Curacao is an island in the southern Caribbean, off the coast of Venezuela, part of the Dutch “ABC” islands, along with Aruba and Bonaire. Semi-independent, the island is home to about 150,000 people, most of whom live in or near the capital of Willemstad, built around one of the largest natural deep water harbors in the world. While not as well known as its neighbor Aruba, let alone some of the islands further north in the Caribbean, it is an incredible place, and one that any lover of beaches, history, culture, or amazing people should consider visiting.
This guide will help you to plan your perfect Curacao getaway, whether you have a single day, a long weekend, or several weeks.
There are two ways you’ll arrive in Curacao: airplane or cruise ship. For cruise ships, Curacao is a regular stop on southern Caribbean itineraries, and on Panama Canal transits. Your ship will dock at the mega cruise terminal, in the Otrobanda portion of Willemstad, from which an easy walk of 10-15 minutes can take you across the Queen Emma Bridge and into the historic Punda neighborhood.
Curacao’s international airport is small (it has fewer than ten gates, and sits just outside Willemstad, along the wilder northern coast of the island. It’s about 15-20 minutes’ drive to get into the city, and cabs can run $25 and up. (There is no real marked rate.) As of this writing in November 2021, there are only two airlines flying from the US to Curacao: a daily flight on American from Miami and a twice-weekly from JFK on JetBlue. Alternatively, once can fly via Panama City on Copa.
Let’s start with a basic layout of both Willemstad and the island as a whole. Willemstad is built around Saint Ann Bay, a large natural harbor with a narrow inlet leading to the Caribbean. The main parts of the city sit along the Caribbean coast, with the hipster Otrobanda on the west side, and the touristy Punda on the east. Beyond the Punda is Pietermaai, and beyond that the beaches of Avila and Mambo.
Curacao runs from northwest to southeast, and Willemstad sits along the southern coast about two thirds of the way toward that southeast corner. Most of the top beaches on the island lie along the southern coast as one heads to the northwest.
Within Willemstad, despite the near-fanatical belief of pretty much everyone, one does not need a rental car if one stays between Otrobanda and Pietermaai. That portion of the city is easily walkable in about 30 minutes or less, although the heat and humidity can make midday strolls rough. If one needs a cab, stations are on both sides of the Queen Emma Bridge (the pedestrian bridge spanning the mouth of the bay), and it seems that $20 or $25 is the going rate to basically anywhere else in the city, though you can feel free to negotiate further. There are a couple of bus routes, but even locals told me that they aren’t consistent and to avoid them if possible.
Note: if you are walking and your route crosses the Queen Emma Bridge, it will open from time to time to allow boats to pass. You’ll hear a bell and a buzzer, and then the bridge opens on the Punda side, swinging toward Otrobanda. There are two types of opening, short and long. Short are to accommodate small vessels, and last only a few minutes, with the bridge not even opening all the way. For long openings, it will fully be on one side, and the ferry will operate for free for the duration. If you get stuck on the bridge while it opens, you’ll be able to exit from near the base of the Otrobanda side; once it opens fully, a gate there will open allowing for exit.
To get elsewhere on the island, though, does require a car. Yes, there is a bus. But it runs infrequently and will force you to stand outside waiting in the heat. Cars can be rented all over and – in my experience – run about $60-70 per day for a single day rental. (Read about what to see outside Willemstad here.) If you only have a single day as part of a cruise, just stay in Willemstad and don’t worry about the car. Driving around the island is fairly easy, with it being less than an hour on mostly good roads to get from one side to the other. (The northern highway is in much better shape than the smaller one along the southern coast.) Just note that drivers here are aggressive and will pass you even if it doesn’t seem safe to do so.
What to Do
As I mentioned above, if you only have a single day – or even just a couple days – I’d recommend staying in Willemstad. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its colorful colonial buildings that cluster in the Punda district. (Read about Punda here.) Some highlights are Fort Amsterdam, Mikve Israel synagogue (read about the Jewish history of the island here), and of course the magnificent Queen Emma Bridge.
On the Otrobanda side, an impactful visit will take you to the Kura Hulanda, the slavery museum, to learn of the Dutch slave trade and how it impacted Curacao. (Read about that here.)
For lovers of the iconic liqueur, Blue Curacao, a $20 cab will take you to Landhuis Chobolobo, where the stuff was first made. It’s a touristy, but awesome, experience, and you can read about it here.
If you have more time, you will have a chance to leave Willemstad. For most, this means the beaches along the southern coast. If you make it all the way to Westpunt (about 45 minutes’ drive), make sure to snorkel with sea turtles at Playa Piskado. For lovers of more wild terrain, consider a visit to Shete Boka National Park and its rocky coastline known for immense splashes!
The most impressive thing in Curacao, though, is the people, perhaps the nicest and friendliest I’ve ever encountered in my travels. Greet them on the streets and you’ll be in for a wonderful experience! (Read about the amazing warmth of the island here.)
Other than that, find a good beach, grab a colorful tropical drink, and relax to the island vibes!
Where to Stay
Many people who come to a tropical island want to stay at an all-inclusive resort on a wide sandy beach, and Curacao certainly has those. For my money, though, stay in Willemstad, where there is more culture, more variety in food, and a more authentic experience. (You can achieve both by staying at the Corendon, an all-inclusive Hilton property in Otrobanda, but it might be the most expensive property on the island.)
I rented an apartment in Otrobanda, but there are also plenty of small hotels between there and Pietermaai, the other end of the easily walkable portion of the city. Should I return for a shorter stay that allows me to afford a hotel, the Scuba Lodge looked amazing every time I passed by, and it might be my spot!
What to Eat
I wrote a whole article on the best things to eat and drink in Curacao, and you can find that here. Suffice to say, the food is good enough that you do yourself a disservice if you only eat at your all-inclusive resort.
Other Useful Information
The hardest part of a vacation in Curacao is the weather. When I was there in October, it was 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) every day, with 85+ percent humidity. It takes a lot out of you to walk around in that sort of heat, so make sure to give yourself plenty of time, drink lots of water, and wear sunscreen. (Bug spray, too, as mosquitos are plentiful, especially after dusk.)
While a tropical island, Curacao is surprisingly arid, and cacti are prevalent. So if you go hiking, don’t expect a ton of shade. Breaks from the heat come in the form of the nearly ever-present breeze, which dissipates only if there is a hurricane elsewhere in the Caribbean. (Curacao, itself, is out of the hurricane belt, and hasn’t been directly hit since the late 1800s.)
Curacao is a Dutch island, and Dutch is the official language. However, a local language, Papiamento, is the most commonly spoken. It is a hybrid of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and African dialects. A general greeting is bon dia (or bon tardi in the afternoon, bon nochi at night). Thank you is danki. Greet people in Papiamento and it goes a long way, though most people on the island also speak Dutch, Spanish, and English.
Currency here is the guilder (also called the florin). It is tied to the US dollar at a constant rate of 1.75 to the dollar. You can pay for nearly everything in dollars, but expect guilders back if you get change. When using a credit card (accepted nearly everywhere), you can choose to have the charge in guilders or dollars. Local currency is in coins up to five guilders, with notes starting at ten. Oh, and US currency over a $20 bill will not be accepted most places.
I loved Curacao, much more than I could have ever expected. I cannot recommend it strongly enough, and I hope this guide helps both to inspire you to visit and to plan your perfect trip!
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