The Caribbean Island of Bonaire is a favorite of scuba divers. Don’t dive? Don’t worry. This small island also offers plenty of great activities on land.
Keep reading for some of the best things to do on Bonaire without getting wet!
Like most places right now, there are restrictions on who can travel to Bonaire and whether a quarantine is required on arrival. Currently non-essential travel to Bonaire is limited to visitors from just a handful of European countries who present a negative PCR test or quarantine for two weeks. Relatively current information and links to additional resources can by found on Tourism Bonaire’s health and safety page.
Enjoy the best of Bonaire without going in the water
Whether you are looking for a tropical get-away that includes activities both in the water and on land or looking for what to do while your travel partners are underwater, you’ll have plenty of great options on Bonaire.
Bonaire is a small, relatively flat island in the southwestern Caribbean. Most famous for the ability to dive amazing reefs from shore, Bonaire is a great destination for land-based activities as well. There’s more than enough to keep you busy without going in the water. And, its small size makes it relatively easy to explore the entire island on a series of scenic drives or bike tours.
There are plenty of beaches available too, if you just want to relax. But don’t expect a palm-filled jungle. Like the neighboring islands of Aruba and Curacao, Bonaire is a dry (but humid) island with many more cacti than palm trees.
The following tours highlight some of the best things to do on dry land.
Join (or avoid) the cruise crowd in Kralendijk
Bonaire’s capital Kralendijk is a pleasant place to wander. The heart of the city is small, but it is also a cruise port. That means crowds can be oppressive when large ships are in port. But it also means the shady streets near the waterfront are packed with restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, and vendors selling local crafts and other merchandise.
For the widest range of shopping, visit when you see a cruise ship in port. Everything will be open and all of the island’s artists will be selling their work in pedestrian malls and parks.
(Don’t worry, you’ll have no trouble figuring out when there’s a large cruise ship in port.)
Otherwise, head into town late in the day or on a day when there aren’t any cruise ships around. Cruise passengers are usually back on their ship in time for dinner. That makes all those wonderful restaurants available just for those of you staying on the island.
Although some shops close early when there isn’t a ship in port, many still stay open relatively late. That allows time to sit down at the Brewery Bonaire taproom for a Bonaire Blond and check out a few shops before settling in for a lovely dinner as the sun sets.
If you like museums, both the Terramar historical and archaeological museum and the Bonaire Museum of Natural History seem worth a visit. (I didn’t get to either, as neither were fully open when I visited.)
Tour the southern end of Bonaire
Kralendijk and the area to the south are very flat. That makes this a good area to tour by car or bike. But don’t think that flat means nothing to see! The island’s salt industry is located here, making it a good spot to take in some rather surreal landscapes and island history. But there are also sandy beaches and lagoons filled with mangroves, flamingos, and other birds.
Salt pans, slave huts, and flamingos
It’s hard to miss the surreal mountains of salt rising above pink lagoons along Bonaire’s southwestern coast.
These are all part of the island’s salt industry. Evaporation in the salt pans creates a variety of levels of salinity. This allows different organisms to thrive in each pan and they, in turn, change the color of the water to various shades of pink.
Today salt is produced on Bonaire by Minnesota-based multinational conglomerate Cargill. However, salt production on the island predates Cargill’s move here by several centuries.
Historically, salt production in Bonaire was a brutal business dependent on government-owned slave labor. Slaves camped by the salt pans where they worked, generally only leaving to make the long walk home to their families in Rincon on weekends. Shortly before slavery was abolished in the 19th century, informal open shelters built by the slaves themselves were replaced by small huts.
Painted bright colors to designate the different salt pans, the remaining huts look rather cheery. But each of these tiny buildings provided up to six slaves a place to sleep and store personal belongings during the work week.
The pans (shallow pools) vary in salinity. And some of them are perfect for flamingos. That, and a healthy population of mangroves, led to the creation of a large flamingo sanctuary at the Cargill facility.
Visitors can’t wander in and around the salt production area, salt pans, or flamingo sanctuary. However, the area around the slave huts is open and much of the rest is easily visible from the road.
Beaches, mangroves, and more flamingos
On the southwestern side of Bonaire, Lac Bay offers sandy beaches, shallow water for snorkeling (should you decide to get into the water), easy windsurfing, kayaking through a mangrove lagoon, and lots of flamingos and other birds.
Join the fun at the weekend beach bar and fish fry
If you are on Bonaire over a weekend, do not miss the weekend Lac Bar and fish fry at Lac Cai Beach. It’s a local gathering, but tourists are welcome. You’ll find fried fish straight out of the water and a variety of sides. Cold beer is also available. Come early to miss really long lines, but stick around for the live music.
