Aruba is an island in the Southern Caribbean. It belongs to the group of islands called “Netherlands Antilles” and within this group there is a smaller group called “Leeward Antilles”. People call them ABC islands, for the names: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.
In spite of being relatively small (only 20×6 miles!), Aruba is packed with fun stuff to do, from beautiful wild nature to watersports and night life. And why not? The average temperature is 82 degrees all year around with constant sea breeze, the nature is abundant, the crime is low (it’s one of the safest islands in the Caribbean!) and the people are known for their incredible hospitality. Additionally, since March 19th, travelers are no longer required to present a COVID-19 negative test result or proof of vaccination! Check the latest health requirements HERE.
No wonder, Aruba’s slogan, which is even written on every license plate, is “One Happy Island”! It is One Happy Island indeed, and I offer you my take on 20 very happy things you can do here:
1. Relax at the beach!
Of course, the reason anyone goes to the Caribbean is for its turquoise water. Aruba is no exception! It’s known for gorgeous beaches. It’s pretty much safe to say that no matter where you are staying, the beach is going to be great. But some beaches have their unique characteristics. For example, if you are into watersports, go to the northern end of Palm Beach, one of the best beaches for snorkeling is Mangel Halto, and if you want a crystal clear, warm and shallow “swimming pool”, do a day-trip to Baby Beach.
TIP: taxi prices are regulated by the government, so do not worry about being “set-up”. It is generally about $10-13 around the area and $26-30 to and from the airport (there is a $3 surcharge on Sundays). American dollars are accepted everywhere. Besides taxies, there are several bus lines with very comfortable European-style buses. The ticket is $2.60 per person (it’s ok to pay in American dollars). The buses run every 15 or so minutes in the afternoon and every 20-30 minutes at night, till at least midnight. You can check routes and schedules here. Besides, there are some minibuses, similar to Mexican “colectivos”, which run along the beach for $2 a person.
2. Check out the capital of Aruba, Oranjestad
Oranjestad means Orange Town and was called so after the first king William I of the Netherlands. One of the titles of this king was “Prince of Orange”.
Until early 19th century, Oranjestad was like a village, because Aruba had no large plantations or international traders. But now it is a beautiful and vibrant city, full of Caribbean flavors such as pastel-colored and somewhat art-deco’ish ornate Dutch Colonial buildings. And of course, a row of docked cruise ships is taller than the houses!
So take a walk around, find some souvenirs and have an Aruba Ariba cocktail at one of the many cafes along the water. Don’t forget the pedestrian and shopping-friendly Main Street (which is officially called Caya G. F. Betico Croes)!
3. Party the night away at Palm Beach
Everyone calls Palm Beach “the high rise area”, so you kind of expect to see some skyscrapers! But it’s just the area with big name hotels (like Hyatt, Riu, Marriott, Hilton etc). The buildings are relatively tall (maybe 9-12 stories) compared to other areas of Aruba, which are more “village-like”.
Palm Beach is where the party and nightlife is. Some of the coolest beach bars with live music are Bugaloe and Moomba Beach Bar, and if you want to see world-class piano bar entertainment, check out Sopranos Piano Bar!
4. Learn the difference between a divi-divi tree and a fofoti tree
A divi-divi tree is actually called watapana tree and it’s unique to Aruba and the neighboring islands, so it became the national tree of Aruba and Curacao! What’s interesting about these trees, that in Aruba they always point south-west due to blowing of the trade winds.
When you research the location of divi-divi trees, many sources give you their location at the northern end of the Eagle Beach. However, it is a mistake! Divi-divi trees grow inland. The trees at the Eagle Beach are called fofoti trees. Apparently, many people mix them up, but now you know the truth! Still, the fofoti trees are very beautiful and unusual. You shouldn’t miss this unique photo opportunity!
5. Shop for European groceries (and cheese!)
Aruba has a lot of different food stores and supermarkets, but if you want to have a real food shopping experience, go to Superfoods! Besides familiar groceries, you can try some European delights. The cheese section will blow your mind: Dutch cheese is considered among the best in the world. For dessert, try a traditional Dutch treat called “stroopwafel”. It is made fresh in house.
There are plenty of taxis around to help you bring groceries home. While shopping, pay attention to prices. Some American groceries are quite a bit more expensive than in the USA, but you can find a European or a local substitute for half the price!
6. Learn some words in Papiamento
An Aruban person speaks at least 4 languages: English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento. Papiamento is a local creole dialect, which is a very interesting somewhat broken mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. A really interesting language indeed!
For example, “welcome” is “bon bini“, “good morning” and “good afternoon” is “bon dia” and “bon tardi” (which is similar to Spanish or Portuguese) and “thank you” is “danki” (definitely comes from Dutch). My favorite word so far is “dushi“, which means “sweet”, “tasty”, but it also means “babe” and “darling”. Now all I can say is: Mi stima mi dushi Michael y Aruba bunita! Who can guess what I said here in Papiamento?
7. Climb California Lighthouse
At the north-west point of Aruba stands a 98-feet-tall California Lighthouse. It’s a bit over 100 years old and was named after a ship that sank nearby just before the construction. The lighthouse is not too tall, so it is not difficult to climb on top. But the views are truly spectacular. You can almost see the whole island, even Hooiberg Mountain, which is a 165 meters above sea level.
TIP: A couple of words about driving in Aruba. Arubans drive on the right-hand side (like in the USA), which makes it really easy! There is a four-lane divided highway approximately from Palm Beach to the airport. The rest of the roads are just regular two-lane roads which become the emptier the farther from the beaches you go.
I have yet to see a traffic light in Aruba! Most of the intersections are round-abouts. The 4-lane ones take a bit of figuring out. They have dividers between lanes and if you are going right, you take the outer ring, if you are going straight, you can take the outer and the inner ring and if you are going left, you need to drive all the way into the inner ring, otherwise you won’t make it! Weird, but I guess it works!
If you want to rent a car in Aruba, I recommend you do it in advance, because they tend to sell out fast. You can drive pretty much everywhere in a regular car, except some parts of the Arikok National Park. If you want to explore those, you need to rent a jeep. It’s really expensive (can be as much as $200 per day), so my advice is to rent it only for the day you go to the Park.
For navigation, I recommend Maps.Me, which allows GPS navigation of Aruba offline (download maps in advance through the app). I found it very convenient and accurate.
8. Drive to where the Natural Bridge used to be. There is still a lot to see there!
The other, “northern” side of Aruba is a striking difference to all the beach landscapes you’ve seen before. There are a lot of rocks here. Waves violently break against them with a lot of noise and spray.
The shore is mainly limestone and petrified coral, so it’s rather fragile. This is why one of the most beautiful spots around, the Natural Bridge, unfortunately collapsed a couple of years ago. Thankfully, it happened at night, so no one got hurt. But there is still a lot to see, including the “baby” natural bridge that is still standing! On the way to and from the Natural Bridge, stop at the multiple pull-outs. Sit on a rock and take in this breathtaking power of the ocean!
9. Explore Bushiribana Gold Mill
Just across from the Natural Bridge, you will see the ruins of an old abandoned gold mine, called Bushiribana Gold Mill. Yes, Aruba had its own gold rush in the 19th century! Gold was first discovered here in 1824 and remained an important part of Aruban industry until around 1916. Even the name “Aruba” comes from “oro hubo”, which is a Spanish phrase meaning “there was gold”.
10. Drive through Arikok National Park
Aruba is not as lush as it seems along the coast. Instead, it looks more like Arizona: dry and rugged terrain, dotted with cactei… But it is exactly what makes it so interesting for nature lovers like us! Arikok National Park takes 1/5 of Aruba, so it is a must-do for any visitor. The entry fee is $11 per person. There are two ways of visiting the park: with an all-terrain vehicle (or a jeep) and a regular car.
If you visit with the regular car, you are limited to the main road, but it is still worthwhile. You can drive along dramatic ocean landscapes, stop at secluded spots between rocks and enjoy beautiful nature.
