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Slave huts on the beach in Bonaire. Click on photo to enlarge.
Slave huts in Bonaire.

Bonaire, Dutch West Indies: Well Worth Its Salt

There is something gritty about the isle of Bonaire. I feel it the minute I set foot on the ground.  I also taste it.  It may be the dry, scrubby terrain. Or maybe it is the thick, salty air. Perhaps, it is a little bit of both. 

Each year, tourists flock to Bonaire, fifty miles north of Venezuela, with snorkels and flippers in tow.  Part of the Netherlands Antilles, it boasts one of the most environmentally renowned Marine Parks in the world, claiming over 300 species of tropical fish and over 120 different types of coral.  

As a certified scuba diver, I am downright giddy at the prospect of swimming among schools of yellow-striped goatfish, peacock flounder and blue-headed wrasse.

But it is what lies above the water that captures my attention. At the southern most tip of the island, I notice a range of cone-shaped mountains, the color of snow. They dot the barren landscape like pyramids in an Egyptian desert. 

Suddenly, I’m obsessed. I want to know more about these mysterious white hills.  I ask my fellow divers but no one seems to know much or to care for that matter.

One shrugs. “They are probably just big sand dunes.”

My luck turns when I meet an expatriate, a retired American engineer, walking along Winsock beach. Sporting baggy swim trunks, a three-month-old tan and dive mask strapped to his head, he gives me the lowdown.

Salt mine in Bonaire, Dutch West Indies. Photo courtesy of Cargill Corp. Click on photo to enlarge.
Salt mine in Bonaire, Dutch West Indies. photo courtesy of Cargill Corp.

“Those are mounds of sea salt” he says. “It’s Bonaire’s oldest industry, a lot older than the diving industry.”

The expat explains how the island’s dry arid weather and steady trade winds make it an ideal location for solar salt production. The topography also plays a key role.

The flat shoreline allows the sea to fill shallow pools, known as salinas. As the salt water sits, the sun and wind evaporate the water, leaving the salt behind to crystallize.

When Spanish explorers claimed the island in 1499, they overlooked the salt pans. In fact, they dubbed Bonaire an agricultural wasteland due to its poor soil quality.

So they moved the native Arawak Indians to the island of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, to work in copper mines and turned Bonaire into a cattle ranch.

A sailboat off the coast of Bonaire - photo by Toccoa Switzer
A sailboat off the coast of Bonaire - photo by Toccoa Switzer

The tide changed in 1634, the year the Netherlands seized Bonaire from Spain. The Dutch saw immediate potential in the salinas and wasted no time in setting up shop.

Like sugar, salt ranked as one of the world’s most precious commodities, its uses ranging from tanning animal hides to preserving meats and fish.   

But harvesting sea salt proved to be a long and tedious process. Lacking enough manpower, the Dutch imported African slaves, many from the Congo and Angola, to toil the salt pans.

The slaves spent their days wading through the slushy brine, sifting salt crystals by hand. Their only tools were simple wooden rakes. At night, they slept in stone huts at the edge of the salt pans.  

Today, the people of Bonaire have restored a dozen of these structures, a solemn reminder of the island’s dark days of slavery. 

Seabird in Bonaire - photo by Suzi Swygert
Seabird in Bonaire.

Four 30-foot-high stone obelisks have also been restored. The Dutch used these tapered pillars to guide cargo ships to specific loading areas. Each obelisk was painted a different color. Red, white and blue represented the colors of the Dutch flag while the fourth one, a bright orange, signified the Royal House of Orange.

The obelisks were spread out among the salt pans. The workers signaled a ship’s captain where to drop anchor simply by raising a flag to match the color of the corresponding obelisk. 

“The obelisks still get plenty of use,” adds the expat.

“By cargo ships?” I ask.

“No.” He smiles. “They make great markers for us divers and of course the flamingoes.”

“Flamingoes?”

“They feed and nest in the salt pans.”

It turns out Bonaire is one of the few breeding grounds in the world for flamingoes. More than 10,000 flamingoes call the island home, many of them taking up residence in Pekelmeer, a 135-acre sanctuary created by Cargill Incorporated, the current owner and operator of the solar salt facility.  

Flamingoes in Bonaire - photo by Suzy Swygert
Flamingoes in Bonaire. Photo by Bonaire Tourism Corporation - Suzi Swygert

I also learn that flamingos aren’t really pink but grayish-white. The birds change color from feeding in the salt pans. As you drive south on the island past the dive sites you can see a series of ponds, some brown, some green, others coral red depending on their levels of algae and bacteria. The rosier colors reflect higher levels of saline.

Shellfish, which live at the bottom of the ponds, eat the salt-loving bacteria that produce the same red cartonoid pigment found in tomatoes and red peppers. Flamingoes, in turn, eat the shellfish, resulting in their signature pink shade. 

“So where can I buy sea salt?” I ask the expat.  I visualize canisters of gourmet sea salt, the perfect gift item for my family and friends.

 “Why?”

Bonaire Salt Mine - photo courtesy of Cargill Corporation
Salt mine in Bonaire. Photo: Cargill

“For sprinkling on food.” 

He shakes his head. “Bonaire’s sea salt is great for sprinkling but only on icy roads. Most of the island’s sea salt is shipped away for industrial use. You won’t find any culinary stuff here.”

Later that afternoon, I walk to the town market and spot a street vendor with a display of condiments and spices, including plastic containers of sea salt

I snatch up a bottle of the grainy white crystals and clutch it close to my chest. “I’ll take eight,” I tell the vendor. I feel triumphant – also a bit smug. 

It is not until I’m back in my room that I turn my own shade of pink. While packing the sea salt, I notice one of the labels. It reads: “From South Africa.”

A plane lands at the airport on Bonaire - photo by Toccoa Switzer
A plane lands at the airport on Bonaire



Travel Details –
Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

Flights:

Continental Airlines offers one direct flight per week from Houston to Bonaire. The Houston departure leaves on Friday nights around midnight and arrives in Bonaire early Saturday morning. The same aircraft departs Bonaire that same morning with a late morning arrival in Houston. The flight time is 4 hrs and 34 minutes. Find flights to Bonaire

American Airlines offers daily non-stop service between Miami and neighboring island, Curacao. The flight time is 2 hrs and 50 minutes. Three local carriers offer convenient connections to Bonaire. The flight time between Curacao and Bonaire is only 20 minutes. Divi Divi Air offers flights every hour.

When to Go:

High season is mid-December through mid-April. However, there really isn’t a bad time to visit Bonaire. The average air temperature is 81.5 degrees while the average water temperature is 80 degrees. It receives less than 22 inches of rainfall per year and is blessed by mild trade winds that keep it balmy and pleasant year round. 

Destination Highlights:

Bonaire National Marine Park

The Marine Park includes the sea around Bonaire from the high water mark to the depth of 60 meters (200 ft). The admission fee is $25 for SCUBA divers and $10 for non-SCUBA divers. The fee also includes admission to the Washington Slagbaai National Park.

Washington Slagbaai National Park

Located on the northwest part of the island, this sanctuary serves as a nesting ground for all four species of sea turtles found in the Caribbean. It is also a habitat for parrots, flamingos, parakeets and iguanas. The park includes a museum and hiking paths. One trail leads to Mount Brandaris, the highest peak of the island at 784 ft.

Donkey Sanctuary

The Dutch originally brought donkeys to Bonaire to help work the salt pans. Today, the Donkey Sanctuary is home to over 300 rescued donkeys. Be sure to bring some bread or fruit to hand-feed the donkeys. There is no entrance fee but a donation would be appreciated. Another option is the drive-through Donkey Paradise Safari Park which opened in March of 2006. The cost is $6.00 per person. Operating hours are from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

 
The Author.



Toccoa Switzer lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she has worked in a number of capacities including banker, tree farmer and freelance writer.

 

Snorkeling the crystal clear waters of Bonaire - photo by Suzi Swygert
Snorkeling the crystal clear waters of Bonaire. photo by Toccoa Switzer.






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