Dushi Magic or Why You Should Experience Curaçao

“You either love Curaçao, or you hate it!” said Frans, the driver and guide from my guesthouse, as we began our hike along a craggly clifftop. An intense sun whipped our faces, while the sea breeze cooled us sporadically and waves splashed furiously our way as if trying to reach us.

Love is more of what I felt for Curaçao after glancing at the immigration arrival form postcard that the flight attendant handed me on the flight. With a pink and white background, one side requested my basic traveler data while the other promised: “Life is better at the beach.”

Dushi! I said under my breath–the local papiamentu word for sweet that I had read was popular on the island.  I wished all of my Caribbean destinations had the same delightful approach to entry.

The next two weeks I spent breathing, tasting, and feeling Korsou confirmed my initial instincts.

When gregarious Frans picked me up, I’d already been waiting on the curb for him. But it wasn’t his fault. The lightning process of getting through immigration (remember the dushi form), coupled with Copa Airlines’ swift luggage unloading meant that I had  stepped out early.

“If you’re not in a rush, then I can take you on a quick drive though Willemstad,” he offered, once we were seated, the airport behind us. It wasn’t long before he shared his expat tale. He’d moved to Curaçao after his Canadian-born wife approached him with the idea. “I told her: You plan it, and I’ll follow!” Over a decade later, they were still here, living the dushi life. So dushi, Frans hated leaving the island to return to Holland unless absolutely necessary–like this month, to see his ailing mother-in-law.

I was stoked that the adventure was staring right off the bat.

Willemstad: A World Heritage city

We approached the 185-ft tall Julianna bridge, and Frans pointed to my right as he slowed on the normally busy road. Luckily, there are no cars behind us and I could photograph the breathtaking panoramic view above Willemstad’s gorgeous Sint Anna Bay, the Queen Emma bridge, and the candy colored Handelskade.  I gasped at the clear blue skies over a rainbow-hued Willemstad, grabbing footage as fast as I could. Cars are not allowed to stop here, save for the tiny emergency shoulder. And pedestrians are an absolute no-no–try it, and police will turn up faster than an ambulance because they will think you’re ready to jump off the bridge.

©Lebawit Lily Girma

We continued the ride into the city, with a closer glimpse of Willemstad’s colonial architecture. The old mansions of Scharloo–former 19th century dwellings of wealthy merchants, part restored–the designer stores lining Punda’s main street, reminiscent of Western Europe, and shoppers walking in a sort of time lapse to and from the floating bridge ahead.

As we turned the corner onto the Handelskade, we passed cafes where patrons cooled off under the water-spraying umbrellas of the Iguana Cafe, while others disappeared in shopping alleys. My eyes rolled in all directions at the surrounding kaleidoscope of colors, from the Dutch colonial buildings to the water and the floating market’s fish and fruits, boats moored in the harbor.

“Floating” fish market –
©Lebawit Lily Girma

When we reached Otrobanda, the other side of the bay across Punda, I could feel a livelier and grittier pulse.

“This is the cultural heart of Willemstad,” Frans said, as if reading my mind. Two older women sat on a street corner, waving at a passing car. Voices echoed from corner stores that serve as bars. Discount stores displayed clothing and jewelry on plus-size mannequins, while locals walked up and down the commercial Bredenstraat. The mood was light and the bars were busy at 2pm.

Otrobanda District, Willemstad – ©Lebawit Lily Girma

After dropping my bags at Poppy’s–a restored early 20th century colonial home turned guesthouse, where world travelers come and go–I shared a couple of tales on the outdoor patio with my host over the coffee she’d made fresh for me. Soon, it became my daily ritual.

But the first day wasn’t to be squandered away–I headed over to Queen Emma’s Bridge, less than a ten-minute walk west of my guesthouse, passing through colorful Otrobanda.

The dushiness of Willemstad takes over–even if the sun was baking my exposed skin–as I hopped from museums to galleries, forts to creole eateries.

And then on the third day, it unexpectedly shook me up.

Kura Hulanda Museum – ©Lebawit Lily Girma

I stepped into the Kura Hulanda Museum, where I found myself spending nearly three hours, touring with on site guide Yflen Florentine, whose storytelling about the cruel Transantlantic Slave Trade coupled with the museum’s collection and basement-turned-ship hull gave me goose bumps. It sent one Curaçaoan expat guest away from our group in tears at the harrowing detail of her ancestors’ suffering. There was even a small corner of the museum dedicated to the culture and heritage of African countries, including Ethiopia–a stunning private collection of museum founder and philanthropist Jacob Gelt Dekker.

In between sightseeing, I took respite from the heat on the second floor veranda of Gouverneur de Rouville, where I downed a cold awa di lamunchi–or fresh-squeezed lemon juice; theirs has a dash of brown sugar–and vegetated in front of the breezy harbor view ahead.

Gouverneur de Rouville restaurant has a gorgeous view of the harbor. – ©Lebawit Lily Girma

When I shared with a local or two that I was headed to Westpunt the next day for the long weekend–home to Curaçao’s most beautiful beaches and underwater–they’d gasped. Three days?! There’s not that much to do there, they warned.

But I sensed better. Call it the dushi instinct I had been carrying around with me.

Westpunt: A paradisiacal escape

Bandabou–as Curaçaoans call the west side of the island–turned out to be pure therapy. The cliffs on this wild coastline were my refuge and the sparkling turquoise water–accessed via private ladder at my condo resort–my  daily dose of bliss, aside from the constant presence of dragonflies, birds, and iguanas.

The day prior to my arrival, the manager had upgraded me to a two-level loft condo. Having an upstairs balcony and a ground level patio left me with the sweet daily conundrum of deciding where I’d relax at different times of the day. That’s when I wasn’t tip toeing over to the private stairs leading down to the glorious blue sea of Curaçao, where all sorts of Dushi corals and fish surrounded me while the waters gently swayed, and in the trees were iguanas watching. Life on the west end was a dream.

curacao iguana

Nearby, restaurants and bars served Curaçao cocktails and offered views that remain firmly on my mind.

On Sunday, which happened to be Mother’s Day, I walked over to the Blue View Sunset Terrace. I overlooked the iguana soup special on the menu, even though Lissandra, my server, said many locals visit the restaurant for it. Goat, another specialty, would do fine.

Sipping on a Blue Curaçao Spritzer, I watched tourists cliff jumping on the opposite end of the cliffs, into the turquoise sea. They say you haven’t been to Curaçao unless you’ve leapt from that exact spot. Some of them contemplated the challenge below for over 30 mins, as if frozen in time. I laughed and waited, along with the other patrons and Lissandra. There wasn’t much else going on this side of Westpunt, but that was the whole point. The view. The leap. The infinite sea. It was still magic.

“When you get out of Willemstad after working there all week, and you come here to this,” says Lissandra, pointing her chin at the gorgeous sea views facing us, “it’s like aaah… like doing yoga!”

I reluctantly left Westpunt several days later, on an air-conditioned coach bus back to Willemstad.

Multicultural vibes and murals

But the city’s multicultural vibe made me forget my seaside escape. The sounds of bachata, kizomba and at times reggae accompany me as I  explored the architecture I missed, and the vibrant art smeared in alleys. I stumbled on fellow creatives selling their handmade creations, sampled Dutch treats, and watched Curaçaoan folklore dancers during Thursday Punda Vibes–a weekly night market and outdoor cultural festival. It made me feel like Carnival was around the corner.

Every day brought a new dushi adventure. Perhaps the most memorable was finding myself sitting in a local’s 19th century living room, part of the immersive and culture-quenching experience I had walking the back streets of Otrobanda and Scharloo with Shirley, owner of Dushi Walks.

Her no-holds barred, guided three-hour journey off the main streets shed light on the rhythms, challenges, and people of these two Willemstad neighborhoods. We peeled the layers like the island’s Lahara oranges. And that’s how I found myself meeting a pensioner who kindly receives Shirley’s visitors and shows them his five-bedroom colonial home. He once shared it with his wife, now deceased. I left feeling thrilled that Shirley gives more than 50% of her guests’ tour contributions directly to locals and girls’ shelters.

Curaçao. Sweet as a batido, real in disparate wealth among cultural groups yet filled with a love for diversity, and hope behind giant art murals reviving entire neighborhoods, as they are in Scharloo Abou, just in time for the city’s 20th anniversary on the UNESCO World Heritage List (officially today, December 4, 2017).

Shete Boka National Park: A nature feast

Frans carries my backpack at Shete Boka National Park, in view of Mt. Christoffel–©Lebawit Lily Girma

When my guide Frans and I finally reached Shete Boka, 20 minutes after he’d warned me that I’d either love or hate Curaçao, we were standing beside Boka Pistol and welcomed the sea spray all over our bodies. And right there, amid the violent yet calming water, I sensed the layers of this island that I had yet to explore.

“How can you hate this?” I said out loud, stretching my arms into the salt water.

Frans’ head titled backwards, his snorting laughter nearly as loud as Curaçao’s Atlantic waves.

* Update: This blog post was included in the list of two finalists for best blog posts of the year in the 2018 Caribbean Tourism Organization Media Awards.

For additional travel tips, click on the links below to read my media articles published from this trip. 

CNN Travel, 13 fun things to do in Curaçao right now

Lonely Planet, Five ways to celebrate Willemstad’s World Heritage Anniversary

ShermansTravel, 7 ways to explore Curaçao for less

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