Along the road you can visit two caves: Fontein Cave and Quadirikiri Cave. It’s amazing what the ocean can do! Once upon a time these caves were under water. Then the ground rose and all this limestone came up. It formed intricate Gaudi-like masterpieces. Local Arawak Indians obviously appreciated it, so they left a bunch of petroglyphs and pictographs on the cave walls…
If you have a jeep or an UTV, you can do some fun off-roading and also visit the Natural Pool (Conchi). Conchi is a depression between coastal volcanic rocks. Incoming tide creates a quiet pool there. It is pretty interesting to swim in tranquil water with foamy and violent dance of the ocean waves all around you.
11. Hike the Cunucu Arikok Trail
The Cunucu Arikok Trail is technically a part of the Arikok National Park, but it is located outside the gates. It is a well-established trail about 3 miles long and it doesn’t have any serious ups and downs. In my opinion, it is the best trail in the park: not hard to complete, but offers you a great experience of Aruban nature. If you start from the Visitor Center, the first part of the trail takes you among lots of different types of cactei, until you arrive to the Cunucu House Loop.
Once you are on the loop, keep an eye out for wild goats! Their horns are a bit scary, so we just carefully walked past them and left them alone. About half way along the loop, you will run into the highlight of the trail: an old adobe house that used to belong to a Dutch goat farmer Arie Kok (hence the name of the park).
12. Feed an ostrich at Aruba Ostrich Farm
Did you know that ostriches can run with a speed over 40 miles an hour? Did you know that they stick their heads in the sand only in cartoons; they don’t do it in real life? Did you know that an ostrich egg can handle the weight of up to 480 pounds and a grown man can stand on it without breaking it? You will learn these fun facts and more at Aruba Ostrich Farm. Besides that, you can see some emus and a beautiful peacock. As icing on the cake, you can experience the ostriches up close and personal and even feed them!
13. Learn about Aruba aloe
Two thirds of Aruba is covered in aloe. It’s hard to believe it, but it’s not a native plant for this island, it was only introduced here in 1840. Nowadays Aruba is the biggest aloe export in the world! I think if you ask an Aruban what kind of product you can make with aloe vera, he will be like Bubba from Forrest Gump, naming all the different things for hours!
Aruba aloe factory offers free tours, and you can learn a lot about this miraculous plant. At the end you can buy some wonderful aloe vera products.
14. Sample Aruban cuisine
Aruban cuisine is a mix of Spanish, Dutch and Caribbean influences. You should definitely try some native dishes during your stay! Some of the staples include Keshi Yena (a cheesy chicken or meat bake), Pastechi (pastries similar to empanadas), Stoba (beef or goat stew), Funchi (Aruba’s version of dense polenta, which tastes a bit like corn bread) and of course, fresh fish (try the whole fried red snapper!) There are several restaurants that offer a taste of traditional cuisine. Some of the most famous ones are the Old Cunucu House and Papiamento.
However, if you want a completely unique experience, try Zeerover! Zeerover is not like any restaurant you imagine! There is no menu. You just order the freshest fish and shrimp by weight (like in a store!) and they cook it for you with traditional sides and home-made tartar and Aruban sauces. This is all they do, but man, they do it well! While you are eating, the fishing boats keep coming in and unloading more fish and shrimp. It’s literally the freshest seafood ever!
TIP: Aruba is one of the rare places where you can actually drink tap water. Aruba’s water is among the best in the world!
15. Dive or snorkel the Antilla shipwreck
There are a lot of snorkeling tours offered on the island, but we chose the one by Pelican Adventures. The reason we chose it: besides traditional rum punches, they serve champagne. And I love champagne! As far as the itinerary, the boat goes to two coral reefs with some colorful fish and to the ship wreck of a German freighter Antilla.
The ship wreck is, in my opinion, the absolute highlight of the trip. It showed up in Aruba waters in October 1939 unaware that the war had started in Europe. Dutch mariners wanted to confiscate Antilla, but when the Captain and the crew found out what was going on, they sank the ship. (They were detained and sent to Jamaica, where they spent the rest of the war. Apparently only one guy from the crew died of an illness). If you are a diver, you can get the full experience of the shipwreck, but it’s extremely interesting to snorkel there, as well.
