Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

Trip Start Dec 27, 2008
Trip End Jan 10, 2009

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bonaire - Bonaire is a fairly small (116 square miles), sparsely populated (15,000 people) island in the southern Caribbean. It's part of the "ABC Islands" - Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. It sits 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. The island is very dry (~18 inches of rain per year) and is covered with cacti and thorny plants. It also has no real sand beaches; the shoreline is covered with large chunks of coral. There's only one small casino, and while the pier can accommodate 2 cruise ships, the passengers tend to only go ashore in the main town for 1-2 hours at a time and maybe take a driving tour around the island. There's very little to do, not much shopping or entertainment, and they get few tourists. Have I made it sound unappealing? Good! We like it the way it is.
We love the place. It's best known for diving and snorkeling. The conditions are awesome, and the coral reef is in very good condition. The surrounding waters have been a protected marine reserve since 1979. The variety of hard and soft corals, sponges, and gorgonians is fantastic, with a huge variety of colorful fish. We made this trip specifically for diving. We went to Bonaire 5 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Bernd was not certified for SCUBA at the time, so I went on 2-3 dives, but mostly we snorkeled and explored the island. This time we stayed at a dive resort and went on at least one dive every day. Bernd bought an underwater camera, housing, and external flash just before the trip, so we had lots of fun taking underwater photos. See the separate entry for photos.
Bonaire lies south of the hurricane belt, so the weather is pretty ideal and they experience few destructive storms. 99% of the time, the steady trade winds blow from east to west across the island. The east, windward coast is extremely rugged and constantly pounded by surf. The west coast is always calm, with no waves and little current - ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Unfortunately, last year Hurricane Omar, while it didn't hit the island, caused a huge storm surge for several days as big waves pounded the normally calm west coast. It damaged some buildings that sat close to shore (the water came up as high as the deck on the second floor of our hotel restaurant), and damaged some of the coral near shore.
Bonaire is part of the Netherlands Antilles; they recently voted to strengthen their ties to the Netherlands and are basically regular Netherlands citizens (as I understand it - their status has changed recently). There are direct flights from Amsterdam. The official language is Dutch, many people speak Spanish, and almost everyone speaks English as well. The local language is a Creole language called Papiamento - a combination of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and African languages from former slaves. The people are very laid-back and friendly. There is very little crime.
The island's physical environment is pretty unfriendly to human habitation and development. It doesn't support much agriculture or industry. There used to be a couple of larger "plantations," growing aloe, divi divi trees (the seed pods were used to tan animal hides), and goats. There are no good fresh water sources on the island; they primarily use desalination to produce drinking water. The biggest export over the years has been salt. There are large, shallow saltpans that flood and then evaporate, leaving behind salt. Originally they used slaves to work the saltpans and load the salt onto ships. They still "mine" salt, and you can see huge mountains of it. They also have a large complex of oil tanks. Oil companies from Venezuela and Mexico store oil there, and then buyers load the oil directly from the storage tanks into their tankers. Apparently it's cheaper and easier for the purchasers to reach these islands (others do the same thing) than travel to the different mainland ports.
We had a wonderful time. We were there 13 days and stayed in one place the entire time. I was asked whether we would get bored (compare this to our 2-month trip where we moved to a new spot every couple of days). It worked perfectly for us. We were there long enough that we didn't feel pressured to dive, dive, dive multiple times each day. We could take it easy, enjoy a leisurely pace, do some exploring, some hanging out, and still get in a lot of our favorite activities. We had some great food, too! There were a number of very good international restaurants.
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