Bonaire has quite a tumultuous past. Indians from Venezuela, slavery and salt mining all played a part. The impact of some horrific histories can still be noticed across the island.

Lettervijlvissen zijn net even anders van vorm. En behoren tot de grote groep vissen die je op Bonaire toevallig kunt tegen komen.
A scrawled filefish in the waters of Bonaire. Emily

Bonaire and the nearby island Klein Bonaire are surrounded by coral reef. Quite exceptional is that you can literally walk into the water and up to the coral. This is one of the reasons, according to many divers, that Bonaire is one of the best diving spots in the world.

Above water, Bonaire is characterised by rugged landscapes where preservation has taken a prominent role. One of those project is to protect the breeding sea turtles.

The isle of Bonaire is 40 km long and between 5 and 12 km wide, and it’s a volcanic island. It rose up out of the ocean about 100 million years ago. There are salt pans in the north-west of the island. Over the centuries, especially in the ice ages, the sea levels have risen and fallen several times. When the water dried up, it left behind the salt plains.

Scientists have discovered that the very first inhabitants came from Venezuela. Rock drawings near the town of Onima show that the Caquetío peoples (also known as the Arawak people) arrived here around the year 1000. It is believed that the first Europeans to step ashore here were the Spaniards Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci in 1499.The Spanish men were looking for gold, but didn’t find any. The dry climate made farming difficult as well. So they called Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao ‘Islas Inútiles’: useless islands. The only option was to keep livestock, of which the current goats and donkeys are descendents. The Caquetío were shipped off to Hispaniola to become slaves.

Then Bonaire became a buccaneer island: a refuge for convicts and escaped slaves. They mostly settled down around Rincon. Things were calm until the Dutch arrived in 1633 and took the island from the Spaniards. Wouter van Twiller, governor of New Netherland (as the islands were known) brought in slaves from Suriname to collect salt in the small lakes of Bonaire.

The salt lakes and the slave huts remain, silent witnesses to the awful treatment of those people. Slavery was abolished in 1863, and the UK conquered the island twice. The island became officially a part of The Netherlands in 1816, but the Dutch still decided to build Fort Oranje in Kralendijk.

These days, the island belongs to the Netherlands Antilles, and is much loved by tourists. It’s even considered one of the most beautiful islands of the Caribbean. It’s a great destination for sun and nature lovers, because nature has flourished here.

There are around 282 kinds of birds on the island, the most of all the islands in the Netherlands Antilles. Some of these birds are quite special. Though more and more tourists seem to be coming to island to take a look under water.

Because it’s very dry on the island, there isn’t much fresh water that flows into the ocean here bringing along debris and sand, so the water is very clear and visibility is good. You’ll be able to see a lot of interesting life under water: there are around 80 different kinds of hard and soft corals, for example.

The loggerhead sea turtle can be spotted occasionally at Bonaire.

The loggerhead sea turtle canoccasionally be spotted near Bonaire. Brian Gratwicke

Recent research has also shown that there are at least 355 kinds of fish around the island, the largest amount in the Caribbean! And the fish here (but also the sea turtles) have been protected here for a long time, so they are used to seeing humans with funny goggles in bright swimsuits coming to look at them.

Must-do Tips:

Celebrate carnival on Bonaire

Carnival at Bonaire is quite a party. It ‘only’ goes for one day, but it really goes off. There is a proper parade, lots of live music and of course drinking. The locals dress up and go out, they put on quite a show. And it’s a party where tourists are welcome to join! The busiest place is of course Kralendijk, but Rincon also has a good buzz. If you’d like to be part of this annual event in February, make sure you book your tickets and hotel in advance, because it gets booked out pretty quickly!

Spot the flamingo and the lora

Two red flamingos in Bonaire
Two red flamingos in Bonaire. Bill Crouse

The flamingos might be the most famous inhabitants of Bonaire. You can find them at two (more of you’re lucky) spots on the island. The most famous is the Pekelmeer sanctuary in the south where you can see the birds quite close up. The animals breed here as well. They can also be spotted near the Gotomeer, where they go to look for food. You can’t get as close to them here.

The yellow-shouldered amazon, or the ‘lora’ as the locals call this bird, is harder to spot, so you’ll need a good guide. You’ll head out into Washington Slagbaai NP to go birdwatching, but you’ll be treated to other flora and fauna as well.

Explore the caves

There are quite a few caves on the island of Bonaire, most of which you can visit. Take your snorkelling gear and get into the water. You’re likely to see fish or crustaceans, which have adapted to the darkness around them. Make sure you wear appropriate footwear, because the rocks in the caves can be sharp.

Dive the infamous Hilma Hooker wreck

Hilma Hooker is a ship with an interesting past. She was built in 1951 in a Dutch shipyard, and named MS Midsland. She was sold and bought many times, she even sunk and was refloated, then was renamed in 1979. In the 80s, she came into trouble off the coast of Bonaire, and it appeared there was 11.000 kilo of marihuana on board. As the captain and crew were nowhere to be found, and the ship was in a poor state, it began to take on water. It was towed away and sank near a coral reef. Now it’s a beloved diving spot, where you can see many coral fish who live in and around the ship.

Ride a horse and swim with it

It’s a special experience: you ride your horse into the waves, as far as it can walk comfortably, then it will swim. It’s a nice cooling dip for the both of you after your ride on the warm island. Pay close attention to the reaction of your horse, they clearly enjoy the swim as much as you do!

Climb to Bonaire’s highest point

The Brandaris in the Washington Slagbaai National Park is the highest mountain on Bonaire. It might only be 241 metres, but it offers great views over this Caribbean island. And if it’s a clear day, you might see the Christoffelberg (or Mount Christoffel) on Curacao, and even the mountains of Venezuela in the distance.

See the rock paintings of the Caquetío people

The earliest inhabitants left evidence they were there. They made drawings in the caves around 500 years ago and scientists believe the drawings have a spiritual meaning. Keep an eye out for the images of turtles and a snake. You can find caves with drawings in different locations such as Spelonk, Onima, Ceru Pungi and Ceru Crita-Cabai. Those in Boca Onima on the east coast are the easiest to access.

See sea life from a kayak

You can paddle around in a kayak in different places in Bonaire. If you’d like to learn about the role of mangroves, try Lac Bay or Klein Bonaire, and find out why they refer to it as ‘the nursery’. You can do this with or without a guide. You can also paddle along the west coast of the island and look at the coastline. Follow the coral reefs, \ notice how they curve around the island, and see how colourful the fish below you are. Many hotels offer kayak tours, so ask about your options. It’s a good idea to head out in the early morning, because then you’re likely to meet some birds as well.

Ride a mountain bike over the dry land

The rugged desert-like landscape of Bonaire at sunset.
The rugged desert-like landscape of Bonaire at sunset. Corno van den Berg

Make sure you leave the dirt in a cloud behind your bike, and don’t inhale it while you ride! Mountain biking in Washington Slagbaai NP, for example, is quite an experience thanks to the many cacti, the dry landscapes and the rugged rocks that lead into the sea. It’s perfect for those who need to burn off some energy, or simply just want to head off and explore. You can take a guide with you, to avoid riding straight past the most beautiful spots.

Surf the famous Bonaire waters

Jibe City is quite a new surf spot on Bonaire, where you can learn all the ins and outs of wind surfing. Lac Bay has been a more established location for windsurfers. The conditions in this bay are perfect to catch the wind in your sail. You can learn how to windsurf here, but you can also just take your board and head out early in the morning. Keep your eyes open, because you won’t don’t want to forget the view of the mangroves, the clear water and the rest of your surroundings. According to many windsurfers it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world for surfing.

Watch the sunrise on Sorobon beach

Sorobon is famous amongst windsurfers and beach-goers. The white sand, the trade winds and the views make for a calm atmosphere. The most special time is the sunrise. Head out early and take some breakfast, find a good spot in the sand and wait. Once the sun is up, it’s also a good place to snorkel, feeding the fish with some of your leftover bread. Or hop on a surfboard.

Visit an Aloe vera plantation

You can learn about Bonaire’s plantation history at Rooi Lamoenchi nature reserve. This old plantation was used for growing Aloe vera. You can see the different kinds of plants they grew here, and the different methods they used. You can see the remains of an old wall built by slaves, and the old plantation buildings. There are tools, furniture and family heirlooms on display, and there is also a handmade dam made in 1908. All this can be found in the rugged landscape towards the east of Kralendijk. You can only visit this plantation by appointment, so make sure you contact them beforehand.

Best times:
Visibility underwater is always very good. Any rainwater that flows into the ocean is free of  sand or debris. But the water temperature does vary from season to season. Between January and October the water has the most pleasant temperature. After October, it is hurricane season, which can cause problems on both land and water.

If you want to witness the reproduction of coral, you should visit Bonaire in September or October. The reproduction depends on full moon, so check your calendar for the right moment. Be aware it will be crowded then, as many want to witness this phenomenon.