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Nature & culture in Curaçao

Buildings in wild colors in competition with nature at its best

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Scharloo: mansions to the left, former slave quarters to the right

Buildings come in a variety of strong colors: from renovated mansions to colonial ruins where winos live, to tiny former slave quarters. Around the St. Anna Bay old fortresses carry the memory of colonial times. In Punda the famous synagogue isn't only a tourist attraction. Along the shores there are sandy beaches, coral reefs and rough volcanic inlets. The most common plant is the cactus.

Text and photos: Manja Ressler

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Sint Anna Bay with Punda in the background, seen from the Riffort in Otrabanda

Curaçao, a small island (38 miles long, 3-5 miles wide) in the Caribbean Sea 44 miles off the coast of Venezuela and part of the Netherlands Antilles, is a world in itself. From the Dutch gables around the harbor, painted in striking tropical colors, to the luxury beach resorts, it breathes colonial history.

That history doesn't seem all that long ago if you look at the contrast between the poverty of many inhabitants who are descendants of the slaves the Dutch brought there from Africa and the huge colonial mansions, many of them dilapidated or in the process of renovation

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, street in Punda

Arriving from freezing-cold Amsterdam the heat falls on me like a warm blanket - not unpleasant, but it takes some time getting used to. Avery, a friend, picks me up at the airport and we drive to his home, crossing the huge Queen Juliana Bridge(after the now deceased, former queen of Holland). On one side, there are chimneys spewing fire into the night sky: the oil refinery. On the other side are the lights of Otrabanda and Punda, two parts of the capital Willemstad that are divided by a wide bay.

Avery lives in Mahai, a wealthy suburb of Willemstad, in a beautiful, big white house. In his garden the bougainvilleas, oleanders and all kinds of tropical plants are blossoming: the rain period is just over, I'm lucky too see everything so green and lush. Birds, cicadas and small tropical tree frogs make the night sing.


"Snoa" is the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Punda

Next morning we leave early and drive to Punda, where my friend works. On the way, the beautiful old colonial mansions in pretty colors stand out. It is clear that Curaçao is investing in renovating these wonderful buildings.

We park near the Wilhelminaplein (named after another Dutch queen), where a small part of the old city wall with a gate in it has been left standing. It looks small and out of place between the parked cars.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, a piece of city wall, small and out of place between the parked cars

I ask my friend about the big church I see, but he corrects me: it was the first liberal synagogue in Curaçao, Temple Emanuel. It is no longer in use as a synagogue, it's a government building now.

We continue our walk through narrow streets with touristy stores on both sides, until we reach the Hanchi di Snoa and the compound that gave the street its name: Mikve Israel, the oldest Sephardic-Jewish synagogue in the western hemisphere, lovingly nicknamed "Snoa".

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Snoa, entrace to the former women's gallery

The compound is surrounded by a yellow ochre wall with a gate with beautiful dark wooden doors. The security guard greets us friendly and lets us in: this is where my friend works. He is a chazzan, a cantor, and has been appointed as the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Jewish congregation in Curaçao.

Around the courtyard are several buildings. We start with the office, where two secretaries are working. It is strange to be able to speak Dutch with them, and with everyone else here, thousands of miles away from The Netherlands. Among themselves, people speak Papiamentu (a Creole language, based on Portuguese and Spanish), but the official language is still Dutch.

And then... we cross the courtyard to the "Snoa" itself. It is a small copy of the famous Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, Holland.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Snoa, interior from the balcony

But to be quite honest, this one is even more beautiful: the dark, polished wood of the teba (the place where the rabbi or chazzan leads the service) and the Aron Hakodesh (where the Torah scrolls are kept), the messing chandeliers, the white walls with the blue windows: it's overwhelming.

And - an interesting detail - the floor is covered with sand. That's right, sand. I've never seen that before in a synagogue.


Dutch and tropical at the same time

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Punda, alley in Fort Amsterdam

After that, Avery has to do some work and I visit the Jewish museum which is also inside the compound. They have a beautiful collection of ritual objects and documents about the history of the Jews in Curaçao, but I'd love to reorganize the exhibition, which could be a lot more interesting and educational.

I leave the compound to explore Punda. Through the narrow streets I walk back to the Wilhelminaplein, looking for the Waterfort, which should be nearby. It is, but it's different from what I expected: it's more like a nightlife center, with restaurants and bars. I guess it's nice to sit on one of the terraces at night, looking out over the Caribbean Sea. But historical monument-wise, it's somewhat disappointing.

But nearby, on my way back from the Waterfort, a neat surprise awaits me: a cute, miniature pigeon, not much bigger than a sparrow. It turns out that this is the Common Ground Dove, which indeed seems reluctant to fly, because when I approach it, it just hops away from me a few inches.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Punda, courtyard Fort Amsterdam

Continuing my stroll along the waterside, I pass by Fort Amsterdam, an impressive building, which used to be the residence of the Governor.

Further to the North on the quay, there's a floating fish market, where the fish is sold from colorful but somewhat dilapidated little fishing boats to customers on the quay. Talking a little with the fishermen in my primitive Spanish, I find out that they're all from nearby Venezuela.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Punda, floating fish market

Then my eye is caught by something big and black in the sky... huge birds are circling above the harbor: Magnificent Frigate birds, with enormous wings and deeply forked tails.

But the most amazing thing about this harbor is that it looks so... Dutch. In a way, because the gables look like the ones on the canals in Amsterdam, but the ones here are painted pink, blue, red, green... which makes them look tropical. I guess this is what the colonial heritage looks like. It's not that it isn't pretty, it's just extremely weird.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Otrabanda, view of Punda with floating fish market

When we get home in the car, there are at least five lizards and an iguana in the driveway. They are pretty and extremely cute. Yes, my friend says, but they're also vermin: they enter the house and they poop everywhere. I don't want to know what he does with the little trespassers.

In the afternoon, my friend takes me by car to the Jan Thiel Baai (Bay), a privately owned beach, like most beaches here. Luckily it's not very crowded. Once in the water, I don't ever want to stop swimming. There are lots of high, strong waves, just the way I like it. And the water is so incredibly clear. And there's the sun, of course. And the palm trees. Everything one needs to be perfectly happy.


Winos and gorgeous mansions

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Scharloo, dilapidated mansion

The next day, a Friday, my friend needs to prepare for the Shabbat service tonight. I decide to explore Scharloo, a part of Willemstad on the other side of a little bay. Yesterday night we drove through it and it looked very interesting.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Scharloo, renovated houses

It is. This used to be a wealthy neighborhood, but the inhabitants moved to the suburbs (what's new?) and now it's poor. Some of the prettiest mansions have turned to ruins and are home to chollers, Papiamentu for winos. One front yard is completely covered with empty beer bottles. Other mansions have been renovated and look gorgeous.

In one street, which must have been the main street in colonial times, history comes very close by: on one side of the street beautiful mansions (which are divided now into apartments) and on the other side the smallest houses you can imagine: the former living quarters for the slaves.


From the Riffort, a great view of the city, the bay and the sea

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Otrabanda seen from the ferry

When I return to Punda, I still have time, so I decide to also visit Otrabanda, the part of Willemstad across the Sint Annabaai, which you usually cross by way of a pontoon bridge, but as it is currently being repaired, there is only a ferry.

In Otrabanda I walk to the Riffort, an old fortress that protected the entrance to the St. Annabaai. Even though it's filled with tourist shops, restaurants and bars, it's worth the visit. From the walls which are reached by stairs at different points, there is a great view of Punda and Otrabanda, the bay and the Caribbean Sea.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - St. Anna Bay, with in the background the Queen Juliana Bridge and Punda on the other side

Unfortunately, there's not enough time to explore the rest of Otrabanda, because I have to be back at the Snoa to go to lunch with my friend.

We have lunch at a little neighborhood restaurant, owned by a Brazilian man. It doesn't look like much, but boy, do they know how to prepare fish. And everything else. We share a table with a good-looking man from Jamaica, who has got a job here and is also - just like my friend - trying to learn Papiamentu. He likes the island, but he loves Jamaica.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Scharloo, dilapidated houses

In the evening I join Avery to the (Reform-Jewish) service. All those tourists, who visit the Snoa by the thousands, probably don't know that this is still a living Jewish community. Most of the service is in English, like in the US, with every now and then a song or a prayer in Hebrew. It is overwhelming to participate in a service in this historical building.

Afterwards, we have Shabbat dinner at the orthodox rabbi's house with a group of Jewish divers, who call themselves the Scooby Jews (!), from Chicago. It turns out that the rabbi and his wife Ruhamah are wonderful, hospitable and open-minded people, with three wonderful children. The food is delicious, Ruhamah appears to be a great cook, the conversation is interesting and the company is fine. A relaxed evening, just like Shabbat should be.


A Shabbat service in a living historical monument

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, Snoa with sand on the floor

Next morning to service again, this vacation is making me observant! Oops, I hear my Hebrew name. That means I am called up to the Torah, to say a blessing and watch the reader while he reads a few sentences from the scroll.

Afterwards I'm asked if I have good wishes or want to commemorate someone. Yes, I want to commemorate my father, who died 12 years ago, and I want a blessing for my mother and my little nephew David. Everything is repeated in Portuguese, a unique tradition for this synagogue.

"Anything else?" Mr. Maduro, the nice man who translates my good wishes, asks. Well, of course I want a blessing for their Chazzan and spiritual leader, my friend. And while I'm at it, also for the whole congregation. Still, my list of wishes appears to be the shortest one in the service.


The Life Aquatic

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Portomarie, cactus

In the afternoon, we take the car and drive to Portomarie, a bay to the Northwest of Willemstad. We stop at the Flamingo Sanctuary and watch the big pink birds sieve the water with their big bills for small snails, larvae of flies and musquitoes or seeds.

As we continue our trip, we pass through a diminutive hamlet with a huge church. Just a little further, we find the road to Portomarie. From the parking lot we get a view of the South shore of Curaçao: green, with little bays and palm trees everywhere.

And cactuses, the biggest I've ever seen. And millions of flowers. As we walk down the path to the beach, I see a pelican flying low over the sea. A brown one, aptly called Brown Pelican.

Today is the big day. I am going to do something I have dreamed of since I was a small child. I am going to snorkel. It's even better than I imagined. In the clear blue water, I find a still, but colorful world with fish that I've only seen in aquaria so far: yellow and purple, metallic green, no blue, no, wait black, no green again, fish with stripes, fish with dots, enormous glassy greyish fish with long "tails" on their fins, who seem to like me, because they follow me wherever I swim. Or maybe they're just security guards.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Portomarie, the bay seen from the parking lot

I stay with my head in the water for at least an hour. If it were up to me, I'd just stay here for the rest of my life. Maybe I'd grow a tail and become an old mermaid.

In the evening, my friend takes me out for dinner to a restaurant in the renovated Fort Nassau, on top of a hill overlooking the harbor of Willemstad with fire in the sky from the refinery in the background on one side and the lights of nightly Punda on the other. Luckily, not only the view is amazing; the food is great, too.

Parke Nashonal Shete Boka

The battle between the sea and the rocks

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Parke Nashonal Shete Boka, Boka Tabla

Today we're visiting Parke Nashonal Shete Boka on the wild North shore of the island. "Boka" means "inlet". It's not hard to find: there's only one main road to the Northwestern part of the island.

As soon as we leave the suburbs of Willemstad, the landscape gets green and hilly. Every now and then we see a traditional Curaçaoan house, a "knoeknoe" house. This word refers to a rural area.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Parke Nashonal Shete Boka, Boka Wandomi

The farther West we go, the wilder the surroundings. On entering Shete Boka we get a map, which shows the different hiking trails and sights. We walk to Boka Tabla over volcanic rock to a deep inlet, where the shore gets constantly pummeled by the sea.

