A walk across the Queen Emma Bridge, known colloquially as the Swinging Old Lady, is about as authentic of a Curacao experience as one can have. The wooden deck of the pedestrian bridge (only the Prime Minister and Governor are allowed to cross by car, and must be on their way to their offices) rolls gently in the breeze and ride, its pontoons spanning the entrance to Saint Ann Bay, one of the largest natural deep water harbors in the Caribbean. An approaching boat causes the bridge attendant to sound a bell and close the gates on either side, and he fires up a motor that causes the entire span to swing (hence the nickname) open, eventually pressing flat against the Otrobanda side of the bay. Across the narrow span of water: Punda, where Willemstad began, and where the Dutch history of the island is centered.
I meet my tour guide, Maja, in Queen Wilhelmina Park, a nice spot in Punda that has the seemingly-ubiquitous destination signs in huge freestanding letters for Instagram photos. I dodge around the tourists climbing into the U of Curacao to admire the only statue (of Queen Wilhelmina, of course) of a Dutch queen standing on her own to be found anywhere in the Dutch world. To one side of me is the bright blue of the Caribbean. To the other, the bright colors of Punda, buildings in blues, yellows, pinks, and greens. These colors have come to represent the island of Curacao more than almost anything else.
The buildings are original, dating back to as early as the early 1700s, and the island has more than 800 of them, all decked out in their shining hues. It is expensive to maintain, but worth it for the tourism, Maja tells me as we walk down Handelskade, the merchants’ wharf along the waterfront. The facades are entirely Dutch, reminiscent of Amsterdam, although the colors give them significantly more character than their European counterparts. But they weren’t always so. In the 19th century, Governor-General Albert Kikkert complained that the reflection of the sun on the white buildings of Willemstad was giving him migraines, and ordered that bright colors be used to remedy the situation. When the governor died, it was discovered that he had an ownership stake in the paint company. It may not have been with pure motives, but the colors have lived on, and even new construction projects are done with bright and festive hues in many instances.
The Dutch came to Curacao in 1634, conquering the island from the Spanish, who had taken it from the indigenous Coquetios (part of the Caribbean Taino family) in 1499, enslaving them and sending them to Hispaniola to work the sugar plantations there. The Spanish treated the island as a large open space for cattle and goat herding, as the arid climate made most cash crops difficult to grow. They called it an isla inutil, a useless island. But when the Dutch arrived in 1634, they saw the potential utility of the harbor as a major shipping port, and set to work on building defenses and a town around the mouth. Fort Amsterdam was completed on the Punda side of the bay in 1636, and still houses the office of the Prime Minister and the official residence of the Governor.
Most of the buildings of Fort Amsterdam are done in yellow, and it is worth a walk through just for fun, but the highlight is the fort’s church. Beautiful woodwork and incredible stained glass fill the airy room, and a clock on the ceiling allows worshippers – the church is still used weekly – to glance at the time while appearing lost in prayer. I find it an ingenious addition, considerably less obvious that glancing at a watch.
As the town of Willemstad grew, it spread beyond Punda to Otrobanda (literally: other side) on the other side of the bay. Now centered on that waterway, as well as the Waaigat, an inlet just north of Punda, beyond which was the new district of Scharloo and its distinct mansions (now mostly businesses and government buildings), the role of Curacao as a maritime power was cemented even on a local level. A visit to Willemstad’s Maritime Museum shows models, maps, and photos of 19th century Willemstad, before the 1888 first erection of the Queen Emma Bridge (the current bridge is iteration number three). Here, one can also find stories from the island’s 1666 conquering by the English, and subsequent attacks as Curacao changed hands between them, the Dutch, and the French over the next couple centuries. (It has been exclusively Dutch since 1816, when England returned it under the Treaty of Paris.) As a Dutch colony, Curacao played a central role in the slave trade, the harbor here being the stop off point for slave ships from Africa, and the wealth from that barbaric industry fueling the beauty of the town as it grew.
The Maritime Museum is a unique view on early Willemstad. Housed in an old warehouse (later a brothel), its current interior resembles the deck and curves of a ship, and the ramp to the second level is even a gangplank. But it’s the photos that capture me. Before the Queen Emma Bridge went up, the journey from Otrobanda to Punda was made by tiny vessel. For a price, wealthy merchants could be towed across. For free, poorer residents could sit in the bow of the tiny boats, where they were sure to be wet by the end. Once the bridge was constructed, there was a fee (in token form) required to cross for the wealthy; the poor were allowed across free of charge. According to stories, the way one told who was wealthy was who had shoes on, so merchants would take theirs off to appear poor. Locals who wanted to seem rich would borrow shoes and pay the toll to show off to their friends.
Today, the colorful buildings of Punda are all part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning across the island. Many are in use as shops, but some are vacant, the cost of upkeep being too high, and the historic value of the old construction and its UNESCO status preventing them from being torn down. Many proudly display their date of construction, and it is a game to try to find the oldest date. (I spot 1708, but perhaps you can do better.) Between the buildings is a plethora of local art, murals covering many walls and making each tiny alley a must-visit. It is a common theme here in Willemstad to supplement the bright colors of the buildings with even more colorful artwork. Some is political in nature; some is just beautiful, but it makes neighborhood walks around not only Punda, but also Otrobanda and Scharloo, worth the exercise in Curacao’s hot and humid climate.
My tour ends at Mikve Israel Synagogue, the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and tribute to the local Jewish population, which has enjoyed religious freedom here on Curacao since the 1630s. (You can read about that history here.) This is another must-visit site in Punda.
Punda is beautiful. Old buildings decked out in bright colors, incredible artwork, and the coolest bridge you’ll ever cross make it unique. Since 1634, it has been an outpost of Dutch life in the southern Caribbean, and while that is a complicated relationship at present, there is no doubt that a walking tour of this historic district will give you a deeper glimpse into a complex and fascinating history.
Thank you to Maja for a wonderful tour, and to the Curacao Tourist Board for arranging both the walking tour and my admission to the other sights and museums mentioned in this article.
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