With some of the most biodiverse reefs in the whole of the Caribbean Sea, and a cultural heritage to match, there are very good reasons why Curacao was nominated as one of the Top 25 scuba diving destination in the world in our 2018 DIVE Travel Awards. Here’s a taste of what you can expect to find when you book your next vacation.
Curaçao is an island in the southern Caribbean, part of a group of the Lesser Antilles known as the ‘ABCs’, which includes Aruba to the west and Bonaire to the east. Formerly known as the Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao gained its independence in 2010.
The island is steeped in tragic history, as Spanish, Portuguese, British, French and Dutch colonialists sought dominion over the southern Caribbean. The original indigenous Arawak population was effectively wiped out by the first Spanish invaders, and Curaçao subsequently became a focal point for the slave trade until the Dutch abolition of slavery in 1863. Consequently, the local language, Papiamentu, is a curious Creole mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch.
Some of the colonial forts are now preserved and open to tourists, and the colourful Dutch architecture present throughout the thriving capital of Willemstad is a major attraction for visitors. The city is on the cruise ship trail (better to visit when they’re not in port!) and the swinging pontoon bridge that connects the districts Punda and Otrobanda either side of the central Sint Anna Bay is a sight to behold in itself, as large ships pass in and out of the natural harbour.
Situated approximately 75km from the Venezuelan coast of South America, the climate and water temperature make for great diving throughout the year. Average air temperatures hover between 25 and 30°C for much of the year, with the water temperature following suit. The October – December wet season can make it feel a little cooler, but most divers would be quite comfortable in a 3mm shorty for much of the year.
Underwater, Curaçao is home to one of the most biodiverse coral reef systems in the entire Caribbean. It is estimated that up to 70 per cent of all Caribbean coral species are found around the island, together with around 400 different species of fish. Although the reefs were impacted by the 2015/16 bleaching event, they were not as severely impacted as others. Curaçao’s shape and location mean that almost the entirety of the southern coast is sheltered from the storms that form in the Caribbean Sea to the north. The water is mostly calm at the surface, and if there is any current at all, it is usually less than moderate.
Much of the diving is from shore, often accessible from compact, white sand beaches. A short walk into the water is all that is required, with many of the dive sites being composed of a shallow, fringing reef that drops off into deeper water fairly close to shore. The extent of the fringing reef varies between almost nothing, leading to the spectacular walls of Directors’ Bay, or the gentle-to-steep slopes of Pierbaai and Varsenbaai. Towards the western end of the island, the shallow reef extends much further offshore at sites like Mushroom Forest, a wonderful, relatively shallow dive through huge fields of small pinnacles that give the dive site its name.
There are several notable wrecks in the area, the most famous of which is the Superior Producer, an overloaded cargo ship that sank in 1977 shortly after leaving port in Willemstad. The iconic Tugboat is another great dive, although the wreck itself plays a secondary role to the fantastic reef. Car Pile – which is exactly that – located on the otherwise fantastic reef at Pierbaai, is hardly a conservationist’s dream, but they’ve been there a long time and the sight of a pile of vintage automobiles stuck on the drop-off lends a slightly spooky, but oddly comical, aspect to a great dive.
Boat diving is also available – partly dependent on the operator’s location, partly on the partnerships that Curaçao’s dive centres work within. Arrangements between dive centres can be made to accommodate divers who wish to visit sites further offshore, such as those around Klein Curaçao, the island’s small and uninhabited neighbour.
Dive centres have come together to produce a set of self-regulatory standards through an organisation known as The Curaçao Hospitality and Tourism Association’s (CHATA) Dive Task Force, whose members are approved by the Curaçao Tourism Board based on their commitment to safe and sustainable scuba diving. Potential visitors should only consider those listed on the CHATA Dive Task Force website when booking dive vacations.
CHATA Dive Task Force centres
Curaçao’s top dive sites
There are 70 named dive and snorkel sites around the island, which vary dramatically in topography. From wide plateaus to gentle slopes and drop-offs and sheer walls, one thing they all have in common is a spectacular array of coral and marine life. Larger animals visit only rarely, but there is more than enough to keep a diver occupied. It has been known for visitors to miss the passing manta because they’ve been so immersed in what the reef has to offer.
Named for the – you guessed it – tugboat that sank in shallow water after the ship it was towing dropped anchor through its deck, Tugboat covers almost all of the best parts of recreational diving in one dive site. Located in a small sand and pebble bay, a shallow entry with broad expanses of sand makes it a perfect training environment. A short swim to the sloping drop-off gives divers a chance to find frogfish and sea-horses, before heading out to the walls that eventually lead to Directors’ Bay. Scorpionfish are everywhere in the nooks and crannies before you turn around, shallow up through a lush coral garden and inspect the wreck of the tugboat. the tug itself is small, but full of fish and makes for great photographs. The fallen anchor is not far away, and a great end to the dive is under the pier where large ships moor for repairs. There’s always something interesting hanging out in the shadows (and more photo opportunities), and divers often find themselves getting closely inspected by squid in the shallow water.
