Aruba – the wild side

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The tropical paradise of Aruba, the largest of the three Dutch ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao is less than a 4 hour flight from Atlanta.  That’s 4 hours to a constant 80 degree Caribbean paradise with plenty to explore.  Who knew that something like 40% of the island is a dessert!

Aruba is a tale of two islands: you have the beautiful, curated, beach resorts that I’ll cover later and then you have the real, rugged, Aruba that I’ll cover here.

Aruba lives up to its motto of “one happy island” and welcomes all visitors with a greeting of Bon Bini! Having said that we stayed far away from the cruise ships.  As with most islands, the swarms of tourists hit when the floating hi-rises dock and the shopping and drinking begins. I love that in Aruba cruise ships don’t come in on the weekends!

Aruba leaves a bad taste in many Southerner’s mouths due to the still unsolved Natalie Holloway disappearance back in 2005 which is really unfair to the island that is steeped in history and rich in culture.  I was amazed to learn that all Arubians are taught four languages in school: English, Dutch, Spanish and the native Aruban language of Papiamento, which sounds like a mix of Spanish and French to my ears as I can pick out many words.

Some key things that make Aruba super easy to visit:

  • everyone speaks English
  • everyone accepts American dollars
  • everyone drives on the right side of the road

Once we landed and grabbed our rental car – next time I would definitely, definitely rent a jeep – we headed to the largest supermarket on the island to stock up on water and snacks.  That was a good call because when you explore the wild side of Aruba, there are not a lot of stores or restaurants and many that are there are closed, presumably to be only open on the weekends. And the store, which was like going to an international farmer’s market, was fun to explore. Translated that means, we bought way more than we would be able to eat or drink in a couple of days.

The island is just under 20 miles long and 6 miles wide so it’s easy to explore it all in a couple of days. Once you get off the main route 1 corridor you will find that no roads are marked and they are full of traffic circles that have double circles in them that most people do not know how to navigate. So basically it’s a free for all and once you get on the unmarked side roads and neighborhoods you will be chased by dogs seemingly guarding every house and kids on bikes that will fly out into the road – so be careful. Oh, and there are very few street lights off of route 1 so it will be very dark if you are staying inland so make sure you know how to get where you are going in the daylight or it is highly likely that you won’t find it until morning!

As we were lost up in the hills trying to find our Airbnb we noticed that the locals pay very close attention to who is in the neighborhood and it’s a small island and if you don’t belong, they know it, and they will slow down to get a good look at you – the Arubian version of neighborhood watch is good eye-to-eye contact.  They will also stop to ask if you are lost but like typical tourists, of course, we said no!

I wondered out loud a couple times why being something like 17 miles off of the coast of Venezuela, Aruba was not seeing an influx of refugees.  I did not see any, and the crime rate is very low – it’s hard to hide on an island. I googled the question later and there are a lot of people fleeing Venezuela and it is an issue, but I could not see any evidence of that.  Having said that tourists need to be smart about petty theft, don’t leave anything untended on any of the beaches, but in general, you will feel very safe on the island.

Key tips:

  • download a map and have a backup – roads are rarely ever marked and a lot don’t even look like roads.  This is seriously a road on a map!  Thank goodness for tire tracks. But heh, that’s why I call it the rugged, real Aruba.

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You can see oil rigs off in the distance from the island, especially at night when they are lit up and there is an industrial side of the island that holds a very large oil refinery.  There are some beautiful beaches that when you look to the right, you see the refinery.  My thoughts were, Aruba has more industry than just tourism – good for them – and then wow, this is so fragile one spill could destroy this.

Speaking of industry, fishing is obviously huge for the island, and the fresh Wahoo fish that I had several times was so yummy.  The best meal of the trip was at Zeerovers – the menu on the board simply said:

  • Fish
  • Shrimps (for some reason shrimp always has an extra ‘s’ for plural on the island)
  • Tartar Sauce
  • Onions in vinegar (super spicy alert)
  • French fries
  • Plantains

Wait in a long line. Order your fish and shrimp – get both – grab a beer and grab a table by the water.  Delic!

The wild side tour tells you a lot about the history. There is a very sobering beach memorial to the fisherman lost at sea.  The huge number of crosses is sad and you have to say a quick prayer while looking over them at the water.  The cared for crosses tells you that this is an ongoing loss.

There is also a cool line of windmills but I can’t see how they were helping the economy a whole lot.  The government keep out sign also made you feel like even though the island on this side looks deserted, is it really…..?

Rugged Aruba has lots of wildlife.  Expect to have to wait for an occasional donkey crossing – you will also see a lot of billy goats – it is cool to see them scaling the hills, especially near the large prison that you will pass by.

So many donkeys, there is even a donkey preserve which a local affectionately called the donkey cemetery.  They were alive and kicking and you can visit them!  And they don’t kick – they are quite friendly, especially when you buy snacks them snacks.  I had to throw in the cute chicks too.

But my favorite part of rugged Aruba was the beaches and the shoreline- all deserted during the week.  The views were spectacular.  At times we had to park our car and hike in – so wear sturdy shoes – you are on bumpy volcanic rock. There are no volcanoes on the island, just FYI, but at some point, this rock made its way to forming Aruba.  It is so worth the views but don’t forget to pack snacks and water – you will pretty much have the place to yourself.  We did run into a few groups of explorers, usually from Canada, and usually carrying a bottle of something that they were always ready to share.

We visited one empty beach where we felt like some world event had happened and we were the only ones left on the planet.  Or there had been some nuclear spill and we missed the sign.  It was creepy and we did not stay long. It was like the party had ended and everyone scattered.

Shhh, we found Aruba’s kite surfing secret.  This beach is at the end of the road for exploring this side of the island.  Go to the end of the road and then walk – follow the pops of color dashing around the water that you will see over the dunes.  Amazing, talented surfers.  And there is a beach bar that is perfect – you will not be able theget teh Kenny Chesney song about the bar at the end of the road out of your mind.

The bar sadly was not open but I’m sure on the weekend it is rocking!  Bring your own cooler and hang out on the deck.  If I’m ever back in Aruba, I’m bringing my own cooler and spending the entire day right here!

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We ended the day closer to civilization – we were hungry.  Don’t be fooled by this slightly scary looking local bar, there is a fantastic beach behind it.  Off the beach there is a lot to do –  snorkeling and diving – there is a shipwreck not far offshore.  It’s not on the bar menu but order the fish to go with several beers from ‘mama.’  Don’t worry the regular locals at the bar will steer you in the right direction.  I even had an off-duty officer buy me a pickled egg, don’t ask, but it was delicious. This beach was the perfect place to fill up your tummy, have a couple cold beers, and take a nap. Which is what I did under one of the awesome tiki huts on the beach.

I certainly could not cover every beach and stop for you but I hope this makes you want to come spend a couple days exploring the wild side of Aruba. We stayed at a great airbnb near the national park so kind of in the middle of the island.  Airbnb is a pretty new concept to Aruba and seems to mostly be run by Dutch ex-pats.  Our little secluded, modern cabin, was perfect and the dessert sunsets from the deck were spectacular.

IMG_0322Stay tuned for part two of Aruba – the fantastic, curated beach resorts.

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