Explore Bonaire’s wild north
The northern end of Bonaire is mostly a large, rugged nature sanctuary. But you’ll find enough activities in Washington-Slagbaai National Park to keep you busy for at least a day or two. Options include scenic drives, hiking, mountain biking, and bird watching.
(Of course, there are also great beaches for snorkeling or diving, should you be so inclined.)
Pack beverages and snacks even for a half-day jaunt. Bring a picnic lunch if you are staying for the day, as Boca Slagbaai Beach seems to be the only one place to get food inside the park and it has a limited (and perhaps unpredictable) schedule. The restaurant was not open when I stopped there.
Washington-Slagbaai park is both the highest part of the island and where you will find the worst roads (four-wheel drive required), but the often harshly beautiful landscape is well worth exploring.
Circle the historic heart of Bonaire
A circle tour along north along the coast out of Kralendijk, inland to Rincon, and then through the center of the island back to the capital offers great scenery along the coast and around Rincon. You’ll also get a peek into the past and present lives of the people of Bonaire.
Slaves didn’t just work the salt flats. Plantations like Karpata (now a ruin) also relied on slaves to plant and work the land.
(Farther along you’ll find the Magazina di Rei Cultural Park and mostly open-air Museo Chich’I Tan where you can learn more about Bonaire’s history and cultural heritage. I didn’t get to either of them.)
Rincon is the historic heart of Bonaire. Founded by the Spanish in 1527 for its views to the sea in both directions, it became the home of many slaves who worked the salt pans during the week while their families worked on plantations. The center of the city includes a number of historic buildings, including some of the oldest on Bonaire.
Rincon is also the home to Cadushy Distillery. The distillery takes its name from the local kadushi cactus – which is used to make the distillery’s signature green Cadushy liquor. (It has a mild slightly fruity flavor and turns a lovely aqua color when mixed with soda water.) Rather informal tours provide information on the distilling process for Cadushy and an introduction to a line of other island-inspired liquors and more traditional spirits. Of course, tastings are available.
The hills around Rincon also offer some great scenic views over the island. Posada Para Mira offers both food and a view from a hill near Rincon.
Plan your trip to Bonaire
Bonaire is located just 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela in the southwestern Caribbean. It’s a small island, just 24 miles long and no more than 5 miles across. Although most of Bonaire is very flat, the north end has “mountains” that reach almost 800 feet.
Popular with divers, the island is surrounded by coral reefs, many of which can be reached from land. (Usually scuba diving requires taking a boat out to a dive site.)
But it’s also a pleasant spot for a land-based vacation. The island is outside the hurricane belt, with a climate that is warm (about 80 degrees year-round), dry, and windy. However, despite being dry, it is also humid. Because the island gets little rain, beaches may have some palm trees, but the island’s greenery includes a significant number of cacti.
A part of the Netherlands since the 17th century, the island has a strong Dutch influence and Dutch is the island’s official language. However, the primary language of most residents is a Portuguese-based creole called Papiamento. Learning a few words of Papiamento is appreciated, but don’t worry. Most people speak at least a couple of languages, including English and Spanish.
Travel to and around Bonaire
Bonaire is easy to reach from a number of airports in the USA, the Netherlands, and the Caribbean. Americans can fly directly to Bonaire’s Flamingo International Airport via Newark, Houston, Atlanta, or Miami. Europeans can get direct flights out of Amsterdam. Other flights connect to Bonaire via Aruba or Curacao.
(I flew American to Curacao and Insel Air between the ABC islands. However, after years of problems and service reductions, the airline quit operating last year.)
Car rentals are expensive, but pretty much a necessity whether you plan to tour on land or dive from shore. A high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle is required to visit Slagbaai and is a good idea in some other remote areas.
Fortunately, due to the number of independent divers visiting the island, you’ll find lots of trucks for rent and these can be cheaper, if less comfortable, than a small SUV.
Eating on Bonaire
Kralendijk and the coastline immediately to the north has lots of dining options from budget to relatively lux. Relatively few serve local cuisine, but lots of well-prepared international dishes are readily available.
Rincon also offers a number of spots to eat. Many feature traditional island fare.
Beach bars and grills can also be found at some popular beaches and beach or dive resorts.
Of course, if you have a house or are at a resort or hotel with a grill, you can always buy groceries and cook for yourself.
Lodging on Bonaire
The vast majority of lodging on Bonaire is geared to groups of divers. However, the island has a full range of lodging available – plan well in advance if you are looking for something a little fancier. Almost all are located along the stretch of coastline around Kralendijk and north a bit.
We rented a small house with a pool through Airbnb. If you’ve never tried Airbnb, use this link to save at least $20 (and up to $65) on your first booking. (Affiliate link)
Resources with more information on Bonaire
Check travel details for my entire ABC islands itinerary, including a travel map.
These websites offer additional information for visiting Bonaire: