Curacao brochures and press releases trumpet the Caribbean island’s location outside the hurricane belt, its 30 beaches, modern hotels, year-round 80-degree temperatures, ethnic and cultural diversity, quaint pastel downtown buildings and proximity to Venezuela.
What they don’t tell you about is the hush-hush Campo Alegre Resort, which is one of the world’s largest brothels. Think Amsterdam and its swinging, legal red-light district, and you’ll get the picture of this Dutch island’s little secret.
Ask any crew member on the hundreds of ships that annually drop anchor in Curacao as to where his colleagues go to relax and unwind, and the privately-owned Campo Alegre (Spanish for “Camp Happiness”) will be the answer you’re likely to get.
For more than 50 years, it has been a legally operated sexual oasis for wandering males and adventuresome tourists.
“Open 24 hours. Unbelievable selection of ladies, restaurant, casino, bar… government inspected,” reads an Internet website (www.crewdiscount.com), targeting cruise, airline and yacht crews.
It’s a five-minute drive from the Hato International Airport, or 20 minutes from downtown Willemstad, the Netherlands’ Antilles capital and commercial center.
Having disembarked from the Crystal Harmony cruise ship — and adventurous, curiosity-seekers that we are — my wife Dorothy and I were impressed by the jovial, beefy and seemingly knowledgeable taxi-van driver who said he’s taken many a “john” there and offered us a close-up look.
You know you’ve arrived when a huge, green clover-leaf sign with the words, “Campo Alegre” pokes out from a seemingly desolate area off the main road. Outside the entrance, there’s another welcoming sign in English and Spanish:
“For Pleasure Only.” Listed below that are some caveats, “18 Years Up,” “No Weapon” and “Parking at Your Own Risk.”
Aside from two trucks and another van, the unpaved, rock-strewn parking lot fronting the complex was empty. Two tough-looking, uniformed security men stopped us as we entered. They demanded that I put away my camera. Journalist or not, I was told, picture taking is verboten.
A request to interview the manager was denied. “She’s on the phone, a long-distance call, and won’t be able to talk to you today,” said the summoned security chief in perfect English.
As observers, not patrons, we opted not to pay an entrance fee — $5 for males, $14 for females — after learning we’d be watched by a security detail and that we wouldn’t be free to talk to anyone or take pictures on the 25-acre site.
Why the admission difference? The question brought no answer – only a security officer’s shrug. But Kara Barbakoff, a Florida-based public relations representative from Curacao’s Department of Tourism who maintains she’s not very familiar with the operation, offered this explanation:
“It’s a gentleman’s club, I guess, and the idea is that the guys need a place to hang out without women being around. It would get confusing if guys started hitting on women who were, in fact, customers of the bar rather than working there.”
She had been told, she said, that 10-20 percent of the brothel’s patrons are tourists, depending on the season. We observed three casually dressed young men readily paying the fees after which, each was subjected to a patting down by one of the security men.
Our 42-year-old married driver, Manuel Cathalina (“everyone calls me, ‘Mingo’”), appeared to know considerably more about the resort than the PR rep:
There were 157 female prostitutes, one of the security men told him. We spotted several in tight slacks, jeans and colorful blouses walking and chatting among themselves on the grounds, which were deserted on that December morning. They looked to be in their 20s and 30s.
The place doesn’t come alive until after 10:30 pm, Mingo said, when female performers take to a platform stage and begin pole-dancing and strip-tease routines. At a thatched-roof bar, large TV screens flash erotic scenes near a couple dozen slot machines and a billiard table.
Prices are usually negotiable, according to our driver, and they run anywhere from $30 to $200 or more, depending on the time and nature of the sexual services requested.
Most of the prostitutes come from Columbia and the Dominican Republic with three-month visas and legal work permits. They reside and do their thing in 40 brightly-colored, reconditioned World War II-era military barracks.
The yellow, orange, and red one-story cinderblock structures are arranged to accommodate up to 300 sex workers. Each single-story building has four-to-eight rooms. Some have miniature flower gardens outside and all have opaque curtains inside.
“The girls are supposed to be 21-to-23-years-old,” said Mingo, “but some I’ve seen look younger and probably lied about their age.”
They are required to undergo frequent physical examinations by a government health-department physician, he said. To help ensure against AIDS and other diseases, the prostitutes, acting as independent contractors, are expected to provide their “johns” with free condoms and insist that they be used.
“Tuesday night is ladies’ night here,” Mingo said with a straight face. “The ladies can establish relationships and use all the facilities (the restaurant, the casino, the bar). “No, Campo Alegre doesn’t have male prostitutes.”
As we prepared to pull out of the parking lot, we noticed the arrival of a couple more vehicles. From the road, I snapped a picture of the resort with the sea as a backdrop before heading back to Willemstad where we toured one of Curacao’s historic landmarks, the Mikve-Israel Emanuel Synagogue with its sand-covered floor. It’s the oldest continuously operated synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
But that’s another story.