Just 50 miles north of Venezuela is Bonaire, the “B” of the ABC islands in the southern Caribbean. The island is part of the Netherlands.
It’s a multi-cultural, multi-lingual place whose friendly residents make it easy for visitors. The sign at the airport is the first indications of their great hearts, “Once a Visitor, Always a Friend.”
Claimed by Spain upon its founding in 1499 by Spanish explorer Alonsa de Ojeda and Italian explorer Americo Vespucci, Spanish is a common tongue on the island.
Since 1636 the Netherlands has governed the island. Following the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010, the BES Islands (Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba) are considered an “overseas island and territory.” They are not part of the European Union but otherwise have the rights of Dutch citizens. Hence, alongside Spanish another common language on the island is Dutch.
Due to the influx of tourists and trade hailing from the United States or countries that use the U.S. Dollar (USD), the BES Islands switched from the Netherlands Antillean guilder to the U.S. dollar in 2011. There are no foreign transaction charges.
While the island is best known for its outstanding scuba diving, most visitors discover there’s much more to see and do on Bonaire. Visitors can even board a catamaran tour and see the colorful port filled with souvenir shops and rapidly growing restaurant selections.
- 13 Best Things to Do in Bonaire
- Land Sailing
- The Cadushy Distillery (Rincon)
- Washington National State Park
- Slave Huts
- Mangrove – Kayak and Snorkel Tour
- Kite Sailing
- Kite Boarding
- Klein Bonaire
- Where to Stay in Bonaire
13 Best Things to Do in Bonaire
Diving has been the primary source of tourism since “Captain Don” Stewart’s 1960s introduction of the first dive operation at the former Flamingo Beach Club. Originally a detainee camp in WWII, mostly for German POWs, it is now the beautiful Divi Flamingo Resort.
Captain Don’s work didn’t stop at getting divers to the area. After an early scolding for taking a piece of coral (in the ‘60s), Carel Steensma, a KLM executive on Curacao, and Captain Don combined their ideas and formed what is now the Bonaire National Marine Park. With 57 recorded types of coral and over 350 types of fish, it truly is a diver’s paradise.
“Captain Don was instrumental in the ‘70s in setting up the Council of Underwater Resort Operators (CURO),” says Roger Haug, Dive Operations Manager at Captain Don’s Habitat. CURO’s objective is to “improve the quality, safety, and environmental awareness of all divers on Bonaire.” CURO remains active today.
Bonaire’s National Marine Park currently offers 89 dive sites, most of which are accessible from the shore. Bonaire has won the Shore Diving category of Scuba Diving Magazine’s Annual Readers’ Choice Awards for 26 consecutive years.
If you’re an experienced scuba diver, you can explore the island from any resort or Airbnb. At the Courtyard Marriott Dive Bonaire, they have no beach access, but offer a dive package that includes “unlimited air” for your shore dives. Serviced by Dive Friends, they have six places on the island to stop and exchange your oxygen or nitrox tanks.
They also have flat bottom boats that will take you on boat dives directly from the resort to dive sites on the west side of the island and Klein Bonaire. They have the only all-female crew we experienced on the island with the captain, divemaster, and divemaster in training.
There’s also plenty of other water taxis visitors can take to Klein Bonaire.
If you prefer the comfort and ease of having an experienced dive master with you to show you the best parts of each dive, check out Toucan Diving at Van der Valk Plaza Beach Resort. Their excellent dive team matches you with available divemasters based on personality and experience.
If you’re in between, go for the Divi Flamingo Resort. They have three boats that accommodate a variety of group sizes. The resort offers standard rooms, handicapped accessible rooms (Wounded Warriors visit each year), and deluxe RCI reservation run suites with full kitchens. Although they tore out all the bathtubs with the last renovation, it’s a beautiful resort with prime access and an excellent restaurant, spa, and even a casino.
Roger Haug says, “Once you’ve become a certified diver, you must have the right knowledge to plan your own dives and to execute those safely according to your training level. That way we don’t need to babysit you and you can have diving freedom.”
All of these resorts are excellent. Airbnbs are available for the true a la carte method of diving. These resorts offer single day dives, based on availability, and people frequently join the Van der Valk’s Thursday night dive. Bring your flashlights.
Another consideration to take into account is your rental car. Ensure you set up well in advance with an established company and buy windshield and tire insurance. They’re right when they say, “Our roads are not the best.” Their “total coverage” isn’t total; it only includes collision, so talk it over with your insurance agent before you leave home.
One diver shared this tip, “Go for a dawn dive. You’ll need a torch to start. But as the sun comes up, the reef wakes up. It’s magical.”
I’ve seen a rainbow fish curl itself into a cocoon for the night. It looked like something right out of a Disney movie. I’m definitely going for a dawn dive on my next trip.
Whether speaking to coral and fish, flamingos, donkeys, or birds, the people of Bonaire become passionate speaking of protecting what’s currently on the island. More than 350 bird species and 460 fish species have been identified on the island. Approximately one-third of all electricity is generated from solar panels. If you’re interested in conservation and sustainability, this is a great island for you.
Bonaire has not only the best shore diving experience in the Caribbean. It’s the best for snorkeling too. Van der Valk Plaza Beach Resort offers a class on fish identification, and there’s an identification card in the lobby gift shop. Whether you go to become an unknowing expert on tropical fish or to make a game out of how many different fish you can spot or just for the beauty of the experience, you should definitely make time to snorkel on Bonaire.
See some snorkeling tours below.
Just outside Kralendijk on the road to Rincon, you’ll spot a track with sails breezing by and feel like you’re in a marina instead of the middle of a desert surrounded by cacti. Welcome to land sailing, go-carting but with a twist.
Complete with handlebars to steer, you must add tension to the rope to speed up and release to slow down. There’s no other break needed. A safety and explanatory briefing is required but it only takes about a half turn around the track to get the hang of it. Less if you have any actual sailing experience.
The top of the key is the place most people stall, the slowest part of the track. You have to forget to be afraid as you speed towards that turn; maintain tension on the rope and just lean into it. The speed is clocked at the bottom of the key, with the current record holder north of 30 mi/hr. After screaming through at about 20 mi/hr., you’ll realize just how fast that really is.
Helmets are required and it feels quite safe. The cousins running the track the day we were there, Le and Guanio, were well prepared to lift tipped sails and stop you when ready for a pit stop. There’s even a sign on the track for when to release the rope.
It’s an absolute blast and worth the trip out of town. Plan to spend about an hour for the safety briefing and the experience.
This port town has all the souvenir shops and seaside paths you’d expect. It also has a couple of excellent gelato shops (we like Luciano’s flavors a little better, and Gio’s only accepts cash). It’s a great place to walk around, meet the locals, and shop at the pop-up market the artisans put up when the cruise ships are in town.
The restaurants improve as the number of tourists grow. Many recommend It Rains Fishes and Sebastian’s, the Cuba Compagne (salsa dancing every week), and Patagonia (highly recommended steaks). Our favorite remains the Chibi Chibi Restaurant at the Divi Flamingo Resort. The variety and quality of items at this restaurant and the attentive service makes us want to return.
Visit the local churches. Bonaire is predominately Catholic and has a lovely little church in town, with several others sprinkled throughout the island. The Dutch are predominantly Protestant, which accounts for the majority of the other houses of worship.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in town during Carnaval, there’s a weeklong celebration with parades and activities for kids and for adults. At the culmination of the kids’ celebration on Monday were fireworks. On Shrove Tuesday, “Mardi Gras,” there is an adult parade, similar to the daytime parade on Sunday, but with lights that make everything that bit more magical.
Stop by the Tourism Bureau with any travel related questions. They’re lovely people who know how to help. There is a two-hour self-guided walking tour of Kralendijk monuments. Ask them for more information.
The Cadushy Distillery (Rincon)
Have you ever tried to drink a cactus? These people will happily show you how to do it.
We stopped for photos but were invited in and offered a taste of their green spirit. “Try it. If you like it, buy it.”
There’s a tour offered of the small distillery. And a movie available in the courtyard if you don’t have quite enough time for the tour (or the line is too long).
Enter via a small courtyard that opens into a plaza with multiple seating areas, and restrooms in the upper right-hand corner. There are plenty of photo opportunities available with cute cactus signs and vignettes ready for your loved one to jump right in and pose.
The drink is 20% (40 proof) alcohol, so taste carefully. Some tell me you can acquire the taste, but the Distillery personnel tell me it really is more of a “You like it, or you don’t. We’re glad you try.”
Washington National State Park
For a skeleton jarring, slow-motion roller-coaster experience, take your 4WD vehicle into the Washington National State Park. They’ve made it easy for you. Your Marine Park fee covers this State Park as well.
At the entrance, you will have to get out and register yourself and your car. They will take your passport or driver’s license and you must sign a waiver of liability. They won’t let you in without ID.
There are two routes; the long route (recommended four hours) and the short route (anticipate two hours). The first time through, they recommend taking the long route. Locals explain that you’ll need to plan to have an entire day there. “It’s four hours of driving. But you’ll have to add any sightseeing, beach, dive, or snorkel time to that.”
The roads are all one way, except entrances to view sights and on the “short route” path.
Forego the museum at first. Save that for the end of the day. Drive through the entry. Make sure your seatbelts are secure. Follow the well-posted road and turn off to the right for the long route (okay, or left for the short route).
I’d recommend stopping at the following:
A white sand beach whose strong waves and winds have formed sand dunes along the coast, it’s the chilliest place on the island. The currents are too strong for safe snorkeling or swimming. But it is a great place for sunbathing. The beach is also a popular sea turtle nesting ground.
Suplado Blow Hole
Blow Holes, also known as marine geysers, form as sea caves grow landwards and upwards into vertical shafts and expose themselves towards the surface. The hydraulic compression of seawater released through a port from the top creates the eruptions. It’s best seen when the surf is high.
On the left side of the road, to the west, you can see these “ancient boulders” for miles. Geologists say these enormous boulders have been heaved onto the flats by ancient tsunamis. Measured at 190 feet, the high terrace mostly consists of limestone and fossil remnants. The higher terrace is reportedly over a million years old with the middle terrace estimated at 210,000 years.
This bay, named for the Kokolishi shells that bejewel its sandy beach, is sandwiched between cliffs of fossilized conch shells. Man-made steps lead down to the beach where people frequently take picnic lunches and spend time wading in tide pools with little ones.
STINAPA Seru Bentana Lighthouse
This white, J-shaped lighthouse favored by lighthouse seekers, is the second most likely to be seen functioning lighthouse. Although you cannot enter any of them, the views are spectacular.
This set of ruins is described by STINAPA as “an important historical and geological site. Not only can you find geological evidence of past hurricanes and tsunamis, you may travel through time from the Amerindian camps in AD 800, to shipwrecks discovered sincethe15th century, to the use of the area in more recent times. You may also admire the ruins of the 19th century Malmok lighthouse, which was built, but never lit.”
In the central section of the northern portion of the park, this is a great spot for birding. As important as fish and coral preservation is for the Marine Park, conservationists have identified more than 350 species of birds on this small island. Since fresh water can be found year-round, you’re likely to spot the Tropical Mockingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and Eared Dove among others.
“Feel the sound of nature.” Identified as another fresh-water region, most of this area was closed off when we visited. They have a well-marked cactus and tree garden that remains open.
Look inland to see the highest peak in Bonaire. Hikers will enjoy the 784-foot peak of Mount Brandaris. It usually takes about 45 minutes to hike from the wooden gate that signals the trailhead to the peak. Start the hike before noon to ensure you can exit the park before closing time.
Highly recommended by the entrance staff as one of the best snorkel sites in Washington Park, plan to stay an hour or more. You’ll frequently see French Angel fish and multiple parrotfish along the reef. There’s a small cave to explore at the beach. There’s even a trail to hike.
Boka Slagbaai and Salina Slagbaai
The Boka, or bay, was one of Bonaire’s main ports. Slagbaai is derived from the Dutch for “slaughter bay” referencing the historic use of the port to slaughter and salt goats prior to exporting to Curacao. Those port buildings are now used for restrooms and picnic support areas. The Salina, or salt pan, has a perfectly positioned bench for flamingo watching.
When you’re past Wayaka, and on the road to Slagbaai, you’ll lose the road under the hood of your car. If you were steering in the right direction before, you’ll probably hit the road when you pass the top of the hill you’re on. We counted seven places around Slagbaai where you can’t see the road over the hood of the car and one hairpin turn. Don’t let that dissuade you from going—just be prepared.
Continue within the park’s documented time recommendations towards the exit. It took us just over an hour to reach the exit from Slagbaai.
Bonaire is blessed with three romantic symbols of bygone eras, lighthouses. The historic lighthouses were each repaired or renovated in 2012.
Willemstoren Lighthouse, Bonaire’s first lighthouse, was built in 1837. Just down the road past the slave huts, it’s the easiest lighthouse to reach. And the one most people visit is at the southern tip of the island on the small “two way” highway that is one paved lane by the time you pass the yellow slave huts. You cannot enter the building.
There are two other light beacons in Kralendijk, one on the western coast you can see as you boat past, and one on Klein Bonaire.
This lighthouse is the least likely to be reached on any visit. It’s difficult without a local’s help to find the dirt path off the road from town. Turn right on the first paved road past the KFC and then go past the castle looking house and make a left on a dirt path wide enough for a car and a half. Expect to miss it the first time.
When you turn around (the road ends about a half mile further down), you’ll see the path to the right. Go up the hill and you’ll see industrial buildings in the distance. There’s a rusty gate open to the right that looks like it’s someone’s driveway. That’s the entrance to the path to the lighthouse.
You will need a car with four-wheel drive to reach the lighthouse. The road is not well marked and you will frequently wonder if you’re on road at all. Stick towards the coast, but don’t get too close to the edge. It’s difficult to see the lighthouse until you’re within the last mile or so.
When you do spot the lighthouse, and the two-story lighthouse keeper’s house, you’ll be glad you went. Wind swept and remote, it’s derelict and delightful at the same time.
The lighthouse keeper’s house has solid stone stairs to go up. But mind your step once you leave the stairs as the wood floors, where present, are not secure. The window to the left provides the same view the keeper and his family must have seen a hundred years ago.
We were completely alone during our time at the lighthouse. It’s a reasonable place for a picnic (definitely take plenty of water with you, and food is always a good idea) and great for photographs.
Based on the pools of water present, I think it’s safe to assume the waves reach this height, even though it seems high. You can find fossilized starfish amongst the tide pools.
The land appears to be fossilized coral, similar to the area seen in the Washington National State Park described by the park officials as land “thrown up by tsunamis.”
A sad part in human history, one of the imports to Bonaire was slaves. In 1850, according to the sign posted, these huts were used to house slaves and their belongings while out in the salt fields.
Four Obelisks were built and placed along the shore. Painted red, white, blue, and orange (colors of the Dutch Flag), they were used as navigational shore markers for boats coming in to load salt.
You can reach the 10 white slave huts using the road south from Kralendijk. The 12 yellow slave huts are further south along the same road.
Another signpost speaks to how it took two men to lift the salt-filled basket to the woman’s head so she could walk it towards the pier. I’m glad so many of the tasks have been automated.
Mangrove – Kayak and Snorkel Tour
Every scuba diver knows you can’t dive within 16 hours of a flight. So what else will you do on your last full day in Bonaire?
Take the kayak and snorkel tour amongst the mangroves. The tour operators will pick you up at your hotel and take you to Lac Bay on the East side of the island. The wind is too strong here for most divers, but is perfect for Kite surfing.
For your kayak trip amongst the mangroves, you’ll be taken to Lac Bay and enjoy the kite sailors whipping their bodies every way the wind blows and do gravity defying tricks. You’ll walk amongst 200-year old piles of Queen Conch shells discarded by the sea.
Load into your kayaks and have your upper body strength ready. Crossing the open water across Lac Bay into the mangroves is not for the faint of heart. It’s a strong current and deserves your focus and concentration for as long as your guide tells you is necessary.
There are multiple sections of mangroves, one even with a “roof.” Your guide will point out the differences between the salt or briny water and brackish water the mangroves help create through their inherent filtration system.
While you enjoy the beauty of mangroves and the shelter from heat and searing sun they provide, they’re working to save the planet. Not only do they filter salt from water, they take carbon monoxide from the air and create carbon rich soil, returning oxygen.
About the time you reach the “champagne glasses,” it will be time to exit the kayaks and snorkel. If you’ve been accustomed to the good visibility with scuba diving, you may be surprised.
The collections of fish, like trout, are abundant, but bunched together in such a way that their movement has stirred up a lot of the mud from the bottom, making the snorkeling less desirable than what you see along the coastline. Look beyond that to see what this specific area has to show you.
Don’t. be afraid to try it out, there’s plenty of lessons offered.
This is one of the most breathtaking experiences above water on the island, the form and shape the kite sailors take astounds me. From gravity-defying maneuvers to simply staying upright in the stiff winds and strong current, they deserve great respect.
I’ve just learned that upper body strength isn’t that important for kite sailing. If it is, you’re doing it wrong, as balance is the key.
There are resorts that cater to kite sailors on the east side of the island.
Kiteboarding, also known as kite surfing, combines aspects of wakeboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding, skateboarding, and sailing into one extreme sport. And Bonaire has competitions on the south side of the island. Visitors can take part in the fun too with KiteBoarding Bonaire.
Watch the athletes harness wind’s power whilst maintaining their feet on a specially made board with foot straps. Air can be harnessed by these kites at a much greater rate than sails, so watch for higher speeds and bigger tricks than the kite sailors can achieve.
Freestyle, you’ll see their heel turn jibes and board grabs as they use the control bar to manage air’s arbitrary currents into some spectacular moves.
In addition to all of the wonderful places above, located on the west side of Bonaire is a small, uninhabited islet named Klein Bonaire. While scuba divers reach Klein Bonaire by boat, it is possible to take a ferry over. You can shore dive from the sites marked by yellow rocks or sit in one of the loungers set out for cruise ship passengers. It is protected within the Marine Park. One thing to note is it has no sanitation facilities.
Where to Stay in Bonaire
Looking for where to stay in Bonaire? Check out these hotels located near Bonaire.
Is Bonaire Worth a Visit?
Even if you don’t scuba, there are many things to do on this diver’s paradise. Go to Bonaire once as a visitor. Then return, forevermore, as a friend.
Last Updated on February 7, 2023