Curacao is a speck of rock 63 km off the coast of Venezuela. Surrounded by crystal blue waters, it is famous for an eponymous liqueur that is the same color as the ocean. But what really makes this island stand out from other Caribbean destinations is the vibrantly colored Dutch colonial architecture and cultural melting pot of Dutch, Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and French influences.
The country is the largest island of the former Netherlands Antilles with a population of around 160,000. It covers 171 square miles and stretches for 38 miles east to west.
There is a long history of human settlement, and conflict, on the island. Originally home to the Arawak Indians who migrated there more than 6,000 years ago from South America, eventually it became home to a subgroup known as the Caquetios. There were around 2,000 living there when the Spanish landed in 1499 and most were sent as slaves to work on the island of Hispaniola.
The Spanish were ousted by the Dutch in the early 1600s and the island became a booming trade hub for merchants in the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Curacao was used by the Dutch as a base for the trading of enslaved West Africans. Remnants of this disturbing era can be seen in the remaining former plantation mansions, known as Landhuizen, that have been turned into government offices, tourist attractions, art galleries and restaurants. Slavery was abolished on the island in 1863 and today the liberation struggle is commemorated on August 17.
One of the first things on my list when visiting the capital of Willemstad was to visit the Curacao Liqueur Distillery located at the old plantation Landhuis Chobolobo. Started by a Jewish family by the name of Senior more than 115 years ago, the distillery produces five colors (including the famous blue one I had seen back home) and four flavors of Curacao liqueur. During a self-guided tour, I learned the aromatic, citrus flavored beverage evolved from the Spaniards’ attempt to grow Valencia oranges in the arid, volcanic soil. These morphed into a bitter orange called laraha that is used in the liqueur today.
Jewish history runs deep on Curacao. The oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere is in Willemstad and was inaugurated in 1732. Commonly known as the Snoa, it is home to the Mikvé Israel-Emanual congregation.
Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is divided by a channel of water into two districts, Punda and Outrobanda (meaning the other side). Walking around the historic area on the Punda side, felt entering a fairy kingdom of candy-colored, curly cue houses, cobbled lanes, and stone forts.
The two neighborhoods have been connected since 1886 by the 168-meter long Queen Emma Bridge, also known as “The Swinging Old Lady.” A floating pontoon bridge, it is open only to cyclists and pedestrians and its swinging wooden gate allows ships to access the city’s port.
Near the bridge in Punda I discovered the floating market where locals buy their fresh fruits, vegetables and fish daily from boats coming from Venezuela, Columbia and other West Indian Islands.
The food of Curacao is a flavorful blend of Dutch, Indonesian, and Afro-Caribbean dishes. Lunching in the nearby Old Market or Plaza Bieu, I decided to try fare cooked up in the market’s kitchens. A cup of cactus soup and plate of delicious kabritu (stewed goat) was a filling choice, washed down with a cold Polar beer.
Curacao’s food is healthy and satisfying, and although the soil doesn’t produce much in the way of fruit and vegetables, there is one place you can find some surprising plants. At Den Paradera on the west side of the island I discovered Dinah Veeris’ herbal garden and shop filled with healing potions. For 30 years she has applied her unique knowledge of flora found on the island, and reintroduced many natural ointments and elixirs that had long been forgotten. “I gained my knowledge about this through tradition and study of the active ingredients of herbs,” she explained to me on a tour of her garden. As well as gaining traditional knowledge from elders, she studied at the California School of Herbal Studies and has attended many international workshops. Walking past the plants, she pointed out moringa for joint pain, kalbas (or calabash) to heal sores, and kadushi, which is full of antioxidants.
Another woman whose legacy I was keen to see was Nena Sanchez. An artist famous for her bold, colourful depictions of island life, she passed away in 2017 but her work lives on at her gallery and former workshop, also on the west side of the island. Located in Landhuis Jan Kok, the residence of an infamously cruel slave master Jan Kok, the gallery retained none of the nightmarish ambience of its original owner. Clean and bright, it was as if Sanchez had cleansed the building, welcomed in the light and then filled it with her uplifting art.
After all this culture, it was time for some nature. At Christoffel National Park I hiked 372 metres above sea level for a stunning panoramic view of the island. The 4,500-acre wildlife preserve is home to a variety of flora and fauna including wild orchids, rare native barn owls called Palabruas, and Curacao white-tailed deer. I didn’t see any of these shy creatures, but what I did see throughout the island were a lot of iguanas (which locals also eat).
The park was home to the Hato caves which were actually above ground and a well-lit path showcased a stunning series of stalagmites and stalactites.
There is nothing more rewarding after a hike than a swim in the ocean. Some of Curacao’s best sugary white sand beaches are on the northwest side of the island. My favorite was Grote Knip, also known at Playa Abou. Colourful fish swam unconcernedly in front of my snorkel mask as I splashed about in the shallow, warm water.
Curacao can provide a delightful beach vacation, but if you poke around a little as I did, you’ll discover a surprisingly diversified culture that provides plenty of food for mind…and body.
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