Winter can be a frustrating time for riders in Ontario, well for me anyway. Yes there are studded tires, the recent fat bike craze and indoor riding parks but really, for me there is nothing that beats warm weather riding. Don’t get me wrong, I love the winter, but I can’t shake the idea that winter is for skiing, snowshoeing and other snowy pursuits. That being said I often look longingly at my bike sitting in garage during the long winter months and wish for a fix, just a quick hit, of summer riding.
Enter my recent trip to Curacao. After battling colds, the flu and a host of other ailments over the holidays my wife and I decided that a trip South with the kids was just what the Doctor ordered. As I mentioned above, we both love winter but a ski trip with an 11 month old and a 3 year old sounded like a lot of ‘work’. So South it was. My wife and I both love to travel. Before kids travel was about finding the most exotic destination possible and squeezing every ounce of adventure out of the trip. With little people this has become a little more difficult, but not impossible. We were not interested in the typical all inclusive destination that had a traditional hotel room as the accommodation. Sitting in the bathroom, hallway or balcony when the kids went to bed at 7pm didn’t really sound appealing. We also wanted to travel somewhere we hadn’t been, was kid-friendly and guaranteed to have good weather. It seemed like a pretty tall order. After a little sifting we settled on the beautiful Island of Curacao. To be honest, I knew nothing about the Island other than where it was on a map and that there is a blue Liquor with the same name – that I figured was made there.
With flights and villa style accommodations booked I decided to look a little more closely at what we could do while we were there, other than hit up the beach. A quick search of ‘What to do in Curacao’ turned up a variety of active pursuits, from the obvious, snorkeling and water based activities, to the not so obvious hiking and, what for it – Mountain Biking. Now I was intrigued. I was linked from the Curacao Tourism Board website (www.curacao.com) to a bike tour company WannaBike (www.wannabike.com) and after a quick read I was convinced that I would have to try riding on the island. After getting the go ahead from my VERY understanding wife to have a morning off for a ride I contacted WannaBike to see about arranging a ride while in Curacao.
Being that it was very last minute that we booked our trip I sent a quick email to inquire about the possibility of arranging a ride while in Curacao. My email was met with a prompt reply asking to fill out the reservation form with a little more information. The added information would help make sure my riding experience fit my needs and ability. From my first contact with WannaBike it was clear that the owner Ellimieke van Beek was going to do everything possible to get me out for a ride.
We arrived in Curacao and my communication continued via email with Ellimieke. Over a number of back and forth emails we tried to hammer out a date for an ‘advanced ride.’ She even went as far as to invite me out for a ride with her training group to meet some other local riders – as much as I would have loved to jump at the opportunity it just wasn’t in the cards. Just when it seemed like things weren’t going to work out Ellimieke stepped up and asked one of her Advanced guides, Hans, to lead a weekend ride for me – as it turned out my last full day on the island. Perfect, the ride was on!
Tours with WannaBike are scheduled around the weather, which while we were there was pretty much exactly the same every day. That is to say, they don’t ride during the hottest part of the day. Which is good because ‘hot’ while I was there during the last week of January meant 40c, with the humidity factored in. It seemed like 8-11am was the preferred ride time which worked well for me.
While WannaBike usually organizes transportation to and from the ride departure spot, this was a one off ride so I was on my own to get there. Conveniently, the departure location is directly across the road from a bus stop making it was easy to get there by myself from the resort where we were staying. Grabbing some quick breakfast on my way out the door, I caught the bus at 7:15am. A quick bus ride dropped me off and I finished my breakfast as I waited for my guide to arrive. Minutes later, Hans rode up and after a quick introduction he showed me to my steed for the adventure. I choose to rent a Specialized Rockhopper 29er over the other option a Trek model I didn’t recognize. Inside their ‘shop’, a shipping container, they had my size all ready to go. A quick pedal change to SPDs (I brought my own shoes), adjustment of tire pressure, frozen water bottles and a helmet meant we were ready to roll, minus the other rider that would be joining us. As we waited, Hans and I had a chance to talk and I learned a little more about him and how he ended up with WannaBike. For Hans, guiding with WannaBike is a second job, by day he is a part of a Special Police Force aimed at combating Organized Crime in Curacao. He is on a 5 year leave from a similar position back in Holland. I also learned that he is a two-time Police and Fire mountain bike champion. Hans also has a daughter who works in the bike industry with some big name companies.
After a quick phone call to the other rider we found out he was actually at WannaBike’s office just down the road, waiting for us so we rode over to meet him. After brief introductions we were off. Our ride to the trailhead began on paved roads which made for a good warm up before hitting the trails. I was glad it was early in the day and a weekend because riding on the road in Curacao was not something I was looking forward to. Driving was scary enough, riding seemed like a death wish. Thankfully we made it to our destination without incident. We actually passed a large group of roadies out for a club ride on the way, safety in numbers I guess.
Our target for riding was Joris Bay. The land is privately owned by family who allows the area to be used for a variety of recreational pursuits. When we arrived there were a few cars in the lot and a couple riders buzzing around. Hans gave us a quick overview of the area, as well as a ‘ride within your limits’ chat before heading off on our first trail, The Cactus Trail. It was evident very quickly how the trail got its name. Wandering off the trail in any direction would result in a rather painful experience. Needless to say tubeless tires are not a luxury but a necessity to ride here. It seemed like every plant had some sort of spike or thorn attached to it just waiting for its next victim. The trail was built by an American who is currently living in Curacao. As with all the trails in the area, it was built and continues to be maintained by volunteers. The trail was designed for riders of all levels and wound its way through stands of low trees and of course, cactus, lots of cactus! After a little while on the trail, Hans let me take the lead, which was appreciated, as I could lay off the brakes and carry more speed into the berms that were built up in many of the corners. While the trail wasn’t the most technically demanding, it was fun to ride, especially the berms, and a great way to get acquainted with both the bike and the terrain.
