Sometimes there’s an advantage to failing. And I’d failed spectacularly. I’d been coming to Curaçao for years. Thought I knew it well. I’d been down every dirt road I could find. Especially those with gates or “no trespassing” signs (in Dutch, does that count?). I’d eaten in places I probably couldn’t find again, met one-of-a-kind people who’d become part of my story stockpile, and ventured as far off this island’s beaten path as I could get. And I’d dived it from tip to tip.
Then along came Jody.
I can remember telling my friend Jody about my favorite restaurant in the Caribbean, which just happened to be in Curaçao, a place called Equus, only open on Fridays, usually filled with locals and always packed. She hadn’t heard of it. Didn’t believe me. She didn’t believe me because she’d been to Curaçao about 45 times, once dated a local man, and had felt the embrace and experience of Curaçao as only a local could. So we did what stubborn friends do. We argued.
And made extravagant claims. Well, at least my claims were extravagant. We both professed to know more about Curaçao than the other. Fighting words. So we decided to meet on the field of battle and put our boasts to the test.
Curaçao is a strange, wonderful, beguiling and intriguing island. Although it’s part of the Netherlands Antilles, you’ll hear more than 40 languages spoken on the island, and its food, fealty, unique undersea riches and culture are an amalgam resulting from more than 400 years of the touch of man. So it’s a complicated and interesting corner of the globe. And that’s before you get wet and take a gander beneath the surface.
To be fair, Jody doesn’t dive, so our challenge is topside, and we decide that I’ll meet up with her between dives, so before I venture underwater, we climb. We’re headed to the 1,239-foot summit of Mount Christoffel to get the lay of the land (and hopefully come across a guru sitting cross-legged at the peak who can help me out in this challenge). As surprising as it might be, I’d never taken the two and a half hours it normally takes to climb Mount Christoffel, because of its height and the restrictions on altitude and diving. But to offset my initial landscape deficiency, I am determined to beat Jody to the top so I can gloat in my minor successes.
Christoffel isn’t much different today than when the first humans came upon the island. The trail takes us past meadows of aloe, orchids and agave, massive stands of cactus, wahbi bushes with their daggerlike thorns, and dozens of species of trees. We see blue iguanas and bright yellow and black trupials, and there are plenty of hummingbirds buzzing about. Clearly no lawyers have ever taken this hike. There’s not a guardrail in sight and definitely no wheelchair access, especially near the summit. After clambering and trail-negotiating up, around and through boulders, we make it to the top. I get there well ahead of Jody, but she wins round one.
“It’s my 13th summit,” she informs me as she sits to admire the view as if it’s the first time she’s seen it.
The view causes us to pause. It’s breathtaking. From this high point, Jody points out several landmarks, laying down the gauntlet.
“Have you ever hiked through Sheta Boka Park?” she points off toward the sea-lashed windward coast. Even from the summit of Christoffel, we watch as waves smash into the coast and explode toward the sky along this remote and rugged coastline.
“Of course. I especially like Boka Pistol. When the waves hit, it sounds like a shot going off.” So far so good, I think and fire back, “Have you ever been to Suplado Crater?”
“You can see it from here,” she says. “Have you ever had a lomito burrito at Hot Peppers?”
For a moment I look over the horizon at landhuisen (old plantation homes) and the town of Westpunt, then toward the calm waters of Boca Santa Cruz on the leeward side. Giant wind generators, taking advantage of the near-constant trade winds, rise in the distance, and farther down along the horizon, the busy port of Willemstad and the populated eastern end of the island bristle with commerce. I look for anything that might take the attention off lomito burrito until I can figure out what that might be.
“Uh, maybe …”
She rattles off a dozen more sites and to-dos — the Maritime Museum tour of the Shottegat ship-repair harbor, Pop’s for pumpkin pancakes and Christmas Eve at the Landhuis Brakkeput Mei Mei — and each time she points out a landmark, it’s accompanied by a “have you been there?” I mostly say “sure,” even though I stretch the truth a couple of times and suddenly feel inspired to dive, almost desperately.
