Aruba or Curaçao: Decisions, Decisions

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

Malmok Beach

I could get used to this. Malmok Beach, Aruba

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

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.

Getting Around

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.

Verdict?

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.

Curaçao

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.

The Beaches

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.

Grote Knip

Impossibly blue waters and uncrowded beaches in northern Curaçao.

Willemstad

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.

Verdict?

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.

Trinidad: Not Your Average Caribbean Island

West Moorings

When you imagine the Caribbean, what comes to mind?

Crystal blue waters and white sand beneath your feet? Sipping frozen drinks by the pool? All Inclusive resorts on the beach?

Many people imagine a holiday destination like Montego Bay, perhaps Aruba’s iconic divi tree-lined Eagle Beach, or Bahamas’ Paradise Island (which, by the way, is just outside the Caribbean.) Few people envision bustling urban squares, oil tankers, and water taxis designed for commuters, not island-hopping vacationers. This is Trinidad.

Situated in the southeastern Caribbean Windward Islands chain, Trinidad is a major hub for air travel and an economic powerhouse. The island ranks #3 in wealth in the Caribbean, behind Barbados and Bahamas (CARICOM considers it a Caribbean country.) Along with Jamaica, Trinidad is one of the largest English-speaking islands in the Caribbean. Trinidad isn’t exactly what one would expect when dreaming of a tropical beach holiday (though Tobago, T & T’s smaller sister island, would definitely fit the bill.)

Why go to Trinidad, then?

As far as music and culture in the Caribbean, along with Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Cuba, Trinidad’s rhythms pulsate across the region and beyond. That steel pan you hear in the subway in Times Square? That’s Trini. That campy 1990s commercial jingle, “Hot, Hot, Hot”? Trini music, too. The Calypso and Soca beats kind of sneak up on you. Like Reggae, steel pan has become a kind of default music of the West Indies.

Trinidad is an eclectic mixture of races, cultures, and religions. 

When you think of a Caribbean person – or West Indian – you may imagine a person of the African diaspora – and you’re not wrong. However, what the casual outsider may not realize is that Trinidad also has a huge population of East Indian-descended people, who came to the island as indentures servants in the 1800s.

In fact, there are slightly more Indian than African descendants on the island of Trinidad (conversely, Tobago is primarily Black.) This migration has heavily influenced its cuisine with roti being the most recognizable example. The savory aromas of curry chicken or goat or channa (the Indian word for chickpea) over rice? You’re tasting India meshed with Trinidad’s own native spices and flavors.

When looking at a map, you may notice that many towns have Spanish names: San Juan, Sangre Grande, and Trinidad itself, Spanish for “trinity.” You’ll also see some vaguely French place names, like Morne Cabrite, Filette, and Grande Riviere. Unlike its neighbors, that were colonized by England, Spain, or France, Trinidad was colonized at different points in history by Spain, France, and England.

Along with place names, many Trinidadians have Spanish last names. This is evidence of T & T’s small but visible Venezuelan migrant community. Destra Garcia and Machel Montano, two of the nation’s biggest Soca stars, are prime examples of Trinis of Venezuelan heritage. After all, Venezuela is just off the coast and as close as 7 miles away in certain parts.

T & T boasts cosmopolitan cuisine, ethnic diversity, and world class music. Still not sold?

Trinidad is also world renowned for the most famous Carnival outside of Rio. Its carnival has influenced communities as far flung as New York, Toronto, and London. Just before Lent, the streets of Port of Spain become one enormous party. Steeped in African tradition, Trinis celebrate J’ouvert and mas (short for masquerade), decked out in brilliantly colored costumes adorned with feathers and sequins, among other decorations. Many people save up all year to buy a costume, which can run in the thousands (!)

Full disclosure: my fiancé, Stefan, is of Trinidadian descent and the purpose of my trip was to visit family. We stayed in West Moorings, a sea-facing suburb, just west of the capital. Trinidad has been on my bucketlist for years. I’ve wanted to go ever since I worked in Flatbush and fell in love with its food.

Stefan’s cousin, Sunil picked us up from Piarco that day. The flight, just under five hours, arrived in mid afternoon. I’d already committed my first faux pas: I packed my luggage and toiletries in a chic camouflage bag. I knew I was in trouble when we queued for customs and one of the agents instructed me to continue to another line. The solution? A large black garbage bag and the promise that I’d not return making the same mistake. Note: though popular in the United States, sporting camouflage gear is a big no no in many countries, especially in the Caribbean.

Stefan’s cousin took the scenic route back into town. We climbed the mountainous roads until we reached Lady Young Look Out. Sunil told us that there was a food truck there that sold good Jamaican food; I can’t confirm or deny this. I was more interested in stretching out my legs and whipping out the camera. It was getting to be dusk. The hill overlooked the capital with lush greenery and the sea as a backdrop: the perfect photo op.

Lady Young Look Out

Now, for the question you’re probably dying to know: why haven’t I mentioned the beaches? Trinidad has beaches, but Tobago is where you go for blue water. We didn’t have enough time this trip to visit but that’s definitely on the bucket list! What the larger island lacks in clear turquoise water it makes up for in isolated, unspoiled wilderness.

The day after we arrived, our first stop was Macqueripe Beach. Armed with a bathing suit, camera, and the kindness of Stef’s aunt and uncle for driving us, we rode down the beautiful Tucker Valley Road, a former military base.

The morning was drizzly and misty, creating a cloud-like effect. If you looked in the trees, you could see– and hear! – howler monkeys jumping through the branches, a sight I didn’t expect to see in the Caribbean. While Macqueripe doesn’t have that blue water, it’s situated in a bay that protects it from hard waves, giving it a calmness ideal for swimming. Filled with families and teens, this is a locals beach. I should mention, Macqueripe is also the site of ZIP-ITT Adventure Tours, which features ziplines spanning over the ocean.

Macqueripe Beach

Another lovely feature is the abundant fauna and flora-rich hiking trails, some of which lead to waterfalls. We visited the Bamboo Cathedral, a jungle pathway covered by the plant, that creates an arched, flying buttress-like effect. We spotted a large vulture descending on what appeared to be the remains of a snake. After a detour, we were on our way walking along the main road into Chaguaramas, where we caught a maxi taxi.

Eating and Drinking on the Town

For an evening out, what to do? I must admit, I was surprised by how few traditional bars I found in and around Port of Spain. If you’re relatively young and looking for more of an American-style bar atmosphere, head to Ariapita Avenue. There you’ll find bars, restaurants (we ate Thai one afternoon), and nightclubs. Trinidadian nightlife is less about apple martinis and cosmos, and more about throwing down Carib, Trinidad’s national beer — and one of the most popular in the region — or having a shot of rum (Angostura will do the trick.) I prefer Mackeson myself, a sweet milk stout brewed by the distributors of Carib.

If you’re looking for a unique Trinidadian experience, hit up a rum shop. The best place, perhaps, is in the St. James neighborhood along Western Main Road. You can buy rum by the shot, as well as ice cold bottles of beer. There you can play pool, watch sports, or pull up a chair to the sidewalk to watch the world go by. In other words, just limin’, the Trini word for hanging out.

What should also be mentioned is that  St. James is home to numerous pan yards, that is buildings or lots designated for pan camps or steel pan bands. We were around in late January, just weeks before Trinidad’s famous Carnival, and got to see pan players practicing. Steel pan is to T & T as bagpipes are to Scotland, so there’s no escaping it.

St. James

It’s All in the Hips

Speaking of limin’, after a night of drinking, the perfect plan is to head to Maracas Beach. If you haven’t visited Maracas at least once on your trip, you haven’t really experienced Trinidad. People don’t simply come here to swim– and the current is strong! I’m afraid to tell you that it knocked me over, stripping me of my bikini top in the process. Maracas is not the place to practice your laps.

We were off to a Sunday afternoon, again, courtesy of Stef’s Uncle and Aunt. This is a place where you can pull up a plastic chair, strike up a conversation with a stranger, and end up sharing a shot of rum. True story. On any given weekend, you’ll likely encounter a fete or the aftermath of one — large, vibrant party. The music is pumping — Soca, of course. Unlike in the United States, a party ain’t a party without music and dancing. It’s here that you’ll also observe or partake in another favorite Trini pastime: wining. This is a dance that gets up close and personal with your partner. It’s all in the hips!

