Copacabana Beach with sushi

By daylight we could go out on to the terrace and look east across Copacabana Beach and west up what I imagine to be Morro dos Cabritos mountain with a favela (or slum) at its foot. We went out of our air-conditioned apartment into the warmth of the city and the white sandy beach. We crossed the divided road along the ocean front and walked along the promenade watching the other strollers, the beach frolickers, vendors and the permanent kiosks that line the edge of the sand. We stopped at a beach cafe and drank bottled water from glasses that were soon dew-frosted in the humid air. As we sat relaxing, there was a continual flow of vendors and musicians. Peanut vendors would tip a few nuts onto small slips of paper that were whisked away if we did not eat any to indicate that we wished to buy. We were offered hats, sunglasses, towels, and clothes. When, as part of this relentless stream, a smiling man tried to thrust a green brochure upon us I tried to wave him away like all the rest. W, however, was intrigued and took the pamphlet. It was for a tourism agency based just a block away from our apartment. Rio Maximo offered local tours, activities, currency exchange and airport transfers. They claimed to speak English, Portugese, and Spanish; and their pricing seemed fair. We had been wondering what to do with our big bags in the twelve hours between leaving the apartment and the departure of our flight on Monday. With a return journey to the airport costing almost £40 in taxi fares, it no longer seemed feasible to dump our bags at left luggage while returning to the city for the day. Perhaps, W speculated, the agency would look after our bags if we spent the day on one of their tours. Changing some dollars with them would give us a feel for our level of comfort with them.

We finished our drinks and returned to the apartment to collect some dollars before visiting the agency office. Antonio, the brochure distributor, was sitting on one of the visitors' chairs near the door. It was clear that he remembered us (perhaps we were his only success). He greeted us warmly and, after an amicable chat, directed us to his colleague Daniel, who was the only member of staff not wearing a bright uniform shirt. Daniel spoke English comfortably, pointed out a reasonable exchange rate listed on a whiteboard, and was entirely happy to store our bags while we took one of their tours. We accepted the published cash price (about £8 below the published credit card price) and enquired about the cost of an airport transfer after the tour. Their fixed tariff was also published at about £30 so we booked a car too. We handed over enough dollars to cover our bookings and leave us a couple of days of spending money. Our sightseeing plans were made and we could now forget any further research. And the reason for Daniel's unofficial shirt: he had forgotten his uniform that morning.

It was late for breakfast. We chose to seek an early lunch. W wanted sushi but in the lift down to the street a resident engaged us in conversation. Portugese-born, she had come to Rio as a child and remained for some fifty years. We asked her about grill restaurants and she took us to the street corner, pointed out one recommendation and started to lead us into another. We explained that we needed the information for later, thanked her (in Portugese), and said goodbye.

We had seen several sushi outlets from our taxi ride. It was time to find the nearest. And the nearest was Umê Sushi on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, the long street that runs parallel to the beach just a block back from the strand. A small Japanese woman slid open the door when we approached. She showed us through a small shop to a small restaurant at one side. We were seated beside the kitchen and I was delighted to watch the itamae and his assistant preparing the food from piles of fresh fish. A placid young man gave us a menu in English from which we chose edamame and a substantial mixed platter. The drinks were stored in an open refrigerated unit in the shop and there was no premium for consuming them on site instead of taking them away. The Japanese beers were significantly more expensive than local lagers but the prices were comparable to London. I ordered a Kirin Ichiban and was only mildly surprised to see that it was brewed in São Paulo because I knew that Kirin is multinational.

The sushi and sashimi were really good. I had heard that Brazil has a huge Japanese population but I had not really considered the implication this has for the quality of its Japanese cuisine. The consequence is delightful and I also enjoyed the varied Japanese stock of the attached shop: not just foodstuffs but housewares, manga, books, and action figures.

Next door to Umê Sushi stood Rio in Box, a stylish souvenir shop with every item displayed in its own distinct space. Remarkably, this apparently luxurious approach was not reflected in the pricing and we found a full range of price points. I bought two small zipped pouches in the Copacabana mosaic design and a commonplace Rio de Janeiro carabinier key ring as a simple memento.

On the same street as our apartment were cheap local bars, independent diners and a grocery. None of these were serving the tourist trade. From the grocery we bought bananas. I had intended to spend the afternoon reading and writing but, instead, I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, W explained that we had already exhausted our local currency. We returned to Rio Maximo where Daniel was now wearing a uniform shirt.

With our new wealth we went to another beachside kiosk for caipirinhas and grilled prawns. This was just an appetiser for the main event: a 'por kilo' buffet where you pay by weight (with a higher rate for desserts). Our Portugese neighbour had recommended the Expresso Grill on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana. It was a long narrow room stretching back from the street to a central buffet station at the back near a counter. At one end of the counter stood a woman in front of two electronic scales; at the other was a big grill. It lacked glamour but the food looked appealing. We served ourselves from the varied buffet and put our filled plates on the scales, which printed a price sticker that the assistant attached to the single sheet that we had each received upon entry. The savoury buffet dishes and the grilled meats were all at one price so the grill cook slapped whatever we requested onto the large plates before we took our meals to be weighed. Drinks were served by a waiter who marked them off in preprinted boxes on our sheets. Desserts were put on smaller plates that went on the other set of scales. The food was cheap and tasty but the quality of the more costly items was reduced to accommodate the pricing. We could see why these places were so popular.


Santiago to Rio

After washing under the large shower head in the bathroom, we packed our small bags and walked along a large busy road towards the central square. Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins has five lanes running in each direction through a rather seedy part of the city. Estación Central was not far into our journey. It is the only remaining railway station in the city. Its magnificent late nineteenth century ironwork was designed by Gustave Eiffel less than a decade after his great Parisian tower.

As we walked east, the quality of the neighbourhoods improved and the great road divided with tall trees in a linear park along its median. This was where we now chose to walk. Small groups of young people gathered with banners ready for the student demonstration against corruption in the education system. When the median park narrowed away we turned north past large government buildings, a cultural centre and museums. On the corner of a pedestrianised street we found a branch of Domino's, a local fast food chain. It has tiled walls and a stainless steel counter with a strong 1950s flavour. It was filled with business people grabbing breakfast at the counter or sitting at small tall tables. A helpful waiter in a white hat and apron saw that we were unsure of the protocol, took us to a table, showed W how to clip her bag to a carabinier under the table and guided us through the selection of orange juice, ham and eggs with coffee for me and Coke Zero for W. By now we were used to the accommodating goodwill that people afforded our inept Spanish. To our surprise, the orange juice was over 300 ml of freshly squeezed tastiness. The rich ham was chopped into eggs scrambled in a small double handled steel dish like a shallow balti dish or a tiny rounded paella pan. And there were five unexpected slices of lightly toasted sweet white bread. The only disappointment was the coffee: Nescafe but I bet I could have had a freshly ground brew if I had asked. The whole lot came to less than £8 and we gave our waiter a slightly generous tip before settling the bill with the cashier by the door.

We were very near the Plaza de Armas, which we had been told was the most picturesque of the squares in this vicinity. It was a visual feast with tall coconut palm trees shading many benches and enough people to give it an appealing bustle without crowding. At the western corner stood the Metropolitan Cathedral and the central post office. The cathedral had an anodyne neoclassical exterior with a couple of towers all clad in scaffolding and hoarding at ground level but the inside was a baroque explosion. Along both sides of the nave were several open confessionals in dark wood with the penitent facing their confessor unscreened. A redundant red light above each of the occupied boxes warned others of the need to observe secrecy but I saw no-one cover their ear as is common in some churches.

The post office is very French in appearance with a typical fin-de-siecle facade and a curved grey mansard and cupola above its pilastered front. Next door is another neoclassical building although this has a more Italian style. It was built as a palace but now holds the national museum of history. There is no entry charge and the baggage lockers (that are obligatory because no bags are allowed in the building) are also free to use. As we deposited our bags we spotted Michelle retrieving hers; she spoke positively of the exhibits.

The exhibition galleries were charming nineteenth century colonial rooms with simple clear displays. They ran in chronological sequence from prehistoric settlers to the nineteenth century with a mixture of informative fine art, decorative crafts, and utilitarian artefacts. Alongside the permanent exhibits there was a gallery for temporary exhibitions. This was being used to show the work of a twentieth century Chilean children's illustrator. The pictures were simple, strong, and direct with a gentle sensibility but the most interesting aspect of the show was a wall of etched glass plates that rendered the images into tactile patterns with a key in braille associating each pattern with a colour.

