On this tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean, let Easter Island’s famous stone statues draw you to the annual Tapati Rapa Nui, a vibrant celebration of the island’s Polynesian culture.

Midday brings a lull to Easter Island. In the capital, Hanga Roa, fat dogs retreat beneath cars to escape the heat, hyperactive children fall silent and cling dozily to their parents, and businesses close, their owners drifting home to wait for sunset on shaded porches. In the torpid afternoon, Loti Garcia Haoa stands in shadow at the diving centre where he works as an instructor, shielding his eyes against the sun to stare out beyond the harbour to the South Pacific. A line of surfers paddle out to the open sea, bobbing up and over the furious waves that pound the coastline.

The elbows of Loti’s tattooed arms are bound tight with bandages. His wounds – which his grandmother earlier smothered in shark oil to help them heal – are a badge of honour, a souvenir from his part in the Tapati Rapa Nui. ‘I’ve wanted to take part since I was a kid. I promised myself I would do it. And I did it,’ he laughs, tossing back his long hair over muscular shoulders. ‘And I am still alive. With a few scrapes.’

The annual cultural festival brings together testosterone-filled tests of strength, daring and endurance with delicate displays of dance and arts in a two-week whirl that swells tourist numbers and involves most of the island’s 5,000-strong population. Loti’s own participation was in the most eagerly anticipated event, the Haka Pei. The rules for this are simple: stand naked but for a loincloth at the top of a 300m-tall volcano, hold on to two banana tree-trunks lashed together with twine and launch yourself feet-first downhill, reaching speeds of 50mph before skidding to a halt in front of a whooping crowd. ‘You are not in control of anything,’ Loti smiles. ‘The only thing you can hear is the grass swooshing and the trunk thudding. When you go, you really go!’

He was one of a couple of dozen young islanders to take part in the Haka Pei, many of whom had already competed in other gruelling physical activities before striding up Maunga Pu, the volcano used every year for the Tapati toboggan run. In the build-up, spectators laid out picnic blankets and coolboxes in any patches of shade they could find, ready for a day’s entertainment. As a traditional feast got under way, with festival organisers baking enough fish to feed 1,500, a makeshift community sprang up: an accordion band played under a gazebo, families sold empanadas, Corona and Sprite from the back of their Jeeps, and kids played Polynesian pop music through portable speakers. At the foot of Maunga Pui, the Tapati games continued. Competitors threw long spears at a distant post, each strike greeted with wild drumming, dancing and cheers from the crowd.

Set back from the hubbub, a green tent stood out against the brightest of blue skies. Men and women came and went, carrying tools or munching on slices of watermelon. Here, slowly fanning herself from the heat, sat Lilian Paté. Twenty-one years old, strikingly beautiful and with a smile that spreads easily across her face, ‘Lili’ is the driving force for half of the competitors. Along with 16-year-old Celine Bour- Manutomatoma, she is standing as a ‘candidate’ for Tapati, fronting a team that will compete in her name throughout the festival. The winners will see their figurehead crowned queen on the last night, ringing in one of the biggest celebrations of the year on an island that rarely needs an excuse for a party.

The miracle that there is a local population to celebrate here at all becomes clear from the top of Maunga Pu. From here, the island stretches out. Ludicrously bright green hills roll down to the rocky coast – and beyond that, nothing but the endless ocean and the curve of the horizon. There is no other land mass for 1,200 miles. Chile, of which Easter Island is a territory, is 2,300 miles to the east.

How this tiny dot in the middle of the South Pacific came to be inhabited is the subject of some debate, but the most widely accepted theory is that Polynesian seafarers arrived from the west around 400 AD, perhaps from their nearest neighbour, the Pitcairn Islands. Skilled navigators, they plotted their course by the stars, ocean and clouds, at a time when god-fearing Europeans still believed that the Earth was flat and they might fall off it if they sailed too far.

Remnants of the Polynesians’ early presence are found all over the island, from stone towers once used by priests to chart the stars, to ancient superstitions that persist in the local psyche. Yet their most enduring legacy – one that brings 85,000 tourists a year to the most remote inhabited island on the planet, are the moai. These stone heads, with heavy brows and brooding expressions, are familiar to people the world over despite the fact that few could place Easter Island on a map. Indeed, for a time, they were more coveted overseas than locally: with the arrival of Catholicism in the 19th century, the moais’ spiritual significance waned and they were happily sold to passing whalers, explorers and tourists. London’s British Museum has its own stone head – the Hoa Hakananai’a was picked up by the British Navy on a surveying trip in 1868.

Hakananai’a once presided over the sacred village of Orongo. Round stone houses still sit partly submerged across the spit of land that now forms part of Parque Nacional Rapa Nui. Here, the island’s chief would pick boys from different tribes to compete in the Birdman contest, an event that finds its echo in Tapati. The tribes would live in the village to wait for migrating terns to appear on the horizon; the birds were believed to have been sent by the creator god Make Make, and as such were imbued with incredible spiritual power, or mana. The first boy to bring back an egg would win the competition for his tribal head.

