COLOURFUL CURAÇAO

The strange story behind the Caribbean’s most colourful cityscape.

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The most indelible image one is left with when visiting the Caribbean island of Curaçao, 65 kilometres north of the Venezuelan coast, is probably the first thing you’ll see when you arrive: the colourful Façade in the capital city of Willemstad.

The Dutch island, captured from Spain in 1634, was once a stopover and auction site for the slave trading industry. Today, it is most famous for the ubiquitous blue liqueur distilled here. Although Curaçao marked its independence from the Netherlands in 2010, centuries-old Dutch architecture still dots the landscape.

Home to over 140,000 Curaçaoans, Willemstad is divided in half by the Sint Anna Bay, with denizens crossing from side to side using the Queen Emma pontoon bridge. On one side is Punda, founded in 1634. It’s home to jewelry stores, cafes and souvenir shops that attract the flocks of Dutch tourists who still vacation here every year.  And on the other side is Otro banda (which literally means “the other side” in the local Papiamentu dialect), with less glamourous but equally vibrant bars, casinos, barbershops and fast food joints. Founded in 1707, today it’s where many locals call home. 

From Otro banada, the view of Handelskade, Punda’s main strip, is an unforgettable array of tropical-pastel structures. Tall, narrow buildings with gabled roofs and red tiles that mimic their Dutch counterparts.

Over time, the 17th– and 18th-century Dutch designs were modified for life in a tropical climate, adding verandas, shutters and porches.

Another island adaptation: building materials consist of stacked chunks of coral stone, mud and coral stone plaster. (Look closely at cracked or crumbling buildings to see the fossil patterns in the plaster.)

 So, how did this tropical palette come to be?

The story goes: Albert Kikkert, a Captain in the Dutch military, first arrived in Curaçao in the 1780s to protect the Dutch property from the British. He played an instrumental role in the Netherlands during the Napoleonic Wars, and worked his way through the ranks of the Dutch military, eventually becoming knighted. King Wilhem I awarded him the governorship of Curaçao (along with nearby islands Bonaire and Aruba) in 1816.

After suffering from migraines on the island, he visited a doctor who claimed they were the result of all that island sun reflecting off the white washed buildings. Kikkert’s solution: a command to the island’s people to paint all the buildings any colour but white. After a rush on Curaçao’s only paint store, Willemstad’s citizenry were soon painting the town red….and pink, yellow, blue, green, purple and orange. 

It wasn’t until after Kikkert’s death in 1819 that it was revealed his motivations may have been financial rather than medical. Turns out he also held stocks in that prosperous paint store.

But hundreds of years later, downtown Willemstad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the vibrant tradition is still upheld, creating one of the most uniquely stunning and picturesque cityscapes in the Caribbean.