W wanted to see the Red House that stood near the square. This eighteenth century dwelling was the first two-storied house in the city and now houses another museum but it was closed for renovation. This was the last of our predetermined destinations so we began to wander the streets simply browsing as we went. We looked briefly around another church and explored a couple of shopping arcades before deciding that our visit was done. It was a bit earlier than we had planned when we hailed a taxi to the airport but the student demonstration had occasioned road closures that caused huge traffic jams and our driver wound his way through fascinating back streets with much doubling back as we ran up against road blocks. He was entirely good-humoured despite his obvious frustration and although we had used up all our contingency we reached the airport in good time for our flight.

We retrieved our bags from the same man that had taken them from us and presented ourselves at a dedicated premium check-in area that was immediately adjacent to the departure lounge. The lounge was another stylish modern space with well-stocked food stations and high quality drinks but the main floor was a little too open and we preferred the upper floor with its mixture of high-backed seats, a television viewing zone, a sleeping section, and even a spacious entertainment zone equipped with a variety of video game systems. I took the opportunity to taste my first neat pisco. I am not a brandy enthusiast and I did not like this version much.

This was my first flight operated by TAM and I was impressed by most aspects of it although the cabin crew lacked the easy affability that had characterised our other attendants. I particularly liked the beige felt amenity packs tied in stripey cotton ribbons. The flight passed swiftly as I finally got to read Steven Fischer's history of Easter Island that I had now carried almost 15,000 miles.

It was a warm night in Rio de Janeiro as we arrived at Galeão airport. As usual, we were among the first to reach the immigration desks but there was some delay when the shaggy officer discovered that there was no record of W departing Brazil after her last visit. Fortunately, she had been issued a new passport that was filled with travel stamps since then so there was no question about her extended absence from the country in the interim. After some consultation with his colleagues, the genial official returned her documents and waved us in.

The upside of a delay in immigration is that it reduces the wait for baggage and ours were the first bags on the carousel. To reach the baggage carousel we had to pass through the duty-free shop and now we had to push our laden trolley back between the cosmetics, confectionery, and booze. Just before the customs gates stood a woman in civilian dress benignly directing us towards the appropriate lane. When we asked her about currency exchange, she said that she could help and led us to a small bank office just a few steps away. We changed our remaining Uruguayan and Chilean cash only to find that each currency had attracted a surprisingly large transaction fee as well as the poor airport exchange rates that we had anticipated. The deal had, however, given us Brazilian cash before we hit the hurly burly of taxi touts that we expected immediately past customs. This meant that we could push straight through the importuning crowd without pausing to seek currency exchange bureaux.

We had a brief wait before reaching the head of the official taxi queue and our driver seemed confident about the location of our apartment. We did, however, have to remind him to start the meter and soon after that he offered to charge us a fixed price off meter but, since his fixed price of BRL 95 was 20 reais higher than the price that I was expecting, we declined. He then explained that the meter price would be adjusted upwards by an amount indicated on an official conversion chart displayed on the window and that there were additional charges for baggage. We stuck with our decision to accept the metered charge. Maps.Me showed that he was sticking to the most direct route and we were confident that the metered price would be a fair one. And so it proved. The metered rate uplifted according to the poster and augmented by a reasonable baggage charge would have been about BRL 80. There seemed to be no notice of the official baggage charges, however, and the driver insisted that the final sum was coincidentally identical to the BRL 95 that he had quoted. After a brief argument I realised that I was haggling over less than £3.50 and paid him what he asked.

Access to the apartment block was through an alarming metal cage that was opened remotely by the doorman. Next day we would see that such structures were ubiquitous but it seemed like an ominous warning of the prevailing level of crime when we first saw it. The doorman gave W an envelope containing keys and instructions for their use. We took a lift to the twelfth floor and I heaved our unwieldy bags up a flight of steps to the penthouse level. There were two apartment doors on this top corridor; one was unnumbered and the other bore an inappropriate number. W had chosen the unnumbered door and was struggling with the key as I struggled with the bags. By the time that joined her the door was still locked and she was looking flustered. W does not do flustered so I knew that the problem was serious. The instructions stated that the two keys were identical but gave no clue as to which of the three locks on the apartment door was in use. The key, which was cruciform, was to be inserted with the red dot uppermost. W had a key with a small circular protuberance on each side of the flat head. One of these bumps was stained red so she inserted the key with the flat head horizontal and the red dot uppermost. Nothing happened. I tried to turn it with no more success. We speculated that we might have the wrong door and be terrorising innocent inhabitants shortly before midnight but dismissed this as ridiculous. I took the key and inspected it more closely. The bumps were surrounded by a shallow groove and on the unstained side there was a red residue in part of the groove. What if both dots had been red and the colour had worn off one side? We checked the other key and, sure enough, both dots were red. We reinserted the key with the flat head vertical and both red dots uppermost. Finally, we were in!

It was an attractive apartment just like the photographs had led us to expect. We looked around briefly and went out on to the terrace where we could hear the chants of fans watching football on TV in a sports bar nearby. These Latin American chants have a comfortable familiarity because I learned them with the La Barra Brava soccer supporters group in Washington DC. The noise stopped as soon as the football ended and we climbed into the big comfortable bed.


Leaving Easter Island

I got up at 0600 to do all the packing that I could before our dawn trip to Tongariki. Leaving the hotel in darkness at 0730, we reached the rope barrier before 0800. A stocky figure in the gloom declined to lower the rope until a voice from within the tent countermanded his intransigence. About a mile into the park we came across a scooter overturned in the road with a young Japanese woman crouched beside a man clutching his leg and moaning. When I asked W to use her phone as a torch the woman thought that that we were going to call for help and assured us that she had her own phone. At this point the young man sat up and, despite his discomfort, declared that he was alright and that we could leave them. It was clear that we had come upon the immediate aftermath of their fall and that his biggest problem was shock but they seemed to be rallying so we drove on to the great row of moai.

We parked our car near the big blue cladding of the travelling moai and entered the site with a small number of other photographers. Among them was our cheerful Californian. The sky was not offering much colour but I realised that the sun was casting a soft pink light on the clouds above Rano Raraku inland. I walked behind the long ahu but without a boat I could not get far enough from the platform to catch the coloured clouds behind the moai. When I rejoined W in front of the moai I saw the Japanese couple entering the site. He was walking carefully but seemed intact. Back in the car park, their scooter was badly scratched and a mirror was broken but it must have been working well enough for them to continue their journey.

We returned to Hanga Roa bidding farewell to Tongariki and to the head-strewn slopes of Rano Raraku illuminated by the warm light of the morning sun. We refuelled at the only gas station in the island. A Rapanui pump attendant filled the tank and helped me select the most coins to minimise the Chilean change that I would be carrying. The standard unleaded petrol was slightly cheaper than it would be in the UK.

We returned the car key to Estaban in a transaction as informal as our collection of the car. There were no checks, no receipts and no signatures. After a quick breakfast we finished our packing, checked out of our room, and settled our bill. Even though the flight was delayed an hour by the daylight saving change, the time of the hotel shuttle was not adjusted. It was another example of the apparent principle that the hotel was run more for the convenience of the operators than that of the guests. We were a little early and the taxi was a little late. We filled the time by exploiting the wifi in the lobby. We were unsurprised to find that our driver was the same man that had greeted us upon arrival. He was amicable but taciturn and we were soon back at the airport.

With the flight being pushed back an hour, the opening of check-in was also delayed by that amount. There was nothing to do but wait with the dozen or so other early birds. We explored the small gift shop that must have opened for just a couple of hours before each of the eleven departures every week. It was nicely stocked and W found a Hawai'ian style shirt for me bearing blue hibiscus, birdmen, and mock rongorongo text on a white ground.

The business class check in opened some minutes before economy. Having dumped our bags and obtained our boarding passes, we walked into the village along the main street with W taking photos along the way. We went down to the front, past Ahi Ahi and along to Mikafe for a sandwich, our final ice cream and coffee. After about an hour we began the return journey. On Calle Policarpo Toro we stopped to buy a third decorated pebble for my mother. Then it was up the gentle hill and back to Avenida Atamu Tekena, where my bag containing our cameras and a partial change of clothes began to feel heavy in the afternoon heat. The airport departure terminal was a veranda opening onto a verdant lawn with a shady palm tree, a moai and a large carved lizard. It was busy but it did not feel crowded. There were a few small shops selling pleasing gifts and foodstuffs at prices no higher than elsewhere on the island. Michelle was also leaving Rapa Nui on our flight so we spoke to her before I went to the public toilets to change into my clean, dry travelling clothes.

As privileged travellers we took advantage of the opportunity to board the aircraft early and we were promptly settled in our front row seats by an alert personable steward called Kurt. He served us pisco sours and nuts as the other passengers boarded. The drinks were not very good and Kurt revealed that they were from a pre-mixed bottle that he was happy to show us.

