Bonaire is a Caribbean island east of Central America and north of Venezuela. The island is part of the ABC Islands together with Aruba and Curaçao. It is a flat, riverless island renowned for its dive spots. Its tropical climate is moderated by constant trade winds from the Atlantic Ocean. The temperature is almost constant at about 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit).
Politically, Bonaire is a "special municipality" fully integrated in the Netherlands proper.
The earliest known inhabitants of Bonaire were the Caquetio people, who are believed to have come to Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao by canoe from Venezuela in about 1000 AD. The first Europeans to arrive were Spanish colonizers around 1500. The Spanish, the Dutch, the English, and the Portuguese each claimed control of Bonaire at various points over the next several hundred years, but generally Europeans took a relatively limited interest in the island and its people.
Tropical marine; little seasonal temperature variation. "Rainy" season lasts from the last week of October to the end of January, but it is still relatively dry. During rainy season, late night and early morning rains are common, usually clearing shortly after sunrise.
The island is flat especially the southern end with hills in the north. It is a dry island with little rainfall and the vegetation is typical of this climate. There are few natural resources other than beaches, beautiful offshore reefs and the solar salt works. The northern part of the island is a protected park. The southern tip of the island is a great field for sea salt production. Klein Bonaire is a small uninhabited island offshore.
Tourism is one of the major industries of the island, and 80% of visitors to the island come to scuba dive. Bonaire is often considered the top best scuba dive destination in the Caribbean. The colorful coral reef that circles the island is lush and diverse, and its proximity to the island makes for spectacular and convenient shore diving.
The second major source of tourism on the island is cruise ship visitors whose boats dock for a single day and then depart at night. With a local population of only 18 000, the visiting passengers of 3000 or 4000 person cruise liner have a significant influence on the island, particularly in downtown Kralendijk where the ships dock.
Bonaire has its own passport control stations to monitor visa requirements and entry and exit regulations. (Bonaire is politically and administratively a part of the Netherlands, but it is not part of the the Schengen Area, and therefore has different entry laws than the Netherlands.)
Although Bonaire is part of the European Netherlands makeup, those living ouside the public bodies of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba have limited freedom to visit Bonaire. Dutch nationals and citizens living outside the public bodies can visit Bonaire visa-free for 6 months. The Dutch identity card is not valid in Bonaire, instead the Identity card BES is required to enter Bonaire.
Visitors from dozens of countries can enter Bonaire visa free as a tourist. Cruise ship passengers also do not need visas.
Direct flights onto the island are available from the Netherlands (with KLM, departing from Amsterdam), several US hubs, and Canada (with Sunwing, departing from Toronto). Smaller Caribbean airlines connect Bonaire to nearby islands. European and North American flights may offer tickets to Bonaire through code sharing with local airlines out of Curacao. (Note that Caribbean airlines tend to be less reliable than larger commercial operations, so be prepared for unforeseen delays, changes, or cancellations.)
Passengers arriving by plane will need to clear passport control before entering the airport. This may require waiting in line in the sun, so plan accordingly. The airport itself is open air (not air conditioned) and does not have any restaurant or shopping facilities.
Bonaire is not publicly accessible by passenger ferries. It is possible to arrive via a chartered or private boat. Some Caribbean cruise lines stop for a day in Kralendijk.
Kralendijk is relatively small and can be easily navigated on foot. Those staying outside the centre or those wishing to explore the island will want to arrange for car rentals or motorized transportation.
Cars can be rented from the airport or through the office if you are staying at a hotel or managed property. Pick up trucks are common, as many visitors expect to drive off road in more remote areas of the island to reach dive sites. Reserve in advance, as rental companies may be completely sold out during peak periods.
Drive on the right hand side in Bonaire (like the US and most of Europe). Most cars (including rentals) have standard (manual) transmissions, not automatic ones. Most frequently-visited areas of the island have paved roads, but watch out for potholes and narrow passing, particularly outside of the central areas. Particularly at dusk or after dark, drive cautiously in case of animals (dogs, donkeys, or goats) entering the road unexpectedly.
There is an informal bus system on the island that utilises vans.
Bicycle transportation is not particularly common on Bonaire, but it is possible. There are no bike lanes and the roads are often narrow, but even on the major routes, speeds are fairy slow and motorists tend to give cyclists a wide berth.
Taxi vans are available to transport passengers and luggage as needed.
By other means
Scooters (rented or owned), motorcycles, and even golf carts! are quite common sights on the roads of Bonaire.
