Divers have been doing their best to keep Bonaire a secret for decades. They've long considered this Dutch municipality in the Caribbean a veritable home away from home, and happily allowed the rest of the world to think its highly protected reef park is the only thing going for it. But today Bonaire is on the rise, and non-divers are starting to take notice.
From incredible island hiking to world-class windsurfing, Bonaire is an all-around outdoor paradise. Better yet, unlike neighboring Aruba and Curacao, there's not a chain hotel in sight, and its easy roads and well-marked attractions make it eminently explorable, with or without a tour guide. Throw in super-friendly, Dutch-infused locals with an infectious love for their natural landscape, and you've got the DIY traveler's trifecta.
Explore Bonaire for yourself with this lineup of the island's top five outdoor adventures—no SCUBA tanks required.
1. Washington Slagbaai National Park
With rolling desert hills and towering cactuses dominating the landscape, the rugged Washington Slagbaai National Park feels more like the American southwest than the Caribbean, except for one thing: You can't turn the bend of a dusty West Texas trail to find a deserted white-sand beach where rolling waves seem to be catered to body surfing. From hiking and mountain biking to bird watching, kayaking and cliff jumping, this park has adventures to top any visitor's must-do list. Car- and bike-friendly roads run alongside hiking trails that include a flat walk through the prickly pears out to Chikita Beach and a not-so-flat climb to the top of Branderis, the island's highest point. Aside from the visitor center at the entrance, the only facilities are found at Slaagbai, a white sand beach on the west side of the park with a single food vendor and picnic area among historic harbor buildings.
2. Cave Snorkeling
You could be forgiven for thinking the only place to take a dip in Bonaire is the ocean. That's because its most secret snorkel spot isn't at the beach, but rather beneath a blanket of desert scrub brush. Like many Caribbean islands, subterranean springs have eroded parts of Bonaire's coral limestone substrate, leaving the island pockmarked by caves. Protected as natural and cultural resources (they were used by native Bonaireans), these caves require local guides. Clay Davalaar of Jentis Tourswill bring the lights and ropes needed to reach the heart of a particularly impressive, spring-filled chamber just a short drive from Kralendik. Heat up during the climb down, then cool off in the crystal-clear water swimming among a maze of rock formations.
3. Harley Tours
They seem mutually exclusive, but the Venn diagram of divers and Harley Davidson riders has a big intersection, and true to form, a passionate group of dive-crew-turned-motorcycle-junkies recently launched both a booming local motorcycle club and laid-back custom tour company from the iconic Captain Don's Habitatdive resort. With its wide open spaces and relatively long stretches of empty road, Bonaire seems built for motorcycle riding (just watch for goats), and there's little that compares with saddling up a rumbling Harley to sightsee along the salt pans and old slave huts on the island's south end. Custom rides can range from a few hours to a full day, and a favorite route passes through the Sorobon area at Lac Bay, with a stop for some fork-tender kabritu stoba (goat stew) at the Maiky Snack, a popular local food shack.
While Bonaire's west side supports the bulk of the island's hotels, shops, and watersports, the eastern side is all about the wind. Buffeted by trade winds year-round, Lac Bay is the everyday surf turf of local pros that tear up windsurfing competitions throughout the Caribbean. But it's not just for experts. Aquamarine Lac Bay stays shallow and flat calm far offshore, which makes it the perfect spot to get your sea legs. And situated right on lively Sorobon Beach, Bonaire Windsurf Place has board rentals and lessons taught by championship-winning windsurfers who'll have you standing and sailing on your own in no time.
5. Mangrove Kayaking
The reefs of Bonaire boast unprecedented numbers of marine life, and they owe their diversity to the robust near-shore mangroves that act as protected nurseries for young sea creatures. To see this delicate and vital ecosystem, take a kayak trip into the winding channels of mangrove trees and sea grass beds from the Mangrove Center, a dual-purpose research facility/paddling operation on the outer edge of Lac Bay. After weaving from the mangrove tunnels to the ocean and back again, you can tie up in a protected cove. Slip gently into the water to swim among juvenile reef fish and look for the flower-like Cassiopeia (aka upside-down jellyfish) that plant themselves headfirst in the seabeds.
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