At Santiago airport we collected our bags, bade Michelle farewell, and repacked before seeking the left luggage office. We had been told that it was in international departures so we took a lift to that floor and enquired at an information desk where we were told to return to the place where we had been repacking. A very helpful friendly man shelved our big bags and we were soon aboard a public shuttle bus for the centre of town. We were very fortunate in our timing because the comfortable bus was nearly filled and about to depart. We knew that our Hotel Ibis was near Estación Central so we tracked our progress on Maps.Me. When we were nearby we spotted the Hotel Ibis on a corner and the bus stopped almost at its doorstep. The bus stop was immediately beside an open kiosk selling snacks and water. We bought a big bottle of water before entering the hotel.

A man in a waistcoat, shirtsleeves and a tie intercepted us as we entered the lobby and directed us to seating near a young women in Peruvian dress who was rummaging in her bags. The two check-in clerks in their crisp white shirts were both busy. One was helping a customer and the other seemed to be cashing up while the waistcoated man watched them both. Eventually we were called to the counter and while W handled the transaction I watched the Peruvian woman go to talk to a young man who was engrossed with the public internet terminal in the opposite corner of the lobby.

I like the Ibis chain. We were soon in a compact bright clean room on the seventh floor with everything to meet our simple needs. Before we slept I checked the shuttle bus website to establish the details of our return journey and discovered that most of the service would be suspended because of a student demonstration. This was not a big problem because we knew that taxis were cheap but W brightly observed that we need not have spent the extra £1.20 on the return portion of our ticket.


Ahu Tongariki, Rano Raraku, and Orongo

We left the hotel before breakfast as the sky was beginning to soften on our way to see the sun rise over Ahu Tongariki. W had taken such dramatic colourful images of the sky on the previous morning that we were hoping for something similar but the cloud cover was thick and we were a little later than we had planned. The Rapa Nui Parliament activists were not yet ready to take names at the road block. Please sign on your way out they asked us pleasantly. There were a score of people at the ahu (including our new friend from Santa Clara) but the clouds were inappropriate for the diffusion of the low light and the skies stayed grey.

When the sun was high enough to crush any optimism we went to nearby Rano Raraku and had breakfast at the unprepossessing cafe just outside the site's entrance. We enjoyed hot meat empanadas and I drank coffee as we watched one of the two brothers that run the place sweep the patio and wipe dew off the tables and chairs.

We seemed to be the first to enter the site that morning and there was no sign of any park guard but visitors soon passed us as we took lingering photographs of the stones and the views. A fit young Rapanui woman in a headscarf with her shoulders bare strode past us with a brief 'Iorana', the all-purpose Rapanui greeting. Later we would hear her whistling and see her shouting at irresponsible tourists who stepped over the low barriers to get closer to moai.

From one of the bends in the track we saw a magnificent panorama of the southern coast of the island with Ahu Tongariki clearly visible to our left, other moai scattered across the landscape, and the bright blue ocean beyond it all. As we continued to climb we met the headscarfed woman crouched beside the path, smiling and gesturing for us to be quiet. With more signing she told us to look at the white bird nestling in a rocky crevice. I thought that it was a petrel or a tern and I would like it to have been a sooty tern because this was such an important part of the birdman cult that followed the moai building tradition. Examining our photographs later, we could see that it was red-tailed tropicbird.

Later we saw the same woman talking to an older Rapanui woman who had also been patrolling the site. In an embarrassing polyglottic pidgin of English, Spanish and Polynesian we asked for directions to the moai bearing a carving of a European ship: “Moai vaka? Moai barco? Moai ship?” we asked. And there it was: a typical moai with a three-masted European ship scratched on its stomach. This image must post-date the first European contact in 1722 but most archaeologists seem to accept that the moai carving period ended about two hundred years before this and that the image is later graffiti.

After photographing the vaka moai and looking around more of the site. I went to thank the helpful women. “Mauru' uru” I tried to say in my best Rapanui. They did not understand me. I tried again. Suddenly it dawned on them and they cheerfully corrected ny pronunciation. Sandra, the older woman, then spoke to us at length in a patois of English and Spanish as she explained how the Chilean authorities did not respect the bloodlines or kinship groups of the Rapanui people. She was a genealogist and the Rapanui people now have extensive records of their descents. I did not enquire as to how they bridged the dislocation of the Peruvian slaving raids, the language transformation and all the other creative recall employed in the last 150 years. None of this genealogy is reflected in the political structures imposed by the Chilean authorities. She told us that Topio (or Topia) is descended from the Queen of Easter Island but I could not understand the complexities of the genealogy that she described.

After looking around the tiny craft market attached to the cafeteria, we drove southwest along the coast road passing more stone structures but stopping at a solitary standing moai with three wooden posts around it. I imagine that the posts were there to protect the carving from cattle or horses because it was easy to walk between them. Once again this seemed like a candidate for The Polycarbonate Glass and Statue Club. I placed my cup atop one of the posts but had to weight it down with a pebble to defeat the breeze that would send it rolling across the rough grass. From this lone moai we could see steel sheds towards the ocean and several peaks inland.

I wanted to see the massive masonry of Ahu Vinapu but we decided to bypass this on our way to lunch along the southern side of the airport runway, which was new territory for us. At the eastern end of the runway stands the island's fuel depot: about half a dozen silos for diesel, petrol, and aviation fuel. Within its wire fence stands a single moai watching over its modern metal neighbours.

Our route to Hanga Roa was blocked by a felled eucalyptus. Too heavy for us to move, it was the work of the Rapa Nui Parliament activists for no purpose except disruptive civil disobedience. Some foreign commentators have expressed disgust at the felling of trees on a deforested island but the eucalyptus is an insensitive import that exacerbates the land erosion by desiccating the soil. We turned back and drove almost the full length of both sides of the long runway thinking our own thoughts about the space shuttle programme.

For lunch we returned to Caminito Ahi Ahi. The staff recognised us and I had no trouble getting beer and water to accompany my empanada marisco; a local seafood pasty that is a gastronomic delight. For dessert we walked across the road past the moai and the football ground for ice cream at Mikafe on the wharf. We were also recognised there and I had to ask for my cafe americano to be delayed until after my gorgeous coffee and tiramisu ice creams.

Refreshed we resumed our tour by making the long drive back and forth alongside the runway past the fuel depot. This time we turned up the flanks of Rano Kau, the volcano that is at the heart of the birdman rituals. We had decided that we would have to prioritise our destinations aggressively on the remains of this last full day on the island. Our first stop was Orongo, the eighteenth century ritual village that was the focus of the annual birdman contest until the missionaries banned the practice.

The contest determined which kinship group would rule the island for the coming year. Each September just before the spring migration of the sooty tern each of the ten kinship groups (or subtribes, if you will) on Rapa Nui would identify a champion. These ten young men would run around about a quarter of the volcano rim to its lowest point, descend the cliffs to the shore, and swim over a mile to Moto Nui with a reed surfboard carrying their supplies. Moto Nui is a small rocky island with caves in which the men would camp until the sooty terns laid their first eggs. The first competitor to grab an egg would signal his success to the mainland and then swim back with the egg. The chief of the winning group would leave the village and go to live alone in a special house served by a single attendant. After a year of rulership the chief and his champion would be accorded special respect for the rest of their lives. An unfortunate aspect of this system was that the warrior elite of the ruling group had a tendency to terrorise the other groups during their reign and there is oral evidence that much of the moai toppling was part of this aggression.

The visitor centre was locked but the site was attended by a couple of activists. The woman was on a leisurely patrol of the site while the man read a book on Polynesian fish and dealt drugs to the occasional stoners visiting the area.

A narrow trail led along the cliff top to a lookout point with a clear view of the small motu in the ocean offshore and along the promontory to the reconstructed stone houses of the village. The houses were low oval drystone structures with corbelled roofs and very small doors through which people had to crawl singly. Given the widespread hostility between the groups it was not surprising that they built structures that so handicapped any visitor upon entry. Two houses had been been left unrestored when William Mulloy led the rebuilding project in 1974. The first house that we came to had been restored with half its roof left open to afford modern visitors a view of the interior. There are 54 of these sleeping shelters but the furthest of them have been blocked off to visitors because erosion renders that part of the site dangerously unstable. Sadly, this also puts the island's most spectacular petroglyphs off-limits.

The magnificent moai that now stands in the Wellcome Trust Gallery at the British Museum was taken from one of the Orongo houses in 1868. Many people see this as an appalling piece of looting but it is clear that the islanders of the time traded the statue away and helped the crew of HMS Topaze to load it onto the ship. It is a particularly special example, however, because it is made of basalt rather than the more common tuff and it is covered in birdman decoration. It is therefore a unique bridge between the two ceremonial cultures of the island and there are widespread calls for its repatriation.

