Willemstad, the capitol – and only true city – on the island of Curacao, is lovely. It is full of beautiful colonial architecture, cultural gems, great food, and wonderful people. But if you have more than just a couple of days in Curacao, leaving the city behind to see other parts of the island is both important and idyllic. But what should you do and where should you go?
Let’s start with the basics. Curacao is a relatively small island. It is roughly 40 miles long and about 9 miles wide at its widest point, situated along an axis running from northwest to southeast. Willemstad sits on the southern coast, about 3/4 of the way toward the southeast. From here, the furthest point of the island, Westpunt at the northwestern tip, can be reached in about 45 minutes by car.
And you’ll need a car to experience Curacao beyond Willemstad. There is bus service, but it is infrequent (making day trips really difficult, and impossible if one wants to see multiple places) and requires standing at a bus stop in the island’s notorious heat and humidity. Rental car facilities can be found at most of the major hotels. I rented a car twice on this trip, for a day each, from Smart Wheels. (If you aren’t staying at a hotel, you’ll make your life easier by using the Smart Wheels location at the Renaissance. I opted for the Corendon, since it was closer to my apartment, and had a difficult time accessing the property as a non-guest.) The car ran just under $70 for a single-day rental, which is high but not exorbitant in today’s rental car market. The first car was wonderful; the second did not even have automatic door locks. But they both drove fine, and the AC worked, so all wound up working out. (Before you ask, no, I did not get comped or have any arrangement with Smart Wheels; I just like sharing my personal experiences in case it makes a difference to anyone seeking to replicate them.)
Heading out of Willemstad, one will almost certainly head toward the northwest. The main highway, which runs along the northern side of the island, is a well paved two lane road all the way to Westpunt. (There is also a main road along the southern coast, though it is slower and not as well maintained.) Curacaoan drivers seem to be aggressive, and will take any opportunity to pass by slower vehicles, something a bit harrowing as the road can curve regularly
Ok, so you have your car, but what should you see? There is a ton, and I can only recommend things I’ve actually experienced, so here are my personal picks.
Curacaoan beaches are lovely, though many are small patches of sand nestled between rocky cliffs. Some are free; others have fees. On principle, I refuse to pay for beach access, so I only visited free beaches. For lovers of solitude, Playa Kalki in Westpunt is my personal favorite. Perfect sand, solid snorkeling (and a dive shop on site for rentals), and few people make this small beach perfect in my mind. There are some shady tables for sitting, and a few other spots out of the sun.
If you want a more touristy and amenity-heavy experience, try Kokomo Beach on the southern coast. (Note, I went solely to sing my favorite Beach Boys song, having done zero research beforehand.) Kokomo is crowded, but has a large sheltered restaurant offering food and drinks for those willing to forego laying on the sand to find shade. The water is lovely, although the sea swing is slippery as all get-up. There is also plenty of parking, unlike at Playa Kalki.
Playa Piskado doesn’t offer much as a beach in terms of sand, but it is home to a ton of sea turtles for snorkelers to make friends with. I arrived around 10am, as I was told the turtles are more prevalent earlier in the day, although I overheard another visitor state that there were no turtles the day prior. I lucked out, as several ranging from small to huge were playing in the crystal clear waters around a small pier.
There are any number of other beaches, both free and otherwise, nearly all along the southern (more sheltered) coast. Blauwbaai offered a large beach, five guilder (roughly $3) rental beach chairs, and good snorkeling with a couple more turtles to play with. Cas Abao has a great reputation among those willing to pay for entry, while Grote Knip was likewise recommended. I can’t say anything about those two, though, since I didn’t make it there. Next time.
There are two national parks – yes, Curacao has national parks, one of the best exports from the US and much better than our fast food culture – along the northern coast just before Westpunt. Chistoffelpark is home to a (by Curacaoan standards) large mountain that one can climb for the supposedly incredible views, as long as one starts before 10am. In the heat, though, this wasn’t on my agenda, so I opted for the other national park, Shete Boka.
Shete Boka means seven mouths, and consists of a number of small ocean inlets, along which the powerful wind-fueled waves of the northern coast thunder and kick up truly spectacular splashes of foamy spray. One can drive between the bokas; walking is about 2.5 miles from one end to the other, although there is a good trail to do so. Boka Pistol is easily the most impressive, though you also don’t want to miss the sea cave for a cool view of the waves.
The island’s beauty isn’t what one would typically expect from a tropical location like Curacao. While it is hot and humid, rainfall is limited here, so small trees share the landscape with cacti. The northern coast is more barren, open rock seemingly a mixture of ancient coral reef and volcanic rocks, almost Martian in appearance. The southern coast is greener, though lack of fresh water limits growth. Be sure to stop by the flamingo habitat at Jan Kok along the southern coast for a reasonably close look at one of two wild flocks on the island. (The other is near Kokomo Beach, though the birds were much further away on my visit.)
This one deserves a special mention. Iguanas are all over the island. (I even saw one lounging on a beach towel at Playa Kalki as I headed to snorkel.) If you’ve never eaten one, and let’s face it, few of us have had the opportunity to do so, Jaanchie’s in Westpunt is the spot to visit. Iguana stew can be combined in a two-item combo with fried shrimp, goat stew, or any other item on their menu, along with the ubiquitous rice and beans of this part of the world for a unique Curacaoan feast.
So what does iguana taste like? Chicken, but with more bones. Oh so many bones. However, between bites of carefully dissected from the bone tender iguana, you’ll marvel at the dozens of birds Jaanchie proudly feeds in regular intervals to keep them providing sweet chirps for his guests.
If you have only a couple of days in Curacao, stay in Willemstad. If, however, you have longer in this amazing country, take at least a day to rent a car and see the rest of the island. You won’t regret it!
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