Forest to forest
Through all this, the one consolation I have is that I can explore places that Jody can only dream of. And Curaçao’s underwater diversity has remained one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets — not just from Jody, but from a fair bit of the dive world. There are dozens of wrecks, lush walls, and an incredible density of marine life all wrapped in crystal-clear, warm, blue tropical water. But one of the most surreal and unique Curaçaoan seascapes is Mushroom Forest off remote San Nicolas on the west end of the island. I hook up with PADI Five-Star Sunset Divers, and we head off to this Curaçao icon. Here, massive mounds of star corals have been eroded at their bases through the decades by boring sponges and clams. As a result, the site looks like hobbit-land — lobular, green mounded hillocks rising up from the seafloor. And because of the bio-erosion, there are endless warrens and hideouts for marine life; every time I delve into this cool world I find new surprises.
On this day, the site seems littered with juvenile spotted drum, little black and white ribbons of erratic movement, and yellow polka-dotted juvenile smooth trunkfish that look like miniature dice bounding around in the shadows. Plus there seems to be an endless procession of lettuce-leaf nudibranchs with their frilly blue and green ornamentation. Either that, or all these critters are normally here in this abundance, and I’ve just got the eye today, which is usually the way it is and why I never tire of sites like this. There’s always a new world to discover, even after multiple dives. I generally get lost at this site, so I’m always near something I don’t remember seeing on previous dives. Just like in a terrestrial forest, after a while everything tends to look the same at Mushroom Forest, and you get turned around. But no matter what, there are the constants. Squirrelfish, blackbar soldierfish, bigeyes and snapper aggregate in the shadows; green, goldentail and chain morays poke their heads out from numerous lairs. And Mushroom Forest seems to be a haven for infrequently seen sharptail and gold-spotted eels. It’s also a great place to encounter Pederson cleaner shrimp and a laundry list of other macro critters.
At the end of the dive, embarrassingly, I pop up to the surface to find the boat and my bearings, hoping no one spots me doing so and suggests I retake my PADI Underwater Navigator specialty. Then I see numerous other divers in similar straits; all spinning on the sea’s surface, they turn until they spot the boat and descend to return underwater. And we all hope we’ve done the deed unseen.
Near Mushroom Forest is Mushroom Forest Cave, a small cavern undercutting the shore. We motor over with the boat, anchor nearby and snorkel in. The cave pulses with glassy sweepers that polarize around me as I dive through them. It’s like diving in a movie scene. The blue of the water here almost seems to have an inner glow. Hidden away in the cracks and crevices of the cave are Caribbean spiny lobster and porcupinefish, as well as large-eyed red night shrimp.
The good life
After drying off, I meet up with Jody, and we head to Boca Santa Cruz to see a friend of her’s, Juni, a.k.a. Captain Goodlife.
Goodlife has a small, eclectic restaurant (it’s his house, too) and water taxi on the bay and lives up to his name. He tells us he’s the least expensive on the island for diving and snorkeling. He also takes people in his water taxi to secluded beaches only accessible by boat. “No one else can go where I go,” he says. Plus he’s a great cook and storyteller, so it’s worth coming up to Santa Cruz to experience a day of the good life as only exists on Curaçao. Jody surges ahead — a little.
As we drive from the west end to Willemstad, we head toward the town of Barber, past several kas di yerba-style houses with cacti fences, a couple of landhuisen, through villages with kids out playing soccer and past the oldest kapok tree in Curaçao at historic Hofi Pastor, closed for an unknown Curaçao holiday on the day we pass through. Once in Barber, I convince Jody to follow a series of handwritten signs that lead us down several turns, through the back streets of Barber to a Chinese restaurant, Tung Wongs. The restaurant is a tiny microcosm of Curaçao. The owners only speak Chinese, a little bit of the local Creole patois, Papiamento and thickly accented Spanish. Out front three locals enjoy a mid-afternoon tipple of rum in the shade.
“Kon ta bai,” I say in Papiamento, “How’s it going?”
“You going in?” they ask us.
“How’s the food?”
In we go.
“Do you speak Papiamento?” asks one of the men, named James, who has followed.
“She only has Chinese, a little Spanish and Papiamento.”
“You’re going to help?”
He smiles, nods.
The Chinese woman behind the counter smiles, too, and says, “Hello.” We have just heard her entire arsenal of English.
We peruse the menu, handwritten on a yellowed piece of paper and taped to the wall. The menu crosses a few country borders, and it’s written in English with a few liberties. The menu includes nasi goring and chicken stoba, two typical Curaçao dishes, “porkchop sue” and “shrimsfried rice,” kroe poek (a Dutch fried cassava thing with a consistency similar to Styrofoam), fried chicken and omelets. With James’ help — he speaks a mix of Spanish and Papiamento — we order the “chickenchopsue” and chicken stoba, size small, which James tells us is the same size as the large, just at a different price.
When the food comes, it is worth the effort. Each portion is enough to feed a village and well worth the $5 it costs after currency conversion. We load up on calories, say adios and ayo, and head to Habitat Curaçao. I take full credit for Tungs’ and start to swagger.
On the way to Habitat, we pass through St. Willibrordus, a picturesque village dominated by a large church and its surrounding graveyard. When you see St. Willibrordus from afar, it looks like a village that has sprouted up from a sea of green cactus, beautiful and desolate at the same time. And the church pierces the sky with its sharp steeple.
Jody drops me off at Habitat Curaçao to dive with Ann-Marie Vermeers, the owner of the on-site PADI Five-Star Dive Center Easy Divers. I tell her she’s missing out on the best part of Curaçao. She asks if I’ve been to Soprano’s for drinks and karaoke. I tell her if I’ve had enough to drink for karaoke, then I wouldn’t remember anyway, so maybe.
The best habit
I join a group of divers that has been coming to Habitat Curaçao for years, and we head off, at their enthusiastic request, to Porto Marie. Porto Marie has an interesting double reef with a sandy 55-foot-deep gap in between. The gap is only 100 feet across, so it’s easy to explore both reefs on the same dive, and historically, this has been my lucky spotted eagle ray dive site. On this dive, we discover a couple of snake eels in the sand then head to the outside of the second reef. This is the battle zone. There’s a tremendous amount of competition for space between the big orange elephant ear sponges, tube sponges, gorgonians, sea whips and staghorn corals in the shallower areas. You’ll find numerous grouper here. The cactus and scroll corals harbor large populations of peppermint and yellow-sided gobies, while azure vase sponges provide home for roughhead triplefin blennies. Stingrays hide out in the sand canyon, so we keep an eye out on our way back.
For our second dive, we continue to focus our attention on Marie, at Boca Marie. Just off Bullenbaai, Boca Marie comes thick with life, especially shallower than 60 feet. In the shallows, hard corals rule. We find an abundance of staghorn, brain, star and elkhorn corals, as well as marauding schools of surgeonfish, parrotfish and chromis.
The city life
I meet up with Jody and her friend Kara at Kura Hulanda Resort and Spa, one of the most unusual hotels in the world and one of my favorites on Curaçao. Nestled right in the middle of the Otrabanda side of Willemstad, the hotel consists of more than 60 renovated historic 18th- and 19th-century Dutch colonial buildings. Each of the 80 rooms is unique (some even purported to be haunted). The hotel is like a village within a city, with interesting squares, courtyards, gardens and water features, as well as great restaurants and a museum. But as nice as Kura Hulanda is, we’re on a mission for speed and back-road thrills.
Jody has heard about an old drag strip on the east end of the island, so we drive towards Boca Tabla and Sint Jorisbaii on the north coast. We drive until we see a gate. From what I can understand on Curaçao, gates on dirt roads are suggestions to slow down. Without blinking or hesitating, we get out and lift the gate and proceed on through to a dirt road. We veer right, pass an abandoned building, apparently an old restaurant, and end up on the coast near an abandoned go-cart racing track. We double back to another dirt road then — success — find the drag strip and wonder how anyone ever got to the strip to drag race in the first place, the road is so rough. But apparently drag racing is big on Curaçao. No one is about, so we track test our rental car, a fancy Hyundai, until darkness and hunger compel us away.
Food is taken seriously on Curaçao. It’s an island run on its collective stomachs. And with so many culinary influences upon the land, it’s no wonder Curaçao restaurants have a hallowed reputation among world travelers. Tonight Jody and I go mano a mano. We both have trump cards to play. Mine comes first.
Sunsets on Curaçao are an art form. As we drive back to town, the sun silhouettes a large stand of cactus with a fan of sunbeams of yellow and orange firing up into a royal blue sky. The small clouds change from yellow to orange to pink as we drive.
We meet up with the Ambrosi family, owners of the PADI Five-Star Gold Palm Resort Ocean Encounters on Curaçao, at my trump card — Equus. There are no reservations. It’s first come, first served. And it’s because of the Ambrosis that I even know of this place. There are no menus. You get a choice of beef or chicken, cooked over a flame right in the owner’s stable — which doubles as a restaurant on Friday nights. As you eat, horses sometimes peek their heads out to check the gluttony. I don’t know what marinade is used or what kinds of chickens and cows the meat comes from, but I’ve never tasted anything better, anywhere. After a liberal sampling of both chicken and beef, Kara and Jody give in and agree. And now, at least, Jody believes me. Equus does exist. I surge ahead, just on that fact. As we leave, I’m feeling positively buoyant with cockiness.
