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The History Lover’s Guide to Curaçao

By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Jul 14, 2021

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A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of Willemstad is full of colorful historic buildings.

Photo by Gail Johnson/Shutterstock

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of Willemstad is full of colorful historic buildings.

Leave the beaches behind for sites that speak to this Caribbean island’s complex history.

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A trip to Curaçao may conjure dreams of palm tree–lined beaches and breezy nights with a fruity cocktail in hand. But dig deeper, whether it’s your first trip or fifth: The southern Caribbean island will unveil a multilayered culture and history. Let’s start with a quick primer:

The history of Curaçao, in 300 words or less

The story of Curaçao, located 20 miles from Venezuela, starts with the Indigenous Arawaks. This nomadic group migrated from South America about 6,000 years before European explorers arrived. Spanish colonists landed in 1499 and enslaved the Arawaks. The Spaniards transported the remaining Arawaks to be enslaved on the island of Hispaniola in 1515. During the 17th century, Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal began settling in Curaçao. The Jewish population became the largest and oldest in the Western Hemisphere and the synagogue they founded, Mikve Israel-Emmanuel, is the oldest in the Americas. 

The Dutch West India Company seized the island in 1634 and established the attention-grabbing capital of Willemstad along the natural harbor. After winning the battle for Elmina Fort on the coast of Ghana, West Africa, from the Portuguese in 1636, the Dutch became the largest supplier of enslaved Africans in the world. The captives worked in Curaçao’s salt mines and plantations while the island’s colonial rule switched from Dutch to British and French several times during the 18th and 19th centuries. The influence of all these nations is echoed in the island’s eclectic cuisine, music, and language. During this time, the local dialect of Papiamentu developed with a mix of Spanish, Dutch, African, Portuguese, and French words. 

In 1815, the Treaty of Paris gave the Dutch West India Company final control of Curaçao. Slavery was abolished in 1863 and the economy focused on oil refining with the opening of  the Royal Dutch Shell Refinery on the former site of the slave market, in 1918. Curaçao became an autonomous country within the kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010. Today, the island is noted for its strikingly diverse culture that reflects its complex history. Explore that history with these seven notable sites.

Walk around Willemstad to discover architecture elements like defensive walls, galleries, and curved gables.

Walk the candy-colored historic area of Willemstad

The color-splashed Dutch colonial buildings that line the harbor of Willemstad are Curaçao’s signature landmark and also part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the historic districts of Punda, Pietermaai, Otrobanda, and Scharloo. Built in the 17th century, Punda is the oldest part of the city and is the only area that still displays a defense system of walls and ramparts, which were connected to Fort Amsterdam. The other districts date from the 18th century and showcase more varied architectural styles, including galleries and distinctive baroque elements like curved gables. Fun fact: The vivid colors of Curaçao’s buildings date back to 1817, when white lime finishes were outlawed because the glare against the tropical sun caused headaches.

One of the oldest pontoon bridges in the world, the Queen Emma opens every half hour to allow boats to sail through.

Take in the view from the Queen Emma pontoon bridge

Strolling across the gently swaying Queen Emma Bridge is an essential Curaçao experience to absorb the Old-World essence of Willemstad. Nicknamed the “Swinging Old Lady” (not quite PC nowadays), the bridge is supported by 16 wooden pontoon boats and two motors. Named for the Dutch Queen Emma, this floating  pedestrian bridge from 1888 connects the Punda and Otrobanda neighborhoods. Every half hour, a siren announces when the bridge is about to swing open to allow boats to sail through. Queen Emma is one of the oldest wooden pontoon bridges in the world.

Discover the colonial chronicles of the slave trade at Kura Hulanda Museum

In a restored 17th-century building that sits on the site of Curaçao’s original slave market, Kura Hulanda Museum traces the harrowing path of European colonization and the transatlantic slave trade in brutal detail. This sprawling anthropology museum exhibits shackles, sale papers about enslaved people, and a recreation of the cramped hold of a slave ship. It’s a refreshingly honest account of past atrocities. 

Learn about 19th-century rural life at Kas di pal’i maishi

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Sloped adobe walls and a thatched roof made of sorghum stalks are the hallmarks for Kas di pal’i maishi, or sorghum stalk houses built by formerly enslaved Curaçoans after emancipation in 1863. The restored museum house is more than 130 years old and was inhabited until the 1950s. A guide supplies a 30-minute tour of the house and grounds and explains daily life, which included a separate building for cooking and two small rooms for sleeping and family gathering, along with cacti fences to keep out animals. A small restaurant in the museum’s backyard serves local dishes like Kabritu Stoba (meat stew) and piska ku funchi (fish and polenta).

Once the headquarters for the Dutch West India Company, Fort Amsterdam now serves as the residence of Curaçao’s governor.

Visit the former Dutch West India Company headquarters at Fort Amsterdam

One of the first buildings constructed in Willemstad in 1635, Fort Amsterdam served as the headquarters for the Dutch West India Company and was strategically set on the harbor of Sint Anna Bay to defend the island from Spanish troops. This is the most important of the island’s six existing forts, and the massive walls that tower over the waterfront are an impressive sight. The walls span nine feet wide and feature four bastions. The golden yellow structure also houses Curaçao’s oldest Protestant church, the Fort Church, built in 1769. A UNESCO World Heritage site, today Fort Amsterdam serves as the residence of the governor of Curaçao and the island’s parliament.

Pay homage to the Battle for Freedom at Museum Tula

On a hill with sweeping valley views, Landhuis Kenepa was one of the wealthiest plantations in Curaçao. It was also the site of the island’s most significant rebellion of enslaved Africans. In 1795, a man named Tula liberated hundreds of people from neighboring farms and led a month-long revolt against Dutch slavers. Tula was captured and tortured to death, and this two-story museum chronicles the rebellion and the lives of the enslaved. Today, Tula is recognized as a national hero; the island commemorates his legacy on August 17, which was the first day of the uprising. A monument on the site where Tula was killed stands on the south coast of the island.

Learn about Curaçao’s complicated history at former plantation Landhuis Jan Kok.

Chase spirits at Landhuis Jan Kok

Originally built in 1704 and reconstructed in 1840, Landhuis Jan Kok is one of the oldest plantation houses on Curaçao. The 852-acre plantation once focused on salt production, and from the terrace, you can still view the salt flats that are now home to flamingos. More than 100 enslaved workers toiled on the plantation and the owner Jan Kok was notoriously cruel. Locals believe that his mean spirit still haunts the main house, but noted local artist Nena Sanchez has opened a gallery of cheerful artwork in the country house to chase away the bad vibes. This house provides engaging insight into the history of the island and how it has evolved in modern times.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Curaçao

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