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The Infamous Isla Refinery of Curaçao

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In the early 20th century, oil was discovered off the coast of Venezuela. And Curaçao was the perfect location for Royal Dutch Shell to capitalize on the new black gold, thanks to the Schottegat: a large natural harbor capable of handling massive barges and tankers. After the 1915 opening of the Isla Refinery, life on the island would never be the same.

La Isla Refinery Curacao

The number one complaint tourists make about Curaçao is the existence of the refinery, which belches smoke into the sky on a non-stop basis, and can be smelled all across Willemstad. Smelled and seen. During our first night in Curaçao, we were sitting outside at a bar along the Sint Anna Bay, and noticed what looked to be a raging fire on the horizon. Soon enough, we realized the flames were emanating from the refinery. It was kind of a shock.

The refinery is an ecological nightmare. It’s been cranking out poison for decades, way before people started to care about things like climate change and pollution. One by-product of the refinery is the so-called “Asphalt Lake”: an entire section of the Schottegat where the water has become so polluted with waste, that it’s congealed into asphalt.

In 1985, Shell realized that, sooner or later, people were going to start demanding a clean-up. So, the company sold off the entire refinery to the government of Curaçao for the symbolic price of one guilder. It looked like an act of benevolence, but explicit in the terms of the sale was a clause releasing Shell of all future responsibility.

La Isla Refinery Curacao

Nowadays, it’s easy to heap scorn upon the refinery. It’s ugly and loud, it stinks, and it’s killing the environment. And that’s all true! But as always, there’s another side to the story.

Before the arrival of Shell, Curaçao was an economic backwater, an arid island where produce barely grew and people struggled mightily to get by. The discovery of oil and the establishment of the refinery improved life on the island in a million different ways. Suddenly, there were jobs — a lot of them, and they payed well. Slavery had been abolished for 50 years, but black people were still toiling under a stubbornly racist labor system. Now, though, they didn’t need the plantations. There was a new kind of life possible, living in the city and working at the refinery.

After 1915, regular Curaçaoans found themselves with real money. Coastal towns in Venezuela began to look at Curaçao as their “rich” neighbor to the north, and the Floating Market was established. And Shell did a lot of good work for the country, sharing the wealth by building schools and roads. Without the big, ugly, death-spewing refinery, life in Curaçao wouldn’t be nearly the same as it is today.

But Shell is long gone, and among the Curaçaoans we’ve spoken to, there’s a feeling among most (though not all) of them that it’s time to bid the refinery adieu. The plant is not nearly as lucrative for the island as it once was, and tourism — which has become a more profitable industry — suffers because of it. The most prominent anti-refinery group is Stichting SMOC, which has been fighting for its closure for years.

La Isla Refinery Curacao

While we appreciate the history of the refinery, and understand that it’s done a lot of good, we think that the sooner Curaçao shuts it down, the better. Just for the air quality, alone! And when you consider all the space it would free up for the city, to say nothing of the Schottegat — an incredible natural resource which could be truly beautiful — it’s baffling that the government hasn’t already set plans into motion. They’ll have a chance soon; the current lease on the refinery runs out in 2019. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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La Isla Refinery Curacao
La Isla Refinery Curacao
La Isla Refinery Curacao
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January 31, 2016 at 9:54 pm Comment (1)

Beth Haim Cemetery

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While we were at the Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue in Punda, we read about Curaçao’s oldest Jewish cemetery, the Beth Haim. It sounds macabre, but we always enjoy visiting cemeteries, and what really caught our eye about the Beth Haim was its location: right on top of the island’s oil refinery. Only employees are allowed onto the grounds of the refinery, so for the rest of us, the Beth Haim is as close it gets.

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao

We appreciate sandy beaches with crystal blue water as much as anyone, but places like the Beth Haim Cemetery really capture our fascination. Hundreds of indistinguishable concrete graves against the background of a noisy oil factory’s complicated, poison-spewing machinery spewing. The contrast is startling and, to some eyes at least, weirdly captivating.

