The tiny Dutch island of Curacao in the Caribbean, seems an unlikely spot for an anthropological dig. Not the kind where the dusty soil coats to the sweat of your skin and creeps beneath your finger nails but the sort where human history is revealed up close and personal by simply keeping your eyes open.
Curacao (pronounced Cure-a-sow) is a curious blend of architectural styles and cultures, from European sophisticates and traditional medicine women to fishermen who cross the 35 mile stretch of open water from Venezuela.
While the Spanish were the first to lay claim to Curacao in 1499, by the mid 1600s it had become a strategic and bountiful Dutch colony. Apart from a couple of brief British interruptions in 1803 and 1807-1816, it has remained an autonomous part of the Netherlands ever since, with a lucrative plantation system, and a busy commercial harbor which once operated one of the largest slave-trading depots in the Caribbean.
Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is postcard-pretty with its seashore lined with brightly-painted 17 th & 18 th century homes topped with curlicued gables and arched galleries, churches and Dutch-perfect courtyards.
Twice a week, the streets swell with passengers off visiting cruise ships, but on other days the prices plummet and you can stroll through the open air markets, filled with the diverse produce of Venezuela, and barter for fish off the boats.
There is a strong Jewish community (settlers began arriving here to escape the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions) and the Mikve Isreal Emanual Synagogue, built in 1732, is the oldest synagogue in continuous operation in the Western Hemisphere.
There’s plenty to do further afield too: plantation landhouses put to intriguing uses, mysterious underground caves to explore, a big national park called Christoffel where orchids grow on cacti and tiny white-tailed deer may be spotted. Across the hilly, semi-arid landscape are explosions of green and the vivid yellow of flowering kibrahachi trees and, with more than 50 white-sand beaches, Curacao offers some of the finest diving and snorkeling waters in the Caribbean. Hiking the lava plateaus promise windswept views of crashing waves against a craggy shoreline, and for the young and old alike, a visit to Curacao’s Ostrich & Game Farm, or swimming with the dolphins at the Curacao Sea Aquarium are not to be missed.
If time of the essence, then a visit to Kura Hulanda is a must. This is where slaves were first deposited before heading on to the ‘new world’ and so, for islanders, carries a dark history. Kura Hulanda not only acknowledges this heritage, it has become a fascinating historic and environmental preservation project that comprises refurbished homes as guest accommodations, airy restaurants, gardens and a museum housing the largest collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean. It even has a recreated full-size slave ship’s hold that demonstrates the appalling circumstances under which slaves were shipped. Visiting Kura Hulanda is a rich and textured travel experience.
If time has languished into a Caribbean rhythm, be sure to include a visit to Den Paradera. This is the 100-acre home-garden of Dinah Veeris, a spiritual and holistic herb doctor whose mission is to teach ‘the old ways’ to the younger generation. As such, she mixes hands-on exhibits and education with folklore, inviting you to crush leaves, taste petals and learn of a plant’s curative properties. If the leaf sprouts roots, the love is true; if not, move on to another suitor. Her shop, too, is a veritable apothecary of herbal remedies and solutions for any number of ailments, many of which she’ll diagnose a remedy.
And if time has simply stood still , as it is wont to do on the beautiful island, then stay a while until your curiosity subsides. Though be warned, that might take longer than you had planned.
PHOTOS by Chris McBeath