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Exploring Willemstad, Curacao's UNESCO World Heritage Site

Marilyn JonesSunday morning it is quiet in Willemstad; so different from earlier in the week when I walked along busy streets admiring the island’s Dutch architecture and interacting with local merchants.

My lodging is in the neighborhood of Pietermaai next to restaurants and homes, and close to the capital city center. This area is slowly restoring itself to reflect the city’s history and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. There are only six Caribbean UNESCO sites. The decision to spotlight the city was based on "outstanding value and integrity, which illustrates the organic growth of a multicultural community over three centuries, and preserves to a high degree of significant elements."

Curacao was discovered in 1499 by Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda, a lieutenant of Christopher Columbus, and systematically taken from its inhabitants, the Arawak Indians.

coastline view 1

The island remained under Spanish control until the Dutch occupation in 1634. This history, plus its involvement in the slave trade and the more than 50 nationalities now represented on the island, makes up this culture-rich and diverse population. Governmentally it is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Touring Willemstad

My tour begins on the Punda (east) side of St. Anna Bay at the popular Curacao sign where everyone in my group queues up to have their photo taken among the large yellow and blue letters. We then walk along brightly painted centuries-old colonial buildings that reflect the island’s Dutch influence and provide a great backdrop to explore the city.

sign and tourists

Past the bright yellow Governor’s Palace, through narrow passageways and past bayside cafes, we end up at one of the city’s most popular attractions — the colorful Curacao Floating Market.

governors palace yellow

colorful buildings tour

Our guide says hundreds of years ago Venezuela’s Caiquetio Indians pulled into the island’s natural harbor in canoes loaded with fruits and other produce to trade with the Arawak Indians. Today fishermen line up along Waaigat Canal to sell their daily catch right from their boats while other sellers bring produce from nearby Venezuela and sell from stalls piled high with fragrant fruit.

fish and boat

bananas and fruit

Nearby is Jo Jo Correa Plaza. Here local artists and artisans to sell their handcrafts. Nearby stores sell clothing, crystal and other finery from around the world at duty-free prices.

Our last stop is Synagogue Mikve Israel-Emanuel (Snoa). Dating back to 1728, it is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the New World. The Jewish community began on Curacao in the 1650; founded by Jews who were displaced during the Spanish Inquisition.

jewish heritage 1

The floor is covered with sand to signify Biblical Jews wandering 40 years in the desert as well as the sandy floors used by secret Jews in Spain to muffle the sounds of their illegal worship during the Inquisition.

Tourists may also visit the adjoining Jewish Historical Cultural Museum, which houses a Torah scroll brought to Curaçao by the island's first Jewish settlers, along with other artifacts.

My Sunday walk along the same streets, past the same buildings and waterfront offers me time to reflect and take in the beauty and history of this UNESCO site; a true gem of the Caribbean.

If you go:

Willemstad is famous for the Queen Emma pontoon bridge that crosses St. Anna Bay offering easy access to Otrobanda; its street lined with colorful buildings and featuring streets that twist and turn giving neighborhoods their own unique charm.

I stayed at Pietermaai Apartments, an easy walk from many attractions.

For information on restaurants, and other hotels and attractions check the website: Curacao.