Located at the very bottom of the Caribbean as part of the A-B-C Island Chain along with Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao has changed hands quite a bit since it was first discovered by Europeans in the 15th century. Although the Spanish, French, and British have all had a say in the island’s history, it is the Dutch who have maintained the majority of control over the past 500 years. But don’t be fooled: Culturally, the island is far from a European stronghold. With four regularly spoken languages—Dutch, Papiamento, English, and Spanish—Curaçao is one of the Caribbean’s most diverse islands, a melting pot of European bureaucracy, African slave trade history, Latin American dance parties, and kick-back Caribbean vibes.
Below, we dig into each of these four major cultures and show you how to best experience them while on island.
The Dutch influence in Curaçao starts with government. Technically, the island is a constituent country of the Netherlands, and over the centuries, Dutch policies have been responsible for the island’s development and economic outlook. The capital city of Willemstad was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634 as a hub of shipping and commerce, and today it remains the center of Dutch culture on the island. Check out the abundance of colorful, postcard-worthy “Dutch de Stijl” architecture in the Punda and Otrobanda Districts, which makes a great backdrop for a stroll along the waterfront. The gentrifying, walkable Pietermaai District is where Dutch nightlife lives in the form of European-style restaurants, cafes, and boutique hotels, such as Ginger, the Blue Bird Café, and the Hotel BijBlauw, respectively. The Dutch also make up the majority of the local scuba scene and own many of the scuba diving resorts, like the Lions Dive & Beach Resort.
The island’s African roots are alive in its deep slave history and still-standing plantation houses. It can be a downer, but understanding the Dutch-African slave history will enhance your appreciation for the island. Although originally a hub of shipping and commerce, Willemstad became the center of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1662, and slaves from all over Africa and the Caribbean were brought to Curacao. Most were sent to other islands, but many remained in Curacao to work the plantations and salt mines. This went on for more than a hundred years until 1795, when a major slave revolt broke out, lasting more than a month. The Dutch eventually quelled the revolt, and slavery continued on until it was abolished in 1863. History buffs can soak in this slave trade timeline at the Kura Hulanda slavery museum in Willemstad, but those that take their history in an experiential way will want to spend a day at Christoffel National Park. Formerly the site of many plantations and now the island’s center of outdoor activity, Christoffel beautifully combines history and adventure. The Savonet Museum and the Tula Museum are both located on preserved plantation houses, best experienced as a break between hikes. Pickup truck safaris and official Savonet History Tours are good options for those that want a guided tour of the plantations and the Park’s history. Two of the island’s best beaches, Kleine Knip and Grote Knip, were formerly a part of the Knip Plantation, the site of the aforementioned slave revolt just outside the Park boundaries. You should definitely pay them a visit, history or no history (see Caribbean section).
Curaçao has a strong, established relationship with Latin America—both because South America is a mere 40 miles away, and because the island’s largest employer, the oil refinery in Willemstad, processes oil drilled in Venezuela. This combination of proximity and economic dependence has bred a large, lively Latin American culture. Although you can get a glimpse during the day by visiting the Venezuelan fish and produce boats at the Floating Market in Willemstad, the vibe is best experienced at night at one of Curaçao’s many dance clubs. Cuban, salsa, meringue, and rumba are the dance music of choice at places like TuTu Tango, Omundo, de Herren, Mambo Beach Club, and Asia de Cuba, among others. All rotate their big nights, so be sure to ask around once you arrive on the island to see what’s happening.
During the slave trade, people from all over the Caribbean were brought to Curaçao, and it should come as no surprise that this “local” vibe continues to be the driving pulse behind the island’s identity. Many Afro-Caribbean traditions, for which we use the blanket term “Caribbean culture” today, are at the center of everyday culture on Curaçao—celebrations like Carnival and fried fish hangouts like Seaside Terrace, for example. But make sure you dive deeper into the island’s specialties. Try a bowl of iguana soup, and grab a beer at one of the many local “snack bars,” such as Pamela, where locals gather after work for a few cold ones. Keep your eye out for pop-up “grills,” for-sale barbecues locals have in their front yards, found only by word-of-mouth and day-of cardboard signs. To try other typical Curaçao fare, like okra soup, pumpkin pancakes, and goat stew, and have lunch at Plasa Bieu, a local market in Willemstad. Sunday is the local’s day at the beaches where they typically have barbecues. For the best combination of scenery and culture, show up early and grab some towel space at Kleine or Grote Knip.