Note: This is an update of our original post following our first visit to Curaçao in 2019. In February 2023, we made a return trip and had some awesome new experiences on this fantastic, technicolor island.
There are 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 enslaved 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 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 two visits (so far) 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 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.
Here are the highlights from our two visits to Curaçao. NOTE: Some of the photos are in galleries. Just click on the first to see the caption and a bigger version, and click through the rest.
Get in the water
What Curaçao’s arid inland scenery lacks in color, the water makes up for in spades. Until our first visit to Curaçao, I had never 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).
Explore Hato Cave
We’re not sure how we missed this amazing cave on our first visit to Curaçao, but we’re glad we got there on our return visit. Hato Cave is a 300,000-year-old cavern that not only tells the geographical history of Curaçao, but also shows centuries-old evidence of humans. Before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous communities buried their dead in the caves; their petroglyphs are still in evidence. Later, the land once belonged to a Dutch plantation but was not known to the owners; therefore, it provided a refuge for escaped slaves to hide and seek shelter. In some parts of the cave, the scorch marks from their fires are still visible on the ceiling.
The Curaçao government opened Hato Cave in 1991 to tourists, but it’s strictly protected and only accessible by guided tour. Adult admission is about $10 per person and includes the tour, which lasts about 45 minutes. Something to consider, if you have mobility issues, is the 49 steep steps that go up to the cave entrance (since I was still walking with a cane, that made things interesting!). But it’s doable for most folks.
Visit Shete Boka National Park
Shete Boka is a spectacular national park that sprawls 10 km across Curaçao’s wilder north coast. Shete Boka is home to 7 pocket bays (bokas) formed by the powerful Atlantic surf as it bashes the rocky shoreline. The park is also an important nesting site for three different species of sea turtles, which led to its designation as a protected area in 1994. Don’t miss Boka Pistol, where the crashing waves tower high into the sky, or Boka Tabla, with massive surf thundering into an ocean cavern. Shete Boka is an awe-inspiring experience, where the power of the ocean is so present that you can literally feel the ground shaking when the big waves hit the shore.
Cruise to Klein Curaçao
On our first visit, 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 is your thing, this tour is perfect!
Stroll historic Willemstad
The historic heart of Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital, consists of Punda (“point” in Papiamentu) and Otrabando (“other side”). The two districts lie on opposing sides of Sint Anna Bay, the island’s main harbor, and they’re connected by the Queen Emma Bridge. Punda in particular offers a wealth of gorgeous Dutch colonial-era buildings, some close to 300 years old. It’s no wonder that Willemstad is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One of Curuçao’s biggest claims to fame is the Handelskade, the iconic row of buildings painted in rainbow hues and lining the Punda waterfront. According to island lore, one of Curaçao’s first Dutch governors decreed that each 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.
Walk the Queen Emma Bridge
One of Curaçao’s most famous landmarks is a unique pontoon bridge that connects Punda and Otrabanda and swings open when ships need to enter or leave the harbor. Originally built in 1888, the Queen Emma 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 walking 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. If the Queen Emma is open and you need to get to the other side, the city operates a free ferry service for pedestrians.
Chow down in the Pietermaai
Foodies that we are, we love the restaurant scene in Curaçao. Gastronomic ground zero in Willemstad is the Pietermaai District, an area of beautifully restored colonial houses, eateries, bars, and small inns. Hands down, our favorite restaurant is Kome (Papiamentu for “eat”). Also check out Fish & Joy (formerly Fishalicious) for great seafood, The Wine Cellar for a special occasion, and Mi Familia for great pizza and pasta.
Other Curaçao Tips
- Check out the free walking tour. It’s a great way to get oriented and learn interesting information about Curaçao’s history and culture.
- It’s a good ideal to rent a car to get the full experience of a visit to Curaçao. We have had good results from both Ace Rent-a-Car and In Motion.
- Lodging: On our first visit to Curaçao in 2019, we were able to secure a special rate at the Avila Beach Hotel, a beautiful and historic property with its own protected swimming beach. For our return in February, the Avila was way out of our price range, so we opted instead for Scuba Lodge and Suites. Scuba Lodge was a great choice, situated in the heart of the Pietermaai and within easy walking distance to Punda and a bewildering array of restaurants. The inn occupies a cluster of beautifully restored houses, each with a colorful history. Our spacious room was on the top floor of a former mansion built in 1865, once the childhood home of a former Curaçao prime minister.
