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Pietermaai Smal

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One of Curaçao’s four historic districts, Pietermaai Smal lays just to the east of Punda, between the Waaigat Harbor and the Caribbean. Once the most exclusive neighborhood on the island, Pietermaai endured a long, painful period of deterioration. But recently, it’s picked itself back up and become a home to the island’s trendiest clubs and restaurants, and its most popular boutique hotels.

Pietermaai Curacao

Willemstad’s initial expansion outside its city walls was west, across the Saint Anna Bay into Otrobanda. But in the 18th century, the capital expanded east as well. Pietermaai Smal was originally constructed as a home for merchants and the officers of the Dutch West Indian Company, and their high status is reflected in the impressive size of the homes. The neighborhood was known for its theaters and restaurants, and soon became the center of the island’s cultural and business life.

But in September of 1877, Pietermaai was devastated by the “Orkan Grandi,” a powerful hurricane which wiped out many of the neighborhood’s houses, and prompted residents to move elsewhere. Many relocated north into the Scharloo District, and the seeds of Pietermaai’s long twilight were planted.

Throughout most of the 20th century, and up until just a few years ago, Pietermaai was overrun with drug dealers who installed themselves inside the neighborhood’s deteriorating houses. But recently, a major effort has been made to clean up Pietermaai and restore it to its former glory.

Pietermaai Curacao

As far as we can tell, that effort has been a rousing success. There are still some destitute houses, but most have already been restored. There’s a burgeoning culinary scene here, with well-regarded cafes and restaurants setting up shop. And Pietermaai is a great place to go out — the 27 Club, Scuba Lodge and San Tropez are just a few of the bars and clubs in which we spent some fun nights.

Pietermaai was once home to the Dutch officers of the West Indian Trading Company, and today the neighborhood is once again dominated by their blue-eyed descendants. Walking around here on a Friday night can be shocking; the huge majority of people are white, and the only language you’ll hear is Dutch. Tourists heavily outnumber long-term residents in Pietermaai; the deteriorated houses were bought up by developers with business interests, and mostly converted into hotels.

Like all of Willemstad’s historic neighborhoods, Pietermaai is nothing if not colorful — every house is painted a different shade. During the day, it’s fun to stroll along the main strip and see the bright greens, reds and yellows of its historic buildings. And at night, the neighborhood is so lively that it can almost seem like one big party. Even if you’re not staying here, Pietermaai shouldn’t be missed; the neighborhood is yet another of this diverse country’s distinctive faces.

Location on our Map

List of Curacao Hotels

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February 12, 2016 at 7:28 pm Comments (0)

Boka Pos Spanjo and Boka Hulu

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In the rolling, undeveloped hills to the west of St. Martha’s Bay, we completed a long hike through the woods to a few isolated coves, including Boka Pos Spanjo and Boka Hulu. This same trail passes by both the Blue Room and Santu Pretu, but unless you’re prepared for a very long day, you’ll have to pick and choose which beaches you stop at.

Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu

We were already familiar with the first kilometer of the trail, as it’s the same one we took from Santa Cruz to the black-sand beach of Santu Pretu. But after Santu Pretu, the trail continues inland. This is a wild region of Curaçao, and we didn’t encounter anyone for the entirety of our hike. For the next 90 minutes, we walked up and down deceptively large hills, suffering with the heat and occasionally winning a view over the area.

At the top of the biggest hill, we found the ruins of the old Bos Spanjo Plantation. This place must have been abandoned for more than a hundred years, because almost nothing remains apart from the foundation. We’ve seen more evocative ruins, but it was exciting to explore such an out-of-the-way, forgotten place.

Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu

From here, it was an easy, downhill walk to Boka Pos Spanjo, whose name I’m guessing means “Spanish Rest.” The beach was full of coral, and the water was too rough to allow swimming, but we sat down to watch a pelican at work, and enjoyed the view across Santa Martha Bay.

The trail now continued on to Boka Hulu. By this point, we’d been hiking for well over two hours, and our energy was starting to flag. Two hours of exercise in Curaçaoan heat is no joke, and it’s important to pack more water than you think you might need. But arriving at Hulu lifted our spirits. After climbing down a set of stone steps to the bay, the scene awaiting us was just gorgeous. We spread out our towels in the shade of a low, rocky overhang, and stretched out.

