• Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is best known for its moai;. These monumental statues made of basalt were positioned on the island's hillsides by ancient tribes.

  • Around 900 moai statues exist on the island and several walking trails wind their way along the coast where they once served as watchful protectors. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • At 3,510 kilometres west of Chile, Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Visitors can stay at the Posada de Mike Rapu luxury lodge which takes guests on daily treks throughout the island. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • There's no shortage of food on Easter Island. The restaurant at Posada de Mike Rapu offers three course meals with taro and freshly caught fish. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Although the island is only 163 square kilometres, visitors will discover and abundance of flora and fauna. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Palm trees line Easter Island's coast and beaches, where visitors and locals can spend their days splashing in the water. There are two white sand beaches on the island —  Anakena on the north side and Ovahe along the south shore. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Wild horses are seen grazing everywhere on the island and have become a bit of a nuisance, locals say. The horses outnumber Easter Island's 4,000 inhabitants two to one. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • The “Cave of the Virgins” dates back to the 1800s, when men from local tribes would compete in a series of challenging tasks, including swimming through strong currents to a rocky outcrop, finding a tern's egg and swimming back to climb the steep side of a volcanic crater. The winner, so the legend goes, could choose any virgin hidden in the cave “for purification,” and the chief of the winning tribe got to rule the island. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Easter Island's triangular shape is the result of three extinct volcanoes: Terevaka, Poike and Rano Kau. The Rano Kau crater is nearly a 1.6 kilometres across and is a part of Rapa Nui National Park. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Travellers staying at the Posada de Mike Rapu head back to their rooms to look out on the rolling volcanic hills, fields and shrubbery of Easter Island. The hotel was built by Explora in 2007 and its architecture mimics the landscape. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Looking out to sea, Ahu Tongariki is the largest cluster of moai (15 total) on the island. The Ahu Tongariki site was restored in the 1990s after many were toppled by tidal waves and during the civil war that left the island in ruins before it was discovered by Europeans in the 1700s. The statues face sunset during summer solstice. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

  • Silhouetted by the sun, moai statues stand tall as protectors of the island. To this day archeologists are puzzled by how their great weight was moved by the ancient islanders. (Photo: Photo: Kathy Frankiewicz)

I’M SITTING ON THE EDGE OF A CLIFF watching our guide search for the path to the “Cave of the Virgins.” Elena takes a few steps, trying to get her bearings without slipping on the eroding soil. I’m trying not to get vertigo from looking down the sheer slope to the crashing waves a couple of hundred metres below.

There are no guardrails in sight and the only fence around is the one we hopped over to hike up here. Perhaps Elena will be content to point out the cave, I’m thinking — and then she calls us over to the precipice and instructs us to start scrambling down. I look at my hiking companions, a newlywed couple from the Netherlands. They laugh nervously and begin the short descent. I shrug, then follow.

Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

We reach a narrow rocky ledge and a one-metre-high hole in the rock face. Squeezing through, I enter a dark, dank enclosure and try to imagine being cloistered inside for several weeks, even months. It doesn’t seem like there’s enough room for a handful of tourists, never mind seven or eight young brides-to-be.

The cave dates back to the 1800s, the era of the Birdman cult on Rapa Nui, which is better known as Easter Island, home of the moai or giant-head statues. Back when the Birdmen ran this 160-square-kilometre Polynesian paradise, which is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands, about 3,600 kilometres west of Chile, young men representing each of the island’s tribes competed against each other by swimming through strong currents and shark-infested waters to a small outcropping.

Pulling themselves out of the treacherous waves, they’d have to find a tern’s egg and strap it to their heads, then swim back and be the first to climb to the lip of an impossibly steep volcanic crater without breaking said egg. The stakes were high. The chief of the victor’s tribe would rule the island for a year and the winner, the legend goes, would get to choose his bride from the selection of lucky girls hidden in the cave for skin bleaching and purification. (That legend has, er, evolved alongside the local tourism industry. But that’s another story.)

Back at our hotel, Posada de Mike Rapu, purification comes easy. The glass, stone and pine structure, which has a fully curved perimeter and no front or back, was designed to blend into the surrounding topography. explora, the company that opened the 30-room luxury lodge in 2007, believes in discovering a place through in-depth exploration of the natural and cultural landscape. Upon arrival, guests are put into small groups and encouraged to participate in daily treks, accompanied by knowledgeable and friendly guides.

In the van on the way to a hike on our first afternoon, we pass a group of men repairing a low stone fence beside the road. Our gringo heads turn in unison to make sure we’re not imagining the guy in the loincloth.

“Oh, that’s Tito,” says Sami, today’s guide.

Tito, apparently, is one of few islanders dedicated to maintaining the ways of the ancestors. He spends some of his nights in a small hut in the middle of a field, grows taro and other vegetables, fishes and helps out with odd jobs to make a little money.

“Doesn’t he get lonely?” asks Paz, a lawyer from Spain on her second trip to the island.

“Plenty of female tourists to help with that,” quips Sami.

There are six people in my group of travellers and we quickly fall into an enjoyable routine of morning and afternoon excursions punctuated by siestas and gourmet meals. Taro and freshly caught tuna, yellowtail and kana kana are staples at the hotel restaurant (though the menu changes daily) and there are always wines to match. At the end of each day, we gather at the lobby bar and face the toughest decisions of the trip: what flavour of pisco sour? Afterwards, we retire to spa-like rooms that are decked out in eucalyptus, with high ceilings and large picture windows that look out over fields of swaying grass and rolling hills formed by ancient volcanoes.

Because I’m here in late May, early in the rainy season, much of the island is lush with vivid green vegetation, bright yellow lupins and fiery orange flame trees. The rest of the landscape is a wash of pale purple grasses and orange clay, broken up by bits of black volcanic rock. Despite myths to the contrary, there are indeed several varieties of trees on the island, including small fragrant forests of eucalyptus and towering palms near the beaches. There are also seabirds, lizards and horses. In fact, wild horses are the nuisance animal on the island, outnumbering the 4,000 or so inhabitants more than two to one.

There are also some 900 giant-head statues, of course, throughout the island. While they range in size, the largest moai — now laying on its side — is more than 20 metres long. These monoliths are thought to represent the ancestors of Rapa Nui’s tribes.

One of our first excursions brought us to the basalt quarry where 95 percent of the heads were born. Trekking single file, we emerged from a tangle of bushes and low trees to a panorama of moai scattered like marbles across the sloping hillside. Awed by this sight, my mind races to reconcile the enormous feat of engineering necessary to carve the sculptures and then transport them to sacred platforms, where they stood and served as watchful protectors. Archaeologists still aren’t sure how the moai were moved. The statues that broke in transit were left where they fell and some are still visible, halfburied surprises on our walks.

Back at the Cave of the Virgins, I make it up to the clifftop without breaking. I don’t have any tern eggs to pack in my bag for the long flight home, only the notion that there’s no better way to discover a place then by hiking up its hills and feeling a little bit claustrophobic in a cramped cave.

Getting there

LAN, Chile’s airline, flies to Easter Island several times each week. The island is a Chilean special territory and is a stop on the route between Santiago, the country’s capital, and Tahiti.

Staying there

Posada de Mike Rapu, named after explora’s local partner, free-diving champion Mike Rapu, is billed as the first LEED-certified lodge in South America.

Playing there

Après-hike options at the hotel include massages and the pool. Elsewhere on the island, one can shop at the craft market or take in a traditional dance or musical performance. The more adventurous may want to try surfing, scuba diving or mountain biking.

Rapa Nui in Montréal

An exhibition detailing the finer points of the history and culture of Easter Island’s Rapa Nui people has arrived at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History in Montréal.

Featuring more than 200 artifacts lent by 20 different institutions, the exhibit is a testament to the creative and technical skill of the most isolated people on the planet. Embarking from a point 1,000 years ago when Polynesians used their astronomical and seafaring knowledge to locate and settle the small island 3,510 kilometres west of Chile, the exhibit showcases Rapa Nui craft and cultural history.

Intricately carved wooden and stone objects reflect the islanders’ reverence for the god Makemake, or Birdman, creator of gods and humans. Especially interesting are pieces of celebratory headgear and a collection of rare objects inscribed with a system of signs that suggest the Rapa Nui may have been the only Polynesians to develop a system of writing.

The range of artifacts is accompanied by stories of Polynesian settlement and early lifestyles on the island, the organization of local society and religion, and the making of the enormous head statues that have become emblematic of Rapa Nui culture. And although none of the gigantic moai stone heads could make the 8,815 kilometre journey to Montréal, a replica is on hand to give a sense of their size.

Visitors will also gain insight into the clash of Western and Polynesian worlds during the period of European exploration, as well as the ongoing issues faced on the island due to the natural erosion of artifacts and the 40,000 or more tourists who visit the island every year.

The exhibit will be on display until November 14.

Hugh Pouliot