Aruba, One Happy Island
Sun, white beaches, light-blue sea
White beaches, a light-blue sea and sun is what Aruba has to offer mainly. But there are also sights on the island: white-lined Dutch gables in pastel colors, an old Frysian windmill, a lighthouse, lots of cactuses, sand dunes, a wild east coast, and National Park Arikok, which takes up a fifth of the island. And carnival on Aruba is something else.
Travelogue & photos: Angélique Woudenberg
When I think of Aruba, I see sun, white beaches, a light-blue sea and many tourists. During our nine days on the island, we found out that there is much more to explore.
Aruba is only 31 km long and - at its widest point - 9 km wide, but during our trip from north-west to south-east on the island, we have seen different "faces". We also saw that Arubans really love carnival.
Bon Bini Aruba
The "pink sugar palace" is waiting for cruise passengers
After a nine-hour flight, we land on Aruba, one of the three leeward islands of the Dutch Antilles. When we leave the arrival hall, we are welcomed by a hot sun and a strong north-eastern tradewind. Bon Bini ("Welcome").
The transfer from the airport Reina Beatrix to Palm Beach takes approximately 25 minutes. The drive takes us through the capital Oranjestad, Eagle Beach and Manchebo Beach to our accomodation in Palm Beach.
Because of the five-hour time difference we have all afternoon and we install ourselves near the swimming pool.
In the evening we take the Arubus (public transportation) to Oranjestad, the drive to the bus terminal takes 10 minutes.
Immediately behind the bus terminal and opposite the cruise ship terminal is the Royal Plaza Mall, which we call "Pink Sugar Palace" during the rest of our stay. It is a large, kitschy building, soft-pink, with lots of stores and jewellers which mainly cater to cruise ship passengers.
This is cruise season and three times a week one or more cruise ships dock in the port of call which we will see later this week.
It gets dark early and increasingly crowded, this Saturday night.
The big carnival parade
Exuberant dancing and jumping to live music
The carnival celebrations have started end January, but today the main big parade takes place; it's called the "Gran Marcha." The parade starts at 11 AM near the stadium, and will arrive in Oranjestad by 1 PM.
We make sure we're in the capital by 12 PM to find a place in the crowds. We didn't expect that we'd have to wait for one and a half hours in the scorching heat and have to remain on our feet until 6:45 PM.
Finally we hear music in the distance and then it doesn't take long for the parade to arrive. The crowd, we too, are like little children, eagery awaiting the long-expected parade. It is definitely worth the wait.
There are different carnival groups in the parade and all participants wear beautiful costumes, with or without feathers, in bright yellow, shocking pink and other cheerful colors. Some costumes cost over 5000 dollars. At least, that's what we hear.
People are dancing and jumping enthusiastically to the rythmic live music. It's quite different from carnival as we know it in The Netherlands. The Aruban carnival is a real folk festival. If you're on Aruba you shouldn't miss the parade.
Just before sunset the parade ends, we had a great time. All of Aruba is in Oranjestad, so we don't stay and take the bus back to our hotel.
Next day our legs are still tired of standing for such a long time and we spend the day on the beach to recuperate.
Tour of the island
The Old Mill, California Lighthouse and sand dunes
Fot a tour of the island, we can choose from mountain biking, horse riding, jeep safari or coach. Of course, we could rent a car, but that would have to be a 4WD, because only the western part of the island has paved roads.
But if we'd have a flat tyre in the "kunuku" (= inland), we wouldn't be able to change it ourselves, so this is not an option.
Another reason we prefer an air conditioned coach is that the sun has done its work during the carnival parade. We don't want to get an even worse sun burn.
Our English-speaking guide takes us and a group of Americans from the Old Mill via the rich neighborhoods Malmok and Arashi Beach to the far north-west of Aruba.
The Old Mill ("Olde Molen") originally was brought from Frysia in The Netherlands and dates from the 19th century. Around 1960 it was brought to Aruba and over the years housed a museum and a restaurant. Currently it's being renovated so we can't take a look inside, unfortunately.
On the way the guide tells us that all of Aruba's beaches are now public. There are no more private beaches. But that doesn't mean one can swim everywhere. The white sand beaches on the west side are quiet and look on a clear- blue sea. But on the east coast the sea is dark-blue and wild. There are volcanic rocks on east coast beaches. The guide tells us not to swim or dive there.
In Eagle Beach and Manchebo Beach on the west coast one can't swim everywhere either, because of dangerous undercurrents, but the beaches are still very pretty.
Before we visit the lighthouse, we take a drive through the mansion village Malmok, where prices for houses with or without swimming pools start at $350,000.
