The oil refinery I saw on the way to my apartment rental in Curacao became a harbinger of things to come.
The Caribbean conjures up images of white sand beaches, palm trees, coral reefs, and tropical drinks. This summer I planned to travel much of the Caribbean (spoiler alert: I didn’t) and at the top of my list of places to visit was Curacao, located in the Dutch Antilles, a part of Holland, and famous for its casino, nightlife, and similarly named blue liqueur.
As I flew into Curacao, I dreamed of all the Caribbean offered and imagined myself relaxing on long white sand beaches with a Pina Colada in hand. The largest and most rugged of the ABC (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) islands, Curacao also held the promise of good hiking and non-beach activities.
But almost immediately after arriving I was disappointed.
What they don’t show in the brochures is the oil refinery on the edge of town. You know this beautiful, multi-colored, waterfront photo that shows off the view Curacao is famous for:
Well, right near there is a not-so-wonderful oil refinery blowing black smoke into the air — and it’s very visible from town.
That refinery set the tone for the week.
Curacao was, as we say, “meh.” It wasn’t a bad place, but it didn’t blow my mind. I left the country indifferent. The island’s vibe and I just didn’t mesh. I wanted to love Curacao but nothing there left me filled with sadness and a desire to stay as I boarded my flight home.
Let’s begin with the beaches: nice but not that great. Those near the main town are all resort beaches, meaning you have to pay to enjoy them if you aren’t already staying in one of the resorts. They are cluttered with people, lounge chairs, and artificial breakers to protect against the waves and create a calm swimming area. (Not that a calm swimming area is bad, but the breakers reduce the flow of water and since most resorts have docks, due to the boats, I didn’t feel the water was the cleanest.)
The beaches up north are public, wider, and more natural, but even still, they aren’t the long, white sand beaches we often imagine. Moreover, the shoreline is filled with dead coral and rocks. Were they pretty? Yes. Did I sit there and go “Damn, this is beautiful”? Sure. Was I blown away by them? No, not really.
I was also disappointed in the lack of affordable and accessible public transportation. Buses only run every two hours and taxis are incredibly expensive ($50 USD for a fifteen minute cab ride). If you want to see the island, you really have to rent a car during your stay. Not having one really limits what you can see.
To top it off, even the towns aren’t that pretty. Outside Willemstad’s famous waterfront, I wasn’t too impressed by the scenery, buildings, or homes. Even the resorts looked outdated. There’s nothing like a little grime and wear and tear on a city to give it some charm but here in Curacao, the grit only added a feeling of woeful neglect.
One thing that did make my trip, though, were the locals. They made the trip. The locals on the island were friendly, helpful, and great conversationalists. I stayed in an Airbnb rental and Milly, the woman whose house I was in, was super friendly and helpful. She even went the extra mile and drove me some places so I wouldn’t have to take a taxi. If I returned to Curacao, I would stay at her place again.
While searching for places to eat, I stumbled across a local family run restaurant near my apartment and ate most of the meals there. Every time I walked in, they greeted me like they had known me for years (I was probably the only non-local to eat there).
Jack, from the restaurant in the central market, kindly gave me his phone number if I needed anything and always remembered me and that I really loved his lemonade when he saw me.
And then there were the bus drivers who helped guide me around town, the locals who let me hitch a ride with them when the bus didn’t come, and the countless other little moments of friendly conversation and help that happened during the course of my week.
If I choose to go back, it would be for the people, not the place.
Curacao wasn’t awful, but I’ve experienced better destinations. Maybe I didn’t like it because I had high expectations — when you think of nearby Aruba and Bonaire you think Caribbean paradise, and I just lumped Curacao in with them. Expectations can often lead to disappointment when we build up locations in our head.
I walked away from Curacao with no burning desire to go back. I’m happy I went and I would encourage others to go but there was nothing in Curacao that you can’t find elsewhere better and cheaper.
You can’t love every destination. It’s impossible. I can usually find the good in every place (even Vietnam!) but humans have opinions, emotions, and preferences — and mine don’t favor Curacao.
You should go and explore the island for yourself; you just won’t find me there.