The Hanga Roa Loop
Many of the island’s archaeological sites are accessible from Hanga Roa—indeed, some of them are in Hanga Roa itself—via a loop that begins in town, climbs to Rano Kau crater and the Orongo ceremonial village, visits Ahu Vinapu at the east end of the airport, detours to Puna Pau crater before continuing north to the southwestern slope of Maunga Terevaka, and then returns to Hanga Roa via the coast. It is, of course, possible to do the loop in reverse order or break it up into almost any number of segments.
The most easily accessible ahu, Ahu Tautira overlooks the harbor at Caleta Hanga Roa. Two broken moai stand atop the platform, which was restored in 1980.
Just north of the cemetery, restored in 1968 under the supervision of William Mulloy (whose ashes are buried nearby), Ahu Tahai was a ceremonial center with three separate ahu, as well as hare paenga, a boat ramp, and several umu (earth ovens). The central Ahu Tahai has a single moai, while the flanking Ahu Ko Te Riku sports another with its topknot in place. Nearby, five moai stand atop the especially large Ahu Vai Uri.
South of Hanga Roa, a meandering road and a rather more direct trail climb the north slope of Rano Kau to the island’s greatest remaining natural sight, the high crater rim that offers spectacular views, across its totora-lined freshwater lake, to a scattering of offshore islets and the infinite sea in the distance.
The trail, known as the Ruta Patrimonial Te Ara o Rapa Nui, actually starts at Hanga Roa’s Museo Antropológico and passes through town. For the most part, it parallels the coastal road, passing several major ahus and shoreline caves before emerging onto the road and entering Conaf grounds south of town. It then climbs steeply through eucalyptus woods and open grassland before reaching the crater’s rim. From there, another trail drops into the steep-sided crater, where citrus trees and grapevines grow wild, and follows the muddy lakeshore, but this is now off-limits.
Farther along the rim via either road or footpath, suspended 400 meters above the sea between Rano Kau’s south rim and a nearly vertical plunge into the ocean, Orongo was a ceremonial site for the so-called “birdman” cult that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, long after the moai had been sculpted, raised, and even toppled. Superseding the ancestor worship associated with the giant moai, the cult venerated the creator Makemake; its annual highlight was a contest to retrieve the season’s first sooty tern egg from the offshore motu, or islets. The winner or his sponsor spent a year as the birdman, gaining great status but restricted to one of the ritual houses.
Visited by a looping signed footpath, Orongo’s 53 restored houses are among the world’s most curious constructions, their walls and roofs formed by thin, overlapping horizontal wedges. Covered by earth, they were entered by doorways so small that, in the words of an English visitor in 1926:
The only method of procedure is a most undignified snake-like wiggling, which makes one appreciate the full significance of that primeval curse, “Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat.”
Today, though, visitors should refrain from even attempting to enter the houses and should also avoid walking on their roofs, which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the rest of the terrain. Do keep an eye out for the 1,700 or so petroglyphs, some of them faint, that decorate the rocks on the crater rim.
Orongo is the only site where Conaf collects an admission charge, about US$9 per person for adults, US$4.50 per person for children. There is a small museum here.
During the years of the birdman cult, the islets of Motu Nui, Motu Iti, and Motu Kao Kao were nesting sites for the mahohe, or frigate bird, and the sooty tern; the former disappeared and the latter declined under human pressure for their eggs. By contracting a fishing launch at Caleta Hanga Roa, it’s possible to approach Motu Nui, where there are cave paintings and remains of an ahu, but landings are no longer permitted.
Known for its finely fitted stonework, which led some overly zealous researchers to assume connections to pre-Columbian South American sites such as Tiwanaku (Bolivia) and Cuzco (Peru), Ahu Vinapu actually consists of three separate ahu, prosaically known as Vinapu I, II, and III. Vinapu II does outwardly resemble those Andean sites, but instead of large stone blocks it is merely an attractive facade for an otherwise rubble-filled platform.
All the moai at Ahu Vinapu lie broken and scattered in the immediate vicinity after being overturned during the islandwide conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the ruins were later used for shelters.
To get to Ahu Vinapu, follow Avenida Hotu Matua to the east end of Aeropuerto Mataveri’s runway, then follow the lateral that leads south between the runway and fuel storage tanks to the beachfront parking lot.
Reached by a southbound trail about 1.4 kilometers east of Hanga Roa on the road to Anakena, Maunga Orito was a quarry site for the glossy black obsidian that the Rapanui once used for cutting and drilling tools, and for spear points such as the mataa. Today, though, Rapanui artisans use the stone for souvenir jewelry.
From a junction about 700 meters beyond the fork to the south coast road, a gravel road leads north toward the southern slopes of Maunga Terevaka; about 500 meters north of the junction, a dirt lateral leads west to Puna Pau, whose quarry produced the reddish scoria that forms the pukao, or topknots, of the moai.
From the Puna Pau turnoff, the main road continues north to Maunga Terevaka’s southwestern base, where Ahu Akivi is the site of the “Seven Moai,” restored in 1960 under the direction of William Mulloy and Chilean archaeologist Gonzalo Figueroa. Much has been made of the fact that these moai appear to look out to sea, rather than inland like all the island’s other moai, but archaeologist Georgia Lee considers this a coincidence—most importantly, they look onto the ceremonial area. It does seem significant, though, that these seven moai stare directly into the setting sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Rapa Nui’s volcanic landscape features a large number of so-called “caves” that are, in fact, tubes formed as the lava from various eruptions cooled. Some are large, others small; while they served many purposes—shelter, defense, storage—one of the most interesting is Ana Te Pahu, colloquially known as the “banana cave” because its moisture and accumulated soil made it possible to cultivate tropical and subtropical crops at its sheltered subsurface entrance, despite limited sunlight. The local term for these sunken gardens is manavai.
Only a short distance west of Ahu Akivi, Ana Te Pahu is an inconspicuous landmark but is well-signed. The road continues northwest toward Ahu Tepeu before turning south along the coast toward Tahai and Hanga Roa.
About 10 kilometers north of Hanga Roa, Ahu Tepeu has stonework that resembles that of Ahu Vinapu, but the Heyerdahl expedition of 1960 literally undermined its walls by excavating under their base. The foundation of one of the island’s largest boat-shaped houses is nearby.
While there is no road north of Ahu Tepeu, it’s possible to follow the coastline to Cabo Norte and then west to Playa Anakena where, though there is no regular public transportation, it’s possible to ask someone for a lift back to Hanga Roa. Also feasible in the other direction, this route can be done on mountain bike or horseback as well.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition