Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Explore an underwater shipwreck and natural reefs, laze on miles of white sandy beach, windsurf, kitesurf, gamble in the casinos, and shop in modern malls.
National Archeological Museum Aruba
Arikok National Park
Fontein and Guadirikiri caves
Aruba, the smallest and richest of the ABC Islands, has cosmopolitan shopping centers, elegant restaurants, and a refreshingly deserted hinterland, which all contribute to providing highly attractive alternatives to lazing away happily under the palms all day long on the island’s 7 miles (11km) of white sand lapped by gentle turquoise and dark-blue waters.
Aruba’s windblown divi-divi tree.
For more than 50 years, the massive Lago oil refinery at San Nicolas was Aruba’s main source of foreign revenue and not only as the biggest employer on the tiny island. Lago financed schools, doctors, houses, streets, and even a golf course for its workforce. When the refinery was unexpectedly closed down in early 1985 it came as a great shock not just to Arubans but also to the numerous workers from all over the Caribbean. On an island with a population of around 100,000 people, unemployment rose dramatically and affected thousands. The refinery reopened in the early 1990s, but by then the island had changed.
The closure caused potentially devastating economic problems, which struck just as Aruba officially assumed special autonomous status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Tourism was seen as a way of attracting much-needed foreign currency and this gamble has paid off. Today, visitors arrive from all over the world but especially from the US and Venezuela. High-rise hotels appeared above the palm trees on Eagle Beach and Palm Beach, and the small town of Oranjestad developed a colorful shopping center. Cunning entrepreneurs created a holiday industry that catered to every taste, whether on water or land: undersea diving along the natural reef, with spectacular underwater scenery around wrecked ships and airplanes; romantic candlelit dinners on board sailing ships; tours on party buses; and Las Vegas-style shows on the stage of the Alhambra - plus casinos where visitors can try their luck at roulette tables.
Baby natural bridge.
Scott Lowden/Aruba Tourism Authority
A holiday bonanza
Around 800,000 vacationers spend a few pleasant days each year at Eagle Beach and Palm Beach, and that figure doesn’t include the 600,000 or so passengers from cruise ships who visit the bars and boutiques in Oranjestad, eager to take advantage of the bounty of duty-free goods and impressed by the relaxed and polite service. But shopping can be an expensive business, especially when you’re after European goods such as English and German porcelain, Belgian chocolates, or Swiss watches.
Paardenbaai (Horses’ Bay) off Oranjestad got its name from the colonial merchants who used to unload horses from the boats by tying one to the beach and then shoving the rest overboard. They swam straight to their companion on the shore.
The horrors of the colonial era largely passed Aruba by, because the island was only inhabited by a handful of settlers, soldiers, and Caiquetío Amerindians. Agriculture, animal husbandry, the cultivation of aloe, and the export of tree bark containing tannin enabled the islanders to lead a largely self-sufficient existence. Papiamentu, the local creole language, sounds far more Spanish here than elsewhere and is also very melodious.
A handful of shopping streets, administrative buildings, churches, a harbor with three cruise ship terminals, and some magnificent hotels complete with shopping malls and casinos make up the center of Oranjestad ) [map]. Stroll past the colorful, Dutch-style facades and visit the few sights Aruba’s capital has to offer, or soak up some local atmosphere and the sunshine in the numerous cafés and bars round the yachting harbor. The streets around the busy main street - Caya G.F. (Betico) Croes (formerly Nassaustraat) - are where local people do most of their shopping. There are still a few traditional Aruban houses with typically steep and flat torto roofs.
The Netherlands meet the tropics in Wilheminastraat, Oranjestad.
The most noticeable relic of colonial times here is the small Fort Zoutman and Willem III Tower, the oldest surviving structure on the island. The fort was built right beside the Paardenbaai in 1796, and since then land reclamation at the harbor has stranded it around 300ft (100 meters) inland. Its ancient walls contain the Aruba Historical Museum (tel: 297-582 6099; Mon-Fri 8.30am-4pm), where exhibits include sea shells, sections of coral, 19th-century household items, and a still working mechanical barrel organ from Italy. From the clock tower there’s a fine view across the island, which is only 22 miles (30km) long and 4 miles (9km) across at its widest point. At 6.30pm every Tuesday the well-organised Bonbini Festival is held in the fort, where you can sample local culinary and liquid specialties and dance the energetic Latin American tumba and merengue.
The National Archeological Museum Aruba (Schelpstraat 42; tel: 297-582 8979; www.namaruba.org; Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-2pm) is housed in the renovated historic Ecury complex, a beautiful family home dating back to 1870, transformed into a modern museum. Documenting the largely unresearched culture of the Caiquetíos and other pre-Columbian peoples who settled the ABC Islands long before the Europeans arrived, the collection contains some 10,000 artifacts spanning the pre-ceramic, ceramic, and historic cultural periods. There are interactive exhibits for children, reconstructions, video, and temporary exhibitions.
Eagle Beach ! [map], 380ft (120 meters) wide in some places, is lined by so-called low-rise hotels, which blend harmoniously with the landscape despite their colorful mix of styles. Powdery white Palm Beach @ [map] is just as beautiful, but high-rises predominate here. Both beaches are signposted from the multi-lane highway that runs north from Oranjestad: most hotels here provide total luxury and excellent entertainment, and anyone who tires of the beach can enjoy air-conditioned boutiques, restaurants, and casinos.
