EASTER ISLAND, JUAN FERNANDEZ AND CHILOE
Everything is mysterious on exotic Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, as its people call it: where did the first settlers come from and what took them there? How did they erect the 50-ton moais and carry them from the hills to the seashore? What was the manu-tara legend really like? Will it be possible someday to decipher the rongo rongo tablets, a form of written language now forgotten that contains much of the island's history?
Natives call their island Te Pito e Te Henua or the "navel of Earth". To visit Easter Island is to walk on rocks of lava and ash colonised by vegetation and interspersed by dozens of small lagoons and the open craters of the island's three volcanoes. Like a dot in the immensity of the ocean, this portion of land -the most isolated on Earth- was discovered on Easter Day in 1722 by Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveenen. Today, when seen from the air, its solitude and smallness impress the observer and even more so when they realise that the landing strip crosses the whole south-western side of this triangular island. The airport lies near the town of Hanga Roa where most of the population lives. Here, to the sound of Polynesian music, the visitor receives unforgettable welcome on being given a flowered garland. In contrast when the visitor leaves they receive another garland this time of seashells for as the tradition goes this is the way to secure the visitor's return.
To become immersed in the mystery of the moais, you must start in the Rano Raraku volcano on the northern tip of the island. The great stone statue workshop was located there, and even today the statues can be seen in their various degrees of completion. About 80 half-finished statues can be found and around 200 that are almost finished. Numerous theories abound on how these 21 meter-high idols were transported to be set on their altars or ahu. At first glance the moais faces seem very similar but the careful observer soon realises that they different. It is believed that they are the portraits of the great family chiefs, set on their platforms so that they could continue to watch over their tribe.
Many moais were deliberately brought down during the course of local wars, while others were swept over by a tidal wave that struck the island in 1960. Nevertheless, there are still more than 400 scattered around this mysterious place. A famous restoration was undertaken a few years ago -fully respecting the island's traditions- in which a row of moais were put back on their feet, had their hats put on and had their eyes painted in as was done in the past.
Amid its landscape of palm trees, beaches and crystal clear waters through which you see the coral reefs, Rapa Nui has kept intact its stone built ceremonial city of Orongo. Traditionally, every year a ritual was celebrated there to elect the tribe that would rule the island. In the first months of the spring, each tribe sent a delegation to take part in a competition that consisted of climbing down a steep slope, swimming to the small barren island of Mutu Nui, grabbing the first egg of the manu tara bird and coming back to deliver it unbroken to the chief.
Nowadays life in Easter Island is more pleasant and less risky. The main activity its people are engaged in is tourism. The island has several hotels to choose from and some families also offer lodging in their houses. Those islanders not involved in providing accommodation are artisans, fishermen or simply spend their time mingling with the island's visitors telling stories and recounting the island's way of life. As well as archaeological tours, the visitor can enjoy horse rides and barbecues in forests by the beaches with warm waters and abundant fishing. The temperate climate means these activities can be enjoyed all year round, with May being the rainiest month and February the hottest one. There are flights from Santiago three times a week and the journey takes five hours.
The islands of the Juan Fernández Archipelago are famous for their history, the exuberance of their vegetation, their seals and their incomparable lobsters. To many navigators and bold adventurers of the South Pacific, anchoring there must have been the equivalent of finding an oasis after a long and exhausting walk through the desert. There they found a safe shelter against the storms, abundant drinking water, fishing and dense forests within which to take refuge.
Sevillian navigator Juan Fernández
was the first to discover the archipelago on November 22nd 1574. He called
them Más a Tierra (nowadays Robinson Crusoe Island), Más
Afuera (Alejandro Selkirk Island) and the barren island of Santa Clara.
Fernandez disembarked on the islands with 60 indians and mercilessly killed
the sea lions he found to make use of their blubber. Later, and perhaps
as a punishment by the spirit of the sea, the ship in which he loaded
the cargo sank and Fernández lost all his possessions.
Along with the islands' stirring history, the beauty of its exotic flora and fauna adds to its attractiveness. On the rocks near the main pier, a few "two-hair" seals can still be seen, a native mammal that is a now a protected species after having been over-exploited in the 19th century. From time to time, "bottle nose" dolphins swim by, and hundreds of birds live in the lush jungle of ferns, palms and green oranges. Among such birds is the red hummingbird, unique in the world. However, the archipelago's most famous specimen is the Juan Fernández lobster, a most valued crustacean that supports the archipelago's inhabitants. Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1977, the Juan Fernández archipelago has also been a national park since 1935. The archipelago's 600 inhabitants live in San Juan Bautista, a small town that has a modern dock, inns and guesthouses, phone, post office, first aid services, police, television, tourism information office and even a House of Culture. Basically, the essential services for those seeking to enjoy a natural paradise surrounded by a cobalt blue sea that invites diving and sport fishing in an underwater world of unparalleled beauty.
