The massive stone sentinels of Ahu Tongariki look imperious, even in the murk of a sullen, gray afternoon, an uncompromising guard against the voracious sea crashing at its flank.
Glitter of late afternoon breaks through the cloudy cover in a last heady dash before the earth edges to the twilights. Branded but untamed herd of tawny horses gallops into the valley for a late-day graze. And in such golden moments, the glory days of the earth's most remote island return.
Nowadays lots of 12-ton moai have been revived with the help of modern technology. But the mystery remains, luring explorers, scientists and tourists to think over the riddle of the gargantuan statues and the developed civilization that built them - and disappeared.
Though you may have read the books and seen the films, going to Easter Island is stepping into a new dimension.
Rapa Nui to locals, who call themselves Rapanui or Easter Island, lies farthest from land of any island on Earth: 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and 1,240 miles from Pitcairn Island, its closest inhabited neighbor. It has 66 sq ml.
Today scientists generally agree with local legend that Rapa Nui was found by seagoing Polynesians sometime between 400 and 800 A.D.
But they still debate on its history: the how and why of statue creation, tribal conflict, deforestation, disease. Some of them claim Easter's demise as ''ecological suicide'' by a competition-focused culture burdened by population growth and naturally limited supplies of trees and food, when others consider the rats -- brought by settlers as a food source -- were the primary cause of deforestation.
Anyway it's a somber story. The local population had plummeted by the late 19th century from a one-time swell as high as 15,000 (some say even 30,000) to a mere 111an island-born guide.
You might expect Easter Island to be a remnant-turned-tourist attraction: the Pompeii of the Pacific, Stonehenge of Polynesia, an island Acropolis. But here you'll find a place surely alive, if not always thriving.
3,800 people inhabit the island. Hanga Roa is filled with school children, soda stands, tourist shops, low-key guest houses and hotels, an ATM.
The red-capped moai with the gleaming white eye at Tahai; the seven sea-facing statues of Akivi; the six carved guards at the beach of Anakena; the 12 elders of Tongariki are the main lures of the island.
However you can easily rent a car and visit the moai on your own, local guides offer a more trenchant view, weaving Rapanui legend and local insight with the latest scientific theories.
Some early Europeans believed that the statues represent gods, but today it is considered that they are elders, judges, ancestral wise men. Ahu, the platforms are sacred burial grounds; standing on them is disrespect.
The only ones to face the sea are the seven statues of Ahu Akivi, because they represent the seven explorers sent by Polynesian king Hotu Matua ''into the sun'' to find Rapa Nui, an island he'd seen in a dream. The luminous white eyes that are seen today only at Tahai, but are considered to have existed elsewhere, are thought to activate the power, or mana that will bring the ancestor and its shielding force back to the village.
And the most awe-inspiring stop is at Rano Raraku, whose volcanic obsidian was the test tube lab of the moai.
About half of the 887 moai are still in the quarry with heads protruding above the ground, their finished bodies stretching a dozen feet beneath. The statues stagger about the slope like drunkards at an out-of-control bash, when others lie still in the rocky womb, weeks shy of final formation.
And still it is clouded with questions, especially when it comes to the grand moai. First of all, how the islanders moved the bulky statues from their nursery to their stations miles away, and then push them into site.
There are plenty of theories. But anyway it's still a mystery.