Are you thinking of how great life could be if you retire in Curaçao? Or maybe just looking to book a relaxing family vacation or romantic weekend getaway?
This guide to Curaçao offers a brief history of the island, and gives information and tips about when to go, how to get there, traveling on the island, banking, passport requirements, phone service, taxes, where to stay, where to eat, beaches, nightlife, shopping, and outdoor activities. Consider this your concise one-stop shop for all things related to those looking to travel, snowbird, or retire in Curaçao.
If you feel there is something I have missed, please let me know. If it will be valuable for other readers, I’ll add it to this page.
Curaçao is the largest of the islands in what is known as the Dutch Caribbean. Located just off the coast of Venezuela, Curaçao’s 150,000 people live on a island that is is 38 miles long and 7 1/2 miles wide at is widest point. The capital city of Willemstad is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is known for its colorful waterfront town houses.
The first Europeans to discover Curaçao were the Spanish in 1499, on an expedition led by Alonso de Ojeda. The Dutch came to the island in 1634 via the Dutch West India Company, and are responsible for building the capital of Willemstad. Over the years, the city built fortresses to defend against attack from England and France. A few of those ramparts exist now as house restaurants and hotels.
In 1651, twelve Jewish families arrived from Amsterdam. By 1732, a synagogue was built. The current Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Tourism is growing rapidly in Curaçao, with year-over-year cruise passenger growth among the highest in the Caribbean. This is partially due to a recent massive pier expansion project. The government and private sources have invested in the restoration of some of the island’s colonial buildings, and the hotel development in recent years has increased to support the tourist demand.
When to Go
As snowbirds, you’re familiar with “the season”. In general, the snowbird season in the United States lasts from Thanksgiving to Easter. That’s the time of year when people will flock to the southern states to escape the sometimes brutal cold up north. Curaçao’s season (and the rest of the Caribbean, for that matter), closely mirrors what you’re used to. Season there is basically from mid-December to mid-April. During this time, you can expect to pay full price and have a little longer wait time for a dinner seat. In the off-season, rates are typically reduced by 25% or more.
How to Get There
To get the best prices, those flying into Curaçao will likely have a stop in Miami. If you’re lucky enough to live in Florida, a Saturday to Saturday round-trip flight will cost you about $400 as of this writing. I took a sampling of departing from a few other major airports to compare rates, and this is what I found:
Arriving in Curaçao from…
Chicago: $620 with two stops in New York, then Miami
Houston: $743 with one stop in Miami
Miami: $399 nonstop
New York: $460 with one stop in Miami
Seattle: $724 with one stop in Miami
If you’re planning on staying in and around Willemstad during your trip, you probably won’t need a rental car. Many of the larger hotels have a shuttle service to and from the airport, or you can take a taxi for about $20 to $30 (at the airport, you’ll find waiting taxis located at the plaza on the right hand side of the arrival hall exit). And once you’re in town, you can get around by walking or with another taxi. And, again, many of the hotels offer a beach shuttle so you can enjoy the Curaçao sunshine!
If you’re staying on the western end of the island, a cab ride from the airport will cost around $40 to $50. Make sure you agree on a rate before you depart. Drivers may have rate sheets available, since the taxi rates are unmetered. The quoted rates are usually for up to four passengers, and a 25% surcharge will be added if there are more than four people or if it is after 11pm.
Many taxi drivers will also act as a tour guide also. You can expect to pay $20 to $30 per hour, but make sure you come to an agreement beforehand. Tipping is not required, but many people leave a 10% tip.
If you’re looking to rent a car, you have familiar options in Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National Car Rental, and Thrifty. You can pick up your car at the airport when you arrive, or have it delivered free to your hotel. Rates are just a little more than what you would pay in the U.S. Here is a quick summary of what it would cost for Avis or Hertz:
Economy: $40 – $48
Compact: $51 – $62
Full Size: $65 – $72
SUV: $70 – $77
These rates include taxes, airport concession fee recovery, and theft protection. They do not include collision damage waiver, personal accident insurance, fuel, young driver surcharge, or additional driver fee.
Please be careful when comparing car rental prices online. While Hertz shows its prices as an all-in rate on their site, Avis only displays the base rate initially and then adds on the taxes and airport concession fees during the check-out process. The total price between the two are nearly identical, but the Avis marketing makes it (falsely) appear as though it is a much less expensive option.
You can check for availability and rates here:
Banking & Currency
The U.S. dollar is widely accepted throughout Curaçao, so you may not need to do a currency exchange when you arrive. If you’re curious, however, the official currency is the Netherlands Antillean guilder (NAf), which is also used in St. Maarten. The NAf will soon be replaced by the Caribbean guilder (CMg). Both the NAf and the CMg are pegged with the U.S. dollar at 1.79 (1 USD = 1.79 Nag = 1.79 CMg).
