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Seven Cultural Sites That Remind Us of Curacao’s Rich and Rocky History


The Caribbean island of Curacao is steeped in history and culture, from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Willemstad to the sweeping views from Queen Emma Bridge. Most of the popular sites hearken back to the various different eras in the island’s history, ranging from the indigenous Arawak people from nearby South America and Spanish and Sephardic Jewish colonists to the Dutch West India Company, which seized the island in the mid-1600s. Over the years, the island’s population has grown and diversified in a number of ways—some following atrocities, such as the slave trade, and others a more constructive melting pot of cultures and people.

This mix of people and traditions resulted in the development of a local culture and language (Papiamentu) that is influenced in part by African, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and French words and traditions. The colorful histories of all of these people were unified in 2010, when Curacao became an autonomous country within the kingdom of the Netherlands—and the historical sites that remain make up the heart of the island’s culture.

Here are some must-visit examples of Curacao’s culture and history:

  1. Willemstad: Epitomizing Curacao’s history and culture, Willemstad is a UNESCO Heritage Site that boasts some of the most colorful streets in the world. Packed with quaint Dutch colonial structures in a variety of colors, this town is what most people think of when they imagine Curacao—and for good reason. Popular regions of the city include Scharloo, Otrobanda, Punda, and Pietermaai, the latter of which house a comfortable, affordable, unique hostel experience called Bed and Bike Curacao. Punda is noteworthy for the ramparts and walls that used to connect to Fort Amsterdam, and that still stand today. Interestingly, the colorful buildings of Willemstad date back to the early 19th century, when white lime-finished walls were made illegal due to the headaches people developed from looking at the bright, reflected tropical sun!
  2. Kura Hulanda Museum: Located in a restored 17th century building situated on the site of Curacao’s original slave market, this museum educates locals and visitors alike about the atrocities of the slave trade. It is important both for its cultural significance and historical education, as well as a reminder of the crimes that were perpetrated against the ancestors of the island’s African population and a reminder that we can never allow society to return to such bigotry and oppression.
  3. Queen Emma Bridge: One of the world’s oldest pontoon bridges, Queen Emma Bridge is a classic Curacao experience and one of the most-visited sites in Willemstad. Supported by 16 wooden pontoons and two motors, the gently swaying bridge is a unique way to get from Punda to Otrobanda, and has been nicknamed the “Swinging Old Lady.” Twice per hour, a siren sounds to alert people that the bridge is about to swing open to allow boats through.
  4. Dutch West India Company Headquarters at Fort Amsterdam: Although the legacy of the Dutch West India Company is one that involves a lot of exploitation and oppression of the indigenous and African people, it is a part of the island’s cultural heritage and a reminder of what can happen when greed is allowed to overcome humanity. Fort Amsterdam was built to protect the Dutch West India Company’s assets from Spanish troops, and was one of the first buildings constructed in Willemstad. The building also houses Fort Church (the island’s oldest, built in 1769), and is an UNESCO Heritage Site.
  5. Museum Tula: Landhuis Kenepa was one of the largest plantations on Curacao, and was also the site of island’s largest African slave rebellion, led by a man named Tula in 1795. Today, Tula is a national hero who is celebrated each year on August 17 (which was the first day of the rebellion), and the museum chronicles the lives of the enslaved under the plantation system and the rebellion that led to freedom for hundreds of them.
  6. Lanhuis Jan Kok: One of the oldest plantation houses on the island, Lanhuis Jan Kok was built in 1704, making it more than 320 years old. The plantation was focused on salt production, and the salt flats are still visible from the house, often overrun by local flamingos. The owner of the plantation (Jan Kok) had a reputation as being exceptionally cruel, and it is rumored that his evil spirit still haunts the house.
  7. Kas Di Pal’i Maishi: These houses featuring adobe walls and thatched roofs made from sorghum stalk were built by freed slaves in 1863. A guided tour reveals the life and activities of the former Curacoan inhabitants, including views of sleeping rooms, kitchens, family gathering rooms, and even cactus fortifications that were used to deter invading animals.

While most people come to Curacao for the tropical weather, sandy beaches, and Caribbean water, the island’s culture has just as much to offer, both in the way of colorful history, a melting pot of people and heritages, and an important reminder of the capacity for cruelty that humans have exhibited over the years. No visit to the island is complete without exploring its history, so immerse yourself in these interesting sites and get to know the people of Curacao a little bit better.

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