A travel guide to Bonaire
After I wrote why I didn’t travel to Vietnam but to ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) instead, it is now time to write about these islands starting with Bonaire which is the first among the ABCs I visited.
After a 4 movies (Big Eyes, Inherent Vice, Mortdecai and Birdman) long flight we arrived in Bonaire in the evening. Hotel Roomer organised a taxi which picked us up at the airport and 5 min. later we were at the hotel. We spent the rest of the evening at the hotel bar and got the first “things to do” tips.
First of all, GET A CAR. Otherwise you won’t come far. Bonaire doesn’t have public transport or anything similar. So you are actually forced to have your own vehicle. Scooter is an option but then you should drive very carefully, because the locals drive pretty crazy and you might not get to everywhere you want. An economy car is also a good option and you get to almost everywhere easily except the National Park Washington Slaagbai! They only let pick ups into the park and after I saw the road conditions I thought that was a very wise decision indeed.
We decided to drive an economy car and switch to pick up for one day to visit the national park. Martin and Nicole, the hosts of Hotel Roomer organised it for us in a much uncomplicated way. So I recommend you to ask your host in Bonaire for best advice. Otherwise you always have the option to check the regular car rentals: Budget, Avis and AB Carrental were the most present ones on the island. The rates are about 40-60$ per day.
By the way, watch out for donkeys. They are all over and don’t care about you. And if you stop next to one it is very possible that it tries to get into your car.
The first day was a bit odd. It’s probably because we were tired and also because the island doesn’t make the orientation that easy for newbies. Although we had a good map with all the highlights, snorkel & dive spots, beaches, etc. and although Nicole gave us very good tips, we spent half day looking for a snorkel spot.
Till we saw the tiny yellow stones with names on them. These stones are placed on the side of the road to show you in which spot you are BUT you need to drive very slowly and eyes of an eagle to see them at all. Don’t worry, you get used to it after a day and the island is so small that after two days you know which spot is where anyways.
First we head to south and saw all the salt pans and slave huts. The tiny slave huts of stone remind of the horrible history of slavery in this part of the world.
When you follow the road to south east, to Lac Bay you come to the nice sandy Sorobon Beach. Here you’ll meet mostly windsurfers who use the facilities of Jibe City. Also as non-surfer you can chill here, have snacks and drinks at the Hang Out Bar and refresh yourself a bit in the shallow turquoise waters.
Another day we head to northwest coast. Most of the snorkel and dive spots are on this way. You drive along a beautiful coast line till Karpata (snorkel & dive spot), then follow the road to Gotomeer to see Flamingos and then to Rincon, the first settlement of the island. After Rincon we followed the way back to Kralendijk, the capital of the island.
The north part of the island is the National Park Washington Slagbaai which covers almost 30% of the whole island.
Most of the east coast is not accessible as there are no proper roads and actually no real settlement. Everyone we spoke recommended to skip this part.
We still didn’t manage to do the PADI Open Water certificate because of missing medical check (will do next thing), which is why we sticked to snorkelling, which was AWESOME! Bonaire is ideal for shore snorkelling. You just stop by a beach, put on your fins and mask and start snorkelling. You don’t need organised tours who take you to snorkelling spots far away from the coast.
Warning! You NEED open heel fins combined with dive boots. Most of the snorkel spots have rocky shores which makes the entrance barefoot impossible. Only a few spots have a sandy soft access.
PLUS if you are filming underwater with GoPro you need a Red Filter for blue water color correction.
For more useful travel gear and items check my Pack List
Also remember, the marine life in Bonaire is protected. So you need to pay a Nature Fee of $10.00 per year ($25.00 for scuba divers) to get a tag from STINAPA which manages the protection of Bonaire National Marine Park and the Washington Slagbaai National Park. You can buy it in all dive shops. Don’t lose your tag and receipt as you get a discount for the admission to Washington-Slagbaai National Park. You pay 15$, instead of 25$.
Where to snorkel?
Well, you can drive to all snorkelling sites and decide for yourself. We looked for spots with sandy entrance as we didn’t have open heel fins and water boots.
- 1000 steps: It is in the Northwest just before Karpata. It has a nice panoramic view and steps down to the beach. No worries, it is not 1000 steps literally, but just a few. Here I’ve seen spotlight parrotfish, blue tang (you know, Dory from the movie Finding Nemo), doctor fish, and ocean surgeonfish, etc.
- Bachelor’s Beach: It is almost in front of the airport and honestly it feels and tastes like it. Yucky… Didn’t see much fish either. So I’d say save your time.
- Pink Beach: It is on the Southwest, right after the salt pans. It’s ok but not spectacular.
- Wakayá: It is in the National Park Washington Slagbaai, so you need to enter the park to get to this site. But it is worth. The entrance was super easy as it has a small sandy beach. Here I also saw a school of blue tang, doctor fish, palometa, sergeant major, beaugregory, smooth trunkfish and french angelfish. They must have thought that the GoPro is a new member in this area. They swam all around me to find out what this GoPro is about 🙂
I’d recommend to visit the park directly at the first day and if you like the snorkelling sites here visit the park multiple times. You don’t need to pay 15$ every time you enter the park as the entrance fee is for multiple times.
Klein Bonaire is an uninhabited islet off the west coast of the main island and the snorkelling sites here are without a question the BEST. It is a protected area with no settlement and has one of the best coral reef with a rich marine life.
