Surfing on Easter Island
Surfing plays a significant part in island’s lore and can be traced back to the settlers who sailed here from Polynesia. (Brent Winebrenner/LPI)
Known worldwide for the curious stone heads (moai) that sprout up from the earth as if they were craggy hedges, Easter Island – or Rapa Nui – is the most remotely inhabited island on the planet. Around 75,000 adventurers make the journey to this Polynesian island each year to examine these strange sculptures, but few people know that the sport of surfing has played just as significant a role in the island’s history.
When the early settlers sailed to Rapa Nui from Polynesia, life on the lost island was all about living off the sea, and evidence indicates that crude surfboards were constructed for travel and fishing. But it was only in the early 1990s that the island found its way onto the surfing radar. In-the-know pros have been coming ever since to try their luck on some of the largest and most gratifying waves in the world.
The best time of year to surf on Rapa Nui is during the island’s winter months – January and February – when the crystalline sea rolls in under a cloudless sky. You can, however, have a brilliant wave-riding experience at any time of year; just be mindful of shifting winds and the occasional rain cloud. Tracking the tides is also essential: the rocky shoreline is exposed during low tide, so it is best to “hang ten” when the seas are high.
For the uninitiated, the shallow bay at Pea Beach near Hangaroa’s town centre is the optimal how-to locale. The gin-clear waters tumble in perfectly at high tide, and friends can watch from shore as you ride your first wave. This is also a good place for more experienced surfers looking to perfect their flips and tricks.
Surfing classes – much like the rest of the island’s activities – are fairly informal. The best place to saddle up with a board is at the thatched shack beside the tourist information centre in Hangaroa, easily spotted by its bright orange walls. Mai Teao, local surf pro and instructor extraordinaire, offers classes throughout the week barring inclement weather. It is best to call Teao (09-212-0473) the day before to set up a time for the following morning. He then will contact the local Chilean military outpost to get the stats on swells, tides and the forecast. A one-hour course including gear (board and wet suit) will cost 20,000 Chilean pesos for a private lesson or 15,000 pesos per person for a small group (half-day board rental only costs 10,000 pesos). Classes are a great way to learn more about the island’s past, as Teao vividly brings to life the fascinating history of local surfing along with a retelling of the ancient myths and legends involving sea spirit worship and tribal practices.
Once you have your sea legs, Rapa Nui is a choose-your-adventure kind of place, where you can tailor your surfing experience to your skill. The island is roughly shaped like a boomerang with its apex pointing north. The best spots for pros are along the island’s south side, particularly the bays of Paka Ai and Papa Tangaroa. On the west side, you will find large crashing waves -- like the infamous swells in Indonesia – at the bays of Tahai and Mata Veri; the latter’s long waves are particularly well suited to surf buffs looking to get a few more notches on their boards and hone their style. The swells on both these sides allow for plenty of height and air time before zigzagging towards the shore -- each wave is a different adventure.
Rapa Nui’s newest and best accommodation option is Hangaroa, a serene resort that pays tribute to the island’s tribal roots through its carefully crafted suites made from Chilean stone and lumber. The undulating exterior elicits the ovular design of the ancient Orongo village on the nearby Rano Kau crater lip. The hotel sits at the edge of Hangaroa, Rapa Nui’s only town, offering plenty of removed relaxation while also allowing access to the main attractions by foot.
LAN Airlines makes this faraway island easy to access with its regular flight services from both Santiago (six times weekly; no flight on Tuesdays) and Lima (two flights weekly; on Wednesday and Sunday).