Famous for its diving, Bonaire — the B of the ABC island chain that also includes Aruba and Curaçao — is a small paradise off the beaten path. Prepare yourself to be surprised with history, wildlife, and great food. And no, Bonaire doesn’t mean “good air” in French but is thought to originate from the word “Bonay” used by the Caquetio — Venezuelan indigenous people — meaning “low country,” an actual description of the island’s landscape.
Diving in Bonaire National Marine Park
Bonaire is a top diving destination, and its shores and reefs are protected by the Bonaire National Marine Park. The leeward side offers immediate beach access to about 90 dive sites marked by yellow stones on the edge of the road. An arid climate and little rainfall make the waters extremely clear, perfect for underwater photography.
Recommended dive sites include the famous Salt Pier, Something Special, The Cliff and The Invisibles; watch for green turtles, octopuses, seahorses and more. Wreck divers should check out the Hilma Hooker, resting on a sand flat by Angel City. Try a UV light night dive to admire coral, fish, and surroundings in literally a new light.
Many experienced divers choose to dive the tranquil shores independently, renting gear and tanks from local dive shops. Boat dives can be arranged to the remote northern sites or Klein Bonaire, an inhabited flat island off Kralendijk, Bonaire’s main town.
Marine park visitors must pay an entrance fee; a pass can be purchased at most hotels or dive shops.
Kitesurfing and Windsurfing
Lac Bay has been a windsurfing mecca for many years, with onshore tradewinds blowing almost year-long. Windsurfers range from professionals enjoying massive shore break waves to novices learning in the shallow turquoise water of the sheltered bay. Local windsurf shops rent gear and offer lessons to get you on the water or help improve your skills.
Kitesurfing, another favorite sport, is primarily done from Atlantis Beach on the southwest side of the island, where a white-sand beach allows for safe launching and landing. The offshore winds require some degree of expertise to get back to the beach, but this is also a great spot to learn with instructors following you by boat. Kite and board rental, as well as lessons, can be booked in advance.
Hiking at Washington Slagbaai National Park
A 30-minute drive north of Kralendijk, the park’s coves, wildlife and natural landscapes are accessed from a single-lane dirt road (4×4 recommended). Set aside three hours for the long drive, though a 90-minute version can show you the park’s highlights.
Several hiking opportunities are available, from the flat Lagadishi trail through sand dunes, mangroves, and historical ruins, to two more strenuous hikes, either to Kasinkuda Peak or Subí Brandaris, the island’s highest peak at 784 feet (241 meters). On clear days, both offer stunning views of the isle. The park is a refuge for a large flamingo population, iguanas, native yellow-shouldered Lora parrots and prey birds like the crested caracara.
Boka Slagbaai is the perfect location for a midday brunch and refreshing dip; there are an old harbor and historic buildings, turquoise sea, white salt pans and pink flamingos.
Journey Through Bonaire History in Rincón
With bright yellow and orange buildings, Rincón is rich in colors and history and is the oldest inhabited town on Bonaire, established by the Spanish in the 16th century. Enjoy great views from the Panorama (Alta Mira Unjo), or taste the local cactus liqueur from the Cadushy Distillery.
Stop at the Mangazina di Rei, Bonaire’s second-oldest stone building, built in 1824 by the Dutch government for storing merchandise. Today the Mangazina is keeping traditions alive, hosting cultural events with traditional music, local food like chicken beignets and handmade crafts from local artisans.
Earlier archeological remains from the Caquetio (late 1,000 A.D.) can be seen by the Onima cave, red paintings and petroglyphs carved on limestone.
Salt Harvesting and Slave Huts
The conquest of Bonaire by the Dutch over the Spanish in 1636 led to an increase in salt harvesting and plantation expansion by the Dutch West India Company, and thus an increase in slavery. Diverse grades of salt were signposted by colored obelisks known as the Blau, Witte, and Oranje Pans, guiding the boats to the relevant locations. Today the legacy of that dark part of history can be seen through old slave quarters and salt pans along the southwest coast.
Lac Bay Mangroves
A 700-hectare lagoon bordered by a barrier reef protecting it from the open sea, Lac Bay is surrounded by one of the best-preserved mangrove forests of the Caribbean, with entry points from Lac Cai or Sorobon.
Kayaking on the windward side of the lagoon takes you through the mangroves, catching sight of green turtles, egrets, and bright orange-breasted troupials, or perhaps spotting one of the endangered Queen conch that breeds in the bay.
Horse rides on the trails can be reserved from Horse Ranch Bonaire south of Kralendijk. You’ll go through the mangroves and end with a swim with the horses in the lagoon.
Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary
Meaning “salt lake” in Dutch, Pekelmeer is an important breeding ground for flamingos, one of the four places they breed in the world. The water’s pink color is generated by the tiny brine shrimp which feed the thousands of flamingos living in the area. Among the most colorful of their species, the Caribbean flamingos are striking against the turquoise of the sea and white of the salt pans. Other birds include ospreys, frigates, and herons, making this a must-stop for birdwatchers.
Check our posts on Learning to Kiteboard in Bonaire, or Hiking in Washington Slagbaai National Park.
Kralendijk, Bonaire’s main city, is the island’s primary commercial and shopping area, with waterfront restaurants and souvenir shops nestled within colorful Caribbean-style historical buildings. The town itself is only a couple of blocks wide and easily strolled during a quiet evening. Cruise ships stop at the port between November and April, with travelers heading to Queen Wilhelmina Park for local crafts and traditional dance performances.
Shopping not your thing? Check out Bonaire Museum (Museo di Bonaire) for a deeper knowledge of the local history.
A small island, Klein Bonaire, stands uninhabited today and is easily reachable from Kralendijk — at less than half a mile away — via organized dive boats, or independently via water taxi. The latter will give you about two and a half hours for snorkeling or chilling on the island, which is also a turtle nesting ground.
Created by Bonaire residents Marina Melis and husband Ed Koopman in 1993, the sanctuary cares for wounded, sick and orphaned donkeys. About 400 donkeys live peacefully onsite, enjoying the affection and interaction from visitors. The site can be easily reached from Kralendijk and is open daily.
Wild donkeys can otherwise be observed almost everywhere on the island, munching on green grass on hotel grounds or traffic roundabouts.
Celebrated in February, the Tumba Festival, with a Tumba Queen or King election and children’s parade, lasts about two weeks and concludes on the eve of Ash Wednesday with the Old Mask Parade, the burning of “King Momo” and a fireworks finale.
Unique to Bonaire, Simadan Harvest Festival dates from the slave period. Slaves on Bonaire were allowed to grow personal crops, a “generosity” not given to slaves on other islands, and was cause for celebration come harvest time. With the end of slavery in 1863, most slaves gained access to some land and today, farm owners — known as kunuku – still celebrate the sorghum harvest in March or April. High on songs and dances, the festival reflects the African ancestry in its tunes.
Bonaire Cuisine and Local Delicacies
Bonaire cuisine is somewhat unexpected, mixing local Caribbean produce with Dutch and Spanish traditions. Think Amsterdam with huge Gouda wheels, spiced bread, pumpkin soup and cured meat. Think Caribbean with the freshness of the local fish. Now taste barracuda ravioli and wahoo sushi as a result. Another staple from the sea is the infamous lionfish, an invasive species hunted by local fishermen and sold by some restaurants. For local land specialties, try goat stew or iguana meatballs.
With so much to do and see, Bonaire will have your week of vacation quickly filled and wished you had more time to enjoy all it has to offer. And if you are island-hopping, check these things to do in Aruba!
As the former Director of Content Marketing at Viator.com, I would recommend their Bonaire tours and activities.
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