Curacao is an island in the southwestern Caribbean, about 44 miles north of Venezuela, South America and between Aruba and Bonaire. It is part of the Netherlands Antilles and is under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The island is about 38 miles long and varies in width from three to five miles, with a year-round population of about 138,000. While 90 percent of the population speaks Papiamento -- a native Creole-style language -- English, Dutch and Spanish are commonly spoken here.
The capital city is Willemstad, on the southwestern part of the island and is divided into two areas on either side of the large canal. One area is called Ostrobanda and the other side is called Punda. Willemstad's two bridges have put Curacao on the map. Queen Juliana, the highest in the Caribbean, and the Queen Emma Pontoon, which swings wide many times daily to allow access to one of the busiest ports in the world.
Very much inspired by Dutch influences, Willemstad retains the colorful flavor of an 18th-century Dutch colonial village. Willemstad has been designated a "World Heritage" site by UNESCO and features many historic buildings and unique architecture.
With its delightful Dutch colonial architecture, thriving art and culinary scenes and excellent history museums, go-go Curaçao feels like a little piece of Europe at the edge of the Caribbean. A little piece of Europe, that is, with glorious hidden beaches, wondrous caves, amazing snorkeling and diving, and a wild, undeveloped windward coast dotted with prickly cacti and whiptail blue lizards.
Curaçao also has a surging economy beyond tourism, which means that Willemstad has factories, humdrum neighborhoods and sometimes bad traffic. Catering to visitors is not the primary aim here, which lends the island more authenticity than its neighbors tend to offer. So if you’re looking for a Caribbean destination that's busy setting its own pace – a place where the adventuring tends to be a bit more unbridled – Curaçao is right for you.
BEST TIME TO VISIT CURACAO
The best time to visit Curaçao is from May to November, during the off-peak season. During these months, you'll find the lowest airfares and hotel rates, with rooms often priced up to 50 percent lower than they are in the high season (especially during summer). Plus, you won't be vying for beach chairs with throngs of other vacationers. What's more, Curaçao doesn't suffer the wrath of hurricane season. Curaçao's weather tends to be sunny even throughout the months that other Caribbean islands experience torrential rains. Only 12 degrees north of the equator, Curaçao's average temperature rests in the mid-80s all year. Most vacationers head to Curaçao between December and April, causing hotel rates and airfare to skyrocket. If you've come to dive or snorkel, you'll enjoy good visibility throughout the year. Because the island is located outside the hurricane belt, its marine life is unaffected by seasonal changes.
May-November - Hurricanes tend to bypass Curaçao, so you won't get blown away if you visit between May and November (unlike some less fortunate Caribbean isles). Showers tend to occur at night, but that won't hinder you from soaking up some rays during the day. Traveling in the offseason means you'll find steeply discounted hotel rates and airfares.
December-April - Cold temperatures and holiday breaks drive vacationers from northern climates down to the Caribbean, leading to inflated hotel rates and airfare, as well as crowded restaurants and beaches. However, the island's 80-degree temperatures and events calendar may convince you that a winter trip is worth the price. Curaçao celebrates a frenzied version of Carnival from early January until the end of February. Keep in mind: These months see the most rainfall of the entire year, but daily showers are usually brief.
THINGS NOT TO MISS IN CURACAO
• Christoffel National Park
• Queen Emma Bridge, a floating pontoon bridge
• The Curaçao Seaquarium
• Kurá Hulanda Museum, the Curaçao Museum, and the Maritime Museum
• Jan Kok salt flats, dating back to 1650
GETTING TO CURACAO
By Plane - Curaçao has daily non-stop air services from the U.S., and daily flights to Venezuela and from the Netherlands. Curaçao also offers flights to Germany,Canada,Brazil, Surinam, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and St. Domingo, Bonaire, Aruba, and St. Maarten. Connections can be made to any part of the world.Curaçao also offers general aviation services at the International Airport of Curaçao.
By Sea - Some of the cruise lines that visit Curacao are Sun cruise, Carnival Cruises, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Deutsche Sectouristik. Check with travel and cruise websites for rates and cruise routes and itineraries.
