- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Visit Easter Island
Numbering almost a thousand, the moai (monolithic human statues carved from a single piece of stone) are scattered all over the island. They're the principal reason people come to Easter Island and truly make any trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Carved in the image of the island's Rapa Nui ancestors, the statues date to the twelfth century and measure up to a staggering 32 feet (10 meters) in height.
Excavated in the 1970s, they stand in long lines. Some are solitary and all face inland.
Each moai is different. Like caricatures, they're fat, thin, big, small, tattooed -- you name it, the Rapa Nui carved them as an expression of an intricate culture that also included petroglyphs, tattooing and ancient Oceania's only written language.
One of many Easter Island mysteries is how this remote piece of land came to be inhabited. Most historians agree that Polynesian seafarers arrived around 400 AD, but no one knows for sure -- some have posited an extraterrestrial connection.
What is known is that it wasn't until 1722, when a Dutch expedition arrived, that the Rapa Nui had any contact with outsiders. At the time, the moai were still standing and the local population numbered around 20,000.
Today, the islanders number 5,000 in total. That's just four times the number of moai and less than the island's horse population.
But the island's one-of-a-kind culture is kept alive with activities and festivals that highlight ancient arts such as spear throwing, tobogganing, dancing and body painting.
The island's top celebration is the Tapati Festival (February 1 through 15, 2013), which revolves around a series of competitions based on ancient sports.
The highlight is the Haka Pei, in which male islanders (wearing only small loin cloths) toboggan down the Maunga Pui volcano on banana tree trunks. It's a bumpy, crazy ride. The last competitor remaining atop his log is declared the winner.
There are also dance competitions, carnival-style parades, food exhibitions and the crowning of the Tapati queen.
Easter Island is primarily made up of three extinct volcanoes: Terevaka, Poike and Rano Kau.
The youngest of the three, Terevaka forms the vast part of the island. Its slopes served as the Rano Raraku quarry, providing the volcanic tuff from which the moai were carved.
Today, 400 eerie, petrified heads poke out of Terevaka's grassy hillside, looking as though they were captured and frozen while trying to climb out of the mountainside.
Poike makes up the island's east "wing" and Rano Kau forms the south.
Rano Kau has a huge, impressive crater. It sits astride the ceremonial village of Orongo, which has breathtaking 360-degree views of the island and Pacific Ocean.