A short guide to Curagao

Our roving connoisseur explores the Caribbean island's history and highlights.


Burt Wolf
February 17, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

The island of Curagao was formed 90 million years ago in the Pacific Ocean near Peru, got pushed into the Caribbean Sea to a point just off the coast of Venezuela and ended up as part of the Dutch Kingdom of the Netherlands. (And I thought my life was confusing!)

The capital city of Willemstad is like a mini-Amsterdam transported to a tropical climate. The coral reefs that surround the island have made it a premier destination for divers. The beaches have made it a premier destination for vacationers. Only 150,000 people live on the island but they came from more than 50 different nations. This extraordinary ethnic mix makes for marvelously multicultural traditions.

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The first Europeans to set foot on Curagao were Spanish explorers who arrived in 1499. As soon as they realized there was no gold on the island, they set up a few cattle farms as a future source of food and shoved off. In 1634 the Dutch showed up and took control of the island. The Spanish gave up without much resistance. The cattle, however, put up a great fight -- but in the end were forced to surrender.

Architecture and the oldest synagogue in the New World

In the historic center of Willemstad -- called Punda, which means "the point" -- the architecture is classic Dutch colonial from the 1600s and 1700s. The initial approach to the buildings in Willemstad was the same as those used in Holland during the same period, but eventually, island builders altered the designs to meet the demands of the tropical climate -- incorporating open porches, fretwork and shutters. Houses were positioned to take advantage of the cooling trade winds that would blow through the hallways, acting as a natural air conditioner. The bedrooms and living areas were placed on the windward side of the structure; kitchens and workrooms were downwind. Successful Dutch merchants built structures that combined offices, warehouses, storefronts and living areas. The Penha building dates from 1708, which was about the time the area was fully built up.

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At that point, construction started across the channel in a district called Otrobanda, which means "the other side." Officially building permits were limited to warehouses and one-story residences; you can still see these early buildings. But the Dutch merchants were making big bucks and decided to ignore the building restrictions. They embraced the architectural style best described as "if you got it, flaunt it" -- which is still popular in many parts of the world.

Because Otrobanda had never been walled in for protection, more room was available. The homes in this area are similar to Curagao's country estates, with gardens and separate servants quarters.

Starting in the 1700s, free blacks began moving into the area. By the early 20th century, Otrobanda was a cultural center for the rising black middle class; many of Curagao's influential politicians, professionals and artists grew up in this neighborhood. Otrobanda also had an influx of Middle Eastern merchants. Today the district reflects the rich ethnic diversity of the island.

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Punda and Otrobanda are connected by the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, which is really a piece of work. During the 1880s, the U.S. consul to Curagao was Leonard B. Smith, an engineer who saw the need for a bridge between Punda and Otrobanda. Smith convinced the government of Curagao to commission him to build one. The bridge is set on a series of floats. At each end is a diesel engine attached to a propeller. When the engines are started, the bridge turns on its central axis, allowing the harbor traffic to pass.

The second major group to settle on Curagao after the Dutch were Sephardic Jews, who first arrived from Amsterdam in 1659. The Dutch Protestant majority accepted them without limitations on where they lived or their occupations. They first settled along the Punda waterfront, but by the early 1800s many wanted a more comfortable and stately lifestyle. Otrobanda had become a solidly Protestant community, so they began building in an area just north of Punda called Scharloo. The structures are Italian neoclassic, with brighter colors and more intricate details than those built by the Dutch. Within a few years the stylish homes of Scharloo were being imitated across the island.

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The Jewish community on Curagao also built the Mikveh Israel Emanuel Synagogue, which opened for Passover services in 1732 and has been in use since -- making it the oldest synagogue in continuous operation in the New World. The floor of the building is covered with sand as a reminder of the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert after escaping from bondage in Egypt. But the sand is also a reminder of the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to practice their religion in secret rooms. Sand muffled the sound of their movements and voices.

On the High Holy Days the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., (the oldest in the United States) prays for the well being of the Mikveh Synagogue in Curagao because it was money from Mikveh that built Touro.

Willemstad is the only place I know of that turned its ancient forts and prisons into restaurants instead of monuments. The old buildings in Willemstad are grand structures -- in fact, the historic area of Willemstad, the inner city and the harbor, has been placed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's world heritage list -- but like so many glorious things they contain the seeds of their own destruction. Coral and quarry stone held together with mortar that contained sand from the beaches and seawater were used for the walls. Eventually the salt in the coral, sand and seawater began leaching out and eating away at the buildings, which began to crumble. Fortunately there is an aggressive rehabilitation program and many of the most important buildings will be saved.

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Beaches

But sand and seawater are not always negative elements: Great beaches and water sports are two of the main reasons people visit Curagao. The island has dozens of public and private beaches. Some have snack bars, showers and an assortment of seaside services; others are secluded.

The same constant 13-knot wind that moved the Spanish treasure galleons and the Dutch, French and English pirate ships of the 1500s is now available to windsurfers. Water temperature is constant throughout the year, ranging from 75 to 81 degrees, with 100-foot visibility below the surface.

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Curagao has been rated one of the best Caribbean islands for shore diving and snorkeling. Most dive sites are easily accessible because the reefs are near the water's edge. The lack of rain on Curagao may be bad for farmers, but it's great for divers. It sets up the high-salt content in the nearby waters that is just the environment for the development of coral reefs.

If you're not quite in the Cousteau class but interested in having an animal encounter of a nautical kind, you can stop into the Curagao Sea Aquarium. A natural tidal pool near the edge of the Seaquarium is home to hundreds of tropical fish, including a group of sharks that live behind a wire fence fitted with a Plexiglas window. Visitors can take a short diving lesson, go below and feed the sharks and the other fish through small holes in the Plexiglas.

The slave trade

By the middle of the 1600s, Curagao had become the center of the Dutch trading empire in the New World. Unfortunately, a major part of that trade was conducted in slaves. The Kura Hulanda Museum in Willemstad tells the story of this appalling business, which went on from 1441 to 1863. There is a reconstruction of the hold of a slave ship, a collection of more than 200 historic prints, and groups of artifacts relating to the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Africans were brought to Curagao and then resold to plantations throughout the New World. The island became the largest transport center for slaves, with over 500,000 Africans passing through the port.

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Of course, slavery still exists all over the world. Sometimes the slaves are illegal aliens forced to work for the people who brought them to the United States or Canada, indentured laborers in an Asian factory or a child bride sold off by her family. It's all slavery and it's all about money. A visit to a museum like this will quickly remind you that the fight against it is far from over.

The museum was funded by Jacob Gelt Dekker, who was born in the Netherlands in 1948, earned advanced degrees in medicine, dentistry and business administration, and made a considerable fortune as an entrepreneur developing Budget Rent A Car and a chain of 160 photo stores in Europe. Dekker is presently devoting his life and wealth to the education of the children of Curagao. In addition to the material on the slave trade, he has put together a collection of traditional African arts and crafts.

Healing teas

Today, the descendents of African slaves represent the majority of the population. They occupy important positions in government and business, but retain beneath their sophisticated lifestyles a deep appreciation for the traditions that held their community together during the hard times. One of the most interesting aspects of that heritage lies in the area of healing. Doctors were rarely available to Africans. Medicine became the responsibility of women who understood the use of plants in healing. They were of great importance to the community. Their art was brought from Africa and adapted to the plant life of the island. Herbal medicine is still used in Curagao, and its leading practitioner is Dinah Veeris, who is available for private consultations.

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Dinah's rules:

  • The first rule is never to use any ingredient in even quantities. This means, for example, use 1 or 3 leaves, never 2, 4 or 6. It is also important to use odd numbers when mixing herbs.

  • It is better to gather herbs during daylight. Many elders believe that herbs sleep at night and the best time to gather them is noon.

  • If a person faces an emergency and is forced to gather herbs after sunset, he should talk to the plant to wake it up before he gathers the herbs.

  • It is all right to use herbs at night when you already have them inside the house.

  • Also, it is important not to drink herbal teas or tonics together with other prescription medications, because they may counteract each other.

  • When making herbal tea: boil the water and put the ingredients into the water. Make sure you turn off the heat under the water once it is boiling. Do not boil everything together. Once the stove is off, cover the pot and let the tea steep.

Talk the talk

Almost everyone on Curagao speaks at least four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish and the local language, a Creole dialect called Papiamentu.

The earliest form of Papiamentu developed in Africa during the 1400s as a means of communication between Portuguese slave traders and African tribes. The basic grammar was African, but the words were mostly Portuguese. When it came to the Caribbean, it developed differently on each island -- Haiti gave it a French twist, the British colonies Anglicized it. On Curagao it incorporated Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese elements.

