When asked about Caribbean architecture, many tourists might think of small, colorful houses and grass huts. In Curacao, however, the architecture is inextricably linked to the colonial past. Despite the sparkling Caribbean Sea and dry climate, much of Curacao resembles the great Dutch city of Amsterdam more than the picture book version of the region. Under control of the Netherlands since the 17th century, Curacao was constructed as a home away from home for colonizers. Throughout the years, the pervasive Dutch architecture adopted many Caribbean traits. The additions of such things as porches, verandas and bright exterior colors created the spectacular sites on view for today's visitors. Though many call the island "Holland in miniature," you will be greeted by a world that is uniquely Curacao.
Curacao was originally discovered by the Spanish expedition of Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. After gaining control of the island and ousting the native Arawak population, the Spanish ruled the island for over a century. However, in 1634, the Dutch invaded Curacao and quickly turned the island into a Caribbean version of Holland. Under the rule of Pieter Stuyvesant, the Dutch fought off invasion attempts by the British and French with the help of several forts along the coastline. Though many of these forts remain today – some of which have been converted into resorts and restaurants – the true architectural allure of Curacao came from everyday life.
The capital city of Willemstad dates to the Dutch invasion of 1634 and the outlines of its fortifying walls can still be seen. Following the signing of a peace treaty with Spain, the Dutch began constructing numerous houses and businesses throughout the island. The focus of Curacao and its Dutch rulers quickly turned from defense and fortification to the rapidly expanding trade market. By the early 18th century, nearly 200 homes and business had been constructed within the walls of Willemstad, each in the quaint Dutch style of the era.
In Willemstad, the best example of the "Holland in miniature" concept is the district known as Otrobanda. Constructed upon a winding grid of alleyways and narrow streets, this neighborhood most closely resembles the archetypal 17th century Dutch town. As the city developed throughout the centuries, Otrobanda eventually became the island's cultural hotbed in the early 20th century. In fact, most of Curacao's most recognized politicians, artists and musicians grew up in this truly unique part of the capital city. Today, Otrobanda continues to display both strong ethnic and cultural diversity – a trait seen inside local businesses and amongst the residents that stroll the maze-like streets.
Within the capital city, it is also recommended to walk through the areas known as Punda – also referred to as "old Willemstad" and known for its imposing fort – and Pietermaai – a neighborhood just outside of central Willemstad know for its colonial mansions. Perhaps the most interesting fact about Punda is that the first buildings constructed here were, in fact, perfect replicas of the homes and businesses that border the canals of Amsterdam. Today, Punda features architecture from several different eras of European design with each building painstakingly preserved. The neighborhood of Pietermaai dates to the early 18th century and marked the first residential expansion beyond the walls of Willemstad. Many of these stately European homes have since been converted into businesses, while others remain in their original state.
If you venture outside of Willemstad to the arid landscape of the island's interior, you will most likely spot a number of plantation homes and Dutch windmills. Like many of the structures in Willemstad, most of the plantations date to the 18th century. While many plantation homes and their surrounding buildings have been reduced to rubble, some of the estates have been preserved as museums. If you are interested in how these people lived during colonial times, visit the Sorghum Stalk House Museum.
Many of the island's most popular tours visit the most interesting architectural sites and several museums in Willemstad document the unique history of this Caribbean treasure. Even if you aren't usually moved by architecture, it will be hard to avoid the charm of Curacao.