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January 26 - February 6, 2017  

Passage Note #93 - Tapati Rapa Nui Festival

Tapati Rapa Nui Festival


We are avid festival goers and have been known to plan a trip around such an event.  We were already somewhat familiar with the Rapa Nui culture from when a contingent of island dancers, carvers, and musicians performed at the Marquesan Matava’a Festival in 2015 in Hiva Oa.  At that time, our exposure to their culture and the people we met made us eager to fly to Rapa Nui and attend the Tapati.  We finally did in 2017!


The Tapati Rapa Nui Festival is an annual event which lasts for two weeks in the beginning of each February and represents a cultural renaissance and reaffirmation of the unique identity and traditions of the indigenous people of Easter Island.  The first one was held in 1967.  It was very different from the non-competitive and more authentic Marquesan Matava’a and bore more similarity in a way to the high powered, commercial, and expensive Tahitian Heiva.  But unlike the Heiva, the Tapati was on a much smaller scale and is totally free - there are no fees for any of the events. There were also extensive athletic competions.  

The Tapati can be considered a contemporary manifestation of the past ancestral rivalries that took place among the clans of the Birdman Cult (see Passage Note #92). The rituals of those deadly contests have instead been replaced by friendly competitions that are rooted in their traditions. 

Although there is some variation from festival to festival, in 2017 two teams championed a candidate for Queen called an “uka” and her warrior partner called an “aito”.    The entire island was involved and divided - you were either rooting for Tiare & Petero or for Tahira & Christopher.  And yet, as are all such festivals, the Tapati is a cultural event that has a strong binding effect for the entire community.

Music, dance, artistic and athletic competitions were conducted before a panel of judges who awarded points; the team with the most points after two weeks would be declared the winner and their Festival Queen crowned, reigning until the next year’s Tapati.


The participation and commitment of the two sides is intense, especially by the candidates’ extended families and close friends who spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy and resources creating, organizing and practicing performances.  Competition is fierce and taken so seriously that some of the dance practices are “secret”; we were not allowed to observe some of them.  Hundreds of costumes need to be designed and fabricated; we stumbled across one team’s buzzing headquarters and watched as outfits were being assembled from banana bark, shells, feathers, and mahute (bark of the paper mulberry tree crushed and beaten with a mallet to produce a thin cloth or fabric).

A beautifully and elaborately painted open air stage was erected at the seaside location of Hanga Vare Vare in the northern end of the town of Hanga Roa. Here dancing, music, and singing events took place every evening from 9:45 pm until 1 or 2 in the morning.  This year’s artwork reflected the theme of honoring the island’s elders (koro) who are highly revered in Rapa Nui culture. The large elevated stage was fully equipped with professional lighting, a sound system, microphones, and one big screen TV in the corner.   Rapa Nui sunset is late at 8:30 pm (time is manipulated to be more compatible with the Chile mainland) so things didn’t get going until after it became dark.  Rows of white plastic chairs were arranged for the audience extending outward from the stage on the grassy lawn below;  the island elders were the guests of honor sitting with the other VIPs in the front of the crowd. 

Dance, Music and Singing


The evening performances included:



One of our favorites was the traditional art of body painting, a form of creative communication.   Performers displayed their painted bodies through movement and dance with an oral explanation of the allegories and stories that the designs represented.  Colors are made from natural sources with red having special significance.

Koro Haka Opo 

Candidates compete with singers, musicians and dancers to interpret traditional songs called “riu”.  Each side takes turns and no song can be repeated by the other.


Chants performed by a cappella singers are classified according to five topics: gratefulness, remembrance, mockery, pain, marriage, and romantic love.


Storytelling art using a string like a cat’s cradle to tell the story.  The performer is dressed in traditional clothing, reciting traditional stories while making specific figures with a continuous thread that they interweave using their hands.


Exquisite and elaborate pairs of costumes are modeled by the uka and aito in categories of feathers, shells, and banana tree bark or mahute (a cloth made from pounded tree bark similar to tapa in the Marquesas).

Competing musical groups 

These are large dance group productions of children, teens, and adults.  Music, singing, choreography, and synchronization are evaluated.


Musicians compete in groups and as individuals.   Some traditional instruments in the individual category were nose flute, guitar, and drums.  Classical music, a fairly new development on the island, was represented by young violinists.

Athletic Competitions (Tau’a Rapa Nui)


Athletic competitions were scheduled during the day and you needed to either rent a car or secure a ride to the various locations around the island.   They included a freewheeling horse race, “kayak” races on the sea,  and  number of fishing competitions. 

The Rapa Nui equivalent of a triathlon involved three types of racing - (1) Vaka Ama, rowers on totora reed floats using wooden paddles, (2)  Aka Venga, marathon foot racers carrying heavy stalks of bananas, and (3) Pora, swimmers on totora floats.  It took place in the totora reed marsh of Rano Raraku crater lake.  For the latter event, Chuck wasn’t feeling well so Linda attended with Elvira’s (the proprietress of our eco-hostal) son Tonshi and daughter Ka and their group of 20-something friends who pitched a huge tent and partied the entire long afternoon as more friends joined in. 

Perhaps the highlight of these competitive games - and everyone’s favorite - is an “extreme sport” event called the Haka Pei.  The Haka Pei takes place on the flanks of Cerro Nui, a tall and steep (45º) grassy hill where a dozen courageous male contestants slide downhill at breakneck speeds on makeshift sleds made of two banana tree trunks joined together by wooden rods.  It can be very dangerous at 70 km/hour and serious injuries have been known to happen. The one who travels the longest distance wins. Crowds of spectators line the racecourse on one side of the slope up to the top and there is a carnival atmosphere below at the finish line.

Umu Community Feast


It was a brilliant sunny day Saturday afternoon when the community gathered at Anakena Beach for a community celebration that included an umu (underground oven) with free food for everyone in attendance.  The local priest blessed the food as it was being removed from the umu and then everyone partook of delicious pork, fish, bananas, and other root vegetables, with fruit (pineapple and watermelon) for dessert.

And the Winner Is……


We didn’t stay for the second week of the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival and were sorry to miss the famous parade held on Dia de la Farandula  (Party Day) where islanders and visitors share in the festivities -  painted, costumed and marching in the streets together.  Our cruising friends Eric and Lesley Rigney and sons Bryce and Trent departed with us but not before getting painted and photographed for a wonderful family memento of their experience in Rapa Nui.


So it wasn’t until we returned to Papeete that we learned the winner in 2017 was Tahira and Christopher!

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