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao

The Beth Haim is Curaçao’s original Jewish cemetery, and one of the first of any denomination on the island. The oldest identifiable tombstone is dated to the year 5428. It took me a few confused seconds to realize that many of the inscriptions use the Hebrew calendar; converted to Gregorian, 5428 is the year 1668.

Most of the tombstones are so old and weathered that it’s nearly impossible to read the names or dates. There aren’t any newer graves, because Beth Haim hasn’t been in use for a long time. It would be difficult to have a proper ceremony with the constant noise and pollution of the oil refinery fouling everything up.

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao

Guided tours of the Beth Haim Cemetery can be organized; inquire at the gift shop in the Punda Synagogue. Or you can visit on your own, like we did. If you enjoy sightseeing with a heavy dose of the surreal, you’ll have a good time. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never seen a place quite like the Beth Haim.

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Framed Photos Curacao

Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao
Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao
Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao
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Beth Haim Cemetery Curacao
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January 31, 2016 at 3:41 pm Comments (0)

Hofi Pastor and the Great Kapok

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A small nature preserve near the town of Barber, Hofi Pastor is best known as the home of Curaçao’s oldest tree. We spent an afternoon here, checking out the ancient kapok and exploring a couple short trails that snake through the park.

Hofi Pastor and the Great Kapok

I’ve seen a lot of trees. I mean, I’m not bragging; everyone has seen a lot of trees, it’s nothing special. But what I’m trying to say is that, out of all the trees I’ve seen during my time on earth, and it must be in the hundreds of thousands, there have been maybe two or three that made me gasp in wonder. Well, now there’s another.

It’s all in the presentation. After entering Hofi Pastor, you start along a trail that leads into the woods. You’re walking across a narrow bridge, scraping past cacti, and ducking under branches, until without warning, the path opens up and you’re confronted by this massive, 800-year-old kapok tree. A huge tree, completely in contrast with the plant life which surrounds it, with tall, flat roots more solid than walls, and with more character than you knew that trees could have.

Hofi Pastor and the Great Kapok

And as you’re standing in awe underneath this behemoth, it dawns on you. In the grand scheme of things, it would actually be more tragic for this majestic kapok to be chopped down, than for you to die. You rate higher than most trees, sure. Almost all trees. But not this one.

We lingered for a long time at the kapok, until somehow sensing it had grown tired of our presence. The trail continues past it, ever deeper into the woods. There are two paths, one marked red and one yellow. Both are nice, and the yellow path leads up a hill for a good view over Hofi Pastor. Completing both trails makes for a pleasant hike of about 45 minutes, and although there’s nothing especially remarkable about either one, it provides a good bit of exercise in some beautiful nature.

On your way back to the exit, you’ll encounter the kapok again, and those weird feelings of inadequacy will return. You want to be nonchalant in front of it, so you kind of slap it on the root while passing, like “Alright dude, catch ya later.” But you know the kapok could care less. It’s just so much cooler than you.

Location of Hofi Pastor on our Map

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Hofi Pastor and the Great Kapok
Hofi Pastor and the Great Kapok
Hofi Pastor and the Great Kapok
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January 30, 2016 at 10:33 pm Comments (0)

The Sea Turtles of Playa Piskado

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Playa Piskado’s name translates to “Fisherman’s Beach,” which is an apt description. Locals keep their tiny boats anchored just off-shore, here, and bring their daily catch to the small dock. But it’s not just fishermen that you’re likely to see at Playa Piskado; this is also a favorite haunt for Curaçao’s sea turtles.

Playa Piscado

I had been excited to see Playa Piskado’s turtles, and on arriving to the beach, ran straight into the water without bothering to ask Jürgen if he wanted to join me. I swam around for twenty minutes, but returned to our towels in failure. “No turtles here,” I huffed. “Stupid waste of time.”

Jürgen decided to give it a shot, anyway. Naturally, he came back with news that he had seen five turtles, and was just so delighted with himself. “Lying jerk.” It was a stupid accusation, of course, because Jürgen takes pictures of everything and had plenty of proof on his camera. And while showing me the snapshots, his stupid grin just got bigger and bigger.

I stomped back into the water, and this time I did see some turtles. I have no idea how I missed them the first time; it must have been bad luck, because they’re big and not at all skittish around humans. They won’t swim away from you and there’s no way you can overlook them. I floated for awhile above one turtle, watching him glide peacefully around, and felt my anger swiftly evaporating. Turtle-watching is a great sedative.

Playa Piscado

As I was coming out of the water, I saw that Jürgen had joined a crowd on the pier. A fisherman had just returned with a large tuna, and was showing it off. A group of guys took it from the boat, laid it on a small concrete table and began to cut it up, selling the fillets directly to the people who had gathered.

We loved Playa Piskado, as much for the turtles as for the exposure to local island life. There are a few palapas for shade, and the sand is nice to lay on. There aren’t a lot of services here, no lounge chairs or snack bars, but it’s an entertaining place to spend a few hours.

Location on our Map

Selection Of Different Snorkel Sets

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January 30, 2016 at 7:41 pm Comments (0)

A Hike Around the Saliñas of St. Michiel

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Leaving from Boka Sami, there’s a circular hike leading around the lagoon and salt flats of St. Michiel, and up to the top of Michielsberg. It’s an easy walk, about five kilometers long, and shows off some of Curaçao’s diverse nature.

Salt Flat Curacao Hike

For the most part, the path hems close to the Saliñas of St. Michiel. This calm lagoon is no longer used to manufacture salt, but the rectangular lines of the former beds are still visible. Today, the flats are only used by flamingos, a large group of which can regularly be seen foraging for food. The trail brought us to within about twenty meters of the birds; a respectable distance, but too close for their comfort. As we approached, they paused their feeding, squawking and flapping until we moved on.

Salt Flat Curacao Hike

The flamingos were neat, but the best part of the hike was the climb up the hill known as Michielsberg. It’s not especially steep, but the trail is shielded from the wind blowing in from the east, so can be difficult on a hot day. However, the view from the top is worth it, allowing you to see the stunning diversity of Curaçao’s landscapes.

After making a complete circle around the lagoon, we returned to Boka Sami. A couple weeks before, this had been the departure point for a different hike, along the cliffs to Varesenbaai. Both hikes are short and simple, and you could easily combine the two.

Locations on our Map: Boka Sami | Summit of Michielsberg
Our Route on Wikiloc

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Salt Flat Curacao Hike
Salt Flat Curacao Hike
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January 29, 2016 at 12:02 pm Comments (0)

An Underwater Paradise at Directorsbaai

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We were overwhelmed by the beauty of the underwater world we discovered at Directorsbaai. Pristine coral just a couple feet below the surface and legions of fish oblivious to our presence… if there’s better snorkeling anywhere on Curaçao, I’d be surprised. In fact, if there’s better snorkeling anywhere in the world, let us know. So far, Directorsbaai is about the best we’ve seen.

But you have to work for it. Directorsbaai is a lonely, deserted beach on the southern end of the Caracasbaai Peninsula. If you’re at all familiar with life on Curaçao, you’ll know that “lonely and deserted” means “popular with thieves.” When talking about our plans to snorkel at Directorsbaai, we were warned repeatedly not to leave anything on the beach there, nor to leave the car untended.

“What you should do,” a friend of ours said, “is snorkel all the way from Directorsbaai to Tugboat Beach.” Sounded like a good idea, so we forced him to come along, which would allow us to take shifts. First, I dropped Jürgen and him off at Directorsbaai, waited until they were in the water, and then drove myself over to Tugboat Beach. Twenty minutes later, they were stepping out of the water with grins so large, I knew the trip had been a success. And I could hardly wait for my turn.

This short snorkeling tour starts off scary; at Directorsbaai, the drop-off into the deep ocean is close to shore, and it’s terrifying to suddenly be hovering over water so deep you can’t possibly see the bottom. Also, you have to swim around a rocky outcrop popular with fishermen before getting to the good stuff. But once you’re past that, the rest is paradise. I’ve never seen such a beautiful underwater landscape, and when the sun is shining, the scene is unbelievable.

The swim to Tugboat Beach goes faster than I had expected. At a steady pace, I could’ve done it in fifteen minutes. But there’s so much to see, you’ll want to linger. I spotted puffer fish, angel fish, trumpet fish half a meter long and a barracuda, among hundreds of other species. And the coral stays in good shape all the way to the sunken tugboat itself.

It takes a little planning and coordination, but this self-guided snorkel tour is easy enough, and so memorable that it’s worth the effort. Just remember not to leave anything unguarded at Directorsbaai… or anywhere on the island, for that matter.

Locations on our Map: Directorsbaai | Tugboat Beach

Great Selection Of Underwater Cameras

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January 28, 2016 at 10:48 pm Comment (1)

The Horse Parade in Otrobanda

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After the Tumba Festival comes to a close, the next event on Curaçao’s crowded Carnival calendar is the Horse Parade, which takes place along Breedestraat in Otrobanda. Is there a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, than watching harlequin-costumed men and women ride horses? Well, of course there is… but this will do in a pinch.

Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016

The Horse Parade invites groups representing ranches all across the island to gather in the capital, and march along Breedestraat, which is part of the regular parade route during Carnival. The participants put on silly, colorful costumes, and also dress their horses up. And of course, since this is an event in Curaçao, you can expect there to be loud music and plenty of drinking.

This is a small-scale parade, with no more than a dozen participating groups, and it passes by in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it’s best thought of as an entertaining hors-d’oeurve to the main course of Carnival. Unless you’re really into horses, it’d be hard to recommend cancelling other Sunday plans just to see this parade, but if you already happen to be in Otrobanda, it’s worth checking out.

The fun gets started around 3pm. A good place to stand is near the Netto Bar on Breedestraat, from where you’ll be able to see the entire procession, and buy yourself a drink while you wait.

Location on our Map: Netto Bar

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Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
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Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
Carnival Horse Parade Curacao 2016
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January 27, 2016 at 12:21 am Comments (0)

The Sunken Tugboat

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Just off the coast of the Caracasbaai Peninsula, a small tugboat rests in its watery grave, slowly becoming a part of the sea’s coral landscape. This is one of Curaçao’s most popular snorkeling sites, and for good reason; with the sunlight illuminating its shape and schools of fish darting through its windows and doors, the tugboat is an enchanting discovery.

The tugboat is totally submerged and can’t be seen from land, so we had doubts about being able to find it once in the water. But we didn’t need to worry. The beach where it’s located is named “Tugboat Beach,” and a set of huge pylons mark the site. Besides, the wreck is right off-shore, so if you swim up the coast you can’t miss it. And if you’re still concerned, just look to where all the other snorkelers are hovering — the tugboat generally draws a crowd.

I got into the water and began swimming in the right direction, searching left and right for the boat. Suddenly, there it was: a sight that nearly took my breath away (dangerous, since my face was underwater). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the inspiration for the millions of miniature tugboats found in aquariums around the world, because it looked just like one.

The coral has already made a good start in covering the ship’s sides, and dozens of colorful fish were swimming through it. It’s just a few meters deep, so you can just rest comfortably on the surface and appreciate the scene. I stayed until a group of “cool dudes” arrived on jet skis and started behaving like idiots, diving in and stomping all over the coral-covered boat. Why do you need to stand on the tugboat, cool dude? Does crushing a fragile underwater environment make you cooler?

