Friday, August 19, 2016

Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

I don’t even know where to start.  Every time I blog, I first go through all my notes and pictures and make an outline to help me draft my entry.  Of all of the blogs I’ve written on this trip, this outline is by far the longest.  Funny enough, the place I’m writing about is the tiniest of the places on my gap year.  So, I’m just going to get into it.  There’s a lot to cover.

Easter Island – famous for its large statues called “moai” sitting on their platforms called “ahu” – is known as Isle de Pascua in Spanish and Rapa Nui in the local Polynesian language.  Rapa Nui is not, however, the original name for the island.  Its original name in the local language is actually a longer name that means “naval of the world”.

Rapa Nui is part of Chile, but it is anything but Chilean.  Not that Chilean is a bad thing, but Rapa Nui is just not Latin American in the least bit.  It’s Polynesian – just like Tahiti, New Zealand, and Hawaii.  Rapa Nui sits at the southeastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle that spreads across the Pacific Ocean and is considered a part of Oceania rather than South America.  While its closest major landmass is indeed South America, it’s actually a six-hour flight from the nearest airport:  Santiago.  This makes the airport on Rapa Nui the world’s most remote.  The fact that Rapa Nui is part of Chile seems like an accident of history.  The island was first settled by a Polynesian king from a nearby island well over a thousand years ago.  I use the term “nearby” extremely loosely as the Polynesians were excellent seafarers and would have travelled at least two and a half thousand kilometres in wooden boats just to get here.  There’s even evidence that the Polynesians interacted with the Inca of Peru.  Whether the Inca travelled to Rapa Nui or the Rapa Nui people travelled to the Inca empire is unknown.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to discover the island in 1722.  It was Easter Sunday when they first set eyes on the landmass, so they named it Easter Island and that name has stuck.  The Dutch arrived to find the island in a bit of disarray.  Historians and anthropologists believe that the tiny island became overpopulated – possibly with as many as 15,000 or maybe even 25,000 inhabitants (there are currently only about 7,000 people there including seasonal workers).  This overpopulation led to competition for food, land, and other resources, which then led to intertribal war between the Rapa Nui people.  The Dutch explorers estimated that the population of the island was only 2,000 – 3,000 when they arrived.  As part of the war, the massive moai statues that surrounded the island were toppled down one by one during the conflict.  A passing French ship recorded the last standing moai – the largest – in 1838.  The island’s population was further decimated by a series of raids by Peruvians where they captured natives to be deported as slaves.

The English visited Easter Island, as did the Spanish, naming it San Cristobal Island.  Much of the island was privately owned by this time.  The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 and later leased to a British wool company which basically acted as the island’s government for many decades.  Chile came back into the picture in 1953.  The Rapa Nui people gained Chilean citizenship some time later and finally gained some level of autonomy as recently as 2010.  While economic dependence on Chile has quelled any push for independence, there are plenty of disputes between Rapa Nui and Chile, most notably those concerning land rights, tourism controls, and an influx of Chilean migrants.

Today, tourism is booming despite the cost and distance.  As mentioned before, all of the moai were toppled during the war, but many have now been raised and restored to their (almost) former glory.  The island has only one town – Hanga Roa – but I was easily able to venture outside the town and around the island in various different ways.  I did an organized tour one day, rented a bicycle another day, and rented a van with a group of people from my accommodation.

A few highlights of my time on Rapa Nui:

Camping hostel:
I stayed at a camping hostel.  It is a unique concept and executed very nicely.  I had my own little tent and there is very clean bathroom block and fully-equipped kitchen on the premises.  I also hung out mostly with some of the people that were on my flight (we all had shared transport from the airport).  There were six Chileans and one Peruvian and only one of them spoke a little English (but not too much).  It was good Spanish practice.  Hola Jean Carlos, Alexis, Elcira, Javier, y Lisette (y tus padres!)  Espero que ustedes estan leyendo este articulo con la ayuda de Google Translate!

