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.