A narrow path leads to a cave, hollowed out in the rocks by the sea. The sea is doing its best to conquer more territory and sends enormous waves into the cave. Oh, well, my sandals were dusty anyway.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Parke Nashonal Shete Boka, in the background Christoffelberg (Christopher Mountain)

We continue our walk to Boka Wandomi. In the distance on our left looms the Christoffelberg (Christopher Mountain), a dormant volcano and the highest mountain on Curaçao.

Nearby there's a lot to see as well: different kinds of lizards, little salt water plants that seem to find a place to grow in every crevice in the rocks, apparently not even needing soil.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Parke Nashonal Shete Boka, Boka Wandomi with natural bridge

At Boka Wandomi, a huge inlet with a natural bridge, also hollowed out of the rock by the sea, people haven't been able to resist the temptation to leave behind something of themselves for posterity...

The rocks are covered with names, laid out in white rocks and pebbles. An eye sore, but at least it doesn't do any damage to the eco system.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Parke Nashonal Shete Boka, 'breast' cactus

When we get back to the car, we drive to another part of the nature reserve and walk up a hill, Seru Braun, which is covered in cactuses of a peculiar kind. My friend insists that they look like green breasts with white nipples. Yes, they often grow in pairs, too... I have to admit that I'm glad that mine aren't this prickly.

On our way back to the car, we see two White-tailed Hawks and an American Kestrel which, although much smaller than the hawks, seems to be chasing them away. Maybe it has a nest nearby.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Parke Nashonal Shete Boka, landscape with cactuses

In the distance is a yellow ochre mansion, apparently a former plantation house. According to legend, the mansions on Curaçao have this color - on all other Caribbean islands they're white - because there once was a Dutch governor on the island who said these white buildings gave him headaches.

And so the governor ordered all buildings to be painted yellow ochre.


Sunset in Paradise

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Shete Boka, Boka Pistol

We return to the car and drive to Boka Pistol. This one is sensational: the sea has carved out a hole in a piece of rock that hangs low over the water and every time a big wave hits the rock, the pressure sends up a pillar of water with the sound of an explosion. Hence Boka Pistol. It looks somewhat like a geyser.

We drive back to the main road and continue our trip in the direction of Westpunt passing by Christoffel Park, which I plan to visit tomorrow or the day after. Every now and then we get a glimpse of an old colonial mansion between the trees.

At Westpunt we park the car at Playa Kalki, near the Kura Hulanda Lodge. We sit on the intimate beach, surrounded by high walls of rock. I can't resist the sea, so I go for a swim. When I return, the sun is setting.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Westpunt, Playa Kalki

We climb up the stairs to the terrace of Kura Hulanda and after inspecting the premises, which are in excellent taste with small buildings in local style surrounded by an exquisite garden, we sit down at a table. With a glass of cold white wine in my hand, I watch the sun go down.

The next morning we drive to Punda again, Avery has to work and I want to visit Otrabanda to finish my tour of that part of town. And then it happens. My weak left ankle buckles and my foot slips off the sidewalk: Ouch! This isn't a sprained ankle. I immediately understand that this vacation is over.

Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao - Willemstad, liquor store in Scharloo

A couple of hours later, surgeon Dr. Jan Taams jr. confirms my self-diagnosis: my foot is broken and I will get a cast. The doctor and his staff are incredibly friendly and meticulous; when they hear that my flight is within two days, they let me come back every morning to get shots that prevent thrombosis. This is a small private hospital, founded by Dr. Taams' father and currently manned by three brothers Taams, who each have a different medical specialty.

The next two days, until my departure, I spent reading "A Tale of Love and Darkness" by Amos Oz, a beautifully written memoir of growing up in Israel. I need to come back to see more of the island, which has made a deep impression on me.

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