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On Easter Island, face to face with the moai

Thor Heyerdahl's 'Kon-Tiki' brought Easter Island to the world, but the famed stone statues long preceded him

Stepping out of our 20-passenger bus on a hot January morning, we spotted them across a grassy field: six stone statues of strange-looking men.

Or gods.

Or chiefs.

Most were as tall as two basketball players, one standing on the other's shoulders. Their bellies protruded, and the eye sockets in their oversized heads were empty.

These are the famed, carved moai, pronounced mow-eye.

I had wanted to come to Easter Island to see them since I was teenager, having devoured Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon-Tiki," the story of his 1947 journey across the Pacific.

Now I was here, with the South Pacific and our white cruise ship, the Oceania Marina, as a backdrop. I wanted to hug one.

As if reading my mind, guide Carlos Paoa said, "Don't touch the moai or climb on their platform."

Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen is credited with "discovering" and naming the 64-square-mile volcanic island on April 5, 1722 — Easter. Polynesians were already here, and so were the moai.

But it was Heyerdahl who inspired my obsession, first with "Kon-Tiki" and later with "Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island."

I loved the book and was fascinated by the mysterious island and its expressionless, pockmarked moai, which are depicted almost as frequently by New Yorker cartoonists as they are by National Geographic photographers.

My voyage here on the Oceania Marina was much more glamorous than Heyerdahl's 4,300-nautical-mile trip on a balsa raft. The overnight stop here was my reason for signing up for this 18-day cruise from Valparaiso, Chile, 2,300 miles east, to Papeete, Tahiti, 2,600 miles west.

Paoa was our shepherd. His family has lived for generations on Easter Island, which locals call Rapa Nui. Tourism is the primary source of income for the 5,700 residents.

Wearing a camouflage cap and standing like a soldier at ease, he said most scientists now dismiss Heyerdahl's theories that the first inhabitants were pre-Incas sailing from South America.

But who really knows for certain — a frequent answer to questions asked on Easter Island.

The moai were carved from hardened volcanic ash between AD 1000 and 1600, Paoa said. About 900 remain, as tall as 33 feet and weighing as much as 80 tons.

We huffed and puffed under a searing January sun, hiking up the hilly quarry where partly carved moai remain embedded. Others were pushed upright in the last 70 or so years, some lean at odd angles.

"Why don't they face the ocean?" I asked Paoa.

"Families of chiefs commissioned the moai and set them up to face their communities," he said.

"When coral eyes were inserted, their spirit was activated and they projected energy to their people." Many people believe rival tribes knocked down the moai and gouged out their eyes. Only one white coral eye remains, in a tiny museum.

"What about this moai?" I asked, pointing to a practically perfect monolith with a square jaw, rust-colored topknot, white eyes, red pupils, long ears and slit mouth.

"The body is authentic," Paoa said, peering through his aviator sunglasses. But the topknot and the cement red eyes were added for a photo shoot for Paris Match magazine. "The February 1968 issue," he said.

That we know for sure. I still wanted a hug, even from Monsieur Perfect.

::

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO EASTER ISLAND

From LAX, LAN offers direct service (stop, no change of plane) to Santiago, Chile, and United, LAN, Copa, Delta, American and Aeromexico offer connecting service (changes of planes). Restricted round-trip airfares from $886 to $1,067, including taxes and fees.

Oceania Marina ([800] 386-9283) sails Jan. 7-25, 2016, from Valparaiso, Chile, to Papeete, with stops at Robinson Crusoe Island, an overnight off Easter Island; Pitcairn; Fakarava, Rangiroa and Bora-Bora.

Oceania fares for the 18-day voyage, which include round-trip airfare from LAX, begin at $5,299 per person in an inside cabin and $6,499 for the least expensive balcony cabin.

Among other lines sailing to Easter Island are Crystal, Costa, Regent, Lindblad and Princess.

TELEPHONES

To call Easter Island from the United States, dial 011 (the international code), 56 (country code for Chile), 32 (Easter Island) and the local number.

TOURS

Sign up at http://www.cruisecritic.com/rollcalls to connect with other passengers on your cruise; this is how I found my independent, two-day tour of Easter Island.

Easter Island Spirit Tours; easterislandspirit.com. I booked its A and B tours ($260 and $220, respectively), with Carlos Paoa as our guide.

Green Island Tours; gitourseasterisland.com/en. Similarly priced, and recommended by shipmates.

Take $60 in cash to pay the fee for Rapa Nui National Park, which is the entire island.

WHERE TO STAY

Tauraa Hotel, Atamu Tekena, Hanga Roa, Easter Island; 210-0463, http://www.tauraahotel.cl. About $180, with breakfast. Locally owned B&B in town, across from supermarket. Basic rooms have refrigerator and coffee maker.

Hotel Puku Vai, Hotu Matua, Hanga Roa, Easter Island; 255-1838, pukuvaihotel.com. Rates $200-$240, with breakfast. Across from airport and a 20-minute walk to town. Pool, TV, air-conditioning, Internet.

WHERE TO EAT

Te Moana, Atamu Tekena Road, Hanga Roa, Easter Island. Renowned for its ocean-front sunset views and terrace. Continental food. Fish, ceviche.

Makona Restaurant, Hanga Roa, Easter Island. Popular, large portions of fresh seafood, Makona potatoes.

TO LEARN MORE

"A Companion to Easter Island," by Easter Island resident James Grant-Peterkin; updated December 2014

Easter Island Tourism, easterislandtourism.com

travel@latimes.com

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