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.
- 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.
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!
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
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.
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 …
- 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”).
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s easy to find – he’s the tallest guy on the island!
- 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.