The Amsterdam of the Caribbean – Willemstad, Curacao.

Well, every island has its surprises”, said the taxi driver as he smugly tucked my money into his pocket after hustling $10 out of me for a 2 minute drive. He was certainly right, I thought, reluctantly handing over the fare as I got out and looked for the airport bus. I never would have thought that on a Caribbean island, I would be speaking and swapping between 3 different languages – English, Dutch (well, Afrikaans really) and Spanish – chatting to 3 different people in the space of a couple of minutes! My 48 hours in Curacao were in some parts predictable and in other parts refreshingly different from anything I had imagined. I only had a short stopover in Willemstad, the capital city of the tiny Caribbean island, but it was full of surprises.

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Willemstad by night.

The drive into Willemstad from the airport passes through a range of scenes – dry, thick scrubland blends into new estates which in turn become relaxed residential areas. A huge industrial gas plant owned by Venezuela comes into sight as you dip down into the town. A few seconds later, the brightly coloured buildings of the old town appear along with the huge inlet on which Willemstad is built. Punda on the east bank and Otrobanda on the west are connected by the Queen Juliana bridge – the tallest in the Caribbean. I stay at a quiet, modern place called the Ritz Studios, about 10 minutes walk to the harbor on the Punda side.

Accommodation is not cheap on Curacao. You’re doing well if you find a room in a hotel (hostels are absent) for under $60 USD per night. My room is a self contained studio and I splash out $70 for the extra luxury. There are only cold water taps. I suppose nobody really enjoys or needs hot showers in a hot climate like this. The hotel itself was once the largest ice-cream factory on the island and the fomer industrial rooms are now vast and spacious. As I go to plug in my laptop using my Caribbean/North American adaptor, a strange realization dawns – these powerpoints are European. After discovering a hidden non-Euro powerpoint, I get organized and wander into town, starving, as the late afternoon sun begins to dip.

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My room and the view from the Ritz Studios.

The old town of Willemstad is a smorgasbord of all sorts of weird and wonderful people, architecture and colours. The first thing that strikes you about this island is that colours are everywhere. Bright and incredible in every colour imaginable. There is not a grey concrete wall to be seen and I love it. This is most obvious along the waterfront inlet but is found in every neighbourhood. Pastel shades of blue, green, mustard, maroon and orange blend into one another in seamless fashion. Colours that just shouldn’t be go together, for some reason, do.

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Residential houses in Punda.

First captured by the Spanish in 1499, the island developed slowly because unlike other colonies in the Americas, it was lacking in gold deposits. The Dutch conquered 140 years later and Curacao became a vital transit port for African slaves and commerce under the Dutch West India Company until phosphate and salt deposits were discovered. Today there are still old plantation houses and slave dwellings scattered around the island for rent. Being situated just off the coast of Venezuela has also played a huge part in Curacao’s development. Throw in some Portuguese, Asian, English and French influences and the island today is one seriously interesting place!

This fusion is seen, or heard rather, most vividly in the official language – Papiamentu – a Creole mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and more. “Bon Bini” (Good Day) signs are almost as prolific as the swathes of tourists who descend upon the town every day; a sign of just how popular Curacao has become in the last decade and a clear indication that the tiny island is now indebted to the industry. Every day, a new cruise ship with four or five thousand passengers pulls into port and the locals prepare for business. Shopping is a huge attraction and everybody knows it, from the street vendors peddling their trinkets, to the glamorous department stores found in the newly built arcades. But loud American tourists and humble Creole locals brush shoulders daily as they go about their respective days.

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One of the shopping promenades in Otrabanda.

I find a cheap Venezuelan café in Punda and after hearing some lonesome wailing from the white-haired crooner occupying the microphone in the corner, I head over the Queen Emma bridge on the inlet. Floating on pontoons and bobbing around in the current, the bridge is driven open every time a ship needs to pass through; at least a couple of times an hour during the day. After watching several swings of the bridge I catch one of the free shuttle ferries that service Willemstad’s waterway when the bridge is open. On the ferry I bump into two Swedish guys that I met at the airport and we discuss our first impressions of Willemstad over a few beers and some live jazz that floats gently in the warm breeze.
We all come up with the same initial observation.

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The floating Queen Emma bridge that connects the two sides of Willemstad’s old town.

