The joys of colourful Curacao

Victoria De Silverio 9 March 2022

Flamingos, beaches, a rich and sometimes dark history—there’s more to this Caribbean island than a colourful liqueur

I’m 12 degrees north of the equator and about 65 kilometers off the coast of Venezuela on Curaçao, a flat stretch of an island in the Caribbean Sea, so I shouldn’t be surprised how hot it is.

Curaçao feels like a secret paradise, where sunset-pink flamingos feed year-round in salt pans, where dozens of coral beaches beckon with ferociously bright-blue water, and where locals shoot off a rainbow of fireworks every Thursday night, simply because it’s almost the weekend.

It’s fall, and the trade winds have caused the divi-divis—stubby trees with dry, mangled trunks and flamboyant green tufts on top—to lean cartoonishly. But the winds are on siesta today, so I splash on sunscreen and prepare to explore the historic UNESCO-listed capital city, Willemstad.

Founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634, Willemstad has always been, by some measure, a cosmopolitan trading port. It was the capital of the former Netherlands Antilles until 2010, when Curaçao became a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. 

After going through hard times and neglect, Willemstad is enjoying a massive rejuvenation, with artists and entrepreneurs helping to create a new spirit of civic pride. Today the city of 125,000 pulsates with a mishmash of 50 cultures and three official languages: Dutch, English, and the island’s own Creole tongue, Papiamentu.

The shoreline of Willemstad

I check out of my hotel in the Pietermaai district, where merchants, bankers, and ship captains built ornate mansions in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many of these buildings have been restored into trendy hotels and restaurants with airy courtyards. Their playfully painted exteriors are like flavors—lemon, lime, blueberry—and the fancy white trim like icing.

Inside the raspberry one is Beans, a coffee shop with original ceiling frescoes and mosaic floors. On the seaside terrace, I have coffee and a warm codfish pastechi (like a flaky empanada) before meeting my friend Damaris, who was born on the island and works at Kas di Pal’i Maishi, a museum that focuses on how the Afro-Curaçaoans adapted post-slavery.

"After going through hard times and neglect, Willemstad is enjoying a massive rejuvenation, with artists and entrepreneurs helping to create a new spirit of civic pride"

Our first destination is Scharloo, a quiet neighborhood that still feels like a village thanks to Street Art Skalo, an organization that has enlisted artists to paint building facades and walls. Driving along the main drag, Scharlooweg, Damaris calls out to a guy in paint-splattered shorts and a pink polo shirt, “Bon dia!”

He is Francis Sling, one of the island’s biggest art stars. Seventeen of his paintings hang at The Curaçao House in The Hague, Netherlands, and his Three O’Clock Romance—a massive mural of two birds on a branch—is just around the corner from where we are.

We join Sling in his studio, where he is cutting up a colorful artwork to sell in pieces. “Everybody is asking for postcards,” he says, “but these are like pieces of a puzzle.” I buy a pair of earrings featuring mismatched bits of paint, and we let him get back to work.

Francis Sling

We drive over the Queen Juliana Bridge—which, at 56 meters, is the Caribbean’s tallest—to Otrobanda, where many freed slaves settled in the mid-1800s, then head to the Kura Hulanda Village & Spa.

Magnificently preserved, the village is a stark reminder of the island’s dark past, when Willemstad was a major stop on the trans-Atlantic slave-trade route. On the site of a former slave-merchant’s home is the Museum Kura Hulanda, which holds the largest collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean.

In the courtyard, people were once sold to the highest bidder; two pillars support a bell used to summon slaves to work and a crossbeam to tie them for beatings. It’s a stark but moving time capsule.

As the sun starts to set, we cross Sint Anna Bay on the pedestrian Queen Emma Bridge. Ahead of us is Curaçao’s most iconic vista: the candy-colored townhouses along Handelskade, in Punda district.

As the story goes, one of the island’s governors in the 1800s complained that the sun reflecting off the white buildings gave him migraines, so he demanded they be painted in bright colors. “Years after he died, it came out that he owned the factory that made the paint,” Damaris tells me with a laugh.

It’s my luck it’s Thursday, the night when everyone comes out for Punda Vibes. On every corner, there are artists and craftspeople displaying their work or bands playing. The different tempos mingle with multiple languages.

We pass the imposing Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue; built in 1732, it’s the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Turning the corner, we see folk dancers in orange costumes.

We take a seat at the La Bohème café for a better view and some chicken-curry arepas, a sort of pancake. When the music and dancing stop, another group starts singing. It’s someone’s birthday, and they’re belting out the verses in Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish, and English.

Mundo Bizarro restaurant in Willemstad's city centre 

“Here, we go really long with the birthday song,” says Damaris. When the singing is over, the clapping is overpowered by the sound of fireworks on the harbor. We toast to good vibes.

Next day I make my way from my lodgings on the east side—a salt plantation turned boutique hotel—to Eric’s ATV Adventures for off-road quad-biking into the desert along the north coast.

I notice that many of my fellow riders are tricked out in pro-looking biker outfits and tattoos, which makes me wonder if I need to learn how to do this. Leo, our guide, doesn’t calm my nerves: “There are 18 of you,” he says, “and I want 18 to come back.”

Along the craggy paths I learn how to turn, allowing me to focus on the windswept cacti and acacia bushes. Our convoy rolls past an ostrich farm and into an aloe-vera plantation. Rows of spiny plants are harvested for the nutrient-rich gel that is made into skin-care ointments and wellness elixirs. 

