“In Bonaire, you don’t think, you just do.” At least that’s what I repeat to myself standing at the edge of this cliff, eyeing the dirt-covered notch of fossilized coral beneath my feet. About 25 feet below that there’s clear, impossibly turquoise water. Maybe too clear: I think I see shadows of rock-masses right beneath the ripples, but hopefully my eyes are playing tricks on me.
On the southern end of the Caribbean, the Dutch municipality—the “B” between Aruba and Curaçao in the ABC islands—is less about tourist traps and more about outdoor appreciation. Here, 20,000 residents are relegated to two cities—Kralendijk, the capital, and the older Rincon—while about one fifth of the whole island is covered by Washington-Slagbaai National Park, where I am currently frozen.
To get to this perch above Boka Slagbaai bay—once a setting for goat slaughtering (slagbaai comes from slachtbaai, Dutch for “slaughter bay”)—I trekked in aqua shoes up a lumpy trail lined with spindly candle cacti that sprung from the ground like electrified hairs. Take away the sounds of the ocean, and the landscape could easily double as a Western US desert. But then an iguana crosses my path, moseying along on Caribbean time. Behind me flamingos converge, feasting on a former salt pan. And at the top of the trail, I emerge to see the water—expansive, gorgeous, with coral reef all around, all protected thanks to the island’s conservation efforts.
So now, all there is to do is jump from this cliff, which seems like nothing. But a crowd has gathered to watch. Maybe they were in the national park to hike the trails of Mount Brandaris, the highest peak on the island. Or maybe they were there to dive and snorkel in secret cove beaches, like the hidden tide pools of Boka Kokolishi, a favorite for wading. Maybe they’ve kayaked, explored historic ruins or driven in their 4×4 along a dirt road, where mountain goats climb rugged mounds to one side and geysers from the ocean spurt angrily on the other. Maybe, but now they’re here to watch me.
All I just want to get it over with. I look down—a mistake, because then I hesitate (a note to cliff jumpers out there: Don’t look down. Never look down.). And eventually, I leap.
Did you know you could do a belly flop on your back? Before visiting Bonaire, I didn’t. But now I do. And I’d do it again. Here’s what else you can get up to on this small but mighty adventure island.
Inhabit the scuba spirit of Captain Don
Today, the miles of reef fringing the perimeter of Bonaire is all a protected marine park, stretching up to 984 feet offshore and stocked with 470 colorful species of fish, 60 kinds of coral, and multiple diving and snorkeling sites. The reef’s accessibility, along with year-round good weather, has earned 24-mile-long Bonaire a reputation as the shore diving capital of the world—a place where you can pop into underwater wonders straight off the land, rather than needing a boat.
But the value of the reef might never have been recognized if not for one man, a Californian named Captain Don Stewart. Navy man, avid diver, raconteur, and inventor (he apparently was responsible for the sliding screen door), Captain Don was also an environmentalist. As the story goes, he made a pit stop in Bonaire while on a sailing trip back in 1962, his 50-year-old schooner in need of repairs. At the time, only 4,000 people lived on the island, but it was the water that caught Captain Don’s attention. When it was time to leave, he changed his plans. “I could see the reef as we tied up,” he said of his first sighting. “I could hear it calling my name.”
Bonaire’s introduction to diving began with the six tanks Captain Don brought with him, and the protection of local marine life became his legacy. He spearheaded a campaign to have permanent moorings placed at dive sites that prevented divers from anchoring in, and thus destroying, the reefs. His efforts not only led to the banning of spearfishing to protect the reefs (it’s the reason conch, though plentiful in the waters around Bonaire, has to be imported from neighboring islands), but also to the creation of the Bonaire National Marine Park in 1979. Today, all divers in Bonaire are required to attend a class on reef preservation, as well as pay a nature fee of $25 to enter the park waters.
You’ll see his name invoked throughout the island, most prominently at the PADI diving resort he founded in 1976, Captain Don’s Habitat, a favorite of divers and divers-to-be with certification classes, specialty courses, and access to over 50 moored sites by custom dive boat. (The attached Rum Runners restaurant, a go-to for cocktails with a killer sunset view, is a favorite of everyone else.)
