Bonaire is known as a diver’s paradise, but even those not-scuba ready have so much to enjoy on the island. The island sits among a preserved national park–the Bonaire National Marine Park. There is a fee for snorkeling and diving, so make sure you take care of that and get your token to attach to your gear. This fee is payable at dive shops, hotels, the Washington Slaagbai National Park, or any number of other locations. It’s a nominal fee, but it is very worth it to know how much this money goes to preserving and protecting the biodiversity that is absolutely essential to ocean and planet conservation and success. If you are looking to get scuba-ready, there are opportunities for getting PADI and SSI certified on the island. Okay, now that we’ve got the underwater aspect out of the way, let’s discuss all the other treasures to find upon Bonaire:
Prepare to be amazed that on such a tiny island, there is so much diversity of plant and animal species. The Washington Slagbaai National Park is a great place to experience this. The National Park is huge, relatively speaking to such a small island, taking up the entire northwestern part of the island. While it is possible to drive in a loop around the park, there are hiking trails that give access to more remote parts of the park. If you do plan to drive, please note that a 4×4 is required to drive in the park–though the rental agencies will make sure have the vehicle appropriate to your needs as it is a popular attraction on the island.
The elementary map provided to you at the entrance of the park is more than sufficient for navigating the single road and the notable sites. There are beautiful, pristine, and secluded beaches, so be sure to bring your swim/snorkel gear and enjoy! I recommend at least a half day here, and leave early in the morning if you plan to hike before it gets warm. Save the warmer parts of the day for adventuring to the beaches in the park.
Get out of Kralendijk! The other town on the island, Rincon, is a step away from the bustling center. There are fewer restaurants and touristy shops selling the same tired wares. In Rincon, it feels distinctly local. Kralendijk has a Euro-centric focus, with coffee shops and semi-expensive restaurants. Rincon is the older city in Bonaire, and shows more of the history of slavery and mixture of Dutch, Spanish, African, and native blood. There is a distinct and palpable tension between the islanders here, and the visiting white folks, perhaps rightfully so for an island where Dutch police officers, officials, and professionals can work a stint, retain their Dutch salary, which far exceeds the salary of the islander doing the same job, and return to the land 5,000 miles away that sees to the public administration of the island. Self-governance vs. integration is a fraught subject for Bonaire. They have gained the protection and support of The Netherlands, including access to universal health care, improved infrastructure as a special municipality; what have they lost? I don’t pretend to speak for the people of Bonaire or begin to guess or understand the socioeconomic and political ramifications of 517 years of European presence on the island, the lasting impacts of the slave trade, and the deep cultural and ethnic history of Bonaire. But it is something to keep in mind and explore for yourself when you are on the island. Let your feet explore Rincon as they will, but I do recommend stopping into Cadushy Distillery . There seems to be a lot of wandering, and a lot of sitting in the shade, and a lot of drinking, all which can be quite fun. We enjoyed sharing some cross-cultural laughs with our tour guide (who happened to have lived in Wisconsin before moving to the island–WISCO REPRESENT!) and the matriarchal grandmother of the establishment, as well as learning about how they harvest the cactus to make these special and singular liquors.
On your way out of Rincon, you must lunch at Posada Para Mira. After you get over a slight existential crisis of eating roasted goat while goats circle your tables, judging you with their cuteness, you will have the most amazing meal in the open air restaurant, on the highest peak of Bonaire. The views are incredible, and the delectable food is served no-frills style. We enjoyed iguana stew (watch out for the bones!) out of styrofoam cups and a savory roasted and pulled goat dish served over rice with a sweet plantain chip on top. It’s not as cheap as the cutlery may have you believe, but it is worth every cent.
Definitely spend at least half a day on Klein Bonaire. You can take a water taxi over to the small island adjacent to Bonaire. It is completely uninhabited, so you can traverse it on foot, and jump in the water to cool off when needed! The snorkeling here is some of the best on the island, so definitely don’t miss it. Also, the bay is more protected than the beaches on the main island, so it is much better for swimming without as many swells. There’s a big drop off not too far off shore, and it is your most spectacular snorkeling dream. No Name Beach, which spans the coast facing Bonaire, is pristine and perfect and gorgeous.
After all this hiking and exploring and wildlife-seeing and adventuring into murky historical waters of colonization and independence, you should probably relax at the beach for a bit. Nothing tops Jibe City. It is a beach metropolis. There are a couple different places you can rent a chair right down by the water and warm Caribbean waters that stretch for days. It’s a great place to check out windsurfing, but it’s also pretty fun just to enjoy the nice breezes and a few cocktails from the Hang Out Bar. There’s decent bar food there too… if I didn’t completely eat them out of bitterballen the last time I was there. I just can’t get enough…
Honesty alert–we never actually got to kayaking in the mangroves or elsewhere on the island… which just means I need to go back! But I can only imagine how awesome it would be… just don’t forget the bugspray! More info here: http://www.tourismbonaire.com/bonaire-activities-events/details/kayaking
I had a rough encounter with a donkey on our second day on the island. There are many donkeys who wander unencumbered on the streets of Bonaire. They run these streets. Quite literally, as I found out when I tried to run on them and was told in no uncertain terms by an imposing donkey that I was not to come any closer to his/her territory. Which seemed to be the entire street. And the corner of the next one. However, on our second-to-last day on the island, I made peace with the donkey species. I’d tell you about how awesome it is, but reading about it, or better yet, visiting Marina and getting up-close-and-personal with these sweet creatures will probably be the highlight of your trip. Trust me. Do it.
Last minute suggestions/advice:
- Rent a car. There’s not a ton of transportation on the island and I don’t remember seeing a cab. However, make sure to NOT lock your car. Petty crime is a problem, and it is better to leave nothing in your car and leave it open so there is no need to smash a window to find out what you might be hiding. Don’t worry, there are no car ferries, so no one will steal the rental and drive off the island.
- Bring bug spray. Strong stuff. Lots of it.
- Stay at an Airbnb/Homeaway/VRBO. There are so many gorgeous, affordable options that allow you to cook your own meals, and often have swimming pools and other amazing amenities right there. No need for a resort on Bonaire!
- When to visit: high season for tourists is December- April, so either come at that point to assure everything will be open, or avoid to get the best deals and most relaxation. September is the hottest month (though still bearable). A few restaurants and shops are shut down in September, as this is their holiday break.
- What they speak: The official language is Dutch, but you’ll hear plenty of the ABC island language, Papamientu. This is a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and it also has some Arawak Indian and African influences . You can get by speaking English, but a “dank je wel” and “dag!” will go a long way.
- Money: They use the U.S. Dollar on the island, so if you are traveling from the US, no currency conversion needed. Nevertheless, hop on over to my post about using money abroad for some great tips on being prepared monetarily.