Our Wanderful Guide: Sam Spahr
Surrounded by sky and sea, the 111 sq. mile island of Bonaire will have you feeling like you’ve found the middle of nowhere - in the best way. Part of the Netherlands Lesser Antilles, Bonaire sits just north of Venezuela and likely a few planes away from your current coordinates. Reach this speck of sun soaked paradise, and the anticipation will all be worth it once you’re among gorgeous flamingos and steady salty breezes.
60% of the island is either a national park or a protected area including much of the coastline and into the sea. This effort lends great rewards to those make the journey here. I’m talking about high quality experiences with the world like you’ve never seen it.
relish in the pastime of “taking a drive”
Renting a car is a priority for any trip to Bonaire. Areas of the island are walkable, but there are some things you’re going to want to drive and see. We opted to rent a car for just two days out of our trip: one to explore the north side of island, and one to see the southern part.
As you move through the two lane (sometimes one way) coastal highways, you’ll discover a place where topographies and ecosystems came to collide: lush, green, near mountainous terrain, rocky cliff sides, forests of cacti, dusty dirt plains, and then wide open roads highlighted by the glittering sea and expansive shoreline horizons.
The southern coast is pocked with cultural relics of Bonaire’s history. The remnants are well contextualized and preserved, a theme you’ll see echo throughout the island. Bonaire takes great pride in its ecology, wildlife, and respects its history, so pay mind to all road signs (large yellow painted rocks) denoting areas where you may only look and not enter as you make stops along your drive.
Pack up some light provisions, plenty of water, a camera, and hit these points of interest on the Southern tip:
Flamingo Sanctuary: Flamingos can be spotted from the road as they go about life in their protected area.
Salt miner huts: These well preserved slave quarters serve as a reminder of Bonaire’s grim past - stop to pay respects to those who inhabited these small posts, building the foundation of Bonaire’s economic trade.
Black Rock of Mamparia Cutu: Legend has it that a mysterious mermaid, Mamparia Cutu, would sit upon Black Rock during a storm and sing out to the ships, waves crashing like drums. There is dispute over whether she was attempting to warn them of the dangerous shoreline or call them closer to their demise. Draw your own conclusions whilst you sit atop her rock and let the mighty waves cast a magical sea spray around you.
Head northwest and get lost in (the clearly mapped roads of) Washington Slagbaai National Park. Flamingos, parrots, and SO MANY IGUANAS are found in this nearly 14,000 acre protected sanctuary. Cactus lined trails will lead you to various cultural-historical and natural wonders on the island. The long trail takes about 2.5 hours to complete without stopping (who does that?!), so plan for a half to all day adventure depending on your interests . . . or willingness to get out of the water! And don’t worry about the size of this park; you aren’t hoofing it on foot. You may only enter with a proper vehicle, like a rental SUV.
Playa Chikitu is the first major stop you’ll come across. Home to sandy white beaches, you should give in to the temptation to lay out and catch some rays. The wind is very strong on this side of the island which makes it unsafe for swimming but creates dunes and soft sands perfect for sea turtle nesting!
Next up, Seru Grandi: witness the incredible power of the sea and the scars that millennia have left on Bonaire’s surface. Having risen out of the sea due to tectonic plate movements, the highest terrace is over a million years old. Look up and spot vestiges of ancient coral reefs almost 200ft. into the sky. Get out and climb into the lower cave-like pits of Seru Grandi. The energy of earth this old is something to feel. A place to reorient our relationship with time and the planet.
You’ll then come across Malmok, which may not seem like much because it’s mostly ruins. However, the remains of a lighthouse mark this area that has seen ancient Amerindian camps, tsunamis and shipwrecks dating back to 800 AD.
