Ahu and Moai - Oh My!

The two most important words to know in the Rapa Nui language are ahu and moai.

What are the ahu of Easter Island?

Ahu are the burial platforms for the revered leaders of the island’s 13 tribes. And the moai are the iconic statues representative of those leaders that stand atop the podia.

There are several that stand out as particularly unique and special on the island, that you’ll want to make sure to see.

The must-visit ahu of Easter Island

First, start with the evolution of the moai. You can see 3 unique stages of evolution of the moai features:

Evolution of the moai statues, from oldest and most primitive to a more evolved, leaner look.

  1. Early Generation. Smaller statues with a more weathered appearance are the oldest generation of moai; only a few discovered ones remain, as many of the earlier moai were recycled into the podium rocks in future ahu platforms.

  2. Middle Generation. These statues increased in size to around 4 meters (13 feet, 1 inch) in height at an average of 13.8 tons each, these moai are the iconic emblems of Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island.

  3. Later Generation. Growing ever larger, the evolution of the Moai tended toward leaner, more angular statues.

When Europeans and South Americans first came upon Easter Island, they reported various upright statues throughout the island; yet nearly all were pushed over by the late 19th Century.

All of the moai were pushed face town during the civil strife, during which the civilization collapsed.  Today you can see nearly a thousand moai statues, only a few of which have been re-erected by archeologists.

The most impressive of which is Ahu Tongariki.

Ahu Tongariki - the largest platform

With 15 Moai on a single platform - one with a pukao, or top knot made of reddish volcanic rock - it is the largest on the island. It even has the island’s largest moai statue, at 33 feet and 75 metric tons.

 15 moai statues stand atop Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform on Rapa Nui. 

15 moai statues stand atop Ahu Tongariki, the largest platform on Rapa Nui. 

At the Rano Raraku Quarry, where all moai were carved, you can also see “El Gigante,” a moai that was so big, it never actually made it out of the ground. Sculptors had carved a 72-foot tall behemoth that would have been way too large for the delivery crew to handle.

Ahu Akivi - the seasonal sundial

Also be sure to check out Ahu Akivi, a platform with seven moai, which is unique in being the only ahu that is inland and that faces the sea. It’s also a giant astronomical timepiece, as it faces directly at the sunset on the Spring Equinox and its back to the sunrise on the Autumn Equinox.

 Ahu Akivi is a giant seasonal sundial, with its back to the sunrise on the Autumn Equinox and facing sunset on the Spring Equinox. It's also the only one that is inland and facing the sea.

Ahu Akivi is a giant seasonal sundial, with its back to the sunrise on the Autumn Equinox and facing sunset on the Spring Equinox. It's also the only one that is inland and facing the sea.

Tahai Ceremonial Complex - the gathering space for Rapa Nui

 Ahu Tahai is the only moai displayed to full bravado, with restored coral and obsidian eyes and a red volcanic scoria pukao top knot.

Ahu Tahai is the only moai displayed to full bravado, with restored coral and obsidian eyes and a red volcanic scoria pukao top knot.

The Tahai Ceremonial Complex is also a necessary visit - a gathering area with three different ahu (Ko Te Riku, Tahai, and Vai Ure). Ahu Ko Te Riku is particularly notable, as it has been restored, complete with a new set of coral eyes with obsidian pupils and a red scoria pukao on its head. This is a moai in all its glory!

Between Ahu Vai Ure and Tahai is a canoe ramp carved from the volcanic stone; with only two sandy beaches on the island, so the ramp was important for getting canoes to and from the sea.

Head over here toward sunset to get beautiful views on the western side of the island.

Ahu Nau Nau and Anakena Beach - where the leaders reigned

And be sure to check out Ahu Nau Nau on Anakena Beach, the only other sandy beach on the island. It was here that the first civilization was settled on Rapa Nui and where island leaders once lived. During the civil unrest during which the moai were toppled, those at Ahu Nau Nau fell onto sand and were eventually covered by the sand, which helped preserve the statues from erosion. You can see some of the most refined and detailed moai, complete with petroglyphs etched into their backs.

 Ahu Nau Nau, at Anakena Beach, was the site of the island leaders' homes and is one of the best preserved of the detailed moai petroglyphs.

Ahu Nau Nau, at Anakena Beach, was the site of the island leaders' homes and is one of the best preserved of the detailed moai petroglyphs.

 Even unrestored, toppled-over moai are interesting to witness, even if they don't play a central role in the island's history.

Even unrestored, toppled-over moai are interesting to witness, even if they don't play a central role in the island's history.

You’ll see a ton of other ahus and moai scattered throughout the island. Not to detract from their significance (certainly stop and take a look when you come across a point of interest), but these are the must-see statues on Rapa Nui/Easter Island.

Getting to Rapa Nui

A visit to Rapa Nui/Easter Island is a great choice for any curious traveler who enjoys a bit of nature, solitude, and historical intrigue. With daily non-stop flights from Santiago, Chile (5 hours) and a weekly flight from Tahiti, it's not difficult to get to the island. It is definitely off-the-beaten-path, but certainly worth the effort to get there. 

To get the ball rolling on your own trip, get in touch with us.