Curaçao’s Colourful Pastel Capital

Still nominally Dutch, Willemstad is a tiny, tropical Amsterdam

Willemstad waterfront, Curaçao

The dense collection of colourful historic buildings neighbouring the harbour at Curaçao’s capital Willemstad, have earned this area UNESCO World Heritage status.

PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/Meridian Writers’ Group

BETWEEN ARUBA, Bonaire and Curaçao, the three Dutch Caribbean islands that lie almost within shouting distance of the Venezuelan coast, it was Aruba, in 1986, that first gained a large measure of independence from the Netherlands and which has since most successfully promoted its beaches and casino operations to cruise ship passengers and independent travellers alike.

Curaçao, since 2010 similarly a largely independent part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is fighting to earn the same profile, despite being the largest and most populated of the three islands, and the one that offers the most variety.

But in addition to the beach resorts and dive sites of its neighbours, Curaçao can offer the appealing toytown charm of World Heritage–listed Willemstad, a tiny tropical Amsterdam. Its tall, narrow, pastel-painted houses with their stepped gables line both sides of the canal-like harbour mouth with an artless quaintness like the illustration from the lid of a box of chocolates.

Hundreds of historic buildings as much as three centuries old form a tight grid with narrow streets linked by even narrower alleys, some leading to miniature squares. If this hide-and-seek quality wasn’t already appealing enough to children and adults alike, these squares are sometimes home to counters serving the traditional Dutch snack of fries with peanut butter or mayonnaise sauces.

At street level the ancient and dignified buildings are often open as duty-free shops. On one arm of the harbour is a floating market where Venezuelan traders display mountains of colourful tropical fruit in stalls next to their vessels, close to a lift bridge that seems straight out of a Van Gogh painting.

The population is made up of more than 50 ethnic groups, a reminder that Curaçao was at different times a colony of Spain, Holland and Great Britain, and that it once made its money as one of the largest slave markets in the Caribbean. A triangle of trade routes took baubles from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and United States, and rice and sugar back to Europe, with hefty profits on each leg.

Across the narrow harbour entrance on a gently swaying pontoon bridge of slatted wood dating from 1888 and overlooked by ancient cannons retrieved from sunken ships, the Kura Hulanda (“Dutch Courtyard”) Museum illustrates Curaçao’s heritage with an exhibition of carvings from the various parts of West Africa that supplied slaves. Ceremonial masks, musical instruments and devotional items compete with Benin bronzes and the grim paraphernalia of the slave trade: manacles, instruments of punishment and a reconstruction of the cramped below-decks spaces in which they lived while crossing the Atlantic.

More cheerfully, a warren of 62 original buildings including substantial mansions have been carefully restored and turned into hotels and restaurants. Creaky external wooden staircases mount walls painted in bright blue or warm yellows and reds to higher floors with wrought-iron balconies overlooking courtyards flooded with sunlight. It’s perhaps the finest display of colonial architecture in the Caribbean.



For more information on Curaçao visit the Curaçao Tourist Board website at