So, you’ve decided to take some vacation days from work for some fun in the sun. Congratulations. The only decision now: Aruba or Curaçao?
It seems everybody’s been to Aruba or knows somebody who has. Curaçao is its lesser known sister, the “C” of the ABC islands (the B Bonaire.) What to do…go with the tried and true or the wildcard? I’ve been to both.
Similar But Not The Same
At first glance, Aruba and Curaçao seem to have so much in common. Both are located in the Lesser Antilles and are part of the Leeward Island chain. The ABC islands are outside of the hurricane belt, which makes trip planning easy. Unlike much of the Caribbean, they enjoy a semi-arid climate. Those palms you see on the beach? Sorry to break it to you, but they were originally brought from elsewhere. Cacti are king here.
Here you can go from blonde, sandy beach to desert in minutes. In fact, Aruba is home to Arikok National Park, where visitors need ATVs to access parts of the rough terrain. Less than 50 miles off the coast of South America, geographically the region has more in common with, say, Colombia or Venezuela. That leads to my next point.
Both countries make up The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which also includes Bonaire, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten. The currency used is aptly named the Netherlands Antillean guilder (also known as the florin), though US dollars flow freely. Dutch is one of the official languages, though Papiamento, a hybrid language made up of Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, Arawak, and West African words and syntax, is the lingua franca. English is spoken almost everywhere and many islanders speak up to four languages.
Like their language, Arubans and Curaçaoans are a mix of West African, Arawak, and European (Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese) descent. That variety is apparent in their food, where you’ll find elements of indigenous (just look at the use of corn meal in funchi), African, and European cooking (stuffed gouda, anyone?) To further add to the mix, you’ll find many immigrants here.
How do they differ, you’re wondering?
Aruba has long been a coveted getaway, getting nods from American Pop music (don’t tell me you’ve never heard “Kokomo“.) Instagram is oversaturated with tourists posing with pink flamingos and cerulean backdrops. “#wishyouwerehere”, “#paradise,” the hashtags read. If it weren’t obvious, Aruba’s primary industry is tourism. From the duty-free shops to the Starbucks-lined main drags, this destination caters to North Americans. Maybe a little too much…
According to a recent Census, 66% of people on the Happy Island are “Aruban.” Incidentally, the only Aruban I know in New York was born to a Puerto Rican father and Kittitian mother. A whole 12% of the population is either Colombian or Venezuelan, a number that is expected to grow with the crisis in Venezuela. Aside from talking to bartenders and hospitality workers, you have to leave the touristy area to really interact with locals. Forget margaritas by the pool. I wanted to know, what is Aruban culture?
A Happy Island
Truth be told, it’s difficult to describe the culture, as it’s a mixture of so many elements.You could describe them as West Indian, yet they don’t share a common British colonial history with Jamaicans, Trinidadians, and Antiguans, for example. But it’s Dutch, right? Not really. They only make up make up less than 5% of the population. There ‘s also little emigration from the island to abroad and the few who do leave go to the Netherlands. Would you want to leave?
The most heavily touristed area is on the west side of the island, north of Oranjestad. The coastline is dotted with hotels and all-inclusive resorts making it unnecessary to even leave the premises. It’s possible to vacation in Aruba without ever leaving your hotel. But why wouldn’t you?
If you do decide to explore, you’ll encounter many of the same chain restaurants and stores from home. There are locally owned restaurants, but again, they primarily appeal to the tourist palate. A walk along J.E. Irausquin Blvd. isn’t much different than a strip in Cancún, Miami, or any other tourist port in that respect. For that you’ll need to venture further south.
Oranjestad is considered one of the most colorful capitals in the Caribbean, if not the world. Though even here, candy-colored Dutch-style buildings house souvenir shops and American-style fast food joints. Once the cruise ships leave the port, the streets feel noticeably empty and look like a ghost town on Sundays. However, if you walk a few blocks from the kitschy gift shops, you’ll find the watering holes and restaurants that locals go to.
I took a trip to downtown Oranjestad and stumbled upon an open air surfside bar, West Deck. The waitress, an expat from the States, told me that she’d come to Aruba and fallen in love with it. This was a common story, I’d learn. Her husband was Aruban and she’d learned Papiamento, fully embracing her new country.
When I asked about typical Aruban food, she steered me towards two menu items: keshi yena and funchi. Keshi yena is best described as a ball of gouda cheese filled with savory meats, the perfect marriage of Dutch and West African flavors. And funchi? Aruba’s answer to polenta. I wish I’d done more research and known about these before my arrival. They certainly beat nachos and burgers hands down.
As far as transportation goes, I took a cab to my lodging. However, because the island is so small, the local bus system is straight forward and inexpensive. I found myself riding it into town and to the airport. I left on a Monday and got on just in time to see local school children headed home. If you want to head to more isolated parts of the island in the east or Arikok, you’ll need a car or ATV.
Distances can be deceptively close. I realized this when I waited one morning for the bus to Malkok Beach. It took all of 5 minutes to from the Paseo Herencia Mall to the beach. From there, it was a short walk to Arashi Beach. I saw a lot of tourists using the bus up and down J.E. Irausquin Blvd. and the other main drag, L.G. Smith Blvd. aka Sasaki Weg.
Now, is it safe? Despite the negative press the island received after the disappearance of Natalie Holloway in 2005, Aruba is one of the safest countries in the Caribbean. The island is relatively affluent and owing partially to its diminutive size, violent crime is a rarity. That said, streets away from the hotel zones can be dimly lit and desolate. That said, at no time did I feel uneasy.