Other area resorts include Buddy Dive Resort, Grand Windsock, the more affordable Caribbean Club, and the luxurious Harbour Village, complete with its own secluded stretch of private beach, the only place you’ll find that on the island. But resort access isn’t required to hit the water: Stop off at a dive shop for some equipment, choose a spot—the extraordinary 1,000 steps perhaps (actually just 67 steps), or the Oil Slick, where you step off a short cliff into the waves—and take the leap.
Throw caution to the wind (literally)
The consistent trade winds that blew Captain Don’s aging sailboat over to Bonaire are the same breezes that make the island a destination for wind-fueled sports. Champion windsurfers are made here—you’ll find some teaching classes at Lac Bay. The Frans Brothers, stars of the 2013 documentary Children of the Wind, about three Bonarians’ journey from a small fishing village to windsurfing superstardom, run their own windsurfing school and wing foil center on Sorobon Bay. (One of the owners, Elton “Taty” Frans holds the fastest record for windsurfing from Bonaire to Curaçao).
Of course, if you want a more laid-back activity, there’s plenty of that, too. The windsurfing club Jibe City offers rentals and classes—plus adirondack chairs, hammocks, and a bar for those who prefer to watch.
Another option? Skim across the seas on a kiteboard—that’s done at Atlantis Beach, with classes at Kiteboarding Bonaire or Bonaire Kiteschool—or try your hand harnessing the wind on land. Bonaire is the only island in the Caribbean where you can landsail. Using the New Zealand-designed Blokart (rhymes with go-kart), Bonaire Landsailing Adventures allows you to zip around a waterfront track right dotted with cacti. Just watch out for those iguanas.
You’re standing in front of a gaping hole in the ground about three feet wide, depths as dark as the eye can see. Your snorkel is strapped around your neck. Then your spelunking guide nods: “Yup, this is the cave where we’re going down.” Yet another one of those “just do it” Bonaire moments. If you’re lucky, there’s a rickety ladder to climb, but you’re most likely rappelling into a dry cave to crawl through spiny formations, or a wet one, emerging in a wonderland of clear pools, stalactites, stalagmites, and coral shaped like everything from brains to bats. Oh wait—those are real bats.
There’s a reason Bonaire is devoid of lush vegetation. Its geology was formed by a volcanic core pushed up from the earth and surrounded by limestone karst. But what the land lacks in nutrients for plant life, it makes up for with its holes. Caves, over 400 of them, litter the landscape, and the Bonaire Caves & Karst Nature Reserve is dedicated to their protection. To that end, just a few are accessible to visitors, and require a guide like those from Go Caving Bonaire or Caves Tour Bonaire to take you through the underground worlds (if you choose the latter and get Dirk as your guide, be ready for plenty of adorable dad jokes).
Delve into the island’s cultural history
Arrive at Bonaire by sea or land, and the first things to catch your eye are the pink-hued salt flats on the southern end of the island, each lined with massive 50-foot tall white pyramids of salt. They’re part of one of the largest solar salt facilities in the Caribbean. (The salt is available to buy all over, but at the flats, there’s a box of crystals to sample for free.)
Drive by the flats on land and you’ll notice something else: almost identical square white houses, Scandinavian in their minimalist design. Dating back to 1850 and made of coral stone, these were once shelters for the enslaved brought in by the Dutch from the west coast of Africa to work on the flats (slavery was abolished in the Dutch Antilles 13 years later). Their homes were typically located inland in the city of Rincon, but as the flats were a seven-hour walk away, staying overnight in these accommodations meant they could work, sleep, and work again. And it was tough work—they often went blind due to sun and heat exposure.
Though the residents today are a conglomeration of several cultures—their language, Papiamentu, is a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and African dialects—at times, Bonaire can seem like two countries: one for those who built the country, and one for those who conquered it. The original inhabitants were an Arawak tribe called the Caiquetios, believed to have migrated from Venezuela. (It was their name for the island—Bojnaj—that evolved into “Bonaire”.) After the Spanish landed, they searched for riches on the arid desert-like land and found none. They subsequently deemed the land useless, enslaved the Caiquetios, and shipped them off to Hispaniola (now Haiti) and the Dominican Republic to work in the copper mines.
