Sunday Newsday reporter JANELLE DE SOUZA reports on the beauty and history of Curaçao after visiting the island on Caribbean Airlines' inaugural flight earlier this month.
Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, is well known for its beauty.
The streets are clean and well maintained, the buildings are well-kept, and most of all, they are colourful. The blue, orange, yellow, green, brown, red and even pink buildings, usually with red roofs, populate the city and its surrounding area and stand out against the blue sky.
This I knew from pictures I have seen of Curaçao but I saw it for myself when Caribbean Airlines and the Curaçao Tourist Board welcomed a delegation of TT media on the airline’s inaugural flight to Curaçao on August 2.
It was my first time to Curaçao and I was excited. At the time all I knew was that it is part of the Netherlands and the buildings are colourful. I knew several people who had visited previously but all they would tell me was that it was great. Not very helpful.
The Curaçao Tourist Board ambassador and tour guide, Rignald Tokaay, told the story of the reason for the city’s look. It seems in the 19th century the governor, Albert Kikkert, suffered terrible headaches. His doctor told him it was because of the reflection of the sun off all the white buildings and suggested that the governor have them all painted. He did and the headaches improved but he later found out that the owner of the paint company was the same doctor.
I personally thought the heat could have contributed to those headaches as well. Because the first thing I noticed as I looked out the window of the Boeing aircraft on arrival at Hato International Airport was the very dry land surrounding the runway. As far as I knew, most Caribbean islands had a rainy season but there were hardly any green plants to be seen. Instead, there were cacti – lots of cacti – which I later learned was used to make a very poplar cactus soup.
In fact, the first thing Tokaay, our very enthusiastic and energetic 60-something year old guide, did was inform us two people had died from the heat over the past three days so it was important to stay hydrated.
Personally I was extremely grateful for the warning because the heat was tricky. It was hot but not oppressive because there was a constant breeze that kept things from becoming unbearable. Where you really felt it was in the depletion of your energy levels as the day went by so it was best to pay attention and drink lots of water.
Fortunately for Curaçao, this weather is perfect for tourist activity. With the near constant sunshine and clear days, the weather is perfect for the beach, of which there are many, as well as taking part in tours, water sports, and general exploration.
One point to note is that, although the island gets only about 600 millimetres of rain annually, about one third of TT’s rainfall, they rarely have water shortages. This is because they have a desalination plant which provides potable water for the island. Even their Amstel beer, which is pretty good, is made with desalinated water.
Island of four languages
On the way to Livingstone Jan Thiel Resort, I relaxed in the air conditioned tour bus and began to notice the billboards and signs, that maybe one in ten were in English. I noticed the Spanish, and assumed the rest were Dutch. However, Tokaay informed us that most people in Curaçao spoke four languages. Dutch was the national language but schools also taught Spanish, English, and in the last decade or two, Papiamentu, their patios.
Papiamentu words like bon bini (welcome), bon dia (good morning), danki (thank you), and ayo (goodbye) were often heard and by the end of the trip they were slipping off our tongues like natives. Dushi is special as it translates and could be applied to many things. For example, with respect to food it means delicious, tasty or very nice but it could also apply to people to mean darling in a casual or romantic way, sweet, beautiful, attractive, nice, and so on.
Tokaay asked about the languages spoken in TT and seemed truly distressed to know most people speak only English, with a small population fluent in Spanish, and that patios is dying out with the older folk. He truly hoped that, like Curaçao, patois would be included on the school curriculum in the near future before part of TT’s culture dies out.
We visited restaurants, Komedor Krioyo, and Landhuis Brakkeput Mei Mei, located at historical plantation houses or landhuizen. Most were built at the tops of hills so masters could overlook the slaves in the plantations. The walls were thick and made of coral, and positioned to catch the breezes in the heat.
There used to be about 100 landhuizen on the island but many fell to ruin. Fortunately, around 55 have been restored and more are being refurbished for use as restaurants, art galleries, bed and breakfasts, offices, and more. “They were built in the 17th and 18th century. They are a part of our history and we want them to stay alive for the coming generation,” said Tokaay.
Cactus and iguana cuisine
While the restaurants did not serve exclusively local fare there were a few local dishes that made it onto our plates. My favourite was fried funchi. Funchi is a cornmeal dish similar to paime without raisins. Some restaurants slice and fry it and it is amazing. Another excellent side dish was tutu, made of black eyed peas, cornmeal, coconut milk and a few other ingredients.
The cactus, and iguana soups also came into play at one point. As I am not a fan of wild meat in general I declined the iguana soup but those who tried it liked it well enough. The cactus soup was slimy and salty and that was all I could register with two tablespoons of the stuff. The slime levels were way beyond ochro and too much for me but again, some people enjoyed it very much.
Another day the Tourist Board took us to Willemstad Punda, or Willemstad Point in the capital city of Willemstad. There we did some shopping at the many souvenir shops and high-end stores, and posed for pictures with the huge DUSHI and CURACAO signs in the plaza. We watched as the Queen Emma Bridge, the only pontoon bridge in the Caribbean, slid open and close to allow vessels to pass along St Anna’s Bay which separates the Punda and Otrobanda quarters of Willemstad. There we saw the iconic colourful buildings which stood out along the bay and beautified it.
We also visited The Blue Curaçao Experience, a museum highlighting the history and manufacturing of the famous Blue Curaçao liqueur. We learned of the process and the different ingredients and spices that go into the various flavours, including tamarind and chocolate, before learning how to make Blue Curaçao Daiquiris and having a glass.
Beauty of the beach
Then it was on to Mambo Beach Blvd. The upscale facilities included shops of all sorts, restaurants, a pool, a playground, and, of course, the beach. It also offers diving and surfboard rentals, beach chairs, well appointed carat sheds for much-needed shade and even a stage area for entertainment.
Mambo Beach is picturesque, the stuff of postcards, and one of the most popular beaches in Curaçao with its white sand, clear, blue and turquoise water, and palm trees swaying in the ever-present breeze.
The other popular beaches are mostly located on the west side of the island, about an hour and a half drive from Willemstad. The beaches there can be collectively described as idyllic beaches with cool, inviting, placid, sparkling, turquoise water, and soft white sand.
Porto Mari is a private beach owned by African descendants. Our delegation found it to be crowded with a lot of tanning bodies laid out on beach chairs and towels.
Bahia Beach is the smallest beach on the west side of the island. Frequented mostly by locals, it is surrounded by cliffs so that it feels similar to Macqueripe beach in west Trinidad without the stairs. Fishermen dock their boats there and sell their catch including parrot, flying, and red fish. Also popular are the Playa Kenepa Grandi, and the private Cas Abao Beach. So much so that if you intend to find a parking space you have to be there by 8 am on a weekend.
Tokaay said the west is where most of the descendants of African slaves live. He explained that the area was full of plantations but after the abolition of slavery in 1863, the plantation owners paid the former slaves by giving them pieces of land.
Once upon a time the plantations produced fruits, vegetables, and sugar cane but for the past 16 years there has been so little rain that the ground has become hard and dry. With no agricultural use for the land, many are selling off pieces of property.
Another, more profitable product from the plantations was salt. As a number of bays meet the Caribbean Sea, the salves were made to build dams creating salt flats for salt mining.
At the salt flats of the St Marie Bay in Jan Kok, an area named after a master well-known for his cruelty to slaves, is a monument in remembrance of the site of the first battle won by freedom fighters. These flats are also where flamingoes come to feed on the shrimp that give the birds their pink colour.
Also in Jan Kok is the Nena Sanchez Gallery at the Jan Kok plantation house in Willibrordus. Sanchez started winning art contests at age 18. In 1966 she became Miss Curaçao for the Miss Universe pageant and in 1969 she left to study interior design and lived abroad for 25 years. She returned in 1994 and in 1998 started self-publishing her artwork, characterised by flowers, fish, women, trees, native cottages and other local scenes in bright colours.
On the east side of the island, we visited several interesting tourist spots.
Serena’s Art Factory is an open sculpture factory and shop for the well-known Chichi doll. Chichi, the Papiamentu word for big sister, is a “vibrant, dynamic, sensual, well rounded figure.” Serena Janet Israel, an artist born in Berlin, created the chichi doll, a handmade sculpture of a full-figured Caribbean woman in bright, colourful clothing. Patrons can either purchase already finished dolls or paint their own. Sizes range from those that can fit in a child’s hand to those an adult can sit on.
Ecocity, is a 22-year-old aloe vera plantation. While the plantation is ten acres, only five are planted with 100,000 plants and used to create a variety of health and body products of the Curaloe brand.
The plantation guide, Anna Maria Roelofsen explained that while the aloe may resemble a cactus or a succulent, it is actually a lily, the same family as onions and garlic. She said hummingbirds love the flowers but the workers remove them because they “take too much energy from the plant.”
Also, if you have ever eaten aloe and found it to be bitter, you have been doing it wrong. When you cut a leaf off a plant, you first need to drain the aloin, the yellowish liquid that stains, from it for about a minute. She said the only reason to retain the aloin, is for it to be used as a laxative.
After removing the spiny ridges and the skin, the aloe flesh and aloe water, which is clear, remains. These have no flavour. The water is used in their products as it is full of vitamins and minerals.
Some Curaloe products include health juices, dietary supplements, lip balms, skin cleansers, shampoos and conditioners, and more which are exported to Caribbean, South America and European markets.
Ostriches and crocodiles
Then there is the Curacao Ostrich Farm, which includes a tower, restaurant, museum, and shop. The farm has both African and Australian ostriches, also called the Emu.
The eggs of the African ostriches are placed in an incubator and left for 42 days. Non-fertilised eggs are used for omelets at the restaurant. The guide noted that an ostrich egg was 18 times the size a chicken egg but has less cholesterol than one chicken egg.
He added that at the moment there are about 140 ostriches on the farm and half are babies. Because of the low numbers, they stopped slaughtering the birds for their meat last year. Instead, they import the ostrich meat, which surprisingly is red meat, for its famous ostrich burgers.
In addition to the ostriches, the farm has a boa constrictor, pot belly pigs, goats, parrots, peacocks and more. The list of animals also includes two Nile crocodiles from Egypt which can eat 90kg of food in about three minutes, but can take three months to digest such a large meal. The crocs are fed every week so are never hungry and never learned how to hunt. Therefore, according to the guide, they are more scared of humans than we are of them. No one believed him.