One Happy Island
Aruba is a small island in the Caribbean a few kilometers off the north coast of Venezuela. It’s hot, sunny and windy year round but the main tourist season is around Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s cold and grey in the northern hemisphere. Aruba is easily accessible from the United States; from Europe, there are direct flights only from Amsterdam. In June and July, low season in Aruba, you can find very good deals with KLM from Europe.
All of the island’s beaches are on the western coast; the east coast is too rough, rocky, and windy (windier than the west coast, if that’s even possible). Therefore, the big hotels are all along the west coast, mainly the northern part of the island, where the best beaches are. These hotels are always rather expensive, even during low season. However, if you don’t mind not staying at the beach you can find quite cheap accommodation.
We stayed at Pega Pega Apartments, basic apartments only a ten minutes walk away from pretty Surfer’s beach and with everything you need: air conditioning, a bathroom and a well equipped kitchen. It’s also very close to the airport and when we arrived, we took a bus from the airport which only cost 6 florin per person whereas a taxi costs at least 30 for the same, very short, distance. The bus stop is just opposite the airport on the main road. There’s no zebra crossing but, even though it’s a highway, Arubans will stop for you. With the help of Google maps you should be able to find the closest bus stop to your destination and if you have any doubts, ask the locals.
The best thing about Aruba are not the island’s beaches but its inhabitants: people are incredibly friendly and helpful, you’ll instantly fall in love with them. Most Arubans are multilingual, which makes it easy to communicate, and speak English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamento, or at least two of these languages. Papiamento is a creole and, together with Dutch, official language of the island.
Food & Transport
Restaurants are expensive and if you’re on a budget, self catering is definitely the better option. There are small Chinese supermarkets on every corner, there you can find basics like rice, canned beans and bananas. On the northern end of Oranjestad there are a few big supermarkets but to get there you most likely need a car.
Renting a car costs around US$50 a day, including insurance. Unless you only want to stay at the beach, renting a car is absolutely worth it because it’s about the only way to explore the island by yourself. Forget public transport; the most interesting part of the island is the eastern side and Arikok national park, and no buses go there. On the eastern side of the island, there are some unsealed roads but most of them are easily passable in a regular car. Not so in the national park, there you do need a 4×4 for some of the roads. Or you walk.
Not your typical Caribbean island
Contrary as to what you might expect from an island in the Caribbean, Aruba isn’t covered in lush green rain forests; in fact, there are no forests at all. Mainly only cacti (lots and lots of them) grow on the island, as well as trees and shrubs that don’t need much water or soil. Whereas the western side is more or less densely populated (only just over 100.000 people live on Aruba), the eastern side is more desert like with rocky landscapes strewn with cacti and bushes and a rugged, wild coastline.
Apart from its beaches, Aruba has a few other attractions and if you have a car, you can explore everything in a week (or even less). Just in case you’re wondering, we didn’t visit famous Renaissance Island, a narrow, elongated island off the coast opposite the airport, where flamingos share the beach with tourists willing to pay the hefty admission fee.
Oranjestad and Aruba’s south
Oranjestad’s center is small and tranquil. There’s a free tram doing the rounds through the center and you can just hop on and off wherever you like. The old, Dutch colonial style houses are very pretty and although some are not very well looked after they give the town a unique charm. Get a batido (fruit smoothie) at one of the batido shops and just walk around and venture off the main street and you’ll discover a lot of lovely old buildings.
On the southern end of the island is San Nicolas, a small town worth exploring on foot: Thanks to a yearly art festival, many of the town’s houses are painted with fantastic murals. The more you walk and corners you turn, the more amazing paintings you find. We heard the town’s a bit dodgy at night but during the day it’s a must see.
A short drive further south from San Nicolas is Baby Beach, a beautiful, shallow, horseshoe shaped bay with turquoise waters and white sand. If you can ignore the oil refinery in the background, the beach is amazing and especially great for kids (hence the name, I guess) since the waters in the bay are very quiet.
Boca Grandi beach, a rougher and much wilder beach, can be found on the way from San Nicolas to Baby beach. Either stop at the huge red anchor and walk down to the beach or leave the paved road at the anchor and continue on the unpaved track; there are several places to park your car. The beach is a favorite among kite surfers; the winds are strong and the surfers jump meters into the air – it’s a delight to watch and makes you want to take up kite surfing right now.
The east coast
Another place you can easily reach with a normal car even though the road is unpaved is the natural bridge and the Bushiribana ruins depicted on the back of the 10 florin banknote. The (now collapsed) natural bridge is not really worth a visit, the waters below are full of garbage but you can leave your car in the parking lot and walk south to a few stunning beaches cut into the rocky coast.
The Bushiribana ruins, built in 1825, used to be a gold smelter that was operated for only ten years; Aruba’s gold mines didn’t yield much. The ruins are small and not very impressive, what’s more impressive is the desert landscape surrounding them. Even though the island is so small, this place feels totally different from the populated western side.
Another pretty place is the Alto Vista chapel, a small chapel on a hill with good views of the sea. From there, you can walk to the rocky beach; we found an old wooden hut that used to be a bar, or so it seemed, and which provided us with a calm spot sheltered from the relentless sun and wind to watch the waves crash against the rocky shore.
The best views you’ll get, of course, from the top of the Hooiberg, Dutch for haystack (maybe because it’s covered in cacti? Or because it’s not much higher than a haystack?). It’s not the highest hill on Aruba, but it’s located in the center of the island and can be seen from almost everywhere and is easily accessible.
The Hooiberg is an astonishing 165 meters high. That doesn’t sound like much, but climb the almost 600 steps (a bit less or much more, depending on the source; I didn’t count them) in Aruban heat and humidity and then tell me it was nothing. It’s worth every drop of sweat, though: the views from the top are unbeatable, you can even see the coast of Venezuela from up there. And if you’re sitting on the big stone facing the western coast you have a windless spot (which is very rare for Aruba) to take pictures of the sunset. The Hooiberg is most likely the best place for sunset on the whole island. Although the steps are quite steep, the descent is easy and thanks to our mobile phones, these days we all carry a torch in case you have to walk down in the dark.
Arikok National Park
Arikok national park takes up a large area of the south eastern part of the island. The main entrance is in Santa Cruz but you can also get in at the other end, where the wind farm is. A paved road leads through the park. Several hikes start from that road but there are no signs so you just have to rely on the map you receive at the park office but it’s pretty easy to find the places of interest. The drive is a bit annoying because of the many unnecessarily (?) deep ditches across the road which are just way too deep for a car without high ground clearance.
Just after the park entrance gate, we parked and hiked the short way up a small hill. On the hill were some signs with interesting information about gold mining on the island and, of course, the views were stunning.
Once we reached the coast, we went to the Boca Prins sand dunes and then walked further to Dos Playa beach. The hike there and back is only an hour and the terrain is flat but the sun and the wind are so strong that after half an hour you feel like you’ve been walking too much already. Don’t give up, keep on, the scenery is amazing. However, the elements are unforgiving and although the landscape is beautiful, Aruba is not a place to go hiking. You can’t even wear a hat in that wind.
Fontein Grot, a small cave, has interesting paintings from the Arawak, the indigenous people who used to inhabit the island. Oh, and there’s a cockroach house; let the park ranger show it to you, it’s disturbing and scary, unless you like cockroaches.
Apart from those ugly, repugnant bugs, Aruba has quite a lot of wildlife and several endemic species, thanks to the island’s isolated location. Lizards abound, you’ll see them everywhere, but there are also birds and even snakes such as the (critically endangered) Aruba rattlesnake.
Aruba is well worth a visit and there’s plenty to do for a week on the sunny island. If you rent a car and get a cheap apartment where you can cook your own food, you’ll have a fun week without spending a fortune.