Aruba wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list. But we were going to Colombia for the Christmas holidays, and decided we wanted an easy, idyllic beach destination for the last days of our trip… and the flights and hotels happened to work out well. Aruba, a little overseas territory of the Netherlands nicknamed “one happy island”, turned out to be exactly what we needed and much more!
We stayed in Palm Beach, like most people do, and enjoyed the tranquil, solid beach for about half the time we were there. For the other half, we improvised some activities and day trips that allowed us to see the best this island has to offer.
The most typical excursion in Aruba is probably a boat and snorkeling tour. There are tons of operators running different version of this tour, like fan-favorite Jolly Pirates. Because we are not that young and cool anymore, and it was a bit of a special occasion for us, we opted for getting a private boat with Octopus. We had an amazing time, our boat was super neat, the weather was perfect, the water an intense turquoise hue, and we felt like we were in a bubble.
Our first stop was the Antilla wreck, a German cargo ship sunk by its crew to avoid being seized by the Dutch at the onset of World War II. It rests in shallow waters, so we were able to check it out with snorkels, though it’s also a good dive site for beginners. The views are very impressive, and the area is teeming with fish and some turtles.
We then headed over to Catalina Cove for some fun snorkeling in crystal clear waters packed with tiny, shiny fish. And then further north we swam surrounded by pelicans with the lighthouse as a backdrop, and snorkeled over beautiful elkhorn corals. After a short stop at Arashi beach for some pictures, we returned to Palm Beach, as our 4 hours were up.
The dive sites in Aruba are nothing to write home about, the visibility is not as clear as in other world-class destination in the region, and the reefs and sealife are just ok. But where else can you dive airplane wrecks? The two small aircrafts were purposefully sunk, and one of them is relatively intact allowing for penetration. Several operators around the island dive the airplane wrecks combined with a sponge reef for ~$150 all in. I went with JADS and had a blast, the image of the planes is etched in my memory forever. The second dive was just ok; I spotted an eel, lionfish, and the always sneaky scorpion fish.
Road trip around the island:
After a few days packed with water activities, we rented a car to drive around the island. With just 20 miles of length and 6 miles across, a full island road trip can easily be accomplished in one day. Many visitors opt for a 4×4 rental or book a so-called “island jeep safari”, but we decided to keep it simple and rent a normal car and stick with the accessible highlights. Having seen the photos of the spots we skipped, and how miserable people looked with the scorching heat and dust, I don’t regret our decision.
Our first stop was Eagle Beach, considered for a good reason one of the most beautiful in the world. The sand was powdery, and the whole setting much more paradisiac than Palm beach; it is known as the “low-rise area” in contrast to Palm Beach’s “high-rise area” for a reason.
From there, we crossed over to the east coast, and were fascinated by the desert landscape, scattered with boulders and cacti. We checked out the Bushiribana gold mill ruins, and slowly drove south on the unpaved road. The coast was rugged and gorgeous, and we stopped to snap some pictures, but we didn’t dare jumping into the natural pool. This one is supposed to be somewhen similar to the famous one in the National Park, just smaller, less busy, and doesn’t require a 4×4 or tour. We drove to the end of this road, where there used to be a natural bridge. It collapsed years ago, but there is a baby bridge worth seeing.
It was time to cross the whole island to the southmost point, and to gobble up the sandwiches we had brought with us from the hotel buffet. It took about 45 min to make it to San Nicolas, the second largest city in the island after the capital Oranjestad. The reason this town merits a visit, or at least a drive-through, are the colorful murals decorating many buildings on its main street. At that point, we were hot and ready for our final stop of the day: Baby Beach, where we went for a refreshing swim in shallow, clear waters.
This was for sure one of the highlights of our time in Aruba, and I recommend leaving it for last… while also doing some planning to make sure you don’t miss out, since it’s not totally straightforward. The flamboyance of flamingos (I had to use that word at least once in my life!) are on Renaissance Island, which is privately owned by the resort of the same name. So you either have to book one or more nights, or get a day pass on this dedicated website. These passes cost $125 per person and become available at 7am the day before, and usually sell out immediately. The price includes the boat transfer to and from the mainland lobby in Oranjestad, lunch and a drink, so it’s not as much of a rip-off as it sounds.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: is it animal cruelty? I don’t know, there is contradictory information online about whether the flamingos were brought in by the resort and had their wings clipped, or whether they came on their own and fly away every once in a while. Nothing looked off while we were there. And the island is a natural paradise, with two protected coves, mangroves, tons of iguanas, all sorts of birds, octopi, fish, etc.
We took tons of pictures, tanned, ate a yummy meal with tropical cocktails, walked around, played in the shallow waters… In fact, we were having so much fun that we almost missed our flight. We jumped on the last possible boat transfer, drove to the airport at the speed limit, dropped the car off without waiting for the staff to check anything, and went through security still wearing our drenched swimsuits 😉