You can learn more about Curaçao’s currency here:
If you do need to get guilders instead of dollars, save yourself some money by withdrawing them from an ATM. Avoid the currency exchange booths in airports, since they charge expensive fees and give unfavorable exchange rates.
Like most international locations, you’re going to need a passport to travel to Curaçao. Visitors from the United States and Canada do not require a visa to enter the country. You can find a full list of countries that are exempt from the visa requirement here:
As a tourist you’ll generally be granted entry for up to 14 days, but 30 days may be given. Extensions are available at immigration, but those who apply to stay beyond 30 days will need to have medical and liability travel insurance for the duration of the extended stay.
Check the date of your passport before you leave. Passports must be valid for a minimum of six months from the date of entry into Curaçao.
From the United States, you can call Curaçao directly by dialing 011-5999 plus the number you’re trying to reach. International roaming for most GSM phones is available in Curaçao. Local companies are United Telecommunications Services (UTC) and Digicel. You’re also able to rent a cell phone or purchase a prepaid SIM card for your own phone. For more about international cell phones, read this earlier post about using cell phones overseas.
Taxes & Surcharges
Taxes and surcharges for your Curaçao trip can add up, so make sure you budget accordingly.
When leaving from Curaçao, you’ll be subject to an airport departure fee. The fee for international destinations is $39, and $5 for transfer. If you’re going to Aruba or St. Martin, the fee is $20, while the fee for Bonaire is $10. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from that tax. If you’re traveling with the following airlines, the fee is incorporated in the ticket price:
- American Airlines
- United Airlines
- Air Berlin
- Air Canada
- West Jet
- Copa Airlines
- Surinam Airways
Hotels will typically add a 10% to 15% service charge to the bill, while also charging a 7% government tax.
Restaurants will charge a tax of 6%, with the addition of an additional 10% to 15% service charge.
Where to Stay
Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, Curaçao captures natural Caribbean charm and delivers it with an international elegance and sophistication. Resort amenities include the Old Quarry Golf Course, Atabei Spa, Tafelberg Tennis Center, resort style pools, splash zone for kids, beach and pool cabanas, on-site island tour/activity desk, on-site dive & watersport center, bike rentals, shuttle to Willemstad, and dedicated event & wedding planner.
Avila Hotel is a luxury beachfront resort that has been in continuous business for over 6 decades. Amenities include restaurants & bars, swimming pool, Santai Spa, Avila wellness club, tennis court, Octagon Museum, Shakira Hair & Beauty, Cafe Barista, tour desk, and Budget car rental.
Renaissance Curaçao Resort & Casino offers experiences and activities for travelers seeking the ambiance of authentic Caribbean charm combined with European sophistication. Built around the historic Rif Fort in Willemstad, the resort amenities include a private beach club, on-site casino, concierge desk, gift/newsstand, Starbucks Coffee, CRU Steakhouse, Infinity Beach Bar, fitness center, and a jogging/fitness trail.
Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort & Emerald Casino captures the best of old Amsterdam charm with sun-drenched warmth. This 6 acre luxury hotel on Piscadera Bay is only 15 minutes from Hato International Airport. Amenities include world class dining options such as Portofina, the Emerald Casino, full service spa, fitness center, pool, meeting event space, 5-star PADI dive and watersports center, and concierge desk.
Floris Suite Hotel is an exclusive luxury retreat conceived entirely for guests 18 and over. The hotel features a private beach club, free-form swimming pool, fitness center, tennis court, Thrifty Car rentals, currency exchange, shuttle to Willemstad, convenience store, doctor on call, and fruit infused water in the lobby.
Marazul Dive Resort in Westpunt offers you a home away from home vacation. The individually owned units range from 2 level condos to 3 bedroom, 3 bath bungalows. They are all completely equipped with kitchens, satellite TV, linens, towels, hot water, air conditioning, ceiling fans, and screens on most windows and doors. Each unit also has a porch for outside dining or relaxing.
Sunscape Curaçao Resort Spa & Casino is about unlimited fun for the kid in everyone. This resort is the only major all-inclusive option on Curaçao, offering tropical beaches, savory dining, unlimited drinks, exciting activities, a serene spa, and one of the largest and most visited casinos on the island.
Where to Eat
Although beachwear isn’t acceptable (unless you’re at a beach location), the dress code in restaurants is almost always casual. Here are a few food options based on the type of food you’re looking for:
Awa di Playa (average main meal: $8)
Jaanchies Restaurant (average main meal: $23) – predominantly a lunch spot, the iguana soup is one of their specialties.
Landhuis Daniel (average main meal: $20) – near Westpunt, the cuisine is a mix of modern French-Mediterranean and nouvelle Creole.
Bistro Le Clocard (average main meal: $52) – located in Otrabanda, and specializing in French-Swiss cuisine with a Caribbean twist.
Fort Nassau Restaurant (average main meal: $31) – offers a 360 degree view over part of the island and Willemstad from its position at an old fort high upon a hill at the harbor’s entrance.
Trio Penotti (average main meal: $15) – sit outside or visit the cozy pub inside at this restaurant set in one of the many old slave houses in the area near Christoffel Park.
The Wine Cellar (average main meal: $55) – frequently mentioned as one of the best restaurants in Willemstad, this restaurant has been serving up French cuisine for over 30 years. Reviewers love the Grouper, lobster bisque, steak, and wine list. The one complaint that you’ll hear: the food is so good that people leave feeling that have eaten too much!
Shore (average main meal: $30) – at the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort 35 minutes from Willemstad, features an open air kitchen, covered dining area, and wonderful views.
Sol Food (average main meal: $15) – in Westpunt, this small casual place run by a couple (David and Sunshine) on the deck of their house serves lunch and dinner on the weekends.
Almost all of the beaches on the island are located along the southwestern coast, where the waters are calm and crystal clear. Since many beaches are popular with tourists, try to arrive early to get a parking spot and the best spot on the sand! For your perfect island escape, try one of these beaches out:
Blue Bay Beach – Just northwest of Willemstad near Sint Michiel, this shady beach is popular because of its soft white sand. There is an admission fee for Blue Bay, but you’ll have access to lounge chairs, umbrellas, a bar and restaurant, children’s playground, a large pool, and showers and toilets.
Boka Sami in St. Michiel is a small beach with no shade and little sand. This traditional fishing village offers a dive club on the pier with public bathrooms and a restaurant. From here, you can also explore a salt marsh or climb a trail up a hill on the west side of the beach.
Caracasbaai is part of the underwater park on Curaçao, so it is popular for diving and snorkeling. Admission is free, the water is usually calm, and there are a few small restaurants nearby if you get hungry.
Cas Abao Beach is open daily from 8:00am – 6:00pm. This beach is ideal for swimmers of all ages and the reefs are perfect for snorkelers. There is onsite parking for convenient beach access, and a bar/restaurant open every day of the week for snacks and drinks. Beach chairs are available for rent, and you can also find toilets, changing room and lockers. The entrance fee is nafl. 10 per car Monday-Saturday, and nafl. 12.50 per car on Sunday and holidays.
Daaibooibaai is a small bay with good snorkeling. There is a snack bar, a small trail to explore, and plenty of shade provided by pergolas.
Jan Thiel Beach is a family beach with a full dive operation, child-friendly wading area, and a small waterpark. The beach also offers a bar, restrooms, and showers.
Jeremi isn’t usually crowded and is a pristine beach with natural beauty, even if it is lacking in some of the comforts the other beaches may have. There is no entry fee to Jeremi.
Kenepa (Kleine Knip) is two beautiful coves that are among the island’s most popular beaches. There is no entry fee required, and their are limited amenities available. The snack bar has a small restroom, is open on the weekends, and often plays loud music. During school holidays, you’ll likely find locals camping at this beach.
Klein Curaçao, if you have the time, offers a wonderful day-trip opportunity. This uninhabited island 2 hours off the coast of Curaçao offers Curaçao’s longest stretch of white sand beaches. There is little shade, but dive operators and charter boats will take you out to Klein Curaçao for beach parties, cookouts, and fantastic diving.
Kokomo Beach was formerly called Vaersenbaai, but it has been completely renewed with a restaurant, bar, and a beach bar. Since the renovation, it has become one of the more popular beaches around with big beach parties like Woodstock, monthly full moon parties, Summerlove, Doomsday and Amnesia beach festival. While you’re at Kokomo, you’ll enjoy no entry fees, showers and toilets, a dive platform in front of the pier, and lounge chairs.
Playa Forti’s coarse brown sand and tiny pebbles offer a different type of beach environment on the island. A steep ramp and steps lead you down to the water from the parking area above the beach on the Curaçao’s western tip. There are several snack bars and a restaurant at the parking area, but little shade at the beach.
Playa Kalki is a small cove with steep stone steps leading you down from the parking area. There is a snack bar and dive shop in a shaded terrace about halfway between the parking area and the beach.
Playa Lagun is easy to find right in the village of Lagun. The site is a favorite for divers and snorkelers, as reef fish are plentiful along the rocky cliffs that adorn the sides of the cove.
Playa Piskado is a small beach that offers plenty of photo opportunities of fishermen’ boat and nets. Some shade is provided by Manchineel trees, and the small snack bar is open on the weekend.
