You won’t get bored on Curaçao, that’s for sure. For all those who love to travel but aren’t the planning-ahead type, I’ve rounded up 30 things you need to experience on this gorgeous island in the southern Caribbean Sea.
1 – Get lost in Otrabanda
Otrobanda, the western part of Curaçao’s capital city, may not be as glamorous as the Punda district on the other side of the St Anna Bay, but the neighborhood is gradually getting more and more attractive. Especially to those who enjoy a stroll outside of the more touristy areas. Life goes by a lot slower here! Get lost in the narrow alleys with its diverse architecture and enjoy the urban feel, buy some fruit from an old lady and just enjoy the moment. Or get a haircut, that’s an option too.
2 – Immerse yourself in the island’s past
When in Otrabanda you can’t miss the Kurá Hulanda museum, situated on the site of a former slave yard and merchant’s home. The museum exhibits collections related to the African slave trade (including torture artifacts and a boat slave replica), and the different cultural identities of the people of Curaçao. My tour guide was a descendant of a slave, which made it all the more powerful.
3 – Take that famous photo
The pastel façades of the ‘Handelskade’ at the Punda district in Willemstad are the most famous and most photographed part of Curaçao, and for good reason. The wonderfully restored Dutch architecture combined with the mishmash of Caribbean colors and the charming St Anna Bay in front, reflecting the colors in the water… It’s picture perfect.
4 – Have lunch at Plasa Bieu
For lunchtime, head to the ‘Plasa Bieu’ in Willemstad. You’ll find this cosy food court in any travel guide, but that’s just because it really is worth a visit. It’s not just the authentically Caribbean food that makes this place awesome (fried banana, fish soup, pumpkin pancakes and lots of meat), it’s the entire picture: the locals sitting together at the long tables, the big momma’s stirring in the huge pots on the fire, the vibrant hubbub going on all around you.
5 – Feel the forces of nature
‘Shete Boka’ means ‘seven inlets’ and that’s exactly what you get (and even more) at the Shete Boka park: ten huge inlets, situated along the rocky north coast of the island. The sound of the huge waves crashing against the limestone cliffs is like a cannon firing, an awesome experience.
6 – Admire stalactites and stalagmites
The 200.000 year old Hato caves used to be a hideout for slaves and a shelter for the Arawak Indians. Today it’s the home of a colony of long nose fruit bats. The caves cover an area of 4900 square meters and are covered with shiny stalactites and stalagmites, beautiful limestone formations, underground pools and even a waterfall. They’re located on the north side of the island.
7 – Get inspired by Nena Sanchez
Nena Sanchez is probably the most well-known local artist in Curaçao. You’ll find her bright and colorful paintings of Caribbean blue skies and blue goddesses, flowers and trees, cottages and cactuses on the walls of several hotels and restaurants all around the island. If you want to take something of her home, go visit her studio at Landhuis Jan Kok and browse through the many paintings and accessories. Even if you don’t end of buying anything, the traditional house (one of the oldest of Curaçao) and its surroundings are a nice extra.
8 – Watch the old lady swing
It’s a bridge though, not a lady! The Queen Emma bridge or Paantjesbrug is an impressive 170 meter long pontoon bridge that connects Punda with Otrabanda in Willemstad. It swings aside from time to time to allow ships or boats to pass. Keep an eye on the flag hanging close to the harbor master’s cabin. If the flag is orange, it means the bridge will open for very short time (which also means it doesn’t entirely swing to the other side). If the flag is blue it will open for a longer time. It’s especially impressive when there’s a huge cruise ship or cargo container coming through!
9 – Take in the street art
Curaçao isn’t just about the beach. There’s a thriving street art scene too. Some of them commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery (try the Pietermaai district), others are a joyful and colorful displays by local know artists and yes, Nena Sanchez is one of them. You’ll find her street art on surprising locations in downtown Willemstad. See if you can spot her 3D murals of iguanas, butterflies and sunflowers!
10 – Go flamingo spotting
Check out the salt ponds of St Marie Bay, close to Landhuis Jan Kok. The inactive salt pans (used back in the 17th & 18th century) attract numerous flamingos who eat the small fish and shrimp in the shallow waters. These birds are so incredibly photogenic!