Hanga Roa:
The little town has only a handful of attractions.  There are various maoi that have been restored within walking distance.  As the town is on the west side of the island, the coastal area where the moai are is a perfect place for watching sunset, which I did on three of my nights.  The pink and red colours were stunning.  The museum in town is exceptional and was a great starting point for my tour of the island.  It has a rare female moai on display, as well as excellent signage and displays on Polynesian culture (including something like a hangi dinner and many other similarities with New Zealand), geography, and wildlife (with several similar birds to the Galapagos).  The airport is right near town.  You may not know this but I’m an airplane and airport geek.  The runway was built long enough to be an emergency landing spot for the space shuttle and it was so eerie to see this long ass runway totally empty – not a plane in sight – after the daily flight came and went.  Also in town is a church and some fairly lacklustre souvenir markets.

Rano Raraku:
This archeological site was one of the first major sites I visited.  It’s actually a volcano and was the quarry where the giant moai were carved.  As the carving ceased during the war, the volcano exhibits many moai in different stages of construction – many still attached to the rock and not yet carved out of their initial spots.  This is the only place on the island where some moai were technically left standing – though they weren’t finished yet so it doesn’t quite count.  One of the moai that was a work in progress would have been the largest on the island had it been finished, coming in at 20.5 metres tall and likely weighing between 190 and 200 tonnes.  It is still attached to the volcano on its backside and was never lifted.  The inside of the crater features more moai being carved, which means they had to get these giant statues first out of the crater and then down to the coast.  How they did it back in the day is a guess, though many scientists have theories.

The site is also home to a seated moai.  The seated moai is super rare as there are only three.  Nobody knows if these are primitive moai or if these were more advanced at the end of the moai era just prior to the war.

Quite possibly the most famous site on the island, Tongariki features fifteen restored, standing moai on one long ahu.  The tallest of the lot is 9 metres high and weighs 76 tonnes.  One of the moai even wears its topknot (possibly representing a hairstyle or hat).  The topknots are separate pieces that go on top of the heads and are carved out of a different volcanic rock.  The Japanese archeologists that restored the site did not want to put the topknots back on the moai as they had been badly eroded.  The local workers decided to take it upon themselves to use their big machinery after hours to reattach one of the topknots as they wanted to see what it would look like.  The archeologists discovered it the next morning and let it stay.

Aside from my organized tour here, I also went back super early the next morning with the hostel crew to watch sunrise over the giant statues.  It was here that I saw one of the most remarkable sights on the island:  a guy smoking weed while laying down and pitching a tent in his little shorts if you know what I mean.  Later, he began doing yoga, took off his shirt, and blasted music.  Terrible tourist.  But he was pretty hot.

This archeological site is actually on a gorgeous beach.  I went with my tour to learn about the history of the site.  The row of restored moai on the main ahu on the beach are the best preserved of any on the island because they were buried underneath the sand and thus protected from the elements.  They all still have their topknots and well-defined facial features.  Another moai further down the beach stands alone.  At 3 metres tall and 45 tonnes, the solo moai is shorter and wider than most of the others – leading experts to believe it is more primitive.  This moai is special because it was the first to be lifted back to a standing position in 1956.  Dubbed the “Norwegian experiment” (because it was led by a Norwegian team), it took 18 Rapa Nui men a total of 16 days to lift the statue without machinery.  It was an experiment – not a true restoration.  The first true restoration on the island was in 1960.

I also went back to Anakena beach the next day with my new friends to take a swim in the gorgeous Pacific waters and have lunch on the beach.

Te Pito Kura:
Another archeological site, Te Pito Kura hosts the tallest statue moved from the quarry – a 9.5 metre moai (12 metres if you include the topknot) weighing in at 88 tonnes.  It sits a distance of 7 km from the quarry.  How did these people move it?  This statue – being the tallest – was the one that was the last to be toppled during the war.  The site also includes the “magnetic rock”.  This large, smooth rock has a magnetic element and will mess with your compass.  Locals believe it has what they call “mana” – like a good life force – and that touching the rock can help you gain fertility or cure ailments.  Unfortunately, the rock has been walled off because some tourists are fuckwits.  I’m looking at you, aroused stoned topless yoga guy.  The local legend is that the first king brought the rock with him from his previous island, but scientists believe the rock is likely from Rapa Nui based on its composition.