GETTING AROUND CURACAO
The best way to get around Curaçao is by car. Some of Curaçao's hotels offer area shuttles, and the public buses cover the majority of the island, but service is infrequent, especially outside of Willemstad. If you want to explore the island on your own time, then you'll want your own set of wheels. Taxis are available from Curaçao's major airport, Curaçao International Airport (CUR), about 8 miles northwest of Willemstad. However, cabs can be expensive, especially if you are planning to use them frequently. Check with your hotel to see if it offers an airport shuttle service. Otherwise, expect to pay around $30 for a one-way taxi ride from the airport to Willemstad. Major airlines, such as American Airlines, JetBlue and Air Canada, service the Curacao airport.
Car - Renting a car is a worthwhile investment if you plan to explore outside major urban areas like Willemstad. Car rentals can cost you a pretty penny, but you don't have to keep the car for your entire stay. You can pick up a rental at the airport; several major car rental chains are stationed at the airport, including Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz and Thrifty. There are also a high concentration of car rental agencies on the eastern side of the island near the cruise ship terminal. Rates can vary by season and company, but you should expect to pay between $39 and $69 a day. According to the U.S. State Department, your U.S. driver's license is sufficient for driving in Curacao.
Taxi - Taxis are good for short jaunts around Willemstad, but longer journeys and island tours will put a considerable dent in your wallet. Curaçao's taxis are unmetered, but drivers may have rate sheets available for different destinations. A cab ride to the northwestern side of the island will cost you about $80 to $100. Before 6 a.m. and after 11 p.m., or if you have more than four passengers, cab drivers raise fares by 25 percent. Also, taxi drivers expect a 10-percent tip. It's best to agree on a fare before you enter the cab.
Bus - Public transportation on Curaçao is limited. The large "Konvooi" buses will get you around Willemstad, with stations located in Punda and Otrobanda. However, convoys only run about once an hour on weekdays, and even more rarely on weekends. Convoys will also shuttle you westward, but service along these routes is infrequent (every two hours or so). One-way fares vary, but generally cost 2 guilders (or about $1.15). You can also ride the smaller "buses" (actually nine-person vans labeled "BUS"), which run more frequently than the convoys, but have no set schedule.
WHERE TO STAY IN CURACAO
The Sunscape Curacao Resort Spa & Casino offers an outdoor pool, a sauna and a free town centre shuttle service. This all inclusive features massage services and free parking on site. The rooms present colourful beddings, views of the ocean or the gardens, and cable TV. The private bathrooms offer free toiletries and have showers. All food and beverages are included when staying at Sunscape Curacao, and Guests may choose from six gourmet restaurants including four à la carte, one buffet, and a café. WiFi is available in the lobby. Curacao International Airport is 20 minutes’ drive from the resort, and central Willemstad can be reached in 8 minutes by car.
Set in Willemstad, 2.2 km from Parasasa Beach, Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort offers accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking, a fitness centre and a bar. With a shared lounge, the 5-star hotel has air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi, each with a private bathroom. The accommodation features a 24-hour front desk, room service and currency exchange for guests. At the hotel, all rooms have a balcony. All guest rooms in Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort are fitted with a flat-screen TV and a hairdryer. A buffet breakfast is available every morning at the accommodation. Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort offers a children's playground. You can play table tennis at the hotel, and bike hire and car hire are available. Queen Emma Bridge is 2.3 km from Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort, while Curacao Sea Aquarium is 8 km from the property.
Located on a private island next to Curaçao Sea Aquarium, the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort features 2 swimming pools, a hot tub and a private beach. You can enjoy meals in the resort’s beachfront restaurant Each air-conditioned suite at the Royal Sea Aquarium has a balcony with views of the sea. All suites have free Wi-Fi, a safe and a flat-screen TV with cable channels, plus fully equipped kitchen or kitchenette. The Ocean Encounters dive centre and Sea Aquarium Beach are within a short walk of the Royal Sea Aquarium Resort. Willemstad is just 10 minutes’ drive away, while Curaçao International Airport is 30 minutes’ drive away.
Located in Willemstad, 80 m from Parasasa Beach, Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort provides accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking, an outdoor swimming pool and a fitness centre. With a bar, the 5-star hotel has air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi, each with a private bathroom. The accommodation offers room service, a kids' club and ticket service for guests. At the hotel, all rooms are equipped with a balcony. At Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort each room is fitted with a desk and a flat-screen TV. A continental breakfast is available daily at the accommodation. Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort offers a terrace. Guests will find a 24-hour front desk, a shared lounge and a business centre at the property. Queen Emma Bridge is 9 km from the hotel, while Curacao Sea Aquarium is 11 km away.
Situated 20 m from the Caribbean Sea, Pietermaai Boutique Hotel offers fully furnished accommodation in the historical Pietermaai district of Willemstad. It offers a charming garden with 2-level pool and terrace. Each bright apartment and studio features natural colors and wood-beamed ceilings. They also include a kitchenette. The apartments and studios are conveniently located next to restaurants and there is an on-site mini-market. The property is next to many propular attractions in Willemstad. Pietermaai Boutique Hotel offers free on-site parking.
Set in Willemstad, Dreams Curacao Resort, Spa & Casino offers beachfront accommodation 1.2 km from Parasasa Beach and offers various facilities, such as a restaurant, a fitness centre and a bar. Among the facilities at this property are a 24-hour front desk and room service, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The accommodation features evening entertainment and a kids' club. A buffet breakfast is available every morning at the hotel. You can play billiards and tennis at Dreams Curacao Resort, Spa & Casino, and the area is popular for snorkelling. Queen Emma Bridge is 2.4 km from the accommodation, while Curacao Sea Aquarium is 9 km from the property.
Saint Tropez Boutique Hotel is a property located in the picturesque and colorful Pietermaai disctrict just 20 minutes’ drive from Hato International Airport. The complex is located beachfront and features an outdoor pool and free WiFi throughout. The apartments and rooms at Saint Tropez are air conditioned. Some feature a balcony, and the private bathrooms have showers. They are decorated with a modern style and have minimalist details. Within walking distance you will find nice restaurants, cafe's and shops. Seaquarium Beach is 5 minutes’ drive from Saint Tropez, as well as Willemstad’s town centre. Some popular activities in the area are diving, sports fishing and windsurfing.
Villa Zarza is set in Jan Thiel and offers a shared lounge, a casino and a terrace. The air-conditioned accommodation is 7 km from Nieuwpoort, and guests benefit from private parking available on site and free WiFi. The villa with a patio and pool views has 3 bedrooms, a living room, a flat-screen TV, an equipped kitchen with a microwave and a fridge, and 2 bathrooms with a shower. For added convenience, the property can provide towels and bed linen for an extra charge. Guests can swim in the outdoor swimming pool, go hiking, or relax in the garden and use the barbecue facilities. Willemstad is 7 km from the villa, while Blue Bay is 14 km from the property.
Located in Jan Thiel, Villa Sol Paraiso provides accommodation with free WiFi, pool views, a garden with an outdoor swimming pool, and access to an indoor swimming pool and a hot tub. Offering garden views, all units come with a coffee machine, a satellite flat-screen TV, ironing facilities and a living room. For added convenience, the property can provide towels and bed linen for an extra charge. The villa offers a children's playground, a barbecue and a terrace. Jan Thiel Bay Beach is less than 1 km from Villa Sol Paraiso.
Located in Willemstad, Curacao Luxury Holiday Rentals offers modern apartment with a shared outdoor pool and a private beach area. This property boasts free Wi-Fi. The air-conditioned apartments at this property are equipped with a full kitchen, a seating area and a flat-screen TV. They have a furnished balcony overlooking the water or the gardens. There is a small supermarket just 1.5 km away, while guests can find a wide range of restaurant serving national and international cuisine within a 10-minute drive. Santa Barbara Golf Course can be reached in 20 minutes by car, while Curacao International Airport is just a 15-minute drive away. Mambo Beach is a 5-minute walk from Caribbean Dutch Masters.
Set in Lagun with Lagun Beach nearby, Whitehouse Lagun Apartments offers accommodation with free private parking. The air-conditioned units are furnished with tiled floors and feature a private bathroom, a flat-screen TV, free WiFi, wardrobe, a living room, an equipped kitchen, patio and views over the sea. There is a seating and a dining area in all units. The apartment offers a barbecue. If you would like to discover the area, hiking and snorkelling are possible in the surroundings and Whitehouse Lagun Apartments can arrange a car rental service. Christoffel National Park is 14 km from the accommodation.
Located in Willemstad, 1.4 km from Jan Thiel Bay Beach, Bed & Bike Curacao - Jan Thiel provides accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking, free bikes and an outdoor swimming pool. Among the facilities at this property are a shared kitchen and room service, along with free WiFi throughout the property. A terrace, an on-site bar and shared lounge are available. Guests at the hostel can enjoy a continental breakfast. You can play billiards at Bed & Bike Curacao - Jan Thiel, and the area is popular for hiking and cycling. Curacao Sea Aquarium is 8 km from the accommodation, while Queen Emma Bridge is 10 km away.
