Poppy Hostel Curacao. The History of a UNESCO Listed Guesthouse
In 2006 our family bought a decaying family home in the Otrobanda district of Willemstad, the intention was to restore one of Curacao's many historic Monuments to its former glory. Willemstad's 1997 classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site covers some 800 buildings in the center of town. Since end 2012, our guest house is located in one of them!
Structures built on Curaçao before 1915 used the most abundant local building material - Coral! That's right...after most of the trees on the island were felled and shipped to Europe in the 17 and 18th centuries, we used the stuff everywhere. Until concrete was manufactured on Curacao, with the foundation of the refinery and quarries, all traditional building materials had to be imported. Previously this included wood imported from S. America (by the 18th Century the Spanish and Dutch hadn't left much) and brick from Holland (taken as ballast in the W.I.C. ships). Only the wealthy or well connected could afford brick, even then this was always used along with the stuff the entire island is made of.
Restoring a listed monument in Willemstad means jumping through lots of hoops. Luckily the owner is resourceful and with the help of handy family members and a good working relationship with "Monumneten Zorg", Dutch for the Department of Monument Care, the project only took about year. Maintenance is a constant battle with a house of this age. There is always a wall to paint or a leak to plug somewhere (luckily we get VERY little rain on Curacao).
On the street side, the house's Neo-Classical architecture is clearly visible. Visitors to Willemstad will be able to spot the characteristics (mentioned in the picture caption above) in many other UNESCO listed buildings constructed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century.
Though no significant changes could be made to the exterior, we were able to modify the, once internal, oven into an outdoor BBQ. The covered porch was originally a maid's quarters. We removed 2 walls to create an extra seating/dining area. The outdoor lavatory was converted into a storage shed.
Initially the house would collect rainwater off the roofs. This was stored in a cistern that was located where this picture was taken. Since the advent of the water desalination plant (the big chimneys on the coast south of Otrobanda) in the 1960's, Islanders have largely stopped collecting rainwater for consumption. Tap water on Curacao is some of the purest in the world!
The wall between the kitchen and hallway was removed, making renovations internally is not such an issue. UNESCO classification is usually based on external features. Floor tiles in this area were all removed and cleaned of several layers of paint before the floor was retiled. Poppy's hallway creates a nice sense of symmetry.
Customary in homes on Curacao, the back door is used as the main entrance. This leads into the "hub" of the guesthouse. The kitchen is fully stocked with everything a full house of 7 might need. A big challenge here was creating the opening in the wall on the right. Monumentenzorg (the government body that inspects and mandates how historic buildings are restored in Willemstad) didn't think this was possible. A heavy gauge steel I-beam now supports the structural wall.
Like most homes, the kitchen at Poppy is the hub of activity. This kitchen table has traveled the world and is still well loved. Although in general, amenities are no-frills, one can surf the net on Wi-Fi and make use of the coffee machine. There is even a deep-fryer (top-left)! Like the Dutch, locals love fried food. The ceiling fan and breeze from outside make this a favorite afternoon spot.
Part of the dining area was sacrificed to create 2 identical modern bathrooms. A big chunk of the restoration time went into this part of the house. 100 years ago, local homes often dispensed with a private bathroom all together! Each space has a bespoke double sink, a modern shower and toilet. Even though these are communal areas, locks on the door ensure privacy. Water on Curacao is often solar-heated, taking a hot shower is not done! Guests who aren't warmed up by the afternoon will find that the "cold" tap dispenses water at about 30 degrees C (almost 90F). Short showers are appreciated as a Liter (or Quart) of distilled tap water cost almost 10US Cents!
Tiling on the wall is one of the few ways to keep the sea salt locked in the coral walls. This is only a temporary solution; within a decade or two the tiles here will need to be replaced. To date there is no effective long term remedy for what we call "muurkanker" or wall-cancer in Dutch. Every structure built with coral that is plastered or painted eventually loses its coating.
Back in the day, the inhabitants of Curacao made due with smaller living spaces and simple amenities. Although the single sleeping quarters have a modest size (about 12m square or 130 square feet) we decided to fit everything a frugal traveler might need. Mosquito netting is fitted to all openings, eliminating the need for a net over the bed (this is still available). Info on the Zika virus here.
All sleeping areas boast sturdy hand-made beds and wardrobes, dual voltage US (110v) and European (220v) power points, a desk and some seating. The Sinlge+1 and Double 3pax Max rooms have space for a movable single bed. All mattress have been fitted with a pillow top and linen and towels are provided free of charge. Original tiling and a ceiling fan keep the interior cool on all but the hottests nights.
Our only Double Bedroom at Poppy is located in the oldest part of the home. At about 18msq (+-200sqft) it is the only place that accepts a maximum of 3 guests (no you don't all have to stay in the queen size bed, we have an extra bed that fits in here)
The home was built in 3 stages and the original construction started on the street side in the 1890s. The first of the 5 roofs covers this room and the Lounge. The entire house was finished in 1904. It is still customary for locals to construct homes in stages as their family expands or more space is needed. Curacaoans often build without a mortgage and it sometimes takes decades to complete the save/build/save process.
3 of the 5 bedrooms are single occupancy only. We do not believe in dorms (yet). Private sleeping quarters are why the guesthouse is a favorite accommodation for single female travelers.
This area is typical of homes on the island. Although most Curacaoans live outside, especially after the sun sets around 7pm, many escape the daytime heat by going indoors. The Lounge at Poppy has a comfortable couch, modest entertainment possibilities (one does not come to Curacao to watch TV!) and a quiet place to relax, read and work. There are Games, Books, DVDs and a stereo system.
In the early evenings or on holidays, it's customary to open up the doors and windows in the Lounge and watch the activities on the Mgr. Niewindtstraat. Sometimes there are processions from the Santa Famia church. On particular holidays like Carnival (late February) and Seu (Harvest festival in April) Guests at Poppy have a prime spot right at the end of the Parade route!
Please visit this page to read what USA-Today thinks about Poppy Hostel. We hope you have enjoyed this photo tour. Please get in touch if you have any further questions. You can also leave comments below.
Bon-Bini na Kòrsou!