Stuffed, we wobble out and hit the town, ending up at club Avalon for drinks and storytelling as a prelude to a late-night Curaçao tradition, more eating. This time in a parking lot at Jody’s favorite truk’i pan, Hot Peppers. And this is all about the lomito burrito.
A truk’i pan is basically a food trailer that is allowed by law to open only after the restaurants close at 11 p.m. On Friday and Saturday nights, locals flock to these little food havens after a night of partying and drinking and dancing. We arrive around midnight, early, and order what is called a lomito burrito, which is like a spring roll filled with spicy ground meat. We eat right in the parking lot, off the trunk lid. I’m not hungry, but I eat every last bit and vow to stay awake long enough on future trips to come back.
That night I fall into a food coma. Jody has taken the wind out of my swagger, as I dream of truk’i pan. And if my room at Kura Hulanda is haunted, I miss the ghostly visits. Dang!
That sinking feeling
When I arrive the next morning to dive with Ocean Encounters, I fear I won’t fit into my wetsuit. We head out to Shipwreck Point, a lovely wall dive that rivals any of its more famous relatives at other dive destinations. I manage to squeeze into my neoprene, and we descend on another undersea wonderland. The steep wall is cut with sand chutes, and there’s a virtual forest of sponges and sensual sea rods, especially orange elephant ear sponges, brown encrusting sponges and purple stovepipe sponges. On this dive, a hawksbill sea turtle roams in from the blue and actually accompanies me as I meander down the wall, exploring the crevices along the way. I get so enthralled that I have such an escort that I almost miss a spotted eagle ray — with about a 10-foot tail — as it glides by with an elegance that must be seen to be believed. At the end of the dive, a fearless chain moray, all two feet of it, keeps a vigilant post while I off-gas, keeping an eye on me as if it’s trying to figure out why I won’t just go away and leave it be.
The east end of Curaçao, being so close to a major port, is notable for its plethora of wrecks and unique wreck sites. The most famous is the Tugboat at Caracasbaii, a small tug sunk ignominiously when a supertanker’s anchor dropped on it, sending it directly to its current resting place on the seafloor in 20 feet of water. There’s a larger tugboat in 30 feet of water on the sand at Saba. There’s a site called Car Pile, in about 90 feet of water, where you can see the lush growth that has taken over the cars, trucks and equipment dumped at the site — not to mention what comes out at night. And then there’s one of the most famous wrecks in the world, the Superior Producer, which sank just outside the harbor with a full load of rum, T-shirts and blue jeans (nobly repatriated by the locals). For our second dive, we head over to see the Tugboat and the nearby pilings.
I’m a huge fan of old docks, pilings and other such structures underwater because of how the sea quickly transforms them into magical, enchanted forests. The pilings next to the Tugboat are no exception. Yellow tube sponges, purple stovepipe sponges and red encrusting sponges lend the scene a touch of magic while the sunbeams filtering in and around the pilings bathe the dive in a constant twilight. Parrotfish, butterflyfish, and elusive frogfish and seahorses live their lives among these undersea “trees.” And just around the corner, at the end of the dive, the site of the Tugboat, seemingly nestled in the embrace of the reef, simply brings a smile to the face of any diver or snorkeler exploring the site.
That night, we all meet up in the “village square” of the Kura Hulanda to soak up an Old World tropical atmosphere found nowhere else on the planet. A local musician plays music, a subtle mix of local folk tunes that matches the warm night. Willemstad lists more than 750 of its buildings as historic, and when we wander downtown, each step reveals a lovely and intriguing blend of Old World and sultry Caribbean.
There are forts, striking Dutch architecture and the musical patois of the locals as they cross the Queen Emma floating bridge that connects the two sides of the city. Thick beats from nearby clubs wind their way through the streets and over the water in the harbor. Jody and I both admit that despite the many times we have come to Curaçao, we still have much more to experience, but even with Equus, I also have to admit that, for now, Jody reigns in Curaçao. Until I don the dive gear. As varied and interesting as Curaçao is above the water, its true frontier awaits below the surface. There lies an untamed seascape, still pristine and thriving and robust and wild. And until Jody follows me to the sea, she will never fully experience the other half of the world, the half of Curaçao that remains one of the Caribbean’s last true unexpected undersea realms.