Beyond the Moai of Rapa Nui

by Jennifer Roberts

While exploring the caves of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) on horseback, a couple gets a history lesson from an exasperated local.

Perro culiado!” Jose yelled as one of his three dogs strayed from its path and under the feet of his horse as we set off. The Spanish fell into my ears, translating into fucking dog, but the sounds moved as if over rumble strips instead of over a highway’s smooth asphalt. They weren’t quite right, the d too strong, too unlike the Chilean pronunciation, which would have skipped over it entirely: culia-o. The double r didn’t roll smoothly enough, too much effort, much like my own double r, which, after three years of living in Chile, I still accidentally added to words like porotos to the dismay of my boyfriend Felipe. I tapped my horse, moving him ahead of Jose and leaving Felipe to his attempts to understand Jose’s Chilean Spanish, heavily greased with his native Rapa Nui accent. 

We had been on Easter Island nearly a week, and while the less-than-friendly treatment of the native islanders toward my Chilean boyfriend had hinted at a complicated relationship with the mother country, we weren’t sure what to make of it. However, Jose, besides leading us on a five-hour horse tour of Mount Terevaka and three of the island’s most famous caves, was going to lead us toward an understanding of the islanders’ animosity toward the Chileans of the conti (mainland). 

From a few feet ahead of the two men, I could hear them move in and out of political conversation—Piñera, independencia, Pinochet, dictador, territorio, leyes, tierra—and was glad Felipe was finding it easy to trim the tension with a few lighthearted jokes and laughs. Jose was indignant, his arms gesticulating as his horse occasionally glanced back, wary but apparently bored by what were clearly normal antics. 

Easter Island on horseback

Rapa Nui, known to most tourists as Easter Island, was annexed by Chile in 1888, and much of the island’s land was privatized. The Rapa Nui peoples were kept behind barbed wire in conditions of semi-slavery until 1967 when they won some level of civil rights.

Only after becoming a formal territory did the native Rapa Nui peoples start to earn back their rights to own land outside of the capital, Hanga Roa, rights that were limited yet again when Chile fell under the rule of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Land was broken up, and much of the available property was distributed to investors. In 1995, with the designation of the island as a UNESCO world heritage site, the Rapa Nui’s opportunities to own land on their island diminished considerably. 

Even amidst the changing politics of the country, Jose’s partner Sara was able to reclaim a piece of family land on the slopes of Mount Terevaka, with Jose joining her after she had already built a family and constructed a patchwork house of brick, metal planks, and wood siding. 

Their business card had shown the back of a blonde woman, peacefully mounted on a horse as she rode up a hill. The scene hadn’t prepared us for the house, little more than a shanty overlooking the Pacific, or the hour-long ride in a frowzy pick-up seesawing over two sides of a pot-holed dirt road. The benefits of the island’s tourism seemed to be monopolized by Hanga Roa, leaving little for people like Sara and Jose. 

Professional positions are still occupied mostly by Chileans from the mainland, causing the wealth gap that sees many of the Rapa Nui straddling poverty. Jose and Sara were living proof that the system of tourism developed by Chile on the island was bringing most of the benefits back to the conti, leaving little for the island. 

The wind picked up as we neared the top of the mountain, the jean-blue Pacific opening up on all sides of the island’s tallest point, but even the wind whipping through our ears couldn’t drown out Jose’s ramblings. 

“Los Chilenos y los gringos vienen y nunca se van [The Chileans and foreigners come and never leave]!” he belted, his accented Spanish almost impossible for me to understand now as it traveled on the hiss of the wind.  “We have enough people here. We don’t want more. Have you seen the trash? So much trash! Turistas culiadas.” 

Easter Island on horseback

Fortunately for Jose, the mountain’s peak was, apart from us, empty of his hated tourists, Chilean and foreigner alike. With no access roads, the only way up was by horse or on foot, limiting those who were willing to take time away from visiting the various moai sites to see the best view on the island. 