The Chiloé Archipelago is known for having its own magical world. Its historic and cultural life mainly takes place in the coves and inlets facing the sea channel, which runs between the island and the continent. On this side the island the sea is calmer and more hospitable than that of the Pacific coast. The men of Chiloé inherited from the "chono" indians their liking for fishing and from the "huilliche" indians their agricultural tradition. The land and the sea are the basis of their livelihood and the two great forces that govern their lives. For the "chilote", his boat is a travelling house and he learns to live in it in childhood. The tides are the clock regulating his days and it is the tides which have dictated the construction of his house or palafitte, built on the seashore. During the high tide the boats practically reach his door, while in the low tide, the ground beneath is covered with a variety of molluscs ("choros", "navajuelas", "cholgas" and "machas") that the women and children hasten to gather. These molluscs form are part of the daily diet and of the typical gastronomy of Chiloé. They are used in soups, "pailas marinas", "pulmai" and above all the "curanto", a mixture of shellfish, meat, fish, potatoes and vegetables that is prepared over heated stones set in a hole in the ground.
Along with the palafittes and houses with wooden-tile roofs to protect them from the rain, Chiloé exhibits a religious architecture in the form of a hundred beautiful churches made entirely of wood. These churches can be found in every corner of the island. Their towers serve as lighthouses for navigators and although many were built more than three centuries ago, they still preserve their porches and their polychrome altarpieces with painted star-filled skies.
The city of Castro -in the center of Isla Grande (Large Island) and the provincial capital- was founded in 1567 and is the ideal place to begin a journey that must include Chonchi, Dalcahue, Achao, Mechuque, Cucao and Ancud. In these beautiful, old and friendly towns with their marketplaces and churches there is always the right place to have a meal. And you will never fail to find a house with its doors open, where people tell stories around a log fire that is always burning to smoke the apples, meat and shellfish hanging over it. Sitting close to the fire, the people relive the myths that have made Chiloé famous. They talk about strange creatures hiding in the forests, warlocks, ghost ships and curses. They may say there was a full moon rainbow that night or they may be gathered to organise a "minga". The minga is a collective task in which the whole community takes part, one not unusual example would be the dragging a wooden house with the help of yoked oxen from one location to another, sometimes this may even include a short sea voyage between islands.
The women of these islands work the land and weave sheep's wool, while the men "go off to sea" to work in the salmon fisheries that have recently turned Chile into the world's largest salmon producer. Chiloé is an ideal place for young people to go backpacking, and anyone that visits the island will be able to enjoy horse and bicycle rides, as well as take boats to visit the more distant islands. Chiloé's main feature is that it is a place where there is much to learn and hear, without the rush of the big city. A group of islands where there's always time to wait for the cooking of the "curanto", to drink apple liquor or chicha as well as Golden Liquor while remembering the mythological characters ("Trauco", "Pincoya", "Invunche", "Fiura" and "Caleuche") that hide in the green nature of hills and forests, sea and rains that are such an integral part of this fascinating archipelago.
Having the appearance of a finger pointing north towards the famous Cape Horn - the most fearsome pass to ships sailing these waters - the Antarctic Peninsula harbours the scientific bases of nine countries. These bases study the great mineral and biologic resources of this vast ice-capped region. The research centres located in the Chilean bases of Presidente Frei and Rey Jorge Island can be visited.
The region's unique features make the inhabited territory of the South Pole an especially attractive destiny for those who have travelled extensively. Only here will the experienced traveller and those with the spirit of exploration have the privilege of experiencing first-hand what has been described as the coldest, driest and windiest place on Earth. It is worth remembering that in 1966 a temperature of minus 88.3º Celsius was recorded at the Vostok base - this has proved to be the lowest temperature so far recorded anywhere in the world.
Antarctica is the only place on Earth where there are more penguins than people. It is a place where sea lions and seals relax on floating ice whilst whales swim in their midst. Without a doubt, one of the biggest attractions of Antarctica is to see the blue whale up close, the world's largest animal, while it feeds on the enormous krill production of the Austral waters. The movement of the whales among the icebergs and the rhythmic sound of their water jets will forever fix this white and lonely landscape in the visitor's memory.
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