Though Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile in is the most remote inhabited island in the world, more than five hours by air from the nearest continent, some 50,000 tourists arrived in 2010—compared to around 5000 inhabitants. The government expects this number to increase to 200,000 by 2020, and is expanding the airport and improving infrastructure in anticipation. Though this is good news for those who rely on tourism, the island’s top earner, the unprecedented traffic on this fragile island has taken a severe environmental toll.
That’s why the World Monuments Fund, which has been involved with the island and UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1960s, is making a statement with an innovative new visitor’s center, the Centro de Recepción de Visitantes de la Aldea Ceremonial de Orongo,. In conjunction with CONAF (National Forest Corporation of Chile), which manages the nation’s national parks and forests, and private donors, this graceful new building sets a new standard for island architecture.
The design is green, dedicated to minimal impact, and its evocative, organic curves have been built around an existing structure. The center incorporates both solar and wind energy to provide all its electrical needs. There are also state-of-the-art composting toilets, and a rainwater recycling program. And, of course, it provides information about Easter Island’s magnificent, yet fragile, archaeological sites, and how visitors can keep them safe for future generations.
“This type of initiative leverages both cultural preservation and ecosystem protection in very fragile places,” said Eduardo Vial Ruiz-Tagle, Executive Director of CONAF. “Easter Island is a landmark in the tourism world, and that is why we need to work hard to preserve its resources…. It is uniting our efforts that we can progress in the conservation of our own heritage.”
The center is located at the entrance of the Orongo Ceremonial Village, on the southwestern corner of the triangular island. Though Rapa Nui is best known for its moai, the iconic statues erected to gaze out over the Pacific, the Orongo site is different. Some 50 circular flagstone buildings were built in the 1540s as a spiritual center on the flanks of Rano Kau volcano, dedicated to the rather mysterious “Birdman Cult,” or Tangata Manu.
Though Christian missionaries abolished the religion in 1864, it is known that Orongo was inhabited for several weeks of the year, the site of an annual pilgrimage to Motu Nui, the small islet visible about a kilometer (.62 miles) offshore. Men were charged with a quest: To swim the straight and collect one egg of the manutara, or brown-backed tern, a large seabird that nests on the isle.
The first to swim back with an intact egg was made spiritual leader of the tribe for the following year, and petroglyph carved in his honor. The site’s sole moai, a most unusual basalt variation on the older, more traditional statues elsewhere on the island, was stolen in 1868, and is today housed in the British National Museum. However, Orongo Village is still surrounded with petroglyphs, carved into the basalt boulders each year to honor the Tangata Manu, or Bird Man, usually depicted with human bodies and beaks. Other figures, such as MakeMake, the island’s chief deity, can also be found.
The new visitors center, in addition to being a model of sustainability, is composed of an expressive and innovative architecture that reflects the artistic importance of Orongo, inspired enough to be featured in the popular magazine Dwell. It makes for a most appropriate welcome to this sacred site, one that reflects Easter Island’s turbulent past and creative soul.