When cold, foggy mornings in Northern Europe make you want to put on a thicker scarf and its clear it’s not going to get much warmer anytime soon, it’s time to go and get warm somewhere else! Just a week, to remember how it feels to put on flip flops, floral dress or shorts and lay down at the beach, listening to the waves crashing, eating food you’ve never tried before or reading a book, which will always associate with the little dot on the map you are located at during your vacation. There is a place quite suitable for such activities, and it’s the island of Curacao in the Caribbean. When thinking of Caribbean do you think of Bob Marley and copper drums? In such case going to Curacao will open a whole new world for you, where sunny Caribbean climate meets European and ancient local history.
Where is Curacao?
If you tell someone you are planning on going to Curacao, most of people will ask: „Cura-What?” Curacao must be one of the most unknown Caribbean islands. The locals say it is so because there are so many questions on the correct pronunciation of the name that most just want to avoid the embarrassment and don’t go there. They pronounce this name as „Kursau”, but it’s different in nearly any other language in the world. The capital city Willemstad does not raise additional questions, but gives a hint which European country used to own this island. Also called Caribbean Amsterdam, Curacao is one of the Netherlands Antilles and also belongs to the so called ABC island group – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Since 10th of October 2010, it’s a separate autonomous country within Netherlands, which take care of the defense and foreign affairs.
Spanish where the first ones to mark Curacao on the map in 1499, but before them it was inhabited by Arawak people. The Spanish abandoned the island quite quickly, as it did not have gold or much freshwater. They also enslaved the locals and moved them to neighboring islands which were more suitable for farming. The locals now say that Spanish never wanted to live on the island and where not important in the history of its development. The Dutch acted completely the opposite; taking away the island from the Spanish and showing they were there to stay. As a result of Dutch activities Curacao became a regional trade center, salt manufacturing was begun, later sugar cane plantations where created and many cute houses build. The colorful houses are what Curacao is most recognized for nowadays. The legend says that in the 19th century a governor of Curacao frequently suffered from migraine, which in his opinion originated from the bright sun reflecting in the white walls of the houses. So he forbade white color paint and since then Willemstad has turned into a rainbow city.
The only manpower on the island where the slaves, and soon Curacao became known as a slave trading post. Slave trading and the plantations is how the official language of the island was born, Papiamento. It’s a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, and several African languages, with a little addition of Dutch, English and French. It was created when slaves tried communicating with the masters.
What Curacao is Like and What to Expect from this Little Known Place?
The first page of search results online bright blue and it’s not the color of the water, but liquor called Curacao! Of course the color of the water is bright blue as well, but the island is mostly known by the liquor, which is supported by the fact that there are more bottles of liquor sold than there are tourists coming per year (roughly 400 000)! The famous liquor is produced on the island, in the Willemstad district called Chobolobo. Anyone interested can visit the factory and see for themselves. The creation of the liquor is tightly linked to the history, in the 16th century Spanish brought orange trees form Valencia, and planted them on the island. Later they found out that cliffs and sand don’t make up for good soil, lack of freshwater, wind and heat, inhibits the growth of trees. The fruits were small, bitter and not edible. They were called the laraha fruit and left alone to grow until the 19th century, when Senior family begun producing liquor from the peel of the fruit. The legend says that one of the family members stepped on a fruit and smelled the pleasant, bitter aroma and decided to use it to produce liquor. Nowadays the descendants of this family still continue to produce the liquor according to the same recipe and using the same tools.
As colorful as houses, as various are the available activities for tourists. Curacao is quite untamed and not spoiled by the tourist masses, so the life here does not revolve around trying to cheat someone or sell something. Large cruise ships who visit 30 islands in 30 days stop here as well, it is also destination of charter flights and there are organized tours here, so for someone embarking on such a journey for the first time, there are options to organize everything in advance and relax. For those interested in going and seeing for themselves and not through the window of a bus, but to dive, snorkel, hike, explore the city and dine, Curacao can provide for it all, suitable for all ages, tastes and experiences.
Curacao is a safe place to be from the perspective of wildlife, there are no dangerous snakes or insects. You won’t see a more terrifying animal than iguana and plenty of those live in every hotel garden. It will wiggle its beard, lift up its tail and run away quickly, if you come too close. You don’t need a visa or vaccines to come here, and logistics is pretty straight forward, everyone speaks English, every store accepts not only guilders, but dollars as well. If you choose to pay in dollars or euro, there is a fixed exchange rate and try to avoid using large bills.
If after the long flight you feel like resting at the beach, there is plenty of those on Curacao, just don’t forget the sunscreen! More than 40 beaches for every taste, the fancy ones with chairs and iced cocktails, and abandoned ones where American students drive on the beach with their cars, celebrating the holidays. If you go swimming or diving on such a beach, you should hide your keys under the tires as there is no one to watch over your vehicle. An interesting fact is that the most beautiful beach of Curacao is not located on the island! Roughly 25 km from Curacao is the island of Klein Curacao, only 1.7 m2 large.