On the walk along the landward side of the village there are spectacular views of the Rano Kau crater filled with blue water crowded with reeds that form weedy rafts. These views were beyond the scope of my 50mm lens so, leaving W on a bench in the shade of the visitor centre, I went around the site again with a wide-angle lens.

Back down the hillside road we stopped at a viewing point for another perspective on the crater but we did not bother to visit the other viewing point that gives a popular view across Hanga Roa and much of the island. Likewise we decided to skip the botanical gardens and end our day's tour at the decorated cave of Ana Kai Tangata but this was not to be because roof collapse and other erosion has made it too hazardous for visitors. Because the cave's name has been mistranslated as 'cave man eat' rather than 'cave man gathering', it is sometimes known as Cannibal Cave as part of a wider misconception that cannibalism was once endemic. There is some evidence of cannibalism on the island but not to the extent that some writers would have us believe.

We took the car back to the hotel and walked to Tahai for the sunset. The cloud was low but it was not raining and the evening was much warmer than it had been on the previous day.

As we sat overlooking the ahu, perfectly positioned to catch the setting sun between the moai, Ellie and Michelle came to join us. A bright-eyed dog with pricked pointed ears and sandy wiry hair pawed at a small stone on the ground until Michelle picked up the light volcanic rock and threw it for the dog to fetch. They played this game for a while before Michelle tired of it and the dog wandered away. Mr Santa Clara was also there, grumbling cheerfully about the quality of the morning's sunrise.

This evening we finally got to eat at at the ‘nice place’ (or Haka Honu as the world knows it). We had a long wait for a table with an unrestricted view of the ocean (such as it was in the dark) but we were content to sit with our drinks discussing the appealing Anglo-Spanish menu. When we came to order, my stumbling Spanish was overridden in English for the first time since we left England. When the meal came it was pleasant enough but we decided that the restaurant was not quite as nice as we had hoped.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby with its acceptable wifi signal but low broadband speeds to book a Santiago hotel for the next evening. Sergio Rapu ignored us again when we collected our room key from the chatty Estaban but he did come and say goodnight as we used the internet.


Sunrise, diving, and sunset

I had the squits during the night and felt tired and weakened in the morning when W got up to see the sunrise over Ahu Tongariki. After a few hours sleep I felt much better but when W returned with tales of glorious skies I stayed in bed reading Britton Shepardson's book Moai: a new look at old faces. It is an account of his archaeological research aimed at a popular audience and I am not sure that it is entirely successful at bridging the academic and the popular but I enjoyed the read. He is scathing about many of his predecessors and peers and sometimes I wondered if he was trying to curry favour with Rapanui readers but I liked many of his attitudes; particularly his aversion to invasive archaeology like digging.

W had gone to book more dives and then sat at Mikafe. She sent a text proposing lunch at 'Empanadas XL' and I was feeling almost fully recovered so I joined her there for a huge fried tuna and tomato salad empanada. It was delicious. After that we went to Mikafe where I sat drinking coffee and water and then returned to the hotel while W made two more dives with Tina. Once again I had a long conversation with Estaban.

As evening drew in we walked across to Tahai in gentle rain. As the rain got stronger the people grew fewer and the chance of a visually rewarding sunset also dwindled. The rain was soon falling in sheets and we were soaked by the time it stopped. The only other person on the site was a jocular American from Santa Clara, California. He was new to the island and eager to see the highlights so he expected to see us again at Ahu Tongariki in the morning.

Throughout our time here we had been surprised by the placidity of the stray dogs. We had commented that we had yet to hear a a South American dog bark. Then, as we sat by the ahu in the company of a horse and several quiet dogs, two of them started barking at the horse. We had not seen the horse move, let alone do anything to antagonise the dogs and both of them had started to bark together so it was not as if one had excited the other. After a minute or so the fuss subsided. The horse stayed unmoved and unmoving. The dogs returned to amiable aimless ambling. It was a most curious incident.

We had no dining plans so we decided to go to our as yet unvisited 'nice place' but as we passed Te Moana on our way to Fisherman's Wharf we were seduced by its Polynesian appearance, its lighting and its chalk boards. Rather than sit outside on the ocean terrace we chose a table at the outer edge of its roofed area. We decided to test the cocktails before making a choice of where to eat. But the pisco sours were our best yet and the passing food looked great. We chose grilled fish and had no regrets. It was our best meal on the island.

W paid great attention to the drains and the footpaths on the way back to the hotel. Sergio Rapu was at the computer in reception with Esteban but he ignored us and I was disinclined to initiate a conversation when his reticence seemed likely to be deliberate.


Ahu, moai, and Rano Raraku

Sergio Rapu Haoa was at breakfast, holding court for a group of three men in didactic English. He was born on the island of Rapanui descent and befriended the American archaeologist William Mulloy when the Professor returned to excavate and reconstruct sites in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mulloy was part of Thor Heyerdahl's team in 1955. He was responsible for the re-erection of many fallen moai and was an enthusiastic advocate of heritage tourism. Sergio Rapu's brother Alfonso led the 1965 insurrection that drove the Chilean government to recognise Rapanui rights after decades of suppression and abuse. Sergio became the sole employee of the island's rudimentary museum in 1971 at the tender age of 22. It was through this that he met Professor Mulloy, who arranged for Rapu to attend the University of Wyoming to read anthropology there. Rapu went on to take a master's degree in Hawai'i. He returned to the island to reconstruct the important ahu at Anakena in 1978; the legendary beach upon which the first humans possibly (or probably) landed some 1300 years ago. He was the first Rapanui archaeologist and from 1984 he spent six years as the island's first Rapanui governor since its annexation by Chile in 1888. Just over a decade ago Rapu returned to a US university on a scholarship to study at UC Berkeley on courses pertinent to the management of the island's material heritage. Now he owns and runs the hotel which he built by extending the Hotel Topara'a, which was used by Thor Heyerdahl as a base on one of his later visits. He chose the name Tupa for the hotel because he believes that the stone domes were used by fishermen to scan the sea and he is proud of the hotel's ocean views (not because he sees it as a bone repository).

A meek hispanic woman glided about the buffet but there was no sign of any other hotel staff and, after we had stood by the reception desk a while, she glided up to us and, after some confusion, gave us the key to the Jimny. There was no documentation to sign and no checks required. It was more like borrowing a friend's car than any hire transaction.

Our 'concise guide to the history, culture and individual archaeological sites of Rapa Nui' recommended that we start our day's tour with a visit to Tahai and the museum but we had already been there and done that so we headed north out of the village past the church and across the full width of the island to the beach at Anakena. At the entrance to the national park a rope barred our way and a group of Rapanui were sitting around chatting and drinking beer. After we had signed their book they let us pass and we were soon parked beside a stand of palm trees filling the broad saddle behind a white beach with Ahu Nau Nau and a lone moai on the edge of the sand. It was like a picture book illustration of a South Seas island and it is essentially fake. The palm trees came from Tahiti and the monuments are all careful reconstructions but it is powerful imagery and even the reconstruction is a testament to human ingenuity.

The single moai on its small platform is the first to have been re-erected. It took Thor Heyerdahl's 1956 team just 18 days to raise it using piled stones as a fulcrum for long wooden poles.

Not all the visible archaeology here is reconstructed. In the shade of the palm trees are a host of small stone structures. Some are modern manavai (small circular rock enclosures to protect crops) but others are the remains of prehistoric activity on the site.

It was here, during Sergio Rapu's 1978 Ahu Nau Nau project that Sonia Haoa Cardinali discovered the coral and scoria remains of the first moai eye to be identified in the historic era; then 34 years old, she would go on to be the most systematic surveyor of the island's archaeological remains and is still active on this endeavour. The eye is displayed in the Sebastian Englert museum.

While we were enjoying the ocean view, after investigating the monuments, we met Rikki, who had come to spend the day in the sandy sun (or on the sunny sand) with Jessie. We agreed to meet them later at the Kaloa bistro on the edge of the Hangaroa Hotel complex.

As we left the Anakena car park we discovered the first challenge presented by the nightly heavy rain. All four wheels of our four-wheel drive vehicle spun uselessly in the gravel chips until the wheels reached the red mud below. I got out of the car and pushed it out of the four small pits until it gained enough traction to escape.

We found even more mud at our approach to Ovahe; Rapa Nui's only other beach. This is about half a mile south east of Anakena along a dirt track. We left the car beside a low drystone wall, squeezed through a narrow gap and picked our way over muddy volcanic rock to a small promontory that was used as a crematorium in prehistoric times. Keeping off this sacred site we scrambled to a very small sandy cove with a slightly larger bay beyond. There were a few people sunbathing on the larger beach and we were not that interested in negotiating the sharp muddy rocks to get a better view of the red cliffs so we returned to the car attempting to scrape the sticky mud off our shoes as we went.