Playa PortoMari is located on the estate of Planteges, and is open every day from 9:30am-6:30pm (except on December 31 and Carnival Sunday, when it is closed). PortoMari markets itself as a place “where nature comes first” and tries to show this by using recycled water for toilets and irrigation, and through the use of discarded pallets to create a boardwalk. There is a unique ‘double reef’ that is accessible from shore, offering exciting opportunities for snorkelers. For those looking to do a little hiking or mountain biking, there are three trails that start at the beach’s parking lot. Entry fee to the beach is $3 per person, with children under 12 free.
Santa Cruz would not be an ideal location for snorkeling, since a mangrove swamp surrounding the beach clouds the water. This swamp does, however, attract a lot of birds, so there are ample opportunities for bird-watching. There is some shade at the beach, along with a small restaurant and restrooms.
Sea Aquarium Beach is located right next to the Curaçao Sea Aquarium. This makes it a popular destination for families. At night, it can be a crowded hotspot with concerts and movies on the beach. With shops, bars, and facilities for watersports of all kinds, you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied at this beach.
Willemstad, with its variety of nightlife options, is the go-to place for those looking for excitement after the sun sets. Here you’ll find everything from outdoor restaurants and jazz clubs, to martini bars and casinos. Similar to the United States, you’ll find the big nights are Friday and Saturday, but there will be things to do every night of the week. If you’re in town, check out these locations:
De Gouveneur in Otrabanda for live music
Avila Hotel’s Blues Bar
Santa Beach or Mambo Beach for DJs and dancing
Check out the Curaçao Party Guide to keep up on the latest happenings on the island.
You’ll find the main shopping areas in Curaçao to be Punda’s Breedestraat and Otrobanda’s Breedestraat. Most times, these areas will be crowded with tourists and cruise ship passengers. As always when traveling, be careful when making purchases in retail stores. Merchants have been know to take advantage of tourists who are only staying for a short time by selling you defective goods, since you won’t have an easy opportunity to return them.
For groceries while on Curaçao, try the New Market and Old Market. Another favorite spot is the Floating Market.
Shop at the Zuikertuin Mall to experience the only fully air conditioned mall on Curaçao. It’s also the only shopping mall that is open late (until 8:00pm) every weekday and Saturday.
Try shopping at the Curaçao Beach Boulevard for local gifts for yourself or your friends. You can also dine at one of the restaurants or drink at one of the cafes or bars here.
Sports & Activities
Visit the Christoffel National Park near the Curaçao’s west end. This 4,450-acre wildlife preserve offers those who love hiking a variety of trails to explore. If you have a few hours to kill, climb to the island’s highest point on Mt. Chistoffel. If you’re ok with getting a little sweaty, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the island. On clear days, you can even see as far as Venezuela. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can opt for horseback rides, kayaking, or jeep tours of the park. Park entrance is $12 per person for adults, $4.50 for children ages 6-12, and free for those under 6 years old.
Shete Boka National Park is adjacent to Christoffel National Park, and visitors call it “beautiful and unique.” One of the favorite spots here is Boka Tabla, which offers an opportunity to experience the inspiring power of nature. Here, huge wave crash into an underground cavern and you’ll feel the pounding of the ocean and the wind created by those waves forcing themselves into the sea cave. The park is open every day of the week form 9:00am – 5pm and costs $5.50 per person.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try your hand at scuba diving at Wata Mula. This westernmost dive site features a sloping reef and cave that is frequented by nurse sharks, rays, groupers, and huge moray eels. This site is suggested for experienced divers, and is diveable only on very calm days and only with an experienced dive guide. Even though you may experience rough seas and strong currents, the visibility and marine life here is outstanding.
Money Saving Tips
If you’re looking to experience Curaçao on a budget, consider a few of these tips:
Avoid taxis. Taxis on the island are expensive. If you stay in a central location and can avoid using using them, you can save $50-$100 per day. Consider using the bus service. Buses are reliable and cost about $1 for a single fare. Be careful and plan ahead, though, since buses outside the Willemstad area run infrequently.
Rent a car. If you can afford $40-$50 per day, a rental car is the way to go. This offers the most flexibility during your stay, and allows you the means to get to the outer reaches of the island. Visitors to Curaçao have stated that not renting one way the biggest mistake of their trip.
Use Airbnb or VRBO. You can find accommodations for much cheaper than hotel rates through these services. When searching, help protect yourself by look for postings with many reviews, good photos, updated calendars, and recent profile activity.
Enjoy a bbq. Beach BBQs are popular activities, and can help save money on food.
Visit out of town beaches. Beaches close to town are typically resort beaches. If you’re not staying at the resort, you’ll have to pay to use the facilities. While you’re thinking of about your bargain beach vacation, plan on skipping the beach chairs. Take a towel with you and avoid paying for a chair.