Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
The waters around this island are a diver’s paradise, with spectacular views of a magical underwater world, a stark contrast to its cacti-strewn desert and national park.
Bonaire National Marine Park
Washington-Slagbaai National Park
Parts of the tiny boomerang-shaped desert island of Bonaire lie just a few feet above the seemingly endless blue of the Caribbean. Most of its delights are found under the sea, in the diving grounds of the Bonaire National Marine Park. But there is also life on land: there’s picturesque Kralendijk (pronounced “kral-en-dike”); the cactus-filled wilderness of Washington-Slagbaai National Park, the endless channels in the mangroves of Lac Bay, hiking and biking trails in the thorny back country, and the sight of more than 10,000 pink flamingos in the salt pans of the Pekelmeer.
Bonaire takes ecotourism and environmental issues seriously (the environment is a required subject in primary schools). The surrounding sea to a depth of 200ft (60 meters) is protected as a marine park, and about 40 percent of the total land area is preserved as national or private parkland.
In 1634 the Dutch established a small military base on a coral dike, the kralendijk, on the west coast. Bonaire was only interesting to the colonizers because of its dyewood and grazing land for livestock. The slaughtered animals were loaded on to ships at Slagbaai (Slaughter Bay) in the north, to be sold in Curaçao. During the 17th century the Dutch West India Company discovered a way of evaporating seawater in shallow basins to produce salt, which was much in demand to preserve fish and meat. The arduous labor was carried out under the scorching sun by so-called “government slaves.”
Colorful fish in the waters off Bonaire.
Today, salt remains a major export for the chemical industry, but tourism has become the most important foreign-currency earner. Since the island is thinly populated (17,400 inhabitants in 111 sq miles/288 sq km) and has no other industry to speak of, nature is still largely intact.
After the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles on October 10, 2010, Bonaire became a “public body” or “special municipality” within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the same status as that of Saba and Sint Eustatius.
A colorful capital
Kralendijk ( [map], the island’s picturesque capital, is compact and easy to tour on foot. Many of the public buildings and restaurants are located along two streets on or behind the waterfront. On Kaya Grandi colorfully painted facades and coral mosaics shaped like flamingos create a tropical atmosphere, and the 1-mile (1.5km) long harbor promenade is a pleasant place to stroll. Bonaire has a cosmopolitan mix of 42 nationalities; Dutch is the official language but most people speak papiamentu and/or English and Spanish.
Windsurfers at Lac Bay.
Fort Oranje - built in the 17th century - guards the cruise ship pier. The small lighthouse (1932) is the Harbor Office, while other restored fort buildings house the courthouse. Plaza Reina Wilhelmina, in the center, contains a Protestant church (1847) and the Pasangrahan, an attractive neoclassical colonial-era building that was once the residence of the governor. In the funky pseudo-Greek market pavilion on the waterfront, traders from Venezuela sell tropical fruit and vegetables. The best views of Kralendijk can be had either from Karel’s Beach Bar or from the terrace restaurants at the harborside. It is only when a cruise ship docks that things get busy. On the edge of town the Museo Boneriano (Kaya J.C. van de Ree; Mon-Fri) has an amazing collection of colonial furniture, pictures, and household items.
The sea around Bonaire is part of the Bonaire National Marine Park, and since 1979 has been strictly protected. The entire west coast is lined by coral reefs and provides some of the best diving in the Caribbean, mostly situated where the reefs slope down into the deep. Snorkelers swimming close to shore will find themselves above magnificent elkhorn, staghorn, or brain coral and colorful fish. The adjacent island of Klein Bonaire , [map], a quarter mile offshore, is a wilderness preserve also managed by the marine park. Spear-fishing is forbidden here, and it is illegal to touch the coral.
Thorns, salt, and pink
Unspoiled nature begins a few miles beyond the former slave settlement of Rincón, a collection of yellowish-brown houses among the flat hills. With rocky volcanic upthrusts in the north, swamps in the center, and salt pans in the south, Bonaire’s landscape is varied.
These tiny dwellings each slept six slaves.
The Washington-Slagbaai National Park ⁄ [map] (tel: 599-788 9015; daily 8am-5pm, no entry after noon for cyclists and hikers or after 2.45pm for cars) was established on the site of two former plantations in 1979. It takes up the entire northern part of the island, and its brackish salt flats are an important stopover for birds migrating between North and South America. Depending on the season you may see wild geese or ospreys, and the conures, parrots, and pelicans native to the island can be observed the whole year round. The idyllic beach of Playa Chikitu is an excellent place to relax - swimming is discouraged because of the dangerous currents. Two routes for car drivers and cyclists and several hiking paths lead through the park and around the base of 770ft (241-meter) Seru Brandaris, the highest point on the island.
A short, slightly bumpy road leads to Boca Onima ¤ [map]. Beneath a rocky outcrop in the limestone terrace along the north coast are partially fenced-off Amerindian drawings. Reddish in color, they include spirals, circles, and stylized birds. No one is certain of their precise origin, but it is believed that, centuries ago, Amerindians prayed here to the goddess Onima for calm seas before rowing across to Venezuela.
In the flat, southern part of the island, the scenery is dominated by conical white mounds of salt and flocks of pink flamingos. A popular viewing spot is the salt works which extracts salt from seawater. Nearby are a number of peaked-roof buildings the size of dog kennels, where enslaved salt workers slept and stored their gear.
The southern quarter of the island is taken up by the Flamingo Reserve ‹ [map], one of only four nesting grounds for pink flamingos in the Caribbean. The birds are disturbed by noisy visitors, and may only be observed from afar. During the morning many of these elegant creatures fly to Venezuela or Curaçao to feed on algae, shrimps, and other crustaceans (which give the older flamingos their striking pink hue), so get there early with a good pair of binoculars.
Lac Bay › [map], on the east coast, bordered by mangroves, is popular with kitesurfers, windsurfers, and kayakers. The conditions are ideal, with strong winds throughout the year. The mangroves and seagrass beds are breeding grounds for many reef and pelagic fish as well as the endangered Queen conch. Conch shells can be found lying at the entrance to the bay at Cai (a good beach for families), but the shells are protected and must not be removed.