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The Handelskade at dusk

There are a lot of ghosts on Curaçao.

There are the original inhabitants, the Arawaks and Caquetios who were so totally obliterated by arriving Europeans that there’s barely a trace of them today. There are the colonial Dutch who struggled to make a profitable living on this scrubby desert island, until the slave trade kicked in. And then there are the slaves themselves, who suffered unimaginably – whether they were bound for servitude on other islands or were kept to work the plantations and salt flats of Curaçao. You see those ghosts reflected in the faces of the incredibly resilient, good-humored, generous, and easy-going local people, who have created one of the world’s most unique island cultures.

The people are one of the things we loved the most about our recent visit to Curaçao – a gem of a Caribbean island in the Netherland Antilles group that lies just 40 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela.

Cool stuff we learned about Curaçao

  • It’s the C of the ABCs. Sitting between its sister islands, Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao is an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Everyone born on the island receives a Dutch passport and is considered a Dutch national.
  • It’s a vacation playground for people from the Netherlands, playing host to nearly 240,000 tourists every year. And how can they help it? We were blown away by the beautiful beaches, sunny skies, clear turquoise water, amazing culinary scene, and stunning architecture in various stages of decay and renewal.
  • It’s one of the most multicultural places we’ve ever visited. In addition to the hordes of Dutch and other European tourists (with a sprinkling of folks from North America), you’ll find people that trace their roots all the way back to the days of slavery. You’ll also meet folks from nearby South American countries including Suriname, Colombia and Venezuela.
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Quote of Joceline Clemencia, a local activist and writer who was instrumental in getting the local dialect of Papiamentu declared an official language of Curaçao.
  • Many citizens speak five languages. The two official languages are Dutch and Papiamentu, an amalgam of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English. As a native English speaker with a bit of college German who’s trying to learn Spanish, I found Papiamentu to be disorienting but fascinating. One minute it would be complete babble to me, and another minute I could make out bits and pieces. Those lucky school kids are taught Dutch and Papiamentu at a minimum, and most learn at least one of the other three (nearly everyone speaks English).
  • It’s out of the hurricane belt. All bets are off with climate change, and who knows what might happen this year or the next. But until now, Curaçao has been blissfully safe from the yearly hurricane threats that other Caribbean islands face from June through November.
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On Curaçao, you’ll hear the word “dushi” a lot. “Thank you, mi dushi,” from the cashier in the grocery store, for instance.

Get in the water

What Curaçao’s arid inland scene lacks in color, the water makes up for in spades. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a purer shade of turquoise in my life — and the water was teeming with sea life and a fair amount of healthy coral. With a priority to find hidden places to swim or snorkel, we were in the water almost every day. We also had a day of diving with Scubaçao (highly recommended). Full disclosure: the pics below were taken by the dive outfit – we’re working on our underwater photography, but we’re not that skilled!

Go beach-hopping

There are 38 beaches lining Curuçao’s southern (leeward) coast. Since we’d rented a car, we were able to spend a day driving up to the northwestern tip of the island and exploring beach after beach. Our favorites were Daaibooi, with outstanding snorkeling and bird-gazing, and Cas Abao. And on our last full day on the island, we turned ourselves into beach slugs for some serious R&R on Jan Thiel and Mambo beaches – both on the southwestern coast. In general, the northwestern beaches seem less crowded and more local, while the southern ones are more developed and more crowded with tourists.

Visit Klein Curaçao

We joined an expedition with Mermaid Boat Trips to Klein, a small, uninhabited island eight miles off Curaçao’s southern tip. The island itself is pretty barren, but it boasts Curaçao’s longest beach and one of the spookiest abandoned lighthouses we’ve ever seen. If swimming with turtles, lounging on a spun-sugar beach, and exploring some really fascinating ruins and two shipwrecks aren’t your thing, then stay away!

Gawk at the architecture

One of Curuçao’s biggest claims to fame is the Handelskade, the iconic row of colonial buildings painted in rainbow hues and lining the Punda waterfront. According to island lore, one of Curaçao’s first Dutch governors decreed that every building be painted in a different color, because the blinding sun reflected against brilliant white buildings gave him a headache. Some folks also contend that he had a stake in a paint company! Not sure how much of that is true, but it makes a good story – and we’re left with a dazzling display of color that really sets Curaçao apart from the other Dutch Antilles islands.