Edmundo Edwards, a genial archaeologist with an anecdote ever-ready to burst from his whiskered lips, points to a small island a mile offshore. ‘The terns would nest there, so the boys swam out and lived in caves until they laid their eggs. According to oral tradition, there were so many birds, the sky would turn black.’ The winner of the Birdman would paint his body red and spend a year in seclusion at Orongo, in order to become part of the spirit world. ‘He was allowed out only at night and was forbidden from washing, shaving or any sexual contact,’ remarks Edmundo drily. ‘It wasn’t a very good prize.’ He leans over to inspect a Birdman symbol carved into a rock. Such petroglyphs are found all over the island and as far away as Hawaii; no-one is entirely sure of their origin. ‘Easter Island is one part of a giant cultural jigsaw puzzle, to be fitted together from pieces in New Zealand, Hawaii and all of Polynesia.’

What is certain is that many of Easter Island’s 887 moai were originally carved out of the soft rock found at the Rano Raraku quarry to the east of Orongo. Today, it is a kind of moai graveyard, with stone heads poking out of the ground at sheer angles and toppled bodies lying higgledy-piggledy on grassy slopes. The biggest rises over 20 metres tall. A nose or stiff eyebrow gradually appears in an apparently featureless wall of rock, testament to the work that took place here from the 14th century onwards. While the practice at Ranu Raraku is to leave the statues where they lie, other sites have been restored to approximations of their former glory. On a windswept bay in the shadow of the quarry, a stone platform, or ahu, holds 15 moai, resurrected in the 1990s. As elsewhere, the moai here at Tongariki are a visible demonstration of the power of each tribe, representing the spirit, and perhaps also the physical likeness, of their ancestors. One wears a distinctive squat red hat, or pukao, symbolic of supernatural power.

None of the seven statues at Akivi now has a hat, but it is likely that they once did: the ground at their base is scattered with red debris. In the soft evening light, the track leading up to the site glows orange from dust kicked up by passing cows. Shadows sidle down the hillsides, folding small farmsteads and rows of eucalyptus trees into darkness as they edge towards the ocean. A man stands in front of the moai, headphones on and swaying to music as if preparing to conduct some strange orchestra. Behind him, the Pacific turns violet, then petrol blue, then black. The moai stand silently watching the sky, as they have done for centuries.

Valentino Riroroko Tuki (‘Valentine’), the island’s king, spent years watching over his people from the mainland in Chile. In a bright Hawaiian shirt, he sits outside a café in Hanga Roa, greeting all who pass. It’s the day of the Tapati parade and everyone is busy getting ready – assembling feather skirts, plastering their bodies with the island’s red mud, and putting the finishing touches to elaborate floats. When Valentine was born, the Chilean government had sold the lease for Easter Island to a commercial company that ran it as a sheep farm for more than 50 years. The local population was effectively captive on its own island, with no rights of ownership until they regained some level of autonomy in 1966. In 1954, Valentine and a few friends cast out into the Pacific in a simple wooden boat to seek their freedom. “I left to show the government that we would not be prisoners here,’ he recalls. His sea voyage had lasted 56 days and brought him to near-starvation when his boat finally washed up in the Cook Islands. ‘We were so exhausted and happy, everyone thought we were drunk!’ he laughs. He was passed on to Chile, where he stayed until returning to his homeland in 1974.

He waited nearly 50 years to be crowned, in July 2011 – more than a century since the birth of the island’s last king, his grandfather, on the beach at Anakena. His duties are unrecognisable from those of his ancestor, grappling issues of land ownership and economic rights that have entangled the island since it became part of Chile in 1888. Today, however, Valentine just wants to enjoy the parade. ‘Who do I want to win – Lili or Celine?’ he wonders. ‘Why, both of them, of course!’

Come the afternoon, the parade is in full swing. Girls in costumes made from feathers and mulberry bark dance in the street or hang off floats, followed by men in loincloths adopting fierce warrior poses. Children caked in red mud pass in prams hung with banana leaves and pushed by semi-naked parents in tribal costume. By the roadside, meat is grilled on oil-drum barbecues. Lili glides past on her throne, laughing at her team as they show-off around the float.

The last year of her life has been entirely devoted to Tapati. Her mother’s home, a wood and tin bungalow with roses growing in the garden, is taken over by it: feathers everywhere, drawings of body-paint designs hanging on the walls, and nightly meals for guests and helpers. It is the final day of the festival, and Lili sits in a green sarong in the shade of the garage as her cousins unload watermelons and bananas for the final feast. ‘When I was a child, I used to dance and dream of being the queen,’ she says in a shy murmur. ‘And now I see that everyone with me is so happy. So I have no nerves. I enjoy it all, every part of it.’

The dancing, taking place on a huge stage just outside town, is Lili’s favourite part of the festival. Each night, hundreds participate in exuberant Polynesian routines, with ukuleles jangling and drums pounding long into the night. Lili and Celine perform elegant and poised solo dances while judges mark their performances. These are added to the teams’ overall scores, which reflect every side of Easter Island’s culture – from Loti’s helter-skelter Haka Pei to the craftsmanship of a single headdress.

The dark clouds that have hung over Hanga Roa all day finally give up their rain as Lili and Celine take to the stage on Tapati’s final night. The head judge slowly reads out the scores as spectators run for cover. In the skirmish, the results barely register: Lili has won! She raises her arms to the skies and kicks off her heels to perform a celebratory dance with the team that helped her win. There is just time to return to the float that bore her through the parade to pose on her throne. A forest of arms rises up through the deluge, clutching digital cameras to capture Lili in her moment of glory. And with a final wave to the soaked crowd gathered around her, the new queen of Easter Island slides off her throne and disappears into the night, to the party that surely awaits.

The article 'Easter Island’s greatest festival' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.