I love a strong rum punch and you’ll definitely find one at the stalls lined up along the road. One experience you cannot afford to forgo while at Maracas is sampling its famous bake and shark. While there are a half dozen or vendors selling this delicacy, Richard’s, the original, is the truth. Even if you’re not into fish, the fillet is lightly fried and mild. The bake, which is a fluffy fried bread, is just as good as the shark.

Once you get your order, make your way to the condiment counter, where you’ll find the imaginative to the mundane. I like mine with heat: hot sauces of various temperatures (Matouk’s is a personal favorite of mine), pineapples, and spicy cucumbers. Whatever you do, please promise me you won’t douse yours in mayonnaise.

Let’s talk about food

On a night out, you’re looking for something fast and easy to nosh on. If you’re from New York, that’s a pizza slice, kebabs in Turkey and parts of Europe, and arepas when in Colombia or Venezuela. in T & T, the street food of choice is doubles. Like arepas or hotdogs or tacos, doubles is a street food. What is it a doubles, you ask?

Created by descendants of East Indians, it’s made of two pieces of  savory fried bread (not unlike bake) known as bara and filled with fragrant curried chickpeas. Its usually topped with tamarind sauce, pepper sauce, or  kuchela, a mango-based chutney, can be added. You may also get fresh, shredded spicy cucumber toppings, like a relish.

One of the best places to go for one is the spot on the corner of Ariapita Avenue and Fitt Street. The dough is heavenly fluffy, and the channa, fiery yet the spiciness doesn’t obscure the complex flavors and aromas. Having said that, you’ll definitely need a cold drink to cool your mouth, but you’ll be satisfied. Many Trinis swear by this street vendor. You should too.

Which brings us to…roti!

dhal puri Trinidadian roti

Roti is also of East Indian origin, though not the same as its continental equivalent. It reminded me more of Malaysian roti canai or other South East Asian variation. In Trinidad, Guyana, and other Indian-influenced Caribbean nations, you’ll find two varieties of roti: dhal puri and paratha. While Indian dhal puri is circular and fried, the Caribbean version is a very thin skin. But please, whatever you do, do not call it a burrito!

Dhal puri, the most common type, is filled with curried meat, seafood, or if you’re a vegetarian, aloo and channa (that is, potatoes and chickpeas.) Paratha, commonly known as “buss up shut,” is a torn, shredded version of roti that is used to scoop up sauces, veggies, and meats in much the same way you would with a tortilla chip or piece of bread.

When you’re in Downtown Port of Spain you may be guided towards Patraj, Dopson’s, or Hosein’s roti shops. A place where you may not think to go but should is to  the Town Centre Mall where you can go upstairs and have yourself a roti packed with mango sauce. After leaving Stefan’s Aunt Denise’s home in Belmont,  she suggested it when we asked where the nearest and best roti was.

Oh, and if you still have room for it, take a short walk to Independence Square and treat yourself to a currant roll at Chee Mooke’s Bakery, one of the oldest on the island. At 85 years old, it’s still a family owned local favorite that’s worth a stop.

Taking It All In

Trinidad is hot. As much as a marathon walker as I am, an afternoon of humid, 85 degree heat depletes even me. You’ll need to sit down and rest. There’s the Queen’s Savannah, which isn’t very shaded except at its periphery. However, I prefer to pot a squat at Woodford Square, right in the midst of it all. We caught a steel pan player (notice a pattern?) playing along to popular Soca and Calypso songs. It’s nice to buy yourself a snow cone and sit under a tree just people watching.

I think it suffices to say that I’ve barely scratched the surface. Trinidad may not appeal to the casual traveler looking for turquoise ocean, frozen drinks, and kitschy souvenirs. The trade off is you get to experience a place that hasn’t been devoured by the tourism industry. I’m looking at you, Cancun. Verdant forests, flavorful food, and beachfront where you can truly *just* relax await you.