by Bonnie Aleman
As the four-wheel drive jeep lunges forward along an unpaved road in the Arikok National Park, I have to laugh at my Caribbean experience. Aruba turned out to be a lot more than resort hotels lining white sandy beaches and lazy days lounging by the pool. My trip turned into two weeks filled with adventure, much more to my liking than daily massages and pampering. This is my definition of paradise.
Aruba is one of the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, almost touching South America, 15 miles south. Its history dates back to the 1400’s to the days of Columbus’ exploration. Although no country considered it to be valuable land, it changed hands many times between the Netherlands, England and Spain. In 1845, it settled into Dutch hands and has been part of the Netherlands ever since.
Here are the best parts of this peculiar Caribbean island:
I strolled along the boardwalk, next to the ocean, watching sailboats glide along the horizon. The ocean is calm, and as the orange and red colors from the sunset start to glow across the night sky, the sailboats take on a shadow effect highlighting the horizon. Off in the distance, windsurfers are catching the last rays of light. There is almost never a time when the water is not dotted with sports enthusiasts. Aruba had some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.
Beyond the gorgeous sunsets, there are white sandy beaches with warm crystal clear water that has made this Caribbean island famous. The blue-green ocean shimmers, the shallow water goes on for long distances. At the nearby popular resorts, the gentle water is perfect for swimming. Sand bars are common creating a lagoon-like feel along the coastal areas on the northwestern side of the island.
Tourists flock to Eagle and Palm Beaches year around. At the opposite end of the island, near San Nicholas, there are fewer resorts and less tourist, as well as more locals. You give up cabanas, beachside cocktail bars, and other resort amenities in exchange for more solitude and fewer crowds.
On the eastern side is a different kind of beauty – jagged cliffs and strong waves crash along coral and limestone rock formations. These areas make great viewing but are not suitable for swimming. Here you find stunning dark blue water and rough waves pounding the rock formations along the shore. As you walk among the rocks, you find that much of the land appears porous, almost like a great coral reef was once under water but over the course of time, mother nature exposed its wonder for us to discover.
Aruba has an incredible variety of ocean and beaches for such a small island.
In addition to the traditional coral reefs found in the Caribbean which make it a popular place to dive and snorkel, Aruba also contains the largest shipwreck in the area. The SS Antilla was built in 1939 and used in both World War I and World War II. It was sunk by the Germans (they sunk their own ship when captured) just off the coast of Aruba and left the 400 foot auxiliary ship still largely intact. Today it is a popular dive ship creating the perfect environment for coral and fish to live in harmony. Seagulls also frequent the area due to the abundance of fish. This area of the island has choppy water so a life jacket is recommended, and tours have a boat on hand for breaks.
In addition to scuba diving and snorkeling, Aruba is also popular for windsurfing due to the constant trade winds. Every evening about an hour before dusk, the windsurfers come out in full force and put on a show, sailing, jumping and doing tricks in the water. A great place to watch windsurfers is north of Eagle Beach near the California Lighthouse. The lighthouse, which sits on a hill, is also a great spot for panoramic views, sunrises and sunsets.
Sprinkled throughout the popular beaches are dive shops, sea kayak rentals, parasailing, paragliding, and other water sports and boat rentals to enjoy the tropical waters.
National Park and Outdoor Adventure
Arikok National Park is a natural wonder best explored in a four-wheel drive or ATV. Guided tours and rentals are available throughout the island. Discover cactus fields where the cacti are as tall as houses; explore the Gold Mine Ruins and locate the Alto Vista Chapel; take a short hike to the natural bridge and take a dip in the natural pools, calm waters surrounded by rough surf and jagged rock formations. You can also tour the Guadirikiri Caves found in the park where there are interesting rock formations.
Exploring the national park made me feel like I was in a strange desert with no sand. The ground is mostly rock and only hardy trees like the Divi Divi tree (an iconic tree in Aruba that always points west with the trade winds), cacti, and other rugged plants survive in this terrain. Far different than the lush greenery and swaying palm trees back at the resort.
At only 19 miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest point, it is hard to imagine the diversity of such a small island. It felt like I had traveled to another country when comparing the desert range in the national park with the coastal beaches.
Shopping, people watching, museums highlighting local history can all be had in Oranjestad. The colorful buildings are lively, music is always playing, and many of the shops carry local goods. Saturday I visited a market and picked up a few local paintings to remind me of my adventure here. Aruba also has the perfect weather for growing aloe vera, and many shops sell locally-produced aloe vera products. You can learn more about this versatile plant and its many uses at the Aruba Aloe Museum.
Tourism is one of Aruba’s key industries and the island takes great pride in their treatment of tourists. Each week they offer festivals celebrating their culture and long history. Every Tuesday night around 7 pm, near Fort Zoutman, between Oranjestad and Eagle Beach, they have a small festival with local artists and crafts sharing their country’s culture. Highlights are bands playing with giant steel drums and local dancers in traditional dress. Food, crafts and local art line the park as well as an hour and a half of local entertainment for $5 – a bargain considering the cultural immersion.
San Nichols, sponsors a weekly festival near the oil refinery every Thursday, also highlighting local music and dances with colorful tents. Party buses are commonly seen in Oranjestad on the weekends.
Aruba Ostrich Farm
Ostriches and emus are not native to Aruba, but adjust comfortably due to the rugged landscape and climate. Get a glimpse of Africa at the Aruba Ostrich Farm, with a gift shop and restaurant adorned with African artwork and cultural memorabilia. Then take a guided tour with over 80 ostriches and emus, along with a host of other birds and animals. I had the chance to feed the ostriches and saw baby birds wandering the farm. It is a small farm by most standards, but the up-close-and-personal visit was worth the drive from town to explore the farm. They have a few other animal farms including a butterfly farm.
The location 15 miles from Venezuela gives Aruba tropical weather year round, averaging 82 degrees with a median temperature variance of only 3.6 degrees. The island gets an average of 20 inches of rain a year which means anytime you go, the weather will be splendid. It is also far enough south that it is not subject to hurricanes and storms like much of the Caribbean.
Easy to Get To
Major carriers such as American, Delta, and United have direct flights from many US major cities. Discount carriers also offer frequent jaunts to the island including Southwest, Jet Blue and Spirit keeping prices low and flights frequent. Round trip air from major cities like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles range from $200 to $600, making Aruba a cost-effective vacation.
Bonnie Aleman is a travel writer who travels the world in search of interesting places and more adventure. She loves meeting new people and sharing travel tips on how to get more value out of travel adventures. She believes that creativity can expand budgets leading to more travel opportunities. Bonnie recently starting blogging and you can follow her at Travelsmartguru.com