Shopping on the Dutch Antilles Island of Curaçao

Shopping on the Dutch Antilles island of Curaçao requires a two-pronged attack for those in a serious search of unique souvenirs. Planning that attack is well worth the effort: Not only are there fabulous treasures to be found, but the arts community here will give shoppers a better understanding of the history and culture of this southern Caribbean island.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The Curaçao art community is gaining recognition in North American art centers.
  • A Curaçao souvenir complements your growing collection of Caribbean art.
  • Good for those who appreciate history and local craft.

The Shops and Galleries of Willemstad

The first sure-fire shopping strategy is a full frontal attack on the capital city of Willemstad. It’s important to know that Willemstad is divided in half by the Queen Wilhelmina Bridge. You’ll be shopping in either Otrabanda or Punda.

curacao art

Nena Sanchez’ art is known for its brilliant acrylic. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Many of the best shops featuring more than mass produced trinkets are found along Heerenstraat and Breedestraat on the Punda side. In particular, look for the little alleys leading off of Heerenstraat. These are known historically as the Four Alleys and in them you’ll find independent local artists like Nena Sanchez and Paula Valencia. Nena is renowned for her acrylics and brilliant colors featuring island scenes. Paula creates lightweight, colorful jewelry out of nut shells, bamboo and other natural materials.

In Otrabanda district in Willemstad, the destination is the Renaissance Rif Fort. A former defense for the island, the Rif Fort is now home to lots of shops and restaurants, but one in particular you should check out is MonArt. The gallery represents about 35 artists “whose heart is on the island.”

Caribbean jewelry

Jewelry by Paula Valencia.  Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Working with art aficionados in the United States, owner Daisy Casmiri has helped coordinate art shows in Chicago and beyond, contributing to a growing international interest in the work created in the Dutch Antilles.
Recent changes in the European economy have made shopping for many traditional Dutch gifts more difficult. That beautiful Delft blue china is still on most store shelves but good quality is much more expensive than it used to be. However, linen and lace can still be found in abundance and at good prices.

And of course, you can’t leave the island without a bottle of the beautiful liqueur named for its homeland. Blue and yellow bottles of Curaçao are sold everywhere.

Hitting the Road for Souvenirs

The second shopping offensive will require a private automobile or taxi to explore Curaçao’s countryside. And you also need to learn the word “landhuis.” A landhuis is a historic plantation home, some dating back 250 years or so.

Curacao art

Chi chi dolls are unique to Curaçao and a celebrated part of the culture. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Located northeast of Willemstad, Brievengat is one of those historic landhuis that has been transformed into an art gallery. The first floor gallery is filled with work from both professionally trained artists and amateur crafts people expressing their passion in a number of media. Brilliant colors of the island can be found in oil and acrylic, as well as pottery and basketry. Savvy travelers and locals spend the last Sunday of each month at Brievengat for music and dance performed by local folk artists.

The gallery Alma Blou, located in the historic Jewish quarter of Willemstad, was once known as Landhuis Habaai, a former plantation home that dates to the 1750s. The spacious verandahs and airy rooms provide an ideal exhibition space for about 30 artists. In addition to ceramics, photography and jewelry, Alma Blou is a good destination for collectors of African-inspired Carnival masks.

The Ritz Gallery is yet another landhuis-turned-art gallery that opened in 2004 in the Sharloo area of Willemstad. Owner Hans Robben shops the world for statues sculpted from granite, marble and black lava stone, then exhibits and sells them from this intimate gallery. Buddha is a common theme in this collection, along with tranquility and harmony.

As you shopped in Willemstad, you hopefully found the gallery of Nena Sanchez, one of Curaçao’s most well-known artists. She lives and works in the Landhuis Jan Kok in the rural community of St. Willibrordus.

chi chi dolls

Lots of fat, playful chichi dolls in Serena Israel’s gallery. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

More than 30 years ago, Nena studied home décor in Venezuela before moving to Mexico to develop her growing passion for art and acrylic work. The native cottages with thatched roofs and shuttered windows that are typical of the rural areas of Curaçao are her preferred subjects.

As you visited other shops, you most likely saw the charming ChiChi dolls. Serena Israel is the creative spirit behind the buxom female figures fired in black ceramic. She works with otherwise unskilled women through a local charity who paint the figurines in whatever manner suits their fancy.

ChiChi, which references a wiser, older sister in the native Papiamento, has become exceedingly popular with locals and visitors. The dolls are available in several places around the island, but a larger gallery is at Serena’s home on a dusty road near the central island village of Santa Catharina.

Practicalities

  • If a cruise ship or two are in port, shops will open as early as 8 a.m. and stay open until 6 p.m. or until the last ship leaves.
  • Most shops in downtown Willemstad close on Sundays, unless a cruise ship is in port.
  • All of the galleries mentioned welcome inquiries about their artists and will ship purchases to anywhere in the world.
  • Driving on the island is Curaçao is quite easy, but sometimes signs in the rural areas are not abundant. Make sure you have a good map.

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