The temperature had dropped significantly as the air met no natural barrier, and the chill forced us into a few quick photos before once again mounting the horses and moving back down the mountainside. 


“Pruébalo [Try it],” Jose said mildly, tossing over a small yellow fruit he had just plucked from a roadside bush. The inside was hollow, the outer covering a sweet, doughy skin housing a seed suspended mid-air on the stem. The small snack did little to alleviate our hunger, but it was refreshing. The heat also appeared to be draining some of Jose’s energy, and he said little as his horse lolled over the same dirt road that we had entered on two hours earlier. 

My knees were already sore, my upper back was slowly baking under the sun, and my feet were starting to go numb from the odd angle caused by the stirrups. Fortunately, thirty minutes more found us stopping as Jose pointed at a cluster of trees. I asked where exactly the cave was, and he smiled, showing a mouth full of missing teeth, and pointed a crooked finger at the dirt. “Abajo [Below].” 

Rapa Nui caves

Slipping awkwardly into the role of tour guide (he clearly preferred the role of exasperated islander), Jose led us carefully down into the circular opening of Ana Te Pahu, a large rocky mouth with palm trees and ferns for a tongue, all waiting to swallow us whole. 

“They used this cave for fresh water,” he explained, pointing into one side of the cave and leading us to the edge of an underground lagoon. The blackness refused to reveal just how deep the water went, its still surface reflecting and hardening the darkness. On the opposite side of the mouth, we entered a long tunnel, dry but completely dark. Jose had not thought to bring a flashlight, so the small lanterns of our cell phones helped us slink our way over the rocks. At the end was a smaller mouth with an orb of sunlight above, and we climbed out by stepping on a set of natural stone stairs. Looking back at the exit upon regaining our footing on sunlit land, it was easy to imagine that someone could walk right past it without ever noticing what was under them. 


“There,” Jose said, pointing at yet another hole in the ground. This one clearly held something more impressive than the last, as it was surrounded by twenty or so tourists waiting for their turn to lower their bodies down into the opening. I eyed up a larger tourist nearby, wondering if he would be able to fit. 

Easter Island on horseback

Jose grabbed the reins of the three horses, dropping them onto the ground as he sat on a rock and moved his hat from his head to his knee. 

“You’re not going with us?” Felipe asked, nervous about descending into a dark cave without a guide. 

“There,” Jose said again, a bit more sourly this time. The group of tourists were like bug spray, keeping Jose as far from the entrance as possible. “Just walk. You can’t get lost.” 

Felipe looked at me, and I shrugged, getting in line behind a five-year-old girl and watching her small frame knock against the sides of the hole as she shimmied down. 

I bumped my head as we entered the tunnel and doubled over to avoid any more bruises. After several feet, the cave opened up enough to allow us to walk almost standing, our backs curved ape-like as we explored. We moved cautiously toward a soft glow and the sound of water knocking gently against a cliff, soon coming to a fork and going right. An oval of blue patched here and there with a silky whiteness met us at the end of the tunnel. Battling vertigo and a fear of heights, I only got close enough to the edge to see the waves rocking against the cliff below before retreating back into the shadows. The left side held a similar window onto the Pacific, explaining the nickname of Ana Kakenga: The Cave of Two Windows.

Rapa Nui caves

In the final cave, which we came to after a short ride along the cliff, with the ocean ready to fold us in if we were to step a bit too far to the left, Jose joined us, unthwarted by any touristic soul in the vicinity. The cave was no deeper than a traditional basement, but a few feet made all the difference as the temperature dropped twenty degrees and a cool breeze blew through the wide room. 

“This cave,” Jose explained, waving a hand at the space, “was for ceremonies. Eating, talking, dancing.” I nodded and tried to feel the spirit of the cave, the mana that must have run through the rocks all those years ago, but the cave knew the sacrifices of the Rapa Nui and only offered me emptiness. My imagination would have to fill in what the island refused to give. 

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