KRALENDIJK, Bonaire -- There are few places left in the Caribbean that are truly off-the-beaten-track, though Bonaire's Washington Slagbaai National Park would certainly qualify.
The sprawling reserve occupies 5,643 hectares in the northwestern-most part of the island -- about a fifth of the country -- yet on an average day, only 20 to 40 cars enter, which almost guarantees you'll have the place to yourself.
Chances are good you'll see more wildlife than people in this exotic, unspoiled landscape. Even before we reached the entrance we encountered a group of wild goats, a bird of prey that my guide identified as a "wara wara," and two flamingos feeding on algae and crustaceans in a water hole.
Bonaire is perhaps best known as a diver's mecca because of its pristine reefs and excellent underwater visibility, but for land experiences the park ranks among the island's premier attractions with its beaches, variety of flora and fauna, dramatic vistas, and opportunities for snorkelling and hiking.
My visit coincided with recent rains which had turned the normally arid landscape a vibrant green. Cacti and thorny bushes seem to make up much of the vegetation, but an effort has been made to reintroduce indigenous trees such as the oliba, watakeli and kalbas, which can be seen in a protected area near the entrance.
Julio Caesar "Boy" Herrera would' have been pleased. The park is on the site of his former plantation, which once exported goats, cattle, aloe extract, divi-divi pods salt and charcoal to nearby Curacao and to Europe. Fearing the land would one day be sold to developers, he negotiated with the government to buy it after his death, and keep it in its natural state for everyone's enjoyment. The park opened in 1969 -- the first nature sanctuary in the Netherlands Antilles.
One of the points of interest is the bright-yellow home of the former plantation owner, which is now a museum.
Inside, visitors can see examples of Arawak ceramics and body ornaments, local musical instruments (donkeys jaws, cow horn and conch shell) and plants. If you want to know what life was like on a plantation, how a cactus fence is constructed or where to see flamingos (Bonaire has one of the largest Caribbean flamingo colonies in the Western Hemisphere), it's all described in detail there, too.
Outside are remnants from colonial days including an old aloe oven, a lime kiln and the ruin of a Dutch home constructed of locally available materials such as coral, tree branches and mud.
DRIVE THROUGH PARK
The most common way to explore the park is with a vehicle, preferably a 4WD to better traverse the 34 km of dirt roads, which are rocky in places. The two driving trails include a 24-km route that takes about 90 minutes (without stopping) and a 34-km route that takes about 2.5 hours.
Using the free map, we stop at some of the 20 points of interest on the long route including the suplado -- or blowhole -- where we watch waves crash against a cliff, Playa Chikitu -- a sandy beach and turtle nesting-ground -- and Seru Bentana, where erosion has carved out a natural opening or "window" in a huge rock formation.
One of the most dramatic landscapes comes into view near the end as we drive towards Mt. Brandaris, the highest peak on the island at 241 metres. There's a walking trail (rated medium-difficult) to the top, which takes about three hours return. It's one of three hiking trails in the park. The other two -- Lagadishi ("Lizard") Walking Trail (about two hours) and the Kasikunda Trail (a challenging 45-minute climb) both begin at the park's visitor centre.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Bonaire is a small, quiet island in the southern Caribbean. It is the least populated of the so-called ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) with roughly 15,000 residents. Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire's political status changed in 2010 and it (along with the islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius) is now part of the Caribbean Netherlands, functioning much like a city with its own local government.
-- In addition to diving/snorkelling, its worth checking out Bonaire's many excellent restaurants or taking an historical walking tour (with a guide or on your own with a free map from the tourist office) of the capital Kralendijk.