but he died of cancer before he could. His family sent some of his ashes over to the island, and the locals conducted a re-enactment of the traditional ceremony of burying his ashes and giving a statue its eyes in order to bring it to life with his spirit. Now it stands here to see the future that Mulloy helped shape for the island. 

More pictures of Tahai:

Moai History and Facts

Ahu Tongariki at sunrise

The moai of Easter Island are world-famous, yet very little is known about how they were made or what they were for. They’re one of those ancient mysteries that take significant effort to replicate today — made all the more incredible when you stop to think that they were routinely created by a stone-age society that had not invented the wheel.

Though nobody knows much for sure about the moai, a lot of information has emerged from oral history and archaeological/scientific studies. I absorbed all that I could about the moai while I was on Easter Island and reproduced it here in this long post (apologies in advance). I did a quick fact check but was unable to confirm everything, so if any of the information is inaccurate, please let me know.

Basic Moai Facts

Number on Easter Island: 887. Half of these statues are at the quarry, only a quarter of these are installed, and the rest are scattered across the island, some abandoned on the way to their posts.
Average moai height: 4.05m
Average moai weight: 12.5 tons
Average moai volume: 5.96m2
Biggest erected moai: “Paro” at Ahu te pito kura, at 9.8m tall and 74 tons
Largest fallen moai: Ahu Hanga te Tenga, at 9.94m tall
Biggest moai: “El Gigante,” still half carved in the Rano Raraku quarry. If it had been finished, it might have been up to 21.6m tall and weighed 160-182 tons
Smallest moai: a moai at Poike, at only 1.13m tall
Material: 95% of the moai are made of yellow tuft, a material that was hard enough to withstand transportation but soft enough for finer details. It’s yellow color is also aristocratic and conveys the light skin of a noble.
Quarry: starting around 1200, all moai were carved from the same quarry, Rano Raraku, at the SE corner of the island. The topknots came from a separate quarry on the other side of the island, puna pau.
Appearance: each moai has distinctive features, but they have a set pattern. Smooth skin, big bellies, and long fingernails reflect nobility, and stretched earlobes, angular jawlines, and long faces represent the ideal for male beauty.

The Significance of the Moai

The moai were not simply statues, they were living representations of kings, wisemen, and priests from the village. When these leaders passed on, they transferred their mana, or spirit, to the moai. This explains why most moai run parallel to the shore and face inland, as they are watching over and blessing the villagers.

The height of a Moai reflected the prosperity of the leader’s rule. The taller the Moai, the richer the village at that point in time.

Moai Lifecycle

The Making of a Moai

On average, a village could typically afford one moai per generation. The moai was commissioned while the leader was still alive, and the entire village gathered the food and resources necessary to pay the workers.

All the Moai came from the same quarry, Rano Raraku, where they were completed and later transported to the village. An average statue of about 18 feet and 30 tons took a crew of 12 about a year to carve. The workers used only basic materials like this block of basalt to chisel the rock:

They carved directly into the mountain side, first the front of the statue and then down around the sides. A statue in the first phases of carving at Rano Raraku:

When it came time to carve the back, the workers chiseled the statue out of the mountain and stood it up vertically by burying the base. Here, they put the finishing touches on the moai, carving everything but the eye sockets, which were left for later.

The completed moai stayed at the quarry until the leader on which it was based died.

Transporting the Moai

Once the leader died, the funerary rites and the moai transportation process began. The leader’s body was put in the ocean for fish to eat all the soft tissue, and then the remaining bones were put in the sun for months to be bleached white. These bones were then buried in the platform in the location where the moai was to be placed. This way, the mana could be transferred from the bones to the moai.

Meanwhile, the statue began its journey to the village. This was both part of the funerary procession for the leader and the statue’s own journey of transformation to be worthy of the leader’s mana. Depending on the village’s distance from the quarry, the statue took 1-2 years to transport.

Lots of theories exist for how the statues might have been moved. One is that the statue might have been put on a Y-shaped sled and pulled by 180-250 men. However, a more popular theory is one that is one that follows the oral legend that the statues were put under a spell by a witch to “walk” to their respective posts. Evidence supports the theory, since the bases of abandoned statues are round and angled. Indeed, “walking” was proven to be not only possible, but actually the most efficient way to transport the statues, as it resulted in less damage and required as few as 15 workers.