11 – Savor the beaches
This one goes out to all beach bums. Curaçao has about 38 beaches spread around the coastline, each with their own specific charm. Enjoy the sports and games at Playa Abou, the local feel at Playa Kenepa Chiki, the lounge areas at Kontiki Beach, the party vibes at Papagayo beach, the paradisiacal Cas Abao Beach, the family facilities at the Seaquarium beach, the charm of the small Playa Kalki in Westpunt or the more exclusive beach of Klein Curaçao island. My favorite? Playa Abou or Grote Knip. You can buy local snacks here and watch people jump into the water from a cliff.
12 – Try a batido
Curaçaoans have smoothies or ‘batido’s’ for breakfast. I haven’t tried one on an empty stomach, but I’ve had them at any other time of day and they taste great. The fresh smoothies are either made ‘au naturel’ with nothing but sugar and condensed milk, but you can add ice and fresh fruits like mango, watermelon and strawberry. They’re real vitamin bombs! You’ll find trucks and stalls that sell batido’s in different parts of the island and especially in Willemstad. I remember one just across the bridge in Otrabanda and one near the Plasa Bieu, but I’m pretty they’re are constantly on the move. Just go ahead and have your pick.
13 – Share the gospel
If you’re in Curaçao on a Sunday morning and you happen to pass a church, why not attend a church service? That’s exactly what I did on my first visit to the island. I stayed at a hotel in Westpunt in a very small community and watched children, teenagers, parents and grandparents enter the Christian church and sing African-American gospel music together, it was lovely to be a small part of it for just a little while.
14 – Visit the herb lady
Curaçao has a long tradition of using the healing power of herbs, but all that knowledge would have been lost if it wasn’t for women like Dinah Veeris who recovered and preserve these ancient customs. At her botanical garden in Banda Ariba, at the east side of the island, she grows more than 300 species of medicinal herbs and plants. Whether you have a weakness for homeopathy or not, Dinah’s storytelling is simply delightful. She even sings to the plants!
15 – Discover the big blue
Snorkeling and diving are the most popular sports amongst tourists and it’s very easy to understand why once you’ve seen for yourself what the underwater world of Curaçao has to offer. On many occasions the corals and reefs are so close that you don’t even need a boat to go see the spectacular underwater scene. Two of the best diving spots are said to be the Mushroom Forest and The Cave, but if you just want to snorkel like I did, head out to the tugboat wreck on the east side of Caracas Bay. Mighty impressive.
16 – Paint a chichi
Curaçaoan women are proud of their female curves and that’s what the ‘chichi’ dolls are all about. Chichi is the Papiamentu word for ‘big sister’. The dolls have well rounded Caribbean figures, come in various sizes and are handmade and hand painted on the island. You can find them in various souvenir shops or you can paint your own doll at Serena’s Art Factory and then take it home. A very challenging and fun workshop.
17 – Jazz it up
What do Prince, Enrique Iglesias, Lionel Richie, Usher, Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys and Chaka Khan have in common? They’ve all performed at the biggest music event of Curaçao: Curaçao North Sea Jazz.
18 – Go for a spin on a jet-ski
The best area in Curaçao to go jet-skiing is at the Caracas and Spanish Water bay, so why not combine snorkeling near the tugboat wreck with a jet-ski ride? In the meantime, you can stare your eyes out at the lush green landscape and stunning million dollar villas along the coastline.
19 – Learn about Tula
Landhuis Knip is another impressive stop for those who want to learn more about slave history. This former plantation is the exact location where a slave revolt took place on August 17 in 1795, led by a local slave named Tula, who strove for the abolition of slavery. The revolt lasted for several weeks and over 1.000 slaves were involved, but Tula was eventually captured and tortured to death. The mansion is now a modest but very intriguing museum, offering a captivating glimpse of what life may have been like for slaves back then, female slaves included. August 17 is still commemorated yearly on Curaçao.
20 – Observe the daily market life
The Kaprileskade, on the Punda side of Willemstad, is where you’ll find Curaçao’s colorful floating market. You’ll see cars moving slowly up the street to buy some fruits, veggies or fish on their way home without even getting out of the car. The sellers are Venezualan. They sail to Curaçao (it’s about 40 miles across the Caribbean from Venezuela to Curaçao), spend a few months in Curaçao to sell their goods and then sail back home again. The market itself doesn’t really float, but as you cross the Kon. Wilhelmina bridge you can have a look ‘behind the scenes’ and see the Venezuelan boats docked on the canal and the small supply boats constantly going go on and off with fresh products.
