Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
A cosmopolitan kaleidoscope of people with a distinctive heritage live on this dry island, but with sheltered bays, turquoise water, and coral reefs it offers a world of discovery for divers.
Kurá Hulanda Museum
Curaçao Marine Park
Christoffel National Park
Down in the south of the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela, Curaçao is dry, with a hilly and scrubby terrain, where acacia and cactus predominate. Some 38 miles (60km) long by just over 7 miles (11km) wide, the northwest coast of this long, thin island is rugged but the southeast has some sheltered bays for swimming and snorkeling. Underwater, however, Curaçao makes up for any scenic deficiencies on land, with colorful reefs and fish, coral, sponges, and other marine life, protected by an underwater park.
Long before the arrival of Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda, the first European to set foot on this rocky island off the north coast of South America in 1499, the land was settled by Amerindians from the Caiquetío tribe. Its Spanish conquerors exported these inhabitants to other islands as slaves, and limited colonization of the island to a few cattle farms. In the 17th century, the Dutch built a military base at Schottegat, a natural harbor with a deep-water entrance, and it soon became an important trading center.
Since agriculture on the dry soil was exhausting and unprofitable, the settlers, who included numerous Jewish families from Amsterdam and northeastern Brazil, switched to trading in indigo, cotton, tobacco, and slaves. After suffering the rigors and inhuman conditions of their transatlantic voyage, hundreds of thousands of Africans were “freshened up” in the camps around Willemstad, and then sold like cattle at the slave market - a practice that continued well into the late 18th century. A bloody slave uprising in 1795 did nothing to alter the situation: after a month of fighting the leaders of the rebellion were executed. It was only in 1863 that the Netherlands finally abolished slavery but a form of neo-slavery lasted into the 20th century.
An underwater wreck.
Curaçao Tourist Board
Economic and political independence
It was the discovery of oil in the Maracaibo Basin in 1914 that changed workers’ fortunes. The island experienced an economic upswing through the opening of a massive oil refinery on the flat isola in the Schottegat, where Venezuelan crude oil was refined. However, since the 1980s, petrodollar income has fallen. Tourism has become another important earner here, alongside lucrative finance business, international services, and a flourishing harbor with ultra-modern docks.
As a result of this mixed economy, Curaçao is home to around 152,000 people from more than 60 nations. The main languages spoken are papiamentu (for more information, click here), Dutch, Spanish, and English. Many people speak all four, and papiamentu is spoken by 85 percent of the population.
Curaçao was granted full self-government in 1954 as an island territory of the Netherlands Antilles, but independence gradually became a burning issue. By the early 21st century it was clear that the Netherlands Antilles itself was no longer viable and after referenda on all the constituent islands, the bloc was broken up. On October 10, 2010, Curaçao became a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, independent in everything but defense and foreign policy.
A tropical mini-Amsterdam
With Unesco World Heritage status, Willemstad 1 [map], the busy capital of Curaçao (pop. 150,000), is like a small tropical Amsterdam - a fascinating mixture of the Caribbean and attractive Dutch-style colonial architecture. It impresses visitors most with its candy-colored colonial buildings dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Magnificent merchants’ houses with steep, red-tiled roofs, town houses with beautiful stucco facades, three well-preserved forts, picturesque little streets, and large airy churches all stand as reminders of the prosperity of the first European settlers.
The town is one huge sprawling development around the Schottegat, a large, deep inlet of water creating a perfect hidden harbor, with Sint Annabaai as the narrow entrance. The streets in the historic center of Punda (Point) and in Otrobanda (Other Side) on either side of Sint Annabaai are mainly pedestrianized, and lined with attractive cafés and snack bars.
The gabled roofs of Handelskade, Willemstad.
Curacao Tourist Board
Sephardic settlers from Amsterdam and northern Brazil founded the community of Mikveh Israel (Hope of Israel) in the mid-17th century, and the Mikveh Israel Emanuel Synagogue has been in continuous use since it first opened at the Passover Festival in 1732. The three-aisled prayer room of the synagogue has enormous brass chandeliers from Amsterdam and the fine sand on the floor is a reminder of the Israelites’ march through the Sinai Desert. In the central courtyard is the 200-year-old ritual bath, or mikvah, and along the walls you can see copies of ancient gravestones from the Jewish cemetery of Beth Chaim on the outskirts of town, across the Schottegat, where the originals have been severely eroded by sulfurous vapors from the nearby oil refinery.
