Curaçao (pronounced [kura'são]) is an island in the southern part of the Caribbean Sea off the west coast of Venezuela. The island is the largest and most populous of the three so-called ABC islands (for Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) of the Lesser Antilles – specifically the Leeward Antilles – and belongs to the Netherlands Antilles, a self-governing part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Curaçao's capital is Willemstad.
Curaçao has a land area of 444 square kilometres (171 square miles). At the 2001 Netherlands Antilles census, the population was 130,627 inhabitants, which means a population density of 294 inhabitants per square kilometre. In 2004 the population was estimated at 133,644 inhabitants.
One of the Leeward Antilles of the West Indies, Curaçao has a semi-arid savanna-like climate and lies outside the hurricane belt with only a 0-3% chance of getting hit by a hurricane. The flora of Curaçao is unlike the typical tropical island vegetation and is more akin to that of the Southwestern United States. Various forms of cactus, thorny shrubs, and evergreens are prevalent. Curaçao's highest point is the 375 metre (1,230 ft) Mount Christoffel in the northwestern part of the island. This lies in the reserved wildlife park, Curaçao Christoffelpark, and can be explored by car, bike or horse or on foot. Several trails have been laid out. Curaçao has many places where one can hike. There are Saliñas, salt water lakes where flamingos fly out to rest and feed. 15 miles off the coast of Curaçao, to the southeast, lies the small, uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao ("Little Curaçao").
Curaçao is renowned for its coral reefs which make it an excellent spot for scuba diving. The beaches on the south side contain many popular diving spots. An unusual feature of Curaçao diving is that the sea floor drops off steeply within a few hundred feet of the shore, and the reef can easily be reached without a boat. This drop-off is locally known as the "blue edge." Strong currents and lack of beaches make the rocky northern coast dangerous for swimming and diving, but experienced divers sometimes dive there from boats when conditions permit. The southern coast is very different and offers remarkably calm waters. The coastline of Curaçao features many bays and inlets, many of them suitable for mooring.
Some of the coral reefs have been affected by tourism. Porto Marie beach is experimenting with artificial coral reefs in order to improve the reef's condition. Hundreds of artificial coral blocks that have been placed are now home to a large array of tropical fish.
The original inhabitants of Curaçao were Arawak Amerindians. The first Europeans to see the island were members of a Spanish expedition under the leadership of Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The Spaniards decimated the Arawak with diseases such as smallpox and measles. The island was occupied by the Dutch in 1634. The Dutch West India Company founded the capital of Willemstad on the banks of an inlet called the 'Schottegat'. Curaçao had been previously ignored by colonists because it lacked many things that colonists were interested in, such as gold deposits. However, the natural harbour of Willemstad proved quickly to be an ideal spot for trade. Commerce and shipping became Curaçao's most important economic activities, and Curaçao came to play a pivotal role in one of the most intricate international trade networks in history: the Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch West India Company made Curaçao a center for slave trade in 1662. Dutch merchants brought slaves from Africa to the trading area called Asiento. From there, slaves were sold and shipped to various destinations in South America and the Caribbean. At the height of the trade large numbers of slaves were traded here.
The slave trade made the island affluent, and lead to the erection of the impressive colonial buildings that still stand today.
Curaçao features architecture that blends various Dutch and Spanish colonial styles. The wide range of other historic buildings in and around Willemstad earned the capital a place on UNESCO's world heritage list. Landhouses (former plantation estates) and West African style 'kas di pal'i maishi' (former slave dwellings) are scattered all over the island and some of them have been restored and can be visited.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, both the English and the French briefly occupied the island, adding to the mix of languages spoken on the island. Furthermore, Curaçaoans such as Manuel Piar and Luis Brion were actively engaged in the political affairs of the region, such as the wars of independence of Venezuela and Colombia. The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863. The end of slavery caused economic hardship, prompting many inhabitants of Curaçao to emigrate to other islands, such as to Cuba to work in sugarcane plantations.
When in 1914 oil was discovered in the Maracaibo Basin town of Mene Grande, the fortunes of the island were dramatically altered. Royal Dutch Shell and the Dutch Government had built an extensive oil refinery installation on the former site of the slave-trade market at Asiento, thereby establishing an abundant source of employment for the local population and fueling a wave of immigration from surrounding nations. Curaçao was an ideal site for the refinery as it was away from the social and civil unrest of the South American mainland, but near enough to the Maracaibo Basin oil fields. It also had an excellent natural harbor that could accommodate large oil tankers. The company brought a degree of affluence to the island. Large housing was provided and Willemstad developed an extensive infrastructure. However, discrepancies started to appear amongst the social groups of Curaçao. The discontent and the antagonisms between Curaçao social groups culminated in large scale rioting and protest on May 30, 1969. The civil unrest fueled a social movement that resulted in the local Afro-Caribbean population attaining more influence over the political process (Anderson and Dynes 1975). The island also developed a tourist industry and offered low corporate taxes to encourage many companies to set up holdings in order to avoid rigorous schemes elsewhere. In the mid 1980s Royal Shell sold the refinery for a symbolic amount to a local government consortium. Since then discussions have centered on changing the constitutional situation as well as finding new sources of income. The government consortium currently leases the refinery to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. In recent years, the island had attempted to capitalize on its peculiar history and heritage to expand its tourism industry.
Due to an economic slump in recent years, emigration to the Netherlands has been high. Attempts by Rita Verdonk to stem this flow of emigration have exacerbated already tense Dutch-Curaçao relations. In turn, a lot of immigration from surrounding Caribbean islands and Latin American countries has also taken place. This means that the population base is changing, and a local discourse of island identity has become prominent.
Because of its history, the island now has a diverse ethnic background. There is an Afro-Caribbean majority, and also sizeable minorities of Dutch, East Asian, Portuguese and Levantine. The Sephardic Jews that arrived from Holland since the 17th century have had a significant influence on the culture and economy of the island. The years before and after World War II also saw an influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. There are also many recent immigrants from neighbouring countries, most notably the Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Anglophone Caribbean and Colombia. In recent years the influx of Dutch pensioners has increased significantly, dubbed locally as pensionados.
Curaçao gained limited self-government on January 1, 1954 as an island territory of the Netherlands Antilles. Despite this, the islanders did not fully participate in the political process until after the social movements of the late '60s. In the 2000s the political status of the island has been under discussion again, as for the other islands of the Netherlands Antilles, regarding the relationship with the Netherlands and between the islands of the Antilles.
In a referendum held on April 8, 2005, together with Saint Martin, the residents voted for a separate status outside the Netherlands Antilles, like Aruba, rejecting the options for full independence, becoming part of the Netherlands, or retaining the status quo. In 2006, Emily de Jongh-El Hage - a resident of Curaçao - was elected as the new prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles.
On June 1, 2007, the island of Curaçao was due to become an autonomous associated state, under the Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, on 30 November 2006, the island council rejected a clarifcatory memorandum on the process of giving effect to the various islands' decisions on their constitutional future.  The rejection largely stemmed from the island council's refusal to accept proposals from the Netherlands' government on how to process Curaçao's significant debt.
Although a few plantations were established on the island by the Dutch, the first profitable industry established on Curaçao was salt mining. The mineral was an extremely lucrative export at the time and became one of the major factors responsible for drawing the island into international commerce. Other factors, such Curaçao's open ports and ideal location in the Caribbean also helped to make it a favorite stop for merchants of all kinds.
Today, the main industries of the island include oil refining, tourism and offshore banking. Shipping and other activity related to the sea port of Willemstad also makes a considerable contribution to the economy.
The origin of the name Curaçao is still under debate. One explanation is that it is derived from the Portuguese word for 'heart' (coração), referring to the island as a centre in trade. Spanish traders took the name over as Curaçao, which was followed by the Dutch. Another explanation is that Curaçao was the name the indigenous peoples of Curaçao had used to label themselves (Joubert and Baart, 1994). Their thesis is supported by early Spanish accounts, which refer to the indigenous peoples as "Indios Curaçaos". The Papiamento word for Curaçao is Kòrsou. The name "Curaçao" has become associated with a particular shade of blue, and is sometimes used as an adjective, because of the deep-blue liqueur named "Blue Curaçao".
Curaçao has a polyglot society. The languages widely spoken on Curaçao are Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish and English. Dutch is the island's official language, but native speakers of Papiamentu are a sizeable majority. Everybody speaks the languages not native to them with varying degrees of fluency. Spanish enjoys a larger speakership than Dutch, which has long been the sole official language under colonial administration. Since the early 1990s, English and Papiamentu - but not Spanish - have become official languages as well. Dutch was made the sole language of instruction in the educational system in the early 20th century to facilitate education for the offspring of Royal Dutch Shell executives (Romer, 1999). Prior to 1914, schooling in Spanish and even Papiamentu was more prominent. There was even a Sivah on the island throughout the 18th century (Hoetink, 1987). Papiamentu has been tentatively re-introduced in the school curriculum during the mid 1980s. Instruction in the language has been gaining momentum ever since. Recent political debate has centered on the issue of Papiamento becoming the sole language of instruction.
According to the 2001 census, the majority of the inhabitants of Curaçao are Roman Catholic (85%). Other major denominations are Protestantism, Seventh-day Adventist and Methodist. Alongside these official Christian denominations, some inhabitants engage in African religious beliefs and practices similar to Voodoo and Santeria. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Pentecostalism is on the rise. There are practicing Muslims as well as Hindus. Though small in size, Curaçao Jewry has had significant impact on history. Curaçao boasts the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas - since 1651 - and the oldest synagogue of the Americas, in continuous use since its completion in 1732 on the site of a previous synagogue. The Jewish Community of Curacao also played a key role in supporting early Jewish congregations in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, including in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. Also see List of Caribbean Jews
Despite the island's relatively small population, the diversity of languages and cultural influences on Curaçao have generated a remarkable literary tradition, primarily in Dutch and Papiamentu. The first published work in Papiamentu was a poem by Joesph Sickman Corsen entitled Atardi, published in the La Cruz newspaper in 1905. Throughout Curaçaoan literature, narrative techniques and metaphors best characterized as magic realism tend to predominate. Novelists and poets from Curaçao have made an impressive contribution to Caribbean and Dutch literature. Best known are Cola Debrot, Frank Martinus Arion, Pierre Lauffer, Elis Juliana, Boeli van Leeuwen and Tip Marugg.
Education in Curaçao, as in the Netherlands Antilles, is good relative to regional standards. The main institutions of higher learning are:
Famous people from Curaçao include:
Maps of Netherlands Antilles
Mapquest zoom level 7 only has the Willemstad region; this region is also available in zoom level 8, 9, and 10.