The trail looped back to the parking lot and we continued through to the other side of the bay. The next trail was named ‘Endless Summer’ – fitting for Curacao. The trail was built to honour the Bike Festival that happens on a long weekend in August at Joris Bay. Hans explained how the festival is all things mountain bike and fun for the whole family. The trail itself is used for a Time Trial which is one of the many events that take place during the Festival. From Hans’ description it sounded like a fun filled weekend chock full of bike related events, live music, bonfires and general good times. Not far into the trail it forked. Hans explained that in essence the offshoot to the right, a more technical route, created an extended loop on one side before meeting up with the main trail later on. To my chagrin we took the ‘less technical’ side. From what I understand the more technical route had some off-camber riding and a degree of exposure along a cliff. Sounded like fun to me. However, given the skill level of the other member of our group it was likely for the best that we took the tamer of the two trails. The trails in the area were what I would classify as classic cross country, ribbons of dirt that find their way up, over and around the topography, nothing terribly technical, but you have to keep your head up nevertheless.
As we finished up on ‘Endless Summer’ we were dumped out onto a dirt road which we crossed over before heading to my personal favourite trail of the ride. The trail was again built by yet another local volunteer. From my understanding it took him a year and a half to build – working on his off weeks (I believe he worked on an oil rig). He would spend 2-3 hours a day building before knocking off during the heat of the day.
The results of his efforts are a great trail that climbs up to a high point overlooking the bay before a quick decent with some challenging switchbacks thrown in before finishing on the beach. His efforts were rewarded by some friends who have put up a sign at the beginning of the trail with his name on it. For me, the most challenging, and as a result, the most fun part of the trail is the ‘North Shore’ style climb built of pallets to get you to the high point on the trail. The set up at the bottom is a tight right handed switchback before getting on the wooden climb followed by a downhill section.
Once down on the beach we headed over the Endless Summer Beach Camp to check out the basecamp for the festival. What an amazing set up! Hans shared with us a story about how the camp burnt to the ground just weeks before the Festival and how it was then completely rebuilt by volunteers in time for the festivities. I was getting the sense that the riding community here was very committed, to say the least.
After lingering around the camp for awhile we rode along a section of mangrove trees to the final trail of the day. The ride over had us pass the drift track and the MX track also on the property before hooking into a section of the trail used in the National Mountain Bike Championships. Once again the trail was classic cross country weaving its way along a fairly barren, minus the large cactus, section of high ground. After a gentle descent off the high ground we were back at a dirt road which led us out of the Joris Bay area and back to paved roads for our ride home. Hans told me there were many other trails in the area, and it was at this point, I wished I had more time to explore them. It felt like I was just getting warmed up to the riding in the area. We retraced our way back to the tour departure location and on the way I understood why in Curacao you ride early. The difference in heat from the morning ride out was apparent – it was time to get out of the sun.
When we arrived back at the departure area I squared up with Hans ($65 USD for bike and helmet rental, guide and tour) and we talked a little more about trails on the island. He told me that the volunteerism and trail building on the island is very strong. In fact, had he not been showing us around, he would have been lending a hand in the WEEKLY Saturday trail building sessions happening minutes away from where we were standing. Currently, the trail is a ‘secret’ as they are trying to tie together various sections in order to stay off the road and on the dirt. Again, I couldn’t help but feel the community vibe here. We shook hands and said our goodbyes. Just before leaving Hans suggested I join him for a ride called Ride for the Roses (http://ridefortheroses.net/) which was a charity ride to raise money for Cancer. There were fun routes, road routes as well as a Mountain Bike route. Unfortunately I would be on my way to the airport before the ride finished.
While I only rode on one trail system during my time in Curacao I did have a chance to hike another set of trails that was right behind our resort. Jan Thiel is a large lagoon surrounded by a nature preserve. My wife and I took the kids for an early morning hike on the trails that surround the lagoon. Being on foot obviously gave a different perspective than being on a bike but it gave a general feel for the area. Compared to Joris Bay the Jan Thiel trails that I was on, were a lot wider and straighter – this may not be the case with all the trails there but is an observation I made based on what I experienced.
Of note is that some of the trails in this area were actually developed for a World Cup Race held here in 2006. The area also boasts the largest colony of flamingoes on the island as well as a variety of other birds and countless lizards. Given more time I would have loved to explore the area on a bike – guess I will just have to go back.
Beaches with benefits
Oddly enough, my beach holiday turned out to be a great riding destination as well. I was very surprised, as well as impressed, with the riding community in Curacao. Had you have asked me a month ago about a riding trip to Curacao I would have thought you were mad. I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to travel and ride in many places, most of which pride and market themselves on their riding. While the trails I rode in Curacao were not the most challenging they were right up there with the most scenic and certainly more unique than I have ridden other places. Factor in a variety of activities for the rest of the family, Curacao was a hit all around. Would I go back to ride? Certainly! Especially because I know that the weather will be hot (even in the dead of Canadian Winters), the beer will be cold and the riding community will be welcoming.