The island of Bonaire is considered one of the best places in the world to dive. But if, like us, you are not a diver, what else is there to do on this Dutch island (Bonaire is a Dutch municipality) less than 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela? Snorkeling of course, but that’s not all.
These are the best things to do on Bonaire
Beaches and snorkeling
If you’re not a diver the next best thing to do on Bonaire is snorkeling. We had very high expectations about the snorkeling around Bonaire as it’s supposed among the best in the world. Maybe our expectations were a little too high because we were a little disappointed by the snorkeling when compared to previous snorkeling experiences elsewhere in the world (i.e. Belize, Red Sea, Thailand, Indonesia). Don’t expect to see much colorful coral for example.
Nevertheless we enjoyed our snorkeling very much and had some very nice sightings, sea turtles (three times) always being a highlight. We went to several of the most recommended snorkeling spots on the island, like 1000 Steps (very choppy waves, mostly coral beach with small patches of sand), Karpata (rough sea, rocky beach), Wayaka 2 (small sandy beach inside Washington Slagbaai NP, relatively calm sea) and Klein Bonaire (see below).
Surprisingly enough we had our best snorkeling at Windsock beach (aka Donkey Beach), one of the biggest (and busiest) stretches of beach on Bonaire, located next to Flamingo International Airport. Other good spots for having some beach time are the beaches of Sorobon (with restaurants and surf schools) and Cai (popular by locals in the weekend but with few facilities) on opposite sides of Lac Bay, a shallow lagoon surrounded by mangrove forest protected from the rough seas by a coral dam, on the east coast of Bonaire. The snorkeling here is very poor though.
Just 15 minutes by water taxi from Bonaire is the uninhabited island of Klein (Little) Bonaire. It’s a surprisingly little visited island where people come to dive, snorkel or sunbathe. It has a beautiful stretch of white sand beach though and gives you a sense of being lost in paradise. Most visitors put down their towels near the spot where the water taxi drops them off, but if you walk a little to the right after arriving you’ll soon find a private spot for a bit of a Robinson Crusoe feeling.
For the best snorkeling it’s advisable to walk in the opposite direction (bring water sandals!) for a while and swim back with the current (that makes it so much easier). As there are no facilities on the island (no sunbeds, no umbrellas and no food or drink) you have to bring your own provisions and plenty of sunblock. If you love beach and snorkeling you can easily spend a day here.
Several operators run a water taxi to Klein Bonaire from varying locations in Kralendijk. There are also snorkeling trips available that take the better part of a day and also take you to spots around Klein Bonaire not reached by water taxi. We were not able to take a tour, however, because the tour we wanted was fully booked a few days in advance.
Washington Slagbaai National Park
Much of Bonaire’s underwater treasures are part of the Bonaire National Marine Park encompassing the entire coast, but the island also has a terrestrial park with wild coastal scenery, flamingos, several types of cacti, iguanas and many species of birds being the star attraction. The 14.000 arid acres of Washington Slagbaai National Park cover the northwest tip of Bonaire and can only be entered by high clearance vehicles, so keep that in mind when renting a car on Bonaire if you want to visit the park.
The entrance fee is US$ 25,-, including US$ 10,- for the snorkeling tag. Don’t forget to bring your snorkeling gear as the tiny beach at Wayaka 2 is considered one of the best snorkeling spots of Bonaire. There are two routes through the park: a long and a short route. We arrived around 12.30 AM at the entrance and were only allowed to drive the short route, as it is slow driving in the park because of the bad roads. One word of warning about the iguanas: They seem cute, but can get aggressive. I was bitten in the hand by one (we’ve got his mugshot right here) trying to take a nice picture. The park ranger told me it was the iguana’s way of ‘greeting’ me…..
For us one of the highlights of our stay on Bonaire was a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary, where over 600 wild donkeys are offered shelter, water, food and medical attention. Most donkeys on the island have a hard life as there is not enough food for them. Nowadays about 300 still roam freely over the island (traffic signs warn you about them crossing the road).
In 1993 Dutchwoman Marina Melis – who still runs the sanctuary – and her husband started the sanctuary which until this day is a non-profit institution. You can drive your car across the 60 acre grounds on a kind of donkey safari. The donkeys will come to the car and poke their heads through the car window, hoping they’ll get something to eat. The US$ 7,- entrance fee goes to the upkeep of the sanctuary and the food of the donkeys. Donations are welcome.
Rent a car
One of the things that make Bonaire so popular among divers is that you can access a multitude of great diving spots by entering the water from the coast: No need to make expensive dive excursions by boat, but just toss your gear in the back of your rental pick-up and go anywhere you like. Renting a car is also the best way to see more of the island as public transportation on Bonaire is almost nonexistent.
In addition to the aforementioned sights a rental car gives you the opportunity to stop at some smaller sights on the island. Driving to the south the salt pans and slave huts are worth a look. Salt has been extracted on Bonaire for several centuries and to this day mountains of salt are visible in the flat landscape. In the old days the salt was harvested by using slaves, who had to perform other kinds of manual labor as well. They slept in tiny slave huts no higher than a man’s waist. On two locations near the southern tip of Bonaire some of these huts have been preserved.
Driving north along the very scenic coastal road from the capital Kralendijk to Washington Slagbaai a small detour takes you along Goto Lake where, if you’re lucky, can get a close look at flamingos. We regretfully were not and only could spot flamingos far away. Driving on you’ll pass the sleepy village of Rincon – the only other real town on Bonaire –, a good spot for a quick lunch and maybe a short walk to get a feel for local Bonaire life.
We visited Bonaire in march 2016
Travel tips Bonaire
Sleep – We stayed 5 nights at Divers Paradise Bonaire. As the name suggests this small complex of 8 self-catering apartments, each with a lot of privacy, is geared to the needs of divers. We booked it because it offered an affordable place to stay (accommodation can be quite expensive on Bonaire). Our first floor apartment was spacious with a separate air-conditioned bedroom, fully equipped kitchen, big living room, a very large balcony with wicker sofas and sea and sunset views (ground floor apartments have a patio). The wifi was pretty good.
All in all we were very happy with our choice. American-Dutch owners John and Asafeh can help with recommendations on where to go on the island, car rental or taxi. The only drawback is that you really do need a car to get anywhere. Divers Paradise is pretty far from the center of Kralendijk, but most people (especially divers) will rent a car anyway, so for most people it will be no issue.
Eat – We mostly ate at budget places or cooked ourselves. We had our best meal at Bobbejan, an unpretentious garden restaurant that’s only open during the weekend and very popular among locals for takeout. We had very tasty and very affordable sate and spareribs. The most scenic spot for a (sunset) drink is Karel’s Beach Bar located on a small pier in central Kralendijk. The location can’t be beat but we found the food disappointing (soggy chicken wraps).
Transport – To get anywhere on the island you really need a car. We rented a pick-up at Budget Bonaire. We only had a car for the first three days of our stay. Budget Bonaire offered us a free ride back from their office at the airport to our hotel at the opposite side of Kralendijk, which was much appreciated.