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Today over 200,000 people speak Papiamentu. The grammar is simple and almost everything is spelled just the way it sounds. If you listen carefully, it's rather easy to catch on. Bon dia means good day. Bon nochi, good night. Danki is thank you. Masha danki -- much thanks. And the first words I used when I arrived -- ban kome, which means, "Let's eat!"

What's cooking on Curagao

Almost everything eaten on the island has been caught in the surrounding ocean or imported. The nearest sources are the Venezuelan farms on the coast of South America. Every morning boats from Venezuela tie up along the docks of Willemstad and offer fruit, vegetables and fish. The floating market has been a shopping area for well over a hundred years.

At the same time that the Dutch West Indies Company was busy doing business in the Caribbean, the Dutch East Indies Company was busy in the Pacific. A major center for their activities was Indonesia, and the internal business between the Dutch east and the Dutch west led to an Indonesian influence on Curagao. And some great Indonesian food.

The Rysttafel Restaurant in Willemstad takes its name from the fact that at both lunch and dinner it serves a traditional Indonesian Rijst-Tafel, which means "rice table." This was the phrase used by Dutch colonists to describe a meal at which a bowl of rice was surrounded by 20 or more dishes of meat, fish, vegetables, noodles, eggs and condiments -- the diners choosing what they liked in buffet style. During the 300 years of contact between the Dutch and Indonesians, the Rijst-Tafel became an extravagant institution with servants carrying in one dish after another. In essence, it is an extension of the Indonesian family dinner, which consists of rice and five or six additional dishes.

(As long as we are working our way through the Far Eastern kitchens of Curagao, I should point out that the island has a large Chinese community and dozens of Chinese restaurants too.)

The Avila Beach Hotel

In the interest of seeing the authentic and the traditional, I stayed at the Avila Beach Hotel. The original structure dates back to 1776, when it was the residence of the colonial governor. It is also where the great liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, lived during his years of exile. For a while it was a private school. Then a private hospital. And finally, it was renovated into a beachfront hotel with two private cove beaches.

The property has a quiet, elegant and unpretentious style; many of the guests are families and businesspeople from Holland. There's a pier with a restaurant and live jazz -- the Dutch have been lovers of American jazz since the 1920s. The hotel has such a respected position in the community that the government issued three Avila Beach Hotel stamps to help celebrate its 50th birthday.

Music and dance

Curagao's music is a blend of European, Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. influences, but for me the most interesting part of its heritage is African, particularly a form called tambu.

Tambu was born in the slave communities as a release from oppression. The drum known as the tambu and the chapi, a type of field hoe, are played against the other in a complicated rhythm.

The singing is a series of set calls and responses. Both the music and the dance are part of an ancient African tradition. The social comment inherent in the lyrics and the erotic tension of the dance were more than the government and the Catholic Church could stand and for years they mounted an aggressive campaign to suppress tambu. Even today, a government ordinance limits public tambu parties to a few weeks before and after the end of the year.

Carnival

The great national festival of Curagao is a combination of African and European traditions that begins in January and lasts six weeks. For four days and much of the nights composers, singers and bands compete for the honor of having their music selected as the official march of the New Year's carnival. A king and queen are chosen. On opening day of the carnival, also in January, the participants put on their costumes and dance through the streets. Over the next few weeks, parties called "jump ups" are organized. On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the Grand March takes place and the old social year comes to an end. Which also brings us to the end of this guide.

Names and numbers

Avila Beach Hotel

P.O. Box 791

Curagao, Netherlands Antilles

Telephone: 011-599-9-461-4377

E-mail: info@avilahotel.com

Tone Moller, general manager

Rysttafel Indonesian Restaurant
Mercuriusstraat 13-15

Curagao, Netherlands Antilles

Telephone: 011-599-9-461-2606

Jaanchie's Restaurant

Westpunt 15,

Curagao, Netherlands Antilles

Telephone: 011-599-9-560-3154

Curagao Tourism Development Bureau

Pietermaai 19, P. O. Box 3266

Curagao, Netherlands Antilles

Telephone: 011-599-9-461-600

E-mail: ctdbcur@ctdb.com

Curagao Tourist Board

475 Park Avenue South

Suite 2000

New York, NY 10016

Telephone: (800) 270-3350

Email: ctdbny@ctdb.com

Kura Hulanda Museum

Klipstraat 9, Willemstad

Curagao, Netherlands Antilles

Email: kurahulanda@interneeds.net


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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