Best dived by boat, Mushroom Forest is a wide plateau that is filled with small hard coral bommies through which a diver can navigate. The site drops slowly down to around 35m but it’s such a gradual slope that even novice divers can enjoy the forest without worrying about breaking their depth limits. Large schools of fish such as yellowtail snapper use the coral for cover and for hunting, and lobster can easily be found hiding under the corals. Look out for the large green morays and their smaller yellow-spotted cousins lurking in the nooks and crannies, and occasionally free-swimming in search of a new place to hang out. Large Caribbean stingrays are often sighted digging in the sand for food, and it’s not uncommon to spot turtles among the coral pinnacles.
Located at the furthest western reaches of Curaçao’s southern shoreline, the roots of Watamula’s name lie in the Dutch word watermollen – water mill – due to the unpredictable nature of the currents at this location. Those currents create a rich environment for coral to grow, with vast heads of unspoilt hard corals interspersed with large colonies of soft corals, sea fans and huge barrel sponges. Accessible only by boat, Watamula is home to a wide variety of macro critters, all the usual Curaçao suspects, plus triggerfish, parrotfish, turtles and the giant Caribbean stingrays. Watamula is split into north and south dive sites, and currents can be more challenging towards the north, but further south are often milder. Watamula is a less-frequently visited dive site, but one of the most lush and vibrant in the whole of the Caribbean.
The 50m/165ft long wreck of the Superior Producer is regularly voted as one of the best wrecks in the Caribbean, if not the world. Sunk in 1977, its hull lies at around 30m of depth with the superstructure rising to around 21m. The cargo decks are wide open, making for an easy and atmospheric swim-through, and the rest of the superstructure is easily explored. The ship likes just west of the Curaçao Megapier terminal, which has just been extended, so the Producer is not always available to dive, but it’s a great wreck when the Megapier is unoccupied. Accessible by a short swim from the rocky shore (booties definitely recommended), divers have plenty of time to explore the wreck, then investigate the reef on their way back to the exit point. With more than 40 years of coral growth around the ship, there is plenty to see including banded coral shrimp, nudibranchs and frogfish. Large pelagic fish such as tarpon, barracuda, snappers and jacks often put in an appearance.
Above the waterline
Like many islands in the Caribbean, there are plenty of water-based activities such as kayaking, jet-skiing, or paddle-boarding through the lush mangroves. It’s well worth the effort, however, to explore some of Curaçao’s more hidden delights. Take a step off the beaten track and explore the wild north shore, for example, with a quad bike or 4×4 tour. While the south side of the island is peaceful and placid with white sandy beaches, the northern coastline takes the full force of the Caribbean sea. Waves crash against the rugged coastline sending spectacular plumes of foam into the air, and small tunnels in the rock form blowholes at the surface.
Curaçao’s main industry was, for a long time, the production of salt. Disused salt flats have since become home to flamingos, who wade through the water seeking the briny shrimp that gives them their vivid pink colouration. It’s quite a stunning sight, and in the evening, they can often be seen flying to different haunts against the setting sun.
Willemstad is bright and colourful and full of history, and there are a number of museums worth visiting. The Maritime Museum explores the history of an island that owes its existence to the sea, with artefacts and maps dating back to the 1500s. Kura Hulanda, and the Rif Fort museums should be high on a visitor’s agenda – the maritime history of Curaçao is filled with tragedy as African slaves were transported across the Atlantic. Kura Hulanda brings the horrors of the slave trade to life and also explores some of the rich African cultural heritage that remains part of Curaçao’s indigenous population.
For a more contemporary vibe, Curaçao’s markets are always worth strolling around. There is a cacophony of the usual humdrum tourist souvenirs, but there are some real gems amongst the stalls. The floating market is always worth visiting, and after a few hours of haggling – and if you can find it – Netto’s Bar, home of Curaçao’s famous Ròm Bèrdè (Green Rum), is an excellent way to round out the evening. Just be sure to let the bartender know which hotel you’re staying at before you place your order and no, you’re not Jack Sparrow!
How to get there
- From Europe: Direct flights to Curaçao are available through KLM from Amsterdam and with Condor and Thomas Cook from Frankfurt, Germany.
- From Canada: Direct flights with Air Canada from Toronto and Montreal, and WestJet from Toronto
- From the USA: JetBlue from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, American Airlines from Miami, Florida and Charlotte Douglas airport, North Carolina