The guide tells us that the nearer a house is to the sea, the more expensive. Everyone can buy a house here, he lets us know, in case we're interested.
The median income on Aruba is around $14,000. We are surprised to find out that the palm trees here are imported, at least that's what our guide says.
At the California Lighthouse we have a great view of Palm Beach, the golf course Tierra del Sol, the sand dunes behind the lighthouse and behind those the wild east coast. We are accompanied for a while by wild cabritos (goats).
We can clearly see that Aruba is not flat, but hilly. In the distance we see a high mountain, Seroe Plat. On the way we'll see several hills and mountains, like the Hooiberg ("Haystack") and Jamanota.
The lighthouse was built between 1914 and 1916 and behind it sits the former lighthouse-guard house, which now serves as a restaurant. The sand dunes behind the lighthouse form a sharp contrast with the surrounding barren landscape.
We drive along the golf course Tierra del Sol. The guide tells us that the golf course was designed by an American and that it's an expensive project, because it needs much water. The rain season is from October through March and during the rest of the year it's dry.
Chapel Alto Vista
One could also call Aruba cactus island
We continue our tour along the wild east coast to the Alto Vista chapel. Aruba's nickname is "One Happy Island," but it could also be "Cactus Island" because of the many cactuses.
On the way we see hundreds of cactuses. The guide tells us they can live for 150 years and need very little water. And, he says, did you know that not only computers can have viruses, but cactuses can, too?
We wonder what he means. He shows us a cactus with a non-lethal virus. It can be recognized by its abnormal color. The cactus he shows us is red. The guide makes deadpan jokes about cactuses: "Did you know you can eat cactus soup on Aruba? What do you think it tastes like?"
And: some practical advice if you would want to do parachuting here, there's a fair chance you'll land on cactus thorns.
On the way to the Roman Catholic Alto Vista chapel, we see many white crosses on the road sides. They show the way to the chapel, as it were. We see a lot of Roman Catholic and Baptist churches on Aruba anyway. This is a Latin-American influence.
The surroundings of the chapel are again dry and barren, even though it's a little greener than usual because it's the rain season.
The chapel is unfortunately not the original one from the 18th century, but a new one, built in 1952. There are no longer services and the chapel serves as a pilgrimage place for the believers. In the church are benches, a Mary statue against a light-blue wall, red and pink flower arrangements and one can burn a candle.
Wild east coast
Ruins of the goldmine Bushiribana and the Natural Bridge
It gets hotter and hotter and our guide tells us that there are four seasons on Aruba. Really? Yes, summer, summer, summer and summer.
We continue our tour along the wild east coast to the most popular tourist attraction on Aruba, the "Natural Bridge."
For a long time, gold mining was an important source of income on Aruba. We see the ruins of the gold-melting plant Bushiribana, but don't get off the bus, because there isn't much to see.
In Andicuri Bay we admire two natural bridges, which were forged by wind and water erosion. It's possible to cross the 30 meters long bridge, but there is so much wind now that few people do it. The north-east tradewinds are at their strongest during February through April.
There is a small beach where one can sunbathe, but not swim. The surroundings of the natural bridge are a dry, bare plain, a restaurant and a souvenir shop.
National Park Arikok
The trees are shaped by the constant tradewinds
We drive via the Hooiberg ("Haystack") and the town of Santa Cruz to National Park Arikok, named after the former plantation owner Arie Kock.
The Hooiberg is 165 meters high; if one would like to have a wonderful view of Aruba, one has to climb 592 steep steps.
Santa Cruz is, with Savaneta and San Nicolas, one of the larger towns on Aruba and is named after a Spaniard who placed the first crucifix on Aruba.
The guide tells us about illegal immigration on the island. Many people come from Latin America to find work in the tourist industry. Most illegal immigrants cross from Venezuela, because the distance from there to Aruba is only 20 km.
There are about 42 nationalities living on Aruba and if the local population tries to help illegal immigrants, they are shamed by publishing their names and photos in the newspaper.
Via a winding, unpaved road we enter National Park Arikok. We see a dry, barren, hilly area with many cactuses, wild cabritos (goats) and the most photographed tree of the island, the Divi Divi.
The constant north-east tradewinds shape the trees in its own direction. Our guide has another practical advice: if you just have your hair done, leave the hairdresser's through the backdoor if you don't want a Divi Divi haircut. Otherwise, no one is going to notice that you just had a haircut.
The National Park is the habitat of wild goats, iguanos, lizards, scorpions and poisonous rattle snakes, called "cascabel."
The National Park takes up approximately 20 percent of Aruba's surface and a large part is privately owned by several landowners.