You can go to Klein Bonaire with water taxi and snorkel on your own by drifting from A to B as shown in the map.
Or you can book a boot tour with Woodwind like we did. I strongly recommend to go for this option as they will take you to sites which you can’t swim to on your own. Besides the tour was just awesome. Our guides, Dedrie and Nathalie were very knowledgeable and caring. You feel comfortable at the second you meet them. While snorkeling they explained a lot about the marine life, the fish, the corals, etc. We were 9 people and snorkeled in 2 groups which made the experience even more enjoyable as we didn’t “ran” to each other all the time and everyone had enough space to observe the marine life.
We stopped in 3 sites for 30-40 min. each. I was flashed by all the sorts of fish, corals, sponges and other stuff I don’t know the names of. The highlights were definitely the two nurse sharks and countless green sea turtles. Klein Bonaire is home to over 500 turtles and the population is growing, which means you’ll see some for sure.
Woodwind is located in the Divi Flamingo Hotel, just follow the signs. You can either go by or check their weekly program online and make a reservation. The 5 hours tour costs 65$. Drinks, snacks and lunch were included to the price. They also have any kind of snorkeling gear and/or wetsuits on board.
Still not convinced? Well, I’ll let the pictures (taken by the underwater photographer on board) speak for themselves.
National Park Washington Slagbaai
We visited the national on our last day, as we didn’t know that you can visit it multiple times once paid. Here you’ll see gigantic cactus trees, millions of years old rock formations, a rugged coast and blow holes. As mentioned before there are also dive and snorkel spots too, so don’t forget to bring your gear.
There are also small lakes where you can see pink flamingos, but don’t expect to see a huge colony of flamingos (like in Celestun, Mexico). We were told that the flamingos flew all away as the refinery burned 5 years ago and the water was polluted. This year (2015) they started to come back again.
On the way back to Kralendijk you could stop by the Boca Onima to see the Indian inscriptions. I found it very impressive thinking about how old the humanity is and how long we actually picture things to tell a story.
One day we went kayaking in the mangrove forest of Lac Bay organised by Mangrove Info Center. Somehow I like the mystical atmosphere in the mangrove forests. Maybe it is the absolute silence I like or being surrounded by trees which are literally survivors. Before and while kayaking our guide, Clayd explained a lot about the trees, how a mangrove forest grows, the life under and above the waters.
The Mangrove Info Center is at the end of the road to Lac Cai. If you start thinking that you’re on the wrong way, don’t worry, you’re probably not. Just follow the reddish soil road for about 3 km till the end. It is a nice road to drive next to pink flamingos, donkeys, goats and cactus trees. Don’t forget to make a reservation otherwise the chances are high you need to turn back and come another day. On Sundays the center is closed.
- Accommodation: The double room prices start from 60$ per night. Just check Booking.com. Airbnb is also good way to search for price worthy accommodation. We felt very comfortable at Hotel Roomer. It was a very family-like stay. Most of their guests are like old friends who visit them couple of times a year. They also have a bar/restaurant where you can let the day fade away. with a beer and tasty burger. Keep in mind you need to pay tourism taxes, 6,5o$ per night per person.
- Eating: First night there was this street festival in Kralendijk, “Taste of Bonaire” and luckily we could try out the local creole cuisine. Apart of this it was pretty much European and American cuisine which was very disappointing for me as I’m actually always so excited about trying something new and local while traveling. Nevertheless, I could recommend Rum Runners (beautiful view and they even have couple of local dishes) and La Guernica (the tapas were delicious). No matter where you eat, be ready to pay about 15-45$ for the main courses. A glass of wine cost about 5-6$ and a bottle of beer 2,75-4,75$.
- Drinking: Woohhoooaawww… The cocktails here are heavy… It must be the Caribic rum. Enjoy it but be careful. Little Havana and Cuba Compagnie have a very nice and chilly atmosphere. Don’t think twice and drink a mojito in one of these bars.
- Currency: US$
- Language: Dutch and Papiamento (mix of Spanish, English, Dutch) are the official languages, but everyone I met in the island could speak English just fine.
- Weather: Don’t think long. It is warm and nice (average of 30 Celsius) all year long. The good news is that Bonaire is outside the hurricane belt.
- Getting there/away: You can fly from/to US, Europe, South America and other destinations in Caribbean with the usual suspects KLM and Delta. Insel Air is flying pretty frequently between the Caribbean destinations.
Swimming with sea turtles: Priceless
To go or not to go?
Don’t expect to find long and wide sandy Caribbean beaches. If this is what you’re looking for, then rather choose another destination.
If you’re diver and/or snorkeler go for it. Definitely. The marine life is very rich and thanks to the easy access to the sites you are not bound to tour operators which saves quite a lot of money at the end. In Bonaire there are many “dive in” hotels which offer “all you can dive” packages.
The island felt very safe and relaxed. The people were very friendly and greeting each other. However, for my taste the stay was way too expensive and a little bit one-sided for that price. Yes, snorkeling was awesome but apart of this I missed brand new cultural, culinary and adventurous experiences which is mainly the fun for me while travelling. But after all the snorkelling experience was definitely worth it!
For more insights I recommend Lonely Planet's Travel Guide for Caribbean Islands.
For price worthy accommodation check Booking.com or Agoda.com.
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If you are looking half a day for snorkling places you probably are not very smart.