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.