The legend of the witch who made the statues walk goes like this: The witch belonged to one of the lower classes, but she was the only one who could make the moai walk, so she was important to the moai industry. In general, she was okay with being lower class, but one day she saw a group of men eating a turtle, which was reserved for the high class. She asked for a taste and the men denied her, laughing and throwing sticks and stones at her and mocking her. This angered the witch, so she crippled all the men’s legs and then mocked the men.

Then the witch became proud, and wanted all the men on the island to see her power. She walked from village to village and made all the statues fall. Kings and leaders fell to their knees in horror and begged her to stop, but she decided not to stop until the last statue fell. This angered the spirits inside the statues, who wanted to show her humility. The last statue fell on top of the witch and crushed her to death. Nobody was able to restore the statues and nobody could ever make them walk again, which marked the end of the Moai era.

Erecting the Moai

How the Rapa Nui erected the moai on their platforms is another mystery, but one for which archaeologists have a lot more clues. To local men told archaeologists about an old “pry and wedge” method, which involved prying the statue up slightly, wedging a stone underneath it, and repeating. At the end, the statue would be fully standing, with a pile of rubble on one side.

Archaeologists successfully re-erected statues using this method, proving that it could be done with as little as a dozen people within a few weeks.

Giving Eyes to the Moai

The moai wasn’t fully alive until it received its eyes at the very end. After it was erected in its final destination, sculptors finally carved the eye sockets and placed in the eyes. At that point, the moai became sentient beings, and the transfer of the leader’s mana to the statue was complete.

Unfortunately, during the birdman period, almost all of the eyes were taken out of the statues and destroyed. The only remaining original eye was found on a statue in Anakena, and is currently in the Easter Island museum.

Retiring the Moai

After a few generations, the statues were replaced – after all, they were men, not gods, and men retire.

To retire the statue, the eyes were taken out, which returned the mana to the bones of the leader’s body. The bones were finally cremated, as per the traditional funerary practice of the island, which put the soul to rest. The statue, now just empty stone, was toppled over and some of its pieces potentially used for the expansion of the ahu, the ceremonial platform beneath the moai. They were replaced with larger statues, and never reused.

Topknots (Pukao)

Many of the moai wear red rocks on their heads that look like gigantic hats. These are not hats, however, but topknots, reminiscent of the first king Hotu Matu’a, who had red hair. Kings at the time kept their hair long, tied it in a knot, and painted it with red dirt, and this fashion extended to the moai.

The practice of putting topknots on the moai started in the 1300s, when the population was at its richest. Leaders wanted ever bigger statues to reflect the prosperity at the time, and they had the resources to pay for them. However, technology had not advanced as quickly, and engineers knew they could not transport bigger statues. Thus the topknots were an elegant solution to make the statues taller given the technological limitations.

The topknots are called pukao, which interestingly does not mean “hat” or “topknot,” but rather “entrance to the vagina.” It was no secret that the moai represented male fertility (could you guess?), and thus the pukao are their female complement.

The pukao was made of red scoria from a different quarry on the other side of the island. They were much easier to move than the moai, as they could be rolled to the final destination. As for how the pukao were put on top of the moai, there are two theories that were probably both used. First, they might have been rolled up to the top of the statue on the pile of rubble that remained after the statue had been erected with the pry and wedge method. Alternatively, they might have been strapped to the moai and erected together. Some statues lean backwards a bit and use the pukao as a counterweight, which supports the latter theory.

Post-Moai Period

Over-production of moai eventually led to deforestation. With scarcer resources, villagers could no longer afford to pay workers for the moai, and hence scores of moai were abandoned at Rano Raraku or on the way to their final destinations. Society, which had been previously centered around the moai, collapsed and some archaeologists theorize that an era of conflict ensued.

The bird man cult that emerged no longer believed in the moai. Thus, the people took the eyes out of the moai and destroyed them, and then toppled the moai over face first. By the time European sailors arrived in the 19th century, there were no moai left standing on the island.