The first known settlers of the islands were the Caiquetios, a tribe of peaceful Arawak Indians. They survived principally on fish and shellfish and collected salt from the Charoma saltpan to barter with their mainland neighbours for supplements to their diet. There are remains of Indian villages on Curaçao at Westpunt, San Juan, de Savaan and Santa Barbara, and on Aruba near Hooiberg. The Arawaks in this area had escaped attack by the Caribs but soon after the arrival of the Spaniards most were transported from Curaçao to work on Hispaniola. Although some were later repatriated, more fled when the Dutch arrived. The remainder were absorbed into the black or white population, so that by 1795, only five full-blooded Indians were to be found on Curaçao. On Aruba and Bonaire the Indians maintained their identity until about the end of the 19th century, but there were no full-blooded Indians left by the 20th century.

The islands were encountered in 1499 by a Spaniard, Alonso de Ojeda, accompanied by the Italian, Amerigo Vespucci and the Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cosa. The Spanish retained control over the islands throughout the 16th century, but because there was no gold, they were declared 'useless islands'. After 1621, the Dutch became frequent visitors looking for wood and salt and later for a military foothold. Curaçao's strategic position between Pernambuco and New Amsterdam within the Caribbean setting made it a prime target. In 1634, a Dutch fleet took Curaçao, then in 1636 they took Bonaire, which was inhabited by a few cattle and six Indians, and Aruba which the Spanish and Indians evacuated. Curaçao became important as a trading post and as a base for excursions against the Spanish. After 1654, Dutch refugees from Brazil brought sugar technology, but the crop was abandoned by 1688 because of the dry climate. About this time citrus fruits were introduced, and salt remained a valuable commodity. Much of Curaçao's wealth came from the slave trade. From 1639-1778 thousands of slaves were brought to Willemstad, and sold to the mainland and other colonies. The Dutch brought half a million slaves to the Caribbean, most of which went through Curaçao.

Wars between England and the Netherlands in the second half of the 17th century led to skirmishes and conquests in the Caribbean. The Peace of Nijmegen in 1678 gave the Dutch Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire and the three smaller islands in the Leeward group, St Eustatius, Saba and half of St Martin. Further conflicts in Europe and the Americas in the 18th century led to Curaçao becoming a meeting place for pirates, American rebels, Dutch merchants, Spaniards and Creoles from the mainland. In 1800 the English took Curaçao but withdrew in 1803. They occupied it again from 1807 until 1816 (when Dutch rule was restored), during which time it was declared a free port. From 1828 to 1845, all Dutch West Indian colonies were governed from Surinam. In 1845 the Dutch Leeward Islands were joined to Willemstad in one colonial unit called Curaçao and Dependencies. The economy was still based on commerce, much of it with Venezuela, and there was a ship building industry, some phosphate mining and the salt pans.

In the 20th century oil was discovered in Venezuela and the Dutch-British Shell Oil Company set up a refinery on Curaçao because of its political stability, its port facilities and its better climate. The Second World War was another turning point as demand for oil soared and British, French and later US forces were stationed on the islands. The German invasion of Holland encouraged Dutch companies to transfer their assets to the Netherlands Antilles leading to the birth of the offshore financial centre.


The organization of political parties began in 1936 and by 1948 there were four parties on Curaçao and others on Aruba and the other islands, most of whom endorsed autonomy. In 1948, the Dutch constitution was revised to allow for the transition to complete autonomy of the islands. In 1954 they were granted full autonomy in domestic affairs and became an integral part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Crown continued to appoint the Governor. Nevertheless, a strong separatist movement developed on Aruba and the island finally withdrew from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986, becoming an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands Antilles then formed two autonomous parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The main part, comprising all the islands except Aruba, was a parliamentary federal democracy, the seat of which was in Willemstad, Curaçao, and each island had its own Legislative and Executive Council. Parliament (Staten) was elected in principle every four years, with 14 members from Curaçao, three from Bonaire, three from Sint Maarten and one each from Saba and St Eustatius. However, all this changed in 2007.

Separate status for some or all of the islands has been a political issue with a breakaway movement in Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Referenda were held in 1993 and 1994 which supported the status quo, but in 2000 Sint Maarten voted for 'status aparte'. In 2004 referenda were held on Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba asking the electorate to choose between a new constitutional status or to remain part of the Netherlands Antilles. Bonaire and Saba chose to establish closer ties with Holland and no longer be a member of the Netherlands Antilles. Sint Eustatius later chose to follow suit. Subsequent negotiations resulted in the three voting islands becoming a municipality of the Netherlands on 1 July 2007, phasing into the Dutch mainstream within five years. As we went to press it was still undecided which currency would be used and other details were still being ironed out. Changes for St Maarten, which wants a status similar to Aruba's, and Curaçao, which has not yet agreed to Dutch proposals for their status, will come later. The Netherlands Antilles as an overseas territory of Holland will disappear, but the individual islands will continue their association with the Dutch Kingdom either as semi-autonomous entities or integrated into the Dutch provincial/municipal structure.



Bonaire's economy is heavily dependent on tourism, with small operations for solar salt mining, oil trans-shipment and radio communications industry. Cargill Corporation, the world's largest private company, operates the salt industry, which benefits so greatly from the constant sunshine (with air temperatures averaging 27°C and water 26°C), scant rainfall, and refreshing trade winds. A shrimp farm started operations in 1999;
Sea Hatch Bonaire
is near Sorobon and offers tours.

Tourism is specialized and most visitors are divers. The USA is the largest single market, followed by the Netherlands, Venezuela and Germany. Accommodation for tourists is split fairly evenly between hotels and condominiums or villas, amounting to about 1,100 rooms and still growing. Financial assistance for the development of tourism has been provided by the EU and Holland, which have financed the expansion of the airport and development of other infrastructure.


Curaçao has a more diversified economy than the other islands, yet even so, it suffered severe recession in the 1980s and unemployment is around 13% of the labour force. The major industry is the oil refinery dating back to 1917, now one of the largest in the world, to which the island's fortunes and prosperity are tied. Imports of crude oil and petroleum products make up two-thirds of total imports, while exports of the same are 95% of total exports. That prosperity was placed under threat when Shell pulled out of the refinery in 1985, but the operation was saved when the island government purchased the plant, and leased it to Venezuela for US$11 mn a year. Despite the need for a US$270 mn reconstruction, principally to reduce pollution, the Venezuelan company,
, signed a 20-year lease agreement which came into effect in 1995, ending its previous system of short-term operating leases. Bunkering has also become an important segment of the economy, and the terminal at Bullenbaai is one of the largest bunkering ports in the world. The island's extensive trade makes it a port of call for a great many shipping lines.

Coral reefs surrounding the island, constant sunshine, a mean temperature of 27°C (81°F), lure visitors. Curaçao used to be a destination for tourists from Venezuela, but a devaluation of the bolívar in 1983 caused numbers to drop by 70% in just one year. A restructuring of the industry has led to a change of emphasis towards attracting US and European tourists, as well as South Americans, and numbers have now increased. Cruise visitor numbers have been boosted by the arrival of the megaship
Rhapsody of the Seas
, which carries 2,000 and calls 26 times a year. The single largest market for visitors to Curaçao is Holland, with 30% of stayover arrivals, followed by the USA with 15% and Venezuela with 14%. Diving has been promoted and Curaçao now registers about 10,000 visiting divers a year.A major foreign currency earner, the offshore financial sector, is seeking new areas of business, including captive insurance and mutual funds, in a highly competitive market.


Gold was discovered in 1825, but the mine ceased to be economic in 1916. In 1929, black gold brought real prosperity to Aruba when
Lago Oil and Transport Co
, a subsidiary of
, built a refinery at San Nicolas at the east end of the island. At that time it was the largest refinery in the world, employing over 8,000 people. In March 1985
closed the refinery, a serious shock for the Aruban economy, and one which the Government has striven to overcome. In 1989,
Coastal Oil of Texas
signed an agreement with the Government to reopen part of the refinery by 1991, with an initial capacity of 150,000 barrels a day, but despite plans to increase it, present capacity is only about 140,000 b/d.

The economic crisis of 1985 forced the Government to turn to the IMF for help. The fund recommended that Aruba promote tourism and increase the number of hotel rooms by 50%. The Government decided, however, to triple hotel capacity to 6,000 rooms, which it was estimated would provide employment for 20% of the population. In 1995 the opening of the
raised the total to 6,626 rooms in hotels, a figure which had risen to 7,103 by 1996. Total employment in tourism absorbs 35% of the workforce. The economy is dependent on tourism for income and in 2000 combined stayover and cruise ship passengers exceeded 1 million for the first time with more than 25 cruise lines visiting each month and even more airlines adding Aruba to their routes from the USA.

Efforts are being made to diversify away from a single source of revenues into areas such as re-exporting through the free trade zone, and offshore finance. Aruba is still dependent on the Netherlands for budget support and aims to reduce financial assistance.

Unemployment is rare on Aruba and labour is imported for large projects such as the refinery and construction work. The Government is encouraging skilled Arubans to return from Holland but is hampered by a housing shortage.

Flora and fauna


An environmental awareness for preservation of the reefs and the island's natural state pervades society here like no other Caribbean destination. Nature and the environment is even a subject for study in the primary and secondary school systems thanks to grants given on a regular basis by the
World Wildlife Fund
and the
Dutch Lottery Fund
. It is a
United Nations Environmental Project (UNEP)
demonstration location and a candidate for a UN World Heritage Site. All of the waters to 60 m deep and much of the countryside, fauna and flora of Bonaire is protected.

Bonaire has one of the largest Caribbean flamingo colonies in the Western Hemisphere (between 3,500 and 11,000 depending on the season).These birds build their conical mud nests in the salt pans. The
Salt Company
has set aside an area of 56 ha for a flamingo sanctuary, with access strictly prohibited. The birds have settled into a peaceful co-existence, so peaceful in fact that they are now laying two eggs a year instead of one. They can be seen from the roads in the south and in Goto Meer Bay in the northwest, in the salt lake near Playa Grandi, and in Lac Bay on the southeast coast of Bonaire, feeding on algae and the crustaceans that give them their striking pink colour. Air traffic over the flamingo sanctuary is prohibited.

There are also two smaller bird sanctuaries at the
Solar Salt Works
and Goto Meer. At Pos'i Mangel, in Washington Park, thousands of birds gather in the late afternoon. Bronswinkel Well, also in the park, is another good place to see hundreds of birds and giant cacti. The indigenous Bonaire green parrot (a conjure rather than a parrot) and the endangered yellow-shouldered Amazon (
Amazona barbarebdis rothschildi
) can be seen in the park and at other locations around the island. In the dry season they spend part of their day in the main city. About 190 species of bird have been found on Bonaire in addition to the flamingos.

There are lots of iguanas and lizards of all shapes and sizes. The big blue lizards are endemic to Bonaire, while the Anolis, a tree lizard with a yellow dewlap, is related to the Windward Islands Anolis species rather than to the neighbouring Venezuelan species. The most common mammals you are likely to see are feral goats and donkeys. Try to resist feeding the friendly donkeys because this attracts them to the roadside where they are hit by vehicles too frequently. Bonaire's only native mammal is the bat, of which eight species have been identified.


Aruba has 48 different types of native trees, 11 of which are now very scarce and in some cases have only five examples left. The loss of native trees is due to wood cutting, changing weather and marauding goats. A tree-planting programme is under way and negotiations with goat owners are in progress to keep them out of protected areas. About 170 species of bird can be found on Aruba, and about 50 species breed on the island but if you include the migratory birds which come in November to January the total rises to around 300 species. The most common birds are the
(bright orange), the
, the
(a little parrot) and the
barika geel
(the little yellow-bellied bird you will find eating the sugar on the table in your hotel). The
, a burrowing owl, is endangered. An interesting place to see waterfowl is the Bubali Plassen, opposite the Olde Molen. Here you can often find cormorants, herons and fish eagles. Brown pelicans can be seen along the south shore. Two kinds of snake can be found on Aruba: the harmless little Santanero (however, be careful when you pick it up, because it defecates in your hand) and the not-so-harmless rattle snake. Aruba's rattle snake, the cascabel, is a nearly extinct subspecies that does not use its rattle. Rattle snakes live in the triangular area between the Jamanota, Fontein and San Nicolas. The best place to go looking for rattle snakes, if you really want to, is the area south of the Jamanota mountain. In the unlikely event that you get bitten, go immediately to the hospital; they
have anti-serum.

Arikok National Park
, covers a triangle of land between Boca Prins and San Fuego and bounded on the east by the sea as far as Boca Keto. After decades of discussion the plan converts 17% of the island into a protected park area. Work is continuing to provide trails, clean up and upgrade the park, clearing litter and reconstructing benches and a stairway built at Fuerte Prins in the 1960s. The three centres will be linked by trails for cars and walkers. Arikok Centre contains the 184.5 m Arikok hill, the second highest point in Aruba.
Prins Centre
in the northeast includes the former Prins Plantation, the functioning Fontein Plantation and the Fontein Cave. The
Jamanota Centre
in the south includes the 189 m Jamanota hill, the highest point of the island, and the old gold-mining operation at Miralamas. The Spanish Lagoon area is also included.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

St Lucia & Dominica Handbook

Lush, tropical landscapes define this area of the Caribbean. From the low-key and traditional...

Barbados Handbook

Barbados offers the ideal Caribbean holiday. Whether you're seeking some serious relaxation in the...

Trinidad & Tobago Handbook

Trinidad & Tobago offer a fantastically cosmopolitan mix of cultures. From dancing to calypsoes at...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!