As they had been at Pos Spanjo, the conditions at Hulu were too rough for swimming, but I was unable to resist after the sweaty hike. And I was immediately sorry; the jagged rocks were too shallow, the waves far too powerful, and I was lucky to emerge from the water unscathed. I think that when the waters are calmer, you could swim at Hulu, but I’m not sure about that.

Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu

The rest of our hike brought us back north, past the jump-off point for the Blue Room and returning us to Santu Pretu. At a slow pace with plenty of breaks, this ten-kilometer loop took us about three hours. There are ways to make it shorter, though. For instance, you could stick to the coast and entirely skip the more grueling interior part of the loop; it’s pretty, but possibly not worth the effort.

Whatever you decide to do in this wild region west of the Santa Martha Bay, you’re almost certain to be doing it alone. We love excursions like this; I don’t know if it means we’re antisocial, but there’s nothing better than a day of hiking without seeing another soul.

Locations on our Map: Boka Pos Spanjo | Boka Hulu
Our Route on Wikiloc

Hotels Of Curacao

Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu
Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu
Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu
Boka Pos Spanjo and Playa Hulu
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February 12, 2016 at 5:16 pm Comments (0)

The Coastal Walk from Otrobanda to Piscadera

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A popular walking path connects the neighborhood of Otrobanda to Piscadera, up the coast to the north. We regularly drive by this path, and always see people walking their dogs or jogging on it. So we decided to join them on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon, for a much-needed spot of exercise.

Willemstad Piscadera Walk

We started walking from our house in Otrobanda, but the real “beginning” of this path is just past Holiday Beach. For awhile, every time we saw this hotel-casino complex, Jürgen would say, “There’s Denise,” or “Why is Denise here?” I let it go at first, because it was cute, but eventually I had to correct his pronunciation. “That’s Denny’s.” But he was right — what is Denny’s doing here? It seems strange.

In order to make a nice loop, we walked toward Piscadera on the main boulevard. This wasn’t as pleasant as the coastal path, because of the heavy traffic and the oppressive stench of sewage. Just past Holiday Beach, there’s a small mangrove forest, which seems to be fertilized straight from the toilets of Otrobanda.

We sped past the poop-munching mangroves as swiftly as possible and proceeded on to Piscadera, where the path turned back south and toward the coast. Away from traffic, this is where our walk started to be enjoyable. The long, sandy beach here, Playa Parasasa, appears to be a secret tip hidden in plain sight; it’s in a perfect position for sunset and popular with locals. We made a mental note to return one evening for swimming.

Willemstad Piscadera Walk

As we walked south, we came upon Aqualectra’s decommissioned Mundu Nobo desalination plant, which opened back in 1948, and looks its age. Despite a low average rainfall and almost no fresh groundwater to speak of, Curaçao is renowned for the excellent quality of its tap water. A number of plants around the island distill salt water straight from the ocean, making it safe (and delicious) to drink. Along with Aruba, Curaçao was home to the world’s first commercial desalination plants.

Across from the plant, ranged along the waterfront, are a number of rickety fisherman shacks. This is a lively area, with men and women outside working on their nets and boats, or cleaning fish which has just been brought in from the sea. In a couple weeks, we would be returning to this spot for both scuba diving, and lunch at an incredible seafood joint.

The path ends up at a small park dedicated to the black struggle for freedom, with a large sculpture of hands breaking the chains which had bound them. We were fatigued, and didn’t spend much time in the park. This had been a long, but entertaining walk; I would recommend starting from Holiday Beach, and perhaps just doing the coastal section; you’re not missing much by skipping the boulevard.

Locations on our Map: Holiday Beach | Playa Parasasa | Mundu Nobo Desalination Plant
Our Route on Wikiloc

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February 10, 2016 at 7:02 pm Comments (0)

In the Air with Blue Skies Helicopters

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We’ve been up in a Cessna, floated in a hot-air balloon, and even tried out paragliding, but neither Jürgen nor I had ever been in a helicopter. With colorful towns and diverse nature packed into a small area and framed by clear Caribbean waters, Curaçao is a perfect candidate for a helicopter tour. So we were thrilled when Blue Skies invited us on a trip around the island’s eastern coast.

Helicopter Tour Curacao
The view over Punda

Based in Otrobanda on the Saint Anna Bay, Blue Skies is the island’s only helicopter tourism company, and their chopper is a familiar sight in the skies of Curaçao, easy to recognize with its bright blue body. They’ve been in operation since 2007, and offer a number of different tours in a Bel 206 Jetranger (which, according to their website, is the safest chopper in the world).

Looking over the map in their office, they showed us the route we’d be taking, over Spanish Waters and the Eastpoint, before returning over Punda. Sounded good to us, but it was hard to concentrate since my mind was on a hyperactive loop. “Chopper chopper chopper,” as though I was five-years-old again. I just couldn’t wait to get inside the thing and get going!

Helicopter Tour Curacao
The Seaquarium

Lifting off was strange at first; this is a totally different experience to flying in an airplane, but we adjusted quickly. The tour was perfect. The entire southeastern section of Curaçao, a huge swath of land known as Oostpunt, is private property. The owner has steadfastly resisted selling it off, prohibiting access to practically everyone. The result is a pristine, untouched natural environment, and one of the few ways to see it is from the air. We flew high above the region, and then came down low to inspect some of the highlights. Once, hovering just a few meters above a large lagoon, we saw a turtle swimming along, unconcerned about the giant machine whirring above its head.

Jürgen was in a state of photography panic. As we coasted over Punda and Otrobanda, it looked as though he had eight arms and four cameras, so fast was he turning from side to side to snap pictures. There’s nothing like taking pictures from the air, and the helicopter permits a freedom of movement not possible in an airplane; our pilot was able to hover, circle a specific target, and lower or raise, depending on what we were trying to shoot.

Helicopter Tour Curacao
The eastern coast of Eastpoint

The tour was everything we could have possibly hoped for, and we had fun with the team behind Blue Skies, who were very friendly. It’s a safe assumption that they enjoy their job, and it shows. If you’re interested, take a look at the various tours and specials on offer, and get in touch. And if you have a special wish, they’re open to custom flights as well.

Blue Skies Helicopters – Website

Cheap Flights To Curacao

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Avila Beach Hotel
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Mambo Beach
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Jan Thiel
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Fort Beekenburg with the Kabrietenburg behind it
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Spanish Waters
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Santa Barbera Golf Resort & Tafelberg
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Salt Flats at Eastpoint
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The Eastpoint Lagoon
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St. Joris Bay
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Helicopter Tour CuracaoQueen Juliana Bridge
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Otrobanda
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Helicopter Tour Curacao
Rif Fort in foreground
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February 9, 2016 at 1:26 pm Comments (2)

The Historic Neighborhood of Punda

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Punda was the first area in Willemstad to be colonized by the Dutch, and today has become famous for the superb condition of its colorful, 18th-century buildings. Although we lived in Otrobanda, we crossed the bay almost daily to spend time in Punda, to eat, shop, or just enjoy the neighborhood’s lively atmosphere.

When it was originally settled, this neighborhood was called “De Punt” (“The Point”), a name which eventually evolved into Punda. Willemstad’s most historic buildings are found here, from Fort Amseterdam and the Fortkerk to the Mikvé Emmanuel-Israel Synagogue. And this is the location of the Handelskade: the waterfront collection of multi-colored buildings that has become Curaçao’s most emblematic image.

Over the years, Punda has developed a split personality, in its attempts to please two completely different sets of people. This is ground-zero for cruise ship tourism, and when ships are in port, you’ll find thousands of foreigners roaming the streets of Punda, ordering over-priced meals along the Saint Anna Bay and raiding souvenir shops. But the neighborhood is equally popular with locals, who come here to work and socialize.

If you’re in the mood for local grub, Punda is the place to go. Plasa Bieu might be the most popular spot to try Curaçaoan fare, but there are any number of other affordable joints. We love the Kowloon Restaurant on Keukenstraat, as well as Yat Sun Snack across from the Floating Market. Don’t let the Chinese names throw you off — these restaurants are Curaçaoan through-and-through. We can also recommend the Latin flavors at Kriollomanía and Yammie Madness Chef, for their food as much as for their names. And we liked they tiny Restaurante Simone, for Indian dishes via Suriname.

Not many people reside in Punda, any longer; the neighborhood has become almost strictly for business, eating and shopping. But this always has been, and likely always will be the center of Willemstad… and thus of Curaçao. And we’ve found it impossible to spend time here, without enjoying ourselves. If you’re not smiling in Punda, you’re probably the only one.

Locations on our Map: Handelskade | Plasa Bieu | Kowloon | Yat Sun Snack | Krillomanía | Yammie Madness Chef | Restaurante Simone

Travel Insurance For Curacao

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February 6, 2016 at 8:51 pm Comment (1)

The Curaçao Aloe Vera Plantation

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Curaçao has a long history of cultivating aloe vera, since it’s one of the few plants able to thrive in the island’s dry and windy climate. We visited the Curaloe Plantation and Factory, near the Ostrich Farm and St. Joris Bay, to see how the plants are grown, harvested and processed. Or at least, that’s what we were hoping to see.

Aloe Vera Farm Curacao

The Curaloe Plantation is free to visit, and that’s absolutely appropriate, considering that it offers almost nothing to the visitor. After parking and looking at the wide fields of aloe vera, we went inside the reception building. The woman working informed us that they don’t do tours of the factory, nor are there tours of the fields. “So what can we do?”

We could stand on the wooden platform next to the parking lot and look at the fields. We could read a few information signs about the history of aloe. We could buy expensive products in the shop. We could watch short videos about the production of aloe vera on a TV in the shop. And that was it.

Aloe Vera Farm Curacao

It was impossible to hide our disappointment, so she hastened to inform us that watching the videos was “just as good” as touring the plantation. We scoffed, but she doubled down, becoming almost irritated. “Yes, it is. The videos have all the same information. There’s no reason for anyone to see inside the factory, or visit the fields.” At this point, we gave up. Good to know that short YouTube videos are a superior substitute for actual experiences! Now I don’t ever have to actually make it to Machu Pichu; I can just watch some online drone footage.

Of course, factories are under no obligation to open their doors to tourists. But then, they shouldn’t promote themselves as a tourist experience. All Curaloe really wants is to get you inside their store.

This was, hands down, the lamest experience we had on Curaçao, and especially disappointing since we generally love visiting factories like this. If you’re dying to see a field full of the plants, by all means, make a quick stop. It’s free. But don’t go hoping for an interesting look into the production of aloe vera.

Location on our Map

A List Of Curacao Hotels

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February 6, 2016 at 4:29 pm Comments (0)

Intrepid Explorers Discover Playa Hunku

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We carefully made our way along an overgrown path, which, according to my calculations, had last been used by the Arwak Indians sometime in the late 1400s. Our mission was to find the legendary Playa Hunku, a place rumored about in whispered conversations across the island, but which no living man or woman had yet laid eyes upon. Our expedition was fraught with danger (cacti! mosquitoes!) but after a wearying trek of twenty entire minutes, we saw it: the fabled beach of Playa Hunku. And it was ours… all ours!!

Playa Hunky Curacao

The best part about this story is, I’m only exaggerating a little bit. Playa Hunku really is a hidden gem on Curaçao. Despite being so close to the popular resort of Playa Porto Mari, relatively few people know about it. We’ve even met locals who weren’t aware of its existence.

I hasten to point out that Playa Hunku is on private land. The road which leads there is closed, with signs indicating that trespassing is forbidden, and this might explain why the beach is almost always empty. But we checked with a few quasi-legitimate sources, all of whom assured us that it wouldn’t be a problem to walk over to the beach via the short path from Porto Mari. The owners don’t really care if the occasional tourist finds their way here, but they don’t want to open the road and have it become popular on a larger scale.

The path to Playa Hunku begins at the back of Porto Mari’s parking lot, with a brisk ascent up the Seru Mateo. From the top of this hill, you can look back for a nice view over the Playa Porto Mari… and it looks so beautiful, you’ll be tempted to run back down the hill and jump into the water. But press on, audacious adventurer! After a short hike of about twenty minutes, you’ll reach the other side of the hill, and be rewarded with your first glimpse of Playa Hunku. Note that the descent to the beach is steep and requires some caution.

The beach is a dream; a beautiful patch of sand, larger than we expected, with excellent snorkeling. While I was out by myself, a massive fish swam next to me, easily six feet long. I only spotted it from the corner of my eye, and wasn’t able to identify it before it swam swiftly away. In moments like this, logic flies out the window… I know there are no shark attacks on Curaçao. I know that. But I also know there’s always a first time. So I went into panic mode, swimming as swiftly as possible to shore. Later, Jürgen dared to go in after me, and got a better look at the same fish… it was a tuna.

We had an incredible time at Playa Hunku, and are loathe to write about it, since the magic of the place lies in its mystery and seclusion. But you’re reading this, which means you’re cool, so we’re letting you in on the tip. If you do go, please keep in mind that you’re a guest on private land. Don’t show up with a huge party, and (although it hardly needs said) make sure to clean up after yourself.

Get your Travel Health Insurance for Curacao, here!!!

Location on our Map
Our Route on Wikiloc

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February 5, 2016 at 11:04 pm Comments (2)

Driving Around the Christoffelpark

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After having hiked to the top of Christoffelberg, we had enough time to continue exploring the park. A driving route recommended by the visitor’s center brought us to a few interesting sights, including a remote beach, a dark cave, and ancient rock paintings made by the Arwak Indians.

Christoffel Park Drive

The hike had left us so exhausted, that even a driving route sounded unappealing. “You mean we have to press down on the gas, and turn the wheel? Unnhhhh… god!” But entrance to the park is expensive enough that we didn’t want to pay to return another day, so we sucked it up and motored off into the nature. Heroic.

Christoffel Park Drive

The first stop was at a viewpoint overlooking the park. When the skies are exceptionally clear, you can supposedly see Bonaire from here. That wasn’t the case today, but we did have a nice view of Boka Grandi: the large inlet and beach that would be the next stop on our tour.

After relaxing on the sand, and nearly allowing the sound of the waves to put us to sleep, we hopped back into the car and continued for a few more minutes until reaching the cave. It was much bigger than we had expected, and we were able to crawl back far into its depths, where very little light was able to reach.

Christoffel Park Drive

Next to the cave is a set of rock paintings attributed to the Arwak Indians who were Curaçao’s original inhabitants. These paintings are thought to be up to 2000 years old. It can be hard to spot them, as they’ve faded with time, but the red markings are still visible on the rock.

Most visitors come to Christoffelpark to hike up Christoffelberg, and then they leave right away. But there’s a lot more to the park than just the mountain, including the excellent Savonet Museum and this driving tour. It’s an easy way to discover some additional highlights of Curaçao’s biggest national park.

Location on our Map: Boka Grandi

Best Curacao Rental Car Prices

Christoffel Park Drive
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February 5, 2016 at 9:11 pm Comments (0)

Hiking Around the Caracasbaai Peninsula

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We had heard about a hike around the small Caracasbaai Peninsula, leading from Tugboat Beach up to the top of the Kabrietenberg, and then back around the southern side of the peninsula. It would lead past mangrove forests and coral wastelands to Directorsbaai, before passing an abandoned mansion and returning to the starting point. Sounded perfect, and we couldn’t resist checking it out.

Caracas Bay Hike

The trail gets the hard stuff out of the way, first. After leaving Tugboat Beach, you climb the Kabrietenberg. From the beach, this steep hill appears intimidating, but we arrived at the summit in no time, more easily than expected. From here, there’s an unbeatable view over Spanish Waters, the bay where Curaçao’s wealthier inhabitants seem to keep their boats.

Caracas Bay Hike

After walking back down the hill, we continued around the peninsula in a clockwise direction. From the easternmost point, we were directly across from the Santa Barbara Resort. A native Curaçaoan would later tell us that, in his childhood, Barbara had been his favorite beach on the island. But that was before developers bought up the land for a luxury resort and golf course, and decided to protect their beach from the ocean by building an artificial barrier between the two.

We continued on our route, passing by mangrove forests and walking atop shifting mounds of dead coral, before reaching Directorsbaai, where we had already discovered some incredible snorkeling.

Caracas Bay Hike

As our trail turned back to the north, we came upon an empty 19th-century mansion at the top of a hill. This is known as the Quarantine House. Whatever diseases once lived inside its walls must have long since disappeared, so we felt alright about stepping inside to explore. But we were cautious, as the floors looked like they might give out any minute.

This hike was four and a half kilometers in total, and entertaining from start to finish. And since it ends at Tugboat Beach, you can reward yourself with a beer and a refreshing swim in the sea. At least, that’s what we did!

Locations on our Map: Tugboat Beach | Kabrietenberg Summit | Directorsbaai | Quarantine House
Our Route on Wikiloc

Hiking Gear For Curacao

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February 4, 2016 at 7:37 pm Comments (0)

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
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January 31, 2016 at 9:54 pm Comment (1)

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Pietermaai Smal One of Curaçao's four historic districts, Pietermaai Smal lays just to the east of Punda, between the Waaigat Harbor and the Caribbean. Once the most exclusive neighborhood on the island, Pietermaai endured a long, painful period of deterioration. But recently, it's picked itself back up and become a home to the island's trendiest clubs and restaurants, and its most popular boutique hotels.
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