Foreign correspondence: Giant statues lure visitors to Easter Island

The Charlotte Observer

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Rene Rubio, 43, is manager of the Hanga Roa Eco Village & Spa (, a hotel on Easter Island, in the Pacific between Chile and Tahiti, that is one of the world's most remote inhabited islands. Rubio is originally from the Juarez area of Mexico.

Q. What does your dot in the ocean look like?

A. It's a triangle in the middle of nowhere 63.2 square miles. It's a hilly volcanic island with three extinct volcanoes, one on each corner. They may look like natural mountains, but they're not. Right now, the temperature is about 23 Celsius (about 73 Fahrenheit) and humid. There are hardly any trees here, except for a little area that has ones that were brought in recently; hardly any are large. All you see are grass and bushes. The introduction of the Polynesian rat and overpopulation led to gradual deforestation.

Q. The island has three names: Easter Island, Isla de Pascua Spanish for "Easter Island" and Rapa Nui. How does that work?

A. Easter Island isn't the real name; that's what it was called by the explorer who had the first European ship that arrived here, on Easter Sunday in 1722. The native name for it, Rapa Nui, means "huge island" and that's what it is called here.

Q. The island is a dependency of Spanish-speaking Chile. Are most islanders Hispanic?

A. The population is about 5,800; of them, approximately 60 percent are Rapanui descendants and they speak their native language, Rapanui. The island is part of the Polynesian belt.

Q. And the big draw is the gigantic and ancient stone moai statues, correct?

A. Yes. Our peak season is December through March. During the first two weeks of March, the locals celebrate La Tapatirapa Nui. It's a big cultural celebration. People come from all over the world to enjoy that.

But throughout the year it's the statues. This is a very interesting island. There's magic here.

Q. Magic?

A. It's a pocket of energy; you can feel it. I've never seen such a thing. I guarantee, if you come here once, you'll come back.

Q. Scholars have carbon-dated their carving to A.D. 1100 to 1160; why they were erected is still being debated. How many are there?

A. There is a total of 887 of these monumental statues. Hanga Roa is the name of the hotel and also the name of the island's village; there are statues in the village. The rest are spread all over.

Q. How do people tell the statues apart? Do they have names?

A. The statues are all different sizes and have different faces you can spot the differences. Also, they're built from several types of local stone. Their names are the Rapanui names of their geographic location.

Q. Which are statues or statue sites are most popular with visitors or scholars?

A. I'd say Tongariki, Ahu A Kivi and Tahai. Tongariki is close to what's called "The Factory" near the Rano Raraku volcano where they used to produce the moai statues.

"Ahu" means "ceremonial platform": There's one at A Kivi. Tahai is just north of the village.

There are also ancient stone houses and pictures and symbols carved into rocks and painted on the walls of caves. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Q. What do visitors take home as souvenirs?

A. Little moai statues are the main thing. Now, the island isn't cheap: These go for $60. But they're worth every penny. I'd say they are about 20 or 30 inches tall and made of stone and wood.

Q. What do islanders do for a living?

A. Locals do fishing and farming and tourism working as guides.

Q. How big is the hotel? Where do you live on the island?

A. There are 75 rooms at the hotel. I live in the village, which is tiny. The airport is there.

We have TV, but only three channels. There are no movie theaters, no pizza, no McDonald's. But it's a very interesting island. There's magic here.

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