Aereal view of Rano Raraku with Poike volcano in the background
The Rano Raraku volcano is one of the major milestones on Easter Island and perhaps most surprising, so it is worth spending the time to take it all in.
Located in the southeast part of island close to the coast, it’s known as “the quarry” as it was here where the moai were carved and then taken to the ahus distributed throughout the island. The quarry is made of tuff, i.e. hardened volcanic ash and is, therefore, softer and easier to cut; although it’s more fragile than basalt, a material used primarily as a sculpting tool.
This place’s ancient name was Maunga Eo, meaning “fragrant hill”, because a very aromatic plant used to permeate the entire area with its smell.
View of the volcano quarry
The feeling you get when you visit this huge archaeological site is quite shocking. In Rano Raraku there are 397 moai in various stages of development and it seems as if the sculptors left the job abruptly and could come back at any moment.
The road forks in two at the site’s entrance. The path on the left leads to the volcano’s crater, and the one on the right leads to the quarry. Shortly after taking the path on the right you’ll start seeing several half-buried moai. Over time, once the quarry was abandoned, the land that had been dug up to form ramps to facilitate the uprising of the statues ended up burying the sculptures that were unfinished or waiting to be transferred. Ironically, this was the best way to protect these stone giants, which still retain all of the details and the original color of yellow tuff that is brighter on these moai than the ones exposed to inclement weather.
Excavating work where the buried body of a moai is observed
The first moai you’ll find in Rano Raraku, gives you an idea of the magnitude of the work done here by the Rapa Nui. Although most of the statues are half buried, we can imagine its magnificent proportions when you consider that the size of the head is about one third of the size of the sculpture. Some exceed 13 meters.
Horses grazing near the first moai
A little later on, following the path, there are two moai that have possibly become the Easter Island’s best know image, since they appear in many books, promotions and even tourist guidebooks covers.
The most famous image of the moai statues
The right one has well defined features and a smooth back so it’s assumed that it was finished and ready to be transported to its final location. The one on the left, on the contrary, has unfinished details. It was the latter which Thor Heyerdahl in 1955 chose to dig up to show that the sculptures were partially-buried whole moai from the quarry and not just heads.
If you follow the road up to the left, it enters the quarry itself. It was there at the top of the volcano where all of the moai were carved. The statues were always carved face up to make the details of the face, torso and arms in the same place. In fact, the nose served as a guide to keep things centered and proportional. Once this phase was completed, the sculpture was slowly detached from the bedrock and was lowered by dirt ramps to a pit where they would be stood up in order to finish the polishing and back carving process.
The largest moai ever carved
In the highest part of Rano Raraku route, the largest moai ever made on the island can be found, unfinished. Its dimensions are almost unbelievable. It is 21 meters long, its head alone is 7 meters, and it’s estimated to weigh more than 200 tons. The size of this sculpture shows the obsession the Rapa Nui had to create larger and larger moai each time, which eventually ended up exhausting their resources (such as wood and rope) and degenerated them into a social crisis. Oral tradition states that this huge giant was destined to Ahu Tahira in the Vinapu area.
Moai lying on carving process
A little later on, there are two other moai lying on the rock next to each other with unfinished carvings. The front one seems to have complete details and be attached to the rock only by its back. While the back one is at an earlier stage of the process and has an unfinished left side. If you look closely you can identify a third moai up to the right and another one to the left.
Moai Tukuturi o kneeling moai
Following the way down, at the farthest point of the quarry is the most surprising of all the moai, known by the name of Tukuturi or “kneeling moai”. This moai is completely different from any other one on the island. It’s much smaller, has well defined legs, and is kneeling with its hands resting on its knees. Its facial features are rounded, much more human when compared with the traditional square shaped heads of the other moai; and if you look from the side, you could even say that it has a small beard.
It was unearthed by Thor Heyerdahl in 1955, and its discovery was a surprise, for even the Rapa Nui had not heard of it. Although some researchers argue that it may belong to a later period, the prevailing idea is that it was one of the first sculptures to be made and wasn’t transported either because it was damaged or simply because it was never intended to be erected on a platform. Some even speculate that it’s the representation of a famous master sculptor, set on the edge of the quarry to supervise the work of his successors.
European ship carved into the torso of a moai
On the way back, there’s a moai that has a three-mast ship with square sails carved into its torso, which corresponds to the European ship’s design. Surely the arrival of the first Europeans to Easter Island in the 18th century shocked the inhabitants so much that someone decided to use this abandoned moai to leave evidence of what they had seen.
On the left, small moai carved on the head of another moai
On the center path of the three that run down the slope, there is a rather interesting moai. Usually when a moai fell or broke, it was left in place because it was believed that it had lost its mana. Apparently, this moai cracked in half when it was being set down, and someone then carved an entire moai on what was its head; so it looks like a little moai on the shoulders of another moai.
After the tour of the quarry, taking the left path at the initial fork in the road, there is an approximately ten-minute drive to the crater of Rano Raraku.
View of the lagoon inside the crater
This crater, 650 meters in diameter, has at its center a freshwater lagoon about 5 to 7 meters deep. On its slopes about 70 half-buried moai can be found, which shows that the demand for the production of these sculptures was so great at one point that even the tuff from inside the volcano was used as material. Transporting the moai from this area was even more difficult, because you had to bring them down to the edge of the lake and get them out of the crater following the same path that today serves as a visitors trail.
During the Tapati festival in February each year, this crater is where one of the most popular sporting events in the island is held, the Rapa Nui Tau’a or Easter Island triathlon. Competitors first cross the lake in a reed canoe, then run a lap and a half around it carrying two bunches of plantains, and finally cross it again but this time swimming on a pora (reed board).
There’s a ranger station at Rano Raraku’s entrance where you must pay the National Park entrance or provide proof of having done so previously.