The South Coast
Begin your tour of the island by heading early to the Rano Rakaru crater, the quarry and birthplace of the island's moais, and undeniably Easter Island's most extraordinary site. Before reaching Rano Rakaru, you'll pass two ahus, Ahu Vaihu and Ahu Akahanga, with their toppled-over moais; scattered along the road to Rano Rakaru there are dozens of prone moais abandoned midway to their final resting place. To say that the approach to Rano Rakaru is an emotive experience is an understatement -- the most common reaction is an expletive! Scattered about the crater's slope are upright, half-buried moais, and even more half-finished moais attached to the matrix rock -- in all, nearly 400 moais of all shapes and sizes can be viewed here in varying states of completion. There is a ranger's station here and picnic tables under eucalyptus trees. Follow the path along the slope to "El Gigante," the largest moai on the island at 21m (71 ft.). A short but steep path leads up to the crater's edge and into its interior, where you can view more moais and the crater's freshwater lake, and grasp your first view of the famous Ahu Tongariki moai site. Located at the shoreline east of Rano Rakaru's sheer volcanic walls, Ahu Tongariki is the largest collection of erect moais on the island, 15 statues in all, the tallest reaching 6.6m (22 ft.). Tongariki is a captivating place -- together with Rano Rakaru you'll want to spend your entire day exploring both.
At the eastern tip of Easter Island is the Poike Peninsula, a high plateau formed by the extinct volcano Maunga Pu A Katiki. There is no road access here and few travelers take the time to visit the peninsula, except to hike or horseback ride.
South of Hanga Roa
The Rano Kau volcano and its crater is the island's most impressive natural attraction -- prepare to be left breathless as you stand before it. The crater measures 1.6km (1 mile) in diameter and has steep slopes that descend to a reed-choked lake (which you can walk to if you're in shape). It is possible to follow a path around the crater, but it will take the better part of a day. To get here, drive or walk (about an hour). Clinging to the crater's edge and fronting the steep coastal escarpment is Orongo, the ceremonial and ritual site dedicated to the Birdman cult. This annual ritual was a brutal competition whereby men battled to obtain the first egg laid by the sooty tern, which nested on the islet Motu Nui. The men would descend the rocky cliff, swim through shark-infested waters, and wait for days or weeks until the first egg was found. The winner, or his "sponsor," would swim back with the egg in a head strap, and spend the following year in seclusion while his family was granted special status to dominate others. The reconstructed, stone slab structures at Orongo demonstrate clearly how ritual participants lived during the ceremony. Also here are basalt rocks with beautifully carved petroglyphs depicting half-human, half-bird figures.
Closer to Hanga Roa, about a half-hour walk south from town, is Ana Kai Tangata, a sea-cliff cave used as a refuge during days of social conflict. Inside the cave is what remains of rather remarkable prehistoric paintings of birds.
Southeast of Hanga Roa, following the road at the end of the airstrip, is the island's most curious ahu, Vinapu. The perfectly symmetrical stones used to build the ahu platform gave rise to the theory that the people of Easter Island came from South America, due to the platform's similarity to stonework seen in Peru.
North of Hanga Roa
Following the rough coastal route north out of Hanga Roa will take you to the Caverna Dos Ventanas, or the "Cave of Two Windows." Unfortunately, it's difficult to find. Drive a little less than 3km (2 miles) until you are parallel to two offshore islets; there's usually a rock cairn here indicating the turnoff, or maybe another car or van will guide you as to where the cave's entrance lies. The cave entrance is a small hole in the ground, but it leads to two fantastic cliff openings (bring a flashlight) where you can watch the crashing sea. Farther north lies Ahu Tepeu, a well-built ahu whose moai lies fallen over. Scattered around this area are the foundations of the hare paenga boat houses, and reconstructions of chicken coops and walled gardens.
More cave dwellings lie at Ana Te Pahu. Follow the poorly marked road from Ahu Tepeu until you see lots of greenery, which is a garden planted with typical root vegetables and bananas, and the cave's entrance. These caves provided refuge for people escaping island battles, and are made from lava tubes. Note that it is common for travelers to hike or bike to Ahu Tepeu and the Dos Ventanas caves.
Farther inland, seven finely reconstructed moais can be viewed at Ahu Akivi. These are the only moais that face out to sea, and oriented toward the summer solstice. From here, a rutted road leads up to Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island. From this point it is possible to see the island in its entirety. The road's closed to traffic, although some locals still sneak up in a 4*4. Hiking here takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending if you walk the road from Akivi or from the other entrance near Vaitea. Heading south on the road from Ahu Akivi, you'll see a turnoff to Puna Pau, the quarry for the pukao, or topknot that some moais sport. There are two dozen half-finished topknots here, and a splendid view of Hanga Roa and the coastline.
The Northeast Coast
Come here to relax. The island's two beaches, Anakena and Ovahe, can be found here, and they are dreamy, with cerulean sea lapping at white sand. Anakena is the larger beach, and legend holds that this is where King Hotu Matu'a landed when he arrived at Easter Island. You'll find a few shacks selling grilled meats, snacks, beverages, and beer here. Overlooking the beach are Ahu Ature Huki, with one moai, and Ahu Nau Nau, with seven moais etched with petroglyphs, and four of which have topknots. Ovahe has pinkish sand and is backed by a cliff and is usually less crowded than Anakena, but it is best before the sun hides behind the cliff.
Worth exploring is Ahu Te Pito Kura, named for a perfectly rounded and magnetic boulder here that local lore says was brought over by King Hotu Matu'a, as there is no other rock like it on the island. The name means the "navel of the earth," and it was the name of the island before it was called Rapa Nui. The ahu here once supported the largest moai to have been transported to an ahu, measuring 10m (33 ft.) and lying face down, with his topknot knocked off. Following the coast east on foot will take you past a rich assortment of boathouse foundations, chicken coops, and even an ancient observatory.