Much of the layout, the architecture and the culture prevalent today in Curaçao has its origins almost 400 years ago—because history in this place is a living being. Originally inhabited by Amerindians of the Caiquetio tribe arrived from the Paraguaná peninsula in present-day northwest Venezuela, Curaçao was discovered in 1499 by the Spanish, who subsequently colonized, neglected, repopulated and again dismissed it during the XVI century. But the emergence of the Dutch Republic as the masters of international trade over the XVII century created ripples in the geopolitical order of the time that reached the shores of Curaçao with strength and vigor. So much can be gathered from the numerous walking tours and guided visits that allow guests to discover the charms of UNESCO World Heritage site Willemstad and its surroundings.
Every story has a beginning and in this case such beginning might well serve as the starting point of our excursion, because Fort Amsterdam, presently used as the Government House, has its origins all the way back in 1634, when the Dutch retaliated to the Spanish repossession of the island of St. Martin the previous year with the invasion of little-known but strategically important Curaçao. That was when they began the erection of Punda, the eastern portion of the city, which today is renowned for its colorful and eclectic architecture, most notably along the notorious Handelskade—the row of commercial buildings on its waterfront.
Walking tours in Willemstad are often thematic, organized around specific interests (history, architecture, even the Jewish heritage), but no trip would be complete without a visit to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue right on the southern edge of the historic Punda. The role played by Jewish immigrants is prominent not only in the history of Curaçao but also in the development of the Low Countries as a world power. Seeking refuge following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, they came in numbers to the Dutch colonies. But after the Portuguese regained control of Dutch Brazil in 1654 a large proportion of them relocated in Curaçao. The Jewish cemetery on the northwestern end of the city was consecrated in 1659 and fifteen years later there was a synagogue inside the southern edge of the walls of Punda. Indeed, this stands on record as the longest-running active synagogue in the western hemisphere, although the current building was built in the 1730s.
Willemstad is dramatically split in two by the deep and narrow canal known as St. Anna Bay. Originally, this sliver of water acted as the natural border of Punda on the eastern side, prompting the erection of a mirroring, if less affluent, urban settlement quaintly known as Otrobanda—local Papiamento for “the other side.” Reaching this other side by foot, visitors are confronted with one of the most imposing legacies of an early period of modernization of Willemstad: the Queen Emma pontoon bridge. Built in 1888—just twenty-odd years after the demolition of the walls around Punda—the “Swinging Old Lady” has been recently restored and continues to swing open on a regular basis. But beyond the thrills of getting to Otrobanda, the western quarter of Willemstad is home to another must-see venue, which pays tribute to a crucial, if bleak, portion of the history of Curaçao: the Kurá Hulanda museum (and hotel), which holds the most remarkable collection of African artifacts and pays tribute to the over 100,000 slaves who were traded in Curaçao between 1634 and 1814 and who for the best part of two centuries constituted the cornerstone of the island’s economy.
The island also features a number of colonial manor houses, known locally as landhuizen, which offer an invaluable insight into the lifestyle of the XVIII and XIX century. A vast number of them have been converted for modern use, exemplifying the remarkable way in which the past meets the present in magical Curaçao.
Published in the 2014 edition of Experience Curaçao (pp. 28-34)