Why eclectic Curaçao is the island to “C”

Dec 13, 2023

In the Caribbean, the ABCs are more than the building blocks of language; they’re the three westernmost islands of the Leeward Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire and the largest of the three, Curaçao.

The “C” of the ABC islands is anything but average. From its varied landscapes to its eclectic neighborhoods and cosmopolitan vibes (it has three official languages, for starters), Curaçao's facets and layers make for a travel experience that's distinctive, deep and wonder-inducing. And yes, it's brimming with fantastic beaches, too.

Glass-bottom kayaking in Curaçao

The once-Dutch colony is now an independent nation where people from 55 nationalities coexist, including many of European, Caribbean and South American descent. Willemstad, its capital city, is all-around colorful, from the brightly hued houses along its iconic waterfront to the street art and vibrant festivals of its up-and-coming Otrabanda neighborhood. History runs deep in Willemstad, too—so much so that it’s listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.   

Outside the capital, Curaçao’s stellar dive sites plus hiking, biking and ATV trails invite exploration in any season—especially since temperatures rarely dip below 76 degrees. Here’s a closer look at what you might do on your trip.

Get there

Set 37 miles off the South American coast (and outside the hurricane belt), Curaçao is a nonstop flight away from Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York (JFK) and Newark. Many Caribbean cruises also come to port in Willemstad.

Plan to exchange or withdraw cash (the local currency is the Antillean Guilder) for taxi rides and gas stations on the island as most can't accept credit and debit cards. Most shops and restaurants on the island do, however. 

Walk through a cross-section of cultures

Once you've landed, Curaçao's capital city, Willemstad, should top your list of sites to explore. You may have seen the Punda district's colorful bayside row houses in Instagram posts or postcards. The in-person view is much better. Admire them from the Queen Emma Bridge, a unique pedestrian bridge that floats on the water, rather than being suspended above it.

Queen Emma Bridge in Willemstad

When boats come through, instead of rising, the bridge is brought perpendicular to the shore to allow the vessel's passage. At night, the bridge's minimalist-chic arches light up in a rainbow of colors.

These are some of the city's most iconic sights—but just the beginning of what Willemstad has to offer. 

You'll begin to get a sense of Curaçao's multicultural fabric as you peruse the markets in the Punda neighborhood—including the "floating" market, where Venezuelan merchants dock their boats and sell fresh produce, spices and seafood under colorful tents. (They once sold directly from their boats—thus the name.)

Pedestrian-only Punda is lined with cafes and shops to explore. Thursday nights, the Punda Vibes festival brings a burst of local art, craft markets, live theater and cultural dance to the streets. 

Have dinner on romantic Nieuwestraat in the walkable Pietermaai district, where small tables dot the sidewalks outside European-style buildings awash in vibrant hues. Strings of lights stretch across the brick-laid streets inviting you to stroll through the neighborhood also known as Curaçao's SoHo. 

Nieuwestraat in the Pietermaai district

The eye candy continues with Curaçao's ubiquitous street art. Murals snake across walls, windows and doors, bringing buildings across the city to life. This is especially true in the Otrabanda district, set across the water from Punda. (Unsurprisingly, "otrabanda" translates to "the other side.")

Mural in Otrabanda

The once-overlooked neighborhood has experienced a total renaissance in recent years and is now considered to be the city's cultural center—and a huge point of pride among residents. This pride can be seen in full effect during the neighborhood's annual Kaya Kaya festival in late summer. The fest is dedicated to celebrating the district's revitalization and enhancing it through community-led beautification efforts, street art projects, live performances, food and dancing. 

After touring the district's outdoor art, pop into the clothing boutiques, restaurants and bars along Breedestraat, the district's main street. Grab a paper cone filled with piping hot Dutch patat (fries) at casual waterfront spot Dutch Treat. Opt for an authentic Peruvian ceviche or causa at Ceviche 91, Curaçao, which offers alfresco dining with bay views. Or head a few blocks inland to Bodega Siete Gotas, a South American-Caribbean seafood and steak restaurant that earns consistent raves with locals and visitors alike. 

Take a hike, a ride or a dive

While Willemstad's intercontinental vibes may occasionally make you forget where you are, the land and sea beyond its borders offer stunning reminders that you're indeed in a Caribbean paradise. To see the full scope of Curaçao's natural beauty, hike to a privileged vantage point atop its highest peak, Mt. Christoffel (also the highest point in the ABC islands altogether). The trailhead—along with seven others—can be found inside Christoffel National Park, a 4,450-acre wildlife preserve where tall cacti, rare orchids and endemic shrubs create a unique landscape to admire during the relatively short (1.7 miles out and back) but challenging climb.

View from Mt. Christoffel

From the top, you'll savor 360-degree views of the island's rolling green hills and the sapphire sea surrounding. Tip: for those not up to rock climbing (a necessity at the end of the trek), two driving routes take adventurers past old copper mines, plantation house ruins, bird habitat and cave paintings on the way to the summit.

Bikers will find their bliss on the eastern end of the island. Once used by Dutch colonists to harvest salt from seawater, the Jan Thiel Salt Flats exist now as remnants, though you'll still find mounds of crystallized salt within the massive rectangular collecting "pans."

Flamingos at the Jan Thiel Salt Flats

This is a scenic area to explore via a cycling tour; the dividers between the flats are just wide enough to ride across, and you'll also traverse dense forest on the route. As a bonus, you'll likely catch sight of the area's resident flamingos as they wade the shallow waters in search of food. You can book a ride with a local tour company who will provide the gear and guidance you need to explore safely.

ATV riding in Curaçao's backcountry

You can also navigate hidden corners of the island via an ATV ride. These high-octane adventures typically include stops at off-the-beaten-path points of interest, from ostrich farms to secluded beaches. 

It comes as no surprise that Curaçao's postcard-perfect waters are home to incredible dive and snorkel sites, from sunken ships to coral reefs. Many of these are protected from strong currents, making them ideal spots for beginners to get their fins wet, so to speak.

Snorkeling in Curaçao

The year-round warm water temperatures—ranging from 79 to 85 degrees—are a nice perk, too. A rainbow of tropical fish, eels, corals, anemone and sea turtles await for your underwater viewing pleasure. For a different kind of water-based adventure, book a boat tour to the Blue Room, an ethereal-blue cave on the island's western shore. It's accessible only via boat ride or a hike. 

Unwind on the beach

Rounding out the array of things to do on an island of broad-ranging appeal are Curaçao's dozens of beautiful beaches. From well-known tourist spots to secret sandy coves, there's a plot of paradise for every mood.

Jan Thiel Beach 

Near the aforementioned salt flats, you'll find Jan Thiel Beach, one of the island's buzziest beaches, where amenities like loungers and umbrellas for hire, cafes and restaurants plus public restrooms make for an easy beach day. Mambo Beach, set near beach resorts, shopping, dining and entertainment, is another popular spot.

On the quieter side of the spectrum, Playa Lagun on the island's western shore is set between two jutting bluffs, giving it a tucked-away, secluded feel. Bring your snorkel gear to this one—the submerged cliffs are a favorite hangout for fish and sea turtles.

Though a bit rocky, natural beach Playa Forti is worth a visit for a serene swim. Nearby clifftop restaurants offer stellar views of the glimmering turquoise sea—a satisfying accompaniment to a celebratory round of drinks, especially at sunset.

Pirate Bay Beach Club & Restaurant

A short drive from Willemstad, Pirate Bay Beach is another ace spot from which to catch the sunset, whether from a towel or a table in the sand. (There's a beach club and restaurant by the same name there.)

Chill and recharge

In keeping with its reputation for eclecticism, Curaçao offers a little bit of everything when it comes to accommodations options. You will find a handful of all-inclusive resorts set around the capital on the south side of the island, well-known brands (Sandals and Marriott, for example) among them. Baoase Luxury Resort is the independently owned (and top-rated) outlier, its villas decked out in a mix of festive hues, teakwood and Balinese-inspired decor. Some walls and ceilings open up to the tropical surroundings for a nature-infused "barefoot luxury" experience.

Papagayo Beach Resort

With its expansive oceanfront pool and convenient location near the beach and restaurants, Papagayo Beach Resort in the Jan Thiel area is a good fit for families. As another family-friendly perk, its spacious villas and suites include full kitchens.

Budget-conscious mini resorts plus eco-friendly inns utilizing solar energy and green building practices are also among the myriad options—as are numerous vacation rentals. 

If you (understandably) can't decide on just one place to stay, it's perfectly appropriate on an island this diverse to book a few and hop around. That way, you'll get to soak in as much as possible during your Curaçao getaway.   

Ready to go? Explore more things to do and plan your eclectic Curaçao escape.

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