PLACES TO VISIT & THINGS TO DO IN CURACAO
European-influenced Curaçao dazzles with Dutch-Caribbean architecture, hidden beaches, and spectacular snorkeling and diving just offshore. The candy-colored waterfront architecture of Willemstad, the capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and other sights—such as the floating Queen Emma Bridge and the rocky coastline at Shete Boka National Park—are well worth your while, too. But many argue that the island’s best scenery lies beneath the surface of its azure waves. Snorkeling and diving sites (including more than 65 individual dive sites around the island) are easily accessible from the shore, and boat tours out to top sites make it easy to plumb the water’s depths. Snorkel near a sunken tugboat or coral-encrusted pillars, where—if you’re lucky—you might catch a glimpse of a sea horse. You can even dip into the lagoon at the Curacao Sea Aquarium on a tour (snorkeling equipment and aquarium entry fee included) for the chance to swim among stingrays and tropical fish. If you’d rather remain on dry land, off-road tours in dune buggies or ATVs are a popular way to conquer the undeveloped western shore, which is home to historic fishing villages and challenging, hilly terrain. From Willemstad, nearby Klein Curaçao is a popular day trip—reachable by boat, the pristine, uninhabited island is ideal for a day of snorkeling and exploring.
Get a taste of Africa in the Caribbean at the Curacao Ostrich Farm. Originally opened in 1995 as a working farm to supply ostrich products to South America, the farm quickly became a popular spot for visitors, and now it’s home to about 400 ostriches—about half of which are newborn chicks. When you visit you can take a safari tour in a truck to see ostriches of all ages, from eggs to full grown adults. The farm is also home to emus, potbellied pigs and Nile crocodiles. And if you’re looking for a little more adventure, you can join a quad tour to go four-wheeling across Curacao’s desert island landscape before grabbing a meal at the on-site Zambezi Restaurant, which serves ostrich steaks, burgers and omelets.
Tucked between gray cliffs near the northwestern town of Lagun sits the small but peaceful Playa Lagun. Located in a narrow cove, the calm waters at Playa Lagun are perfect for snorkelers of any skill level, and there are facilities to rent snorkel and scuba gear. Recent travelers lauded the beach for its crystal clear waters and beautiful coral reef, with many saying they spotted colorful fish, schools of squid, sea turtles and more while snorkeling. For the best chance at spotting turtles, visit in the morning. It may not have the amenities of some of Curaçao's more popular beaches like Playa Porto MAri or Blauwbaai, but this peaceful little cove has plenty of shade and is great for families who want a quiet swim. Plus, unlike many other beaches on the island, admission to Playa Lagun is free. Just make sure to wear water shoes or socks. Like most beaches in Curaçao, the terrain above and below the shore can be rough. Although there isn't much in the way of amenities, you can rent a chair for a small fee and you can also enjoy some refreshment at bar that overlooks the cove. The beach is located just south of the town of Lagun, about 25 miles northwest of Willemstad.
Ride a dune buggy over the rugged coast of Curacao during this off-road adventure. On this expedition, follow your guide to some of Curacao's most remote attractions, like the Indian Caves, a coastal blowhole, and the Curacao Ostrich Farm. With your small group of eighteen people or less, get to see many off-the-beaten-path landmarks that traditional tours can't access. Use of all equipment is included. Curacao off-road buggy adventure Explore the island’s secluded northeast shore with an experienced guide Visit natural attractions like the blowhole, Indian caves and Ostrich farm Hear historical and cultural anecdotes about Curacao Small-group tour ensures a more personalized experience
Both tourists and locals favor Cas Abao Beach, and it's not hard to see why. The white-sand beach is surrounded by cliffs and lush greenery, and shaded by thatched palapas (large palm umbrellas). Sea turtles, spotted eagle rays and a rainbow of tropical fish beckon snorkelers into warm, turquoise waters. Are your muscles sore from swimming? You can get a full-body massage right on the waterline. Feeling peckish? The Beach Bar & Restaurant offers a range of snacks and drinks that will sustain you all day. Recent visitors loved Cas Abao beach for its stunning beauty and convenient facilities, although some lamented the extra fees associated with something as simple as a shower. Those who went snorkeling highly recommended it, with many saying they were able to see a diverse array of aquatic life, aka not just fish. Travelers also strongly recommended bringing water shoes or sandals, as the shallows are littered with pebbles and broken coral, which can be hard on your soles.
