The vividly painted architecture lining the waterfront in Willemstad may be the most famous feature of Curaçao, but the kaleidoscopic hues did not happen by design. The capital city developed after the Dutch claimed the island in 1634, beginning with Punda, the walled portion of the old city. Buildings tended to be two and three-story shops and residences built on narrow, elongated lots to maximize use of scarce land. The only materials available for construction, mismatched bricks scavenged from ship ballast, were finished with lime plaster made from crushed shells, which dried to a dazzling white facade in the intense Caribbean sun.
It is said that a former governor of the island who suffered from severe headaches, believing his malady was aggravated by the sun’s brilliant reflections off the white buildings, mandated that building exteriors be painted any color but white. Despite later discovery that the governor was a shareholder in the island’s only paint store, the tradition of painting in vivid colors has endured, making Willemstad’s Dutch and Spanish colonial style architecture one of the most stunning sights in the Caribbean.
Curaçao Landhuizen, giant plantation houses built in the the outlying areas in the 18th and 19th centuries, were no less alluring. The hallmark of each plantation was the landhuis, where the master lived with his house slaves. The country estates were surrounded by the store houses and huts of the slaves, which were constructed of traditional wattle and daub mixed with cow dung and roofed with dried maize stalks.
In 1997 the historic area of Willemstad’s inner city and harbor was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. Today Curaçao boasts more than 860 historical and archaeological sites, including some 80 landhuizen. While visits to the old plantation houses require joining a tour or renting a car, the architectural jewels of Willemstad are best seen on foot; the city’s historic districts of Punda, Otobanda, and a smaller portion of Scharloo are easily seen in a four-hour walking tour.
Disclosure: Author Barbara Weibel visited Curaçao as part of a press trip, provided by the fabulous Marriott Resort and Emerald Casino, which is ideally located within walking distance of Willemstad.