The most unique site on the island consist, Orongo consists of a big ass volcano crater and ruins of the only religious ceremonial village on the island.  The village – built on the super steep volcanic rim – was built for the followers of the bird-man cult which dominated the island through the warfare time.  Part of the village ruins have been restored.  A small museum talks about the bird-man cult and the annual bird-man competition, were the Rapa Nui men would swim out to nearby islands and wait for migratory birds to lay their eggs.  The man who got the first egg won.  The islands are visible just offshore, though getting too close to the edge is scary given the 300 metre drop off from the rim of the volcano to the ocean below.

Other archeological sites:
I visited a few other sites on my organized tour and my day with the bicycle.  Akahanga is a site with a lot of toppled moai.  Vaihu also has toppled moai with scattered topknots and a circular ceremonial centre.  Vinapu features a wall built in the style of the Incas and provides some of the strongest evidence of encounters between these two ancient civilizations.

Pure sex:
Wait – did I just say “pure sex”?  I don’t know where that came from.  I meant to say “traditional dance show.”  Sorry.  On my first night, I went with my little group to the Kari Kari “Cultural Ballet”.  The show is sort of like the one I saw in the Maori village in New Zealand, and I imagine it’s not too far removed from a luau (I’ll get to Hawaii one day).  The only difference:  the Rapa Nui men are hot.  HOT.  FUCKING HOT.  Like, OMG HOT.  How have these men been kept a secret?  Now, I don’t recall the Maori in New Zealand being all that impressive, but that may be because a lot of them have rugby player builds and I’m just not into that.  But these men – these men were thin but toned.  They were sweating while they did their traditional dance.  Also, I saw balls.  BALLS!  Do you know why I saw balls?  Because these men were barely wearing anything at all.  No shirts.  No shorts.  Just little coverings on their man parts.  While some had underwear on underneath, at least one was freeballing under his little covering.  With all that dancing and all that flopping, the berries were bound to pop out to say hi.  I also saw buns.  Like, the back was a thong.  OMG.

One lucky bitch got pulled up from the audience and these gorgeous men all danced around her in a circle.  I hate her.  At the end, there were opportunities to take photos with the dancers.  Many of the men lined up to take pics with the lady dancers (yes, there were lady dancers in skimpy underwear and coconut bras but fuck if I was paying any attention to them…) and all the women were lining up to get pics with the male dancers.  I debated it, but it’s not as liberal as other places and I didn’t want to be that creepy gay guy.  In hindsight, fuck all that.  I should have done it.

All those men.  Polynesia has shot up my rankings.

Like everything else on the island, food is super expensive.  Unfortunately, that means I didn’t spring for one of the traditional Polynesian dinners which seem to be exclusively at the swankier places.  There are a handful of reasonably priced little restaurants on the island, and I did end up eating at the same few places more than once during my four days there.  The only real traditional food I ate was a poe – a banana brownie that has no chocolate.  It was good, but I was disappointed.  The guy said brownie so I was expecting at least some chocolate.  The poe can also be made with pumpkin or other fruit or vegetables… but not chocolate.  I also had a beer from the Mahina brewery which is local to Rapa Nui.

I just want to say that my flights to and from Rapa Nui on LAN’s (Chile’s main airline) Boeing 787 Dreamliner were wonderful.  I had a window on the way in and got amazing views of the island on approach.  I also had the last row, which I chose because it was the only window seat available.  The last row was actually a 2-3-2 configuration rather than a 3-3-3.  I had a ton of extra legroom, a foot rest, more of a recline angle, room on the side of my seat where I could set my bag, and two tray tables (one on the chair in front of me and one in my armrest).  I could keep my laptop out during meal service.  The staff were super friendly in both English and Spanish and the food was pretty good too.  After that experience, I opted to choose the back row for the return leg too when I checked in.

I had originally thought that I wouldn’t need much time on Easter Island because it’s small and it’s basically just moai after moai of archeological sites, but there’s a lot I didn’t get to do:  a bunch of hiking, one whole side of the island, different beaches, and more.  Maybe I’ll go back one day or maybe I’ll opt to explore different Polynesian islands first.  Who knows.

