Beautiful Bonaire

When Corroboree made a night arrival in Bonaire last week, we had the benefit of modern technology, a civilized harbor, and the assistance of a fellow cruiser to help us tie up to a mooring ball in the dark. We had tracked our 390-mile course from Grenada using GPS and navigation aps, and while still 30 miles at sea, we messaged John on Wind Dancer IV, a friend from Grenada, on our satellite phone. Wind Dancer IV had arrived in Bonaire two weeks earlier, and John was able to confirm the availability of moorings in the first-come/first-served harbor. Nearing the island, we confirmed our position by landmarks including windmills, radio towers and other structures. After rounding the south coast at sunset, we aimed for the lights of the main town, Kralendijk. Finally, a mile out and the sky now black, we hailed John again, this time on our VHF. John hopped in his dinghy, motored out to meet us, led us to a mooring and attached our lines. A quick dinner, and we were down for a blissful night’s sleep.

Early sailors approaching Bonaire were not as fortunate. The southern shore of Bonaire is so flat, it often can’t be seen from sea at night, and there were no lighthouses to welcome them. To avoid shipwreck, sailors had to listen for the sound of pounding waves and coral “bells,” thousands of bits of coral broken off by the waves and rolled and tossed over each other to create a tinkling music along the coast. It was, I suppose, the “technology” of  the time, providing you heard it before you got too close.

Southeastern coast of Bonaire

Driving around Bonaire in a rental car a few days later, we were struck by the stark beauty of this desert island. The southern third is comprised of natural salt pans, and the Dutch, who took possession of Bonaire in 1636, imported slaves to do the labor. It was brutal work in a blunt landscape under broiling sun and wind-driven dust. Harvesting the sea salt is an ongoing industry in Bonaire today, and the southern loop road takes you past a series of huge salt pans, gigantic equipment and a mountain range of white salt crystals gleaming in the sun.

Sea salt factory

Slave huts

The area is also a flamingo sanctuary. There are said to be some 15,000 flamingos on Bonaire—compared to 19,000 human residents—and though we didn’t see huge flocks, we saw the birds both here and at the northern end of the island. They are bigger than I imagined, up to 4’ 6” tall, and their color is phenomenal. Not just pink or even rosy pink, each one is an explosion of scarlet and orange, a tropical sunset on steroids, wading through the water on stilt legs, crooking and angling their snakelike necks.

Caribbean flamingo (our photo doesn’t do justice to the color)

It’s all the more marvelous because the air is so clear, it makes everything look like it’s cut from glass. The same holds true at the hilly northern end of Bonaire, which has more vegetation in the form of cactus and other drought-resistant plants. The terrain made us think of Arizona, yet this area was once a plantation. How could anything grow here? we kept asking ourselves. What it produced was divi-divi trees—the pods of which were used for tanning animal skins—as well as aloe, charcoal and goats. Also goat manure, which was purchased in great quantities for shipment to other islands for use as fertilizer on the sugar plantations. Now much of the north is protected within the borders of Washington-Slagbaii National Park, where the challenging dirt roads require an SUV or pickup truck.

Washington-Slagbaii National Park

The turquoise water around Bonaire is also protected. All the coastal waters were designated a marine park in 1979, no anchoring is allowed, and you must purchase a permit to snorkel, dive or do any other water sports. As a result, the pristine water and abundant coral reefs around Bonaire make it a mecca for divers. Just outside the mooring field, the water drops off precipitously several hundred feet, and the blue goes from turquoise to cobalt. The one thing in short supply is sweeping sandy beaches. You can’t have everything, right?

Then there’s the main town, Kralendijk. With the exception of one KFC—and who allowed this?—it’s delightfully low-key and surprisingly untouristy despite the  cruise liners, one and sometimes two of which arrive almost every day. The highest building is three stories, the architecture is simple and brightly colored, and we have personally verified that the creperie, the brewery, and the ice cream store on the corner rate a visit, as does the small museum in the center of town that conveys the island’s history. In the streets and shops, people speak in Dutch, Papiamentu (the native language), English and Spanish.


But Eric and I did come across one sad note. On the southeastern shore, the rocky beach is littered with debris from one end to the other, primarily plastic. Bottles, shoe soles, motor oil containers—this isn’t fresh garbage tossed by tourists or locals from a passing car. This is garbage in the ocean, weathered and washed up from who knows what sources. We saw the same situation on the coastline of Belize when we visited there a number of years ago, and though the resorts each patrolled and cleaned their own section of beach, on the undeveloped stretches the litter piled up. Since the southeastern coast of Bonaire is all undeveloped salt flats, there’s no one to bag the miles of trash. In one area, individuals have erected stone cairns decorated with the garbage in rueful recognition of the problem.

Stone cairns and plastic debris

Ironically, when we ended our driving tour at the grocery store that evening, the young woman in the checkout line behind us was blithely buying bottled water. Considering Bonaire’s emphasis on protecting the environment, I’m pretty sure she won’t toss the empties on the beach or anywhere else but a trash bin. But that we continue to manufacture and sell plastic in such quantities without a thought to proper disposal cuts to the heart.

We can and must do better. Every place should be as beautiful and protected as Bonaire.