One of the gifts of working in travel is the wide network of colleagues you meet along the way. Across air, car, cruise, destinations, hotels, travel advisors, tour companies, and event specialists—we’ve cumulatively traveled the globe! So it’s always a treat when you run into each other because chances are someone will have just returned from a trip. One of the features of Ports Are Calling will be a Q&A with industry insiders—or people who have a thing for travel—to spread the word, share a moment or shine a light on a particular destination or travel experience. I recently caught up with Catherine Reilly, Managing Director, Brendan Vacations, Ireland. When she’s not crisscrossing her motherland, Miss Reilly can often be found hiking near Lake Como or exploring a new destination experience. Because she’s blessed to travel so much, she considers herself a “privileged delinquent” and it was good to learn about her recent visit to Easter Island.
Q: What inspired you to travel to Easter Island?
A: I’ve visited South America several times, places like Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Galapagos Islands, the Amazon Rain Forrest, Iguassu Falls, and the wonderful cities of Santiago, Quito, Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima and more. I love this continent and this time a visit to Easter Island fitted nicely into my travel plans.
Q: So you obviously have a thing for South America. What is it about that continent that attracts you?
A: Reading about South America as a child I think I was first attracted by the wonderful place names, Paraguay, Uruguay, Patagonia, and Lake Titicaca. Now as a traveler I am inspired by its ancient civilization and culture, that’s what draws me back again and again.
Q: Do you think that might have something to do with the ancient history that’s in your bones as an Irish woman?
A: In Ireland all around us we witness our ancient civilization. At Newgrange for example we have a structure built thousands of years ago that remains today. At Machu Picchu the ancient civilization of the Incas is powerfully presented to us and through the statues on Easter Island we learn about the ancient Polynesians. The debate continues as to whether these structures, temples, monuments were built to venerate their dead or worship their Gods, or were there other reasons? That said, the fascination is with the people who built these amazing places and things with such engineering skills, knowledge of geometry, astronomy, and respect for their environment. Today we visit, stand in awe and remind ourselves they didn’t have metal yet!
Q: What about Easter Island surprised or fascinated you?
A: The locals refer to their island as Rapa Nui and you visit to see the Moai (not statues). Interestingly, ‘Rapa Nui’ is the name of the country and the local language and ‘Rapanui’ refers to the people. The island is so small, about 26 miles long. The biggest attraction is, of course, the Moai, there are so many of them and they are all over this little island and they’re so big. They’re not protected in any way, so the island relies on the visitor to treat these treasures with respect. What’s fascinating is not just the monumental stonework and the amount of effort it took to build the Moai, there is also the mystery of why the islanders toppled them all over.
Q: They’re statues but the Moai sound like more of a presence?
A: Oh, absolutely, yes, the energy on the island is amazing. It’s like when I walk around some places in Ireland, I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of my ancestors. There is a presence on Easter Island and when you visit Rano Raraku, the quarry where there’s something like 400 of these statues still there in various stages of carving, some are half-finished and some are just heads, it’s like one day, the people making them just all up and left.
Q: Aside from the Moai, were you drawn to any particular part of the island?
A: My favorite place on the island was the Rano Kau, a crater shaped like an amphitheater. When I arrived at the crater it was clear just how remote it all is, truly wonderful, you’re just surrounded by the big, blue ocean. The island is Ireland green, and the ocean around it is all different kinds of blue and turquoise, and every time you look at it you can see a different color.
Q: How’s the island hospitality?
A: It’s fantastic, super friendly. The population on Easter Island is approximately 5,500. It’s governed by Chili and 60% of the islanders are Rapanui, and the rest are from the mainland. Most of our guides were Rapanui and they were all very proud to share their stories. The islanders are extremely welcoming. The post office will even stamp your passport with a Rapa Nui stamp!
Q: Where did you stay?
A: I stayed at the Explora lodge, which is five miles from Hanga Roa, where 95% of the population lives and the only place on the island with electricity and running water. There are hotels, restaurants, mini markets and the usual souvenir shops. The local currency is the Chilean peso but you can easily use US dollars.
Q: How’s the local cuisine?
A: The food was excellent, great variety, with lots of fresh fish and vegetables. It was all very tasty and healthy.
Q: Any interesting experiences?
A: One of the traditions on the Island is a triathlon with the difference being that it takes place during the Tapati festival in February. It’s only open to Rapanui men, and one of our guides participates each year so it was interesting to hear about it from his perspective. It’s a race that requires extreme stamina. The contestants paddle across the lake 650m in canoes made out of reeds. They then pick up enormous heads of bananas and run one and a half times the circumference of the lake. They then swim and surf across the lake atop a reed surfboard. The men are very scantily clad for this competition.
Q: How many days do you recommend to visit and what time of the year is the best to go?
A: I travelled there with LAN, a South American Airline from Santiago. The flight was just under six hours and there’s daily service. I travelled in the off-season in April, there was some rain but I was able to see the Moai practically alone. It’s quite remote, the island is situated in the Pacific Ocean, half way from the coast of Chile and Tahiti, three full days are a must. The Tapati Festival happens in February and that’s peak time to visit.
Q: Most people over pack for trips, what do you recommend for an Easter Island visit?
A: You’re visiting a special place that so few others have ever set foot, so bring an open mind. After that, all you need is casual clothes and comfortable walking shoes—something closed toe is good, not flip-flops or sandals. High season is January through March but the weather is fairly good for the remainder of the year, so I’d recommend sunscreen and a hat. Pack a light rain jacket for an off-season trip. It’s an island so there are beaches where you can swim, and for divers there are caves to explore. Make sure you have plenty of memory card space and batteries for your camera.
Q: Why should people visit Easter Island?
A: Because it’s one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world with a unique history and archaeological wealth greatly disproportionate to its size. A visit to the island will unlock some of the mysteries associated with Rapa Nui, sort out the facts and fiction.
Q: Do you recommend hooking a visit to Easter Island onto any other destinations?
A: For sure—Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil. Chile and Easter Island for example. Chile is home to some of the most beautiful and exotic scenery in the world, from the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in the Extreme South, not far from Antarctica, to the beautiful city of Santiago and the nearby vineyards—the itinerary choices we can design here are as diverse as they are endless. Brendan’s team, Boutique Journeys, creates amazing South American itineraries and extensions to Easter Island.
Q: Easter Island is considered something of a “bucket list” destination. How popular is it for Brendan customers?
A: It used to be difficult to get there but flights have increased and it’s becoming more popular for us each year. When you consider that only a total 4,000 travelers visited the island in 1989 from all over the world and in 2012 that number increased to 85,000. That’s still a small number in global tourism terms, but when you think of the size of the island and the number of inhabitants a different picture emerges. If tourism continues to grow, they’re going to have to protect the island in some way because it’s a heritage site. They will probably have to restrict visits, like they do on the Galapagos and on the Inca trail. It’s not a place that you can get to easily so the folks who book with us tend to have a traveler, not a tourist, mindset. They’re not looking for the creature comforts—they’re looking for an experience. The Brendan team does an excellent job in managing expectations and matching the needs of the customer with the experience
Q: So it sounds like the ideal thing would be to figure which South American country you’d like to explore and build Easter Island into the itinerary. If anyone is interested in booking a trip with Brendan to discover Easter Island, what should they do?
A: That’s easy, they just talk to their travel agent!