Exploring History and Culture in Curaçao

Travel writer Mark Stevens visits the island's colourful colonial buildings, historic forts and museums and plantation-style land houses. 
 

Willemstad/iStock

Mark Stevens

I’m riding the ferry across St. Anna Bay in Willemstad, Curaçao, heading to the city’s historic centre. As the boat approaches the dock, a strip of colonial Baroque houses, known collectively as The Handelskade, comes into view. The structures look like they belong in Amsterdam, except that they’re teal and turquoise, coral and buttercup—colours that came courtesy of the island’s erstwhile governor Albert Kikkert, who, in the early 1800s, complained that the buildings’ original whitewash gave him headaches.

The sight before me is delightfully discombobulating: it’s Europe meets the Caribbean—meets Disneyland.

A fort lies off the ferry’s starboard bow, another dead astern, and, as I disembark and scramble ashore, I opt for a walking tour to get a closer look at the sights in Curaçao’s capital—a designated UNESCO World Heritage City. 

 

“Each museum is a surprise, revealing unexpected layers to the island’s rich past.”

 

Originally populated by the Arawak, Curaçao has been ruled by a variety of European nations throughout its long history—including Spain, France, Britain and the Netherlands—and each has left a cultural imprint.

First stop on the walking tour is Fort Amsterdam, circa 1635. “See that?” says my guide, pointing at a cannonball embedded in the walls of the fort (just one of eight island strongholds still in existence). “Captain Bligh [of the British Royal Navy] ordered it fired during a siege in 1804.”

We also visit the Fort Church Museum within the island’s oldest church (completed in 1771); the Museum Kura Hulanda, which documents the solemn history of slavery in the area; and the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, which is located inside the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continuously operating synagogue. Each museum is a surprise, revealing unexpected layers to the island’s rich past.

 

Landhuis Jan Kok, photo by Bridgetjones/Dreamstime

 

The next day, I venture beyond Willemstad to explore Curaçao’s landhuizen, or land houses—the Dutch equivalent of plantation houses. These buildings, constructed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, are vibrant cultural artifacts: pastel-painted mansions strategically located on hilltops overlooking what were once fields of cotton, indigo and tobacco. Today, many of the landhuizen serve different functions. Landhuis Jan Kok, for instance, hosts a gallery featuring work by local artist Nena Sanchez, and Landhuis Savonet houses a museum that showcases the lives of the island’s various inhabitants over the centuries.

On my last night in Curaçao, gazing out at Willemstad from the ramparts of 19th-century Rif Fort, I know I’ve only scratched the surface of this place.

I will be back.


Local tip: “Taste our local cuisine. Try sopi di yuana (iguana soup) or funchi (corn meal) at the open-air food 
market. Or join 
us for Simadan, a cultural harvest celebration held 
around Easter.” —Darrilyne Elstak, museum and corporate supervisor at Museum Kura Hulanda


Getting there: WestJet flies to Curaçao once a week from Toronto.

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