1636 saw the arrival of the Dutch, who came in search of salt to use as preservatives in the herring industry. In Bonaire they found their White Gold, and, in the late 1600s, implemented the slave trade to work primarily on the salt flats. Until slavery was abolished, the entire island amounted to one large plantation. Around Kralendijk, you’ll see maps for a self-guided historical walking tour, taking you past Dutch colonial buildings like the Protestant church, built in 1847 for Dutch immigrants, and Wilhelmina Park, named after Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (she has her own “welcome seat” affixed with a plaque).
But to learn more about the cultural history of Bonaire, of those who toiled on the land and whose descendants still live there today, head inland to Rincon and find the Mangazina di Rei. Once a building used by the government to store agricultural rations for the enslaved, today it’s a museum documenting the island’s cultural, agricultural, and geological makeup.
Every last Saturday of the month, they hold the Nos Ziljea, a celebration of local crafts, agriculture, and musical entertainment plus local foods like Funchi, a mash of black eyed peas and brown sugar, and goat curry, which you can also sample at nearby local restaurants like Posada Para Mira. (If you’re feeling adventurous, go for the iguana stew). Or if you’re visiting from February through May, look for one of the Simadan events throughout the country, a festival that harkens back to a celebration of the harvest, with its own dance called the Wapa. It culminates in the day-long Dia di Rincon on April 30.
Create your own safari
Cruise around the island and you’re bound to encounter quite a bit of wildlife. Some are a natural fit, like iguanas, waterfowl, caracaras, parrots, and even goats. Also flamingos, pink like the salt flats, munching on shrimp from briny waters and hanging out at Bonaire Wild Bird Rehab, their very own sanctuary. They say there’s more flamingos than people on the island, and that might very well be true.
And then there are the donkeys. Dropped off by the Spanish in the 1500s and left to fend for themselves on the island, about 1100 burros now roam freely throughout Bonaire. And if encounters with humans turn unfriendly, it’s usually the fault of the animal with two legs and opposable thumbs. That’s where Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire comes in.
Established in 1993, the sanctuary takes in donkeys injured and orphaned by car accidents or by other means. Here, about 750 animals are cared for by volunteers and set up, Golden Girls-style, for the rest of their days with food, shelter, medical care, and gossip buddies. Visitors can pay an entry fee and embark on a DIY safari, walking or driving through the sanctuary by car, golf cart, or scooter, and buying grass pellets to get swarmed by burros poking their snouts in open windows, car doors, and anywhere else they fit. Long-term visitors to the island can sign up to volunteer or apply to be an intern. Short-termers can choose to sponsor or “adopt” a donkey, securing a local friend the next time they return. And if you can’t make it down in person, you can always watch the action go down via livestream.
(Ad)venture into the night
Bonaire might be more suited to daytime exploration, but there is also a burgeoning nightlife scene, helmed by live performances at Little Havana and salsa parties at Cuba Compagnie. And you can count on cocktails backed by spectacular sunsets at places like Karel’s Beach Bar in the heart of Kralendijk, or at more upscale restaurants like the Mediterranean-inflected Sebastian’s, Ingridiënts at Buddy Dive, and the aforementioned Rum Runners at Captain Don’s Habitat. There’s even an option to sail into the sunset itself, with a four-hour dinner cruise aboard a 50-foot wooden schooner from Melisa Sailing.
Later, move on to the heartier stuff at Tiki & Co. Its Bonaire-raised owner Eddy Trenidad has apprenticed everywhere from the Prohibition-inspired Room 13 in Chicago to the trend-setting Stirr in the Netherlands (now closed). Have him whip you up something to please your palate, or choose from any of the well-balanced options. Just be aware: Drinks come heavy on the gothy theatrics here (order the Sorobon Zombie for a flaming surprise), and even heavier on the booze (order only one Sorobon Zombie if you want to remember what happened that night).