We drive along the white sand dunes of Boca Prins to the next sight, the Fountain Cave. It is named after the largest freshwater source in National Park Arikok.
We have high expectations of the Arawak Indian cave paintings. But unfortunately it is too dark to see anything at all.
Near the entrance are beautiful limestone stalactites and we can observe a cascabel, the poisonous rattle snake, in a container. We probably should have visited one of the other caves, like the Guadirikiri. Maybe there we could have seen the cave paintings. Too bad.
Time to relax. We are taken to Baby Beach near the town of Seroe Colorado in the southeast for 45 minutes of swimming and snorkeling.
Seroe Colorado used to be a mansion town where mainly Americans lived who worked at the Esso oil refinery. The town had its own American school, stores and private beaches, Baby Beach and Rodgers Beach. After the refinery closed, Seroe Colorado became a public town and the beach is accessible for everyone as well.
Baby Beach is a beautiful white sand beach with shallow clear-blue water. In the background we see the refinery which has recently been re-opened. In the immediate surroundings there isn't much to see or do.
Via San Nicolas, Savaneta, the Balashi beer brewery (the best-known brand of beer on Aruba) and Oranjestad we drive back to our hotel in Palm Beach.
In the evening we want to visit the Bon Bini Festival which takes place every Tuesday on the square behind Fort Zoutman. But tonight the closing event of the carnival takes place, in which a doll called Momo is burned, so unfortunately there is no Bon Bini Festival.
But we enjoy the closing parade of the carnival. There are less participants, but more floats with music, which move toward the main post office for the burning of Momo at midnight, when Ash Wednesday begins.
Dutch gables in pastel colors
After breakfast we take the Arubus to Oranjestad (named after the House of Orange, the Dutch Royal family) for a citywalk.
From the bus terminal we walk via coin museum Numismatico to Main Street. Today a grand total of four cruise ships is docked and there are many passengers wandering the streets.
In the main street, Caya Betico Croes, also called Main Street, there are mainly souvenir shops and jewellers, catering to tourists and cruise-ship passengers. Unfortunately negotiating about prices is not possible in the stores.
In the Royal Plaza Mall (the kitschy pink building) are many small restaurants and (souvenir)shops. A little farther is the Daniël Leo Plaza where we admire Dutch gables in pastel colors. The building are all copies and have no historical value. But it looks neat and the pastel colors give the buildings something special. The streets here are also very clean.
We can only pay with dollars or Aruban florins, the local currency. After the "Status Aparte" was implemented in 1986, which made Aruba a separate unity within the Dutch Antilles, Antillian guilders are no longer accepted here.
Whenever we pay with dollars, sales people try to give us change in Aruban florins, but we refuse those and demand change in dollars. We change our euros in the local casino, because their rates are better and they don't charge commission.
According to the Status Aparte, Aruba is separated from the other islands of the Dutch Antilles (Curaçao, Bonaire, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba), but the Defense and Foreign departments are still in Dutch hands. The Dutch Royal Navy has a base in Savaneta.
It's remarkable that most people, also sales staff in stores, speak English and Papiamento instead of Dutch. Papiamento is a pidgin language, consisting of Spanish, Dutch, English and Portuguese elements, which is only spoken on the leeward islands. In school, Arubans learn Dutch, English and Spanish; at home, Papiamento is spoken. It is also the official language of Aruba.
Many buildings around Main Street are or are being renovated. They all have characteristic bright white lining, while the rest of the buildings are painted pastel or bright colors. The Town Hall annex, which houses the Registry Office, is brick-red.
Many sidestreets have Dutch names, like Schoolstraat (School Street) and Kleistraat (Clay Street).
Via Fort Zoutman and Wilhelmina Park we arrive at the Seaport Marketplace. It is a mall, again in pastel colors, with a casino, souvenir shops and restaurants, among which a Dutch Pancake House and an Italian pizzeria.
We stroll on the promenade along the marina and have a nice view of the cruise terminal where four cruise ships are docked. The license plates of the cars all have the slogan "Aruba, One Happy Island."
Entertainment is mostly found on the weekends in Oranjestad. The local population knows exactly where best to go. Most tourists stay in the malls or in one of the many casinos. Or they stay in their hotels with entertainment and get to see nothing at all.
In the evening we visit a carnival show in the Chrystal Theater in Oranjestad. We can't get enough of it.
Enjoying the beach and the swimming pool
The rest of the week we just enjoy ourselves on the beach and near the swimming pool. A week is too short for visiting a country so far away. But we had a great time and will definitely come back.
Back in The Netherlands we are submitted to a thorough security check on Schiphol Airport. The cold weather is a bummer.