Poike, the oldest volcano

Vista del volcán Poike desde la playa de Ovahe en Isla de Pascua

The Poike volcano was the first piece of land that emerged from the sea and, together with subsequent volcanic eruptions, formed the present territory of Easter Island. Its somewhat remote and isolated location and its difficult access make Poike a little-visited place. However, this mysterious territory contains secret corners and ancient legends that invite to discover it calmly and to know better the past of the island.


Poike, the first volcano on the island

Los impresionantes acantilados de la cara norte del volcán Poike
The impressive cliffs on the north face of the Poike volcano

The name of Poike, usually translated by “hill”, seems to come from the Rapanui expression “Po” (night); “ike” (break) which means “place where the night breaks” because it is the first place on the island that receives the first rays of the rising sun.

Indeed, the Poike is located at the eastern end of Easter Island, and is the oldest of the three main volcanoes on the island, next to the Rano Kau and the Ma’unga Terevaka, which originated their formation. It is estimated that this first eruptive center emerged from the sea about 3 million years ago creating the so-called Poike Peninsula, although its activity was maintained until about 300 thousand years ago. Originally this peninsula was an island but later it was joined to the main body of the island, by lava flows coming from the Terevaka and other nearby volcanic centers.


The Poike is now an inactive volcano with a fairly symmetrical cone shape. The main crater has a circular shape and by its resemblance to a halo of sun or moon was called Pua Katiki, although in another version its name would mean “hill that serves to monitor the cattle.” Unlike other craters, this is totally dry and measures around 150 meters in diameter and about 10 meters deep. Inside a small eucalyptus forest grows that crowns the summit like a leafy green plume visible from afar.

From Pua Katiki, where the Poike reaches a maximum height of 460 meters, a wide plain of gentle slope is observed. which covers an area of about 4.5 km from east to west and 3.5 km from north to south. This large area, almost exclusively covered by a type of grass called here hoi (Sporobolus indicus), ends abruptly on 100-meter-high coastal cliffs formed by the continuous erosion of the sea on the Poike peninsula.

Palm forests, human occupation and deforestation

Vista del Poike con su cima Pua Katiki desde el Ahu Tongariki en Isla de Pascua
View of the Poike and its top Pua Katiki from the Ahu Tongariki

According to studies carried out, it has been discovered that in the Poike region a high and abundant vegetation existed in ancient times. In particular, fossilized roots and fruits of a similar species to the Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis) have been found, suggesting that the island was covered 70% by this type of tree and that the soil was quite fertile.

Around 1100 AD the inhabitants of Easter Island extended from the westernmost part of the island, where they were concentrated, to other areas to the north and east. Several groups came to the Poike looking for new farmland.

For some unknown reason, during the period of construction of the large statues, considered the golden age of the island, it is believed that the inhabitants of the Poike peninsula remained separate from the others and hardly participated in the work of carving in the quarries of Rano Raraku.

One proof of its isolation is that only two of the statues found in the Poike are made of the lapilli tuff of the Rano Raraku, while the rest of the statues were made of the white trachyte coming from the Poike deposits.

Vista de Kava Kava Kio'e, el área más erosionada de la isla de Pascua
View of Kava Kava Kio’e, the most eroded area of the island | Photo: Explora

However, despite their confinement, the Poike settlers prospered. At the end of the 13th century, its number had grown so much that it became necessary to expand the agricultural land to increase food production. In less than 200 years, deforestation changed the original landscape of dense palm forests to extensive cultivation and ceremonial areas, which expanded from the lower slopes to the top of the Pua Katiki crater.

This drastic change in the ecosystem, caused that the erosion of the ground advanced quickly, ruining first the arable ground and later burying the ceremonial altars. In just a couple of centuries there was not a single tree left in the entire Poike peninsula, and in 1500 the land was bare, barren and eroded. Its inhabitants were forced to leave, returning to their ancestral lands of origin. The tragic result of the Poike was a harbinger of what would happen in the rest of the island. Deforestation, erosion and conflicts.

Recovering a fragile ecosystem

Reforestación en el area de Kava Kava Kio'e en Poike Isla de Pascua
Reforestation in the Kava Kava Kio’e area in Poike | Photo: Rapa Nui National Park

Fortunately, the new inhabitants have learned from the mistakes of the past. In recent times an environmental awareness has been developed that is essential to protect an ecosystem as fragile and vulnerable as Easter Island.

The Poike Peninsula is still one of the most affected by erosion on the island. Due to rains and strong winds, thousands of tons of land are lost every year that go to the sea, which causes a decrease in the insular surface and affects the conservation of the natural and historical heritage.


Main places of interest

At first sight the Poike only shows a landscape of gentle slopes, desolate meadows and steep cliffs that fall over the sea. However, this unique corner of the island contains several places of interest in which history and legends of Easter Island are mixed. Let’s go to discover them.

The Poike ditch

Vista aérea de la zanja del Poike paralela a la carretera actual Isla de Pascua
Aerial view of the Poike ditch that is parallel to the current road | Photo: Flickr

At the foot of the lower slope of the Poike, there is a large depression of terrain of 3.5 km long that runs parallel to the current road and is known as the Poike Ditch. It is formed by a series of elongated trenches about 10 to 15 meters wide and 2 or 3 meters deep.

Oral tradition speaks of a bloody and genocidal struggle, known as the battle of the Poike, which took place in this place. A legend says that the tribe of the Hanau E’epe (the ruling class) took refuge in this area to protect themselves from the tribe of the Hanau Momoko, who had rebelled against the abuses of the rival tribe.

The Hanau E’epe people had dug a large ditch which they set fire to form a barrier and defend against the enemy. However the Hanau Momoko people managed to infiltrate the ends of the volcano and attacked the Hanau E’epe by surprise. When they realised that were surrounded, they retreated to the pit, where they were thrown and burned alive. For that reason the islanders call the ditch Ko te umu or te Hanau e’epe or “the great curanto of the Hanau e’epe”.

La batalla del Poike Isla de Pascua
The battle of the Poike | Illustration by Roy Andersen

During archaeological excavations in the place were found remains of burned material. However, archaeologists do not believe that the facts narrated in the legend are true, since no human remains or stone weapons have been found. One possible hypothesis would be that the trench could have been used as a large furnace to prepare food for workers in the nearby Rano Raraku quarries.

Another alternative explanation is that the ditch was used to grow bananas, sugar cane and taro that would be watered by the waters that go down the slope of the Poike. After the fruits were harvested, the leaves and stems were burned before a new plantation.

Some scientific studies suggest that the Poike ditch marks the continuation of the western coastline of the ancient island of Poike that emerged thousands of years ago and was later joined to the rest of the main island by lava flows from the Terevaka. Perhaps the ditch itself was formed by the earthquakes that accompanied these last eruptions. Further modifications made by the ancient inhabitants and the inevitable erosion of the land would have contributed to give the current appearance of the enigmatic and legendary ditch of Poike.

The three ma’ungas

Vista de los tres ma'ungas del Poike desde la costa norte Isla de Pascua
View of the three Poike ma’ungas from the north coast

On the northern slope of the Poike peninsula, there are three unique mounds or domes formed by the superposition of multiple lava flows. Their names starting from the coast inland are Ma’unga Parehe (broken hill), Ma’unga Tea Tea (white hill) and Ma’unga Vai a Heva (magic water hill). These small elevations, that form a striking “crest” on the slope when they are seen from the north coast, have been the scene of several episodes in the history of the island.

These curious geological formations were used as trachyite quarries, a dense volcanic white stone, with which they carved several moai statues. Most of the statues that have been found in Poike were carved in this resistant material, although a few come from the Rano Raraku volcano.

Pequeño moai muy erosionado en la cima del Ma'unga Parehe en el volcán Poike Isla de Pascua
Small eroded moai on the top of Ma’unga Parehe

In addition, taking advantage of its elevated position, small ahu or ceremonial platforms used by priests and sages during their sacred rites were built on the small plateaus of each of the three peaks. It is still possible to see some remains as the small and eroded statue on the top of Ma’unga Parehe, the closest to the cliff.

These hills were not only used by the natives of Rapa Nui to honor their ancestors and divinities, they were also spotted by the Spaniards who arrived in 1770 in the second European expedition that arrived on the island under the command of Felipe González de Haedo.

On the morning of November 20, 1770, a detachment of 250 men ascended to the Pu’i hill to recognize the terrain and complete the details of the first cartographic map of the island. Later, another group of 250 soldiers, sailors, officers and chaplains landed on the Ovahe beach with the mission of officially taking possession of the island.

Detalle del mapa dibujado por la expedición española mostrando las cruces sobre el Poike Isla de Pascua
Detail of the map drawn by the Spanish expedition showing the crosses on the Poike

This second detachment was joined by many islanders and together they went in procession to the Poike. After a difficult climb they planted three wooden crosses on the tops of the three hills or ma’ungas. The three “Viva el Rey” (long live the king) when raising each cross, accompanied by musket salvoes plus the 21 cannon shots of each of the two anchored boats, had to leave a strong impression on the ancient natives.

An act of formal possession of the island was written in the name of Carlos III, the King of Spain, and was named San Carlos Island, in honor of his majesty. The act, which was signed by several officers and three native chiefs, is the first known written document that contains signs similar to those of the Rongo Rongo tablets.

Vai a Heva, the magic water

La enorme máscara de piedra de Vai a Heva en el volcán Poike Isla de Pascua
The huge stone mask known as Vai a Heva

The dome-shaped hill closest to the top of Pua Katiki is called Ma’unga Vai a Heva. Its name comes from a huge 3-meter head carved into the wall of the rock, which shows prominent eyes and a broad nose. The ancient islanders sculpted this fierce face around a natural cavity 2 meters long, which was used to represent a large open mouth and possibly served to collect rainwater.

Its name (Vai, “water”, Heva, “magic”), according to tradition, refers to the legend of those who drank or submerged in the water of this pool managed to stay always young. So this unique figure, reminiscent of the ancient Roman masks, would be a kind of Fountain of Eternal Youth of Easter Island.

Currently, the iconic image of Vai a Heva is reproduced in small dimensions and can be found in some craft stalls where is sold as a souvenir. It seems that its magical properties have given way to more prosaic and decorative functions such as serving as an ashtray.

Household items and platforms

Taheta tallada en la roca usada para recoger el agua de lluvia en el Poike Isla de Pascua
Taheta carved in the rock used to collect rainwater

As we have seen, until the late fourteenth century, the Poike peninsula was populated by tribes who migrated here in search of farmland to settle. At the moment it is still possible to see several archaeological remains that allow to reconstruct the way of life of the ancient settlers.

Several tahetas or small cavities carved into the rock have been found in various places in Poike. They served to collect rainwater, a good that is always scarce on the island, as there are no rivers or streams. There were also remains of umu pae, the stone kilns they used for cooking.

But the most remarkable ruins are those of the ahu or ceremonial altars dedicated to ancestors. On the upper plateau of the Ma’unga Vai a Heva, a few meters above the huge ritual head, Ahu Vai a Heva is located, a destroyed platform about 50 meters long with two moai torsos somewhat removed, one of them inside of a small cave.

Cabeza de moai semienterrada cerca del Ahu Toremu Hiva en el Poike Isla de Pascua
A half-buried moai head near the Ahu Toremu Hiva

About 500 meters from there, very close to the eroded Ma’unga Parehe the Ahu Toremu Hiva is found, with a stone wall quite destroyed and partly fallen on the cliff, in which some pieces of statues and a half-buried head on the floor can be seen.

Near Pua Katiki crater the remains of another ahu appear, and a small moai of white trachyte in which the human form is barely distinguishable. More to the interior of the peninsula the Ahu Riki Riki (that means “little one”) emphasizes in which there are several moai fragments carved in white stone.

Finally, the Ahu One One is located in the southeast corner facing the Motu Maratiri, a platform with a straight front wall and a semicircular rear wall, built on the edge of the cliff. No moai have been found here, but it is possible that there was one that could have fallen into the ocean.

Papa Ui Hetu’u and the star map

Imagen de Papa Ui Hetu'u con los orificios que marcan las Pléyades en el Poike Isla de Pascua
The rock known as “the star map” with the holes that mark the Pleiades

In the northeast corner of the Poike peninsula there are two volcanic rocks, almost hidden by vegetation, which were used as an astronomical observatory by the ancient islanders to predict the change of seasons. The first of these is a small outcrop of basalt called Papa Ui Hetu’u, which means “rock to see the stars“. On its surface there are several recorded figures among which there are 40 fishing hooks or mangai and a petroglyph of a sea creature that could be an octopus.

About 80 meters away, there is another isolated rock one meter high known as the “star map” and on its upper part 11 cavities made by man appear. According to several scholars, these small holes represent, quite realistically, the Pleiades constellation, called Matariki in the Rapanui language.

These two “observatories” are located in the only place on the island where the Pleiades can be seen emerging and settling on a clear horizon over the ocean. The Pleiades, along with the Orion Belt, were important stellar constellations in Polynesia, as their position on the horizon marked the seasons and the new year. Fishes and other marine petroglyphs represented on Papa Ui Hetu’u were associated with rituals to ensure an abundant catch during the fishing season, which was marked by the evolution of these stars in the sky.

Ana o Keke, the virgins cave

Petroglifos en la entrada de Ana o Keke, la cueva de las vírgenes en Poike Isla de Pascua
Petroglyphs at the entrance of Ana o Keke, the virgins cave | Photo: Easter Island Travel

The Poike Peninsula hides some of the most legendary, hidden and inaccessible caves on Easter Island. However, unlike the popular caves in the sector of Roiho at the foot of the Terevaka, whose visit is suitable for all, in the Poike the entrances to the caves are located on almost vertical cliffs, so only the most risky and adventurous travelers are encouraged to know them.