The Jewish Cultural Historical Museum (Hanchi di Snoa 29, Punda; tel: 5999-461 1633; www.snoa.com; Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm, closed Jewish and public hols) alongside the synagogue has an interesting display of valuable torah rolls, seven-branched candlesticks, and numerous ancestral objects belonging to the influential Luckmann and Maduro families.
Remedies and Customs
If you are interested in medicinal herbs, visit schoolteacher Dinah Veeris and her beautiful garden, Den Paradera (Seru Grandi 105A, Weg Naar Fuik; tel: 5999-767 5608). The name comes from the Paraguiri Indians who once had a large garden on the island. Veeris has been researching healing herbs and folk traditions since 1981, largely by interviewing older people to preserve their knowledge before it was lost. In 1991 she started her garden and now has 300 species of plants, all with medicinal properties, many of them saved before their wild habitats were destroyed by urbanization. Now known as a healer, or curioso in papiamentu, she has written books, including Green Remedies and Golden Customs of our Ancestors, and has won awards for her preservation work.
Around the Waaigat are several colorful markets. The circular concrete structure houses the main market where the female traders are almost completely concealed from view behind mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables. At the Marsh Biev, by the post office, is the old market hall where cooks serve enormous helpings of stew (stoba) and other delicacies for the lunchtime crowd. Visitors can also buy fresh fish from the Venezuelan coast boats at the Floating Market (Sha Caprileskade).
Next to the main market, the Queen Wilhelmina Drawbridge leads across to the old Jewish quarter of Scharloo. Take a walk along Scharlooweg, where there are some magnificent renovated villas, now largely occupied by banks, legal practices, and administrative offices. Stars of David on some of the garden fences here serve as reminders of the buildings’ former owners. Impressive examples of the elaborate architecture typical of the 19th century include the yellow-and-white Kranshi, the registry office, and the “Wedding Cake” or Bolo di Bruid, as the decorative green-and-white building at number 77 is referred to in papiamentu. Today it is home to the National Archive.
Architect Anko van de Woude, art historian Gerda Gehlen, and monuments expert Michael A. Newton give regular tours of the old part of Willemstad. Tel: 5999-461 3554, 5999-510 6978 or 5999-668 8579 or check www.otrobanda-pundatour.com for details.
Make purchases from the Floating Market.
The gently swaying Queen Emma Bridge, with the colorful facade of the Handelskade in the background, is the most photographed scene in the whole town. This pontoon bridge has connected the business center of Punda with the picturesque old residential quarter of Otrobanda since 1888. Whenever a freighter or cruise ship needs to enter or leave the harbor through the Sint Annabaai, a powerful motor pulls the bridge aside; at the same time, a bell rings to warn pedestrians. Two ferries transport passengers across the bay, while cars roar across the spectacular 175ft (55-meter) arch of the Queen Juliana Bridge (1974) to the north, flying high above the massive ships below.
Enormous forts are situated on either side of the harbor entrance. Iron rings were set into their walls to fasten a heavy chain or metal net that would prevent access to the harbor. The Riffort in Otrobanda today provides an atmospheric backdrop for eating in the pleasant Bistro Le Clochard. In contrast, on the opposite bank, a large and rather ugly hotel building towers above the walls of the Waterfort. Beside it is yellow Fort Amsterdam, built in 1641 and now the seat of the island’s government. The inner courtyard houses the Protestant church, Fortkerk (1769), and a small museum (tel: 5999-461 1139; Mon-Fri guided tours between 10am and noon) with religious artifacts. A cannonball is still lodged in the masonry here: in 1804, during a 26-day long siege of Willemstad, the notorious English Captain Bligh’s men fired on the fort.