Visit Curaçao's finest beaches and most pristine coral reefs. Snorkel at the famous Blue Room Cave, encounter the curious sea turtles at Turtle Bay and relax at a secluded, intimate beach! Enjoy a live cooking BBQ buffet, ice cold drinks while cruising along the beautiful coastline of Curaçao. Optional diving at “Mushroom Forest”.
Tour Curacao by land and sea with a special someone during this 8-hour adventure for two. Climb into a comfortable SUV with your local guide to see the sights in the rugged eastern and northern areas of the island. Stop for lunch and visit the ostrich and aloe farms, then board a boat in the afternoon to visit secluded inlets on the southern side of the island, many unable to accommodate larger boats. Round-trip hotel transportation, drinks, snacks and engaging commentary from your expert guide are included.
Playa Kalki is a small and sandy cove set against a backdrop of limestone cliffs in the peaceful area of Westpunt on the Caribbean island of Curacao. It’s a secluded little spot that’s popular among divers and snorkelers due to its rocky shallows and abundance of coral and other marine life.
Tugboat Wreck refers to the site of a tugboat that sank just off Curacao years ago and has since become one of the island’s most popular dive sites. The wreck can be found just five meters beneath the surface of the water and can be easily swam out to from the shore near Caracas Bay. The water is clear, the currents mild, and the wreck itself is in good condition and still well intact. It sits upright with coral and marine sponges growing from it and many species of fish swimming all around it.
If you’re taking a drive to explore Curacao, plan a stop in Jan Kok, an area along the west coast, about midway between Willemstad and Westpunt. Here you can birdwatch along old salt pans, large shallow ponds used to evaporate salt from seawater, that have become a popular gathering point for pink flamingos as the travel between nearby Bonaire and South America. The birds wade in the warm shallow water grazing on small creatures that live in the water. Also nearby is Landhuis Jan Kok, a former salt plantation from the late 18th century that is now used as a gallery by a local artist.
On the Punda side of Willemstad is Handelskade, that picturesque stretch of pier you've seen on every Curaçao postcard. Colonial Dutch buildings painted in brilliant pinks, blues and yellows line the waters of St. Anna Bay. Grab a seat and a daiquiri at one of Handelskade's outdoor cafes and watch the Queen Emma Bridge swing open to let ships into the harbor or pop in to one of the shops along the water. If you wake up early enough, you can get your hands on fresh fish and produce at the daily floating market at Handelskade's northern point. Or, you can walk across the bridge at night to see Handelskade's illuminated façades and reflections glinting on the bay. Regardless of what time you visit, you're going to want to snap a picture or two. Past visitors recommended crossing the bridge for the best photo angles.
If you really want to see some of Curaçao's best sights, you're going to have to get your hair wet. A fascinating world of delicate coral gardens, graceful stingrays, playful dolphins and even sunken ships awaits you in the depths of the Caribbean. The best way to explore it is with a plastic mask strapped to your face and an oxygen tank strapped to your back. Many of Curaçao's specified dive sites are accessible directly from the beach – try Porto MAri or Blauwbaai – while others must be reached by boat. The enormous star coral formations of the Mushroom Forest are a must-see; afterward, you can take a breather in the sapphire light of the nearby Blue Room cave. You can also explore the coral-encrusted remains of the Superior Producer, a cargo freighter that went down in 1977.
Playa PortoMari is a spot worth stopping for outdoor enthusiasts. Its rehabilitated double reef and on-site snorkel rentals make this beach a fun spot for undersea exploration. The beach also serves as a trailhead for three nature trails, great for hiking or mountain biking. If you're hungry after all the physical activity, you're in luck: Playa Porto Mari features a beach bar and restaurant that serves up enough Indonesian sateys and Dutch kroketten to fill you up for round two in the water or a nap on the sand. Playa PortoMari does tend to get crowded. But its natural wonders and plentiful amenities (rinsing facilities, clean bathrooms and shaded beach chairs) explain why people flock here. Recent visitors were able to put aside their annoyances with other beachgoers to enjoy what Playa PortoMari has to offer. Many travelers particularly applauded the quality of food served at the restaurant, and recommended coming toward the end of the day for a truly breathtaking sunset. You also might get to meet some pigs and iguanas that frequent the area.