"Rows of spiny plants are harvested for the nutrient-rich gel that is made into skin-care ointments and wellness elixirs"

When we reach the coast, rolling waves are crashing against slabs of lava rock. As the spray cools my toasted arms, Leo offers a history lesson. “Why is Curaçao called Curaçao?” he asks. Turns out there are a few possibilities.

Leo’s favorite? “When soldiers and slaves came here after being out to sea for a long time, they were sick with scurvy. By some miracle they were healed by eating the Laraha oranges, which were very bitter but filled with vitamin C. So from the Spanish word for healing, cura, we have ‘Curaçao.’” (Another explanation: the name derives from Queracao, the word the island’s indigenous inhabitants used to identify themselves.)

I say goodbye to the convoy and drive down the coast to Kas di Piskado Purunchi, a family restaurant in a fisherman’s house. Anthony, the son, leads me through the kitchen to a dock–cum–dining room over the water.

Mom Gina tends to the tables, hugging guests and laughing as if this were a family reunion. Dad Calvin leans over the side of the dock to grab a wahoo from a fisherman in a skiff. Within seconds, Calvin is cleaning and filleting the blue fish.

It’s delicious. When I ask Anthony what’s in the creamy red sauce that comes with the homemade funchi (a kind of polenta), he smiles. “That’s Grandma’s sauce, a little bit of a secret.”

After a sunset hike, I drive a few minutes to Zest Beach Café, a stylish spot with picnic tables on Jan Thiel Beach. Burying my feet in the sand, I have a glass of red wine and a plate of grilled tiger shrimp doused with yet another delicious sauce.

The waiter tells me it’s a mix of minced onions, an Indonesian spicy relish called sambal (of course, Indonesia was once a Dutch colony), and “lots of butter—the chef is French.” I sponge up every drop with grilled toast, and then walk over to the shore for a swim under the stars.

The next morning I’m driving with Damaris to Westpunt, the island’s scenic western side, which is home to its prettiest, most undeveloped beaches. Getting there is easy: One dusty two-lane road runs down the center of the 65-kilometer-long island, through sun-baked flats and over gentle hills.

After 30 minutes, we stop to admire a colony of flamingos in a small lagoon. “All chicks are born white,” Damaris says, “and it’s an act of love when they get their color. As their mothers feed them, the babies gradually turn pink, and the mothers less pink.”

At Playa Porto Mari, we swim, then continue beach-hopping. At each one—Lagun, Klein Knip, Grote Knip—there are palm-thatch umbrellas, snack trucks, and men at card tables playing dominoes.

We reach Playa Piskado, where I’ve set up an unusual snorkeling adventure on something called a Seabob. I spot a man with a bale of a beard coming toward me.

He introduces himself as Andy and helps me put on my mask and shows me the controls of the James Bond–style gizmo. It looks like a miniature jet-ski, although all I have to do is hold on; its top speed is 14 kilometers per hour, and if you point its nose down, you can reach a depth of nearly two meters.

“Have you ever seen garden eels?” Andy asks. “Follow me!” We zip across the cove, and when he points down, I dive to see hundreds of long, brown, worm-like strands poking out of the sand. The moment we get close, they vanish. After that, we pull up alongside sea turtles and then swim through a dense cloud of hundreds of fish.

Back on land, Damaris and I appease our growling stomachs with a visit to Jaanchie’s, off Westpunt’s main drag. Two generations of the namesake owner’s family have been serving local dishes here since 1936, inside a bright orange ranch-style home wrapped in red bougainvillea.

Jaanchie, a distinguished man in a crisp white guayabera shirt (iconic across Latin America and the Caribbean), pulls up a chair and recites the menu. “Everything is possible—also goat or beef stew—and why not try the iguana? You have to be careful. You never know when the iguana starts to work.”

Damaris whispers, “People say it’s natural Viagra.”

A plate of curried “iguana bites” appears among the dishes we order. I try a sliver to show Jaanchie I’m game. He answers with a wink.

The beautiful shoreline

After lunch, I part with Damaris and hit the road to Playa Santa Cruz to see the legendary Captain Goodlife about a boat ride. The salty captain, aka Henry “Juni” Obersi, greets me wearing groovy 1970s eyeglasses and a floral shirt, tells me I’m late, and offers me a hug and a beer. With that, we scurry off to the boat with three of his kids.

We stop a handful of times, once to snorkel over a freighter the captain sank more than 20 years ago; the shipwreck is now a bustling metropolis for hungry fish.

Worth the price of admission alone is its famous Blue Room. I hold my breath and dive under an extended rock shelf to reach the underwater cave. Inside, the sunlight passes through the clear water, illuminating the cavern with a surreal blue light.

It’s late by the time I make it back to the other side of the island, so I stop at a roadside sandwich truck, an essential component of the Curaçao lifestyle, which typically includes late-night partying and eating.

I go all in with the BBQ ribs and fries. Sitting there among the jovial revelers, I remember something Damaris told me: “We celebrate the most random things so that we have an excuse to get together and barbecue. But as soon as the food is done—party over.” At that, I wipe my hands and head for one last swim.

From Hemispheres Magazine for United Airlines (January 1, 2020), Copyright © 2020 by Ink for United Airlines

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