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Old Buildings Transformed by Art in Pietermaai District, Curaçao

Colors and crumbles as Curaçao restores!
Colors and crumbles as Curaçao restores!

Willemstad, Curaçao has some of the most colorful buildings in the world, yet due to the tides of history and the blazing Caribbean island sun, this architecture is constantly in flux.

During my recent travels through Curaçao, I was particularly enchanted by the half-renovated, half-crumbled neighborhood of Pietermaai District Curaçao. By the time you read this article, the buildings will likely look totally different, as its revitalization is in full swing, but let’s take a tour now of how it looked when I came!

The architecture of Pietermaai is so romantic.
The architecture of Pietermaai is so romantic.

The history of the buildings in the Pietermaai District Curaçao dates all the way back to the early 1700s, when Willemstad was a bustling seaport, and the city center grew too crowded. Wealthy merchants began moving outside of the city walls to nearby Pietermaai, erecting Dutch-style ornate edifices through the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love the color detail on the wall.
Love the color detail on this public art.

As the 20th century drew to a close, however, Pietermaai fell into disrepair, with people moving out, and illicit activities moving in. The once-grand mansions began to crumble, and grass sprouted from broken windows. Was Pietermaai lost forever?

Candy-colored houses.
Candy-colored houses.

No! Pietermaai has come roaring back! A full-scale revitalization effort began in the district in 1999, and now almost all of the historic buildings have been completely renovated into cafes, boutique hotels, shops or restaurants. Meanwhile, the structures which are still not rebuilt have been decorated with delightful public art!

I’m particularly intrigued by the situation pictured below: a grass-nuzzled abandoned building, paired with a mural of peace-sign-faced figures…

What will this cottage become?
What will this cottage become?

Speaking of restaurants, I got to visit the Pietermaai restaurant called Ginger, sampling its “Carib-Asian” fusion cuisine in the open-air patio.

I’m chuckling as I write this in blizzard-bopped Boston, thinking about the perfect Curaçao weather which makes open-air dining such a delight, and how impossible that would be in my wintry home city right now. Below, you can see the classy decor at our table in Ginger, moments before the spring rolls and sesame noodles arrived.

Our table at the restaurant, "Ginger."
Our table at the restaurant, “Ginger.”

As night fell, we finished our hearty meal and stepped back onto the streets of Pietermaai. The neighborhood was hoppin’! Smiling, laughing groups of all ages and backgrounds spilled over the restaurant patios, dancing to live music, celebrating milestone birthdays, unwinding, and generally basking in the magical air of the neighborhood.

With such positivity and life pulsing from it now, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, this nightlife hotspot was crumbling and abandoned.

Fully restored and color-popping.
Fully restored and color-popping.

Much of the credit for launching the renovation of Pietermaai District Curaçao goes to Jan Peltenburg. He spurred on the switch in the neighborhood by renovating just one building… and then another, and then another. Now the district has a beautiful website, and the momentum has taken off!

I am reminded of Ricardo Alegría of Puerto Rico, who was the man who stepped in to save the gorgeous architecture of Old San Juan, and made the city the tourist attraction it is today! It only takes one person to get the ball rolling.

Weathered and beautiful shades.
Weathered shades, in transition.

So, where did the awesome public art in Pietermaai come from? It’s a beautiful story. In 2013, the National Archaeological Anthropological Memory Management organized the “Art for Freedom” festival in to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Curaçao through art.

A perfect paint job.
Don’t those colors fit perfectly together?

During this exhibition, the public was invited to participate in creating art based on the question, “What does liberty mean to you?” The art is now displayed at the institute itself, inside other establishments in the district, and in the outdoor locations in Pietermaai pictured here. I am eternally awed by the power of art to transform a place.

So bright and happy, Curaçao!
So bright and happy, Curaçao!

I’m also moved by the coordinated manner in which the neighborhood is being developed. Rather than each shop owner painting what and how they want, each building’s color seems to have been carefully chosen to complement the store next door.

I’m reminded of Fishtown, Philadelphia, which has created a neighborhood revitalization campaign so connected that nearly every building, trash can, and fence has a fish on it! Neighborhood unity for the win.

What a riot of magenta flowers!
What a riot of magenta flowers.

Now, a confession: these photos leave out one of the best parts of Pietermaai District: the beach! I was so entranced by the colors and crumbles of the buildings, that I didn’t walk behind them to see the ocean. But know that it’s back there, and that Curaçao’s beaches are some of the best in the world!

Like the rest of the district, Pietermaai’s beachfront is still being renovated and developed, but there are already patios open on it to eat, drink, and be merry.

A building like an ornate cake!
A building like an ornate cake!

I’ve gotten several messages from readers lately, saying that my articles about Curaçao are seducing them into buying plane tickets, and I’m thrilled to know that more of you are curious to see the island in person.

I do hope it lives up to my passionate description for you, but I believe it will. If you’re looking for my round-up of why I loved the island so much, here’s my opening piece about why travel to Curaçao was my favorite trip of the year. (Shout-out to the woman emailing me to help convince her husband to vacation there with her!)

Layers of paint and history.
Layers of paint and history.

If you’re considering a trip to Curaçao, here are some delightful places to stay near Pietermaai. (These affiliates provide a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Looking for colorful buildings in the Caribbean island of Curaçao, with a mix of old and new? The Pietermaai District of Willemstad is renovating crumbling buildings into fun places to eat, stay, and shop, plus public art! See the beautiful pictures here.
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Curious what historic Dutch-style buildings of Curaçao look like once they’re fully renovated? Check out Willemstad, Curaçao’s nearby neighborhood of Scharloo, which has fixed up 19th century merchant mansions into banks, museums, and offices! For more art inspiration from around the world, browse these 40 drawing prompts — which include this neighborhood.

So what do YOU think? Have you been to the ABC Islands or Curaçao, and if so, did you get to see Pietermaai District Curaçao? If not, does it seem like a spot you’d like to visit? Do share!

Now that's a romantic alley!
Now that’s a romantic alley.

I was a guest of the Curaçao Tourist Board, but all opinions and obsessions with crumbles and colors are my own.

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