Curacao has always been something of a hidden gem of the Caribbean but tourism has increased over last year, with most visitors coming from Europe, followed closely by North America because of affordable direct and regional flights. It’s easy to assume that all travel to Curacao is high-end, but the island has some of the most popular and dynamic biking and hiking trails in the Caribbean, accessible for only the price of admission.
Know Before You Go
Curacao is one of a trio of Dutch Caribbean islands known as the ABC islands, along with Aruba and Bonaire. It’s an often-overlooked treasure that offers great adventures for budget travelers who know where to look. Hiking and walking trails are among the most popular and affordable tourist activities. Some are pretty demanding though; experienced hikers and mountain bikers are sure to appreciate the challenges of quickly changing terrain, along with spectacular views and one-of-a-kind interactions with wildlife.
Curacao can very generally be split between west and east. The western side of Curacao tends to be more rugged and undeveloped than the eastern side of the island, where the population density is greater and the land is more heavily traveled and built up, including the eastern city (and capital) Willemstad. Often, the same trails are used for hiking or walking and mountain biking. The direct sunlight can be harsh in the middle of the day, so many tourists and locals alike start out early in the day when hitting any one of the dozens of trails.
Because so many of Curacao’s trails are highly rustic, it’s important to bring along plenty of water when walking, hiking or bicycling. The terrain can be rocky or muddy so dressing appropriately is important, too. Wear comfortable footwear, clothes that are easy to move in, and a hat, too. Bring a day pack with a camera, some money, and any other supplies you might need. Where possible, pick up a map. Trailheads change and dense growth can obscure trail markings. Some visitors might want to arrange for a tour; however, there’s no reason visitors can’t strike out on their own if that’s what they want to do.
Talk to locals before you head out for information about loops, trails, etc., that might be off the beaten path. There are many local businesses that rent out mountain bikes and other hiking or outdoor equipment; some tourists are able to rent or borrow mountain bikes as part of their lodging arrangements. And take care to avoid disturbing the plants as much as possible; many are still considered essential for research purposes.
The Untamed West
Much of Curacao was plantations at one time, and Christoffel National Park is no different. It’s the island’s largest national park and home of Mount Christoffel, the island’s highest point at 1,227 feet above sea level. Some of the flora and fauna that can be found here exist no place else on Curacao.
Guests can take one of eight trails. They vary in difficulty and time to complete. For example, less experienced hikers may prefer the 20-minute walk through a white tailed deer sanctuary, while more experienced hikers may aim to summit Mount Christoffel.
The hike up Mount Chrisoffel and back takes about three hours. This is a great activity for early birds because the park closes by 4 o’clock on most days. Hikers are advised to head up the mountain by 11 o’clock in the morning to allow enough time to reach the top of the mountain and return. Depending on speed and ability, some hikers may need to head out earlier than that.
The trail up Mount Chrisoffel begins as a lush, green trail at a shallow angle before increasing sharply toward the top, becoming more of a rock-climb than a trail walk. Hikers enjoy 360-degree views from the summit of Mount Christoffel. The expansive carpet of green rolling hills is matched only by equally brilliant azure skies. See the thin ribbons of beach in the distance, and the deep blue ocean stretching for miles in all directions. It puts being on an island in the Caribbean into perspective!
National park Shete Boka, is adjacent to Christoffel. This is another well-known and popular place to hike. It’s noted for its rocky shores, underwater caves, and inlets or boka that get pounded by surf, driving the spray skyward. The scenery is dramatic and beautiful but clearly hazardous; no one goes swimming here. The Boka Pistol trail takes visitors close to turtle nesting areas, limestone cliffs, and a unique spot where the waves sound like a gun being fired. The Boka Wandomi trail also includes limestone cliffs, as well as a natural bridge. Each of these hikes takes about an hour.
For tourists interested in pairing a beach trip with a hike or bike ride, Playa Porto Mari is a great spot. The white sand bayfront beach with double reef is well-known and great for snorkeling. And it's the starting point of three trails, the Seru Matteo Trail, the History Trail, and the Bird Trail. Hiking these trails takes from 30 minutes to three hours; mountain biking is generally faster.
The Seru Matteo trail heads up 187 feet to the top of Matthew’s Hill, offering visitors a great view of the beach below. The trail starts out pretty level but but elevates quickly - one spot even has a wooden staircase. The trail continues past the summit and becomes rougher, with several forks; watch for signs. The total length of the route is about two miles. It’s a great opportunity to view native flora and fauna.
The History Trail and the Bird Trail are both comparatively rougher than the Seru Matteo. They’re less well-tended and less well-marked than some other trails, so these two are best left to the adventurous hikers and mountain bikers. Both trails lead to the ruins of the old estates that once covered the land; hikers follow the steps trod by slaves on the island hundreds of years ago. Be aware of the wildlife that can be encountered on these trails, from wild pigs to eagles and falcons (aka Wara-Wara).
A Great Variety in the East
The eastern part of Curacao is where most of the population lives. The trails here often cover more than one type of ecosystem. These trails are also more heavily traveled by hikers and mountain bikers.
The southeastern part of the island is home to the Jan Thiel Nature Reserve. The area offers a variety of terrain for mountain biking through clusters of mangrove trees, around a lagoon, and past historical structures like an old fort Bekenburg and a 200 year old quarantine building! For those not up to a mountain bike ride, tourists can also hike around the lagoon. It’s a more low-intensity activity, and can be completed in just a few hours of relatively level walking, although if the water level of the lagoon is high, staying out of the water can be tricky.
Another beach-to-hill hiking trail starts at Boka St. Michiel known as Boca-Sami to the locals. From the top of the 344-foot hill, enjoy a bird’s eye view of the fishing village and small beach below. Many hikers enjoy seeing wild birds on this walk. This could be a good alternative to Mount Chrisoffel, and a little less strenuous.
For hikers seeking a bit more culture, the self-guided Indian Trail at Hato Caves takes less than half-an-hour. The cave drawings of the indigenous Arawak people of Curacao are still visible on these coral limestone cavern walls. And hundreds of years ago, escaped slaves hid in this same caves. As much of the hiking on Curacao is out in the open, with minimal shade areas, this diversion can be a welcome change of pace.
And perhaps the most dynamic trail on Curacao spans St. Joris Baai to Koraal Tabak, a dramatic looking, airy cave at the top of a hill. While most of the other trails stay within one or two ecosystems, this trail offers perhaps the greatest variety of sights and sounds, making for an interesting and challenging excursion. While many of there other trails could be hiked or biked, this one is best seen by bike. Mountain bikers tour mangroves, salt flats, cliffs, and caves. They stand on rocky shores and sandy beaches, and pass coastal windmills turning lazily. As the trail winds down at the Malpais Nature Preserve, bringing the trail full circle from sea to shore.
The dramatic beauty of Curacao can perhaps be best appreciated by immersion. And there’s no better way to do that then by hiking and mountain biking some of the most popular trails on the island. At first glance, the landscape is harsh; however, spending some time among the natural wonders of Curacao makes it possible to appreciate the tenacity and brutal beauty of a place where the natural geography and isolation both separate and protect. From the western side of Curacao to the eastern side, the landscape is fiercely beautiful and unforgettable.
Guest Blog by Cassidy Oliver