The stylish shop windows along Heerenstraat and Breedestraat contain expensive cameras, watches, and cosmetics; designer clothes, perfumes, and elegant household items are sold duty-free in the local boutiques. The gables above, like many facades in this area, have been renovated. Pay special attention to the magnificent yellow-ochre Penha Building in Punda, which dates from 1708, next to the pontoon bridge. Initially the gallery on the upper story was left open so that air could circulate freely through the house.
Stroll back through the centuries
The winding streets of Otrobanda were the site of the most remarkable renovation, however, which led to Willemstad joining the Unesco global cultural heritage list in 1997. Previously a run-down area, the Brionplein was the site of riots in May 1969, when a mob of unemployed refinery and harbor workers gave vent to their frustration at social injustice. With burned-out buildings remaining until the late 1990s, it is hard to imagine this chic district in its former state.
The owner and architect of the Kurá Hulanda Hotel off Klipstraat deserve much credit for the area’s rejuvenation; the city’s most luxurious accommodations option features a restored 18th-century Dutch village, with narrow cobbled streets separated by leafy courtyards, with high-end dining, a casino, and spa. Perhaps of even greater significance is the addition of the Kurá Hulanda Museum (Klipstraat 9; tel: 5999-434 7700; www.kurahulanda.com/en/museumx; Mon-Sat 9.30am-4.30pm), the Caribbean’s largest permanent exhibition on the transatlantic slave trade and African civilizations, built around a courtyard used for slave auctions centuries ago. The impressive and moving collection includes a life-size model of the hold of a slave ship, alongside photographs and documents pertaining to the Dutch- and Portuguese-managed trade.
During the day a stroll along De Rouvilleweg and busy Breedestraat, past the attractive Haus Sebastopol and the picturesque buildings on Nanniestraat as far as the elaborately renovated Haus Belvedere, takes you back through two centuries of history. At night, visit some of the numerous bars and terraces at the Koral Agostini or the Keizershof.
Just outside Otrobanda, inside the former Dutch military hospital on Van Leeuwenhoekstraat, is the Curaçao Museum (tel: 5999-462 3873; www.thecuracaomuseum.com; Tue-Fri 8.30am-4.30pm, Sat 10am-4pm) with an unusual and eclectic collection of antique furniture, old kitchen equipment, and modern art.
Genuine Curaçao liqueur is distilled in the ancient copper vats at the Landhuis Chobolobo from the dried peel of local oranges and then refined with the addition of several secret ingredients. Taste some on a tour (Mon-Fri; free).
From Bolívar to beer
Pietermaai, the district to the southeast of Punda, has undergone a similar development to Otrobanda. Expensively renovated office buildings and the attractive Avila Beach Hotel, once the governor’s residence, are certainly worth inspecting. The South American freedom fighter Simón Bolívar is commemorated in a small museum in the Octagon (tel: 5999-461 4377; Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun 10amnoon or by appointment); he took refuge here with his two sisters for a while in the early 19th century.
In the Landhuis Chobolobo in the Salinja quarter, the Senior family has been distilling the world-famous Curaçao Blue liqueur for more than 110 years (tel: 5999-461 3526; www.curacaoliqueur.com; Mon-Fri 8am-noon, 1-5pm); and in the modern Amstel Brewery on the Schottegat the island’s delicious beer is produced, using desalinated sea water and imported ingredients. Many international hotels are located on the Piscaderabaai or the Jan Thielbaai, west and east of town respectively.
Dance the night away to local bands at the salsa and merengue parties on the broad terraces of the renovated Landhuis Brievengat (www.brievengat.com) just north of Schottegat. An ideal way to keep fit. Tel: 5999-690 0651 for details.
The latter is famous for the Curaçao Sea Aquarium 2 [map] (Bapor Kibra z/n; tel: 5999-461 6666; www.curacao-sea-aquarium.com; daily 8am-5pm; charge) where rare and exotic tropical fish, turtles, and crustaceans can be seen from a boardwalk. In the Animal Encounter section, divers and snorkelers can feed sharks from behind a plexiglass screen while having their photograph taken.
Dolphin show at the Sea Aquarium.