Farther north the sea becomes rougher, but that is welcomed by the windsurfers and kitesurfers off Malmok, and doesn’t affect the divers down at the wreck of the German warship Antilla either (for more information, click here). It was surrounded by the Dutch Navy on May 10, 1940, during World War II, and rather than hoist the white flag, the captain set the ship alight and sank it. The crew were interned in the Caribbean for the rest of the war, and at the end several of them were allowed to settle on the ABC Islands for good.
California Lighthouse, Aruba.
The 100ft (32-meter)-high California Lighthouse towers above the craggy Noordpunt and the sand dunes around it. Built between 1914 and 1916, it stands close to the bright green Tierra del Sol golf course, set in the midst of the reddish-brown scrubland. A dusty track, which should only be attempted in a four-wheel-drive jeep, leads along the east coast, passing the Alto Vista Pilgrimage Chapel and a section of rocky landscape. The divi-divi trees here, bent by the northeasterly trade winds, are like natural signposts, always pointing southwest. The northeast coast of Aruba, with rough landscape, hidden sand dunes, large limestone caverns, and thorny scrubland, is a striking contrast to the tourist regions of the west coast.
The large iguana, indigenous to the island, is protected but it has a long history of making a very tasty and nutritious soup - and today some local people are not averse to bagging the odd one or two for the pot.
Art and architecture lovers should take a detour to the unpretentious little church of Sint Annakerk in Noord £ [map]. It contains a neo-Gothic altar of carved oak by Hendrik van der Geld (1870) from Antwerp, as well as stained-glass windows from the Wilhelm Heinrich workshop in Kevelaer. The ruins of the Bushiribana Gold Mine $ [map] are another popular and photogenic destination. They stand in memory of the gold rush that took began in 1820 when a boy found some nuggets in the dry valleys on the northeast coast.
The romantic spot that was formerly the site of a natural bridge at Boca Andicuri is still worth a visit for its seclusion and raging surf - though the bridge itself collapsed in 2007.
Fontein Cave, Arikok National Park.
Diorite boulders - a geological rarity - can be seen up close in Ayo % [map] and Casibari ^ [map]: enormous, cushion-like rocks with large sections gouged out of them, some of them decorated with Amerindian rock drawings. The 551ft (168-meter) high Hooiberg provides a fine view of the Arikok National Park, with a fascinatingly desolate wilderness of cactus fields. Near a small renovated farmhouse called Kunuku Arikok you can see wooden troughs in which the green juice of the aloe vera plant was collected and boiled. The juice from this plant is believed to purify the blood and regenerate the skin, and is highly treasured worldwide as an ingredient for health foods, skin creams, and balms for sunburn.
The cave systems of Fontein & [map] and Guadirikiri * [map] contain several strange and largely inexplicable Amerindian symbols such as spirals, circles, and lines of dots; in addition there are rare bats, bizarre rock formations, and the odd piece of graffiti left behind by ignorant visitors. The cave walls and roof have been cleaned by experts, and guards and grilles are now in position to ensure no further damage is done.
While surfers balance on the high waves out at Colorado Point, a good place to relax from a tour of southern Aruba is in the shallow waters at Baby Beach, where there is also good, secluded diving and snorkeling. Alternatively, visit Charlie’s Bar (tel: 297-584 5086), which is right beside the refinery at San Nicolas on Main Street. Over the past 50 years or so, guests from all over the world have lined the walls and ceiling with a scurrilous collection of personal mementoes. Local thespians, artists, and musicians, as well as tourists enjoy coming here for a drink and a chat with the owner.
Aruba made its giant leap from small island to international industrial nation in 1924, when the Lago Oil and Transport Company from the US built a massive refinery at Seroe Colorado in the southwest. Oil companies chose Aruba and also Curaçao as safe and easily accessible locations due to political instability in nearby Venezuela. After the oil crisis of the 1980s, parts of the refinery were shut down, and operations have occasionally stopped since. In July 2009 the refinery was shut down for 18 months because of the uncertain tax and economic climate but, after negotiations with the government of Aruba, it reopened in 2011. The 235,000-barrel-a-day refinery employed more than 650 people full-time, and represented more than 12 percent of Aruba’s gross domestic product. However, the facility was once again idled in 2012 and has since been used as an oil storage terminal. Things may be about to improve, though - in September 2015, the Government of Aruba signed a deal with Citgo Petroleum to explore reactivating the refinery.
Aruba’s northeastern coastline.
On the other side of the main road between Oranjestad and the island’s former capital of Savaneta, a turn-off leads to the ruins of the Balashi gold mine, and through the narrow path known as Frenchman’s Pass, where legend claims that French soldiers surrounded and shot a group of Amerindian warriors. The village of Sabana Besora still contains some typical small houses, such as the Cas di Figura and Cas di Flor, with decorative patterned strips. Italian construction workers probably scratched the attractive ornamentation into the plaster around the turn of the 20th century. Colorfully painted flowers, stars, and other decorations can also be seen in the church of St Francis of Assisi in Oranjestad.