Curaçao offers more than mere paradise

Written by Danielle Bauter – Januari 22, 2020

A trip to North Sea Jazz Festival becomes a journey of self discovery on this Caribbean island

Caribbean waters are crystal blue in Curaçao. (Photo by Eduardo Gato)

As the plane approached the tiny island of Curaçao, I gazed down on what would be my home for the next few days. The land was rimmed with turquoise water glinting off the surface, surrounded by ripples of a darker inky blue. Surveying the island, much of it appeared to be uninhabited, and I was surprised that it appeared more desertlike than tropical. Once we landed, I took in the colorful houses and colonial architecture in the island’s capital city of Willemstad. It was easy to convince myself that I was in Amsterdam, and not an island off the coast of Venezuela.

One of the largest and most prosperous islands in the Lesser Antilles, Curaçao evolved from an uncharted landmass to a large mercantile center of commerce. The Arawak Indians were the first to settle there, and in the 1600s the Dutch West India Company set up shop, bringing with it commerce, trading, and slavery. The Dutch struggled with the British to gain control of the island, but in 1815 the Treaty of Paris returned the island back to the Dutch. Once a part of the Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao became an independent nation under the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010, with the power to govern itself.

As we drove along the main road, I began thinking about what was in store for me over the next few days. Swimming with sea turtles was on the agenda, as well as an ATV tour of the island. As much as I was excited about both of these activities, I also had to admit that I was filled with a bit of trepidation. I liked to think of myself as a bold and intrepid traveller, but that wasn’t always the case. I couldn’t help but also be intimidated by the idea of embarking on these activities with a group of complete strangers, my companions for the next few days.

A yello Dutch-style mansion
The Governors Mansion of Curaçao reflects the influence of Dutch colonialism on the island. (Photo by Eduardo Gato)

We had all come to Curaçao to attend the North Sea Jazz Festival, an annual music festival that occurs every summer. Contrary to its name, the festival brings in performers from such varied genres as reggae, R&B, hip hop, jazz, and salsa. This year’s musicians included Earth Wind & Fire, Pitbull, Mariah Carey, Kenny G, Inner Circle, and Gladys Knight. Our group was there not only for the festival, but to experience some of the activities that the island has to offer.

On our first morning at Landhuis Jan Thiel, a rustic B&B located not far from Willemstad, we woke up to a hearty breakfast of omelets and sweet potato hash browns. As I savored my meal, one of the members of my group recounted how she had successfully climbed Mt. Everest. “After that, any obstacle that I encountered in my life just seemed to pale in comparison,” she enthused. I silently wondered if that could be applied to my situation as well. Maybe if I could conquer these (admittedly less significant) obstacles, others would feel less intimidating in the future.

Located near the heart of Westpunt, Playa Piskado is a secluded beach that is popular with snorkelers and divers. Playa Piskado translates to “Fisherman’s Beach,” and it lives up to its name as the small dock is often crowded with fisherman cleaning and selling their fish off the pier. They also toss the leftovers into the water, and the sea turtles are only too happy to oblige. When we first arrived I noticed a group of snorkelers hovering around the pier, all clamoring to catch a glimpse of the turtles. Occasionally the words “Don’t touch the turtles!” would pierce the air, the fishermen’s’ attempt to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Our guide gathered us together and explained that we would be using Sea Bob, a piece of equipment that is described as the world’s fastest underwater scooter. The goal is for the driver to glide through the water like a fish, using hand controls to increase or decrease speed as desired. Leaping immediately to the worst-case scenario, my mind filled with images of clinging on for dear life as Sea Bob zoomed toward the bottom of the ocean. With the control somehow locked at the highest speed and not having any way to turn it off, I would be powerless to stop it.

We split into groups, and I volunteered to go with the last group. As I waited for my turn, I grew restless and decided to swim over to the pier. Immersed in the frenzy of snorkelers, I came eye-to-eye with one of the sea turtles who had popped his head up out of the water. His expression suggested that he was smirking at me, challenging my fear of this seemingly harmless activity. What was I so afraid of? Suddenly my desire to swim with these graceful creatures outweighed any hesitation I might have had about using Sea Bob, so I swam back over to my group. It was now or never.

After the guide gave me a quick tutorial, I was off and running, surprised at how easy it was to maneuver the machine through the water. I was able to steer by leaning my body to the left or right, and was relieved to know that it has a safety cut-off feature that ensures you won’t go any deeper than a specified depth. I started to relax, going deeper until I spotted schools of colorful fish swimming by me, followed by families of sea turtles. Playa Piskado was an underwater wonderland, ripe for exploration.

After everyone had their turn, we headed to the nearby Blue View Sunset Terrace Restaurant, where we toasted with rum punches, enjoying our lunch and watching people take their turn at jumping off the cliff. Filled with triumph, I wondered if I had the guts to attempt the jump myself. Maybe if given enough rum punches, I concluded, but for now I’d have to save it for another day.

That evening we celebrated the opening of the North Sea Jazz Festival, and I was happy to learn that one of my favorites, a Cuban singer named Aymee Nuviola, was scheduled to perform. As I sipped my wine and swayed my hips to salsa music, I tried to push thoughts of the next day’s ATV tour from my mind, intent instead on enjoying the moment.

I woke the next morning with butterflies in my stomach, and a cautious hope that the ATV tour would go as smoothly as swimming with sea turtles had. We arrived at Eric’s ATV Adventures and were fitted with helmets and bandanas. I had never driven an ATV and wasn’t sure what to expect, but one thing I did know was that I wanted to be at the back of the pack. There were ten of us in the group, and the two guides explained that one of them would be at the front and the other would hold up the back.

We started off by following a circular course, and as soon as one of the guides felt that we were ready he announced that everyone was to follow me. Suddenly I was at the front of the pack, which became its own trial by fire. Rather than suggest that I’d be better suited for the back, I swallowed my fear and plunged forward, the vehicle hemming and hawing as I adjusted to the sensitivity of the brakes and the power of the accelerator.

A line of ATVs
ATVs at the ready in Curaçao. (Photo by Danielle Bauter)

Once we went off-road, adrenaline took over. I pulled the bandana up over my mouth and couldn’t help but smile as I realized that I was actually having fun. I felt the freedom of the road and the wind blowing through my hair, slowly exhaling as I started to relax.

We celebrated with a delicious lunch at Laman, a new restaurant near the Seaquarium. As we laughed and shared stories about our ATV adventure, I recalled the words that one of the women in my group, now a friend, had shared. Maybe these activities, however small, had helped nudge me towards newfound confidence in myself and my abilities. Maybe the trick was just to trust that I was capable of more than I thought. I reflected on other things in my life that I was anxious about, and they did seem a lot more possible now. And I had Curaçao to thank for that.