Clearing in to Curação: The Odyssey
" Boats can only clear into Curação at the main port in Willemstad. But get this. Yachts are not allowed to enter the port of Willemstad..."
We have arrived in our temporary home in Curação. This is where (we hope) we can stay for the next six months, although that depends on a successful visa extension application. Watch this space!
Curação has the most difficult clearing-in procedure for yachts of anywhere we have yet experienced. Even beating Barbados, where we had to tie our dinghy to a cruise ship dock and scramble up a long ladder that ended half way up before reaching the top and required calling to a nearby dock worker to haul me out by my arms, while Luciano pushed from below.
Luckily we left Bonaire at 4.00am. This seemed a little excessive when we first started out, as our ETA when we left was 11.30am. However, we didn’t arrive in the marina until it was about to close for the evening. This is why.
Boats can only clear into Curação at the main port in Willemstad. But get this. Yachts are not allowed to enter the port of Willemstad.
This means you are forced to illegally travel overland from another port in order to clear in. The marina manager later told us that a yacht owner was arrested for this, on his way to clear in. It’s like the novel Catch 22.
We had two options. Firstly, to go straight to the marina and get a taxi from there. We had read online that it costs US$70 each way to do this as the marina is at the far end of a large lagoon and is a long way by road to Willemstad.
Our second option was to anchor at the other end of the lagoon closer to the town and get a taxi from this closer point. We chose this option.
The lagoon is called Spanish Water. We arrived at the entrance, dropped the sails and cautiously motored up the narrow and shallow entrance. Nervously, we tried to avoid the multiple zooming jetskiers, oncoming huge ‘pirate’ tour ship and a tiny dinghy that was sailing right in front of us down the channel.
We entered the basin of the lagoon and navigated around little mangrove islands and coral shallows, jet skiers, paddleboarders and motorboats galore, to the far end where the anchoring field for sailing boats was.
We dropped the anchor, pumped up the dinghy at double quick speed and our paltry 2.3 horsepower outboard engine took us to the fishing wharf at its usual glacial pace. Come on! we were thinking. We’re in a race against time here. We have to get back before the marina closes.
Needless to say, we couldn’t find the dinghy dock. Normally the way you identify a dinghy dock is by spotting a crowd of dinghies. It must have been a quiet day. We didn’t want to take a fishing boat space so our dinghy ended up on the end of a dock almost beached on some rocks.
Out we scrambled. We walked out onto the road. No taxis in sight. We walked down the road a little. No taxis. We walked back to the wharf and asked a man in a shop where we could get a taxi from.
We were informed we would not find one just passing along, but he would kindly call one for us. We didn’t have to wait long and we were soon in the centre of Willemstad.
We found our first stop: the unobtrusive customs office. We went up to the counter and were met by a smiling uniformed female customs officer. Much less intimidating, so we thought, than the customs officers in Bonaire, with their prominent pistols strapped to their hefty legs and who look and act like they’d far rather be out intercepting contraband on boats than dealing with paperwork.
We started off on the wrong foot. ‘Have you been to immigration already?’ she asked.
‘Er, no. We read that we have to come to customs first.’
‘No, that’s wrong. Where did you read that?’ she demanded, suspiciously.
I showed her my screenshot from Noonsite - the website that cruisers get all this sort of information from. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Maybe their information is out of date?’ She must have felt sorry for us.
‘You have a vehicle?’ she asked.
‘No, we’re on foot.’ I looked out anxiously at the white heat of midday Willemstad. It would be a long walk over to immigration and then we would have to walk all the way back here. The five hours we had to make it back to the marina in time suddenly seemed very short.
‘OK,’ she said after a long pause. ‘I will make an exception and clear you into customs now.’
‘Thank you so much,’ we chanted.
In Martinique you check yourself into the country in five minutes on a computer. In Bonaire six armed officers stand around peering at the computer, joking with each other as they simultaneously do your immigration and customs paperwork. They are careless, but quick.
Not in Curação. In Curação, they take customs very seriously. The officer was lovely, but a lot more thorough than we are used to.
‘So will you be doing boat work while you are here?’ she asked.
‘Well, we’re not hauling out, we’re going to be living onboard, so nothing major, just cosmetic stuff and maintenance,’ we said.
‘Hmm. Maintenance. If you don’t inform us what works you will be doing now and we later check up on you and you are doing boat work, then you will be in trouble.’
We didn’t know what to say to this. How can you possibly list all the minor jobs you have to do on a boat?
‘OK,’ we said, not sure how seriously to take this threat.
We answered the usual questions - do we have guns, tobacco, cigars, alcohol on board? Then:
‘Do you have animals on board?’
‘Yes, we have two cats.’
‘Can I see the paperwork?’
‘Well, they stay onboard the boat, they don’t leave, so we don’t have an import permit.’
‘Yes, but I mean all their vaccination paperwork, microchip certificates. That kind of thing.’
‘Oh, that paperwork.’ We’ve never been asked for it anywhere, not once when they hear the cats stay onboard, so I had stopped bringing it to customs when we clear in.
I groaned, thinking of the marina deadline. ‘Could I bring it on Monday?’
Another pause. ‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘I don’t need it.’
With a beaming smile, the officer said we were cleared into customs and could go to immigration.
We crossed the Queen Emma Bridge and after a while we found the immigration office at the main port.
We handed over our documents, praying that we wouldn’t get in trouble for going to customs first. ‘We’d like to stay for six months, if possible,’ I said.
The man looked at me, narrowing his eyes. ‘Why?’
‘We’re on a sailing boat, we want to stay somewhere secure for hurricane season.’
He looked back at me, appraisingly. ‘That sounds like a good reason,’ he said finally.
Unfortunately for us, the woman behind him started waving her arms. ‘No. That’s not allowed. The limit is three months.’
She was the boss. So we are currently only allowed to stay here for three months. But, we can apply for a three months extension and they gave us very helpful directions for how to make the request. But we will have to go to yet another office in person and plead our case.
But that was a problem for another day. We were in, cleared. The only problem now was to get back.
We were in the centre of Willemstad but could see no taxis anywhere.
Luciano approached some men sitting in the shade next to a car park. Perhaps they were taxi drivers. ‘Yes, we can drive you.’ We agreed a fee in the local currency, the Antillean Guilder as we did not have dollars. Several times we checked that the fee was in the local currency.
On our return to the fishermens’ wharf, the ‘taxi driver’ now demanded this same fee in dollars - double the agreed fare. We were locked in the back of the car. He also didn’t have change even after we agreed to pay him what he was asking. He eventually let us out to go and ask for change in a nearby restaurant. They refused to give us any. Now we were out of the car, he had to accept the fee we had originally agreed as that was all the change we had and he angrily drove off.
A rookie travellers’ mistake, not getting a legitimate taxi driver; but it happens sometimes when you are in a rush and have just arrived somewhere new.
We made it back to the boat at 4.00pm, with just an hour to spare before the marina was due to close. We lifted the dinghy onboard, radioed the manager and said ‘we’ll be there in 15 minutes.’
And truly the marina is great. It’s very quiet and Starlink works with no obstructions. The manager is incredibly helpful. The corner of the lagoon where we are is not rammed with jetskis and has gorgeous mangroves and diverse bird life to enjoy whilst paddleboarding in the evenings.
It’s incredibly isolated though - basically located in the middle of a golf course and the buses here unfortunately not only do not live up to the great heights of eastern Caribbean buses, but probably barely scrape English village standards. So we’ll have to hire a car on a weekend every once in a while in order to get around the island. Fortunately this is cheap and there is a shopping bus twice a week from the marina so we can still go to the supermarket.
We’ve already got a car being delivered this Saturday for the bank holiday weekend, so we can start to see a little of Curação. Check back next week to see us explore glorious Willemstad with its famous waterfront Dutch buildings. Like Amsterdam, but colourful.
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Useless inventions by Luigiano da Vinci