Another famous landmark (seamark?) is the Queen Emma Bridge, a unique pontoon bridge that spans the entrance to the main harbor and connects Punda and Otrabando, the two main quarters of the capitol city of Willemstad. Originally built in 1888, the bridge was completely restored in 2005 and has the distinction of being the world’s oldest wooden pontoon bridge. It’s primarily for pedestrians, and if you’re caught on it when a ship needs to get in or out, it’s not a problem – you just take a ride as the bridge hinges open.

A Serendipitous Moment

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The lovely folks pictured are Lisa and Fabio. They’re sailors and adventurers who have just completed a circumnavigation aboard their sailboat, Amandla. We got acquainted with Lisa in the travel blogosphere, where she writes an outstanding blog about their incredible seven-year adventure. Do yourself a favor and visit Lisa’s blog here. She’s not only a lyrical writer but also an outstanding photographer.

So here’s the serendipity part: as it happens, Lisa and Fabio had just sailed from Bonaire and dropped anchor in Curuçao when we got there, so we got to meet them. Fabio made us a fabulous dinner on board Amandla, and we traded sailing stories – something we haven’t been able to do very often since our own sailing days.

Curuçao at a crossroads

Curaçao is closely linked to the fortunes of Venezuela. And with all the current troubles in Venezuela, that’s not a good thing. One of the island’s biggest employers is an oil refinery that played an important role in World War II as a major fuel supplier for the Pacific Fleet. Today, the Venezuelan state oil company is the largest contractor for the refinery’s services, but the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela mean crude from that troubled country has slowed to a trickle. There’s even talk that the refinery will close down altogether by the end of 2019.

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The floating market in better days (photo credit: Patrick Bennett, AFAR)

All of this has already started to wreak havoc on the Curaçao economy, with unemployment at 20 percent and climbing. A visible sign of the trouble is the long row of empty veggie stalls along the Punda waterfront. The “floating market” of veg/fruit vendors from Venezuela ceased operation months ago, thanks to the blockade imposed by their evil monster president Maduro. A hundred-year-old tradition has come to a close, although we hope it’s temporary.

Without the refinery, Curaçao will have to rely even more on tourism and continue expanding its infrastructure for visitors. Being the eternal optimist, I’d like to think it will be good for the island in the long run, with no more dependence on an obsolete, highly polluting facility for exploiting fossil fuels. Time will tell …

Other tips

  • Foodies that we are, we loved the restaurant scene in Curaçao. An area of beautifully restored colonial houses, the Pietermaai District is loaded with great eateries, bars, and small inns. Our faves: Fishalicious (it is); The Wine Cellar (outstanding food and service for a special night out); Caña (wonderfully inventive cocktails and tapas) and its sister restaurant, Mosa; and Kome (Papiamentu for “eat”).
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Some of the lovingly restored colonial buildings now housing restaurants and bars
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Peeking down a Petermaai alley
  • The free walking tour with Kevin De Haseth is well worth the time. Kevin is a Curaçao native with a wealth of knowledge about Curaçao’s past and plenty of insights into local knowledge and where the island’s headed into the future. Whatsapp him at +559-9-695-4209 or email freewalkingtourscuracao@gmail.com. He’s easy to find – he’s the tallest guy on the island!
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Kevin shares a story about the flowering Flamboyant Tree.
  • It’s a good ideal to rent a car to get the full experience of a visit to Curaçao. We found the best rate at Ace Rent-a-Car. They offered a nice, clean car and great service.
  • Our stay at the Avila Beach Hotel was ideal. While a bit spendier than our usual lodging choice, this historic property had everything we needed: sumptuous (included) breakfast, private beach with protected swimming area, cozy and comfortable room, and super-nice staff. It’s smack in the middle of the Pietermaai and an easy walk to the Punda historic district.
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The main hotel building dates back to 1780.
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Avila Beach Hotel from the water side

Have you visited Curaçao? We’d love to hear your stories!

20 Comments

  1. Wow! Loved reading this post. I do want to visit one day. My parents were Dutch, and I grew up speaking that language even though I was born in Canada. I love to visit my extended family in the Netherlands and seeing your photos of the Dutch architecture on the island is making me want to go there!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for your comment! You would feel right at home in Curaçao. The blending of so many cultures and languages, including Dutch, was so fascinating!

