Just a short hop by small plane from Bonaire is Curacao. It’s about 65km from the coast of Venezuela and, since 2010, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
It’s warm and sunny year round, with a semi-arid climate that keeps it dry from January to September. With lots of crystal clear water, a fringeing reef and white sand beaches, it draws sun seekers and water babies from Holland, and some from the US, during the northern hemisphere winter. More than once we were told ‘not many Australians come here’.
We dived with Dive Centre Pietermaai, which transports divers to different sites all over the island in a re-purposed school bus.
The kit above the front windscreen was a worry.
But there was no need for concern. The diving conditions were excellent – shore dives with easy entry/exit, good visibility, not much current, and water temperature around 26-27 degrees Celsius.
Compared to Bonaire, we saw less soft coral but more hard corals and a greater variety of fish life, as well as some really colourful eels, rays and even a seahorse, and the wreck of a tugboat.
Playa Piskado means ‘Fisherman’s Beach’. In past times, fishermen cleaned their catch here and threw the remains into the sea. Turtles cottoned onto this and would swarm the area for an easy feed. The fishermen are gone now, but the turtles remain.
Usually when someone says you are ‘guaranteed’ to see a particular marine species somewhere, you have to take it with a grain of salt. But at this site, it is true. Even snorkelers can usually see them circling quite near the beach. Divers get a real treat – an easy, interesting dive with coral, reef fish, morays and nudibranchs, and up-close-and-personal encounters with the turtles on the reef and in the sandy shallows.
Above the water, Curacao is very different to Bonaire.
The original inhabitants of the island were Caquetio Indians who paddled here from what is now Venezuela. When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, they transported almost the entire population to Hispaniola (the island now comprising Haiti and Dominican Republic) as slaves.
The Spanish lost the island to the Netherlands in the Eighty Years War and the Dutch West Indies Company moved in. With the biggest natural harbour in the West Indies, Curacao became a major transit port for slavery. Ships from Africa brought their human cargo here, where they were sold and transported on to countries throughout the region. Others were sold to local plantation owners.
Kura Hulanda (meaning ‘Dutch Courtyard’) Museum contains the Caribbean’s most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Slavery was abolished in 1863 but times remained tough for former slaves, many of whom had no choice but to continue working in near-slave conditions on the plantations due to the absence of any other work. And the two tier society which colonialism created is still felt by some.
When oil was discovered in Venezuela in 1914, Curaçao’s economy jumped dramatically, thanks to Shell establishing refinery operations here. For decades, its financial fortunes rose and fell in lockstep with oil prices. At one time, it was the largest oil handling port in the world. But Shell closed the refinery in 1985, selling the shut down facility to the government for 1 guilder and leaving behind a potential pollution headache.
The following year, the refinery reopened on a limited scale on lease to the Venezuelan government. US sanctions against that country in 2017 stifled it but now there is talk of refinery operations ramping up again. As one local told us, ‘there were sanctions because there was a bad guy running Venezuela but now there’s an even worse guy running Russia, so the oil is wanted again’.
During the bad times which lasted through most of the second half of 20th century, much of the historic area of the capital, Willemstad fell into decrepitude. But for the last couple of decades that’s been changing.
Where once large parts of the centre looked like this.
Restoration sympathetic to the original Dutch colonial style means lots of these.
In the Pietermaai district, urban renewal is proceeding apace, driven largely by tourism. It’s now an energised enclave increasingly being transformed into hotels, bars and restaurants in a riot of colours.
The Scharloo neighbourhood was virtually a slum, and while it’s still quite poor, old buildings are being restored and a not-for-profit organisation is leading renewal through mural art and community projects.
Some of it combines art and community focussed messaging. This one is called Teach a Man to Fish.
Dikon Chino asks a question which translates as “Why chino? Why not sir!”, referring to racism directed to Curacaons of Asian descent.
Government Fish is a sculpture using an upturned boat covered with plastic washed ashore on the north coast, a comment on the need for governments to do more to combat plastic pollution of the seas.
