The park was once a divi-divi, aloe, charcoal, and goat plantation. It was sold to the government at the end of the 1960s by the last surviving member of the Herrera family, Boy Herrera, on the condition that the land remain in its natural state.
This area became the first preserve in the Netherlands Antilles. The name Washington goes back to the 1920s, when the Herrera family first purchased the property and named it "America." They later changed it to Washington.
The park opens daily (except holidays) at 8 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m.; however, no one is admitted after 3:30 p.m. The reason visitors are not allowed in after 3:30 p.m. is the length of the two self-guided routes: the short route is 15 miles, the long route is 22 miles. The roads are rough and though most tourists ignore the warning, some rental car companies state on their contracts that damage done on park roads is not covered by insurance. The best time for birdwatching is early in the morning.
It is possible to explore both routes in one day. Start early, bring plenty of water and snacks, and wear a bathing suit so you can cool off occasionally at one of the beaches. Bring snorkeling equipment, too. As they say here, "Those who have not looked under the surface of the sea have seen only half of the island!"
Because of their length and the heat, a difficulty level of moderate to strenuous is assigned to both excursions. Make sure you have a spare tire, a jack, and plenty of fuel, or you may end up walking anyway.
The numbers below are coded to points on the map. . .
1 Just about every type of plant common to Bonaire is found at this point, especially the large Kadushi cactus (Cereus repandus), which grows in jointed segments and whose thorns point in all directions. Kadushi may grow more than thirty feet and look almost tree-like.
The straight-standing and roseate-bristled Yatu cactus (Lemaireocereus) is the species used to construct most of the fences and other enclosures on Bonaire. Stick a cut-off piece of Yatu into the ground and it starts growing again; these living fences hardly ever need to be replaced and they certainly never need painting.
You'll also find prickly pear (Opuntia wentiana), mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), divi-divis, and the long-spined acacia. Note how many of the plants on Bonaire are protected from goats. The mesquite is an important source of charcoal and an increasingly-favored wood for grilling food.
2 Salina Matijs is sometimes flooded long enough during the rainy season to attract waterfowl, and sandpipers and black-winged stilts are the most common birds when this area is wet. Divi-divi trees are also common here.
3 So many prickly pear grow at the beginning of the yellow route that even goats take the road. This stop is designed to illustrate the dramatic difference between the vegetation on the top of the hill ahead, which is exposed to salty trade winds. Vegetation exposed to constant winds, whether in the high mountains or along the shore, never grows as tall.
4 Playa Chiquitu (meaning "Small Beach") may look appealing but it is too treacherous for swimming because of the strong undertow. As park officials like to point out, you are in the park at your own risk and if you decide to ignore the warnings, that's your problem. Liability insurance isn't well understood on Bonaire (lucky Bonaireans!). Of interest at Playa Chiquitu are the formation of sand dunes, made possible by the presence of creeping crab-grass (Sporobolus virginicus) whose extensive root system permits the sand to accumulate.
5 Boca Chiquitu contains sharp-pointed limestone rocks that host lots of land snails (Bonaire has ten species). A huge boulder broken off the wall contains fossil corals and is home to plenty of scuttling crabs. The seaweed floating in the bay much of the time is Sargassum, found all along the windward coast.
6 Ceru Grandi is a rock outcropping which is a relic of the so-called higher and middle terraces, formed during past Ice Ages. The road itself is located on the lower terrace. The higher terrace is the oldest, formed about one million years ago, when the sea level was about 180 feet above today's level. The middle terrace is between 340,000 to 510,000 years old, limestone deposited during a period of rising sea level when the polar ice caps supposedly melted.
7 The road to Cara Corra ("Red Face" in the local language Papiamento) at Ceru Grandi is a bleak one, with only a few button mangroves surviving the constant wind and salt spray. Cara Ceru is a boulder at the base of Ceru Grandi, whose holes and clefts are said to resemble an Indian face. To the left of the rock you can climb Ceru Grandi, though you'll need to scramble on all fours near the top. The top of the middle terrace has a few caves which were once mined for phosphate.
8 Boca Cocolishi has many fossil shells on the top of its terrace. This bay is famous for its flat bench rising above the surfline. The bench consists of calcareous algae and worm shells which cover the limestone and make it resistant to the wave action. Erosion is actually less at such a protected spot. The bench creates a quiet pool partly surrounded by sand which is about three feet deep and calm, no matter how turbulent the waves.
9 Pos Mangel, or "Sweet Well," is one of the few places in the park where freshwater is always available. As such, it is one of the best places on the island for birdwatching; creep up slowly in order not to scare them away. The bird species found here include the yellow-winged parakeet, the yellow warbler, ground dove, common bananaquits, and tropical mockingbirds. Other parakeets may be present, but they have a tough time surviving the droughts on Bonaire, which occur every five or six years. Besides facing starvation and drought the birds have to feed in the village fruit gardens, where the parakeets are often caught and caged for show.
10 Boca Bartol is another prime birdwatching spot. Yellow-crowned night herons are almost always present halfway up the terrace or near the water. Snowy egrets, brown pelicans, and cormorants are frequent visitors.
If you're up for what is considered some of Bonaire's finest snorkeling, stop at Playa Benge. The groove and spur coral formations are a little over 20 feet deep, and lots of fish are always present. Continuing, the hill on the right is known as Shishiribana and is 300 feet high. The yellow route now joins the green route at Playa Funchi.
11 Entering the park on the green route, the first stop is a rooi running parallel to the road for several hundred feet before crossing it. During rainy periods, roois contain running water, something hard to imagine during the dry season.
