The island of Curaçao lies in the Caribbean Sea just 60 km off the Venezuelan coast outside the hurricane belt. It varies in width from 5 to 12 km. Curaçao is a popular vacation destination in the Caribbean with shopping, heritage and culture as the main attractions. Small, secluded beaches will give you a private experience with great diving and snorkeling opportunities.
Climate and weather
Curaçao has a tropical climate and is sunny and warm all year long. The average annual temperature is 27 degrees Celsius. Constantly blowing trade winds guarantee an ideal climate for an ‘outdoor’ holiday. The rain season starts in October and ends in February. During this period you can expect tropical showers that don’t last more than 5 to 10 minutes. Curaçao is the largest of the three leeward ABC-islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao). Its leeward position implies also that the island is not threatened by hurricanes.
Small island, big differences. Curaçao’s northern coast offers rough, impracticable, and therefore unspoiled nature. A landscape includes many hills and even a ‘mountain’, the 350 meters high Christoffelberg. The eastside shows a plain, often rough terrain with only a few villages and roads leading to the coast. The south-western coast has many lagoons, bays, and popular tourist beaches.
At first sight Curaçao seems a plain, dry, and barren island. But when you look around you’ll discover that the island offers a wide variety of flora and fauna. The most characteristic tree is the ‘Divi-Divi’, grown askew by the ever blowing trade wind. Very special is the ‘Manzaliña’ (‘small apples’ in Spanish), a tree with a rough dark rind and small green leaves and apple-like fruits. Manzaliña trees grow on the beach. But take care: the small apples are poisonous and may cause skin irritation. No plant is so suitable for Curaçao’s dry climate as the cactus. The island counts a few hundred varieties, including a few you might not want to touch.
Curaçao counts 11 species of mammals of which the white-tailed deer (witstaarthertje) is the most rare. The population has been diminished to some 400 deer. Bats also are a threatened species. Goats and donkeys, however, are dominating in rural areas. And whiptail lizards, characteristic for Curaçao, can be seen everywhere. The slender brown ‘lagadishi’ are the females, the larger blue-green ‘blò-blò’ the males. The Gekko feeds itself with the ever present mosquitos. The male Gekko (‘totèki’ of ‘kaku’) can be recognised by its flashy yellow and orange neck-lob, meant to impress the other sex and enemies. Another species has a transparent yellow-brownish colour. With bulging black eyes and suckers at its feet, it has the ability to walk on walls and ceilings. The local population call them “plakiplaki” (sticky-stick). King of the reptiles here is the ‘Yuana’ (Iguana). Iguana soup is considered as a delicatessen by the locals. On the island crawl two species of snakes, both harmless.
Furthermore Curaçao counts four protected species of sea turtles: the green sea turtle, the karet turtle, the ‘namaa’ karet turtle, and the leather turtle. Bird life is omnipresent on Curaçao: over 168 species have been spotted. At least 51 of these species are breeding here, 71 are migrants from North-America, 19 are visitors from South-America, and 19 are seabirds. The winged population is dominated by the ‘Trupial’, a black bird with a flashy orange belly and white rays on its wings, as well as the ‘Chuchubi’, the Caribbean mocking bird.
Curaçao houses approximately 150,000 inhabitants with 55 different nationalities, of which 135,000 are living in or around the capital, Willemstad. The largest population group is the Creoles, a colorful mixture of Africans and Europeans. Other population groups are formed by people of Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, Lebanese, Surinamese, Colombian, Haitian, Dominican, Venezuelan, and British West-Indian origin. The local islanders refer to themselves as Yui di Korsou, or Child of Curaçao.
For many years Dutch was the only official language on Curaçao. Most Creoles, however, speak Papiamentu as their mother language. The name probably comes from the Portuguese, where ‘apear’ means ‘talking’. Papiamentu is a mix of Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch. It originated in the 17th century, enabling the plantation masters to communicate with their slaves. Today, most people on Curaçao speak Dutch and Papiamentu, as well as English and Spanish. Since 2007, Papiamentu and Dutch are the official languages of Curaçao.
Religion is another Spanish legacy. Unlike Protestant European colonizers such as the Dutch, the Spaniards took a zealous concern for the souls of the peoples they conquered. Spanish priests continued to proselytize on the island after even the Dutch took over, fervently converting the slaves and their descendants to Catholicism. When the Dutch took the island in 1634, they were not interested in the local population and their religion. As a result, Curaçao today is one of the few places outside of Africa with a majority Catholic population. A minority is formed by Protestants, Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses, Islamites, Adventists, and Methodists. The Jewish community is formed by descendants of the Portuguese Jews who moved from Brazil to Curaçao in 1654.