The Punda District fronts Sint Anna Bay. The waterfront strip, Hadelskade, is probably one of the most recognisable images of Curacao.
On the other side of the harbour, Otrobanda has brightly coloured murals, some of which spread across and around several buildings.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” wailed Bob Marley in his smash hit Redemption Song. The phrase was coined by Jamaican black activist Marcus Garvey 42 years before Bob wrote the song. In a 1937 speech entitled The Work That Has Been Done, Garvey said “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”. Bob acknowledged the lyric came from Garvey, but most fans aren’t aware.
The two sides of the city are joined by the Queen Emma Bridge. Built in 1888 and renovated several times since, it’s a swinging pontoon bridge which opens from one side to allow marine traffic to enter Sint Anna Bay. When first opened, it carried both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. It was a toll bridge but individuals without shoes were permitted to cross for free.
Now vehicular traffic must cross via an elevated bridge further around the harbour. Queen Emma is a pedestrian only bridge, known by locals as ‘the Swinging Old Lady’. When she opens, a ferry runs passengers back and forth.
Away from the centre of town, several former plantation houses have been converted into hotels and art galleries. We saw some cute and distinctly local sculptures at Gallery Alma Blou.
And the slightly freaky Cathedral of Thorns at Landhuis Bloemhof. The building-sized labyrinth is completely constructed of blocks of thorns from the native Acacia Tortuosa, a species which became rampant when the Dutch virtually wiped out the local hardwood Wayaca trees during the colonial era.
Inside, niches contain pieces by local artists on the theme of ancient and modern religions. Hotline to heaven, maybe?
Curacao is greener and has a lot more white sand beaches than Bonaire. Kokomo Beach is one, popular for its ‘Insta-worthy’ sea swing.
We had some refreshing fruit drinks there, but preferred Playa Forti where a cliff top seafood place looks out over the beach. Those swimmers down there are snorkelling with turtles.
It’s renowned for cliff jumping. Not for the faint hearted.
And also for it’s colony of green iguanas who come in for a feed of lettuce leaves and orange peel.
Christoffel National Park is the largest and most biodiverse park on Curacao, and home to Mount Christoffel, the island’s highest peak.
It’s relatively lush and hidden among the trees are bromeliads and four varieties of orchids. We spotted the Brassovola nodosa, a white orchid also known as the Lady of the Night because on dusk it releases an aroma which is similar to a blend of citrus and gardenia.
There’s a walking track to the top. Or more accurately, a steep gully, which in wet weather would be a rocky streambed, doubles as a walking track for three quarters of the way up, then a rock scramble takes you to the top. It’s not a long distance, but in the heat, it’s a reasonable workout. The National Park Authority does not permit climbers to start after 10am and you must finish by 2.30pm because from the middle of the day and through the afternoon, the heat can become extreme. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are a real risk.
But the climb is worth it. From the top, there’s a 360 degree view over the island, and a coast to coast view east-west.
On the east coast, Shete Boka National Park protects a rugged stretch of coast with a more impressive blowhole than the one on Bonaire.
Curacao has several flamingo habitats, and although there are not as many birds as on Bonaire, the sites are accessible and the birds are just as cool.
Thanks to a tip from one of our dive guides, we came to this secret spot in the early morning and found a flamboyance of flamingoes. Later in the day, there’s not one to be seen.
Even if you don’t know where Curacao is – we confess, we were rather vague before coming to the region – most people have heard of blue Curacao. It’s an orange flavoured liqueur invented in Curacao in the 19th century, made from the peel of the lahara, a native orange deemed too bitter to eat. It tastes like a sweeter, more syrupy version of Cointreau.
The blue colour is just a flavourless dye which the creator added to make it more distinctive. It works. Those blue cocktails look very exotic and are plentiful here. Neatly merging Curaçao’s most famous offerings – the reef and the liqueur – was a cocktail called Finding Nemo – rum, gin, vodka, tequila and blue Curacao.
One is enough, or you’ll end up like this.
Aquamarine seas, lollipop buildings, pink birds, blue drinks. Curacao is a colourful place.