A truly wild island
BONAIRE IS RENOWNED AS A DIVING AND SNORKELLING DESTINATION, BUT INLAND FROM ALL ITS SURF, SAND AND SCUBA IS AN UNTAMED ISLAND UNLIKE ANY OTHER IN THE CARIBBEAN
Bonaire is renowned as a diving and snorkelling destination, but inland from all its surf, sand and scuba is an untamed island unlike any other in the Caribbean
Now, turn off your lights, kick your legs and look down.” It’s approaching midnight when the dive guide gives this command to the 15 snorkellers floating five kilometres off the west coast of Bonaire. If they were on land, they might have already retired for the night, along with the others who come to this tiny island, a special municipality of the Netherlands in the Caribbean about 80 kilometres north of Venezuela, to loll in the sun and experience some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world. But here they are, their waterproof flashlights dots of bobbing light on a patch of ink-black sea, ready to prove that no wild place really ever goes to sleep. The lights switch off and 30 legs begin to kick, at first tentatively then more vigorously. In response, thousands of crustaceans called ostracods explode with bioluminescence, transforming the water into a shimmering canvas rivalling that of the star-strewn sky above. When the spectacle is over, the snorkellers clamber aboard the dive boat and motor back toward Kralendijk, Bonaire’s capital and the site of its first dive oper- ation, which opened in 1962, effectively heralding the beginning of tourism on the island. The diving industry grew slowly at first but began to boom in the 1980s, fuelling the proliferation of shops, bars, restaurants and resorts that today line a good portion of Bonaire’s west coast, from which most tourists tend not to wander. Yet behind Kralendijk’s bubblegum-bright aesthetic and away from the beaches and dive sites of this leeward side lies a lesser known Bonaire, one filled with terrestrial exotica — feral donkeys, sweeping cactus-filled plains and towering pyramids of salt, to name but a few — that most wouldn’t associate with a Caribbean island. When paired with its marine treasures, these dry-land delights help make Bonaire a truly wild island that punches well above its weight in a region that’s packed with holiday-destination heavyweights.
IT’S MORNING, and the languorous breeze wafting through Kralendijk makes it easy to imagine that not one of Bonaire’s 18,000 people is rushing anywhere. Boxy cars, some with “I Love Salt” bumper stickers — a reference to the salt
Behind the bubble-gum-bright aesthetic of Kralendijk and away from the dive sites of Bonaire’s leeward side lies a very different island.
flats at the island’s southern tip — cruise along the narrow downtown streets, their passage unfettered by the absence of stoplights. Up the road from the vibrant blues, pinks, yellows and lime greens of the buildings in Kralendijk’s otherwise humble centre, a group of tousle-haired divers mills around a self-serve scuba station, chatting in the morning glow as nitrox fills their tanks and the anticipation of another day of dawn-to-dusk underwater exploration builds. They and hundreds of others are heading for one of the island’s 63 official dive sites, each of which are marked by a bright yellow rock along the coastal road. There are another 26 dive sites on Klein Bonaire, the small uninhabited island just off Bonaire’s west coast. With 89 dive sites in total, more than 350 species of fish, three of the world’s seven species of sea turtle (green, hawksbill and loggerhead) and 57 species of soft and stony coral, all in some of the Caribbean’s most pristine waters, it’s no surprise that the island is such a draw for the scuba-and-snorkel set. “I think we have the best coral reef in the whole Caribbean,” says Daniël Molenaar, managing director of dive operator Aqua Fun Bonaire. “That’s why this place is so protected.” How protected is “so protected”? For starters, all the water surrounding Bonaire and Klein Bonaire from the high-tide mark to a depth of 60 metres is safeguarded as Bonaire National Marine Park, a 27-square-kilometre area with a strictly enforced no-anchoring policy and legislation forbidding the removal of coral, dead or alive, from the water. Then there’s Bonaire’s long-standing commitment to conserving marine life. Sea turtles have been a protected species here since 1961. Spearfishing was prohibited a decade later. Seven years after that — and one year before the marine park was established — Bonaire was the first place in the world to install permanent moorings at dive sites, which helped avoid anchors damaging the coral.
Goats and donkeys roam among the gnarled bushes and cacti, eyeing the iguanas that skitter across the dusty ground in front of them.
But this steadfast adherence to maintaining the untamed is evident on land, too, and perhaps makes itself most noticeable while travelling into the desert landscape of Bonaire’s interior and toward Washington Slagbaai National Park at the island’s northern tip. “The first thing that comes to mind when people see this part of Bonaire is that it’s a dry, thorny island,” says Quirijn Coolen, general manager of Echo Bonaire, a conservation organization located just outside the park that works to ensure a stable and growing population of the yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot, in part by restoring the dry-forest habitat of the bird. “But that’s not all I see,” adds Coolen. “I see the resilience of the vegetation throughout the year. I see birds you would never be able to see through the thick trees of a rainforest environment.” It’s a sentiment that rings true at Goto Lake, a saltwater lagoon surrounded by low valleys dense with mesquite and cacti where it’s easy to spot fiery-pink Caribbean flamingos — the avian world’s version of a sunburnt tourist at the beach. Bonaire is one of only four places in the region where this protected species breeds, and watching the gawky-looking but graceful bird preening or dipping its long S-shaped neck into the water is as mesmerizing as anything spied through a dive mask. But it’s not just birds that can be seen in the interior of the island. Around the village of Rincon, for instance, goats and feral-yet-friendly donkeys roam among the gnarled bushes and cacti, eyeing the iguanas that skitter across the dusty ground in front of them. Scenes such as this might make the interior seem like a ghostly expanse compared to the buzz and colour of Kralendijk, but that’s part of the appeal. “There is a pure quietness in nature here, and a real sense of freedom,” says Julianka Clarenda, co-owner of Rincon’s Posada Para Mira restaurant. Over a lunch of iguana stew — spicy but delicious once a complication of tiny bones is overcome — Clarenda gives her insider’s advice about the one thing visitors shouldn’t miss: the little-used hiking paths around the remote inlet of Lagun on the east coast. The rough waters make diving there a no-go, she adds, but the views of open wind-whipped sea and breakers rolling in along the jagged shoreline are extraordinary. It’s the windward side, to be sure, but it’s no wonder locals also call it the wild side.
THE SUN LOWERS toward the horizon, and off the coastal road that leads to Bonaire’s southern tip, wild meets world-dominating in spectacular fashion at vast salt flats operated by global agrifood trading giant Cargill. Here, on land that comprises about 13 per cent of the 290-square-kilometre island, huge conical piles of fist-sized crystals sit next to fuchsia-tinted ponds
At Goto Lake, it’s easy to pick out fiery-pink Caribbean flamingos — the avian world’s version of a sunburnt tourist at the beach. of pumped-in seawater, the colour of which has been altered by the tiny brine shrimp that thrive in the highly saline environment. If the pastel shade of the ponds looks familiar, it’s because it’s a muted version of the flaming pink of the Caribbean flamingo, which feeds on the shrimp and can be found by the thousands in the Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary, a protected area that’s located within the salt flats but not accessible to the public (the birds can, however, be seen quite well from the road outside the sanctuary). Driving back into Kralendijk after sundown, one can see the dive sites marked by the yellow rocks have gone dark. No bonfires or parked cars are permitted along Bonaire’s beaches, and the only lights on the water are once again coming from snorkellers’ winking flashlights. They shine their lights down, sweeping them from side to side. None will be thinking about going ashore — how could they be when they’ve come to the island to be transfixed by darting barracuda, translucent jellyfish and undulating octopuses beneath their flippers? But what awaits there, not far behind the waterfront hotels, bars and restaurants, is a land that’s as unforgettably untamed as the sea that surrounds them now. See more of Liz Beddall’s spectacular photos of Bonaire at cangeotravel.ca/fw18/bonaire.
Liz Beddall ( @lizbeddall) is a photographer and writer whose work has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and on variety.com.
Clockwise from ABOVE: Colourful downtown Kralendijk, Bonaire’s capital; Goto Lake, a saltwater lagoon at the island’s northern end, is surrounded by a dry, hilly landscape; one of Bonaire’s wild donkeys, which are known for being curious and friendly; the azure waters of the island’s west coast. PREVIOUS PAGES: A snorkeller explores the Bonaire National Marine Park, which encircles Bonaire and its smaller sister island, Klein Bonaire.
RIGHT: A plate of iguana stew at Posada Para Mira restaurant in Rincon. BELOW: A cactus keeps it cool with a pair of sunglasses at the Plaza Beach Resort Bonaire in Kralendijk.
Clockwise from RIGHT: The salt flats at the southern tip of Bonaire; some of the colourful marine life that can be found in the island’s waters; a flamingo in the Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary.