5 crazy contests to watch at Easter Island’s Tapati Rapa Nui festival

You know this South Pacific island is home to moai statues, but have you heard about its biggest festival, held each February?

Tapati Rapa Nui festival parade (Shutterstock)

Tapati Rapa Nui festival parade (Shutterstock)

What began in the 1970s as a way of promoting native culture to younger generations of Rapa Nui on Easter Island has morphed into a festival that’s popular with visitors from all over the world. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch a man in a loin cloth slide down a hill on a banana trunk? Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the end of winter and here’s what you can expect…

1. Sport contests

Sport competitions are based on traditional activities, most of which test participants’ physical strength and endurance. As well as fishing for eels underwater, racing horses without saddles and paddling in dug out canoes, locals surf – Easter Island style – by coasting on waves only with their body like a turtle. Natives also take part in a triathlon. But forget cycling – instead the participants paddle on rafts made from reeds and hobble around a lake dangling 20kg of bananas around their neck. The real highlight, however, is cheering on the haka pei contest. Often dressed only in a loin cloth, a young man balances on two banana trunks tied together with rope, clinging on for dear life as he whizzes 80km an hour down the island’s steepest slope, the 200m Maunga Pu’I.

2. Food contests

Easter Islanders were cooking up a storm long before The Great British Bake Off, MasterChef Australia and Hell’s Kitchen came on the scene. Locals prepare traditional Rapa Nui cuisine which is judged by a jury. Sample dishes include ceviche; fish cooked on a hot stone; seafood and meat curanto stew and po’e, a sponge cake made with banana, pumpkin or sweet potato. You can also watch agricultural contests, during which native produce such as watermelon, pineapple, sugarcane and taro are judged for their size and weight. Massive watermelons: always a crowd pleaser.

3. Craft contests

The Rapa Nui are a crafty lot so the festival is a fantastic time to see their creations. Islanders make crowns, flower garlands and farewell necklaces from shells, petals and reeds. You can also watch natives sculpt and carve moai, petroglyphs and scripture from stone and wood, with judges evaluating them on their speed and technique. Don’t miss the contest in which natives use a pole to stretch and flatten the bark of the mahute plant into cloth – the winner is the person who makes the largest and finest fabric. This fabric is then used as canvas in other competitions, during which artists paint designs based on art found on the inside of caves around the island

4. Singing and dancing contests

The festival’s main singing and dancing shows are held at night on a stage at Hanga Vare Vare, a green space in the capital of Hanga Roa. Rival dance groups compete in a dance-off wearing traditional dress – think red skirts, shell necklaces and feather headdresses. As well as belly dancing Easter Island style – mimicking the movement of waves with their arms and hips – they act out the meaning behind the symbols and motifs painted on to their faces and bodies. Rival choirs also perform.

5. The Queen of Tapati contest

Travellers are encouraged to get involved in the procession, which sees floats, singers and dancers parade through Hanga Roa on the festival’s penultimate day. On the last day, locals and visitors support contestants competing for points in a nod to the former rivalries between the clans that once ruled the island. The couple with the most points wins the annual title of king and queen. At night, fireworks explode above the town.

Watersports (T photography/Shutterstock)
Ceviche (Shutterstock)
Native crafts (Lovelypeace  and Shutterstock)
Islanders dancing (Christian Wilkinson/Shutterstock)
Woman in traditional dress (Shutterstock)