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Tropics Al Naturel

Tropics Al Naturel

Curaçao's cosmopolitan capitol, Willemstad, provides a glimpse of Europe touched by the tropics. It's pastel-colored colonial Dutch buildings sparkle in the sunshine. But to see the island in it's natural state, you need to explore the Curaçaoan cunucu, or countryside. Curaçao is a small island in the southern Caribbean with very few roads, so it's virtually impossible to get lost.

Of course, you can take day trips from any one of a number of fine Curaçao hotels, but exploring the island on your own is much more fun. And although you'll see promotions for jeep safaris, you'll find renting an air-conditioned compact car much more comfortable.

To see nature in all its glory, you need to head for the hills of St. Christoffel National Park, at the island's northern tip. The park consists of three former plantations — Savonet, Zorgvlied and Zevenbergen. In the center stands Mount Christoffel, which at over 1,200 feet is the tallest peak on the island.

Four well-marked and color-coded roadways wind through the park and provide access to breathtaking lookouts over a rugged landscape of green scrub brush dotted with cacti. You can drive the shortest in about an hour, and the longest in under three.

There are caves on the blue rail where you'll find centuries-old Indian petroglyphs, and you'll also be able to view Boca Tabla, a dramatic grotto carved into the black volcanic rock by crashing waves.

If you'd like to do some hikng, the green, yellow and red circuits provide access to footpaths that wind to the top of Mount Christoffel. The path isn't a difficult one, but you should reserve at least three hours for hiking up and down.

Within the national park, two species of orchid are abundant, as are the ubiquitous divi-divi trees, with branches twisted and shaped by the constant trade winds to point in a southwest direction. Protected wildlife within the park includes iguanas, rabbits, feral donkeys, the tiny Curaçao deer, goats, and several kinds of birds, including hummingbirds and tropical mockingbirds.

You should visit St.Christoffel as early in the morning as possible. The afternoon heat there is so oppressive that the park permits no admissions after 2 P.M. Also, there are no facilities within the park, so plan to bring drinking water and perhaps a picnic lunch. If you rather not picnic, you'll find a restaurant outside the park in West Point.

There are only two ways to return to Willemstad from the national park — doubling back and retracing your original route, or a slightly longer circular route that affords spectacular views of the bays along the western coast before it rejoins the main road.

You may also wish to explore the Hato Caves over on the island's east coast. The sea carved out these caverns under water and when the sea level dropped, they were born. There are beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations as well as water pools and a waterfall. The caves are also home to a colony of long-nose fruit bats.

Just outside Willemstad is the Curaçao Sea Aquarium, home of the Dolphin Academy. Set majestically on a point of land overlooking the sea, it recreates the reefs that surround the island, and there are a multitude of reef fish, eels, sharks, lobster and other assorted denizens of the deep. If you plan to swim with the dolphins, make your reservations as early as possible. The aquarium provides a good introduction to Curaçao's Underwater Park. The park, located on the southwestern side of the island, consists of 16 sites, including a shipwreck, which have been charted. You can rent snorkeling and scuba equipment at dive shops at the larger hotels.

In the north you can dive at the Banda Abou National Park, in the center at the Central Curaçao Underwater Park and in the south at the Curaçao Underwater Park. Curaçao offers plenty of dive sites, from easy shore dives, pristine coral bay dives to sheer drop-offs especially in the southeast. No matter where you dive on Curaçao, you'll find the waters warm, the currents mild, and the visibility good. Numerous dive shops offer a one-tank dive, including gear, for about $65 USD. One of the most popular sites for diving and snorkeling is the "Tugboat," which has a coral wall though the wreckage of the tugboat itself may be more interesting.

For some spectacular snorkeling, head on up to Playa Lagun is a secluded bay towards the western end of the island in the town of Lagun. It's a small sandy beach on a rectangular shaped bay with tall cliffs on each side, whose adjacent waters offer excellent snorkeling. Both sides of the bay along the cliffs team with a wide variety of marine life and corals though the left side offers a greater variety of underwater sights. You can rent equipment at the dive shop on the beach.