16. See Ayo Rock Formations
Ayo Rocks became my favorite place in Aruba. My friends are aware that I’m a big fan of ancient sacred places and this is one of them! In the middle of Aruba there are several spots where mysterious giant boulders tower over the surface, like someone just piled them up there on purpose. Ayo Rocks is the biggest of them.
How did these giant rocks come to be? We have to thank the volcanoes. The thing is, many of the Caribbean islands have similar structures, and one of the biggest is a very famous place called the Baths on Virgin Gorda (near Tortola, BVI). The Baths was called so after the name of these boulders: batholiths. These batholiths are rocks that form from cooled magma deep in the Earth’s crust. They are made mostly of granite, quartz, diorite… In any rate, it’s a hard stone! Then, because of volcanic activity, these boulders are pushed to the surface.
But of course, the local Arawak Indians didn’t know this complicated science. So, for them this unique place was sacred and inspired nothing less than pure awe. So naturally, you will find some ancient petroglyphs on the rocks.
Here in Aruba, Ayo Rocks are made into a neat park with a lot of picnic tables and fire rings. You can walk a well-established trail through the giant boulders. Beware of wasps; they love to nest in the shade of the cool stones! But if you don’t mess with them, they don’t mess with you. And best of all, this place is free and not real crowded (except for weekends when a lot of locals come to picnic).
17. Explore San Nicolas
San Nicolas, a town at the south-eastern end of the island, is a cultural capital of Aruba. From quaint cafes to cozy streets, it’s full of local island atmosphere. Tourists generally come here to see the area with the famous murals. These murals are remnants from annual Aruba Art Fair: year after year the participants leave more and more amazing wall art!
To learn more about the artists and the history behind the art, it is worth taking one of the Aruba Mural Tours.
18. Learn kite surfing
If you’d like to learn kite surfing, Aruba is definitely the place, due to its calm seas and constant stable trade winds. However, you need to plan for that and make sure you have enough time. Why? Because just one lesson is not enough.
During the first lesson you only get to use a trainer kite on the beach. During the second lesson you learn so-called “body dragging”. It’s when you use the kite on the water, but without the board, you just use it to drag your body. Only during the third lesson you actually learn the kite board. The most popular package is a four lesson package. It will set you back about $600, but it is a better deal than individual lessons and it guarantees you will get up on the board.
Additionally, you have to consider the location. The badass kite-boarders use the spot behind the prison in San Nicolas, but if you are a novice, make sure you find lodging around the northern end of Palm Beach (between Palm Beach and Arashi Beach). This is where the schools are.
19. See the famous Aruba flamingos
You probably have seen all these Instagram photos with flamingos strolling on the beach. The flamingos are not native to Aruba, so you can only find them at two locations. One of them is De Palm Island. But the most famous spot is the private island of the Renaissance Hotel.
To go to the island is not cheap: $125 per person. Alternatively, you can book a room at the hotel for a night, which comes with free access to the island. It is quite pricey as well.
However, there’s a trick: you can book a treatment at the SPA of the Renaissance hotel. A simple Swedish massage for two, two frozen drinks and two passes to the island is about $295 (check for the latest prices, as they change sometimes), which is still expensive, but for all the things you are getting in this package makes a lot more sense! Make sure to book the SPA appointment well ahead of time, possibly even before you get to Aruba!! It sells out weeks in advance.
20. Experience Carnival in Aruba
If you are lucky to be in Aruba around January-February, you have a chance to see the most spectacular event of the year: Aruba Carnival! The whole island holds parades and crazy parties with colorful decorations and costumes.
A lot of festivities have been cancelled during the pandemic. Slowly but surely, the Carnival is coming back to life. Hopefully, soon it will be in full swing again!
TIP: If you leave Aruba to fly to the USA, reserve some extra time at the airport. The reason is that after you go through all the departure formalities with Aruban officials, you go through all the arrival procedures into the USA (customs, passport control), while still in Aruba! So this is easily what takes an extra hour or more.
It does saves you time though, when you arrive, because your flight is treated like a domestic one. If you fly a lot, take advantage of the Global Entry program (you need to apply for it in advance). It will help you avoid the lines and can drastically reduce your time at the airport.
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