Undoubtedly, the most famous cavern of the Poike is Ana or Keke, also called the cave of the virgins. It is located a thousand meters east of Ma’unga Parehe, the eroded hill that ends in the cliff. Its entrance, which is located about 90 meters above sea level and about 20 meters below the edge of the ravine, is not easy to locate without a guide who knows the way.

The cave is quite deep with a length of about 380 meters, and its height is variable, in some sections it reaches 2 meters but in others it does not exceed 30 cm and forces to crawl to advance through them. On the right wall of the entrance there are interesting petroglyphs with curious symbols yet to be deciphered.

It is believed that this cavern was intended for the neru, young adolescents who were isolated and confined inside. In the darkness of the cave and scarcely fed, the girls remained pale and stylized to prepare them for future religious or sexual rites related to fertility.

Some 60 meters below, a little further west and about 10 meters from the sea, there is another cave called Ana More Mata Puku. Just 7 meters long and 3.5 meters wide, this small cavern was used to keep young boys where they were prepared for rites related to the ceremony of the bird-man or Tangata Manu.

Tips for visiting Poike

The ascent to the Poike is not usually a priority for travelers who have few days to tour the island, because the visit of the most important archaeological sites will occupy most of their available time. However, for those who are lucky enough to enjoy more than 3 days in Easter Island and like to practice a little hiking, it is highly recommended to spend a morning or an afternoon to make this excursion.

Increasingly, the tourism agencies of the island are offering activities related to nature that complement the classic organized tours, basically aimed at observing the moai statues. The proposals for the Poike are based mainly on ascending to the top hiking or riding a horse accompanied by an experienced guide. Horseback riding is a unique experience because it allows you to get to know the island without haste and to recover the feeling of adventure.

Read more about Easter Island horseback riding

For those who do not wish to hire any of these excursions, there is the option of walking up on their own, since the route is safe and not too difficult. However, because the main sites of interest are not easy to find without a local guide, it is easy to pass over them and coming back frustrated from the walk.

In any of the cases, it is necessary to buy in advance the ticket to the Rapa Nui National Park. Although the ticket is valid for 10 days to visit the different sites of interest, the visit to Orongo and the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano can only be done once, so it is advisable to plan what you want to see each day.

More information about Rapa Nui National Park

Unlike the other volcanoes, in the Poike there is no National Park post to present the ticket, but it can be requested at any time by the park rangers, so it is convenient to have it on hand.

Most of the Poike area is fenced with barbed wire, since the area that is visited is used by the islanders to graze the cattle. So that locals and tourists can move freely as long as they do not bother the animals and respect the rules of the National Park.

Another fact to keep in mind is that since it is a rural land, in Poike there are no toilets or food services for visitors. The closest ones are in Rano Raraku, so it’s better to go prepared and bring water and some food.

It is advisable to bring sunscreen, comfortable clothes and sports shoes with a thick sole, since the paths of the route are steep and they can be slippery especially if it has recently rained. Despite the low elevation of the Poike, the climate at the summit can be very different from the base, so it is advisable to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat to protect against strong winds and occasional downpours.

Although the Poike can be traveled at any time, it is best to do it in the early morning or in mid afternoon to avoid the strong sun of the central hours, since except for a small eucalyptus forest, there are almost no shadows under which to protect.

On a clear day, the view from the top of Pua Katiki is amazing. To the northwest you can see the north coast and in the southwest you can observe the Ahu Tongariki, the Rano Raraku volcano and in the distance the Rano Kau. However, if the day is rainy it is not worth the effort because the experience can be frustrating.

How to get to Poike

Poike is located about 20 km from Hanga Roa. The shortest route is to take Hotu Matu’a Avenue that goes to the airport. After reaching the end, follow the road that crosses the island in the direction of Anakena for 2.5 km until you take the first detour to the right that leads to the south coast road. Continue to Tongariki and about 2 km later there is a small detour that leads to a small house. At this point, the vehicle is left and the ascent begins along the trails to explore the volcano.

There is another access, at the point known as Mahatua. located on the northeast coast of the Poike and is just over 2 km from the first point continuing along the road that borders the slope of the volcano.

Read more about Getting around Easter Island

Those people who do not wish to hire an organized tour that includes transportation, can easily reach Poike by renting a car, a quad or a bicycle. Another option would be to hire a taxi to take them to the volcano, and ask the driver to pick them up at an agreed time.

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