In 1978, three plantations near the northern tip of Curaçao merged to create Christoffel National Park. The park houses indigenous flora and fauna, such as barn owls, the rare and endangered Curaçao white-tailed deer and 450 species of plants, including wild orchids. While you can take a scenic drive through Curaçao's largest national park, hiking or mountain biking is the best way to experience Christoffel's rugged landscape. Recent visitors said the view from the top of Christoffel Mountain is unforgettable. You can climb the peak and back in two to three hours, but due to the high temperatures and lack of shade, the park doesn't allow visitors to start their hike after 10 a.m., so make sure to get there early. Past travelers stressed to bring at least two bottles of water and comfortable shoes, as the terrain gets rockier the closer you get to the summit.
Less than 10 miles northwest of Willemstad sits Blauwbaai (Blue Bay), one of Curaçao's most beloved beaches thanks to its plethora of offshore amenities. Just offshore is an impressive coral reef, lauded by scuba divers and snorkelers for its easy accessibility. Recent travelers praise Blauwbaai for its tranquility and natural beauty, both above and below the waves. Others were pleased with the ample shade provided by the beach's swaying palms. But a warning for the dainty-footed: like other beaches on Curaçao, broken rocks and coral litter Blauwbaai's shallows, so watch out for your toes! A few past visitors expressed disappointment with the "overpriced" beach chairs and lackluster food and drink at the nearby bar and restaurant. Still, many described this beach as "lovely" and a "great way to spend a day." Entry to Blauwbaai costs $8 per person.
Described by recent visitors as a "breathtaking natural wonder," Shete Boka National Park sprawls across more than 6 miles of Curacao's north coast. It's home to 10 pocket bays where various species of sea turtles are known to lay eggs. Hot spots within the park include Boka Tabla, which sees massive waves crashing into an underground cavern, and Boka Pistol, which offers panoramic views from limestone hills. Past visitors were in awe of the stunning views from the park, especially those at Boka Pistol. They also warn that the winds can be very strong on this part of the island.
A largely uninhabited island about 15 miles off the southeast coast of Curaçao, Klein Curaçao is the ideal daytrip for snorkelers, scuba divers and sun-worshippers. You will notice a few signs of Klein Curaçao's former residents – like its crumbling, but functional lighthouse – but the tiny island's natural elements are the main reason for visiting. Its coral reefs and waters are pristine, its marine life is plentiful and its white-sand beach is longer than any other on Curaçao proper. Like its mother island, Klein Curaçao played a sordid role in dealings of the Dutch West India Company during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 1.2-square-mile island is the final resting place of many African slaves who were put in quarantine here for being sick during the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic. After the decline of the slave trade, Klein Curaçao traded hands numerous times, playing host to a phosphate mining operation in 1871. Now, the only frequenters of the island are fishermen and tour groups. But you can still explore the remains of Klein Curaçao's past like the rusting steel hull of the Maria Bianca Guidesman, a small oil tanker that wrecked on the island in the 1960s. Just remember to bring sunscreen – there is little shade on the deserted island.
Located in the home of a 19th-century merchant and slave owner, the Kurá Hulanda Museum traces the history of the African slave trade on Curaçao. Using 18th-century artifacts and scale models to weave its tale, this museum delves into an ugly era in Curaçao's past with a deft hand. Along with exhibits about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the museum features collections of pre-Columbian gold, Mesopotamian relics and Antillean art. Recent visitors stressed this is not a light-hearted activity, with many leaving the museum feeling somber but humbled by what they learned. Despite the disturbing subject matter, many travelers highly recommend a visit, with some saying they wished they received this kind of history lesson in school. Some suggested paying extra for the guided tour.
FOOD TO EAT IN CURACAO
Daydreams of island vacations usually include sunny visions of pina coladas and freshly caught seafood enjoyed beachside. While Curacao has plenty of both, the country’s blend of influences – African, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Jewish and more – creates an eclectic cuisine you might not expect to find on an island in the Caribbean. So go ahead and order that fruity frozen cocktail, but make sure to sample some of these must eat dishes and drinks, too.