21 – Have a snack at a snèk
Snèks are scattered everywhere across the island, mainly along the side of the road. They’re best described as a combination of a mini supermarket, a snackbar and an outdoor cafe and to make them stand out from afar, they’re usually painted in bright colors. You just stand in line to order hot or cold food and drinks (don’t be too surprised if the man or woman you order it from is standing behind bars). If you’re looking for a sandwich, some fruit, chips, ice-cream or a nice cold Polar beer, this is the place to be.
22 – Go Blue
Sure, you can find bottles of Blue Curaçao all around the world, but the one and only genuine version is to be found at a small distillery on Curaçao. The distillery is hidden inside Landhuis Chobolobo, an early 19th century mansion. Inside you’re taken on a free short but fascinating self-explanatory tour about the history of the liqueur and how it’s produced since 1896. And yes, there’s a souvenir shop too.
23 – Reminisce about the old days
The oldest still running museum of Curaçao is simply called ‘The Curaçao Museum’. It’s located in Mundo Nobo, at the old military hospital dating from 1853. A little heads up: the building is extraordinary but very old and quite worn, so be prepared for a the heat and mosquitoes…Various paintings by renowned local and international artists are on display here, but the highlight for me was the collection of 18th to 21st century household objects. The museum has whole rooms furnished exactly like the old days! Another neat treat is the cockpit of the SNIP in one of the adjacent buildings, KLM’s first airplane to cross the ocean from The Netherlands to Curaçao.
24 – Hunt for happy hours
Happy hours are BIG in Curaçao! No matter what day of the week, there’s always a happy hour somewhere, in a bar, a restaurant or hotel. Check out www.k-pasa.com to see where and when the happy hours take place.
25 – Climb Mount Christoffel
The Christoffelpark is the largest national park of Curacao. There are several scenic car routes that take you through the park but if you’re up for it, you can also hike the Christoffel mountain. It’s a 3 hour hike starting from the visitor’s centre and once you’re up there, you’re rewarded with spectacular views of the island.
26 – Have some aloe vera
You’ve probably heard of aloe vera, but have you ever tasted it? On Curaçao, the precious aloe vera grows everywhere in the wild so no wonder it’s also being commercialized on the island and processed in creams, lotions, shampoos and all kinds of other products. Visit a local plantation and learn all about ‘sentebibu’ (aloe vera in Papiamentu).
27 – Go where the cool kids go
The up-and-coming neighbourhood in Willemstad? Pietermaai for sure. The district went from being a neglected ghetto to a cool and artistic area with restored homes and hip bars and hotels. Visit by day and you’ll see some very cool street art and beautifully colored houses, visit by night and you’ll hear music and see dancing in the various cosy cafes and beach bars. Check out BijBlauw, Rock Beach and Mundo Bizarro.
28 – Get amazed by the country houses
The ‘landhuizen’ or ‘country houses’ on Curaçao may be symbols of a dark past (it’s where the landlords lived and from where they kept an eye on the slaves working on the plantations) but today, a lot of the centuries-old mansions have been given a second life as a hotel, a museum, a gallery or a restaurant. Have diner at Doktertuin or Brakkeput Mei Mei, visit the art installations and lovely garden of Landhuis Bloemhof or Landhuis Habaai, spend the night at Landhuis Blauw. There’s plenty of options, you can find them all on the official Tourism Curaçao website.
29 – Walk on the Beekenburg fort
Fort Beekenburg looks out at the Caracas Bay and was built to defend the harbor of the Spanish Water in 1703. The fort (and the island it was built on) was in private hands from 1927 to 2005 by Shell but today it’s back in the hands of the Curaçao government. You can explore the small peninsula and what’s left of the fort, climb the stone stairs and enjoy the views. On top, you can still find several cannons that were used to fight off pirates, the French and the English.
30 – Shoot a lizard (with a camera)
If there’s one creature you’ll have regular encounters with on Curaçao, it’s the iguana. Don’t be surprised if you see it crawling around near tje hotel pool or underneath your chair at the beach! It’s best to just let the lizard be, like any other animal in the wild, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a little closer for a great shot! Or even a selfie…
In case you were wondering, the reason why there are photos missing at n° 6, 17 and 25 is because I haven’t experienced those myself. Yet! I always like to keep a few things unexplored, it’s the perfect excuse to go back… 😉