Curaçao Guide, Dutch Caribbean
A cruise ship docked at Curacao. Photo by Robert Pittman.
Vacations in Curaçao
If you’re looking for large, dazzling, soft, south Caribbean beaches, go to Aruba, or for superb shore diving and a quiet life try Bonaire. Curaçao is geographically between the two, with pretty good shore diving, pretty fair beaches and a boisterous aprés-dive life!
A largish, hilly, tropical island in the south Caribbean, Curaçao is situated between Bonaire and Aruba, all members of the Netherlands Antilles group of islands until 2010. Since then Curaçao has been a special municipality (i. e. a self-governing state) of the Netherlands.
Curaçao is a few miles off the north coast of Venezuela and hosts a refinery leased by Venezuela that contributes significantly to island’s affluence.
Curaçao is on our Best Budget Caribbean Island list mainly as a low cost, shore-dive destination with beach benefits.
Curaçao’s capital city, Willemstad, another little piece of the Dutch Caribbean. Photo by AdrianL.
Curaçao is not as cheap as Bonaire but there is a decent selection of places to stay from pricey beachfront all-inclusive resorts to budget apartments and guest houses (Bed & Breakfasts) that run to about $60pn for a double.
Best budget options are probably found in downtown Willemstad.
Curacao was placed in the top 3 location for ‘Best Snorkeling’, ‘Best Shore Diving’ and ‘Best Macro Marine Life’ by the readers of Scuba Diving Magazine in their annual Reader’s Choice Awards. The Mushroom Forest made the Top 100 List as one of the best dive sites, while Ocean Encounters was selected as one of the best dive operators.
Curaçao has 40 different dive areas and 65 individual sites. Some popular sites are
• Airplane Wreck, obviously being the remains of an airplane.
• Basora, a cluster of elegant pagoda shapes clinging on a wall.
• Black Rock/Piedra Pretu is a fantastic wall dive with a steep, drops of about 36 m.
• Double Reef and Superior Producer Wreck, one of the best Caribbean wrecks, upright at 24m.
• Oswaldo’s Drop Off and Car Pile is a bizarre underwater traffic jam, with cars and trucks dating back to the 1940s piled on the wall
More Curacao Dive Sites.
Comment from AdrianL: Curaçao diving is quite good. Shore diving, so adult with no ‘supervision’. It was pretty well organised like Bonaire Diving but not quite as much to see and the coral not in such good shape. The diving equivalent of a decent rice pudding I suppose – satisfying, comforting but not exciting and no surprises.
Things to Do
Playa Porto Marie. Photo by AdrianL.
Apart from swimming, snorkeling and diving you could:
• windsurf/kite surfing are readily available activities in Curaçao, and get the same steady breeze and warm waters that brothers-in-wind Aruba and Bonaire get. Half a dozen watersports centres can supply the rigs.
• kayaking has several professional organizations offering kayaking tours. Each one provides a choice of locations, from Spanish Water’s inlets and sea grass snorkel spots to a full day, sunrise or sunset trip along Curaçao’s coastline.
• go fishing – at least a dozen fishing boats/yacht operations with differing budget levels.
• horseback ride through wild Caribe scenery with one of three stables.
• golf on one of three courses, two 18 hole and one 9 hole.
• Drag Racing! Yup, unique to Curaçao in the Caribbean on Curaçao International Raceway. Weekend street-legal races as well as occasional international competitions. More.
• hiking/biking/driving around Curaçao’s largest National Park, Christoffelpark.
The park has a rich variety of local flora and fauna and there are eight hiking trails, from an easy walk up to a challenging hike to the top of Mt. Christoffel. Bikes can be rented or scenic car routes are also possible.
The park also organizes various activities such as wildlife watching expeditions, animal presentations, cave excursions, a guided park tour and many special trips like occasional full moon walks and sunrise safaris. Christoffelpark website.
• mountain biking, solo or with a group, regular cycle or mountain bike. Bikes can be rented in Willemstad. Biking is a popular way to explore the island and off-road tours are popular. For example there’s:
– Jan Thiel lagoon trail on the southeast side of the island, a unique nature reserve on Curaçao with rare vegetation and masses of bird life – flamingos, parakeets, pelicans.
– Christoffel Park Trail crosses three former plantations with a lot of indigenous flora and fauna as well as ancient caves with Indian paintings, an old copper mine, Piedra di Monton and the Savonet Country House.
– St Joris Bay to Koraal Tabak. This route runs from the mangroves of St. Joris Bay to Koraal Tabak. – a cave well worth visiting. Along the rugged north coast there are varied spectacular landscapes. Mountain Bike Routes.
• sailing the Caribbean aboard a big Cat, over to Klein Curaçao for snorkelling or diving, cruising with sunset drinks/dinner trips, fishing trips.
• Shete Boka National Park (coastal)
Boca Tabla is a short, coastal, moonscape walk with exploding waves, cave, natural arch and iguanas by the kilo. It’s not more than 15 minutes hike on a well marked trail but pleasant, even interesting.
Boka Pistol a short drive away that specializes in banging, percussive waves from a blow hole, along with smashing windows as local teenagers help themselves from tourist rental cars. May be better to visit with a tour. Either that or borrow a hungry doberman.
• gambling. There are a dozen dull casinos to waste your time and money.
• or for kids try Curaçao Seaquarium, the Dolphin Academy, horseback riding or the Ostrich Farm!