About a mile and a half further along the coast we came to Te Pito Karu, where an unrestored ahu stands beside the toppled remains of the last moai to be recorded as a standing stone. No visitors after 1838 mention any standing moai. This huge figure lying face down (as are most fallen moai) with the usual broken neck is, at 10 m long, the largest statue to be erected on the island. Beside it lies the vast red topknot standing a little taller than me. This moai was known as Paro and although some cautious sources describe it as one of the few that can be identified by name I can find no others.

As we approached the platform a couple of white tourists were walking across it and prodding the fallen moai. “Nothing here. Very dull” they said unapologetically in Germanic English. Sigh ...

Near the ahu, within a very low stone wall, lies a round boulder just under a metre across. Around it are four smaller stones placed recently as seating. Oral histories tell us that the boulder was brought to the island by the first settlers but geologically it would seem to be local. When we approached a slender white girl with a circlet of flowers in her long black hair was sitting on one of the small stones with her hands pressed to the boulder in an attitude of supplication. Steady rain started to fall. She continued to sit. I would have photographed the scene were it not for the incongruous blue plastic cooler box beside the grey stone wall. Three of the girl's friends waited for her. When she stood she circled the boulder making mannered hand gestures before exiting the enclosure. Another of the sodden girls took her place, entering the enclosure on her knees. We left them to their damp contemplation.

I do not know who first wrote “Today it rained and rained. And then it rained.” Well, that.

We left the rainy northeast coast and drove across the island back to Hanga Roa, where the rain had stopped. As we approached the village on Puki Rangi Uka, we noticed a row of moai in a garden; given their condition, they may have been modern replicas and the house may be a hotel but their presence made us smile. We had a simple lunch on Main Street in the tiny Moiko Ra'a cafe beside the road. Water, beer, and empanadas (of a standard size; no XL products here) were all unremarkably pleasant. We were the only diners.

Fed and dried, we resumed our tour. On our way out into the countryside we decided to stop and visit a single moai that we had previously spotted alone on an ahu looking along its length (which is unlike other ahu we had seen). It stood on a shallow slope below the steeper mound of Maunga Tangaroa crowned with its distinctive trio of crosses and below the ahu a small depression lined with rocks formed a trough of fresh water. We drove on to Papa Vaka where a cluster of flat rocks have been decorated extensively with petroglyphs. Marked paths wound between the rocks with raised platforms affording an improved view of the carvings although they would have been much clearer under the raking light of the early morning or late evening. We picked out fish hooks, tuna, shark, turtles, octopus, and a large canoe.

A little further round the coast stood Pu O Hiro (the trumpet of the rain god Hiro): a single stone covered in small vulvate petroglyphs. It is pierced by artificial holes which can be used to create a booming trumpeting by people more skilled than us (and, indeed, why would we wish to summon a rain god on such a damp day?).

The most easterly point of the island is the volcanic peak of Poike but it is not accessible to vehicles so we skirted its western slopes to visit the astonishing iconic site of Ahu Tongariki where a vast row of fifteen moai turn their backs to the ocean that once swept them away. Although these moai were originally toppled with all the rest in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the real damage to this site was done when a tsunami washed all the statues 100 metres inland in 1960 and swept away the ahu with its backwash. The site was only restored between 1992 and 1996; I imagined that it had been there for most of my life. Anyway, it was amazing. I also expected it to be heaving with people but there were only a couple of dozen of us. W and I walked all around the long ahu and marvelled at the magnificence of the huge torsos.

The reconstruction had only been made possible by the donation of a huge Japanese crane with serious funding from Japan. In 1988 Sergio Rapu had said on Japanese television "We've been dreaming to see the Moai standing. If only we had a crane...". Japanese crane company Tadano promptly donated a crane to the island, along with tools and expertise. The first crane was not big enough for the job so they replaced it with a larger model. The Japanese government also donated over £1 million to the project. When the replacement crane failed about twelve years later in 2003, Tadano donated another.

As a gesture in recognition of this generosity, Rapa Nui lent a moai to Japan for the Osaka Trade Fair. When it was returned, this moai was placed above Ahu Tongariki, by the southern entrance to the area. It was nicknamed Traveling Moai, or Mōai Ha'ere Ki Haho. Sadly, this famous moai was shrouded in scaffolding and protective plastic during our stay.

The last stop of our day's exploration was the most iconic site on the island: the head covered slopes of the Rano Raraku quarry. Fortuitously, this is one of the few places with a public toilet and, because it is a private enterprise, this was open despite the strike. I gladly paid the CLP 500 (about 55 pence) to use the well-kept facilities before following W into the site about half an hour before it closed. There were few other visitors and it was like stepping into the pages of my childhood books about the mysteries of Easter Island. Of course, there are few mysteries left and many of those flowed from misinterpretations committed in the few decades before my birth. Many of the big questions about the island are general questions about prehistory: 'who made the moai?' is only a mystery in that we do not know their names. There is robust evidence for the dating and the provenance of the original human inhabitants is widely agreed. Easter Islanders made the statues and erected them. We need no master race and no extraterrestials.

Many of the statues at the quarry site are buried up to their necks, which is where the popular misconception arose that they had no bodies. But Katherine Routledge's 1919 book reported (among other things) that her excavations showed that the quarry heads were partially buried moai just like all the exposed ones. And, although they face away from the volcano and, thus, towards the ocean, they have no eyes because these were only added after they were erected on ahu, so they cannot look out to sea. And, away from the quarry, very few indeed look outwards from the island (and those that do gaze across settlement sites).

There are about 400 moai in various stages of manufacture at the quarry. It is far too many for them all to have been abandoned abruptly in a single cataclysm. Some would have been abandoned incomplete when artistically inconvenient hard basaltic inclusions in the softer tuff formed insurmountable flaws. Others are broken in some way. Some may have been intended as permanent monuments at the quarry site. The catastrophic model of all the workers downing tools one day and going to topple all the standing moai simply does not make sense.

All these thoughts became clear to me as I photographed the few statues on the lower slope near the beginning of the heritage trail. I knew that each statue is believed to represent about two years' work for a small team. Imagine having to say 'Sorry, guys. We dropped your statue.' And yet that clearly must have happened occasionally judging from the remains. And how many people died in accidents as the huge blocks were manoeuvred down the hill?

The site was closing and we had to leave. Evening was approaching and we had learned our lesson about changeable weather the previous evening. We drove to Apiña and parked by the campsite. Rikki and Jessie were drinking cocktails outside Kaloa with two other women from the campsite: French Michelle and Londoner Ellie. Later we were joined by Sonia's dive buddy: Austrian Tina and her friend. We chatted, munched snacks, and sank cocktails as the sun went down behind thick cloud. When it grew chilly in the darkness we moved inside the bistro where we were seated on a mezzanine at a large circular table that comfortably accommodated all eight of us in solitude. The room was elegantly pale and the menu was appropriately stylish for a hotel that charges over US$700 a night. I had a trilogy of white fish ceviche with ginger, tuna sashimi crusted with soy sauce and sesame seed, and a third fish dish that I now forget because the first two blasted it from my mind. Either of them would have been something special in a meal. The service was very slow but the company was dazzling entertainment as we shared travellers tales. All the others were on very long journeys of exploration. Rikki relayed high energy stories of adventure and embarrassment. Tina told tales of people more than places. Jessie provided droll commentary on Rikki's stories. Michelle's English was not as strong as that of the rest of us so she participated the least. And Ellie had been a political aide like Rikki before spending a few years as an HR management consultant; she had also been at primary school with my namesake, Bristol Conservative candidate Theodora Clarke.


Diving and a museum

Breakfast was a buffet in the deserted dining room. There were three kinds of sliced bread and a toaster, several cereals, and plates of sliced pressed meats, cheeses, fruit, and vegetables but W's eye was irresistibly drawn to the pancakes rolled around dulce de leche (or manjara as it is called in Rapanui) which she devoured with slice banana.

I accompanied W to the dive shop, left her there, and walked on to Tahai along much the same rote we had taken the previous evening. It had rained hard during the night. As I left the Tahai precinct the rain began to fall again but it was soft and the day was warm and still so it was not unpleasant. I walked on parallel to the shore until I came upon a sign to the museum. I turned inland and found the 1980s building on the hillside. A Rapanui man outside the open door told me that entry was free today. Since the beginning of April the unofficial Rapa Nui Parliament has persuaded National Park staff to strike but volunteers (in some cases the strikers themselves) are keeping the park lands and attractions open but refusing any charges. The strike had begun with a complete ban on entry to the sites as a protest against uncontrolled immigration by continental Chileans that Rapanui activists fear to be threatening their cultural survival. About half the population are continental Chileans and just 5% are of other nationalities. The total ban was soon relaxed and the road blocks soon allowed anyone through who was with a Rapanui guide or was from outside Chile. By the time we arrived the immigration issue was little mentioned and the key issue had become the way that National Park admission fees (which are much higher than anywhere else in Chile) go straight to Santiago and are not managed on the island. The activists want the parks to be managed by an autonomous local body.

