Clockwise from top left: a scene from Mambo Beach; inside Cato Caves; a bird at breakfast on Porto Marie Beach; Porto Marie Beach; a torture instrument from slavery; Dutch pancakes at Porto Marie Beach
In honor of one of my favorite columns, 36 Hours from the NYT, I have decided to try my hand at my own 36 hours piece. I was in Curaçao for six days, but I’ll cull it down to my favorites.
When asked to rattle off a list of tropical island destinations what places come to mind? Jamaica, The Virgin Islands, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic and Aruba probably top the list. But what about Curaçao? Situated just east of Aruba and an hour max plane ride north of Venezuela, this dry, rocky island is a part of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao). If you want to avoid the tourist trap that Aruba has allegedly become and experience a quieter vacation, Curaçao has much to offer.
1.) From Customs to Caves 1 PM
Just after bypassing the snaking line of people that transfer to Aruba (there will be some stares when marching confidently past them) head downstairs to Customs. Clearing Customs occurs in under 30 minutes.
Arrange a rental car to meet you right at the international airport and then drive the five minutes, luggage still in the trunk, to Hato Caves. The largest cave on the island, tours are conducted in English, Spanish, and Dutch. While waiting for the tour to begin, feel free to sample food at the small bar or restaurant. The tour lasts no more than 45 minutes and is for the faint of heart. It’s very tame and can be walked in flip flops (though I always recommend closed toe shoes just in case). For the most part, no pictures are allowed because the flash will blind the species of bats that reside in the caves. One exception is the window room, a grand space of light, slightly mossy vegetation, and awe. Afterwards, take a self-guided tour of the Indian Trail (8 USD admission for adults).
2.) Pop’s Place 3 PM
Drop by Pop’s Place for no nonsense, fresh seafood. Located on the itty bitty Caracasbaii Beach, food portions are Southern-style large and cheap.
A livelier, larger beach can be found at Mambo Beach if you don’t mind the resorts pressed right up against it. Park for free at Mambo Beach or drive to the very end and park for 3 USD at the Sea Aquarium. Either way, you’ll walk through the same stretch of beach that is given different names. At Mambo Beach, especially on a Sunday, well-muscled, oiled bodies are out to be seen by the sun and people alike. House music is playing, beach beds can be rented, and a massage hut is located right near the water. At night it is like a regular club (complete with a metal detector wand), just on the beach. If hot, grab delicious gelato from Michely’s on the ground floor (4 USD for a medium cup, two scoops) and jump in the water. Drinks are also sold at the bars dotted along the beaches. That same beach on a Monday night is quiet with soft rock playing. The beach beds and chairs that were packed with bodies (and, presumably, not free) are empty and yours for the taking.
4.) Dinner is Upstairs 8 PM
When hungry again, simply head upstairs and pick from burgers, Indian, Lebanese, or Mexican food. Window shop at the number of stores nearby as a way to walk off the calories. If sun burned, stop by CurAloe and stock up on the skin care products of your choice. The aloe is sourced from an aloe plantation found right on the island. When done, head right back to the beach and enjoy. Note: many shops in Curaçao close at 6 PM.
5.) Hit the Road 8:30 AM
Climb in the rental car and hit the road with an empty stomach. An hour later, Dutch pancakes topped with apples (or another fruit of your choice), syrup, and powdered sugar await at Porto Marie Beach. Braving the tar patched roads is worth it. Along with the blue water that shimmers brighter than a celebrity’s diamond ring, the restaurant fare is hearty, and the bathrooms clean. The beach opens at 9:30 and is packed at 11:00. Despite the amount of people, it’s meditatively quiet. While lounging, sleeping, or eating under an umbrella, a woman with a sunhat will come around eventually to collect the 2.50 USD entrance fee and 3.50 USD beach chair rental. A sleep-inducing full body massage is available in the late afternoons. With your head facing the ocean, no calming background music is necessary. Make sure to state what you’re comfortable with during the massage. Different cultures have different ideas of what (if any) body parts are off limits (e.g., do you, literally, want your butt massaged? It really is a muscle…). Manicures and pedicures are also available next door. Don’t be surprised if you spot an iguana or two too.
When back on the road, head to the Renaissance Hotel. Parking is free and open to the public. In walking distance there is high end shopping (e.g., a small Tiffany’s shop), a movie theater, restaurants, and (sigh) the ever-present Starbucks. Walk down to the water and browse amongst the vendors showing their wares. The majority of the products are all the same (some art prints I even recognized from a trip to Puerto Rico), but you can negotiate a price. Usually, there are Venezuelan merchants selling their wares on boats too. Due to, presumably, the political unrest, very few of them were there. Stop at the yellow smoothie place on wheels and order a mango smoothie with a little bit of condensed milk (3.50 USD for a small). It’s so good you’ll wish you ordered the large.
7.) The Bridges 5:00 PM
Cross the Queen Emma pontoon bridge from Otrobanda to Punda, Willemstad’s two parts. If you hear a bell, get off the bridge as quickly as possible because it will detach from the other side in order to allow a ship to pass through the harbor. In the distance is the Queen Juliana Bridge, one of the tallest bridges in the world. Its vertigo-inducing height is to allow ships to traverse the harbor’s waters. Once in Punda, find more shopping and admire the architecture. If you would like to get your hair braided, stop at the round cement building in the middle of town. Head to the second floor and the barber will call the braider for you if she’s not there. The woman arrived in under five minutes and was very sweet. She may even do your eyebrows for free too.
8.) Ships and Dinner 8:30 PM
When ready, cross back over to the other side for dinner and, some nights, live music. If the bridge hasn’t come back yet, simply hop on the free ferry service. People from the cruise ships may abound, complete with cameras attached to their foreheads thanks to a headband contraption, but it’ll be a nice, enjoyable evening regardless. If live music isn’t playing, enjoy watching the ships come into the harbor.
Before leaving the island, it is a must to tour the Kura Hulanda Museum with a tour guide (3 USD for the tour guide, not including the entrance fee). Comprised of artifacts from the Middle East too, the museum primarily catalogs the slave trade in Curaçao and surrounding nations. Although the Spanish abandoned the island because it had little gold and even less fresh water, the Dutch made Curaçao the center of its slave trade. The graphic torture instruments on display (i.e., the iron chair shown above) along with excerpts from one journeyman’s book paints a chilling, brutal portrait of slavery in the region. Even when you think you’ve heard it all, there is still a new level of horror. The eeriest moment comes when the tour heads into the innards of the museum to reconstruct the bowels of a boat during The Middle Passage. The steep steps, darkness, and dankness makes one wonder how anyone could have survived the putrid, both emotionally and physically, conditions (let alone the estimated 60% that did). The collection also includes religious items, paintings, and instruments related to the African Diaspora.
If hungry after the hour long tour, there is a restaurant on the premises. If unwilling to eat there, walk back along the water for food before returning to the airport.
10.) Airport Exit Tax
When leaving Curaçao there is an exit tax. For six days the fee was 39 USD.
Where to Stay
I used Airbnb for the first time on this trip. Although the couple I stayed with was extremely nice and helpful, I would not recommend staying at my locale. It was cheap (which was needed with my impulse purchase to go to Curaçao back when the protests were in full swing), but not as clean I would expect for a place that is renting rooms. That being said, I would use Airbnb again because the process was seamless. My travel buddy stayed at Frangipani Apartments, and her unit was beautiful. It’s more on the outskirts of Willemstad, but the island is so small nothing’s really too far from another place.
Communicating and Getting Around
Most people I encountered spoke multiple languages (Papamiento–the local language; Dutch; Spanish; English). That being said, some readily admitted they were more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.
Renting a car is a must. It’s difficult to get around at first because streets are not well-marked. The first day my travel buddy and I spent hours lost, frustrated and confused. We got better with time. Pay attention to landmarks because they will be more helpful to you than street signs. A good map (we used KrisKras) is a must too.
Make sure you have cash (US dollars or guilders) on you. The trip started on a stressful note when the car rental company expected us to pay everything in cash. They did not accept any cards. Granted, it was a small business (and I like supporting local businesses), but something like that makes me want to run to the nearest chain business. The gas stations we went to did not accept American credit cards either. All restaurants except for one accepted cards. Do not forget to call your bank in advance to say that you are traveling or your card will get blocked to prevent fraud.