Curaçao lies just 35 miles from the northern coast of Venezuela. The Dutch West India Company made Curaçao the main center for the Atlantic slave trade in 1662, and as a result, Curaçao became extremely affluent which led to the construction of its many impressive colonial buildings. The architecture in Curaçao is a blend of Dutch and Spanish colonial sytles, and the historic buildings of Willemstad (the capital of Curaçao) have earned a place on the UNESCO world heritage list. We wandered along Willemstad’s pretty streets and checked out its floating market, were saddened at the excellent Kura Hulanda Museum, and sunbathed at Kon Tiki beach.
23 Mar: Willemstad, Curaçao
Got up early and as was our routine, hit the gym before grabbing breakfast. By 8 am, we were off the ship with no set itinerary today except to see some highlights of what Curaçao has to offer. From the port, we walked through the Rif Fort (a 19th century fort that used to defend the harbor). Today, it has been converted into a section of bars, shops and restaurants nestled between its thick walls. In fact, the entire waterfront area has been modernized, but in a tasteful manner that makes it appealing to visitors. From the second level of the fort, there were some nice views across to the old town (known as “Punda”) and of the Queen Emma floating bridge. The bridge was quite fascinating to watch as it is a pontoon bridge connecting the Punda and Otrobanda districts of Willemstad. Built in 1888 and named after Queen Emma (1890-1898), the “swinging old lady” swings open at various times of the day via two ship motors, allowing large vessels to access the port. Whenever the bridge is open to let ships from the harbor pass, pedestrians can hop onto one of the free small ferries that transports passengers back and forth throughout the day. We checked out a couple of locals fishing from the floating bridge and within mere seconds, both of them landed themselves a fish.
Our first destination this morning was Punda, the oldest district within historic Willemstad. We learned that Punda began its development with the construction of Fort Amsterdam in 1634. Decades later, a fortified city was laid out adjacent to the Fort in an orthogonal grid pattern of narrow streets and alleys. It was designed following the old Dutch fortification system. Two and three storey buildings were built on narrow, elongated lots within the town’s ramparts. Punda became known for its tightly laid out multi-storey shophouses which were so designed to cope with the limited space available to them within the ramparts. Today, Punda is the main shopping district of historic Willemstad and the seat of government of the Netherlands Antilles. We checked out the floating market first, because we were intrigued about the Venezuelan fishing boats. Because Curaçao is a mere 35 miles from Venezuela, every day Venezuelan merchants in their small fishing boats (that double as living quarters) make the journey to Curaçao’s floating market where they sell fresh produce and seafood. As we walked down to the floating market, we could see the merchants pulling up and preparing their products for sale. The fishing boats were docked beside the pier, and their owners were patiently waiting for the locals to show up for some fresh seafood. Afterwards, we continued on to the old central market, and than onward to downtown Willemstad’s famous old food market, the Marsche Bieuw. Locals were already preparing for lunch and they suggested that we try some authentic local food here. We weren’t hungry yet, and still had some sightseeing to do so we continued on with our city tour. Next stop was Fort Amsterdam, the only one of Curaçao’s eight forts to be included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. The Governor’s residence, United Protestant Church (now a museum), and several government offices are all matching yellow buildings located within the fort.
Once we exited Ft Amsterdam, we decided to wander through the streets and alleyways of Punda, admiring the Dutch architecture (and their bold bright colors) lined up in a row along the harbor. Our second trip past the floating market area proved fruitful, as the fishing boats were in full swing selling their catches of the day to eagerly outstretched arms. Once we had enough of Punda, we crossed the floating bridge and made our way towards the Kura Hulanda Museum. This was one of the best museums we have ever been to. A hotel complex is on the sprawling grounds, and its well worth a stroll before entering the museum. This is a must see, especially if you are interested in the African slave trade and West African Empires. After a quick picnic lunch, we crossed back over the floating bridge and went to an area behind the central market to catch a shuttle van ($1.50 each) to Kon Tiki Beach and the Sea Aquarium. We opted to skip the aquarium as the entrance fee was a bit steep at $18 (and we were limited on time), but it did look worthwhile if you have about 4 hrs or more to enjoy some of the activities, such as swimming with the dolphins. We were able to stand outside on a small bridge to watch as the sea lions swam and played around in their enclosure. Afterwards, we headed towards the beautiful Kon Tiki beach. Even though we had been told that we would have to pay to use the facilities, we were able to walk into the resort area and plop our towels down beside a coconut tree without being approached by anyone to fork over some money. As we were playing around in the sea, we did notice a guard stopping and charging obvious tourists strolling in a bit further down than where we had decided to camp out. The beach had a barrier of rocks built up a couple of hundred yards out, which protected the beach from rough waves. It was like swimming in a pool, and we enjoyed the fact that we didn’t have any waves to contend with. The resort area looked like a good place to look into doing some diving (there were “dive with dolphin packages”), but we didn’t have time. Return trip perhaps? After swimming and tanning, we finally caught a shuttle van back to the city and walked over to the foot bridge. Much to our chagrin, it was open for boats to pass, so we had to take the ferry back across. Once back at the port, we got a sample of some local liquor (blue curacao) mix from one of the shop vendors and boarded the ship. Overall, great day. We really like beautiful Curaçao and wouldn’t hesitate to come back.