Easter Island is eyeing next July, when a solar eclipse will thrust the remote territory’s famed stone statues into darkness — and the glare of a global spotlight.
But it is already plunging the barren Polynesian isle into its own form of chaos, as the Chilean territory struggles to cope with the crush of a merry band of eclipse-chasers desperate to witness the event in one of the most mysterious patches of land on Earth.
“There’s just no more room, we are totally booked,” an apologetic Sabrina Atamu, an information officer at Easter Island’s National Tourist Service, told AFP.
“We have been taking reservations for the last five or six years.”
A total eclipse of the sun on 11 July 2010 will leave most of eastern Polynesia — including all of Easter Island — in the moon’s umbra, or shadow, for four minutes and 45 seconds.
That is nearly two minutes shorter than Wednesday’s solar eclipse, which affected a narrow band that traversed nearly half the Earth, according to US space agency NASA.
But the prospect of such a spectacular natural phenomenon occurring one year later in such a spiritual and remote locale as Easter Island has fascinated in equal measure the world’s scientists and tourists, who have stumbled over one another to reserve the mere 1,500 beds on offer in the island’s few hotels.
“It is already impossible to get anything to see the eclipse,” said Hector Garcia of the GoChile travel agency. “There are no more hotels, no residences, nothing,” he said, adding that many of the reservations were made early on by “scientists from around the world.”
Prices, he said, have risen five- to 10-fold across the island — but that hasn’t deterred the dedicated.
“We have been totally booked for the last several months,” said Maria Hortensia Jeria, who is in charge of reservations at the high-end Explora Rapa Nui hotel, where the 30 guestrooms go for 3,040 dollars apiece for a four-night package.
Easter Island — or Rapa Nui in the ancient Polynesian language — attracts some 50,000 tourists each year, who flock to the volcanic landscape to enjoy its beaches and the legendary “moai,” the enormous monolithic human figures lined up along the shoreline that native islanders consider their guardians.
Located 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) west of the Chilean mainland and 4,050 kilometers (2,517 miles) southeast of Tahiti, Easter Island boasts some 4,000 inhabitants, the majority of them ethnic Rapa Nui.
Arriving on the island in the days before next year’s eclipse will not be easy, as the only flights into Mataveri airport are on LAN, the Chilean airline that has a monopoly on the route.
During low season, in the southern hemisphere’s winter months, a ticket from the Chilean capital Santiago to Easter Island costs around 360 dollars, but the high season sees the price triple to more than 1,000 dollars, tour operators said.
And, like most tropical islands that rely heavily on tourism, prices are high. A can of Coca Cola, for example, may cost as much as four dollars, more than four times the cost in Santiago.
So while the stars may be aligning to provide a memorable four-minute spectacle to Easter Island’s visitors next July, many of the islanders themselves are seeking to capitalize on the influx.
“Many here have requested loans in order to build small hotels or bungalows, or to renovate their homes in order to receive tourists,” Mario Dinamarca, a Chilean who has lived on the island for two decades, told AFP.
The islanders — inhabitants of a postage-stamp isle in the vast Pacific — are no strangers to isolation, but they hope that for four minutes next July, Easter Island will live up to the way they describe their home in the Rapa Nui language: “the navel of the world.”