  2. Brother Bill Reply

    Hey J.P., Susan,

    I should have read this before I visited Curacao! I would have dedicated more time to see the places you wrote about. I don’t read many blog posts as a rule but I make an exception to that rule when it comes to your posts. Keep up the good work and keep moving out to those wonderful international locations. You know you two are my heroes!…”Road Warriors!”

    Boquete Bill

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ahh, gracias, BB! Thank you for reading and commenting. And thanks for all the Bonaire diving tips! XOXO

  3. Patricia Powers Reply

    Thank for another Excellent report, you guys! We’ve been to Curacao only for hours at a time, by cruise ship and liked what we saw and will be taking another ABC cruise out of Colon in November with four other Boquete couples. But now! we’d like to fly directly there & really explore & experience it as you did. Thanks for sharing your experiences so Eloquently!👍

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Patti! You should really go back and spend more time – from PC, it’s just a two-hour flight on Copa. You will love it.

  4. Thank you so much for enriching our limited experience of Curaçao both with your visit aboard Amandla and your gorgeous imagery here. Sadly, we spent most of our time here checking in and out (and in and out again due to engine issues), provisioning, doing boat repairs and resting up. Sadly, after a 10,000 nautical mile sail visiting 10 countries in 7 months, we were just too pooped to explore. Your visual story makes me which we’d rallied ourselves to explore more deeply. We won’t make that mistake again and plan to enjoy everything you’ve shown us on your wonderful blog in Colombia.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, no, you had engine trouble? Didn’t realize that. It jogged a memory of that happening to us somewhere in Mexico – checking out of the country only to have to check back in with yet another engine problem. Ah, the cruising life! And we get being too pooped to explore 🙂 But glad you’re getting to enjoy our wonderful city of Medellín!

  5. Since we cruised into port via Pullmantur, we didn’t get the immersive experience of the ‘C’ island, but we may have to go back someday now. Thanks for another great post!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Mariah would especially love it, I think – given her love for the the ocean and water. It’s a really special place! Hope you two can go back and spend more time one of these days.

  6. I’ve read about Curaçao’s reputation as one of the most beautiful places in the Caribbean, but this blog post gives me an even broader understanding of this Dutch island. Indonesia was once colonized by the Dutch, so it’s always intriguing for me to visit other former Dutch colonies, in Curaçao’s case Dutch autonomous territory, to see the similarities. How great that you both got to meet Lisa and Fabio — their journey around the world truly is amazing! Speaking of Curaçao’s dependence on Venezuela, it made me think of Singapore and how its expulsion from Malaya (what is now Malaysia) made the small country stronger and more prosperous today.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Isn’t it interesting how history has repeated itself time and time again, in so many diverse places around the world! And I learned something new about the history of Singapore. One can only hope that Curacao will come out of its currently economic difficulties stronger and more vibrant than ever. Thanks for the lovely comment, my friend!

  7. Wow, I can’t get over the colours of those beautiful buildings and the diving looks amazing. We haven’t been to Curacao but have visited Bonaire, which we loved for the scuba diving (so easy right from shore) and the laid back vibe. So cool that you got to meet Lisa and Fabio.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for your comment and for following our blog! Bonaire is on our list. We have a close friend who just spent a week there diving, and it looks fantastic. For us, the Caribbean islands are like little jewels just waiting to be discovered!

  8. We have been fascinated with Curacao for several years now, but haven’t had an opportunity to visit. I guess the time to go is now. It sounds like they need tourism since they are tied to Venezuela.
    I can’t imagine being able to speak five languages. I feel lucky to have a small grasp on Spanish. Thanks for the detailed and fascinating tour. We hope to see you next year.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      You are so welcome, Debby! Curaçao is easy to get to from Colombia, so maybe you can check it out next year. We’re so excited we’ll finally get to meet you!

  9. Curacao looks like an amazing place! Your post was so informative. Your first image with the colorful houses lined up reminds me of Capitola near Santa Cruz! I have never been to the Caribbean but this would suit me very well 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Terri! I remember those houses in Capitola. Curacao is such a colorful place, in many ways!

  10. OK you two, my interest has been well and truly piqued! Curacao hasn’t been on our radar until now but next time we’re in Colombia we’ll have to factor in a side trip. A great read!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hey – sorry for the late reply! I think you two would really enjoy Curaçao. Does that mean you’re planning a trip back to Colombia?? We sure hope so 🙂

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