When you land on the idyllic Caribbean island of Curaçao, try to tear your eyes from the blissful blue water and look up across the road into the land that stretches towards the sky on the other side. Hidden in those rocky hills is one of Curaçao’s most fascinating attractions – the ancient, extensive Hato Caves.
Located just across the road from Curaçao’s Willemstad Airport drive or take a taxi into the gravel parking lot with overhanging Manzanilla trees (just don’t get the sap on you, and don’t eat the fruit!) with a sign to purchase entrance tickets at the bar.
Life moves on island time in Curaçao but the tours typically start on the hour, each hour from 8am til 4pm.
Curaçao is a 171 square mile island with some truly unique geological elements. About 90 million years ago while dinosaurs still roamed the earth, a small space below a 5 kilometer deep ocean trench was preparing to someday become the island of Curaçao. Without going into deep scientific details (available on CARMABI’s website), a large portion of the island is made of former reefs that are now elevated above sea level. You can even see giant corals intertwined and solidified into the porous rock.
When our guide informed us that once upon a time, all 3 miles of the Hato cave system was underwater and as a scuba diver, my eyes lit up and my imagination began swimming through winding tunnels and gently running a line down the ultimate rabbitfish hole.
I snapped out of it and back to the beautiful, dry reality of exploring the upper chambers of the Hato caves led by our wonderful, multi-lingual guide.
The tour takes about an hour and ours was offered in English and Dutch. The caves are beautifully preserved and cared for, a cement walking path runs throughout the upper chambers that are accessible to the public. When you walk through the first chamber and take the path to the left, look down and you’ll see a red light – this is the small entrance to the other 3 miles of tunnels and lower layer of the caves. Sadly, due to the lack of oxygen in the lower caves and furthest reaches of the system, you have to be happy with the areas included in the tour. I managed to stray off the beaten path just a little of course, batting eyelashes and asking to scurry up the natural ‘steps’ in an enormous rock that was once the roof of the cave but came crashing down during an earthquake many, many years ago.
The Arawak Amerindians found their way to Curaçao more than 1,500 years ago but left when the land provided little drinkable water for sustaining a population, growing food or farming animals. During the 17th and 18th centuries this little island, conveniently located a stones throw from Venezuela, provided a convenient landing point for the Dutch West India Company and the Royal African Company in their deplorable trade of Jamaican slaves to the United States.
Willemstad Airport sits on the site of an old plantation where, our guide explained, slaves would escape under the cover of darkness and disappear into the Hato caves. Unfortunately there is no food available in the tunnels so the escapees risked capture each night to leave and gather provisions. The escaped slaves called the caves home for months and evidence of their fires is still visible today in the charred ceilings of the entrance chamber. Eventually, the plantation owners discovered their whereabouts and took them back into captivity which must have been a horrible ordeal.
When you finish your tour, pick up a map at the bar and take a self-guided tour of the “Indian Trail” where you can spot little lizards darting across the path, larger iguanas lazing about in the overhanging trees, enormous cacti, and petroglyphs carved by the ancient Arawaks.
Put this on your list of things to Curaçao!
DO: Take the full tour, walk the Indian Trail, and tip your guide
SEE: The Arawak petroglyphs (ignore the vandalism-glyphs on the opposing rocks)
TRY: To imagine what the whole cave system would feel like in prehistoric times when it was under the sea
BUY: There isn’t really anything to buy as the souvenir shop closed a long time ago. I would suggest purchasing a nice, cold bottle of water and putting the rest in your guide’s tip jar