Curaçao has a remarkable and very recognizable style of architecture. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch brought their characteristic architecture to the island. Later they mixed their Western European building styles with Caribbean influences.
The capital of Curaçao and particularly the neighborhoods of Punda, Otrobanda, Pietermaai, and Scharloo (the old Jewish quarter), account for over 750 historical monuments: a kind of Amsterdam in miniature. Also the uniquely situated areas around the St. Anna Bay and Waaigat (windy hole) are a part of the rich cultural heritage of Curaçao and have to be protected. In 1997 the Historic Area of Willemstad was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
The merchant houses on the quay of Punda are renowned worldwide. The unique facade with pastel colored buildings from the 17th and 18th century is a feast for your eyes. The architectural style and ornaments of Amsterdam canal houses combine with gay Caribbean colors. Nowadays, they house shops, offices and banks.
Admire the skyline of Punda’s waterfront from Otrobanda, literally meaning the other side. Strolling over the old pontoon bridge – the Queen Emma bridge from 1888 – you’ll reach the city center. That trip is also possible by car, driving over the 55 meters high Queen Juliana bridge. Don’t forget to enjoy the Willemstad city panorama!
On Curaçao there are still some 55 colonial plantation estates called Landhuises. The history of these monumental houses goes back to the 17th century, but most were built in the 18th and 19th century. They are strategically built on high places, overlooking the plantations and kunukus: the old slave cabins. Many estates are preserved and can be admired by visitors. Choose from: Landhuis Daniël, Landhuis Savonet, Landhuis Ascension, Landhuis Dokterstuin, Landhuis Knip (Kelapa), Landhuis Brakkeput Mei Mei, Landhuis Chobolobo, Landhuis Santa Martha, Landhuis Zeelandia, and Landhuis Jan Kok, each is unique and full of history just waiting to be explored.
In Punda the covered Marshe Bieuw, or old market, at Waaigatplein is the quintessential place to discover the cuisine of the Creoles. Here you can taste and buy delicious local food specialties, modestly priced. In the building you’ll find a number of kitchens where fresh meals are being prepared. Plaza Nobo, or new market, is another covered market in Punda with stalls where vegetables, fruits, and imported products are sold. Along the quay of Willemstad, fishermen’s boats form a floating market where Venezuelan merchants sell fresh fruits, veggies, and fish.
Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue
The Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue is 350 years old and in use by the Jewish community to the present day. Next to the synagogue building you’ll find the Jewish Cultural Museum, exhibiting the history and culture of the Jewish community on the island. The Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue is the longest, continually running synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Kura Hulanda Museum
The Kura Hulanda Museum houses a collection or artifacts from the 17th and 18th century. You can see African art dating back to the time of slavery and learn a lot about African religions, customs, and habits.
The Curaçao Museum is based in a former military hospital. Island life in the 19th century is the main theme of the museum. You can see a collection of statues, ships’ cannons and street lanterns, instruments and furnishings.
The biggest event on Curaçao is the annual Carnival. Every year it begins with small parades of steel-bands. During the Tumba festival, the Carnival Song of the Year is elected together with the King of Carnival. He will perform at the Grand Parade on Mardi Gras as well as in the ever-lasting Jump-ups and Jump-ins: dance parties in the street. Characteristic of the Curaçao Carnival is the Music, a mix of African and Caribbean rhythms and dances.
Curaçao’s original inhabitants were likely migrants from Venezuela dating all the way back to 2500 BC. These hunters and gatherers had no agriculture or ceramics. The island’s oldest archaeological site is located in the limestone terraces behind Hato airport. Here, archaeologists have found simple tools carved from stone and shell, as well as some of the oldest Amerindian remains yet to be found in the Caribbean. A group of these inhabitants migrated to Bonaire around 1500 BC.
This Arawak-speaking group, also apparently came from Venezuela, around AD 500. An agricultural people, they farmed maize and manioc, hunted rabbit and deer (which they may have brought themselves from mainland South America) as well as fish and shellfish. They lived in pole huts and made ceramic vessels, as well as ornaments and implements of shell, stone and bone. Some of their small villages have been excavated around the island (Kenepa, Santa Cruz, San Hironimo, San Juan, De Savaan, and Santa Barbara). Their cave paintings and rock art are well preserved and can be seen at Christoffel Park and the Hato Caves.
Some 2,000 Caiquetíos are estimated to have been living on Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao when the Spaniards arrived in 1499. The first Europeans to visit Curaçao may have been a group of Spanish explorers who came with the navigator Alonso de Ojeda, a lieutenant of Christopher Columbus. The famous navigator Amerigo Vespucci landed later that year and was the first European to describe the island. The Spaniards established a small colony in the early 1500s, but did not widely cultivate or settle. Legend has it that, impressed by the relatively large stature of the Caiquetíos, the rather short Spaniards first named Curaçao La isla de los gigantes (Island of the giants) and many years later Las islas inútiles (useless islands) because they didn’t find precious metals such as gold and silver.
The Spaniards virtually wiped out the natives, transporting most of them to Hispañola (nowadays Dominican Republic and Haiti) to work as slaves in their prosperous mines. The few Indians who were not deported were forcibly relocated into two villages, one at present day Ascencion (San Hironimo) and the other on St. Anabaai (St. Anna Bay). They were set to work raising sheep, cattle, goats and horses; working the salt pans; cutting timber. By 1526, the Spanish had set up their formal administration; they remained in power for 125 years. From Curaçao, they also administered neighboring Bonaire, where they established a major solar salt work (still in operation today), and Aruba. Aside from effectively wiping out the original inhabitants, the Spaniards’ most lasting contribution may well have been the introduction of goats, who promptly wreaked major havoc on the island’s fragile eco-system, and in some ways continue to do so today.
Eager to capture a share of trade with the new American lands which were largely under Spanish control, Dutch privateers organized themselves into a limited liability company, the West India Company (WIC). The salt pans on Curaçao and Bonaire were attractive to the Dutch, who needed large quantities of salt to preserve fish. However, the WIC really coveted the island for its natural attributes: the protected deep water harbor, which would make it an ideal naval base, and its strategic location off the South American mainland.
The Dutch captured Curaçao relatively easily. On July 29, 1634, Johan van Walbeeck sailed into St. Anna Bay with a small fleet and only a few hundred men. The Spaniards put up minimal resistance, poisoning wells and setting fire to their villages.
As long as Holland and Spain were embroiled in the Eighty Years War, Curaçao remained first and foremost a Dutch naval base. The first permanent Dutch structure was the simple Waterfort, built on the Punda harbor front in 1634. Later they built the more elaborate Fort Amsterdam, with quarters for the director of the WIC, who became, de facto, the local authority figure. Fort Amsterdam remains the seat of government today.
Local economic activities were geared to provisioning the base. One famous Curaçao governor was Peter Stuyvesant, who briefly resided on the island in 1642, before becoming Governor of New Amsterdam (now New York City), from where he continued to administer Curaçao.
Once Holland and Spain signed the Peace of Munster in 1648, Curaçao’s importance as a naval base declined and the island blossomed as a commercial center. Less than fifty years after the Dutch took Curaçao, they declared the island a free port and began promoting trade throughout the region. Soon the natural deep water harbor was bustling with activity. From the mid 17th century onward Curaçao was the hub of the Dutch trade empire in the Western Hemisphere. Prosperous Dutch and Jewish merchants conducted a flourishing trade with neighboring South America.
The French and British
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, rival European countries played out their economic and political power struggles in the waters of the Caribbean.
With the Dutch stronghold secured, Curaçao was largely removed from the major pirating that shook the rest of the Caribbean in those turbulent times. However, there were several attempts by both French and British adventurers to take the island.
French attempts were largely unsuccessful. However, in 1713, the French buccaneer Jacques Cassard succeeded in temporarily conquering the island after sneaking into town from a stronghold at Santu Pretu. He withdrew after being paid a handsome ransom in money, goods and slaves, and presumably retired a happy man.
Another French attempt at invasion in 1800 was cut short by the felicitous and entirely accidental appearance of an English man-of-war in the harbor. After successfully repelling the French, the British settled in for a comfortable three year rule.
They quietly took control once again on New Year’s Eve, 1807 when four British vessels entered the harbor by surprise (this time it wasn’t an accident) and everyone was too busy partying to protest. This time they stayed for eight years.
The Dutch soon became leaders in the international slave trade. Taking over major Portuguese trading posts on the west coast of Africa, the WIC purchased enslaved Africans and transported them to Curaçao and Brazil where they were sold to wealthy plantation owners from across the Americas.