Curaçao Tourist Board
Curaçao has several spectacular diving grounds for the experienced diver. The Curaçao Marine Park 3 [map] extends from the Oostpunt and along the southwest coast as far as Jan Thielbaai. Most of the diving areas can be reached directly from the shore, and the clear water is also excellent for snorkeling, with colorful coral reefs, massive sponges, and tropical fish. Anyone eager to discover the underwater world in all its magnificence and also visit the wreck of a Dutch steamer without getting their feet wet, should board Seaworld Explorer, the glass-bottomed, semi-submarine operated by Atlantis Adventures (tel: 5999-461 0011; www.curacao-atlantisadventures.com).
The liqueur, usually blue, that bears the island’s name.
Kunuku - wild and beautiful hinterland
Banda Riba, the southeastern part of Curaçao, has numerous attractions including broad, flat, and sandy Santa Barbara Beach 4 [map], where children can splash about and play quite safely in the clear warm water; and also the hidden bay of Playa Kanoa, where courageous surfers brave the waves and local bands congregate for dancing parties at weekends. Many beaches on Curaçao are privately owned and you have to pay to use them.
During any trip through the hinterland, or kunuku, to Westpunt you will notice several magnificent, mostly yellow-ochre plantation houses, many of which have been converted into restaurants, small hotels, and museums. Landhuis Jan Kok (tel: 5999-738 2377), for instance, has a fine art gallery; Landhuis Groot Sint Martha (tel: 5999-864 1323) contains workshops for the disabled; the Landhuis Daniel (tel: 5999-864 8400; www.landhuisdaniel.com) is a gourmet restaurant. The other majestic buildings along the road are either privately owned or the property of official institutions. Back on the eastern side of the Schottegat is the Landhuis Groot Davelaar, an interesting colonial house built circa 1865 with a mixture of Curaçao style and Renaissance influences.
With a bit of luck, on a tour through the Banda Abao - the western part of the island - you may see some of the shy flamingos that live on the Salinja St Marie, or sea turtles on the Knipbaai 5 [map]. Here the sandy beaches, the best on the island, are surrounded by rocks, making an attractive setting for a rest stop. The majestic Landhuis Knip (tel: 5999-864 0244; Tue-Fri), once at the center of the wealthiest plantation on Curaçao, now holds a fascinating museum, and hosts cultural events on a regular basis.
Iguana in Christoffel National Park.
Curacao Tourist Board
Pelicans are the only creatures courageous enough to brave the waves off the Westpunt 6 [map], where the sea crashes down with unbelievable force onto the rocky shoreline off Watamula. Just a few miles to the east of the sleepy fishing village of Westpunt, a fence on either side of the road marks the Christoffel National Park 7 [map] (tel: 5999-864 0363; Mon-Sat 7.30am-4pm, Sun 6am-3pm). This large nature reserve was opened in 1978 on land formerly occupied by three vast plantations; it can be explored by jeep, mountain bike, or on foot. Guided tours led by expert rangers introduce visitors to the typical local flora and fauna. Keep an eye out for the green parrots native to the island: they usually fly in pairs and seem to enjoy landing on the enormous cacti.
A short but exhausting climb leads to the top of the 1,230ft (375-meter) high Christoffelberg, where the view extends as far as Bonaire. Further attractions in the park include Amerindian rock drawings, some spectacular stretches of coastline on the Boca Grandi, and numerous rare palm trees and fragrant orchids in the wilderness of Zevenbergen.
Kas di Pali Maishi, near Tera Kora, on the road to Westpunt, is a reconstructed hut thatched with straw, showing how simply the country folk used to live (and some still do). Surrounded by a prickly cactus fence, the open-air museum is open daily (tel: 5999-864 2742).
To the northeast, the Christoffel National Park is bordered by the Die Shete Boka, a beautifully atmospheric piece of coast with the hidden grotto of Boca Tabla 8 [map] and breathtaking scenery whenever the powerful breakers smash down on the cliffs. It was breakers similar to these that created the original cave system of Hato 9 [map] (Rooseveltweg; tel: 5999-868 0379; daily 9am-4pm, guided tours every hour), not far from the airport. These limestone caves have a mirror-smooth underground lake, stalagmites, stalactites, bats, and Caiquetío rock drawings that are believed to date back more than 1,000 years.