This quintessential Dutch snack is as common on Curacao as blue skies and beach chairs. The Netherlands colonized Curacao in the 1600s and it remained under Dutch rule until 2010. Today it’s still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but as an autonomous country. Four-hundred-plus years of Dutch in Curacao means that Dutch fried favorites, especially bitterballen, are easy to find at any bar or sidewalk cafe. The beer-friendly bite-sized snack is a breaded, deep-fried ball of gooey beef and gravy and it’s typically served with mustard for dipping. Take a mid-afternoon break for a cold Polar pilsner and a plate of bitterballen – or frikandel (deep-fried sausage) – at Cafe Old Dutch, a laid-back European-styled pub with sports memorabilia on the walls in Willemstad, Curacao’s capital.
Curacao’s tangled history includes its role as a center of the transatlantic slave trade. The country’s unofficial national dish is based around Dutch cheeses, but it likely has origins among enslaved Africans. They would turn leftover Edam or Gouda rinds into a meal by stuffing them with spiced chicken, and odds and ends like raisins, then bake the whole thing until the flavors fused. "You can make it different ways, but the best-known way is with chicken and vegetables. They used to wrap it all in a banana leaf and put it in the oven," says Adrian Lake, chef at the upscale Pen restaurant at Willemstad’s Avila Beach Hotel, the longest-running hotel on the island. Lake serves keshi yena – the shredded chicken studded with raisins and olives and wrapped in melted Gouda – with sides of rice, fried plantain, string beans and a krioyo (creole) sauce of onions, paprika, tomato puree and tomato sauce.
When asked about local foods, chef Lake brings up another African-Caribbean dish, giambo. He stops slightly short of recommending it, since the most accurate way to describe the stew, heavy with okra, is "slimy," but admits it definitely belongs on Curacao’s list of must-try meals. The green stew is a mix of okra, fish, salted meat (beef or goat) and basil. Dip a spoon in, pull it up, and you’ll see a trail of okra slime – it’s a love it or hate it texture. Ask for a sample at Plasa Bieu (also called Marshe Bieu) in Willemstad. The busy cafeteria features a row of vendors selling local foods.
Plasa Bieu is a good spot to try another ubiquitous dish, karni stoba. The beef stew – also made with kabritu (goat) – is a hearty dish of cubed, marinated meat simmered with different combinations of onions, garlic, cumin, curry, nutmeg, bell peppers and tomatoes. You’ll find it everywhere, from the casual cafeteria to the elegant Restaurant & Cafe Gouveneur de Rouville, set in a historic mansion overlooking the St. Anna Bay and the colorful row of Dutch colonial buildings that line the water.
Morning is one option for when to eat these sweet, fluffy-yet-dense pumpkin pancakes. But they also work as a cinnamon-sugary side dish with a plate of savory stoba or on their own as a filling snack.
You may not want to eat an iguana after spotting the regal lizards roaming around beaches and between tables at outdoor cafes in the more rugged western part of the island. But if you’ve got a hankering, iguana on a plate isn’t hard to find. The go-to spot is Jaanchie’s in Westpunt, an area that’s much less developed than Willemstad to the east. Owner Jan "Jaanchi" Cristiaan stops by every table to talk through food options. If you haven’t had iguana before, he’ll encourage you to order a smaller portion along with something else, like a grouper fillet. It’s not a bad idea, considering the work that goes into eating iguana. It tastes like chicken (of course) but it’s filled with small bones. (On the other hand, as local lore has it, iguana is an aphrodisiac.) Ask for a table by the big open windows so you can watch black and lemon-yellow birds frenetically amass on the hanging bowls Cristiaan fills with sugar.
Located less than 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Curacao counts South American cooking among its culinary influences. When you stop at a batidos truck for a mango or soursop shake (skip the milk and sugar for a bright burst of natural sweetness), check out the rest of the menu; chances are good you’ll see a few types of pastechi listed. The savory, crescent-shaped, fried or baked pastry is similar to an empanada, though the dough is usually lighter. Common fillings for this handheld breakfast or snack include Gouda cheese or ground meat.
Seafood on an island is a no-brainer, whether it’s conch with garlic and butter or fried red snapper. But how about fish of the venomous variety? At Sea Side Terrace in Willemstad, Heinrich "Enchi" Ensermo has been feeding locals and tourists at palm tree–shaded tables just steps from the beach for 25 years. His mostly seafood menu often includes lionfish, the striped fish known for its long, venomous spines and its status as an unwelcome invasive species in the Caribbean, as well as other parts of the Atlantic. Getting them out of the water is a good thing – and when you remove their sharp spines, they’re good to eat. Dig into the white, buttery meat with a sprinkle of fiery pika sauce and sides of funchi (polenta) or fries drizzled with mayo and ketchup.
