Ahu Nau Nau, the moai of Anakena

Vista general del Ahu Nau Nau en la playa Anakena Isla de Pascua

The vision of the Ahu Nau Nau framed between the palm trees, the white sand and the turquoise blue of the exotic beach of Anakena is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful that can be seen in Easter Island. The human contribution throughout history, added to the natural beauty of this small bay, have created a dreamy polynesian scene.


The main Ahu of Anakena, a place of kings

Vista frontal del Ahu Nau Nau con restos de pukao en primer plano Isla de Pascua
Front view of the Ahu Nau Nau with some pukao remains in the foreground

The Ahu Nau Nau is located about 150 meters inland from the quiet shore of Anakena Beach. From there it dominates the perspective of this magical place that is considered the birthplace of the history and culture of Easter Island. It was here that, according to oral tradition, the high-ranking chiefs of the powerful Miru clan established their residence, and where the first king of the island, the Ariki Hotu Matu’a, landed with his people and established the first settlement that originated to the Rapa Nui culture.

The diverse archaeological excavations developed in Anakena revealed that there were at least three periods of construction in this ahu. The oldest phase, called Nau Nau I, is believed to date back to 1100 AD. It was followed by an intermediate phase, Nau Nau II, between 1190 and 1380 AD. and finally a last phase known as Nau Nau III with an estimated date between 1300 and 1400 of our era.

Vista lateral derecha de los moai del Ahu Nau Nau en la playa de Anakena en Isla de Pascua
Right side view of the moai of the Ahu Nau Nau

However, evidence has been found that the first settlement in Anakena may be earlier in about 200 or 300 years to the first construction of the ahu. These tests would prove that Anakena would be one of the oldest inhabited places on the island, thus linking history and legend.

The Ahu Nau Nau is historically known as Ahu Ature Hoa, and according to tradition, Vakai, the wife of Hotu Matu’a, would be buried here. It seems that the name by which it is denominated at the moment, could be associated to the Naunau or nau opata, a shrub now extinct of the sandalwood family. This plant, whose aromatic wood was formerly used to make a perfume, also gave a nutritious fruit in the shape of a nut. According to legend, the first ariki Hotu Matu’a and his followers would have brought these nuts from their homeland to feed during the first months on the island.

The best preserved statues on the island

Las estatuas del Ahu Nau Nau son las mejor conservadas de toda la Isla de Pascua
The statues of the Ahu Nau Nau are the best preserved of the whole island

Ahu Nau Nau is the most elaborate and best-preserved platform of the three that were built in Anakena. When the statues were knocked down during the clashes between the various clans of the island, they were left buried in the sand on the beach, which allowed them to be more protected from erosion than the others.

The restoration work carried out between 1978 and 1980 by the team led by the Rapanui archaeologist Sergio Rapu, restored its ancient splendor and made it one of the most attractive archaeological sites on the island.


Currently, a reconstruction that corresponds to the last historical phase of the ahu, called Nau Nau III, can be observed. It consists of a platform about 60 meters long by 12 wide. Seven statues stand on it. The first four from the left are practically intact and are crowned with a pukao, the headdress or chignon made of red volcanic scoria from the quarry of Puna Pau. These moai, along with one in Tongariki and the Ahu Ko Te Riku in Tahai, are the only ones on the island that carry a pukao.

The fifth moai is also very well preserved but lacks the pukao, the sixth is missing the head and the seventh, barely shows half a torso.

En primer plano, un antiguo y erosionado moai derribado perteneciente al Ahu Nau Nau
In the foreground, an old, eroded and knocked down moai lies face up

The surface of the statues, which are fairly uniform and stylized, is very polished and the features of the face, nose, ears and hands are finely carved and are somewhat more pointed than in other images. Even the pukao are very well worked, highlighting that of the first statue with an unusual conical shape.

On the right side of the ahu, there are remains of other pukao and a moai lying face up, quite eroded. The latter has the eye sockets uncut, so it is possible that it was never erected on the platform. Further to the right, next to the remains of the foundations of a boat-house or hare paenga, there is another head of rounded shape on the ground, belonging to an older statue. From the remains found, it is believed that some 12 moai were part of the platform at some point, although there probably never were more than eight on the ahu at the same time.

Ancient recycled heads, petroglyphs and tattoos

Cabeza reciclada de un moai antiguo y petroglifo con figura mitológica en el muro posterior del Ahu Nau Nau en Isla de Pascua
A recycled head of an ancient moai and a petroglyph with a mythological figure on the back wall of the Ahu Nau Nau

It is known that ahu were frequently rebuilt over time. These adjustments and modifications in the platform would have allowed the new bosses to make visible changes to distinguish themselves from their predecessors, adding new details to the construction or rebuilding the ahu completely.

The position of the Ahu Nau Nau, somewhat far from the Anakena shore, makes it easy to observe the back wall of the platform, something that does not happen in most of the other sites on the island, since they rise over the inaccessible cliffs of the coast.

The sight of this admirable work in stone is almost more interesting than its frontal part due to its unique peculiarities. Here the elements added during the different historical phases can be seen.

Among them an old moai head incorporated in a horizontal position stands out that looks at the viewer. According to one theory, pieces like this could have been brought from other ahu or reused from the previous ahu to transmit the mana or sacred power existing in the ancient stone. Or perhaps, being an ancient image or a representation of an ancestor belonging to a rival clan, they did not give it any special value and used it as a simple construction material. Maybe we never know.

Petroglifos de aves en vuelo sobre una piedra del muro posterior del Ahu Nau Nau Isla de Pascua
Petroglyphs of birds in flight on a stone of the back wall of the Ahu Nau Nau

On the back wall of the ahu Nau Nau there is also a series of very interesting carved petroglyphs in high relief. From left to right, the figures of two birds in flight are distinguished on a large broken stone.

Then, under the rest of the middle moai torso, there is a half buried stone in the sand that represents two humanoid figures with large ears in a vertical position. Finally, under the fourth moai near the recycled head, a relief similar to the previous one is shown but in this case, the only figure appears horizontally and carries a long tail. According to some interpretations they could represent mythological beings such as the tangata moko or lizard man, or maybe the god Tane in the shape of a monkey.

Detalle de los grabados en la espalda de los moai de Ahu Nau Nau en Isla de Pascua
Detail of the engravings on the back of the moai of Ahu Nau Nau

The backs of the moai also attract attention for their decoration with geometric designs in relief. It distinguishes a kind of belt at the height of the hips, symbols in the shape of M or Y letters, as well as spirals on the buttocks that could represent tattoos or body paintings.

These designs are not frequent in the moai found in the platforms. However, similar reliefs have been found in some statues unearthed in the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano and on the back of the famous Hoa Hakananaia moai that was in Orongo and now exhibited in the British Museum in London.


The coral eye that changed the history

El ojo de moai encontrado en Ahu Nau Nau se exhibe en el Museo Sebastian Englert de Isla de Pascua
The moai eye found in Ahu Nau Nau is exhibited at the Sebastian Englert Museum

During the restoration work carried out in 1978 by Sergio Rapu’s team, a surprising discovery was made. The Rapanui archaeologist Sonia Haoa found fragments of white coral and a disk of red scoria while excavating near a moai knocked down and half-buried in the sand. The remains found, once assembled, formed an eye about 35 cm long, which fitted perfectly to the empty orbit of the moai.

This finding marked a milestone in the knowledge that historians had about the moai. Until that time, it was thought that the eye sockets of the statues had been empty.

Anthropologist William Mulloy had already found similar eye fragments in his excavations at Vinapu on the south coast made 20 years earlier, but it was believed that they were pieces of a dish made in coral.

Since the discovery of Sonia Haoa, more remains of coral eyes have been found in other places on Easter Island. A total of 57 pieces of moai eyes were discovered during the 1978 excavation at Ahu Nau Nau, many of which still have marks of the tools used for their manufacture.

The four fragments that make up the almost complete eye are currently on display at the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum on Easter Island.

Ahu Ature Huke, the first restored moai

Vsita del Ahu Ature Huki cuyo moai fue el primero que se volvió a levantar en la época moderna ubicado en Playa Anakena en Isla de Pascua
View of Ahu Ature Huki whose moai was the first to be raised again in modern times

On the right side of the large square overlooking the sea at the foot of the Maunga Hau Epa hill, there is the Ahu Ature Huki. Few visitors come to see this platform that contains a lonely moai, more robust and older than its admired neighbors of the Ahu Nau Nau.

However, this eroded figure has a great importance, since it was the first moai that was re-erected on the island in modern times. The idea came from the famous Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who during his stay on the island of 1956 summarized in his book “Aku Aku”, encouraged several islanders to raise the statue to test their theories.

For this task, a dozen men, wooden poles, stones and ropes were needed. They gradually lifted the gigantic statue over a cluster of stones, leveraging with the timbers until they could seat it in place after eighteen days of effort. This method of work inspired William Mulloy to rebuild other platforms, especially that of Ahu Akivi.

Tips for visiting Ahu Nau Nau

Hermoso contraluz del Ahu Nau Nau en Anakena Isla de Pascua
Hermoso contraluz del Ahu Nau Nau en Anakena

The visit of the Ahu Nau Nau can be done by hiring some of the excursions offered by most of the island’s tourism agencies. This archaeological site is usually included in any of the full day tours in which other places of interest are also visited.

More information about Easter Island Tours

The other option is to do it on your own, but for this you will have to arrive by vehicle, since you are far enough from Hanga Roa to walk.

In any case, it is necessary to buy in advance the ticket to the Rapa Nui National Park to enter the site. The ticket is valid for 10 days to visit the different archaeological sites, which can be visited several times, with the exception of Orongo and the Rano Raraku volcano quarry that can only be done once.

More information about the Rapa Nui National Park

Although in Ahu Nau Nau there is an information kiosk of the National Park, it is not necessary to present the ticket, but this can be required at any time by the park rangers, so it is convenient to have it on hand.

There is also no access control or opening and closing times because the archaeological area is located on the Anakena beach, which is for public use. So that locals and visitors can move freely while they respect the rules of the National Park.

Visitors can use the toilets located in the parking lot and buy food or drink at the stands located on the left side of Anakena. They can also bring their own picnic and enjoy it in the area reserved for it under the palm trees.

The best time to visit the Ahu Nau Nau and take pictures is in the early morning, when the sun illuminates the faces of the statues, and there are usually fewer tourists. However, any visit to the place is magical, especially when you enjoy a swim on the beach, feeling accompanied by these beautiful giants from your platform.

How to get to Ahu Nau Nau

Estacionamiento de la playa Anakena
Anakena beach parking

Getting to the Ahu Nau Nau is very simple. Anakena is located 18 kilometers northeast of Hanga Roa. By car it is approximately 20 minutes from Hanga Roa if you follow the only road that crosses the island. Another much slower option is to take the coast road, which is in worse condition, in exchange for enjoying the scenery and having the possibility of stopping at the archaeological landmarks of the road.

Book your car to tour the island

It is also possible to go by taxi for about 20,000 pesos (about US $ 30). In this case it is necessary to coordinate previously with the taxi driver at what time he should pick you up, since there is no mobile phone coverage in the area and it would be impossible to contact him after he has left.

Other transportation options

Another quite recommendable option is to go cycling. It is possible to rent bikes in Hanga Roa where they also provide clients with maps and everything necessary for their rides.

Choose your bike and feel the sea breeze on your face

The one-way trip takes approximately one and a half hours and it is best to take the same road that crosses the island, since the last part is a fairly steep and pleasant descent.

Back, it is best to take the coast road because otherwise that descent becomes a very demanding climb. Although the coast road is longer (approximately 2 and a half hours) it offers the possibility of enjoying the sea breeze and the view of the cliffs during the whole trip. In addition it can be stopped in most of the archaeological sites of the Island found on this side of the coast.

The stretch between Anakena and Ahu Tongariki is not in very good condition, but from there the whole road is paved. There are very few vehicles on the island so traffic will not be a problem.

The protection offered by the small bay of Anakena makes some sailboats and pleasure boats choose this place as anchorage. So it is also possible to arrive by sea.

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