If you picked up several city blocks from downtown Amsterdam, painted them bright colours and then plonked them in the tropical Caribbean climate of Curacao, you would almost have Willemstad. In fact, Willemstad is probably what Amsterdam looks like to some travelers after a few too many doobies. The whole feel of this part of the city is very European and the Dutch architecture and bars only add to this. The town center is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. We laugh as well, about the fact that we are the only people around not holding hands over a candlelit dinner and not with our families on a cruise ship holiday.

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Sunset over Otrabanda.

The next day, I find breakfast in town in the form of a coffee, toasted sandwich and some people watching. A new cruise ship sits just outside the harbour. Gaggles of American retirees potter around commenting on the how much they love the architecture. Love struck couples stroll arm in arm through the swanky shopping district; the men being dragged into yet another jewellery store. Venezuelans hang out in their local bar, sipping cervecas and cranking some Salsa music. Tourist busses load up and depart for some of the best diving spots in the world. Locals are going about their grocery shopping. And solo travelers like myself are virtually non-existent. I decide to hop on a local bus for only a couple of dollars and get out of Willemstad.

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Sea Side Terrace restaurant, outside Willemstad.

East of the capital, beach resorts litter the coastline. Being in the Caribbean, I expected to see white sandy beaches everywhere. And they are – if you are staying in a resort. Otherwise, there are rocky, fairly dirty places one could swim and I’m sure this is a side of Curacao that tourists never see. I hopped off at Mambo beach, about 20 minutes drive from town, and discovered that a visit to this non-resort beach actually cost $3! Along this beach itself there are a couple of cafes and shops but you find large scale construction all the way along the coastline. After a while, I begin walking back towards town and after passing more of these tourist enclaves, I find a quiet bay with a small, free beach, a diving school and two shabby-looking seafood restaurants. Out here, away from the all-inclusive lodges, it definitely feels more Caribbean.

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The walk back towards town.

The owner of Sea Side Terrace waltzes up to me with a big smile and promises the best seafood on the island. I take a seat and order a tangy local juice made up of tamarind, lime and guava – different and delicious! My meal comes out and it is huge. Two grilled mahi-mahi (Dorado) steaks, rice and beans, salad, plantains and some really tasty pepper sauce that gives everything a spicy kick as I look out over the ocean. Iguanas, pigeons and crabs scurry beneath the tables while the food goes down a treat. The meal costs $17 USD (27 Netherlands Antilles Guilder/Florin) and I’m more than happy to pay it considering some of the obscene prices found at restaurants in town.

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Fantastic mahi-mahi and sides!

The walk back towards the city takes me through past some bushland that men are clearing, past some more rocky beaches and through a run down neighbourhood where the paint peels and fades in the sunshine. An hour later and I’m in the Rif Fort, sipping the island’s namesake, for the sake of it and staring out towards Venezuela. Hundreds of years ago, this fort was one of two protecting the harbor, but today it protects the tourist industry in Otrabanda with steeply priced bars, restaurants and shopping arcades found throughout.

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The outer suburbs of Willemstad.

I find my Swedish friends at sunset and we spend the night at a bar called De Tijd, a bar that could easily be found in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam. Most of the people here are actually from Holland, and Curacao seems to be a favourite for adventurous Dutch twenty-somethings looking to work in and experience a completely different aspect of their nation. The nightlife on the island is surprisingly vibrant, with bars regularly having specials and happy hours a couple of nights per week. But unfortunately, and I found this with the whole island in general; getting anywhere outside of Willemstad ultimately requires your own vehicle. If you can get out and around the island, there are a host of attractions including caves, shipwrecks and quaint villages.

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The floating market, Punda.

Besides the over-catering and over reliance on tourism, the surprising lack of free, sandy beaches and the expensive accommodation, Curacao is a truly unique escape in the Caribbean. The mix of cultures sets it apart from other islands and the effervescent colours found everywhere, really typify the feel of the place. For solo travelers, I can think of many more worthwhile places to visit, but Willemstad’s palette of beauty is something not to be missed if you ever find yourself in this part of the world!

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2 thoughts on “The Amsterdam of the Caribbean – Willemstad, Curacao.

  1. Great writing as usual. Now I feel like I’ve visited it already! Sounds like the knee is really on the mend and not keeping you back. Happy travels.

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