An island on the upswing . . .
When we first visited Curaçao in 2019, the country’s fortunes seemed to be on a downturn. The huge oil refinery, the island’s biggest employer, was on the verge of closing down. This was largely due to the ongoing troubles in Venezuela, Curaçao’s largest contractor for refined fuel. Unemployment was at 20 percent and climbing, and Curaçao’s iconic “floating market” of veg/fruit vendors from Venezuela had ceased operation (it still hasn’t come back).
Fast forward to February 2023, when things overall seemed greatly improved. Curaçao has weathered Covid and all the economic hardships that came with it, and unemployment is down to 13%. Efforts are ongoing to restart the refinery, but in the meantime, tourism is booming – reflecting the global tourism surge in the wake of the pandemic. Cruise ship traffic is almost back to normal, and we saw several large new resort projects under construction.
In a perfect world, the tourist infrastructure would expand to the point that the island would no longer be dependent on an obsolete, highly polluting facility for exploiting fossil fuels. And of course, this growth would be managed carefully to protect the sensitive natural environment that has made this island so special. Time will tell …
Have you visited Curaçao? Tell us about it! And check out our companion post about the birds and other critters we encountered there.
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!
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!
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!”
Ahh, gracias, BB! Thank you for reading and commenting. And thanks for all the Bonaire diving tips! XOXO
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!👍
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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 🙂
Thank you, Terri! I remember those houses in Capitola. Curacao is such a colorful place, in many ways!
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!
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 🙂
Looks like you found yourselves a small paradise here. And how amazing to meet Lisa and the Captain! Many thanks for your visit to my place 🙂 🙂
Hi, and thank you so much for visiting our site! Lisa and Fabio are here in Medellin at the moment and send their regards 🙂 It really is a small world!
I love the vibrancy of this island, your photos are great. I’ve been to Aruba which seemed like a playground from American visitors so it is interesting to read that Curacao is a magnet for dutch holiday makers. An interesting read.
Thanks so much for reading! We’ve heard that about Aruba. We looking forward to visiting there and also Bonaire to round out our ABC experience!
I really love the colourful enviroment 🙂
Thank you for visiting!!
I loved reading your article with the wonderful collection of fun facts. 5 languages!! It’s even more than the average Indian kid that speaks 3-4 languages.
I love walking tours to get an orientation of a place!
It’s wonderful that they don’t have the nasty hurricanes. I’d love to visit.
Thanks so much for visiting! Coming from the U.S., we’re in awe of people who can speak two languages, much less 5! Hope you get to experience Curuçao someday 🙂
Looks like a marvelous place for a snorkeling vacation! Thanks for all the details!
It’s a fantastic place! Thanks for reading, Rebecca 🙂
It looks amazing, I’d love to visit one day 🙂
Thanks, Hannah! It’s one of our favorite places in the Caribbean.
I wasn’t familiar with Curaçao before reading your post, but it sounds fascinating and right up my street. Klein Curaçao, in particular, looks an incredible place to visit. Thanks for the tour 🙂
Hi – sorry for my belated reply! Glad you enjoyed the post. Klein Curaçao really is fascinating – it seems completely uninhabitable, even though people once lived there. And the beaches are spectacular.
I love this island- I think it is definitely one of my all time favorite places 🙂 Beautiful pictures!
Curaçao really is special. Thanks, Meg!
Oh I’ve not thought of Curaçao as a destination, but you’ve convinced me! Willemstad, and the beaches and snorkelling alone would be enough to keep me happy.
I would have been happy just staying in the water the whole time! It really is a playland for people who love the ocean and gorgeous beaches. Thanks, Alison!
Wow, this was a burst of memories flooding back while reading this post! Great photos!
I sailed to Curaçao (and Klein Curaçao) in 2008 – both are gorgeous. I even have a pic of me standing next to that wrecked yacht. 🙁
Sorry for my delayed response – and so glad you liked the post! We are also former cruising sailors. What an awesome experience that must have been 🙂 Thanks for reading. – Susan
No problem at all – I’m patient – sailing taught me that and living on a boat for 21 years! 😉
Yes, we sold our boat we built then bought a bigger boat in New York, shipped it to Miami, and fitted her out for ocean passages. (Don’t think I mentioned this before.)
Sailed her from Miami, Florida, Cuba, Haiti, DR, ABCs, and to Venezuela. It was a bitter-sweet time for personal reasons but managed to marvel at the regions we explored. Thanks again, Nilla