After Easter Island, I headed back to Santiago for a few more days with Claudio before jetting off to my last new country of the gap year:  Peru.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Easter Island, follow this link:

Monday, August 8, 2016

Punta Arenas, Imported Ice, & Middle Chile

I took two proper side trips from Santiago while in Chile.  One of them – Easter Island – I booked months in advance because I really really really wanted to go.  Obviously.  The other, however, was a fairly last minute decision (as in, I think I booked flights about three or four days in advance).  Chile is a big country, and by big, I mean long.  LONGGG.  So there were many options in many different types of climates.  There was the desert up north at San Pedro de Atacama, but I figured I could more easily hit that up one day when I visit Bolivia, as it’s fairly close to the border.  There was Chiloe Island with its UNESCO-listed churches, but recent trouble in the local fishing industry has caused protests and a bit of upheaval, so I decided to skip that… for now.  Then, there was Punta Arenas.  At the bottom tip of Chile, in the beautiful region of Patagonia, lies this little city which is the gateway to some gorgeous national parks.  The only problem was:  the national parks – while technically do-able on day trips – are about a minimum 5 hour drive away – so better on overnight expeditions.  I only had 3 days to spare, so that wasn’t going to happen.  It was also verging on winter and not the best time of year to visit, though cheaper because it was pretty much the opposite of peak season.  Punta Arenas is known for its nearby penguin colonies, but those mostly clear out in March as the penguins migrate or feed or something. This was late May.  So, really not the best time to go.

But I went anyway.  Why?  Because I wanted to.  I’ve always wanted to travel to one of the Earth’s southernmost cities just to see what’s down there on the bottom.  Plus, I’ve discovered that I like the cold.  It’s nice and refreshing after being in so many disgusting hot climates on the trip.  Being late May, it was cold in Punta Arenas, but not snowy yet – so actually really lovely to walk around.  The city does have some sights itself and I did manage to swing one super cool day trip.  Overall, I am super pleased I went to Punta Arenas despite it being off season.  This was my Patagonia starter trip.  Next time I’ll definitely spend more time in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.

A few highlights of my time in Punta Arenas:

Despite the city’s small size (roughly 127,000 people live there), it boasts quite a few good museums.  My favourite was the Museo Regional Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello which is by far the largest and most comprehensive, both in name and contents.  It features displays on the history of Patagonia, stuffed local animals, and many other random relics of all aspects of Chilean and Patagonian culture.  I also really enjoyed the Naval Museum of Punta Arenas.  Here I learned about the country’s naval history (obviously) including much detail on the War of the Pacific (which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia), lots of Antarctica stuff asserting Chile’s claim to part of it (they even have Antarctic ice on display in a glass freezer), and lots of historical information on Cape Horn (the southernmost part of the Americas which is surrounded by treacherous waters making it difficult and dangerous for passing ships).  Speaking of ships, the Nao Victoria Museum features a full-size replica of Ferdinand Magellan’s ship (the Nao Victoria) along with Darwin’s Beagle and the Ancud – the ship that claimed the region for Chile in 1843.  An excellent audio guide walks visitors through the ships and gives a plethora of history about the region, the boats, and the famed explorers.

Less interesting, but still interesting, was the Museo Regional de Magallanes which is housed inside the Braun-Menendez Mansion, which itself is an old Russian consulate.  The building is half museum, half preserved mansion, and is a great way to see how the rich and famous of Punta Arenas lived a hundred years ago.  The museum section is fine, but part of it was closed and I think the Museo Regional Salesiano does a better job.  Similarly, the Palacio Sara Braun is smaller and not as exciting as the Braun-Menendez Mansion, though the majority of the house has been turned into a swanky hotel and restaurant with only a handful of rooms still preserved as they were.

Finally, there was the Museo del Recuerdo which was quite possibly the worst museum of my gap year.  It’s basically a junkyard.  For real.  A big yard filled with old farming equipment which is supposed to be historical.  But not.  It also has a collection of old buildings on display but they are locked and not open to the public.  I walked 45 minutes to get there.  What a waste.

Punta Arenas is known for its monuments, and it has monuments for everything.  Monuments for firefighters.  Monuments for mermaids (I’m pretty sure).  A monument of a condor and one to the wind (seriously) and a monument to the discovery of oil and one that was a gift from Uruguay and several of famous people and one to the indigenous people (which is totally good).  And a big “monument to the act of possession” (when Chile claimed the region as its own).  That monument features mermen with abs and a dog and a goat (WTF?).  It’s the most bizarre thing, and the most ridiculous part about it is that it’s the largest of the monuments and features prominently on the coast.