The official language of Bonaire is Dutch, but a local Creole called Papamiento is spoken fluently by most long time residents. English and Spanish are also widely spoken. Some tourism staff speak English fluently, while others know only key words or phrases.
If you came to Bonaire, you probably came to dive. Numerous packages and facilities cater to the least and most experienced divers. Even the standard issue local tourist map has dive sites clearly listed. Most sites are accessible for shore diving, and a few can only be reached by boat. Designated dive sites are marked by a (painted) yellow rock with the name of the dive site.
If you didn't come as a diver, or if you're visiting on a cruise ship, snorkelling is a fun, easy way to experience the underwater world of a coral reef. You'll need a snorkel mask, a snorkel tube, and a pair of fins. You can bring your own or buy some from a local shop, but if you just want to try it out, guided tours are available that include basic instructions and equipment rentals. Experienced snorkellers will find plenty of diverse sites to visit. Some have beach or ladder access, while others require entering and exiting over ironshore (so reef shoes are recommended). Snorkellers require a permit which can be purchased from any local dive shop.
Fishing Windsurfing Kiteboarding Mountain Biking Sea Kayaking Sailing Bird Watching
The US Dollar is the official currency of Bonaire. (Euros and other foreign currencies are not be accepted.)
Bonaire is relatively expensive destination, particularly compared to cheaper and less developed islands in the Caribbean. Expect to pay more for accommodations (e.g. $200-250 for a basic hotel room for two or four adults that might typically cost $100 in the US or Europe) and dining (e.g. $20-25 for a basic restaurant meal that might cost $15 in a similar establishment in the US or Europe.) Groceries are comparable or only somewhat more expensive than in the US and Europe.
All regular essential items (food, clothing, souvenirs, etc) are available for purchase on Bonaire. There are a number of large grocery stores on island that stock all the products typically available in American and Dutch shops.
Bonaire has many restaurants and quite varied cuisine given the overall island population. "Aki ta Bende Kuminda Krioyo" will inform a visitor that local-style food is available, generally heavy on soups, stews, fried foods and fish. Traditional foods that may be found on the menu include conch, cacti, wahoo and rock lobster. Much of the fish is caught locally by line fishermen in season. Though traditionally eaten, iguana is not generally served in restaurants.
Bonaire has no real fast food, though there is the "smallest KFC franchise outlet in the world" in a shopping plaza by the Kralendijk and a Subway sub shop. Check out "Swiss Chalet", a local favorite serving Fondu. Bobbejan's is an extremely popular weekend-only barbecue joint. Other cuisines common on the islands are Argentine, Italian, Indonesian, Suriname, and lots and lots of Chinese. Island-made ice cream is available in many places, with Lovers Ice Cream being a local favorite. Arrive before noon, as they often sell out.
Almost all eateries are open for limited hours during the day, and all close briefly during siesta time between 2-3pm. Call or check ahead to determine if a restaurant is open for lunch, dinner, both, or only open on weekends. Some are closed certain days of the week, such as Sunday.
Bonaire has a notable lack of night life, probably because late nights and heavy drinking don't mix well with a dive holiday. There are several venues for live music and perhaps a little dancing, but those looking to party should look elsewhere.
Despite the small size of the island, Bonaire has a lot of possibilities when looking for places to stay, from large resorts to small privately owned houses which you can rent on a daily basis. Along the coast you have multiple places that combine a dive school with cabañas where you can sleep for a moderate price. Most of the accommodations on the island are relatively small, averaging 15 rooms or less.
Several mid-size apartment complex devoted to tourists exist. These tend to be a bit more upscale than the smaller accommodations. There a several larger, more resort like places as well. These are still somewhat small, with only the Plaza Resort Bonaire and Captain Don's Habitat having over 100 rooms.
Generally speaking, Bonaire is a very safe place, especially by Caribbean standards. Violent and other face-to-face crimes are fairly rare, but passive theft is always a real possibility. A good piece of advice is to not leave anything outside overnight, as desperate thieves (or just teenagers out to cause trouble) will snatch anything they can, even towels hanging out to dry. There is little to no nightlife scene, so problems associated with it such as public drunkenness are also fairly minimal.
Due to its proximity to the equator, the sun in Bonaire is intense! Sunscreen is an absolute must, even for people who claim to not burn. If walking around during the day, make sure to stay hydrated and keep drinking water to make up for all the sweating you will be doing.
Due to the arid climate, mosquitos (and the diseases they harbor) are not a big problem and you very well may go your whole visit without getting a single bite. Still, if venturing into the wilderness, insect repellent is a wise idea.