When the weather in Southern Ontario turns nasty, already cold and gloomy, but not yet white and fluffy, it’s the perfect time to head some place where it’s always warm. After short deliberations, we got a pair of roundtrip tickets to Curaçao, not the least because it’s one of the few places in the Caribbean that is not completely overstuffed with tourists, but does have direct flights from YYZ. The intention was to spend a week scuba diving, riding scooters and in general having some fun in the sun. Something to contrast the more demanding trip to Newfoundland in the summer 😉
Our week in Curaçao started with a remarkably timely flight, no delays or any other surprises. With no luggage to claim, we headed straight for the immigration booths, where no one asked any questions, just stamped the passports and sent us on our way. When not serving arriving tourists, the customs officers were playing solitaire on the computers 🙂 As expected, there was a line of taxi cabs waiting outside, and we took the first in line to Willemstad. It was hot, about 30 ºC, and fairly humid. Instead of an air conditioner, the driver just left the windows down, causing a wind that threatened to steal away my straw hat. It was a cute hat, but somewhat oversized 😉
We had a room booked at Hotel Kura Hulanda, and the taxi driver had no trouble locating it and dropped us off at their doorstep. That’s when the trouble started, as apparently the hotel declared bankruptcy and closed up two days prior, on Friday. Our room was booked but not pre-paid, so at least there was no worry about getting a refund, but finding another place to stay on such short notice was not what I had hoped for. The nearest hotel I knew of was Otrobanda Hotel, just across the street; it was not as good, but seemed passable.
This hotel stands right on the edge of the canal separating Otrobanda and Punda, two major districts of Willemstad, and the view from the Otrobanda side is of the picture perfect line of colourful colonial houses of Punda. As the receptionist was handling the paperwork, I was staring at the view outside and feeling that I must have somehow gotten inside a postcard. It’s a feeling I get sometimes when I travel to a place so unlike anything I’ve experienced, so beautiful that your brain sort of pauses for a moment and wonders if this is all fake, because it seems a bit too good to be true. I have seen photos of this place before, but being there is quite another thing. It takes a bit of time to get used to the fact that all of this is real and not just a product of your imagination.
The air conditioner in the room worked, the bathroom was clean, there was a small fridge and the sun was shining outside the window – which opened up to that glorious view of Punda. We decided that the hotel will suffice considering that we’ll probably not spend much time in the room aside from showering and sleeping. We changed our airplane attire (which was meant to be semi-useful in Toronto’s 5 ºC 6 hours ago), into something more appropriate and went outside to see what can be done on a Sunday afternoon in Curaçao.
There isn’t all that much to do on a Sunday afternoon, aside from just doing nothing, which isn’t that bad of an option in many respects. Unlike the economically obsessed Toronto, here most places take the day off on Sundays. That was a bit disappointing because in my desire to go luggage free and with the silly carry-on restrictions on airplanes, I did not pack any sunscreen. Oh well… We crossed the pontoon bridge into Punda and sat on a bench on the side of the water, watching as the bridge started to slowly open up in anticipation of a vessel crossing.
We were feeling very relaxed and open and accepting of new and different experiences that this trip would surely bring. It must have shown, because within a few minutes an old man started up a conversation with us, and ended up showing us around the town a bit and having a lunch in a small eatery in Otrobanda. The first meal in Curaçao was quite savoury, and in retrospect, very typical of the quick lunchtime food we’ve gotten over the next few days. As I was sitting at the outdoor patio it struck me how colourful everything was. Every house was painted a different bright colour, some even with patterns. Many seaside communities tend to paint their houses, but this was magnitudes more intense than the brightest of St. John’s jelly bean houses.
The old man wanted to sell us some drugs, and soon enough we parted ways and walked around Otrobanda alone. One thing I noticed is that this was a dog island. I saw a couple of cats, but they did not look so good and did not walk around with their heads high like they do in some other places. Overall, it was fairly empty and quiet on the streets, most people no doubt relaxing in the cool shade of their homes. We did see a couple sit outside on collapsible chairs and play checkers though 😉
Exhausted from the heat, we tried some local cold beverages and headed up to our room to relax a bit before going out for a night time stroll. The drink of choice was Fria, which is sweetened carbonated water. It comes in several colours, but they all taste the same, sweet but with no particular flavour. The Curaçao liqueur is similar, it only has one citrusy flavour, but comes in several bright colours like blue, red, orange, green, and its natural clear version.
Being fairly close to the equator, the island has every 24 hour cycle split almost evenly between day and night, with the sunsets and sunrises happening around 6 o’clock. We returned to the hotel from our daytime walk at around 5:30 pm, so the sun set soon after. We came out to explore Punda later in the evening, and the streets, while not quite deserted, were still very quiet. Sundays seem slow around here.
Today we planned to get scooters and arrange for some scuba dives. This was our first lesson on the nature of “island time”, which is quite a bit longer than your typical time defined by atomic clocks. There was a vendor of some sort, sitting on the edge of the Ortobanda square. He was offering a variety of services to passers by. After short negotiations he promised that a guy with scooters will be there in about 5 minutes, which was only half true. It took more like half an hour instead of 5 minutes, but I used that time wisely and went into a cell phone shop to get a local SIM for my phone. Not that I plan to use it a lot, but I find it helpful to be able to make a quick call to make a reservation or look something up on a map or elsewhere without having to consider the going roaming rates.
After the various formalities were finished, we were heading east from Punda, hoping to find a particular dive shop. There are dozens if not hundreds of them in Curaçao, but that one promised to be very laid back and fun. We missed it the first time we went by, and kept going until we reached a roundabout, which made it quite obvious to us that we went too far.
The ride through the outskirts of Punda and beyond was very picturesque. Boldly coloured flowers with equally bright houses were lining the road, with the occasional chicken running along – pure bliss. There was a tiny bit of traffic in Willemstad (which we easily filtered through), but outside it was a lot more relaxing, with the calm sea just a few meters aways.
There was another dive shop right where we decided to stop, run by Ocean Encounters, and we decided to give it a try. We never tried scuba diving before, so wanted to sign up for lessons, and apparently these guys only start the intro program on Mondays and Thursdays. It was too late for Monday’s run, as it had already started, and with Thursday, we wouldn’t be able to finish it before our return flight.
Slightly disappointed, we decided to make the best out of the lemon of a situation by going to the beach near Ocean Encounters and finally got into the sea. It was ridiculously blue, warm and inviting.
We rode back and forth a bit more and eventually realized that Alex did see the right dive shop, he just did not hear me say its name clearly: Twin Divers. We rode towards it and had a nice chat with one of the guys who runs it, Mark. He runs it together with his identical twin (whom we did not meet because even diving instructors go on holidays sometimes), and it quickly became clear that we’ve come to the right place. He said we can start the next day, that first we’ll do a little bit of diving and then will see if it’s something we want to pursue, no need to make grand plans and commitments right away. But he did not let us go empty handed, and armed us with a list of places to visit: restaurants, night clubs, beaches and so forth.
With that major accomplishment, we decided to go snorkelling at Porto Marie beach, but not before stopping for lunch at the Old Market in Punda. Would have gone there more often, but we rarely happened to be in the city at lunchtime.
On the way to Porto Marie we were getting passed by every dinky car and transport truck in sight, what with our very modest 50cc engines. In retrospect, I would have made the scooter arrangements ahead of time, and went with something a little bit bigger and see if they can provide a helmet with a face shield.
Before reaching the beach, we stumbled upon a flamingo sanctuary. It was a beautiful location and we decided to come back another time to explore it in detail, but today we had limited sunlight left to enjoy the beach.
The Porto Marie beach is covered not in rocks and not in sand, but in coral fragments. Many have been ground to almost sand-like consistency, but others maintain a semblance of their original shapes and irregular surfaces. We spent some time in the water and watched the sun set over the sea, with rain clouds far away near the horizon. Like any self respecting beach, this place is excruciatingly relaxing and beautiful. We never ended up coming back here during the rest of the week, but only because there is so much more to do and see!
After the sunset we got to our scooters and headed back. I do not fancy riding in the dark on what is really a high speed country road on an exposed two-wheeler. Our scooters barely pulled 50-60 km/h, while the rest of the traffic was going quite a bit faster. Moreover, it appeared that my scooter had trouble catching up to Alex, who was riding in front. To prove that it’s not just me that is being slow, we switched, and there was no problems with catching up after that. We did try to change the slow scooter with the guys we rented it from the next day, but it was an exercise in futility, as the replacement had even bigger issues. Oh well, slow but steady…
The finale to this positively better day was a dinner in a cute restaurant in Punda. We actually planned to go to a different location, but having looked up the address, we neglected to call and make a reservation, or to at least check their hours. As luck would have it, they are closed on Mondays, so we went to Mundo Bizzarro, a spot on a quiet street with lots of cool lights decorating the outdoor seating areas, and an enigmatic mural of a cigar smoking woman on the inside wall (I sat facing it, and that woman was definitely flirting).
For better or for worse, I am a very weather dependent person, especially in the mornings. I find it too hard to wake up early when it’s winter in Canada, when the sun barely begins to rise at a time when you should be out already. Here, our windows are facing east and all I wonder is how come the hotel does not start serving breakfast until 7 am when I’m wide awake and ready to rock at 6 am, woken up by the sheer power of sunshine?
We come to Twin Divers at 9, and wait for Mark, who agreed to start our diving course around 9-9:30 in the morning. (Pro tip: in Curaçao, the later end of the time range prevails.) The beach is picturesque and I can understand how one would not get tired of seeing it every day for years. The only thing cooler is the huge world that hides underneath, but there are no shots of that at the moment.
Our intro dive goes smoothly and we spend the better part of the day in the water. It was much better than I even anticipated. As I was looking at PADI course information before and after this trip, I noticed that some courses are even offered in an indoor pool environment. Aside from the fact that taking a course in a Toronto pool would be more than twice as expensive, it would also be about 1% as rewarding. My “wow” moment on this first day of diving came when we were finished with the first set of shallow water instructions and went out deeper to explore the reef. Everything just clicked into place, the reason why you would bother training and doing all the mildly complicated exercises – the purpose of it all was just so clear. The ocean is full of the most incredible things, and you cannot appreciate that kind of thing in a pool.
For lunch, Mark ordered some chicken wraps for everyone. It’s not the kind you’d find in Toronto: the main ingredients were bone-in chicken, potatoes, and some sauce. We fed the bones from the chicken to a dog that was hanging around the beach – that was one happy dog – and went in for another dive shortly after.
With our ears slightly stuck, we went back to Willemstad and had a sip of peach tea in an outdoor cafe. I first tried it in Italy a few years ago, and even had some in Lake Placid this summer, but it still hadn’t found its way to Canada. Any day now :).
After a bit of rest in the hotel, we avoided the amateur mistake of the previous day by calling the Come restaurant ahead of time and making a dinner reservation like the civilized people that we
are pretend to be. There is a limit to food shots that this report will feature, so a photo of their wall art should suffice.
Another day, another set of dives. Marie Pampoen was pretty as always, sunny one moment, and rainy when we surfaced. The rain was fairly mild and over quite quickly, but gave a nice shine to everything around.
After diving we headed for a late lunch at the Pirate Bay (which is quite a lengthy ride from the dive shop on our little scooters). This is where we first got to try some peanut sauce, served on chicken skewers. As I found out later, peanut butter sauces are quite popular in all sorts of places, especially in South East Asia, though the Curaçao variety has a slightly different bouquet of spices than say, the Thai one.
The view from this beach is very tempting, so after lunch I headed to the water for a dip. We treated ourselves to a sunset on the beach and later almost fell asleep on the beach chairs. It’s too good, it’s toxic! People come here for romantic dinners after dark, but you better book ahead as every single table out front had a hand painted “reserved” sign on it before we even finished lunch.
By the time we came back to the hotel, it was completely dark. As much as it’s a bit shifty travelling in the dark by the rural roads, there is a lot of charm to night riding in the city. 🙂
Today we were supposed to do our final set of dives, but Mark needed to do some office related stuff and asked if we’d mind postponing that to next day, and finishing the theoretical exams today. We were supposed to study with the books and videos (it’s really nice to have a cheap local SIM card so you can watch all of PADI videos on Youtube without having to pay $10/MB), and it was ultimately not too hard to finish those tests. The best part was that we were doing it right there on the beach. I wish I could write all tests that way :).
It was a slightly cooler day. Instead of the usual 32 ºC the temperature was a measly 29 ºC. Mark’s reaction to that was priceless – he complained how cold it was and put on a warm lined hoodie. I kid you not. Any self respecting Canadian would want to roll on the floor and laugh, but obviously no self respecting Canadian would do that in reality because… too polite ;).
After getting all the PADI paperwork in order we headed out to the flamingo sanctuary. Before reaching the birds, we saw a few other weird things along the road.
As for the birds, they were all pink, just as one would expect. Other wildlife included a variety of birds and some feisty crabs. We decided to venture off into the mud to explore the area. We kept our pace slow to avoid slipping in the dirt, and decided to let the flamingos have some space and only closed in on them with a zoom lens. The plants were almost as fascinating as the birds – lots of cacti, acacia trees and other things that definitely do not grow in Canada. After an hour and a half it started to rain a little and we headed back to avoid soaking our cameras. Riding back through the rain with no face shield and wearing almost nothing protective was painful. By the end of the ride we were covered in dirty rain water splashing from all other vehicles.
After getting back we took extra time to wash the dirt off our sandals and since we only had one other pair of shoes each (running shoes), tonight was going to be a jeans night. We packed very light: there were the jeans and running shoes we wore in Toronto, one pair of sandals each and a couple of outfits to go with the sandals. I had the luxury of not wearing the same thing two days in a row, but that’s about it ;). When we just arrived, it felt extremely hot and humid. When we walked across the pontoon bridge the first time, I saw quite a few people wearing pants and jeans and even long sleeved shirts and was quite amazed – how could they wear so much stuff in this 30+ ºC heat? But after a few days I got used to it enough that going out to dinner in jeans did not seem crazy at all.
The bridge was open so we got to ride the ferry to the other side, and then took a 1 km long walk to the restaurant. The only downside to the whole thing was that despite sitting right beside the open water of the bay, we still had the stink of the nearby smoking customer blowing our way. It was 7 years ago that smoking became prohibited in public places in Ontario, since then it’s become very rare to smell cigarette smoke while eating out – except when travelling to other countries. Oh well…
Today we finally completed our last two dives, this time in two new locations. Mark sported a warm hoodie again, because even a single degree below 30 ºC is just too damn cold (I think if I stayed there long enough, I would begin to agree with that). This time we took our GoPro out for a spin, with Mark operating it for the most part. I did use it a little to take close ups of him getting personal with a lion fish (a venomous invasive fish), but I started getting out of balance soon – need more experience diving and controlling my buoyancy before I can film long steady takes of the underwater life.
After the dives we had lunch at one of the small local joints (Mark approved), where the amount of food was enormous (even though the portions were labelled “small”). It was absolutely delicious, but as mush as I stuffed myself, I still had too much left over. At least the resident dog was happy (he got to devour the pieces left behind). A very polite dog too, keeps his distance and does not push you.
After lunch we relaxed a bit at Jan Thiel beach and having spent a fairly small amount of time riding through the week, decided to explore the northern shores of the island. (Marked by the green arrow below).
One section of the road we took was all dirt and felt somewhat remote. It was on a hill that overlooked a wide space around it, with trees, cacti, and residential areas visible all around. Chilling on top of the cactus plants were a group of green parrots, and a few other birds. Seems they like the seeds they find on the tips of the plants!
We passed through the dirt road and a series of paved roads and finally arrived at a location that did not look particularly well travelled by. The road was unpaved and covered in huge puddles of rainwater. I wasn’t quite sure if it was worth going there, considering that it could get much worse ahead and it was getting close to sunset, but Alex decided to give it a try and took the first crossing.
With the first puddle conquered, the rest came fairly easy. None were so deep as to cover the exhausts, and the light weight of the scooters made it trivial to navigate the uncertain terrain. I was slipping less than when I was on foot in the flamingo area, so it was not too bad. After a while the puddles got smaller and the landscape more open. We did keep the road margins in mind, as going off the designated path would leave you in pain, pulling out cactus needles out of all the wrong places.
The late afternoon sun, quiet road and the nearby roaring sea were awe inspiring!
As the darkness was setting in, we started to make our way back to the city. Alex’s scooter was running very low on fuel (it fits only a few litres at a time), so we were hoping to find a gas station before it had a chance to run empty. Thankfully the almighty Google had a few tips for where to find the gas stations, so we headed out with little worry.
One side note worth mentioning is about the bridges in Willemstad. The city is located in the middle of the southern shore of the island, with a large bay, St. Anna, cutting fairly deeply inland through the city and acting as a harbour (there are oil refineries on the north end of the bay, their lights visible at night from the city). The two main districts of the city, Punda and Otrobanda, lie on the opposite sides of the bay, connected by two bridges. The older, Queen Emma bridge, is a pontoon bridge that today is used exclusively by pedestrian traffic. Bicycles are also allowed, and the occasional small scooter can be taken as well, but they suggest you turn off its engine and walk it across the bridge. Motorized traffic is supposed to use the much larger Queen Juliana bridge, which is part of a high speed, freeway kind of road. Since there is no way we’d be able to keep up with the 80 km/h speed limit on that bridge (and the expected traffic speed would be much higher), we usually took the pontoon bridge across. Walking those scooters across got old really quickly so we just rode them very slowly most of the time. Eventually we started getting dirty looks from the bridge attendant, so tonight, partly because it made the re-fueling stop more efficient, and partly because we did not want to piss off the bridge attendant, we decided to take this fancy pants Queen Juliana bridge.