The most famous monuments in the city are the monument to the shepherd and the moment to Ferdinand Magellan.  The monument to the shepherd is one of the city’s main attractions and sits in the median of a big road that isn’t quite in the centre of town.  It features a shepherd, his horse, his dog, and a herd of sheep.  It was constructed because sheep farming is a big industry in the area and this makes the monument super famous.  Right.  Ok.  The monument to Ferdinand Magellan sits in the middle of the city’s main square – the Plaza de Armas – and features not only Ferdinand Magellan (who discovered the Strait of Magellan on which the city sits) but also some indigenous persons, including an Ona person who has his leg hanging off the side of the monument.  Legend has it that if you kiss the toe of the Ona, you’re guaranteed to return to Punta Arenas one day.  I kissed the toe.  Gross, I know.  But I definitely want to come back one day!  I think it’s safe to say that the monument to Ferdinand Magellan is the most appropriate and monument-like monument in the city.

There was also the Cementerio Municipal which was very pretty and full of nice sculptures and memorials, but pales in comparison to the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires.

Pretty views:
The town has some pretty views.  I checked out the viewpoint Mirador Cerro de la Cruz to take in views of the city both in daytime and at night.  A walk along the waterfront was also nice, and I even hopped onto the beach to stand in the Strait of Magellan for a minute.

Fuerte Bulnes:
Fuerte Bulnes lies 60 kilometres south of Punta Arenas and just 30 kilometres north of the very southern tip of the American continent.  I took a day trip down to this historical site.  The original was built in 1843 and was Chile’s original settlement in Patagonia.  The site, however, had terrible weather and was abandoned and destroyed shortly after its founding.  Punta Arenas replaced it.  The current “Fuerte Bulnes” is a recreation of the original, complete with all wooden buildings based on historical records of the time.  Punta Santa Ana – just a short walk on a trail south of the site – is the furthest south I’ve ever been – and further south than most of you readers have ever been, unless you’ve been to Ushuaia, Argentina or on an Antarctic expedition.  Nearby, a lovely museum (including a café and gift shop) tells the story of the settlements, the strait, and the indigenous peoples.

In retrospect, Chile should have known that the site was crappy.  Just 2 kilometres away lies Puerto del Hambre (Port Famine), the original Spanish settlement in the region founded in 1584.  The 300-person strong settlement was visited by an English ship just 3 years later.  There was only 1 survivor.  Bad weather, freezing temperatures, lack of vegetation, and little fresh water spelled doom for the original Spanish settlers.  Hence the name:  Port Famine.

One more monument:
I thought some of Punta Arenas’ monuments were a bit silly, but then I saw the monument marking the middle of Chile.  Now, this blog is about Punta Arenas.  Which is at the bottom of Chile.  This monument was not in Punta Arenas.  It was further south – right near Fuerte Bulnes.  So, the “middle of Chile” is a mere 30 kilometres from the bottom of the American continent.  By that measure, the middle of the United States is at Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the middle of Australia is at Hobart, Tasmania.  Right.

Because Chile claims a huge chunk of Antarctica, the bottom of Chile (in their minds) is the South Pole.  The top of Chile is the border with Peru.  So the middle of Chile is the halfway point between the South Pole and the Peruvian border.  This just happens to sit near Fuerte Bulnes.

Come on, Chile.  You have it together in so many ways.  Stop being ridiculous.

The restaurant scene in Punta Arenas was… almost universally lacklustre.  I say “almost” because I did have a really good pizza and brownie sundae dinner at La Mesita Grande (which, quite comically, translates to “the big little table”).  I had a nice soup at a restaurant called La Luna, and there was a nice chocolate café in the middle of town (hot chocolate in super cold temperatures = WIN).  But everything else sort of sucked.  Basic sandwiches.  Bad coffees.  Only white bread.  Can I skip all meals until I get back to Santiago?

So, I visited Punta Arenas without visiting any national parks and I’ve managed to fill up 2.5 pages of blog.  I’ll stop now.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Punta Arenas, follow this link: