Bonbini! Welcome to Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, which lies about 40 miles north of Venezuela in the Dutch Caribbean.
As the signs greeting visitors from Mega Cruise Terminal (where the ships park during their short visits) will tell you, the Dutch took Curacao from Spain in 1643 and quickly it became a popular slave trading post. Ships stopped on the island, slaves were kept in training camps before being sold. Over 200 years later, the slaves of Curacao were declared emancipated, and the island has developed into an endlessly diverse and intercultural community (most people here speak four languages!). The history is there for every visitor to see, not only on those signs, but in museums and murals and interactions with the people from Curacao.
And while the Dutch tourists, remaining fragments of colonialism, continue to fill restaurant bars and beaches, I have been surprised by how quiet the city is. As we wandered through the touristy and less-touristy neighborhoods, crowds were scarce, despite the large cruise ship parked at the terminal. Souvenir shops were not overflowing, at the beach, you could find chairs to sit in and relax, and without having to wait, and cars (though they move quickly) did not pack every street. I was surprised to find myself in such a beautiful and culturally-rich city that was not filled to the brim with too-big cameras and tours with matching t-shirts.
The capital of Curacao is a colorful reflection of the people who live there. Willemstad is famous for its pink, blue, orange, and yellow harbor, and that is the area where most visitors are concentrated. But the color continues beyond the water’s edge. Small side streets feature cracked light-pink facades and columns decorated with art.
Willemstad has two main sections, Otrobanda and Punda, which are divided by the St. Anna Bay and connected by the famous floating Queen Emma Bridge. The harbor and its surrounding streets are where most of the visitors are concentrated, but it is not the only neighborhood to see. Pietermaai is not far and boasts loads of cafes and cool hangout spots. In the last year, new hostels and beach bars have opened up, making the city and its beaches accessible to those who aren’t staying in expensive resorts or hotels.
In Otrobanda you can quickly leave the hub of cruise ship tourists and find yourself wandering in communities where locals live, go to school, shop, and work. Things get quieter, streets get emptier, and you might even be able to get a little bit more of a feel for the place you are getting to visit.
Most striking have been the locals, who are so kind and willing to help. They helped me find the right bus and wave from their cars. Bartenders share their advice and perspective and I have often felt like I am building small friendships.
My favorite way to spend my first day anywhere is on my feet and this lovely little city in the Dutch Antilles is no exception. I found it to be easy to navigate and the wind coming off the ocean kept me from getting too sweaty. First impressions are tricky to assert when traveling, but I can tell Willemstad is still a blossoming destination for travelers and tourists. Its authentic, relaxed, and colorful vibe makes me so excited to be spending two weeks on the island, getting to know new nooks and crannies and making connections with the people who live here.