Ask any diver in Bonaire where else they like to go diving, and you will hear the same answer over and over – “We’ve been coming to Bonaire for the last 25 years!” That’s the magic of “Diver’s Paradise” – once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to go anywhere else.
I started feeling excited at the departure gate in Atlanta. It was teeming with middle aged people sporting shark tattoos, scuba flag hats, and jewelry in the shape of turtles. These were life-long divers! And now I would be among them.
The pristine reef, the multitude of dive sites, the easy shore access, the standardized system of diving packages with unlimited air and Nitrox, great food, year around good weather, and the special welcome divers receive on Bonaire all make it an oasis made especially for those who love to scuba dive. The one and only drawback of Bonaire is its relative expensiveness.
Large mural on the main road
Direct flights to Bonaire are limited to Amsterdam, Atlanta and Houston, and they are usually not cheap, often more than a thousand dollars for the US flights. All others have to be routed through Curaçao where you have to get an additional ticket on a local airline. I live in a city with a smallish airport, so I always look for the most direct flights to limit my layovers to one. If you plan well ahead of time, you can find affordable tickets on one of the coveted direct flights. I checked Kayak Explore for tickets until I found some for only $569 from Richmond to Bonaire with a layover in Atlanta. Keep in mind, I bought a ticket for the middle of January on August 1st of the previous year – nearly 6 months in advance! But they were half the normal price! And remember – you can go to Bonaire at any time during the year. Unlike the rest of the Caribbean, the ABC islands don’t have hurricanes, so you can make reservations for July or for November, and you are guaranteed good weather.
Once you’ve scored a good ticket, you have to choose three more things – your car rental, your accommodation, and your dive shop. Many people opt to get a package with all three from one place. Pretty much every diving operator offers a flat price on a week of hotel, truck rental, and unlimited air tanks. After evaluating several of the most economical options, I chose to do everything separately.
After reading reviews, I chose a local company, Telerin Travel and Car Tental. You reserve your truck via email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com), provide your credit card and flight information, but they don’t charge you until the day you pick up the car. They provide insurance if you need it, but they are fully licensed, so if you have a credit card that includes car insurance (as many do), you can opt out. Someone meets you at the airport and drives you to a dirt lot with your truck, hands you the keys and explains how to use the code ignition lock. All trucks are manual and come with a rack for air tanks in the back – very handy! At the end of your trip you simply leave the truck in short term parking at the airport with keys inside. It’s super easy.
Hotels and resorts on Bonaire are quite expensive, starting at $200 a night. I managed to find a beautiful guest house with our own kitchen and patio with a view of the sea for only one hundred a night – on AirBnB, of course. Options were limited, but what we got was fantastic and much cheaper and better than a hotel. Our house came with WiFi, TV, a plastic bin for rinsing dive equipment, and a big friendly dog. The owners are a retired Dutch couple who rent several properties around Bonaire.
Finally, after soliciting advice from friends and internet forums, I chose Buddy Dive as our dive shop. It was close to our house, and, as I later found, it is one of the best dive shops I’ve ever been to. The equipment was new, organization made sense, and location and dock extremely attractive and convenient. We also took a Nitrox class and were happy with it. The main challenge was actually making the reservation. This part of the service was quite ridiculous, and we ended up calling and emailing them for two weeks, only to get a rude reception when we arrived. If you can overlook that, everything else at Buddy Dive is great. My advice is to try to communicate with only one person at all times. For some reason the staff is not capable of coordinating among themselves. Just remember – you have to be there before 9 a.m. on your first day for orientation. They won’t let you dive without it.
What to bring
The US Dollar is the official currency of Bonaire. However, obtaining cash from ATMs can be expensive. So bring a good amount of cash with you. You can pay for your air packages, diving classes, hotel and car rental with a credit card without additional fees, but be aware that even though you are making a charge in US dollars, your credit card might still add a foreign transaction fee because Bonaire is a foreign country. Use only those cards that include free foreign transactions (Capital One and AAdvantage Citi are two that I use).
If you have your own diving equipment, you should bring it. Like everything else on Bonaire, equipment rental is not cheap and is never included in packages.
You should bring plenty of pharmacy and cosmetic basics. First, you will pay dearly for anything you have to buy, and second, the one supermarket in Kralendijk may not have what you need. Everything is imported on a ship. I ran out of contact solution – sorry, but the container doesn’t come till Sunday! And that’s that.
Shore divers in Bonaire are advised not to lock their cars and to not leave anything valuable in them. Stealing from parked cars is just about the only crime on Bonaire, but it does happen. Fancy sunglasses, jewelry, cameras, wallets, diving equipment that you are not wearing, or even any nice clothes should stay at home. Bring an old towel, some old clothes, and some snacks and water. Easy, right?!
We got an underwater dry pouch, very similar to this one, and used it to bring a credit card, driver’s license, some cash and the car key with us under water. I would not put an iPhone in it, but for everything that can get wet, it’s acceptable. Everything stayed perfectly dry, but I don’t think these bags are super reliable.
You might ask – if you can’t bring an iPhone or a camera with you, how did you take pictures? Here’s my secret: I brought an old iPhone 4 with me and hid it under rocks at each dive site. The shore on Bonaire consists mostly of bleached pieces of coral and rock, rather than sand, with some sparse vegetation. After snapping any pictures I wanted, I chose a spot on the beach I could easily remember, maybe under a bush or near a stump, but out of the main drag, and buried the iPhone under rocks. There was rarely anyone else at the site besides us, or they were tourists as well. I did this all week, and it worked every time. I still have my trusty iPhone 4.
You can do shore dives with just your buddy in Bonaire. You don’t need a dive master or a group! However, you will need an Open Water Diver certificate that a dive shop will check before selling you the tag for diving in the Bonaire preserve. You should not go shore diving on your own if neither you nor your buddy have some prior scuba diving experience.
First, you need to get this book. You can sometimes find used copies on amazon or eBay, but it is sold for $40 all over Bonaire, including every dive shop and gear shop. It comes in English and in Dutch. Luckily a friend of ours was going to Bonaire before us, and she agreed to buy us a copy. We got to study it before leaving and mark the sites that sounded interesting.
Once you have all of your equipment, you can begin loading your truck with air tanks and going to shore dive sites with your buddy whenever you please! Buddy Dive requires everyone to dive Buddy’s Reef first, and Bari Reef next door is also very easily accessible. This is a good way to get comfortable with the shore diving system.
So, how do you do it?
You can shore dive any site that is accessible from shore. These are indicated in the dive guide, which describes each entry in detail and will give you an idea of how hard or easy it is. Sites are marked on the beach or on the road with yellow rocks and the name of the site. We had no trouble finding any of them. There were enough shore sites to dive three times per day for a week without adding any boat dives. We organized our diving by doing two sites next to each other and bringing snacks to eat during shore intervals. We also tried to reload with full tanks before Buddy Dive closed at 5 pm so we could be ready to go early the next morning. Don’t leave your diving equipment in your truck in parking lots or overnight, and make sure you can see your truck if you stop somewhere for lunch during the day.
Here are some of my favorite sites
1000 Steps will require you to walk down quite a few stairs with your gear on, but the glorious view from the top will be your reward.
Oil Slick Leap – this is a site with a fun jump-in entry and a ladder for exit, and with many caves and fissures along the reef.
Hilma Hooker – this impressive wreck is quite deep and is a very popular site. You should get here as early as you can in the morning and dive it before the crowds.
Andrea II – did this site at sunrise and saw a hawksbill turtle here.
Karpata – this was the most difficult shore entry of all the sites, but it was still manageable. Someone was on the platform to help me up when I surfaced. And the site was really worth it. It has one of the most interesting landscapes. Lizardfish, large nudibranchs and manta rays can be spotted here.
Invisibles is a double reef site that requires some navigation, but it rewards with unusual landscape and giant green morays.
Salt Pier is a shallow dive site teeming with marine life that looks especially spectacular in the afternoon sun. Look closely at the debris below the pier and you will spot many creatures that have taken up residence in human garbage.
Karpata entry is from a concrete platform and usually has some waves
Van Den Tweel – this is the one large supermarket on Bonaire, but it is very well stocked with American, Dutch, and Caribbean foods and even has a bakery and a whole vegetarian entree section. Go ahead and explore! Dutch cheese, stroopwafels, ripe passion fruit, South African wine and imported vegan meatballs are all here! Since we had a kitchen we cooked quite a few of our own meals.
Between Two Buns – beautiful sandwich shop with outdoor seating, my favorite stop for inter-dive lunch. Good quality coffee, elaborate desserts, gourmet sandwiches and fries worthy of Dutch tourists. Not cheap but portions are huge.
Pasa Bon Pizza – expensive but tasty pizza with classic ingredients. Getting a table might be hard, but they do carry out as well.
Kite City food truck – cash only food truck that parks on Te Amo beach near the airport on most days. The sandwiches are made with fresh catch and are really high quality. Check their Facebook page for updated location info – when the wind is good, the owners go windsurfing instead.
At Sea – if you have a special occasion or just feel like a fancy dinner, this place really delivers. I’m usually not into expensive restaurants with tiny portions, but At Sea really is good.
What else can you do?
Bonaire has an arid climate with a landscape dominated by dry earth, rocks, and spiny low vegetation. Wild donkeys roam the island, along with some goats. If you want to spend a day without diving, you can drive north to Washington Slagbaai National Park. This is a real expedition that will take a whole day and should not be done after heavy rains due to the quality of the roads. In addition to hiking and mountain biking, you can shore dive in the park. But make sure to start early, as you have to be able to finish your dives and exit the park before it closes. You should bring all of your food and water.
In the south, you can visit the flamingo sanctuary, which might have birds depending on the season. Also here are the surreal pink lakes of salt water next to the salt works, with giant white mountains of salt. These can be visited between dives.
You are sure to have a heavenly time in Bonaire. Maybe next time I will see you there, because I am definitely coming back.