" ... a wide array of lovely, bright colours is one of the reasons Willemstad is amongst the most photographed cityscapes in the Caribbean ... we certainly took our share."  

Dec 10

Our flight from Trinidad to Curacao took us over the northern coast of Venezuela ... South America, a continent we have yet to visit ... perhaps next year.
As we flew over Curacao (pronounced 'kur-ah-sow')we could see its capital, Willemstad, split by Sint Annabaai (Santa Anna Bay) which is really a canal  allowing  large ships to enter the inner harbour, Schottegat. 

For our short stay, we would spend our time in the area around Sint Annabaai. 

We caught a van-bus from the airport to the Otrabanda bus station just behind the Howard Johnson Hotel which faces Brion Plaza and the Queen Emma bridge.

Our Howard Johnson Hotel room was ideal with a view from both windows that was outstanding.  The entertainment we had looking out onto the plaza and the bridge from our room windows, is well worth addition room costs.
Arriving in Willemstad was like stepping into summertime Europe ... except for the huge Christmas tree in the centre of the plaza. We were anxious to get out and walk.

Established in the mid-1600s, Willemstad, with its Dutch colonial buildings is reminiscent of Amsterdam though the architecture was modified somewhat with verandas, porches, fretwork and shutters  to accommodate the Caribbean climate.
Divided by canals, Willemstad's districts of  Otrobanda, Punda and Scharloo are easily visited on foot.  Our room was in Otrobanda and we used the Queen Emma floating bridge to cross to Punda. 
Built in 1888 and named after, then reigning Dutch queen, Emma, the bridge is supported by sixteen floating pontoons.  It swings open, like one big gate, using two powerful ship motors.  From 1901-1934 people had to pay a toll ... expect pedestrians going barefoot. Today there is no toll and when the bridge is open to marine traffic, pedestrians are transported free of charge by two small ferries.
Crossing over Santa Anna Bay a little further inland is the Queen Juliana bridge.  After almost a decade of construction the bridge opened in 1974, as one of the highest in the world (185 feet above sea level), to accommodate tanker ships entering the harbour and heading for the refineries.  Although not an attractive tourist image, the refineries, which process Venezuelan oil, have been Curacao's economic bread and butter since the early 20th century.  Tugs are kept busy guiding oil tankers and cruise ships through the canal.
The city's original plan was much like it's European roots ... narrow laneways opening to treed squares.  These minor plazas have, for centuries, been used for open-air markets, dining and festivals.  One Punda square had a statue of Dr Moises Frumencio which looks an awful lot like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame.  That is a pigeon, not a chicken upon his head.
We stopped at Plein Cafe Wilhelmina for an early dinner.  Like it's European counterparts, dining in Willemstad doesn't really get underway until after dark.  

The food was good with prices on par with what we would pay at home.  Amstel beer, now a Heineken subsidiary, was reasonably priced but the 'featured beer', Piraat ("a living beer" which has a secondary fermentation in the bottle), was twice the cost (not mentioned on the 'feature' board).  Mixed drinks were pricy, but the people watching, included with the price of dinner, was good and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
We sauntered back towards the canal and found the source of the hourly bell ringing on the side of another beautiful building. 

The Queen Emma floating bridge is accessible 24-7 unless there is vessel traffic.  When the bridge is open there is a flag posted at the end of the bridge.  An orange flag means they are only opening the bridge halfway and should be back in service in about 10 minutes.  A blue flag means it's opening fully for 20 to 40 minutes.  A siren signals when the bridge is going to move and all pedestrians must abandon the bridge as soon as possible.  (Some people doddle and use the opportunity for photographs.) 

Gates to the bridge were closed as we approached; we saw it as a positive, walked down the row of umbrella sheltered restaurants along waterside and caught the little ferry across.
A Willemstad urban legend tells how one of the early Dutch governors, under the guise of medical advice, outlawed buildings being painted white.  The reflection of the sun's glare off the buildings, he allegedly said, was a cause of major headaches, inflammation of the eyes and could, if not halted, cause blindness. [Many of the reasons we were told Turkey does not have white buildings.]  However, the Willemstad legend continues, after his death it was discovered he had shares in a local paint company.  Whatever the reason Curacao buildings in a wide array of lovely, bright colours is one of the reasons Willemstad is amongst the most photographed cityscapes in the Caribbean ... we certainly took our share.
Otrobanda means 'the other side' and that's just what it is from Punda's perspective in more ways than just it's location on the other side of the canal.   Punda is where upscale shops, businesses and apartments are located.  Otrobanda is where the workers live, shop and spend time with friends.   It was still light enough to do some walking around Otrobanda's side of the canal.  We walked up towards the Queen Juliana Bridge, where a large cruise ship was at anchor, checked out a casino (once you've been to Vegas, it's hard to warm up to an ordinary room with tables); then left the 'tourist area' and walked to the hospital past small busy bars and closed modest shops with window displays showing boxes of household goods and moderately priced clothing unlike Punda's endless rows of diamonds, gold and rich timepieces.   We picked up some water and snacks at a corner store-cafe, then kept walking, finally making a large circle back to the waterfront and our hotel.

We watched out our window at activities on the square.  Men were still working on setting up a tall Christmas tree.  They were now in the process of putting on tree lights and decorations. 
When they turned on the lights we had a better idea of what it was going to look like when complete.  Adding to the festive feel, though up year round, metal arches banding over Queen Emma Bridge glowed with changing colours of purple, blue and green.

We called it a night and looked forward to spending another day in this beautiful city ... still having to remind ourselves we were still in the Caribbean.
Dec 11

At 06:30 the beautiful cityscape across the water was still illuminated while the rising sun cast dawn's glow in the background and a boat slipped by on the canal.  A half hour later the lights were off and the sun was peeking over the rooftops ... a new day.
As we crossed Queen Emma Bridge, merchants were setting up stalls along the waterfront on both sides of the canal and a cruise ship was just nosing its way towards the harbour.

Returning to the Plein Cafe Wilhelmina we had a filling European breakfast ... excellent value.
Along the canal which separates Punda from Scharloo we found one of Curacao's most famous sights ... the floating market.  Each day Venezuelan merchants sail their small fishing boats (which also double as their living quarters) back and forth across the 70 km of water, which separates Curacao from Venezuela, to sell their fish, vegetables and fruits. 
Adjacent to the floating market the 'new market' is held in a circular building under a distinctive roofline.  On weekday mornings, city office workers stop at the market's stands to pick up sandwiches and freshly baked rolls.  Locally grown fruits, vegetables and imported produce give way to a  few stalls selling handicrafts from Caribbean islands.

It was fairly quiet as we strolled through ... quiet enough for one vendor to catch a little nap.
The little Queen Wilhelmina bridge was built in 1928 to link the commercial area of Punda with the old residential neighbourhood of Scharloo.  Originally a drawbridge, it has been modified into a fixed structure.  Scharloo is home to a wealth of beautiful restored mansions, many built by wealthy Jewish merchants in the late 1600s.  This suburb, along with another called Pietermaai and Willemstad are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

We returned to Punda and because the Queen Emma bridge was open, we had another opportunity to cross the canal by ferry to Otrobanda.
Watermelon bobbing in canal, Curacao 
Next stop, the Kura Hulanda Museum, only two blocks from our hotel. 

It all started in 1995 when Dutch entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker purchased a house in Otrobanda.  Learning of its role in the Caribbean slave trade, he envisioned constructing a museum to tell that story; as well as a resort hotel called Kura Hulanda, which means 'The Dutch Courtyard'.  

It is a massive restoration project bringing a historic neighbourhood back to life.  In all, 65 buildings comprise this large exhibit.

We started our tour of the museum in an area dedicated to the 'Lands of Abraham' ... with an exhibit of over 100 unique and exquisite bronze, ceramic and glass artifacts dating back to 2500 years before the Christian era (BCE) to 300 CE. 

The whetstone handle with the shape of a horse (from present day Iraq/Iran) dates from 3000-2000 BCE.  

This stunning Roman glass goes back to 300 BCE - 200 CE.  It was found in the area of present day Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt and is evidence of Roman conquests in the Near East.   Glass was used as packaging for costly potions and ointments.  Free blown glass became very popular in the 2nd century CE.  Before the development of glass blowing, moulds had been used, limiting production to small objects only.

Also from conquests into the Near East the museum shows portable terra cotta deity idols carried by soldiers.


The forced relocation of Africans from Africa to the Americas and Caribbean by Europeans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries changed the face of the world forever.  

The Kura Hulanda Museum, located only steps away from the city-centre harbour of Willemstad from where Dutch entrepreneurs once traded and transhipped enslaved Africans along with their other 'commercial goods', bears witness to a horrific, and disgraceful, chapter in world history.


Their story of the slave trade begins in Africa.  We really appreciated a notice from the museum which read, "Dear Visitor,   Africa's cultural heritage is very much threatened by the illegal excavation, trade and export of archaeological material.  Museums worldwide have adopted rules of ethical conduct (the ICOM code of ethics) that prohibits dealing with, purchasing or displaying illegally exported objects.  Museum Kura Hulanda supports these rules of conduct and strictly applies them.  Since we want to give you an impression as vividly as possible of the riches of African art and culture, we have put replica's on display whenever originals were not legally available.  These replica's are of high quality; they are often made by direct descendants of the craftsmen who made the originals.  We believe that we thus can offer you a very good insight into Africa's culture, while at the same time preserving it ..." 

Having recently been to Africa ourselves, this exhibit reminded us of some of the sights and experiences we had there.  


The slave trade and slavery during the 16th and 17th century was not so much a racial issue as it was business.   

Some believe that most slaves were simply gathered by small groups of white hunters snatching a single black person as he/she walked away from the safety of his/her village, however, these forcible seizures happened in many ways. Often kings or tribal chieftains who waged war upon their enemies would sell their captives to independent slave traders known as 'slatees' and then put in the custody of a 'caboteer' (overseer) who would march the captives to the coastline.  These human lives were bartered for beads and iron, liquor and linens, guns and gun powder, tobacco and rum.  The coast of Africa crawled with opportunists who would pack their ships with human cargo. 

The museum has a replica of a full-size section of a ship's hold where slaves were chained.  Also displayed were portions of personal accounts.

In 1756, Olaudah Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa) said this about his crossing.  "... I would have jumped over the side but could not ... the crew used to watch us very closely, and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners, most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating ... I had never seen amongst my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this was not only shown, to us blacks, but also to some whites themselves.  One white man in particular I saw ... was flogged so unmercifully ... that he died as a consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute ...   The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable ..."  
The trauma of crossing the ocean didn't end with the voyage.  Olaudah Equiano continues ...   "We were not many days in the merchant's custody [in Barbados 1756] before we were sold after the usual manner, which is this: on a signal given (at the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined and make choice of that parcel they like best. 
The noise and clamour with which this is attended and eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers serve not a little to increase the apprehension of the terrified Africans ... .  In that manner, without scruple, relations and friends are separated, most of them never to see each other again.  I remember the vessel in which I was brought over, in the men's department there were several brothers who, in the sale, were sold in different lots; and it was very moving on this occasion to see and hear their cries at parting ...".
Olaudah Equiano went on to become one of the most prominent people of African heritage involved in the British debate for the abolition of the slave trade; as well as to write his autobiography.   
The museum's exhibits continued on to show the assimilation of African peoples in Latin America, the Caribbean and North America.  Displays told the history of the emancipation movement and post-emancipation slavery. 

Is it over?  Not yet.  According to UNESCO there are currently 450,000 people worldwide still being physically subjected to slavery ("a number which rises dramatically if considering economic slavery in both the under-developed and developed nations" - UNESCO). 

A newspaper article framed in the museum read [in part], " COTONOU, Benin - Fears were mounting Saturday for the welfare of scores of suspected child slaves said to be languishing on a filthy ship off West Africa after being turned away from two African ports.  The whereabouts and final destination of the Nigerian registered MV Etireno remained uncertain, but officials in Benin thought it was bound for the country's commercial capital, Cotonou, where it began its journey in secret more than a week ago.  Government officials said they were informed about the ship on Wednesday, shortly before port officials ... turned it away because they suspected child trafficking.  ... U.N. officials believed the ship could contain 100-250 children from Benin and other African countries destined for slavery.  "They are very likely in unsanitary circumstances.  We don't know about food.  We don't know about water," said Nicolas Pron, program manager in Benin for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.  ...  As hours passed with no sign of the ship, the representatives of the U.N. children's agency in Benin expressed concern that the captain might try to dump his human cargo at sea to hide the evidence." --  Associated Press April 15, 2001
When we stepped back out into the beauty and luxury of Curacao it seemed  surreal.

We had not yet received confirmations of our accommodations on Bonaire and Aruba, so we used the phones at the internet shop on Wilhelmina Square.

The evening's entertainment, on the plaza below our room, included a marching band and dancing.  We thought it might be part of a tree lighting ceremony, but the tree stayed dark.   After the band and dancers left a big tanker was guided through the canal dwarfing the city around it.   All was quiet for a short while and then bikers started to arrive ... we counted 80+ from just our viewpoint.   Surprisingly all remain quiet and we had a good sleep.

Dec 12

The sun's first light created another beautiful morning view, but this morning we were up and bussing to the airport before the sun showed itself above the rooftops of Punda.   We were off to Bonaire.  

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