12 Ceru Kepton provides an excellent view of the west coast. Straight ahead is the hill, Shishiribana, and to the left is the tallest hill on all Bonaire, Brandaris, at 800 feet high.
13 Subi Brandaris is a by-road that ends at a parking lot where you can begin the one and one-half hour climb (Difficulty: 3) to the top of Brandaris, Bonaire's highest point. The hike starts with a footpath which soon gives way to a ridge. The ridge route is marked with yellow circles painted on the boulders. From the top you'll have an excellent view of the entire island, perhaps as far south as the salt pans. Mountains in Venezuela or Mount Christoffel, Curaçao's highest peak, may also be visible.
Close the fence gate that separates Slagbaai from Washington; Washington is loaded with marauding goats, while Slagbaai isn't; and everyone wants to keep it that way. Don't be responsible for devastating part of the island's fragile ecology.
14 Put Bronswinkel is another freshwater well that is superb for birdwatching. Move quietly. The trees may appear to be filled with many nests, but these are actually epiphytes (air plants). This is the place to see some of the island's rarest birds, but to do so you must sit quietly for a long period of time. If you're feeling too restless, pass up this spot out of consideration of the serious birders who will go from ecstatic to murderous if you noisily blunder into their sanctuary.
15 Playa Funchi is home to a subspecies of lizard found only on Bonaire, the harmless Cnemidophorus murinus ruthveni. They are quite tame at this spot, well acquainted with bread crumbs, and will eat out of your hand if you're quiet enough. Females and juveniles are brown, while the brightly colored male has a blue head and greenish-blue hind feet and tail-root.
Playa Funchi was the harbor for Washington plantation, as the pier remnants show. Today it is a very popular place for snorkeling, swimming, and sunbathing. There is no current inside the bay, making this a safe place to swim.
16 Road to Brasia: Near Brasia, the road crosses into Slagbaai with a goat grid over the road to keep the pests from following. The road goes along the coast. Early and late, it's possible to spot iguanas sunbathing near the cliff edge, where they can escape quickly by diving into the sea. Brasia is named for the dyewood or Brasil wood (Haematoxylon brasiletto) which yields a red dye when rasped. The oldest known map of the Caribbean, from 1513, designates Bonaire as the "island of the Brasil tree." These grooved trees were once an important export.
17 Pos Nobo, or "New Well," has a drinking fountain for humans, and two shelving sides so there will always be water for the birds. It's possible to climb Brandaris from here, though the route is not marked.
18 Boca Slagbaai is one of the finest snorkeling and swimming beaches on the island. Dive boats come all the way here from the Kralendijk area, as much as 45 minutes away. Historically an important harbor, it got its name from the Dutch word "Slagten," meaning slaughter. This is where the cattle on the northern part of the island were processed and turned into steaks for export. Salt was also exported from here for a time. Besides being one of the finest swimming spots, this is another excellent birdwatching site: snowy egrets and flamingoes are almost always in the salina here.
19 Salt pans with straight narrow dams are leftovers from the plantation days. In the dry season (February to September) you'll normally find a white crust.
20 Fasciations are an unusual cactus: all their points may grow at random instead of in a distinctive pattern.
21 Ceru Sumpina: Beyond the Fasciations, the two routes divide again. Here the yellow section is known as the "panorama road" because of its excellent overviews of other parts of the island.
Ceru Sumpina, or Thorny Hill, offers good views of Slagbaai and Brandaris. You'll note that vegetation here is more dense than in Washington, due to the climbing plants, particularly milkweed.
22 Ceru Chubatu: After a steep descent, the road climbs to Ceru Chubatu, or Billy Goat Hill, another area noted for its climbing plants. The inkberry (Randia aculeata) is the dominant species.
23 Ceru Corra is a red rock called Jasper, made of quartz, though the red color suggests a high iron content. This is a typical ceru, a place where a rock formation is more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock, so that it rises high above its surroundings.
24 Salina: This salina offers good flamingo viewing most of the time. However, don't approach too closely or they will walk away. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens. The yellow route continues north through overgrown aloe fields and thorny woodland, joining the green route at #26.
25 Flamingo Island: This section of the green route leads to what is called Flamingo Island, a peninsula in salina Slagbaai where you may see flamingoes at the closest point yet. The square island in the middle of the salina always contains a few birds, some of which breed there. Slagbaai is an important feeding area for the flamingoes, who skim the water for brine shrimp or graze (dive) to a depth of about three feet for their forage.
26 Lignum Vitae are evergreen trees with a dark green top and smooth, white-spotted trunk. Because of their high resin content, lignum vitae are highly prized in shipbuilding, particularly for creating a water-tight seal around propeller shafts.
27 Juwa-pass on the left shows interesting examples of intrusions created when liquid rock (magma) fills in the spaces (fissures, holes, etc.) of older formations, then congeals. These hexagonal basaltic columns were formed on the bottom of the ocean, an estimated 70 to 100 million years ago. This is also an excellent overview area.
28 Parakeet Watch: After descending through the pass and climbing over undulating terrain, the road leads to an excellent parakeet watching tree called the Broadleaf Caper (Capparis hastata). Parakeets often build their nests inside these trees, which typically contain deep cavities.
29 Agave Cactus: After crossing another goat grid that leads back into Washington, the final stop is at an agave field, where yellow flowers begin blooming in April and attract many bananaquits and hummingbirds. In days past, the Agave vivipara was sliced, roasted and eaten like a biscuit. Locally it is known as "kuki'indjan," or Indian biscuit.
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