It’s no surprise that in a country named Curacao, you’ll find an original distillery that makes authentic curacao liqueur. But here’s something you might not have expected: Senior & Co. makes red, orange, green, clear and the best-known blue curacao – and they all taste exactly the same. The only difference is the color. Spanish conquerors brought Valencia orange trees to the island in the 1500s but the hot, arid climate turned the fruit bitter and eventually created laraha trees, a descendant of Valencia with highly unpleasant oranges. In the late 1800s, business partners Haim Mendes Chumaceiro and Edgar Senior starting using the dried peels of the laraha fruit to make liqueur and bottling it for sale. The distillery that came out of their collaboration is still in operation today, with the original copper kettle imported from Philadelphia, and open for tours and tastings. Make sure to try the tamarind, rum raisin, coffee and chocolate varieties of curacao too.
Curacao has a thing for colored alcohol. But unlike the curacao liqueur, the island’s rom berde, or green rum, doesn’t taste like its clear counterparts. Along with its electric color, the rum has a strong licorice flavor. It's said to have been invented at Netto Bar, a dive in Willemstad’s Otrobanda neighborhood open since 1954 and decorated in old photos, license plates and images of the Dutch royal family. Ask for it mixed with Sprite, or order a shot if you’re feeling daring.
WHERE TO SHOP IN CURACAO
Visit the floating market in Willemstad early in the morning, then head to the Punda District to browse the colorful art galleries, wander through gardens selling herbal medicine and botanics, and pick up a bottle of the island’s eponymous liqueur.
Near the pontoon bridge in Handelskade in Willemstad, wooden boats from Venezuela dock alongside the canal, and vendors here sell just-caught fish and tropical fruits and vegetables (plantains, citrus, papayas, avocados) directly from the quay under the shade of tents. Mornings are the best time to visit, for the finest selection of produce, the cooler temperatures before the midday sun shines, and the pleasant ambience of the hours before the crowds arrive.
Herbal medicine dates back to the earliest days of civilization. This desert oasis, outside of Willemstad, is run by herbalist Dinah Veeris. The garden has more than 300 species of plants, some familiar (dandelions, artichokes, chamomile) and others more exotic (calabash and rare cacti). In the shop, there’s a variety of elixirs, oils and soaps to treat all sorts of ailments likes headaches, colds and flus and stress.
Curaçao native Nena Sanchez is known for her colorful Caribbean canvases bursting with tropical flowers, picturesque cottages and underwater sea life, as well as cacti and banana and palm trees. Her downtown gallery offers reasonably priced prints as well as framed and unframed acrylic paintings.
Ramble down this scenic Punda road, and you'll soon encounter two of the island's most renowned art galleries. Serena Art Shop is famous for its handpainted Curaçao Chichi figure, while visitors can't get enough of the Nena Sanchez Gallery's striking island-themed paintings and giclées (prints). On the next street over, SilvanyRoss, a charming shop, features one-of-a-kind souvenirs sourced from local entrepreneurs and artists, from wood-carved coasters to oil paintings and handmade purses. Get to Windstraat on the early side; most of its stores and galleries close up by 5 p.m.
Willemstad’s first colonial settlement started as a hub for Dutch slave traders. Now a World Heritage site, this modern city center has a distinct Euro-Caribbean atmosphere, its preserved colonial buildings housing fashion boutiques, art galleries, and sidewalk cafés. Wander down Punda's narrow cobblestoned alleys, then snap a signature photo at the Wilhelminaplein’s giant Curaçao and Dushi signs. The neighborhood gets extra lively during the free Punda Vibes event every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., featuring an outdoor market, live music, and local folkloric dancing.
Mambo Beach Boulevard has more of the ambiance of a beach party than that of a conventional shopping mall. It features some 50 restaurants, bars and stores, including souvenir retailers and boutiques selling swimwear (as well as everything else you might need for a day in the sun). There are also water-sports operators, and your time browsing can be broken up by some time on the beach. There’s even a nightclub with a schedule of live performances that keeps the energy going into the afternoon and evening.