Delicious Lionfish, Underwater Wrecks and Biting Ostriches

My good friend Alex and I had been discovering Curaçao for the past four days. So far we had gone snorkelling through gorgeous schools of fish, explored the alleyways and culinary delights of the historic Willemstad and had gotten wet and wild on pizza-floaties at the annual Floatfest 2016. With such interesting wildlife, deep-rooted history and a fun social atmosphere, we had definitely not been bored for a moment on Curacao, and more adventures were on the way!

We had seen a lot of the west side of the island, but not much of the east yet. So after a late start to our morning, we decided to explore that side of the island for an afternoon by looking for Pop’s Place. The restaurant had been recommended to us by a few persons to have some great local seafood dishes. After a half hour drive, we neared Caracasbaai and passed Fort Beekenburg, which was built to defend the Spanish Water in 1703. It was at that time one of the few places where one could easily go from sea to land. The Fort has proven his service, several times, the fort kept the British and pirates out of Curacao. A few minutes later we passed Caracasbaai and saw the sign for Pop’s place.

Seating ourselves with a view of the ocean, a friendly older lady handed us the menu. There were a number of tasty fish options to choose from. I was about to choose the snapper when I overheard a family next to me order Lionfish, which I had not seen on the menu. Excited, when it was our turn to order I asked if they were serving Lionfish, and they were! The lionfish is an invasive species, which is a growing threat to our underwater ecosystems and thus local fisheries which depend on them. In St. Maarten, it has been recommended by The Nature Foundation not to eat Lionfish due to the possibility of Ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP). But on Curaçao eating Lionfish is normal, and not seen as a risk by NOAA. I was happy to hear that because I LOVED the taste and texture of Lionfish. The huge lionfish came fried with plantain and Funchi, YUM!

After a satisfying meal we looked on our map for nearby sights and attractions. The option of an Aloe Vera Plantation did not really catch out eye but the option to visit an Ostrich Farm did. It seemed a bit random as Ostriches are native to Africa, but we thought: “Never been to an ostrich farm so might as well check it out!”

Following long winding roads leading us away from development and into what we described as ‘dry, brushy countryside’ we found the farm just in time for the last tour. We paid our ticket and got onto a large truck with benches.

Our guide, dressed up in a colourful-pattered shirt and cowboy hat, was enthusiastic and a great storyteller. As we slowly hobbled through the farm, stopping to take a closer look at the Ostriches, who were kept in large paddocks, he told us about the farm. The Curaçao Ostrich Farm first opened its doors in 1995. The farm was initially founded as a means to export ostrich eggs, chicks and meat to South America. It turned out there was more interest in the farm than just from South America. Many people were curious about ostriches and the idea rose to switch to a touristic enterprise. The first owner of the farm started with 100 ostriches, 50 males and 50 females. Nowadays there are approximately 200 adult ostriches on the farm and on average about 200 chicks. During the conversion to tourism, a restaurant that also serves ostrich meat and eggs were opened.

We also learned a lot of weird facts about Ostriches. Such as: 1. When threatened ostriches run although their powerful, long legs can be formidable weapons, capable of killing a human or a potential predator like a lion with a forward kick. 2. The ostrich's eyes are about the size of billiard balls. They take up so much room in the skull that the ostrich's brain is actually smaller than either one of its eyeballs. 3. It takes about an hour to soft-boil and hour and a half to hard-boil an ostrich egg.

We got to feed a pair of friendly female ostriches and saw an ‘aggression dance’ by a territorial male ostrich. We also were allowed to test out the strength of an ostrich egg by standing on it, which makes sense seeing as the eggs need to withstand the weight of an adult male ostrich weighing up to 320 pounds. My favourite moment was when the guide asked if anyone wanted to feel the bite of an Ostrich. I volunteered. It didn’t hurt… much.

We walked away with vast knowledge about ostriches, something we both felt would somehow come to use later in our life. With another good hour of daylight left we decided to drive around a bit more, taking the road further northeast to eventually make a circle back to our hostel in Willemstad. Feeling a bit sweaty and dusty from the hot afternoon, we drove towards a beach called playa Kanoa on the map. We drove through a rural area, homes becoming scarcer, turning into a dirt road, we began driving the long stretch to the coast. The landscape could’ve been impressive due to the contrasts of the red dirt, grey and brown prickly shrubbery and bright blue sky. But though there were no houses or persons in sight, for some reason there were heaps of trash everywhere. We had already noticed the terrestrial pollution in many other places but not in this vast amount. Sint Maarten also has its share of visible land-pollution and hidden illegal dumping areas, yet every time I am still a bit dumbfounded. How did it become so normal to throw out our waste anywhere we please, and in such an unsustainable manner? It shows such a lack of pride in one’s country and natural heritage.

