While only a few intrepid travelers make the journey to remote Easter Island, the iconic moai statues that guard the island’s coastline are famous around the world and the focal point of one of the world’s most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage sites. The colossal stone-carved figures are the work of the native Rapa Nui people, dating back mostly between the 13th and 16th centuries and believed to honor their ancestors and protect their villages.
For all their fame, the moai still remain shrouded in mystery, and archaeologists have long puzzled over the origin of the statues—it’s clear that the figures were carved from volcanic tuff and placed on top of ahus or ceremonial platforms, but how the enormous moai, which reach up to 46 feet (14 meters) high and weigh up to 30 tons, were transported and erected remains a subject of much speculation.
For many visitors, the moai are the main draw to Easter Island, and there’s certainly no shortage of them—the island is home to hundreds of statues, many of which have been painstakingly restored by skilled archaeologists. On the southeast coast, Ahu Tongariki is the largest and most striking site, with 15 moai positioned on a 200-foot long ceremonial platform, while the seven moai of Ahu Akivi are the only figures that face toward the ocean. Close to the main town of Hanga Roa, the Tahai ceremonial site includes a single moai with unique painted eyes and a pukao headdress, alongside a "family" of five moai. Additional sites include Ahu Akahanga, known as the "King’s Platform," the Ahu Huri a Urenga, where one moai has two pairs of hands, and the impressively detailed maoi of Ahu Nau Nau.
Equally fascinating are the archaeological sites of Rano Raraku, the main stone quarry, where almost all of the island’s moai were sculpted and the largest ever moai is located, and the Puna Pau quarry, the sole source of the red scoria rock used to craft the moai’s unique "pukao" headpieces.