“What is the address of your hostel?” The man stared down at the entry card I filled out.
“Oh, um. I don’t know the exact address,” I sputtered. “It’s in Willemstad.”
“Willemstad is a big place.”
“Yes.” Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I scrambled for something better. “I have it saved on my phone, hold on, please.”
I tugged open my bag and pulled out my phone, hoping all the saved addresses on my downloaded map hadn’t inexplicably disappeared. I fumbled to locate Bed & Bike Curaçao, the hostel Clara and I were staying at near the southern shoreline of the island.
“Here, it’s, um, right here.” I held up my phone so the man could see it behind his tall counter. He took my phone, jotted down the information on my card and, satisfied, returned my phone, entry card, and passport.
“It’s in Pietermaai,” He said. “Enjoy your time in Curaçao.”
It hasn’t taken me long to learn that Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, is made up of four main districts. Pietermaai, one of the four, is located east of Punda and south of Schalroo. The night that Clara and I arrived to our hostel we roamed the deserted streets, quickly intrigued by the mix-matched buildings – blocks simultaneously freshly painted and crumbling. We found a street aglow in multicolored lights strung high across the array of restaurants and bars. Searching for the ocean, we stumbled upon a strip of shops backed up against the distinct sound of crashing waves. Over our weeklong stay in Willemstad, Pietermaai’s charm became pleasingly familiar and our nighttime (or daytime) explorations directed us back to many of the places we had seen during our first stroll.
We arrived in Pietermaai during a unique time in its development. Had we come even a year ago, many of the businesses we frequented (a couple of them way too many times) would not have been a part of our experience. Even Bed & Bike, the fabulous hostel we stayed at, and Mijn Broodje, the adjoining restaurant, opened in July 2017. As the neighborhood is renovated, a resurgence of life and activity is yet again transforming the Pietermaai district of Willemstad.
The name Pietermaai is supposedly derived from the name of a seventeenth century sea captain who owned property in the neighborhood. Not too far from Punda’s side of the St. Anna Bay where the city developed around the shipping industry, Pietermaai became a residential neighborhood when the city’s population grew beyond its initial walls. The neighborhood thrived with a popular architectural style of large mansions attached to smaller workers’ quarters. Due to the bright Caribbean sun reflecting off of the white paint of buildings and causing eye issues and headaches, the island set forth regulations that required buildings be painted in different colors.
Over time, people began to move out of the Pietermaai neighborhood and into residential areas further from the city center. The neighborhood was abandoned for a few decades and many of its buildings became decrepit. Since 2000, the area has slowly attracted more interest. As renovations happened, the neighborhood stayed true to its original architecture (especially since Willemstad is a UNESCO World Heritage site). The brightly colored buildings continue to be restored today with fresh coats of vibrant paint renewing the worn hues that were painted long ago.
Today, the large nineteenth century homes that run along the main block of coastline now host a variety of hotels, shops, and restaurants. The workers’ quarters of a bygone time have been converted into apartments. A variety of government offices moved into Pietermaai but since the early 2010s have relocated, leaving room for new businesses like Bed & Bike and Mijn Broodje to create their space in the neighborhood. Salsa classes and daily happy hours now draw crowds to the restaurant strip. City Beach 88 welcomes guests to grab a drink or a stone oven-cooked pizza while lounging on the beach patio or (better yet) reclining on a beach chair meters away from the lively waves crashing against a wave breaker.
While we spent plenty of time exploring Punda and Otrobanda during our time in Willemstad, it was Pietermaai, the yet lesser-known but up-and-coming district of the city, that captured our hearts and gave us a home. The complexities of the neighborhood’s past and present did not go unnoticed, rather, we were intrigued by the district’s state of development and recognized depth in the contrast of fresh and faded buildings.