In a surprising twist at the end of the polluted area, when we got to the coast we passed a number of wind turbines. I learned later that together, the Tera Kora and Playa Kanoa wind parks give Curaçao a total of installed wind-generating capacity of 12 megawatts and produce an average of 100 megawatts per day, enough for 6,000 households. They can cover 7% of the island’s average electricity demand, and up to 20% when demand is low. At least Curacao was making its first steps towards renewable energy. A step we still need to make here on Sint Maarten.

Playa Kanoa was very different than the other beaches we had been to. This side of the island’s coast was mostly cliffs, wild water pounding at its base. Playa Kanoa, situated next to a small fishing community was protected by a rocky-barrier that had allowed a small beach to form. The beach was far away from the city, and any tourist amenities, which meant that only a few families with kids were playing in its shallow water. A number of surfers rested under shady areas. It was nice to see this different side of Curaçao.

After an easy night, we woke up early the next day. It was time to climb the highest point of Curaçao, Christoffelberg that is 372 meters high. The trail to the top lies within the Christoffelpark, which is the largest national park of Curacao. It was a long drive to the entrance of the park. It was nice driving towards the park, the closer we got, the cleaner and prettier the nature around us became.

Due to the extreme heat in Curaçao hikers are not allowed to start the climb uphill after 11:00am. We were perfectly on time at 8:00am. We paid our tickets, and drove to the start of the trail. We both had hiked up trails higher than 372 meters, but we soon noticed that the heat and steep slopes did make for a challenging hike. A lack of rain had made the scenery extremely dry, but pretty things could still be found within the details of our surrounding such as the bright green ferns, strange looking lichens, and interesting bromeliads and orchids. After about 40 minutes we could see the top, the last 10 minutes were the hardest for me as it included scrambling and climbing over large boulders, above daunting heights. I have had a bit of an irrational fear of heights since a bad fall in kindergarten, but I try not to let that hold me back form any activities, and with some coaxing from Alex, we made it! Curaçao stretched out in front of us and welcome hard gusts of wind blew over us. The climb had definitely been worth it.

Once more sweaty and dusty we drove to another beach to cool off, which is when we came along the most stunning beach we had seen so far on Curaçao called: Grote Knip. A must see if you ever head to Curacao! It was nearing the end of our own trip to Curaçao. We had seen most of the island, and to our knowledge marked off most of the highlights, but one more thing was on my list to do: diving!

Curaçao is known for its diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean. The island is surrounded by a fringing reef. Since near shore development is largely absent and pollution occurs locally only near the inhabited part of the island, reefs are often in much better condition relative to many other Caribbean sites. Especially the island’s undeveloped, north shore and eastern and western sides of the south shore still harbour coral communities reminding one of reef communities that existed 30-40years ago. The number of known fish species for Curaçao is currently 358 according to the Carmabi Research Station.

I booked a dive with our hostel’s dive-centre and at noon the next morning, we drove to their base. I had never done a shore-dive (a dive where you enter the water with your equipment from shore instead of the beach) so I had requested to do that. We also chose a dive-site that had good snorkelling as Alex wouldn’t be coming along for the dive, but could do that instead. So we had decided on a dive and snorkel sight called: ‘Tugboat’

My guide Chris was helpful, a bit flirtatious and funny, he got my group and me into the water with ease and soon we were diving along a steep wall fully covered with life. Chris was great in pointing out the small crevices with crabs and nudibranchs, the latter a true joy and surprise to see. Large schools of fish surrounded us at various moments. It was amazing to see the amount of variation of flora and fauna the reef had to offer. We slowly started making our way up and towards the wreck of the tugboat, which rests at about 5 meters below the water. Coming closer I could see that the wreck had become fully covered with many different coral formations and colourful sponges. Blue Parrot Fish, Yellow Tail Snappers and a number of other reef fish were guarding the wreck.

My air was almost done, but my guide signalled that he wanted to show me one last thing. He gave me his emergency regulator and I held on to his arm. We slowly swam away from the wreck and towards the large pillars of an old pier. I was happy he had taken the effort to take me, as the combination of the large dark steel pillars covered in living colours, the bright rays of sunlight shining through the water and wildlife such as shrimp and gobies, made for a unique experience.

That evening we had a ‘Dutch’ meal with fries, tosti’s, frikandellen and bitterballen. We ended our trip as we started it, with a round of cocktails! I had a great time with Alex exploring Curaçao, and it proved again how important it is to get away from the rock occasionally. I instantly made plans for more short vacations away. Heading home the next morning I felt reenergized and ready to get back to work, not just yet though, as it was a Friday and more fun is always to be had on the weekends in St. Maarten!

By Laura Bijnsdorp

Follow Laura and her travels on Instagram: laurasxm