Curaçao became one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean. By the time the last slave galleon arrived in the harbor in 1788, the WIC had transported some 500,000 Africans to slavery. After the horrendous trans-Atlantic trip, the slaves were kept to recuperate for several months in two camps, before being sold at a depot at Asiento (now located on the property of the oil refinery). Nothing remains to mark these sites today. Relatively few enslaved Africans remained on Curaçao.
Because of its dry climate, the island never developed large scale plantations. By 1700 there were about 1,500 slaves working on WIC plantations around Curaçao. Instead of major cash crops such as sugar, coffee, and tobacco, they raised food for local consumption and fed the thousands of slaves awaiting trans-shipment elsewhere. Typical crops included beans, sorghum and corn; there was also some small scale livestock herding. Some of the more prosperous plantations exported lumber, indigo and cochineal dyes to Europe.
The Dutch were above all traders, not farmers, and usually chose to invest their profits back into lucrative sugar plantations elsewhere. After initial attempts at agriculture gave poor results, the plantations became primarily prestigious country houses for high level WIC employees.
Following the abolition of the slave trade the island sunk into a century of relative economic decline. When slavery itself was abolished in 1863 fewer than 7,000 people received their freedom. However, for many enslaved Curaçaoans, freedom was merely a declaration. Most stayed on in the fields as share croppers, known locally as the paga tera (pay for the land) system. In time, some freed blacks established themselves as independent artisans and small-scale traders.
When former slaves and their descendants left the countryside, they created a dynamic urban culture in the small alleyways of Otrobanda.
The 20th Century
The discovery of large oil fields in Venezuela at the beginning of the 20th century transformed Curaçao in relatively few years from an “ailing colony,” as the Dutch refered to it, into a bustling cosmopolitan center. The rich Venezuelan oil fields were located on a bay that was too shallow to accommodate major Trans-Atlantic tankers; however, they were close to Curaçao’s natural deep-water harbor. Royal Dutch Shell began constructing a major oil refinery in 1915; when the refinery opened its doors in 1918, it completely changed Curaçao. Almost overnight the island became a major international hub; the lower class was transformed from a group of self-employed artisans into a bona fide working class. Thousands of immigrants poured in from around the Caribbean and as far away as Portugal to work at the refinery. The population increase was dramatic and sudden, as was the relative prosperity of the refinery workers. This stimulated almost every aspect of the economy, from commerce to construction. The prosperity continued right through World War II. With most of Europe either occupied or under siege, virtually all of the fuel for the Allied planes came from the Curaçao refinery, which was, after all, Dutch. US servicemen were stationed here to protect the precious fuel; Nazi submarines lurked in the surrounding waters. The greater autonomy that was granted following World War II, however, did not extend across society. As late as the 1960s, virtually all positions of economic, political and religious power in Curaçao were held by white people, many of them Dutch immigrants who did not learn the local language and customs. The oil refinery, still the island’s major employer, was completely Dutch run. Schooling was entirely in Dutch, and almost all school teachers were Dutch, as were most doctors and nurses and many other professionals. In general, Curaçao did not experience the rigid racial segregation that was characteristic of the southern United States or South Africa. Instead there was a more subtle exclusion of the local population, overwhelmingly Papiamentu-speaking and of African descent, from top positions of political and economic power. In the 1950s and 60s, increasing numbers of local students attended universities abroad, returning to Curaçao with high professional qualifications and an unwillingness to accept the glass ceiling that blocked their ambitions. Curaçao was also influenced by the international climate, particularly the civil rights struggles and the Black Power movement that was sweeping the United States and the rest of the Caribbean. During this same period, Curaçao experienced some serious economic readjustments. Employment at the oil refinery reached its peak in the early 1950s, when close to 20,000 people were employed there at any one time. In subsequent years, as the refinery automated, employment was cut back sharply and the layoffs were felt throughout society. Things came to a head on May 30, 1969, when a labor strike at the refinery quickly escalated into a full scale social uprising, with widespread riots and looting in Willemstad and calls for labor power. However, out of the upheaval of 1969 came the seeds of a new society. Government, political parties and high-level private sector positions opened up to Curaçaoans of non-European descent.
For many centuries Curaçao has earned its money in global trade. Today the island still thrives on international business with services ranging from oil refinery and export to international financial services. This has given the island a cosmopolitan outlook and ambiance.
As a result of the increased political and economic autonomy, which the islands enjoyed during the war, the Netherlands Antilles was granted autonomous status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1954. The signing of the Koninkrijksstatuut (Statute of the Kingdom) meant a big change for Curaçao. This treaty gave an autonomous status to Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles, except in matters concerning defense and foreign policy. Since October 10, 2010, Curaçao is an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.