Curaçao – A Caribbean Gem
Curaçao is the “C” in the ABC islands of the Southern Caribbean that include Aruba and Bonaire, but that “C” could also stand for charming, cultured and charismatic. Just 40 miles from the Venezuelan coast, the largest and most populous of the West Dutch Indies islands arguably retains more Dutch culture than its sister isles.
A polyglot population speaks Dutch, English and Papiamento, and the official currency is the guilder, the former currency of the Netherlands (U.S. dollars are also accepted). Colorful colonial Dutch architecture, a thriving art scene and dozens of inviting beaches are reasons to discover this tropical gem that is often overshadowed by neighboring Aruba.
Plentiful tours provide everything from laid-back sightseeing to high-octane adventure, so explore the island your way.
C is for Courageous
Many come to Curaçao to relax on sunny shores, but if you’ve ever traveled with adrenaline junkies, you know they can only take so much tranquility before they become as restless as the island’s wild pigs. An off-road adventure is more their speed, so I got out of my comfort zone and rode along on an ATV with a pack of thrill seekers who had booked a tour with Eric ATV Adventures.
From Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, we set off with our energetic guide Sammy for the eastern part of the island – the wild side. Navigating through the rugged, desert-like landscape, I careened to the right like a listing ship when we made an unexpected turn through a tunnel of brush, then as I was straightening out, I had to veer just as sharply to the left. Racing to keep up, I hit a stomach-churning bump that made me grateful I had eaten a light breakfast. I adjusted my sunglasses and took a deep breath. I’ve got this.
Rattling across the rocky terrain of this semi-arid landscape, I marveled that cacti are more common than palm trees. Are cacti supposed to grow alongside the ocean? It was just one more indicator that Curaçao is not your typical Caribbean Island.
Dinosaur-like iguanas sunbathed on their rocky perches, seemingly oblivious to the parade of noisy vehicles kicking up dense clouds of dust.
Just as I was feeling thoroughly parched from the heat, we stopped for a break at Curaçao Ostrich Farm. Yes, an ostrich farm. It’s not like there are convenience stores out there in the boondocks. The African-themed attraction had a restaurant serving cold drinks, and our thirsty group threw back sodas and local beers.
Oddly, ostriches were scarce, but peacocks were abundant and far more photogenic than ostriches.
Back on our ATVs, we rode until a sandy clearing opened onto a breathtaking stretch of rocky beach and dismounted for a group photo. The waves were wild and the current strong. It’s not a spot for swimmers. We climbed across the boulders and perched on a dramatic outcrop (safely away from the edge) that rose above the sea.
Sammy was ready with her camera.
“One, two…” Before she could say “three,” an enormous wave crashed against the rocks below, drenching us all with salty sea spray. We squealed and laughed, then suddenly realized we were standing beneath a rainbow created by the spray. It was a magical moment that made all the bumps and dust worthwhile.
Even if you’re not a hardcore ATV enthusiast, Eric ATV Adventures offers an exciting way to see the less-traveled side of the island. curacao-atv.com
C is for Creative
Willemstad is a microcosm of creativity reflected in the prolific Old-World architecture and Caribbean art. A fun way to see the capital is on a Cur Tuk Tuk, a golf cart-like vehicle.
The iconic Queen Emma Bridge, named for the queen consort of the Netherlands during its construction in 1888, is a tour highlight. Locally, the pontoon bridge is known as the “Swinging Old Lady” because it swings open to make way for oceangoing ships. It spans St. Anna Bay, connecting the Punda and Otrobanda neighborhoods. At night, a series of illuminated arches cast a prism of color onto the glistening water.
Handelskade, a colorful waterfront collection of historic buildings, is the pride of Punda, the oldest part of the city. European-style cafes line the street, an ideal vantage point for admiring the architecture.
The nearby Punda Heart Sculpture, also called Lock Your Heart, draws lovers from around the world. Inspired by the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris, couples come to the waterfront to clip on a padlock that symbolically locks them together forever.
Another eye-catching sculpture is that of a voluptuous Caribbean woman known as a chichi, “older sister” in Papiamento. German-born artist Serena Janet Israel conceptualized this female role model. Her Art Factory and the adjoining Art and Souvenir Shop on the east side of the island sell small versions of the vibrantly painted figures. chichi-curacao.com
We coasted across the Queen Emma Bridge to Otrobanda (“the other side” in Papiamento). This once run-down neighborhood is now a cultural hub teeming with murals and public art, a virtual outdoor museum.
The Colorful Steps of Otrobanda by Avantia Damberg is an outdoor staircase adorned with a geometric motif in vivid hues, a favorite with Instagrammers.
When we turned onto a quiet street, murals of Curaçao women sporting bright turbans came into view. With a few strokes of his paintbrush, Venezuelan-born artist Jhomar Loaiza transformed mundane walls into works of art.
Even hidden alleyways have been touched by creative forces. Among my favorites was an installation called “Flowers of the Sky” by Giovanni Abath. A canopy of flowers made of recycled beer crates is suspended between two colorful buildings, a thing of beauty in an otherwise ordinary space. curtuktuk.com/ourservice.html
C is for Crystal Clear Water
Tugboat Beach is one of the most well-known snorkeling and dive sites in Curaçao. Waldemir, my snorkeling guide from Myronchi Trip, explained that the tugboat at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea sunk decades ago and was moved to its current location to serve as an artificial reef for marine life.
The clear water makes it easy to observe rainbow-hued parrotfish and brilliant blue tang fish darting among the sea fans and brain coral, but it’s the behemoth green sea turtles that are the real rock stars. The endangered species, which can weigh up to 350 pounds, is occasionally spotted hovering above the tugboat checking out the humans that are guests in its home.
In addition to pointing out the wonders of the sea, Waldemir also provided a brief tour of Fort Beekenburg, a historical landmark just a short walk from the beach. The 1703 Dutch military stronghold offers sweeping views of the turquoise sea. myronchitrip.com
Note that while the water off Tugboat Beach is excellent for snorkeling and diving, the beach itself is not the most scenic on the island and offers few amenities. The water’s entrance is rocky, not sandy, so it’s tough on bare feet. For a day of lazing in the sun, head to pristine Jan Thiel Beach janthielbeach.com, which has restaurants, water activities and more, or Kenepa Grandi Beach.
My time in Curaçao ended way too soon. There was so much I didn’t have time to see, but that’s okay because it’s a good reason to return.
Where to Stay
The Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort in Willemstad has six acres of beachfront and 328 redesigned rooms and suites. marriott.com/en-us/hotels/curpb-curacao-marriott-beach-resort/overview
Where to Eat
Mood Beach. This upscale beachfront restaurant serves steaks, seafood, and more. moodbeachcuracao.com
Restaurant & Café Gouverneur de Rouville. Located in the heart of Willemstad, this restaurant offers international cuisine with a Caribbean flair. de-gouverneur.com