EASTER ISLAND, Chile — It's earth's most-remote inhabited land, a South Pacific speck of volcanic rock so isolated the locals call it "Te Pito O Te Henua," or "The Navel of the World."
But Easter Island is a bellybutton experiencing a tourist boom — and some are worried the onslaught of outsiders could take a toll on the very things they come to see, the gigantic stone heads known as Moais.
"More tourism, more deterioration. More visitors, more loss," said Susana Nahoe, an archaeologist who was a liaison between Chile's National Tourism Service and the island's scientific community before leaving the post two years ago, citing "differences in values."
"We are at the point now where, either we protect what we have or we lose it," she said.
Moais already face a host of natural enemies. Sun, surf, winds and humidity are eating at their features. Many have been beset by blights, lichen and moss. Erosion tears away the Ahus, ceremonial platforms of dirt and stone on which they sit, and even is slowly claiming the island's porous edges.
Nahoe said most tourists are careful not to harm Moais, but some unknowingly walk or climb on them, exacerbating natural deterioration. Others deface them deliberately, including a Finnish tourist who was fined U.S. $17,000 after hacking an ear lobe off a statue in March.
What can be done to better-protect Moais is difficult to answer. But then, so much about this place raises beguiling questions. Why were the heads built? How were they lugged all over the island? What happened to their eyes? And what catastrophe befell civilization, causing people to suddenly stop making the Moai and topple the ones they'd completed?
Settlers arrived from the Marquesas Islands to the north between 400 and 600. Society flourished until about 1680 and Moais probably were constructed to honor tribal leaders. But resources became scarce as the population grew. When islanders cut down all the trees, tribal warfare erupted, leading to cannibalism and the pulling down of the Moai.
The island's name comes from Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen who arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722. It's Chilean territory, though the country's mainland lies 2,237 miles (3,580 kilometers) to the east.
At 10 by 15 miles (16 by 24 kilometers), Easter Island is roughly three times the size of Manhattan. In 1967, Chile's Lan Airlines began using it as a refueling stop en route to Tahiti. Tourists began arriving en masse 20 years later, when a 2-mile (3-kilometer) runway was built as an alternate landing site for the U.S. space shuttle.
Today, in addition to a few cruise ships, there are eight flights a week from Santiago, Chile's capital, and Papeete, Tahiti. During low season, late March through July, the number of weekly flights drops to four, but packed planes have brought record numbers of tourists.
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"Every flight is full," said Pedro Edmunds, mayor of the only town, Hanga Roa. "It's been brutal. But in a good way."
Easter Island has only 4,000 inhabitants, and Edmunds said 52,000 tourists visited in 2007, up 20 percent from 2006 and nearly 10 times 1990 levels. Easter Island has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, but officials attribute the recent spike to last year's New Seven Wonders of the World contest.
The island didn't win, finishing eighth, but Edmunds said officials expect 2008 tourism totals to match 2007, spurred by positive word-of-mouth from visitors. Also helping is the new Explora, the island's first all-inclusive, eco-friendly resort. Longtime favorite the Hanga Roa Hotel is undergoing a major expansion too.
The island has 1,524 archaeological sites, including the 887 Moais, of which only about 50 have been restored. Repairing and placing Moais upright can cause them to deteriorate faster since they are more exposed than statues that remain face down or buried.
Edmunds said 54 types of blights feast on Moais and that "there's really nothing being done" to protect them. Nahoe said a 2003 experiment by UNESCO and experts from Japan injected five Moai with a sealant that helped protect against humidity and lichen. The results were positive, but the treatment proved too costly for widespread use.
Both complained that problems with preservation are exacerbated by the fact the island must report to Chile.
"There's no understanding of the clamor of the Rapa Nui people to control what's theirs," said Edmunds, referring to the island by its official native name, Rapa Nui. "They don't leave us room to be creative ... Everything is in Santiago, where so many have never even visited the island."
Despite long-simmering frustrations, islanders are exceedingly friendly. All hotels are in Hanga Roa, where my wife and I spent a week at the family-run Mana Nui Inn. Our room had a view of the Tahai site, three small collections of restored Moai silhouetted by endless ocean.
Especially mesmerizing at sundown, Tahai features a Moai with eyes and a Pukao, a round red feature found on some statues' heads. It could be a hat, a topknot or a depiction of hair pulled tightly into a circular mound.
The eyes at Tahai and other sites are not original — genuine eyes were crafted from coral, but only one survives. It is on display at the anthropological museum, a must-visit to best understand all there is to see on the island.
The Moais' average height is 13 feet (4 meters) and they weigh an average of 12.5 tons. But each one is unique, with sizes and features — even ears, lips and torsos — that vary. They are also almost all male — just 10 of those unearthed so far have female characteristics.
The Moais were built to watch over ancient settlements and all stand with their backs to the ocean except at Ahu Akivi, where seven heads watch the waves from a hillside. A village may once have stood between those Moai and the water. Ahu Akivi is worth visiting at different times of day: Its heads glisten a soft honey-brown at dusk, but look gray and imposing at brighter hours.
From there, a 1,675-foot (511-meter) hike leads to the island's highest point, Maunga Terevaka. Hold on to your cap: The sea breeze gets gusty! The island is almost completely devoid of trees, making hills below look like giant green marshmallows. There are also 7,000 wild horses on the island, and friendly stray dogs are prevalent in town.
We walked around for four days, rented a Jeep for two and took organized tours for two more. Distances that look short on the map can stretch on for hours by foot; pack sunscreen and water before leaving Hanga Roa.
The sun rises and sets late, so you can easily wake up in time to drive in absolute darkness to Ahu Tongariki, 15 erect Moai flanked by a rocky cove. Dawn breaking over the statues — with only the crashing of angry surf and an occasional crowing rooster interrupting the silence — rivals climbing a snowy Great Wall of China as the most amazing thing I've seen in my traveling life.
The nearby Rano Raraku volcano is also wonderful: A quarry where Moai can be seen in all stages of completion, including hauntingly emerging from volcanic bedrock.
All three island volcanos are extinct, but Rano Raraku is known as "the nursery" because it provided the stone from which 95 percent of Moai were fashioned. One, "El Gigante," is the largest Moai ever carved at 70 feet (21.6 meters) high. Gaping holes in the side of the volcano show where islanders hacked to maneuver the Moais.
An army of Moai, many buried up to their necks, guards the volcano's slopes. There were 320 Moais left under construction or in transit, indicating just how abruptly islanders quit building them.
Slideshow: Magnificent Seven The largest Moai ever moved measured nearly 30 feet (9 meters) and weighed 87 tons. Theories on how islanders managed to transport such massive creations include rolling them on canoes mounted on logs or dragging them with a system of pulleys. Either way, the palm trees that once forested the island were relied upon heavily, contributing to deforestation.
North of Rano Raraku is Anakena beach, where clear, cold waves lap a white-sand beach. While swimming, you can peek at the backs of eight Moais at Ahu Nau Nau, some of the best-preserved because they were buried under sand for years.
South of Hanga Roa, on the slopes of the Rano Kau volcano, is Orongo ceremonial village, with recreations of the circular homes islanders once occupied. Here you'll see the island's largest crater, a wind-swept bog that slopes down at abrupt angles, yielding spectacular views of the sparkling ocean in the distance and three tiny islets.
When migratory birds arrived on the islets, tribes would nominate an athlete to scale down the Rano Kau volcano, swim across shark-infested waters and find a bird's egg. The first to return without breaking the egg would be supreme leader for the year, ensuring his tribe's place atop the island's hierarchy. The contest, last held in 1865, ended tribal warfare.
Nearly 500 carvings called Tangata Manu depict human bodies with bird heads, and Edmunds called the birdman competition "a crude form of democracy." But he said it only came after a squandering of resources led the civilization to collapse, and he warned that the same fate could befall the world.
"I see Rapa Nui as a preview of what can happen to the whole world," he said. "We went to war and destroyed ourselves. Twelve or 15 generations later, the world may do the same."
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