March 5th: Curacao
Curacao is another name I had no idea how to pronounce. For the similarly uninitiated, its pronounced “Cur ah sow”. Curacao is one of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), which are among the semi-autonomous group of islands that make up the Netherlands Antilles. It’s main claim to fame and fortune is that it has the largest, deepest harbour in the Caribbean. Trade has always been important here, and over the centuries there have been attempts by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English to control the island. The Dutch won out, but the cultural mishmash of European languages, combined with a number of African languages imported with the slaves, has resulted in a local patois called Papiamento. It’s sort of a Caribbean Esperanto and completely unintelligible.
Geographically placed some 60 miles or so off the coast of Venezuela, Curacao refines and processes all of Venzuela’s oil output. This industry, along with international banking (sounds dodgy to me), and tourism, make up the main occupations of the island. Which brings me to the odd thing about this lovely place: There doesn’t appear to be any local production at all – of anything.
We took an extended trip through the countryside which is covered in rough looking scrub and vertical cacti plants. There was no sign of farming: no crops, no livestock. All fresh food comes from Venezuela and is sold at the floating market, which was unfortunately closed when we visited.
We toured a museum which recreates the living conditions of the slaves after they were liberated. Our guide, an exotically dressed, charismatic woman, evoked this foul period of history with authority. Curacao’s originally was a centre for the slave trade. Slaves were brought here from Africa, and sold on: either to local owners, Southern American plantation owners, or to Brazil, by far the biggest user and purchaser of slaves.
The industrial area supports the refinery, electricity and water works. All water on the island is the expensive result of desalination. Potable rain water is in short supply. In short, this is an arid region. The island is volcanic, and so stony that graves can’t be dug and burials take place in tombs above the ground that are painted in pretty pastel greens, pinks and blues.
Although the majority of the population are of African slave descent there is, unsurprisingly, a large Dutch influence. Many of the prettier homes we saw belonged to Dutch citizens who keep them as holiday homes and fly out to spend the northern winter here. Many of these were to be found in gated communities where bougainvillea climbs the chain link fences, and the houses within the compound are brightly coloured and charming.
A number of hotels and their beaches are also hidden behind extensive fencing. Long drives climb over scrubby hills to these discrete hideaways. Apparently local Curacaos can pay a fee to the hotel to be able to use these private beaches.
We went to a couple of beaches, and they were extraordinarily beautiful. Small coves of golden sand, nestled between rocky outcrops and fringed by sea water of the purest, deepest turquoise. I don’t think the sea is as inviting anywhere else on the planet. The Caribbean is unique.
We explored the Hato caves which have been used by humans since antiquity. Originally by the Arawak people who left a legacy of cave art somewhere around 400AD. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they provided sanctuary for runaway slaves. There are still grubby, blackened marks on the limestone interior, left by the flares and torches they used. Today, small, long nosed fruit bats hang among the stalactites and stalagmites.
The old town shows it’s Dutch heritage. But the rich colours of the houses gives it a lovely Disneyland quality. It’s a quaint, delightful place to spend time wandering the streets. Every corner is a new photo-opportunity.