All About Curacao: An Interview with Alan van der Hilst
Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
Interview with Alan van der Hilst, a Curacao native who also happens to be a grad student in economics and my good friend.
Alan– thanks for giving me an insiders guide to Curacao. I have to admit that before I met you, I had never heard oft the island before. Tell me a bit about it.
It is an island in the Caribbean a few miles off the coast of Venezuela. Curacao is a beachy island, lot of sun but you can see some great cultural things to see too. Most people know about the island because we produce the liquor “blue curacao” which comes in pretty much every blue cocktail. It’s funny because blue curacao comes in many colors so you have to order “red blue curacao” and “green blue curacao”, but I digress…
How do you get there? Are tickets expensive?
I fly into Miami International Airport and then take American Airlines’ daily flight into Hato Airport, the only airport on the island. Tickets from Miami to Curacao are about $500 but it varies depending on the season.
Tell me about the geography and peoples of the island.
The shape of Curacao is long and narrow. Most people live on the east side of the island and it takes about three hours to drive from one end to the other. Over 30 beaches, little mountains, and small dry forests are scattered all over. Curacao used to be a Dutch colony so most people speak Dutch and English. Papiamentu – a Creole mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English and Arawak Indian is spoken by pretty much anyone born on the island. That brings up my next point. Everyone is of such mixed descent that nobody identifies themselves by their race anymore.
You mentioned cultural activities. What is there to do?
Well there’s always “Carnaval” – but we’ll talk about that later. You should see the “landhuizen”, which are the old slave owner houses. They are big yellow houses made of rocks and smoothed out mud/cement mix. Most are over 300 years old. Many have been converted into restaurants and museums but some remain residences that you can tour.
How can houses be made of mud? That sounds Three Little Pigsish.
Hmm…the houses are brick but use mud as mortar. I have my doubts about the little pigs though. The houses are obviously very well-built given their age and condition. They do need a lot of maintenance cause there is often salty deposits in the bricks, which can erode the rest of the building There is also Willemstad, the capital city. It is divided into two halves: Punda and Otrobanda. Punda is the more interesting half because it is older. You’d like the floating market. Barkjes, small boats from Venezuela come to Curacao to sell their fish and produce from their boats. You can also get a bunch of Venezuelan goods. There are a bunch of boutiques and outdoor vendors that sell all kinds of stuff. There is a floating bridge connecting the two sides of the city. Outside of downtown, you’ll find two suburbs: Scharloo and Pietermaai, which has some really old heerenhuizen, colonial style mansions built by businessmen and jewish settlers, now primarily used by government agencies and private enterprise.
Ooooh I love street markets. Do stores close on Sundays and take a few hours for lunches like they do in Europe?
Uh, yeah, most stores open early – around 8:00, take a break at noon, resume at 2:00, and close down around 6:00. You are dealing with Caribbean time though so you know, people often show up or open a few minutes late. Very few stores are open on Sunday so seeing a closed sign is a given. Check out the beach on Sunday. You should also visit Fort Amsterdam and the van der Valk hotel. It is the only hotel in the world with insurance for boats running into it. The hotel sits right next to the passageway into Willemstad. But the boats are towed in anyway so the insurance isn’t really necessary.
Is there a blue Curacao factory to tour?
Yeah, I guess you could go see the blue Curacao factory. It’s not that special. You can find bottles in some stores or on the street. We have other good liquor too. There’s Pisang Ambon, a green liquor made of bananas. If you’re out getting a drink order a Pisang Orange, it’s tasty. You can also get a Ponche Crema, like Ponche Caribe or Ponche Kuba. It is kind of like Coquito from Puerto Rico without the coconut flavor, a little bit of an egg-nogish texture and quite tasty. If you like beer, order an Amstel Bright, it is light, very flavorful.
Do you mean Amstel Light?
No, Amstel Bright is a light beer that is often compared to Corona. I can see why people make the comparison, but Corona is a fairly heavy beer, you know? Amstel bright is way better.
Ok, so tell me a bit about Carnival.
“Carnaval” is a big parade in the middle of February. The highlight is the four marches. There’s a kid march, an adult march, a big march, and a final march. There used to be a teen march but they got rid of it because it was kind of weird although they might reinstitute it. The big march and the final march are pretty much the same and just an excuse to do it one more time.
Is it anything like Brazil’s Carnival?
No, Brazil’s carnival is crazy. We just march – there is a lot of popular music and people dancing. The costumes are similar, but in Brazil it is a lot bigger, and people there go nuts. If you want that experience you can go to one of the many after-parties. Those get a bit crazy, especially at a place like Mambo Beach. Mambo Beach is a great place to go over the weekend. It is this cool beach club where there is a dance floor, outdoor bars, torches, palm trees, the whole nine. The crowd varies from older high schoolers, college students, to parents, depending on what day you go, but there is always an interesting mix.
What is the food like?
Well the indigenous food includes goat meat in stews, cornmeal, good breads, and piskÃ¡ korÃ¡ (red snapper, delicious when breaded). A lot of food comes from Venezuela and South America. There are a bunch of rice dishes, some noodle type things. Very popular is “kuminda chinÃ©s” which literally means Chinese food. It is a lot of potatoes and kabobs, fried rice, mixed greens, not very indigenously Chinese food, but a lot of things change when moving to the Caribbean. You can also get Indonesian food, Indian foods… a lot of people have migrated over the years, allowing for an interesting mix. One can even get Japanese food there now.
So if Venezuela is only a few hours away by boat, can visitors to Curacao hop over to visit?
I wouldn’t recommend it because you have to deal with permits and paperwork and such. It’s a hassle.
I did some research and found that Curacao is a popular tropical destination for Europeans. Over 40% of the tourists are from Europe and a large portion of them are Dutch. Tell me about the beaches that everyone comes for. Is there good surfing?
Jan Thiel is the nice touristy beach. But the beach that all the locals go to is West Punt. It is very Caribbean and not man-made like some of our other beaches. The sand is white and the water is bright turquoise. Cliff diving is popular but I wouldn’t recommend that unless you know what you are doing. West Punt is an hour and half drive away from where most people live so it tends to weed out a lot of tourists. It’s well worth it. No, there’s no surfing because you need currents for that.
An hour and half drive? So I’m guessing that most visitors rent cars.
Yeah, public transportation is less than stellar. The buses run every hour or so, but the routes are very limited.
Thanks again for the information and gorgeous pictures. Curacao sounds like a great place to visit.