• and then there’s paintballing, off-road buggy/ATV touring, tennis, bowling, rappelling, paddle surfing. . . .
Best Beaches on Curaçao
Grote (Big) Knip beach with palapas (thatched shades), basic facilities, soft sand but stony areas. Photo by BalusC.
There are over 30 beaches on Curaçao but the best are on the west side. Many of the top beaches are pay-to-enter but still get crowded in season, so arrive early to secure a primo spot
Water clarity is usually spectacular on natural beaches; man made beaches are less clear.
The first four listed below are excellent for snorkelling. Frequently there are hotels or apartments for rent near or overlooking the sand.
The best diving spots are also on the western side where visibility is up to 50 metres.
• Playa Cas Abao (Abou) is an easy to find pay beach lined with palms and a cliff, soft white sand scattered with coral blobs and shells which are not convenient when entering the water in bare feet. Cas Abou is well (possibly over-stocked? ) stocked with loungers and parasols and all the usual tourist facilities including restrooms (pay-to-shower), restaurant, equipment hire. The water’s crystal clear and snorkeling is good, but not great.
It can get busy especially at weekends so get there early and take a well-stuffed cooler box! Photo above.
• Playa Lagun is narrow cove with fishing boats and an easy charm. The water is very calm and shallow near the shore with excellent snorkeling. Children who can barely swim will be able to don a mask and see the fish without going in over their heads. Large shades and trees provide ample protection from the sun. A small snack bar is open on the weekend. Further out is a steep reef drop-off that attracts divers.
• Playa Porto Marie has rather less facilities and better snorkeling than other beaches but bare-feet entry for swimmers is tricky with coral chips and rocks in the shallows. The restaurant is decent but pricey. The best snorkeling and good diving is a bit further out on the second reef where the coral thrives. Photo below.
• Playa Kalki. This small cove is popular for snorkeling and diving and has a marked area with a floating platform. It’s down some steep steps from the parking area. Halfway between the parking and the beach is a snack bar, a shady terrace and dive shop. Entrance to the water is a bit stony.
• Grote Knip Beach has less facilities and care taken but is also free and less crowded than Cas Abou; shade trees are available for early birds. The sea is glassy blue and fair for snorkeling, particularly around the rocky bits though the stony waterline makes swimming entry precise. Thievery is apparently a problem here so don’t be too casual with your belongings! Photo below.
An avenue of poison Manchineel trees. Its fruit are toxic to touch, causing skin irritations and burns. Welcome to Curaçao, the island that burns and cures! Photo by AdrianL.
Curaçao has a good reputation among the Caribbean islands as being safe and but use common sense and take the usual precautions. Don’t leave valuables unattended in your room or car.
Cruise visitors should beware of pickpockets in crowds and not leave bags unattended. Don’t walk alone late at night in deserted areas and don’t take valuables to the beach.
In case of an emergency, dial 917, Curacao’s 24-hour tourist emergency line.
Curaçao offers a great variety of cuisines and fusions due to their Dutch, Spanish, Creole and Indonesian influences.
Some traditional dishes that travellers may recognise include
• Nasi goring, bean sprouts sautéed with chunks of meat and chicken.
• Bami, long noodles with vegetables and meat.
• Saté, skewered meat with peanut sauce.
• Rijsttafel, rice with a variety of accompanying dishes.
• Erwten soep, a thick pea soup with pork, ham, and sausage.
• and for something straight off the tree try yuana, stewed iguana.
Restaurants may have irregular opening hours and many close from 2pm-3pm.
Tipping is similar to the USA. Some places add a 10-15% service charge automatically, so if in doubt, ask.
The high season is mid December – April, when it’s slightly cooler and less humid than the rest of the year, though generally the thermometer gets stuck around 27C (81F) but water temperature is a bit cooler too at 26C (79F) as opposed to summertime (28C (82F).
The rainy season is November-January but rain generally falls in showers at night; if it arrives in the daytime it’ll be short and heavy.
ABC (the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) lie outside the hurricane belt so there’s little chance of getting hit by a disruptive storm in the summer making these three islands a pretty good bet for a hot summer vacation in the Carribbean.
The Netherlands Antillian guilder (aka Florin) exchanges at nearly 2: 1US$ but US$ are also happily accepted. Make sure you have enough small bills if you plan to stick with US currency. There are plenty of ATMs around the island and credit cards are widely accepted.
Curaçao uses a 127v/50hz system with US/Canadian style plugs. U. S. appliances should work OK except those with internal timers where the clock may go out of whack.
Visitors from Europe will need an adapter for their plugs. These can be found on the island and most hotels keep them in stock, even in the rooms as well. Only dual-voltage appliances from Europe can be used on the island.
The official first language is Dutch, followed by Papiamentu (a mix of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch). Most locals also speak English.
Spanish speaking visitors do OK too as Papiamentu has Spanish roots and is close enough to make oneself understood.
Gay Life: You’re welcome!
With gay friendly hotels and attractions, the Curaçao Tourist Board encourages gay and lesbian travelers to visit the island to experience its ‘Live and let live’ atmosphere.
‘It is important to us that it’s known to the gay & lesbian community that everyone is welcome in Curaçao, ‘ commented the Executive Director of the Curaçao Tourist Board.
With 17 members including beach resorts, hotels, clubs, apartments, dive centers and more, Curaçao holds the largest IGLTA membership in the Caribbean.