Imagine your favorite Caribbean island. Is it filled with green rainforests and lush mountains? That’s a pretty common postcard from this part of the world. But I want to let you in on a little secret. Not all Caribbean islands are created equal.
Have you ever been to Bonaire?
If not, no worries…
Check out this guide on things to do in Bonaire!
The island, a part of the Dutch Caribbean, only receives around 150,000 visitors a year – paltry when compared to some of her more developed neighbors with huge resorts and big cruise ports. Bonaire is best known for spectacular scuba diving and an unparalleled commitment to marine conservation, resulting in thriving coral, hundreds of species of fish and more turtles than you can count.
Up on dry land, you might be surprised to find sharp limestone topography dotted with acacia and kadushi cactus up to 30 feet tall across a mostly arid, scrubby landscape. There are gorgeous beaches, too – it is the Caribbean after all. But by and large, Bonaire stands out visually from some of its greener, more traditionally tropical neighbors.
Where is Bonaire?
Bonaire is off the coast of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean next to popular neighbors Aruba and Curaçao, part of a handful of island nations that once comprised the Netherlands Antilles. They reorganized in 2010 into a colonial-yet-independent system. Saba, Sint Eustatius and Bonaire are special municipalities within the Dutch Kingdom and Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten are constituent countries. Good news for all – whether you comprehend the complexities of the Dutch Caribbean government structure doesn’t matter too much if you’re just visiting. It’s like going to any new country. You book a flight, pack your bags, go through immigration and get that coveted flamingo passport stamp!
Things to Know Before You Go to Bonaire
Conservation is key
Bonaire and Curaçao are considered true oceanic islands because of the deep water trench separating them from the South American continent. Healthy, thriving reefs fringe the coast and are protected by Bonaire National Marine Park. There are more than 300 species of fish and almost every species of hard and soft coral you can find in the Caribbean in these waters. The island cares for it’s land-dwelling critters too, sheltering iguanas, donkeys and flamingos inside Washington Slagbaai National Park, which covers 20 percent of the island. One hundred percent of the waters surrounding the island are protected, and 1/5 of the land is. Anyone exploring the marine park is required to pay a fee; $25 for divers and $10 for all other users.
Don’t forget to pack reef-safe sunscreen!
Learn a bit of Papiamentu
Papiamentu is a Creole language that’s only found on Bonaire, Aruba and Curaçao. It’s a bit of a mix of Romance languages with East African languages. While Dutch is the official language for government, Papiamentu is the most widely spoken. Aside from Papiamentu, the common, colloquial tongue, there are three other languages spoken on the island. Dutch is the official one used in government interactions, and English and Spanish are widely used as well.
Some common phrases to get you started:
- Welcome – Bon bini
- Hello – Bon dia
- Good Afternoon – Bon tardi
- Please – Porfabor
- Thank you – Danki
- Cheers – Bon Salud
- Help! – Yudami!
How to Get to Bonaire
The main airport for Bonaire is Flamingo International Airport. It’s pink and fabulous and probably one of my favorite airports in the world as such. There are direct flights to Bonaire from the USA (Newark, Houston, Atlanta, Miami), from Canada (Toronto) and from Europe (Amsterdam). Many travelers connect in Aruba as well because they have more direct flights from South America and North America. You can also cruise your way into Bonaire, as Kralendijk has become an increasingly popular port in recent years.
Things to Do in Bonaire
The feather in Bonaire’s cap is definitely scuba diving, and most resorts cater to divers. You can book dive packages and excursions right out of most hotels and you don’t even need to think about gear if you don’t want to. Bonaire has everything a scuba diver could want.
And if you’re not a diver? There’s plenty of things to do in Bonaire! Take a look at some of my favorite things to do under water and on dry land.
Scuba Diving at Salt Pier
Thanks to the Bonaire National Marine Park, a protected zone surrounding the entire island, 300 species of tropical fish and 120 different types of coral flourish, making Bonaire one of the top diving destinations anywhere. Seriously, Bonaire diving is right up there with the Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea.
There are hundreds of dive sites and dozens are accessible right from shore. If you are comfortable diving without a guide (or at least a savvy diving best friend), Bonaire reigns supreme for self-service diving. If you’d rather go with a guide, dive operators are plentiful and many of the local resorts cater specifically to divers.
My favorite dive of seven gorgeous dives was at Salt Pier. Huge schools of fish and coral-crusted pilons were mesmerizing, and to be honest, I’m usually bored after about 20 minutes unless there are sharks or rays or other big sea life. This dive was cinematic and dreamlike, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Put it at the top of your Bonaire dive site list!
Note: I only took a GoPro with me on this dive, and Salt Pier was perfectly suited for that photo setup.
Read more about scuba diving with a GoPro
Go Cave Snorkeling
You have to meet Leo the adventure guide from Flow Bonaire! Leo knows so much about the island’s ecology and history, and offers activities like cave tours, biking, hiking, kayaking and kitesurfing. We did the cave snorkeling adventure – and if you’re not claustrophobic or scared of the dark, I recommend it! With waterproof flashlights in hand, we made our way into ever smaller cave rooms until we were plunged into complete darkness. Once there, you can actually snorkel in the clear, cold water. Definitely a unique thing to do in Bonaire!
Take a Twizy car tour
The best way to see the whole island? Hop in a lil Twizy car and floor it!
Never heard of Twizy? I hadn’t either until I jumped in. They’re itty bitty, electric and surprisingly speedy. You’ll start slowly at Road Runner’s headquarters in the capital of Kralendijk, but take care once you’re out of the city limits. You can zip around the sparsely populated, kadushy cactus-covered desert and parts of Washington Slagbaai National Park. Don’t forget to stop in Rincon for colorful pictures and keep an eye out for flamingoes!
Book a Sightseeing Tour and See All of Bonaire
Bonaire is a small island, so it’s possible to catch lots of the highlights in just a few hours. A sightseeing tour is especially convenient for those coming to Kralendijk via cruise ship. Check out this private, 4-hour experience that’ll take you to all major sightseeing attractions, or this shorter 3.5 hour group experience featuring historic buildings such as the Government House and the Old Fort, Rincon, 1000 Steps and Goto Lake.
Enjoy Bonaire’s love of Flamingos
Speaking of flamingos (or flamingoes – both spellings are correct)! There are so many ways to get your fix on Bonaire. Obviously you’ll get to explore hot pink Flamingo Airport on the way in, but don’t forget to check out Divi Flamingo Beach Resort and of course, all the license plates on the island!
To see real flamingos in their natural habitats, check out Gotomeer saltwater lagoon in Washington Slagbaai National Park, near the mangroves of shallow Lac Bay or Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary in the near saltpans Pink Beach. You can rent a car, book a Twizy excursion or a guided tour to get yourself there.
Do some yoga at Sorobon Beach Resort
When you need a break from flamingoes, diving and Twizy car racing through the national park, there’s no better place to find “zen” than Sorobon Beach Resort. As much fun as scuba diving is, it really is taxing on the body, so a beach yoga class at Sorobon is a great way to take care of yourself on a non-diving day. When you’re done, you can pop next door to Jibe City next door for a beach bar and windsurfing lessons.
Dine with Views at At Sea Restaurant Bonaire
Diving always makes me hungrier than anything, so it’s a good thing Bonaire has an excellent cuisine scene. For dinner, we loved At Sea, a charming seafront restaurant in a 100-year-old building. It has lovely views and an international menu with Caribbean flair.
If you’re looking for something a little more low-key, grab the freshest fish ever at Kite City food truck on Te Amo Beach. We sampled an epic selection of tuna, wahoo and mahi while vegging in beanbags on the beach. Paradise found!
The colorful town of Rincon is one of Bonaire’s most Instagrammable above-water spots, and home to the Cadushy Distillery. Cadushy is a bright green liqueur made from the plentiful kadushy cactus, known as the Spirit of Bonaire. The liqueur is tart, refreshing and neon green. Just about every drinking establishment on Bonaire offers their own Cadushy-based cocktail, but if you get the chance, it’s a worth a visit to the distillery to buy your own bottle to take home and share with friends.
Learn More About Bonaire’s Salty History
Bonaire is salty, and you can thank the Dutch for that. The Spanish showed up in 1499, but poor soil quality and seemingly useless shallow pools near the south shore convinced them to leave. More than 100 years later, the Dutch seized the island from the Spanish and began to produce salt in the shore pools. As salt water sits in the ponds, the sun and wind evaporate the water, leaving behind crystallized sea salt, a much needed preservative in the time before refrigeration. Like sugar cane in St. Kitts, salt became the main export from Bonaire. Slaves were brought from Africa to work in the salt pans; at night, they slept in stone huts that you can visit today. Slavery was abolished in 1863, but the salt pans are still used to this day. You can see the slave huts on a guided tour or just cruising around on the south shore.
Have a Shark-Themed Bachelorette Party!
Okay, maybe just me! But this is still one of my favorite memories, and I’m so happy I got celebrate with my girls on Bonaire.
Where to Stay in Bonaire
While Bonaire does not have many huge branded resorts, there are plenty of options whether you like dive resorts, boutique hotels or private villas. Many come with Caribbean views, dive-focused amenities and restaurants. The majority of Bonaire’s accommodations are clustered in the capital and port of Kralendijk, but there are others scattered here and there should you want to escape the main drag.
Enjoy more than just yoga at Sorobon. Located on the south end of Bonaire, you can also enjoy its private beach, windsurfing, snorkeling, and more. Check prices & availability here
Head to Divi Flamingo Beach Resort for the brightly decorated rooms and dive center that offers PADI courses. Check prices & availability here
Another great place for diving is at Buddy Dive Resort. Only a 5-minute drive from Kralendijk, it also features two pools, two raised sand beaches and more. Check prices & availability here
To really indulge in luxury, book one of the oceanfront suites at Harbour Village Beach Club. Check prices & availability here
For more hotel and accommodation options on Bonaire, check here
Now that you’ve learned all about Bonaire’s pink flamingo obsession, scuba diving sites, salty history, kadushy and cadushi, you’re ready to pack your dive gear and book a trip to Bonaire. Have you been to Bonaire or is it on your Caribbean bucket list?
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