More Than Statues
Easter Island (Rapa Nui) may be best known for the monolithic heads, or moai, that dot its landscape. However, Easter Island’s claim to fame each summer (that’s early February when you’re south of the equator) is Tapati Rapa Nui, a festival that is at once a test of masculine strength and feminine grace, a celebration of local culture and a welcoming of visitors.
Unlike many island festivals, Tapati Rapa Nui has been a festival for locals, by locals, rather than a tourist attraction. In 1969, just a few years after Easter Island gained some autonomy from Chile, Semana de Rapa Nui was born as a simple summer festival that featured singing, dancing and a small parade. Over the years it has evolved—including a name change—but Tapati Rapa Nui has always been about celebrating Polynesian pride. While tourists are welcome and tend to pack the island this time of year, this is not a commercial luau or something you’d find at a hotel in Waikiki. Expect true authenticity in these festivities and a deep appreciation and respect for the culture by the Rapa Nui people and all who attend.
The crux of Tapati is a battle between two teams, or two halves of the town of Hanga Roa. Each team is lead by a queen candidate, a young woman who competes with the other would-be queen from the rival clan. The two queens compete for the Queen of Tapati crown, a symbolic title that the winner will bear for one year. The candidates prepare all year for Tapati, practicing their dancing, creating costumes and working with their teams.
Teams engage in popular activities based on ancient sports, such as the Rapa Nui Triathalon, in which scantily clad competitors must swim, paddle across a lake in a reed raft, and run around the lake while balancing banana bunches over their shoulders. It’s no wonder that the Rapa Nui are so fit!
Another popular event is haka pei, a sledding competition of sorts whereby entrants race down the side of a volcano on a banana tree trunk. While this may sound like the tropical version of your childhood winter vacations, this is a sport that can lead to serious injury and is best left to the pros. Other events include surfing, spear fishing and traditional body decoration—all done wearing the traditional skimpy loincloth. (Did we mention that the Rapa Nui are in seriously good shape?)
Hips Don’t Lie
And of course, no Polynesian celebration would be complete without the traditional dancing. Both young Rapa Nui and seasoned veterans compete for their team, swaying their hips in mesmerizing motions. Finally, the two young women competing for the crown take the stage for solo dances. The twang of ukulele and the tribal beat of drums echo throughout the stadium as they masterfully perform their elegant routines.
On the final night of the festival, the scores of the two teams are tallied, and the Queen of Tapati is crowned. Drums pound as the queen takes the stage for a victory dance, and her team sings, chants, and cheers her on. It’s a coronation befitting for a Polynesian queen.