Long story short, there was apparently no risk of getting run over there. They had some construction going on and the traffic was reduced from 4 (or maybe more?) lanes to only 2, one each way, so it was clogged up and our scooters were the last thing impeding traffic around there. It would have been cool to see the city and the bay from such a high vantage point, but the construction equipment was blocking the view :(.
After a short rest at the hotel we headed out for dinner. On foot as usual, because who wants to be drinking and riding on a swaying pontoon bridge?
This was our last full day in Curaçao and one thing we really wanted to try was to climb Mount Christoffel in the eponymous national park. It’s typically suggested to start as early as possible to avoid the midday heat, so we rode out right after breakfast. It took us close to an hour on our dinky little scooters, but it was a fun ride, and as we got to the west end of the island, the landscape changed quite a bit and was pure joy to ride through. What surprised me most was a section of the road that passed through a luxurious looking neighbourhood with tall trees planted on both sides. The dense canopy of the trees provided a wonderful feeling of riding through a park, rather than a public road. It was one of those moments that makes you smile with joy just a little wider than usual.
At the park office we paid the entrance fees, got maps and some extra water, and were strongly advised to leave the scooters there instead of riding them part way through the park as cars usually do. The attendants thought the roads would be too steep and slippery for the scooters, which I cannot comment on because we ended up taking their advice so did not see those roads (the walking trail is disjoint from the auto road for the most part).
For better or for worse, we set out through the park entirely on foot, planning to reach the summit in an hour. That was the estimate given by the attendants of the park. I don’t know what they are smoking in there, but I think that’s a pretty optimistic estimate.
The first part of the trail is fairly easy going. Since we spent so much time underwater during the week, we took our time observing the land based plants and animals of Curaçao as we strolled along.
At some point the trail became something entirely other than a hike. More and more sections were more akin to rock climbing. It started to drizzle on and off, which was both a good and a bad thing. It was great as the raindrops falling on exposed skin had a remarkable cooling effect and made it easier to keep moving. It was a bit of a challenge because the rain also made the rocks more slippery and threatened to get to our cameras.
At one point the trail became a jumble of rocks and logs, which looked challenging, but not impossible to go through. Just as we were done climbing through that, we looked ahead and saw a rather vertical rock face, shimmering from the rainwater it received, a wall on one side, a cliff on the other. This was supposed to be the way to the summit.
The photo does not really express the angles and distances very well, but to get to the next plateau, with less than ten vertical meters left to the summit (estimated by the GPS), we would have to traverse a fairly smooth wet incline for about 5 meters, with hardly any backup strategy available in case we slipped.
It was a tough call, but we decided to end it there. There are many risks we take in many different activities, but the math here did not make sense.
On the way down we met a German family of four, just as they were about to take on the “rocks-n-logs” section. We cautioned them of the slippery rocks and kept descending. By the sound of it later on, they decided to not to ascend all the way up either.
After all the climbing, it was time to get back into water. We rode back and dropped by Playa Lagun. It’s a small cute beach, perfect for snorkelling. 🙂
Being in the water was so much more natural than navigating the muddy slippery terrain of the Mount Christoffel park. We spent as much time there as we could considering we would need to be back in Willemstad by nightfall. Once we got to the city we returned the scooters and spent the last slow evening doing practically nothing. By the end of the week it no longer seemed odd: the slow pace, the temperature, and everything that was different about this island.
The next morning we took a taxi to Marie Pampoen and just sat there watching the sea. I caught myself thinking that I wouldn’t mind it at all if our flight was canceled and I had to get “stuck” here. I have seen this particular spot almost every day that I was in Curaçao, and every time it is somewhat different, but also the same. It starts feeling familiar, and you begin to imagine what it would be like to have always known it. It is so inviting, but also so laid back. The boats move gently in the waves, the sky keeps changing.
I am writing about this 3 months after it happened but cannot get my tense straight. This is how it was, and this is how I felt, this is the past. But I know also that the beach is still there, waiting to embrace you with its warm waters and let you see things that never venture to the surface. The back roads are still there, waiting to take you places that few people go to, let you take a gamble as to just how traversable they are. And so the memories of the past blend with fantasies of the future, and you are gently reminded that nothing else really exists but this very brief moment in which everything makes sense, even if it doesn’t.