Even on a windy day, when the hour and a half long journey with a catamaran may make you feel quite queasy (all the seasick get to sit at the back with buckets on their feet) and you may think that it cannot be worth the suffering, the island is worth it. On calmer days the sails are raised and the journey is easy, you see flying fish and dolphins on the way, while sipping a cold drink. The island is uninhabited, but there are many lizards and seagulls living there. Only few shacks with straw roofs have been built for shade. An abandoned lighthouse stands straight and there are shipwrecks on the wild side of the island. The island has two sides, rocky, windy and with waves crashing, where it is strictly forbidden to swim, and the calm one – truly velvety bright white sand, pieces of coral washed out and shallow waters. Klein Curacao is suitable for every swimmer or snorkeler, as you can see sea turtles nibbling seaweed, and fish swimming in the shallow.
The island is also diver’s paradise, rich coral reef, thousands of fish, amazing visibility and the water temperature 20 m deep is still 27°C. The „big” Curacao is not worse on the dive sports, there are 80 of those around the island and it’s considered to be among the best diving places in the Caribbean. From November till April it’s the windy season, but it’s not in the hurricane belt. All the „lower” part of the island is suitable for beginners, accessible from the shore. Already 5 m deep you can see the airplane wreck drowned here 30 years ago, ship anchor, fantastic corals in such places as „Mushroom Garden”, „Alice in Wonderland” and „Porto Marie”. Also experienced divers will have something for their taste, the wreck of „Superior Producer” is 25 m deep, and all of the „upper” part of the island, where the sea is rough. Experienced divers are welcome to hunt lionfish, as this beautiful creature is not a member of local fauna and one such fish can decrease small fish population by 79% in just 5 weeks. That’s why they are being hunted here. Although it’s considered to be poisonous, it’s true only if it stings, the meat is edible and many local restaurants offer it. Curacao is also suitable for learning to dive, there are more than 30 dive centers on the island, where you can learn the basics and go diving in nearby or further places. You can also rent equipment if you are planning to dive only with your buddy.
The Nature of Curacao
If staying on the beach or diving is not your cup of tea, the largest nature park in Curacao, Christoffel, is really worth to see. Narrow one way roads with few but stunning stopping points, waves crashing against the cliffs, but in calmer places completely transparent water offers a view into the underwater world. On the opposite side of the path a green, spiky thicket of bushes and cacti, with the remnants of plantation houses. The bushes are the reason why slaves living in the plantations could not run away, as it is impossible to go through them unharmed. The bushes offer an excellent hiding place for iguanas, lizards, owls, hawks, rabbits and even hummingbirds! The park is filled with deafening, synchronous cicada and bright bird sounds. The green bush hides the top of the Christoffel Mountain, covered in mossy trees.
On the other side of the island, next to the airport, Hato caves are located. If you expect to cool down in those after a hot midday walk, you are up for an unpleasant surprise. They are very humid and very, very hot, as petrified coral keeps the air warm especially long. The caves are home to bats (that’s why the tour guide warns you not to walk around with mouth open, as it is one of the things that doesn’t taste like chicken), and several centuries ago also home to slaves from nearby plantations. They would cook stolen food on the fireplaces inside the caves and hide there, until one day a door and lock were put on the caves entrance and escaping was no longer a possibility.
Narrow streets hide colorful houses with paintings on the walls, small souvenir shops and cafes, where tea is served with a piece of lime and ginger. The St.Anna Baby divides the city into two, Punda and Otrobanda, which are connected by the Queen Emma Bridge, also called The Swinging Old Lady. If a ship comes, doesn’t matter the size, the bridge is the one that moves, and not the ships. The enormous tankers or the small Venezuelan boats, which come to the floating market, the bridge has an engine which is then turned on and it is moved out of the way.
During the trade the Venezuelan boats become houses, where laundry hands next to bright green oranges, which have not seen cold (but you can get your regular orange colored ones as well), bananas, small limes and other items. You can also buy palm leaves, small containers with unknown substances and roots.
Inside the city there are two more markets; one of them is suitable for the brave ones willing to try the local food. Goat meat stew with papaya, cacti soup, Portuguese bread and other delicacies, prepared on the spot by local hands on hot bricks. They don’t wear national costumers, but bright t-shirts, long pants and sport shoes. No sterile white coats or hats. They are as their families and houses are. And those are so different! Enclosed by orange soil, with bars on the windows, fences that have shards of glass glued to them to protect from intruders. Others are palaces, with sculptures and gardens, hammocks and fancy dogs. Life on this island sometimes seems a little wild, sometimes almost European. Driving through local streets, curious eyes follow us. Asking for a pharmacy that would work during the night, the locals surprise us! Every night there are only two of them working, one in Punda and the other in Otrobanda. Every night the schedule changes and you can only know it from a local paper. The locals call friends, ask for the paper, one offers to drive and show us the way, another draws crosses on the road and explains in detail where we need to turn. They are helpful and smiling, a Although their live in this island is not so easy.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the gallery in the beginning of the article! All of the pictures are done by my husband Jekabs Andrusaitis!