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Imagining the islands of the Southern Caribbean, my mind drifted to turquoise waters of the deepest hue, white sandy beaches, towering resorts and those long-reaching divi divi trees, bent along the trade winds at a 90-degree angle. What I didn’t expect was prehistoric birds, desert terrain and such close ties to South America. During my time in the “A” and “C” islands of the ABC islands, I learned there’s way more to island life than sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Read on for six things that surprised me.

curacao willemstad pastel buildings


Migraines determined the color of the buildings in Curacao.
I’d heard rumors of a government decree requiring the famous facades of Willemstad to be painted in their photogenic pastels, and the locals maintain that this is the case. On a tour of the island, our guide stated that an early governor suffered so badly from migraines that to avoid the reflection of sunlight off of white buildings, he ordered the pastel paint jobs. Despite the initial intention, the scenic waterfront and historic buildings of Willemstad earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1997.

ostrich farm curacao


Curacao is home to the largest ostrich farm outside of Africa.
It’s not what might come to mind when you think of the mesmerizing pontoon bridge and downtown shopping of Curacao, but the island is home to the impressive Curacao Ostrich Farm — and a tour is worth your time. Knowledgeable guides will take you on a safari-style tour through the grounds, which also feature pigs, alligators and sheep that look like goats (all part of a sustainable system). At times you may get the feeling you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park Lite, but a gift shop (and a cafe that serves ostrich) remind you this is still, in part, tourist territory. To avoid an eyeroll from staff, pass on the temptation to ride an ostrich.

dushi sign curacao


The regional catchphrase means “sweet,” and is applied often.
The immature may have trouble stifling a laugh the first time they encounter the catchphrase popular across Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, but “dushi” is so popular with islanders that it’s become part of Curacao’s official tourism campaign. Meaning any combination of sweet, good and nice, dushi is a Papiamento word to describe literal sweetness, as in a local dish called pan dushi (meaning sweet bread), but also a way to describe the sweet way of island life in the Southern Caribbean. Dushi can also be used as a term of endearment.

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

cactus aruba southern caribbean


Large portions of the islands feel more Southwestern than Caribbean.
Cruising the Caribbean you expect the beaches and the oceans of an undeniably spectacular blue, but go a small ways inland and it’s dirt, rocks and forests of cacti. I didn’t expect such a distinct difference in landscape; one minute resort domain and the next, you’re cast out among weather-beaten roads that could be in the middle of Arizona. Lizards crawl around rock formations overlooking cliffs that drop to the sea (a good indicator you’re still on an island and not in the Southwest), and cacti is used as a natural fence by residents. All of this manages to complement the islands’ more tropical Caribbean image.

floating market venezuela willemstad curacao


Curacao’s famous floating market is actually from Venezuela.
One of the main attractions in Willemstad is the floating market, docked each day in colorful boats and providing fresh fish and seafood. What I didn’t know prior to touring this marketplace is that all of the boats sail in daily from Venezuela, the fruit stands sell fruit from Venezuela and the craft market is run by Jamaicans — not a Curacao local in sight. Curacao is just about 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, making it a close neighbor of South America (the island was first settled by its native Arawak Amerindians). This relationship plays an important role in the culture of Curacao.

eiffel tower aruba casibari multilingual


The people are extremely multilingual.
Have you ever dreamed of speaking four languages? If you want your children to learn, move to one of the ABC islands. Islanders in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao seem to have a flair for languages, and it’s due to their complicated roots. The native dialect, Papiamento, is already a blend of Afrikaans, Portuguese, Spanish, English and other languages, all rolled into one. Because these are Dutch islands, locals also learn to speak Dutch and English in school. To add to that, it’s not uncommon for Spanish or German to be spoken in the home. After a primary education, many locals attend universities in the Netherlands and abroad.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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