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Bonaire: A Surprising Caribbean Island with Flamingos, Quiet Space, and… Cacti?!

A tree of lost flip flops in Bonaire.

A tree of lost beach shoes in Bonaire!

“What should I know about Bonaire?” I asked the island experts as our shuttle van chugged out of Flamingo Airport and towards our hotel.

“Bonaire isn’t just a scuba diving paradise,” replied a woman who vacations on the island each year. “It also has wild natural beauty, with otherworldly landscapes of cacti.”

“Cacti?!” I gasped. I didn’t realize Bonaire had cacti!”

“You’re in for a whole lot more surprises,” the woman smiled. “You haven’t seen a Caribbean island like this one.”

Our house needs a cacti fence.

This cacti fence is the coolest.

Bonaire wasn’t on my radar at all, until the random afternoon I won a solo trip to the island. (Check out the full story here — it involved a contest posing with inflatable flamingos.)

After winning the trip, I began to read up on the island. Turns out, Bonaire is a “special municipality” of the Netherlands, and lies 50 miles north of Venezuela, and a fortunate distance south of the Caribbean’s Hurricane Belt.

The island is just 114 square miles in area (slightly larger than my home city of Boston), meaning it takes less than half a day to drive around the entirety of Bonaire, exploring its nooks and crannies. That’s exactly what I did on my third morning there, equipped with a camera, van, and new buddy named Rodrigo, who I’d met at my heavenly Bonaire hotel.

Dutch donkey crossing: Overstekende ezels. This shows the Dutch influence in the Caribbean island of Bonaire.

Dutch donkey crossing!

As we started our circle around the island, the first thing that stood out was how quiet, calm, and private Bonaire feels. With under 19,000 inhabitants (most of whom are in the main town of Kralendijk), you can drive for miles and not see anyone. In fact, more than 20% of the island’s land and all 100% of its surrounding water are protected National Parks. No high-rise hotels here!

The second clear element was the Dutch flavor of the island. Check out the Dutch “Donkey Crossing” sign, above! Though Dutch is the official language of Bonaire, Papiamentu is also recognized, and English and Spanish are also widely spoken.

Conch shell mountain next to azure ocean.

Conch shell mountain next to the azure ocean.

The color of Bonaire’s ocean floored me. In the sun, the azure waters are so bright, they swirl the head. Though there aren’t endless sandy beaches, the island is one of the best in the world for scuba diving, and its snorkeling shines, too.

There are other bodies of water besides the crystal sea, however, and the shallow lakes on either tip of the island house the most famous animal of Bonaire…

Flamingo conga line!

Flamingo catwalk!

Given that one enters Bonaire through “Flamingo Airport”, it’s easy to surmise that the pink birds are a favorite on the island. While the official flamingo sanctuary is found at the southern tip, I also ogled some excellent flamingo struts on the north side of Bonaire.

As our van puttered stealthily along Gotomeer (Goto Lake), I kept asking Rodrigo, “Please pull over! There’s a flamingo I’d love to photograph!” In keeping with the quiet feel of the island outside of Kralendijk, we did this for a full hour, and hardly saw another car.

Me photographing flamingos, entranced by their dance.

Me photographing flamingos. Thanks for this picture, Rodrigo!

Eyes full up from flamingos, we continued our drive to circumnavigate the island. From the tiny northern village of Rincon, to the salt flats in the south, and back up to Kralendijk, Bonaire’s combination of cacti, bright blue sea, and quiet were, indeed, unlike any other Caribbean island I’d ever seen — or even imagined.

This isn’t the kind of vacation destination where you’re forced to march from tourist attraction to tourist attraction to check off a list, because the best way to explore Bonaire (when one isn’t scuba diving or relaxing by the ocean) is a slow, free-form wander through its wild beauty. Check out these photos from our drive to see what I mean!

Love this sign near Rincon, Bonaire: "Just Me!"

Love this sign near Rincon: “Just Me!”

Now that's a beauty of a Caribbean beach. Bonaire is a fascinating island near Aruba that many don't know about.

Now that’s a beauty of a Caribbean beach, Bonaire.

Bonaire’s famous pink salt flats.

Bonaire’s famous pink salt flats.

Cacti close up -- fuzzy yet spiky.

Cacti close up — fuzzy yet spiky.

Happy pink flower saying hi in the Caribbean vacation destination of Bonaire.

Happy pink flower saying hi.

Can you believe the color of that ocean?

Can you believe the color of that ocean?

Excuse me, sir, but you have a cactus growing in your truck trunk.

Excuse me, sir, but you have a cactus growing in your truck trunk.

My hair got all twisty from that ocean wind.

My hair got all swirly from that ocean wind.

A desert-dramatic road in the north of Bonaire.

A desert-dramatic road in the north of Bonaire.

Twisted branches in front of bright teal ocean.

Twisted branches in front of bright teal ocean.

These photos epitomize the calm solitude I felt on Bonaire, and the pull of its nature. I didn’t pick any of the pictures from the bustling main town, because for me, what I most appreciated about Bonaire was its opportunities for solo reflection, meandering through the island’s unique terrain.

A burst of ecstatic red tree flowers.

A burst of ecstatic red tree flowers.

So what about you? Does Bonaire seem like a place you’d be curious to visit? Have you been? Are you a flamingo fan? I’d be curious to hear about your thoughts in the comments!

Click here to check out my first Bonaire article, and here to see all my ABC Islands posts.

Phenomenal Bonaire sunset! This Caribbean island is lesser-known, but has good scuba diving, a quiet and calm feel, and unique nature.

Phenomenal Bonaire sunset!

I was a guest of Tourism Bonaire, but all opinions and penchants for photographing things growing upwards are my own.

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Theresa Akerman

Friday 2nd of November 2018

As a diver who enjoys the island and the surrounding waters annually, I am thrilled for someone to be able to express and appreciate all the beauty of the island, who isn't a diver. I try to explain to others the lurk and attraction but when you go to Bonaire, you know!

Lillie Marshall

Friday 2nd of November 2018

Aww, thanks, Theresa! Yes, it's a really intriguing island, and I'm glad to help spread the word that it's neat on land as well as by sea! Perhaps someday I'll venture under the water...

Kate Lubinski

Wednesday 8th of August 2018

Wow, Bonaire definitely looks like a wonderful place to visit! I heard it is amazing for diving, especially the area at the Salt Pier and I'm happy to see the whole island has so much more to offer when it comes to nature and exploring! I really hope I'm gonna make it there soon!

Lillie

Wednesday 8th of August 2018

I've heard such great things about the Salt Pier. Let us know how it is if (or WHEN) you make it there!

Agness

Friday 17th of November 2017

Wow! This island seems so picturesque and definitely worth visiting. I fell in love with it from seeing your pictures! How many days would you recommend staying in Bonaire?

Lillie

Monday 20th of November 2017

That's always a tough question to answer because every person is different. I was there for three nights and was able to see and do quite a bit because of the small size of the island, but if you're into Scuba diving, you might want more days to do more dives.

cheri newbold

Wednesday 8th of November 2017

Came across your article. I'm looking into a destination for 4 single ladies in april2018. This place looks like I may have hit the jackpot. Any advice I'd welcome. We want non touristy. If ships don't come there, that's where I want to go. Is any hotel we choose to stay a good, safe location? Thank you! Cheri

Joan Pilonero

Friday 21st of June 2019

Cruise ships port on Tuesdays and I think it was Fridays? So on those days simply stay out of town, there is so much else to see! I would recommend using airbnb or something of the like. The only chain hotel I saw on the island was a Marriott Courtyard. Just be sure to have air conditioning and a parking place! Another great thing about this island is that it is safe to explore! Enjoy your girls trip, and rent snorkel gear for the week, you won't regret that decision.

Lillie

Thursday 9th of November 2017

Hi Cheri, Sounds like an exciting trip you are planning! Please do know that there IS a cruise port in Bonaire, and so there is the cruise activity from the big ships. The hotel where I stayed is here: https://www.aroundtheworldl.com/2017/07/27/bonaire-resort/ . I'll email you with more details.

Jones Around The World

Monday 6th of November 2017

This island looks so gorgeous! Would love to make it there sometime. Great post :-)

Lillie

Monday 6th of November 2017

Thank you!

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