Would I go back? Sure. Was it one of my favorite countries? No, but it was nice. The people I did encounter were friendly, and I found a few good spots to eat and drink. For beautiful beaches, familiar food, easy currency exchange, and a stress-free getaway, Aruba is your destination. For experiencing local culture, you’ll need to delve deeper. It’s overall an excellent locale for women travelers and travel novices looking to get their feet wet. Literally.
Of the ABC islands, Curaçao is the largest (read: not very big.) After leaving Hato International Airport, it’s unlikely you’ll be mesmerized by the beauty or charm. Nothing about the ride into Willemstad screams “tropical island getaway.” You’ll soon pass familiar American fast food outlets: KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s. I visited Curaçao over 6 months before Aruba, so I had nothing similar to compare it to.
In fact, most people wouldn’t be able to even locate the country on a map. “Curaçao…isn’t that a licor?” Yes, yes it is. One that is locally sourced and produced on the island. According to the Census, a 75% of the population is Curaçaoan. Like Aruba, its relative wealth means there isn’t a mass migration from the island, so there isn’t a diasporic community abroad. Conversely, the immigration to the island is visible: Colombian restaurants, Chinese groceries, and Dominican merengue.
Though Papiamento is also spoken in Aruba, there are some spelling and pronunciation differences. I could understand quite a bit, which sounded to me like an oddly accented Spanish with words I didn’t recognize. Likewise, I could read a lot of it too. That said, everyone I encountered seemed to speak and understand English.
Exploring the Island
Save for a few hotels and oceanfront restaurants, Willemstad is not a happening spot for sunbathers and beach bums. For that, you’ll need to leave. Which brings up an important point: since the tourist infrastructure isn’t as robust as Aruba’s, the transportation system isn’t designed with visitors in mind. Cabs are expensive (about $50 USD to the airport.) If renting a car isn’tt feasible, you must be strategic with traveling the island by bus. This also means that gaps between buses are longer and some routes may not run at all on nights and weekends.
I stayed in Otrobanda, about a 10 minute walk to Willemstad’s bus station. Schedules are posted and it took me only a few minutes to figure out what route I needed. During my stay, I took the bus, once to Westpunt and once to go to Klein Knip/Grote Knip, which took about 45 minutes each. I used the GPS on my phone because the rural roads were rural made it a bit unclear on how to arrive to the beach. During one trip, I ended up missing my stop and having to walk back. The bus timetable adds a layer of restriction to come and go as you please. I wish I’d begun my trip earlier and that I could have lingered.
One major perk of Curaçao being less of a travel destination and its remoteness is that the beaches are rarely crowded and some, sparsely used. I lamented not buying a snorkel and goggles. The water is clear, calm, and impossibly blue. In fact, I would venture to see that beaches in Curaçao are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. Bring some money with you, particularly in small denominations. Some of the beaches have snack stands and carts, but don’t expect them to accept plastic. I bought snacks, soda, and beer in local grocery stores, which came handy at the beach.
Willemstad’s historic center is on the UNESCO of World Heritage Sites. There is some tourism marketing in Willemstad, but it doesn’t feel forced. The pastel colonial buildings along Sint Annabaai (Saint Anna Bay) are its most recognizable landmark. The adjacent Queen Emma Floating Bridge is another. Small boats ferry tourists up and down the bay, and crowds gather to get a glimpse of the swing bridge in action.
If Aruba is fun, Curaçao is functional. Though there are beachfront hotels and resorts, they’re typically smaller and don’t dominate the coast. Tourism does boost the country’s economy but it’s not the only game in town. What those postcards don’t show is that just beyond Queen Emma’s Bridge and the vividly painted row of buildings is an oil refinery.
What’s on the Menu?
Typical food Curaçao and Aruba is virtually the same: keshi yena (I’d wish I’d figured this out sooner!), funchi, fresh fish and seafood. Iguanas are plentiful on both islands and I saw iguana stew on a menu at a restaurant next to Playa Forti, though I didn’t try it. As you get further away from the Punda, Pietermaai, and Otrobanda neighborhoods near the St. Anna’s Bay, food options become more tailored to local tastes.
Willemstad is small, but has a cosmopolitan flair, so there is variety, though it’s not oversaturated with American chains. I ate dinner at an Indonesian food one night, at a bar and grill with a Dutch theme the next, and went to a Colombian bakery for breakfast. I had drinks at Iguana Café on the waterfront and watched the sunset.
Like Aruba or even more so, Dutch beers like Heineken and Amstel (they drink Amstel Bright instead of Light) are plentiful. A unique shopping experience that I didn’t get to see is the Floating Market. Merchants traveled to and from Venezuela and dock in town to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Now that Venezuela is in a state of crisis, I hear that this has ceased.
Curaçao’s unique culture and history made it like nowhere I’d ever been. However, I quickly realized that I was at an advantage by not renting a car and that my schedule depended largely on the bus schedule. The nightlife in Willemstad was ok but I really didn’t jibe with it. In fact, outside of the Pietermaai/Fleur de Marie/Scharloo area and the section of Otrobanda closest to the bay, it seemed kind of dead. For example, I spent one night after 9:00pm looking for something to eat and all I found was KFC. That was closing. I think travel blogger Nomadic Matt nails my feelings perfectly. I was definitely not blown away by the country.
A Final Word
When I was little, my father wanted to teach me to be open-minded about trying new foods. He told me to give it a taste and if I didn’t like it, I could spit it out and never have to eat it again. I’m kind of the same mindset regarding travel. My motto is, “Have no regrets,” so I don’t think any travel experience is ever a mistake. That said, I have no regrets about going to either country again. They weren’t among my favorites, but I’d not tell you not to see and experience what they have to offer.