Island Parks

Curaçao's Christoffel Park

Savonet Plantation, one of Curaçao's largest, was established sometime before 1662. Dairy products, wool, and cattle provided what one planter called a "moderate and relatively decent living" in this fairly harsh land. Droughts, however, could kill as much as 50 percent of the livestock within a year or two. The year 1877 proved an unusually brutal one, first because of drought and then because of a wayward hurricane which killed off the sheep population so that it never recovered. By the end of the century, Savonet was known for its mule breeding.

Because of the lack of water, farming was limited strictly to drought-resistant plants such as millet, peanuts and beans. These foodstuffs were given short shrift on space, only about 10 percent of the plantation.

Savonet banked its agricultural future on importing Agave sisalana (sisal) used in the manufacture of rope. Coincidentally, all of the island's 25,000 coconut trees died that same year from large-scale insect attack, and since coconuts also yield fiber for rope-making, it looked like the agave plantations held excellent prospects. Like everything else, however, it was also doomed, because of the low profit. These agave plants, which are scattered throughout the park, are very difficult to differentiate from their more famous cousin, the century plant.

One of the most elaborate cultivation projects involved insects rather than plants. Cochineal, a crimson dye, brought a much better price than indigo, but came only from the female cochineal, a scale insect (Dactylopius coccus). In turn, this bug thrived only on the juices of the thornless nopal cactus (Nopalea cochenillifera).

A nopal cactus nursery was begun at Savonet in 1838 but did not do well until 1848. This limited success was never repeated. As soon as the fences protecting the cactus fell into disrepair, the cattle devoured the spineless succulents, completely wiping it out. Today, this cactus survives only in the island zoo and in private gardens.

Map of Christoffel Park

Savonet Route

Blazed in a very obvious shade of blue, this route begins on the left just inside the park, starting at the Savonet country house. It is suggested that you walk or drive this route before walking any of the others, in order to become familiar with the park plant life. The route goes along the north coast and offers a look at caves with Indian drawings.

The medium-sized country house of Savonet, rebuilt after a surprise attack by the British in 1806, is considered typical 18th-century architecture. It is oriented east-west, surrounded by a parapet, and has no interior corridors.

The parking lot is shaded by the dreaded manchineel tree, whose sap is caustic. It is readily identified by its deadly, small green apple, known as the "apple of death." If you follow the path to the old orchard, you will also find mahogany trees, easily distinguished from the manchineel since its trunk is rugged, rather than smooth, and the fruits shaped more like pears than apples.

Continuing, you will pass mesquite (Prosopis juiliflora) and divi-divi trees, whose pods were in great demand for their high tannin content (60 percent). Savonet exported 40 tons of pods annually in the late 1800s, by far the most important export crop for Curaçao, until chrome alum replaced tannin as a tanning agent near the turn of the century.

Large fields of prickly pear have been flourishing since the mid-1950s. Prickly pears were able to establish themselves quickly because the discs readily snap off, to be transported by animals or humans. The discs then fall to ground and take root. It's possible to use prickly pears for animal forage, but you have to eliminate the thorns.

Lignum vitae, which often has black tears of resin on its spotted trunk, was an important wood for shipbuilding. Because of the high resin content, the wood formed a water-tight seal around propeller shafts. An evergreen, its blue blossoms produce a heart-shaped orange fruit.

As the road turns right, you'll pass dyewood trees which, for a time, were an important export crop for Savonet. Rasping the wood produces a red color suitable for dyeing cloth. The trees are easy to distinguish because their trunks are unusually grooved.

At the crossroads, go straight. From here it is one-way traffic as the road steeply descends into a "rooi."

In the rooi and along the sides of the road near it is a plant with clearly visible hairs on its broad leaves and branches, which should not be touched. The shrub is called locally "bringamosa" ("fighting young lady") and the Latin name is Cnidoscolus urens (translates as "burning"). The stinging hairs have a substance which causes itching and scratching and, for very allergic people, a high fever. Also growing in the same area is a natural antidote for those unlucky enough to touch the fighting young lady, called Flaira (Jatrophya gossypifolia). It looks just like the fighting young lady but lacks the stinging hairs and has red flowers. If you rub juices of this plant on you, the itching usually fades.

As you emerge onto a plateau, you will see a sign that indicates a good view of the north coast. If you get out to walk here, beware the ground cactus. It's amazing the kinds of shoes those thorns are able to pierce. Boka Grandi is a rough, wave-swept beach on one side of the viewpoint; Savonet house and Christoffel Hill are on the other.

Look carefully among the melocaccti if they are in bloom. Whiptail lizards love dining on the pink flowers and fruits, as do several species of hummingbirds, including the Ruby-Topaz (Chrysolampis mosquitus) and Blue-tailed Emerald (Chlorostilbon mellisugus) hummingbirds.

The road makes a steep descent onto a salt flat (or salina). Many salt-resistant trees grow on the sand barrier separating the salina from the sea. In the shallow, calm waters here you may see herons and American oyster catchers.

Look carefully at the limestone soil and you'll probably see ribbed, milky-white snail shells that look like old-fashioned wicker beehives. These land snails, which need lime to build their shells, are endemic to these Dutch islands. The fact that no South American snail species are present gives added credence to the theory that the ABCs were never connected to South America.

Besides the divis, another tree that might attract your attention is the "mata piska" or fish killer (Jacquinia barbasco), which exudes a penetrating, sweet smell when in bloom. Resembling the lignum vitae but with a much rougher trunk, the white flowers become orange-red fruits. The fish-killer tree gains its name this way: if you throw berries, leaves, or bruised branches into still (non-flowing) water, you'll soon have fish floating on the surface. Fish have been caught this way for centuries by South American Indians. The toxin is not harmful to humans.

The road ends at a parking lot a short distance from Indian cave drawings. On the walk, you'll pass a sheer rock face that houses a fair number of wasp nests. These wasps (Polistes versicolor) are not aggressive.

The reddish-colored Indian drawings, looking almost as if they had been done in crayon, are fenced to protect them from being defaced. Similar drawings have been found on the South American continent, and from the pottery shards here, it appears the makers originated in Venezuela. The Indians did not live in the caves but in oval houses made of wood and intertwined branches. Figures drawn in the caves, estimated between 500 and 2,000 years old, are considered abstract figures that probably had some religious significance. The figures are drawn in white and black as well as terra cotta.

The most interesting cave is the second one, but the bottleneck at the entrance requires that you scuttle inside on all fours. You'll need a light to go farther, but the cave soon opens so you can stand upright again. The cave extends for a distance of about 410 feet. Its floor is covered with grayish-brown guano from the four species of bats that reside here; no vampires within, all are harmless. If that description isn't unappetizing enough, consider that the guano may seem alive because of the millions of harmless mites (Antricola silvai) swarming through it.

Stomach under control, you'll soon take a sharp right to enter the white chamber whose walls are made of soft marl. Over thousands of years, drops of water have formed the stalactites and stalagmites. Another of your worst nightmares may suddenly appear in your light beam: a fearsome-looking cave spider which is harmless. Actually related to the whip scorpions but lacking their poison glands, the spider's first pair of long thin legs are used in mating.

Finally, you'll enter the well-lit sanctuary of the "cathedral" hall which has a small and a large ceiling window. Barn owls, with their heart-shaped face masks, are spotted here.

The return road offers fine coastal views with the opportunity to scale a couple of large boulders. Note that the traffic eventually goes from single lane back to two-way.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press . All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »