An ideal day in the Caribbean could start with a morning yoga class in an ocean-view shala, a refreshing dip into the pristine turquoise waters and a frozen fruit smoothie in a hammock underneath the palm trees on the beach. Or, it could start with a bumpy ride on a small road around the island, a pit-stop at a tucked-away street food market and an ice-cold beer on a tiny public beach. What would a travelette do?

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-223

“Meet the Locals” was the theme of my recent trip to the Caribbean island Curacao, which lies just off the Venezuelan coast but is actually a constituent country of the Dutch Caribbean. And although some of my days did start with said yoga class and smoothie at Blue Bay Hotel, I did what way too many visitors in Curacao often don’t do: immerse myself in the local culture and find out what life on this island really is all about. Instead of swimming with dolphins, thrilling quad tours in Christoffel Park or a boat trip to Klein Curacao I rewarded my taste buds with heavenly street food, worked on my golden late-summer tan on bustling public beaches and got to know a good deal about traditional music, nature and history.

Here are a few things you need to know to experience Curacao like the locals.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-73curacao_kathi_kamleitner-148

Curacao is multi-cultural

The island belongs officially to the Dutch Kingdom, which is why most signs on the island will be in Dutch, most people are able to speak the language and there is generally a large amount of very pale people around, which you wouldn’t expect in the Caribbean. Before however, the island has also been colonized by the Portuguese and Spanish, who brought slaves from Africa to work at their farms and plantations.

The end result of this is a hodgepodge of languages, heritages and mentalities. The local language Papiamentu is a creole language with influences from Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese and several African languages. Although most people speak English, prepare a couple of phrases to break the ice, such as masha danki (thanks a lot), di nada (you’re welcome), bon dia (good day/good morning), bon nochi (good evening/good night), ayo (goodbye).

Sometimes familiar, sometimes absurd the mix of cultural influences is a guarantee for some surprising conversations with locals.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-24

Curacao is for foodies

If you are a vegetarian – good luck on Curacao… This is an island for carnivores. There are some restaurants offering vegetarian dishes and salads (usually upmarket/touristy), but most of the traditional local dishes contain meat or fish in one way or the other. If that is not an option, munch away on mashed corn, mashed beans, plantains, rice, okra soup and fruit from the markets.

I on the other hand like meat and fish, so I had the time of my life. Starting with a food tour through Willemstad with Clarita – book her tour through the island’s tourism office – I learnt the essentials about the local breakfast culture and the best place for a city lunch (the Old Food Market). Of course, Curacao is more than its capital and many an excellent eatery is tucked away in small sea-side villages or otherwise uninteresting residential area.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-49 curacao_kathi_kamleitner-65

For fresh sea food, atmospheric plastic furniture and the option to dive into the sea straight from the restaurant’s terrace head to Awa di Playa at the entrance of Piscaderabaai. The fish is served in tin foil with salad and plantanes, the waitress is the cook’s sister and the crowd is 100% local. Hardly any tourist looses her way to this ramshackle-looking place. Unfortunately there is a new apartment and hotel complex under construction right behind it, which could mean a way too soon end of the unique atmosphere of this place.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-104curacao_kathi_kamleitner-101

The people of Curacao love to eat and meals with friends and family are sometimes celebrated for hours. If there is one place on the island where this mentality is more true than anywhere else, then it must be Equus in Jan Thiel area south of Willemstad. A few years back a couple started inviting friends over for dinner each Friday, which turned into friends of friends coming over and eventually everybody from the island wanting to stop by for their delicious food. The idea for an exclusive restaurant was born – exclusive because it is still only open on fridays, and because no reservations are accepted. It’s first come, first serve. All you need to do when you score a table is stuff your face with meat and veggies from the 1m long sticks hanging from above your head, so-called pinchos. And maybe sing along with the bar staff to one of the live concerts on screen.

curacao like locals_kathi_kamleitner_5

Curacao is nature

For most of the year Curacao is relatively hot and dry because all the air is sucked away by the tropical storms in other Caribbean areas. The rainy season lasts from October to February and brings a well-received change to this. Just we were hiding in our air-conditioned van, waiting for the world to end – apparently it hadn’t rained like that for years and years…

After about 10 minutes or so the rain is usually over and the humid tropical heat is back. Ideal to venture into the nature, for example to Shete Boka national park in the north of the island. All of the island’s beaches are on the protected south-facing shoreline. The north-facing coast is rough and the waves have carved bizarre forms into the rock. Whenever a big waves hits one of the Shete Boka (which means ‘seven mouths’ in Papiamentu) the water is thrown high up into the air, almost like a geysir.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-156

On the way up north make sure to stop in Hofi Pastor and take a short walk in the shade to the oldest tree of the island whose roots alone are as high as a little child. To learn more about the local flora check out Dinah Veeris‘ herb garden where a lot of the traditional herbs and plants are cultivated and kept alive.

curacao like locals_kathi_kamleitner_1 curacao_kathi_kamleitner-214

A tour with nature guide Bigala is pure adventure, not only because she shows you the old salt pans in the Jan Thiel area, but also because she accompanies the walk with stories and many songs from the past and present. Luckily the pink flamingos don’t mind the noise and stay where they are – right in front of your nose. Bigala’s tours can also be booked through the tourism office.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-171 curacao like locals_kathi_kamleitner_2

Curacao is rhythm and art

Like everything else on the island music and art have multi-cultural influences. Many artists go abroad to study and return to capture their image of their unique native island. Instituto Buena Bista, a centre for contemporary art, supports local talent and prepares them for arts universities around the world. Many teenagers, some of them high school-drop outs, find the right encouragement here – and learn to connect their art with a social purpose. The institute is located on the grounds of a mental hospital and the artists work with select patients to help them develop and raise awareness for the social impact of art. Each artists gets a studio and materials, and soon an additional building opens up a new exhibition space for visitors.

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-113 curacao_kathi_kamleitner-119

The island is also rich of musicians, some of which tour around the world with their music. One of them is Grammy Award winner Pernell Saturnino, a percussion genius, who I had the honor of meeting and attended one of his percussion workshops – but alas, rhythm is just not my strength…

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-98

Curacao is beach-life

One thing you won’t find on Curacao are endless white sandy beaches. The beaches here are all rather small located in beautiful protected bays. With crystal clear water and massive rocks surrounding them, they are a snorkelling and diving paradise. Many locals spend their weekends by the beach, bring along masses of food for a beach BBQ with the entire family and hangout to enjoy life. For our BBQ we chose Playa Lagun in a narrow bay. After some meat – of course – from the grill we hired gear at Discover Diving and set out to explore under the sea. Unfortunately I didn’t bring an under-water camera, but one has to see the indescribable variety of fish down there for themselves anyways.

PS: We didn’t harm the rooster!

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-165 curacao like locals_kathi_kamleitner_4 curacao_kathi_kamleitner-123

The people of Curacao are some of the warmest I have ever encountered and leaving my newfound friends after just one week, felt like leaving a new family. So if you decide to visit this island, skip the save haven of your resort and venture out “into the wild” – there is much to learn!

curacao_kathi_kamleitner-215

Thank you to Curacao Tourism Board and Zucker Kommunikation for supporting me on this trip!

All photos by Kathi.