The museum was a pleasing building with fine information boards but fewer than a hundred artefacts on display. I know that there are tens of thousands of items in store so I was surprised by the sparse exhibition. Curiously, the boards were in English and Spanish but I saw no Rapanui text and there was no mention of the extent of the huge holdings in overseas museums. I did not ask to visit the substantial anthropological library that shares the site because I needed to get back to meet W after her dive.

Immediately outside the museum door stood a moai surrounded by pink flowers. It was clearly transplanted from its original place and could be accessed without transgressing the tapu of an ahu or similarly protective boundary so I took the opportunity to photograph it as another contribution to The Polycarbonate Glass and Statue Club. I later learned that it was one of two used by Thor Heyerdahl in his experiments.

As I returned to the dive shop the rain began to fall hard and a light breeze arose. This diminished my pleasure in the journey but it soon passed and I was almost dry by the time I reached the Wharf. W was just returning from her dive when I arrived. She introduced me to her new dive buddy: Australian Rikki.

Because it was so long since W's last dive, she was required to take a refresher session to demonstrate such skills as removing and replacing her mask, clearing the mask of water, and removing and retrieving her regulator (the mouthpiece). Having passed her tests with flying colours, she was taken on an underwater tour by her own dedicated dive master. As usual, she came back to shore burbling with enthusiasm.

The two of us lunched one of the three carritos beside the football ground. The owners called it Ahi Ahi but to us it was 'Empanadas XL' after the large text on a menu chalk board. We had churrasco (a beef sandwich similar to the Uruguayan chivitos) and a large mixed salad with lettuce, sweetcorn, tomato, onions, and other vegetables. The bar had no local beer but I eventually established that they had cans of Escudos, a Chilean lager brewed in Santiago. Throughout our meal we were accompanied by a couple of quiet placid dogs who were undemanding but watched every piece of food that we touched.

A white-haired weatherbeaten man in his sixties sat at a nearby table. His convertible trousers and general demeanour marked him as a traveller, not simply a tourist. We struck up conversation. He was a Scottish Canadian on a great journey around Latin America and was freshly arrived on the island. He had started out on a one month trip but had been enraptured by Patagonia and spent months there. He was not expecting to stay long on the island but seemed pretty flexible about the future.

Bidding our new companion and the unfed dogs farewell we returned to the hotel, stopping to buy books and small decorated stones from an ocean front shop on Calle Policarpo Toro. The books were a guide to the island and an account of the archaeological research of Britton Shepardson. The stones (which were intended for me to hold as a reminder not annoy W by unconsciously fiddling with my face and fingers) were ocean-worn pebbles with incised Polynesian patterns. One was of the tuff widely used for moai construction; it was decorated with a painted stylized lizard. The other was a rounded black basaltic pebble incised with the crouched birdman.

While W went for a second dive I stayed in the hotel to handwash our laundry and chat with Esteban. He told me about his grandmother, who had lived in a cave and recalls being prohibited from speaking Rapanui because the Chilean authorities were trying to enforce Spanish as the prevailing language. Ten years later the same people who had prevented her from using the old speech were consulting her for material as they developed publications to disseminate the Polynesian language. Because of his youth, Esteban had only experienced a continuing improvement in the islanders' conditions but his grandmother had seen circumstances rise and fall. She could remember being confined to the village area by a wall that her people could not cross without a written pass. Now she lives in a house with a mobile phone and all Esteban's peers are on Facebook. Esteban was excited to learn that I am an archaeologist and said that he would try to arrange a chat between me and Sergio Rapu, the hotelier who was due home that evening. He also agreed to hire us the hotel's Suzuki Jimny car for the rest of our stay.

When W returned from her dive it was beginning to rain and the weather deteriorated as we made our way to Hotel Hangaroa to meet Rikki and her Tasmanian friend Jessie. The rain fell harder and a stiff breeze off the ocean caused an unpleasant chill. Furthermore, the hotel restaurant was closed for a private function. Fortunately, our new friends had hired a car so Rikki could give us a lift back down the hill. She took us to Carrito Popatiri, the front cafe-bar of the three of which Ahi Ahi (our lunch venue) was the rear. They had no drinks except Coke and the bar in the middle cafe only sold water so that is what we drank. We all ordered different meals. Mine was shredded grilled beef in a cheesy sauce on a bed of potato fries. W had 'a corned beef hash kind of thing', which was more tasty than it sounds, This time the dogs were less restrained; one of them climbed into Jessie's lap in a bid for food. It was firmly ejected by our waiter.

Much as we liked the company of the Australian women, we did not want to join them at a local dance show. We parted after the meal and walked back up the hill to our hotel. The streets were very dark with very little street lighting and we resorted to using a phone as a torch after W fell into a storm drain. The drains run alongside several of the local streets and are mostly covered with concrete slabs. Mostly. The sudden lack of cover turned an ostensible concrete footpath into a muddy stream. W's dignity was more damaged than her body but it was too dark for anyone to see the show. There was no lasting harm although her phone cover was scratched and her clothes were soiled.

Esteban was still at his desk when we reached the hotel but he was looking forward to a rare day off next day.


Easter Island! Easter Island!

We were on a relatively early flight so we had a rapid breakfast from an unremarkable buffet before taking the hotel's own shuttle bus to the airport. W withdrew Chilean cash from an airport ATM before we checked in for our domestic flight to Easter Island. Although we were travelling business class, there is no lounge in the domestic terminal so we sat by the gate on comfortable benches that felt uncrowded even as they filled up with a couple of young American families. I exchanged a nod with the eight-year-old boy who was also playing with a Nintendo 3DS XL on the opposite bench.

We had two hours to wait so I decided to fill some of this by returning to the ticketing hall to have my missing frequent flyer number added to my record of this flight. An escalator took me downstairs to the baggage claim hall. I then walked to the arrivals hall and pushed my way through the press of car drivers and taxi touts waving their signs. A big lift took me up to the ticketing hall and I was directed to a desk where a check-in agent reissued my boarding card with the missing number. This was the first time that I had received a boarding card on thin paper; I can see no reason why boarding cards need to be of expensive card stock but the flimsy stock came as a surprise.

The aircraft gleamed in the morning sun against the magnificent backdrop of the Andes. Aboard the plane we were in the two centre seats of a crisp fresh premium business class cabin with comfortable red seats. We watched our fellow passengers board as we sipped our drinks and nibbled the warmed nuts that were readily replenished. The passengers were a diverse bunch although few seemed to be anglophone and a large school party of Chilean teenagers made a lively appearance.

Because the cabin crew work individual aisles, W and I were served by different attendants. W's steward was a stereotypical hispanic woman with large eyes, pale olive skin, straight black hair pulled back in a tight bun, and full lips highlighted with strong red lipstick. She twinkled with laughter as she decided to help W to learn more Spanish over the next five hours.

The flight passed surprisingly fast with good food, some reading, and much playing of Animal Crossing (in which I continue to dive obsessively in my quest to catch a red king crab). W, meanwhile, practised her Spanish and luxuriated under a real duvet in crisp white linen. Soon we were descending the steps to the tarmac of Mataveri airport. It has a huge runway (extended to accommodate space shuttles but never used for that) between green volcanic hills. The terminal building is surrounded by a low wood fence painted with local imagery like the nineteenth century birdman cult figure and on the grass behind the fence stand several modern carved stones. The air was warm and the skies clear as we walked into the covered passage that leads to the arrivals hall where a single baggage carousel fills one end. We were standing quietly near the start of the carousel when we were surrounded by a horde of teenage schoolgirls impatient to move on. Impatience was no benefit here; the bags started to circulate but several tumbled off the belt and occasionally there would be a logjam that stopped the carousel entirely. Among the roller cases and backpacks there were polystyrene crates of chilled foodstuffs; many polystyrene crates of chilled foodstuffs. Fresh food is relatively expensive on the island and many people had advised us to take our own stock; advice that we ignored. The school party had clearly taken such advice to heart. There were literally dozens of polystyrene boxes for them. And these boxes screeched their way around the belt, tumbling to the floor, and piling up at every bend. Eventually baggage handlers recognised the problem and started to stack the boxes on the floor. Everything was slow and cumbersome but we were already familiar with Polynesian 'island time' and accepted the delay. While we waited W remarked that the National Parks ticket office had been shut and speculated as to where we might buy our tickets. The bouncing schoolgirls obscured my view of the belt but their bags arrived before ours and I had space to snag our packs and load them on a trolley.

Outside the terminal were a ring of smiling locals awaiting the arrival with leis. Our taxi driver had several names on his board but we were the only ones to arrive and we were alone in the car wearing our leis (and huge grins) as it pulled out of the small car park and turned left onto a road alongside the perimeter fence with trees, low houses and restaurants on the other side. We turned right by a single storey hotel with mock moai on either side of its corner entrance into a tree-lined street that forms the main thoroughfare of Hanga Roa, the only significant settlement on the island. The street is called 'Atanu Tekena' on some maps but this is a corruption of Atamu Tekena, which is, in turn, the Rapanui version of Adam Tekena. Adam is the baptismal name of Tekena, who was chosen to be 'king' of Easter Island in 1887 by the Bishop of Tahiti. The Chilean authorities needed someone to sign on behalf of the islanders when they annexed the territory. Tekena's only qualification was that the Bishop thought him to be particularly pious. He is now reinvented as a kind of freedom fighter. Before 1998 the street was Avenida Policarpo Toro but that name now applies to a street along the waterfront.Until Every street name seems to have a rich story behind it.

All the buildings seemed to be single-storey. On our right stood the whitewashed premises of the Chilean Navy, which managed the island (or 'ruled', depending upon your perspective) for part of the twentieth century. Nearby was the Gelateria Aeropuerto (the Airport Ice Cream Parlour). We turned towards the sea at a crossroads on which stood the LAN Airlines office. We were now on Avenida Pont, named after a Frenchman who came to the island in 1885 and, unlike most Europeans, stayed for the rest of his life and founded a locally important family. Finally we turned onto Calle Taniera Teave (the source of which name I never doscovered). Our hotel, Hotel Tupa, stood at a crossroads with Calle Sebastian Englert (named after the German Franciscan friar and priest who did so much to record Rapa Nui language and archaeology in the twentieth century; the local anthropology museum is also named after him). Calle Taniera Teave joins Calle Policarpo Toro (named after the Chilean naval officer who was largely responsible for Chile's decision to annex the island and then implemented that decision). A tupa is a small vaulted stone dome widely thought to be a mortuary structure for the display of human bones but also interpreted as a viewing platform. And that is quite enough Rapa Nui toponymy for now.

Along the path to the hotel entrance stood a vivid hibiscus tree within sight of the deep blue of Pacific Ocean under a clear blue sky. By the car park, a horse crunched the grass in a small paddock. We passed through cheap hardwood doors over a polished concrete floor past a dining room laid for breakfast overlooking the ocean. A Rapanuian man in his mid twenties introduced himself as Esteban and gave us a well-rehearsed briefing in idiomatic English on the hotel and the island with the aid of a board onto which was pasted a large map of the small island. Essentially, he could provide anything that we needed during our stay. He was on duty in the small reception office from 08:00-23:00 every day and a night porter would take care of us overnight. The national park sites were affected by a strike but this was more likely to eliminate access charges than it was to hinder access. Esteban was not clear about the issues behind the strike nor about its extent but, clearly, he expected us to have been made aware of the local events in the international press.

From the map we could tell that the island was a little smaller than Jersey or half the size of the Isle of Wight that was so big a part of my childhood. Esteban told us that there was very little crime because with just 6,000 inhabitants everyone knows everyone else although I had read that petty crime is a recently growing phenomenon.

We took our room key and followed a corridor to Room 16. It was reasonably clean and adequately provided with basic furniture, an en suite toilet and bath, and a small refrigerator. The overhead fan did not work but a freestanding electric fan was provided. On the bed our towels had been shaped into a pair of swans. Sliding aluminium patio doors with an ill-fitting insect mesh opened onto a tiny patio with a single chair. It was not luxury but it was entirely adequate to our needs.

With the afternoon being so clement we went for a walk, retracing our taxi ride to Atamu Tekena and continuing along this main street to a relatively major crossroads. We passed bars, cafes, hotels, grocery stores, car rental lots, and clothing stores. Everything was low-rise with a rustic feel. Ahead was a signpost to the museum but the houses petered out only a little way along this so we returned to the crossroads and walked downhill to a small harbour with a couple of dive shops and more cafe-restaurants. This bay was the place that James Cook came ashore in 1770 and departed with an unenthusiastic report of the island that shaped European opinion for over a century.

On the harbour wall stood our first two moai. Like every standing example of the characteristic great stone upper bodies on Easter Island, these had been restored. Nearly a thousand moai were toppled by the islanders in the nineteenth century leaving not a single monument upright. Every standing stone has been raised and, since most topplings involved breaking the statue necks, most restorations involve reattaching the head and in some cases inserting coral whites into the eye sockets. It is now thought that none of the moai are portraits but each represents a dead powerful person. They were set to look across the settlement that they protected or with which they were associated. The rows of statues seen in so many photographs are stood on ahu: ceremonial dry stone platforms used as mortuary monuments. Single moai are also prevalent and seem to mark territorial boundaries. The moai nearest to Fisherman's Wharf was brought to its quayside location from further inland in 1938.

The waterside road runs between the moai and a full size football pitch with a pavillion, bleachers, and an all-weather surface provided by the Chilean government as one of its recent investments in the island. Another was the resurfacing of all the islands roads but many locals remain cynical about the government's commitment to education, health, and trade.

The football pitch is heavily used with a local league of eight men's teams all with their own unique strips. A row of three small cafes overlook the bleachers at the southern end of the pitch. They are quasi-permanent carritos; food trucks around which have been built verandas that make it impossible to move a truck without wrecking all the business premises in the row.

At the end of the small quay stands a painted plaster statue of St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. We looked out to sea and enjoyed the afternoon sun for a while until the dive shops gave W an idea. She thought that she would like to go diving again after an interval of over ten years. We went into Mike Rapu Dive Centre where a happy enthusiastic stoner called Gonzales explained all the schedules and pricing, described some of their dive sites, and ascertained W's level of experience. A charming woman called Denise with gentle eyes and a soft smile took a small deposit and W's name was written up on their dive schedule whiteboard for two dives.

Estaban had recommended that we watch the sunset of Tahai, a complex of three ahu and an assortment of other archaeological remains on the coast about a mile north of Fisherman's Wharf on the edge of Hanga Roa. We wound our way past single moai and modern carvings of the tuff stone used for almost all moai and of the softer red volcanic scoria used for pukao, the hats or topknots atop some moai. Beyond the walled cemetery filled with memorials decorated with unique blending of Roman Catholic and traditional Polynesian symbolism the grassy land was littered with stone structures and occupied by horses, dogs and people with cameras waiting the sunset. On the scarp above the gentle slope a row of gazebos sheltered a busy bar. The sun went down amid clouds that obscured any pink flares in the sky.

We walked back towards the settlement in the dusk and chose a bar just north of the Wharf that thrust out into Pea Bay on piles. Pea (pronounced 'Peya') is a surfers' bay and the bar is eponymous. We ordered pisco sours that were even better than those in Santiago and watched our drinks go down with the light. The food looked good so we ordered dinner and I sampled one of the local beers; a light amber ale called Porter from Mahina, the island's only brewery. We shared a trilogy of ceviches (raw fish marinaded in lemon juice with variations of herbs and spices). It was glorious. For dessert I had poe; the traditional polynesian dish like a bread pudding made from spiced plantain. It was odd to see this resolutely vernacular dish presented formally with a drizzle of fruit syrup and garnishes.

Walking back to our hotel along the ocean road we passed an al fresco restaurant with candles on every table. “What a nice place” we said, tritely, so naming it 'the nice place' for the rest of our stay.

As we collected our room key we had a long chat with Esteban, who gets lonely stuck in his small office with few guests in the low season.


Across the Andes to Chile

Our 0930 taxi arrived by 0910 but we were almost ready to go and were soon at street level loading our big bags into the back of the car. W then ran back upstairs to take photos of the apartment. Neither the driver or I had enough of each other's language to make conversation; we smiled at each other and happily watched the city bustle. A couple of retailers from the menswear shop next to the apartment block entrance wheeled racks of clothing into a van on the far side of the busy street while a varied stream of visitors bought breakfast goods from the bakery next door. Before 0930 we had made our farewells to the doorman and were on the busy roads to the airport some 14 miles out of town. At one of the traffic crossings a street vendor placed 3-packs of tissues on the wipers of each stopped car then ran back retrieving them before the lights changed. I needed more tissues so I gave him the equivalent of 75 pence for a handful of packs.

Ezeiza airport is an attractive modern facility. W was delighted to receive boarding passes for the entire journey to Easter Island because there had been some doubt about the availability of seats across the Pacific. LAN Airlines operate a very pleasing lounge but we did not spend long there because we were soon boarding our flight to Santiago de Chile. This was my first experience of LAN Airlines, which is the flag carrier of Chile owned by the Brazilian airline TAM. We were in the first row of the economy cabin because there had been no business class seats available. The seats had adequate leg room, however, and through the window we had a clear view of the Andes as we crossed their peaks. The flight took just two and a half hours and we were fresh when we reached Santiago at 1445 local time.

