Chile’s Tapati Festival

by Red Hunt

Tapati Festival is an annual event organized by the people of Easter Island, Chile to celebrate their Rapa Nui heritage and showcase their cultural traditions.

No other cultural festival has impressed me as much as the Tapati Festival. This is really saying something, as I have been to Carnival in Rio and an array of festivals and cultural celebrations across Asia and Africa.

The people of Easter Island stage the festival for their own enjoyment, but the island attracts more tourists during this time than the entire rest of the year – which means you have to book well in advance as all hotels and guest houses fill up fast on this small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Every day is filled with different events, ranging from horse-racing to swimming competitions and more traditional challenges, like riding a banana tree down a hill. Two events that are central to the Tapati Festival are the carving and dancing competitions.

The importance of the carving competition is understandable, given the fame of Easter Island’s monumental statues, called moai, which were created by the early Rapa Nui people. Local artisans compete against each other in carving blocks of rocks the old-fashioned way, with hammers and chisels. Their goal is to replicate the famous carvings scattered around the island from generations ago.

Watching these teams work for hours, day after day in the searing heat helps you appreciate that this is much more than just an art competition. The carvers are dedicated to their craft and hanging on to the skills of their ancestors who first landed on Rapa Nui.

For me, the nightly dancing competition was the true highlight of the Festival. Each night, song and dance routines are performed by competing teams. Individuals perform powerful warrior displays, followed by teams singing in harmony about the history and Rapa Nui way of life.

What made it all the more mesmerizing was that the songs and narrative were done in the native Rapa Nui language. It was truly a festival for the people of the island, but I felt like a welcomed visitor. The locals happily allowed me to get a glimpse into what it was really like to be a native of Easter Island.

The music and dancing was enchanting, so the fact that I had no idea what they were singing about didn’t matter. The entire island comes out for this event and you could tell from the crowd, as well as from the enthusiasm of the singers, that it was an authentic showcase of culture – with no commercial or corporate intentions.

It isn’t often that you find a festival as pure to tradition as the Tapati. Unlike some big festivals around the world, you can’t join in the dangerous competitions yourself or pay to be in their parade. This is their festival and you’re an invited guest – which is the way it should be.

If Easter Island is on your bucket list, do yourself a favour and visit around the end of January, beginning of February to catch part of the Tapati festival. You most definitely won’t be disappointed.