Off the northern coast of Venezuela lies the white sand beaches and cotton candy turquoise waters of Aruba. At first sight Aruba is all cocktails and cruise ship tourists, but there is so much more to its windswept beauty and rugged interior crawling with blue-bellied lizards.
Until October 2010 Aruba was part of the Netherlands Antilles (along with Saba, Bonaire, Saint Eustatius and Curacao) but has since gained status as its own country within the Dutch Kingdom. The local language is Papiamentu, a Caribbean mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and native American dialects. Dutch, English, and Spanish are also widely spoken and understood making it very easy to communicate with locals and foreign tourists alike.
It is known as the happy island and “One Happy Island” memorabilia can be found sketched on every license plate and souvenir. But, at least for me, it took a little digging (rather driving) deeper into the interior and edges of the island to find its true treasures. Most tourists come for the paradise package and cling to Palm beach and its surroundings (which is totally fine). But, if you venture off road you will find the true essence of the Aruba — beautiful, flawed, and comfortable in its own rugged skin.
Try these 9 adventures if the daiquiris just aren’t doing it …
1) Rent a jeep and explore Arikok National Park
It truly is the best way to see the island in its entirety. If you’re not comfortable driving a jeep you can always take an ABC tour, rent a bike, or even a 4 wheeler! After deciding on your terrain vehicle of choice, head to Arikik National Park. The entrance contains a small museum outlining the desert animals you might encounter, and it costs $11/person to enter.
You could spend all day driving through the rugged, desert-like terrain, but if you only have a couple of hours, follow the signs signs towards Conchi or the Natural Pool.
2) Cool off in Conchi
The bumpy, ‘hit your head on the roof’, and juggle up your insides kind of ride through cactus and rock-filled dirt roads is definitely worth it. The Natural or (Conchi) pool is like a turquoise ocean bubble bath protected from the raging surf by thick, charcoal rocks.
3) Grab a pint of cold Balashi beer at Charlie’s Bar
Charlie’s is a local bar overflowing with antiques, i.e. hanging tooth brushes, old beer signs, portraits, musical instruments, and license plates from all over the world. It’s like you walked into your grandmother’s basement filled with Caribbean music, cold local Balashi beer, and a steaming hot basket of shrimp to match.
4) Cruise through San Marcos as you head to Baby Beach
The deserted colorful town of San Marcos leads you out of souvenir shops and high rise hotels and down a dodgy, rock filled road with a massive defunct oil refinery on your right, hiding the bright turquoise waters from sight. Along the way you may encounter a wild tribe of donkeys, maybe some goats as you cruise down bumpy roads and into a scene from a seemingly Caribbean sci-fi or horror movie.
5) Drink dripping fresh coconuts at the California lighthouse
The lighthouse grants incredible vistas of the entire coastline. The structure itself is in brittle condition and is currently under construction. Your transportation options to the lighthouse are endless and you will see bikers, four-wheelers, buses, and plenty of jeep wranglers around. While you’re there, grab a dripping fresh coconut to quench your thirst.
6) Beach, beach, beach it
The glowing turquoise waters and white sandy beaches are one of the biggest draws to Aruba, and you definitely won’t be disappointed. Palm beach is the epi-center of water sports and activities. Whatever you desire, you can find it here – windsurfing, kitesurfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, jet boarding, canoeing, and so much more. This was my first time windsurfing, and the cotton candy blue waves are ideal for beginners.
Honestly, no filter needed is an understatement – this is the most breathtakingly turquoise water I have ever seen. Kiteboarding, stand up paddle boarding, jet-packing, and canoeing are also available. Bottom line – the aquatic activity list is absolutely endless on Palm Beach.
7) Chomp on the freshest fish in town at Zeerover’s
Head south to the small town of Savaneta to dine at Zeerover’s, an ocean side jaunt with fish so fresh you can see them squirming before their lowered into the bubbling oils. This place is always bursting with locals, and has a lively Caribbean costal feel. The wait can be about 2 hours long most afternoons, but no need to fret–enjoy an ice cold Balashi (local beer) as you wait in line staring out over the crystal blue waters. Complete your meal with a trip to the sinks provided to wash your face, paper towels included!
8) Get your tropical pastel fix in the Capital city, Oranjestad
The constant 82 degree days shine sunlight on the tropical pastels of most local buildings, and exploring the streets of Oranjestad will give you a glimpse of its barren decor and European-influenced architecture. The capital city is quite empty, so have a couple destinations in mind as you wander like the Archaeological Museum of Aruba or the Aruba Aloe Factory and Museum where you can sample, use, or buy natural aloe made right on the island!
I hope this off-roading detour inspired you to check out what traveling to “One Happy Island’ is really all about. Aruba is a prime example of an all-inclusive resort destination that has hidden treasure buried beneath its layers of wind-blown dirt. If you are headed to Aruba to lie on the beach and drink strawberry daiquiris (we’ve all been there, done that) – I promise this is the place for you.
But, if the daiquiris get old and you want something a little different, I hope these suggestions will guide you beyond the tourist traps and into one of the most ruggedly unique islands in the Caribbean!
All photos by Phoebe Nygren