As a tip, try and show up early in the morning, when there will be fewer people. The peaceful scene of nature slowly correcting one of humanity’s mistakes is one best experienced in relative solitude.

Location on our Map

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January 25, 2016 at 11:42 pm Comment (1)

Getting Down at the Tumba Festival

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The first major act of Curaçao’s Carnival celebrations is the Tumba Festival, held every year in late January. This is a week-long competition to choose the official song of Carnival, during which dozens of songs battle it out to be the top jam, all performed live in front of a big crowd.

The Tumba Festival has an official history stretching back 45 years. It’s related to “tambu,” which was the traditional music of Curaçao’s slave population. Although they had only percussive instruments to play upon, Tambu was an important part of the culture and remained socially relevant even after the end of slavery, thanks to its pointed, political lyrics, sung in Papiamento.

Switch a couple vowels around, add in some other musical influences, and Tambu becomes Tumba: still sung in Papiamento, but played with a heavy dose of Latin and jazz. The Tumba Festival has grown to become one of the most popular annual events in Curaçao, with tickets to the Friday night finals increasingly difficult to come by. The winner of the festival is named King or Queen of Carnival, and the winning song becomes the official anthem of the celebrations.

Tumba is almost exactly how you would expect a Curaçaoan style of music to be, with performances that are loud, colorful, relaxed, and intent on having a good time. The songs are repetitive and go on for ages, but the musicians on stage don’t mind. Huge bands comprising dozens of horns, keyboards, guitars, drums, singers and dancers are all having so much fun loosely playing along with the rhythm, that they’d allow the music to go on indefinitely.

Of course we didn’t understand a word of what they were singing about. And once we had listened to a few Tumba songs, we’d heard plenty; they’re all quite similar to each other. But the people here love this style of music, and the finals on Friday night turn into a huge party which goes on until three or four in the morning.

The title of Tumba King 2016 went to Rubertico Balentien, who won the crowd over with his rousing tune Nos dos ta bati bai (We’re Going Together). Check it out if you want, and see if you can resist dancing to the beat.

Location of the Stadium on our Map

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January 25, 2016 at 10:14 pm Comments (0)

Fort Beekenburg

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Built in 1705 on the small Caracasbaai Peninsula, Fort Beekenburg once protected the natural harbor of Spanish Waters from attacks by pirates and foreign nations. The fort has remained in excellent condition, and makes for a fun excursion.

Fort Beekenburg Cruacao

Perhaps we have oil to thank for Fort Beekenburg’s current state of preservation. When Shell came to Curaçao in the early 1900s, the Caracasbaai Peninsula was made part of its property. The company had no major interest in the fort, and left it alone. Regular people weren’t allowed to visit Fort Beekenburg until 2005, when Shell sold the refinery to the government, and Caracasbaai was reopened to the public.

A perfectly circular tower with a number of evenly-spaced notches for cannons, Fort Beekenburg looks exactly how you might imagine a defensive bastion, like a rook from chess. This is a site completely open to exploration; there’s no entry cost, nor signs explicitly prohibiting or allowing access. You can walk up a rounded set of stone stairs onto the first story, and then climb a ladder to the top of the tower.

This was a real surprise for us; we didn’t expect to find Fort Beekenburg in such good condition, and appreciated the fact that we could freely climb around at our leisure. This was the first thing we did during our visit to the Caracasbaai Peninsula, an area of Curaçao which turned out to be full of fun experiences.

Location on our Map

List Of Hotels On Curacao

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January 24, 2016 at 3:47 pm Comment (1)

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The Infamous Isla Refinery of Curaao In the early 20th century, oil was discovered off the coast of Venezuela. And Curaçao was the perfect location for Royal Dutch Shell to capitalize on the new black gold, thanks to the Schottegat: a large natural harbor capable of handling massive barges and tankers. After the 1915 opening of the Isla Refinery, life on the island would never be the same.
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