Once through immigration and baggage reclaim we came to customs. Of course we had nothing to declare. Except, as it happens, we were carrying W's doggy bag from El Establo and had three cameras over the one per person that is the normal limit. The officers were pleasantly courteous and waved me through after only a brief chat. We knew that we had a reservation with Taxi VIP to take us to our hotel but a friendly helpful man kept hassling us with advice that stopped me from thinking straight. I never did find out what, if anything, he was selling before we escaped him and I left W with the trolley while I found the Taxi VIP desk to collect a voucher. On the road outside the building were a line of Taxi VIP people carriers and we were alone in one of these spacious vehicles for our short journey to Hotel Diego de Almagro just a few miles from the terminal.

Our room was clean, well-appointed, and slightly larger than I expected. Rather than go into the city, we decided to have dinner in the hotel restaurant even though it looked unprepossessing with plain pale walls, small tables for two around the edge and larger circular tables laid up for some sort of banquet in the middle. It seemed more dated than retro but it was clean and the staff were welcoming. We were in Chile so we had to start our meal with a couple of Pisco Sours; in Chile these sharp sweet cocktails are made simply with the local brandy, pica lime juice, sugar, and ice without the egg white and bitters of the Peruvian version. Although the cocktail was invented in Peru, the original version was what we now know as the Chilean version; the egg white and bitters were a later innovation.

With what we came to know as typical Latin American generosity, our waiter gave us the surplus Pico Sour from his mixing when we had finished our initial drinks. He then brought a luscious salad for us to share; it contained palm hearts, artichoke hearts, asparagus, avocado, and watercress. This made a pleasing prelude to the big old steaks that seem to have become our standard foodstuff (I expect us to become more fishy on Easter Island) followed by the caramel flan that is another South American standard.


San Telmo and La Boca

W wanted to visit the barrios of San Telmo (to see the tango dancers in Plaza Dorrego) and La Boca (to see Caminito and La Bombonera football stadium) but everyone warned us that there were dangerous levels of crime in La Boca outside the few tourist streets of Caminito. Several people had warned against using public transport to get there because buses occasionally stopped short and walking in the streets was hazardous and we did not want the commitment of a full city bus tour. We decided to start with a walk to San Telmo and defer any decision about the afternoon.

We followed our previous walking route along Calle Reconquista; the busy urban street that leads to the Plaza de Mayo. This time the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace) looked much more attractive in the morning sun. Whereas we had turned west from the square for our visit to Recoleta, today we continued south towards the Feria de San Pedro Telmo. The streets in this district were narrow and the pavements so neglected that we had to watch every step to avoid stumbling. Watching the pavement and staying wary of pickpockets prevented us from looking at the architecture as we walked so we stopped frequently to look around at the little shops, café bars, and old office buildings. One little shop had its window filled with padlocks and other security devices. We went in and found it deserted. It seemed unwise to rob a security shop so we waited for the proprietor to emerge from the rear. He was friendly and remained helpful even when we spent less than £2 on a tiny brass padlock, which he checked thoroughly and assisted W to test its fit on the zipper tags of her backpack. With her bag secure we could now worry less about thieves.

We liked the amiable scruffiness of Calle Defensa as we walked south into the heart of San Telmo but most of the shops and cafes looked well kept even if the edifices above them seemed faded. We found a corner café for lunch. There were a couple of tables on the street but the interior looked more rewarding so we sat just inside the door. The décor of Cafeteria Minutas had the same rough charm as the street outside and we were served by a grinning portly fellow. Near us four blue collar men were sharing a table and a cheerful conversation while a lone artist at the window drew a couple of charcoal sketches of other diners and gave them away as he completed each one. It was clear from his beneficiaries' responses that he was a stranger to them and each gift generated warm pleasure and happy smiles from all who noticed the transaction.

I ordered picadas and an empanada with a glass of red wine. The wine came as a third of a bottle in a steel jug. It was rich and rounded. The picadas were laid out on a platter edged with a ring of slices of fresh white bread. In the middle were clusters of olives, and cubes of cheese, ham, and spiced sausage with about half a dozen cocktail sticks. W had a few pieces and I wolfed the rest before turning to my beef empanada. Empanadas are a ubiquitous snack throughout Latin America with regional variations. Essentially they are pasties with a bewildering array of fillings. And in some places they are fried rather than baked. In Buenos Aires they are baked and there is a wide range of fillings. W chose the ham with cheese.

We were only a block from Plaza Dorrego and beyond that we could see the raised urban motorway Autopista 25 de Mayo. The Plaza is a broad tree-lined square surrounded by nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings about six stories high. At street level the buildings are occupied by antique shops, bars, and cafes and the square is filled with parasols shaded tables and chairs served by these establishments. It is famous for its musicians and tango dancers but none were to be seen on this bright Wednesday afternoon.

We kept walking south for another block then turned east for a block along Avenida San Juan. Across the road stood the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, which also seems to identify as Museo de Arte Contemperaneo de Buenos Aires; could this be a way of hedging bets on whether 'modern art' is contemporary or modernist? Turning left again took us north into Calle Balcarce, a tree-lined street with few shops. On the corner was an old school that appeared to be occupied by squatters who had decorated the external walls with murals. The narrow cobbled street was picturesque and we enjoyed the colours and architectural features of its buildings. Opposite the end of the street was a white wall bearing a painting of Santa saying “It's me, David Lynch” to a reindeer; Could this be the real reason for Lynch's withdrawl from the Twin Peaks remake?

Further north we sat on some steps in the shade of some trees to discuss our plans for the rest of the day. We still wanted to see the brightly painted buildings of Caminito. We decided to ask a taxi to take us into La Boca, past Caminito, and round the football stadium. It took us a little while to flag down a radio taxi (the most reliable kind) and, although it was easy to explain that we wanted to go to Caminito, it was harder to communicate that we wanted simply to see it and would like to return to the city centre afterwards. La Boca did look rough as we drove past the docks and it became clear why the driver had had such difficulty understanding our request when we found that the few streets around Caminito were pedestrianised. The driver agreed to wait ten minutes while we had a look around. The painted buildings were interesting but the area was crowded with tourist attractions: tango dancers in cheap costumes offered photo opportunities alongside unconvincing Maradona impersonators. They were also giving tango lessons on the street. There were stalls offering jewellery and garish paintings but behind them were yarn-bombed trees and authentic painted bas reliefs from the early development of the street in the 1950s and 1960s. There was an energetic party atmosphere and we were glad to have had the experience. Back in the cab our driver took us through impoverished streets to La Bombonera football stadium. The distinctive blue and yellow of Boca Juniors football club was ubiquitous and the stadium sat alongside housing much like old baseball grounds and English football grounds once did. The taxi took us right back to our apartment. When we tried to tip him the driver assumed that we had made a mistake and tried to return some money; we had offered him less than a pound on an £8 fare.

On our previous visit to El Establo restaurant we had found it fairly quiet at about 2000. Arriving an hour later we were confronted with a nearly full house. Our former waiter greeted us and directed us towards the back of the building where one of his colleagues seated us at the only remaining empty table. Or we thought it was the back of the building: in fact it was the middle because the place had two fronts, of which the other had a long double sided bar with a stainless steel parilla at one end and a few tables beyond the bar alongside the windows to the other street. This parilla was a very different animal to the rustic version that we had seen in Uruguay and this cook had an assistant.

W had learnt from the portion sizes of our previous visit and ordered just half a serving of bife de chorizo but I still went for the whole thing. Last time I had had the bife de lomo; a fillet that is the choicest cut but deprecated by some because of its delicate flavour. Bife de chorizo is sirloin; big, juicy, tasty sirloin. It was a treat. But before we got to the meat we had salad and beer. Lots of beer. They had no amber ales in stock so I chose the draft local lager. Quilmes is by far the most popular brewer in Argentina. Based in Buenos Aires, its products are everywhere but, to the continuing dismay of Argentinians, it has been owned by the Brazilian subsidiary of the Belgian multinational AB InBev (the world's largest brewer) since 2002. A one-litre mug is a very big heavy thing but the Cristal lager was of such light flavour that it was very easy drinking.

Before we left I sought out the maitre d' to praise everything about our experiences and to share our delight in his staff and the cooks. We were within hearing of the cooks and, although my Spanish was rudimentary, I could tell that they liked the sentiment.

Back at the apartment we did most of our packing ready for our morning departure leaving only the wash bags and our charging electrical devices to add to our bags.