Once you’ve had your dose of history, get in the water! The west side of Washington Slagbaai offers plenty of places to dive and snorkel, but the park touts Wayaka as the best site on the grounds. Climb down into the cove and instantly feel a little like a castaway . . . The fish are ready to greet you as soon as your wade into their crystal blue scape. They’re friendly, but remember not to touch or agitate. Bonaire is serious about their wildlife, so respect the beautiful creatures as you are a guest in their home.
small town, big color
Kralendijk is the capital and major port of Bonaire. It’s straight out the gates from the Divi Flamingo Resort, where we stayed, but also a quick walk from several other lodgings too. You can’t miss this city as it contrasts the water with bright yellow, pink, and green homages to dutch architecture.
Stroll around the seaside to find anything from a quick bite to a multi course dinner. Seafood is an obvious choice here, and definitely don’t pass on it. But for such a small footprint, Bonaire has a mix of foreign cuisines ranging from South American to Indian. Take advantage of the ocean front views these establishments have to offer. Gaze out into the endless blue horizon and sip your drink slowly. You’re going to want to hang here for a while.
Find your way to the modest, but excellently curated Terramar Museum and learn more about the island’s complicated history. Bonus: snag a freshly made juice from the staff at the museum. Sip and explore, my friends. And before you fly back home, spend sometime at the shops in Kralendijk. Taste the locally made cactus liquors from the Cadushy Distillery, sample salt mined there on the island, and find a piece of local art to bring the flair of Bonaire into your home space.
under the sea
Bonaire isn’t known for lazy days and sandy beaches. Once you see whats under the water’s surface, you’ll understand why! One of the coolest things about this place is the near unlimited access to snorkeling, diving, and incredible sea life.
Driving up the coast, you’ll come across many yellow rocks denoting dive spots that anyone is welcome to enjoy - as long as you have purchased your STINAPA Nature Tag (it helps protect the islands park and resources!).
Whether you’re down for snorkeling or scuba, there are underwater creatures flitting about you the moment you walk off the shore. And I do mean RIGHT where the water washes up onto the the smooth coral beach. I barely dipped my toe in the water when I was met by a sweet puffer fish gently bobbing up with the waves!
Bonaire truly is a diver’s paradise, and there are many spots on and off the island where you can gear up and dive down. But, if snorkeling is more your speed, you don’t have worry about what you might be missing out on. Whenever we decided to pull over for a snorkel sesh, there were often divers careening just below us. I can not stress enough how accessible magical animals like octopus, sea turtles, and parrot fish are in this highly protected coastline.
vessels of adventure
Come up for air and plop yourself into a kayak, or a bike, or maybe you want to try windsurfing, or . . . whatever you think you might want to do, I promise Bonaire will deliver. We toured the mangroves of Lac Bay on clear bottom kayaks to explore yet another side of Bonaire’s many faces. The mangrove forests grow in the pristine waters of the bay and are a part of the Bonaire National Marine Park. Their tangly roots provide excellent shelter for marine life in the bay. The mangroves tangle overhead as well, creating dreamlike tunnels for adventurers to paddle through.
a little salt, please!
About 16 sq. miles, or 13% of the island is home to colorful salt pans that create one of the larger solar salt operations the Caribbean (meaning the salt is extracted through solar dehydration!). They are a curious pink color thanks to tiny organisms that thrive in the salty water. These organisms take on a pink color that lights up the salt pans and also are pretty tasty for the nearby flamingos!
Intermingled with the salt mine, you’ll find one of the flamingo sanctuaries on the island. The natural electric greens and blues of the area set the birds’ pink color off even brighter than you’ve seen at any zoo. Be sure to awe at these creatures from a distance and don’t cross into their habitat though!
This island may run small on surface area, but there is so much to explore between the land and sea that our 7 day stay left us with several things unexplored on our ultimate wish list. I’ll count that as good as any reason to head back . . . Ayo (goodbye), Bonaire . . . for now anyway. Maybe I’ll see you on my next flight down!
Sam Spahr is a New Orleans lady who spends her days as an arts professional in the city. You can catch her trading in her car for a kayak or hiking shoes any chance she gets. All photos and words are by her.
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