Located 18 miles north of the coast of Venezuela at the western edge of the Leeward Antilles, Aruba is not the sort of place most people picture when they envision a traditional Caribbean hotspot.
Formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles along with Bonaire and Curaçao (which are collectively known as “the ABC Islands”), the island’s Dutch history and proximity to South America give it a unique appeal that’s truly unlike any other place on the planet.
Of course, Aruba does offer many of the familiar features that make the best exotic islands so cool. There are long stretches of glistening white sand beach that have been ranked among the world’s most beautiful, hammocks swinging in the shade of palm trees, picture postcard-worthy ocean views, and a diverse array of lively cultural influences.
But the tiny (69 square mile) island also offers myriad distinctive elements that separate it from the tropical destination pack. On the natural side, Aruba’s attractions include strange windswept trees and rugged shorelines on the northeast coast, dramatic rock formations and desert-like landscapes in the interior, and an arid climate that virtually ensures warm, sunny weather 365 days a year.
While it may be best known in the U.S. as a honeymoon destination, there are also a diverse array of things to do in Aruba for nature and history lovers that are well worth discovering. Here are a few of our favorites…
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VISIT THE NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ARUBA
For an overview of the Dutch island’s rich history, start your journey at the National Archaeological Museum of Aruba.
The museum is located inside a renovated historic home in downtown Oranjestad (Aruba’s capital city) and houses artifacts dating back over 4000 years.
Three periods of Amerindian habitation of Aruba are documented in the impressive collection– the Pre-Ceramic period (2500 BC– 1000 AD), the Ceramic Period of the Caquetio Indians (900–1515), and the Historic Period (1515–1880).
My daughter especially loved the life-sized reproduction of an Arawak indian hut. The hands-on, interactive exhibits are a great way to educate kids on the country before they explore it.
EXPLORE ARIKOK NATIONAL PARK
Covering 18% of the country’s total area, Arikok National Park is Aruba’s only national park.
Established in the 1980s, Arikok is a hiking hotspot that features cool lava formations, abandoned gold mines, and historic plantation ruins. It’s also home to indigenous wildlife such as the Baker’s cat-eyed snake, Aruban whiptail lizard, Aruban burrowing owl, and the prikichi (or Aruban parakeet)
There are numerous caves within the park’s boundaries, including Quadirikiri Cave (which features an impressive bat colony) and Fontein Cave (which features ancient Arawak cave paintings dating back to the pre-columbian era).
The park is also home to the sea turtle nesting grounds of Boca Prina and the calm waters of Dos Playa. On Mount Jamanota, the highest point on the island at 620 feet, wild goats and donkeys can be seen roaming free.
BIRDWATCHING AT THE BUBALI BIRD SANCTUARY
Birdwatchers will enjoy a visit to the Bubali Bird Sanctuary, which provides fertile breeding grounds for more than 80 different types of birds.
The sanctuary’s lush vegetation and man-made bird ponds– which were created by runoff from the nearby water treatment facility– provides a welcome oasis for numerous different types of migratory birds.
Species you might see during your visit include several types of herons, egrets, coots, cormorants, ducks, parakeets, scarlet macaws, and more.
For a true bird’s-eye view of the facility, climb to the top of the observation tower.
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CLIMB THE AYO & CASIBARI ROCK FORMATIONS
Hardy hikers who don’t mind more rugged terrain will want to visit the Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations.
These two scenic viewpoints are located north of Hooiberg in the center of the island, and are said to resemble birds and dragons.
These massive reddish rocks seem to rise up out of nowhere in the middle of a harsh, barren landscape surrounded by cacti, and nobody really understands for certain how they got there.
Ayo is best known for its ancient cave paintings, which were made by the Arawak people while performing religious rites at the sacred site. Casibari is a bit larger, and climbing it provides impressive panoramic views of the desert-like surroundings.
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DIVE THE SS ANTILLA WRECK
Among nature lovers, Aruba is perhaps best known for its excellent Scuba diving opportunities. It’s even been recognized as one of the top wreck diving destinations in the Caribbean by Scuba Diving magazine.
The SS Antilla– the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean– is a 400-foot cargo boat believed to be supplying German U-Boats in the Caribbean during World War II. When the Dutch Marines ordered the captain to surrender the ship, he intentionally sank it instead.
Now, divers can explore its large compartments, cargo holds and boiler rooms, alongside the copious marine life that congregates there.
The century-old California is another popular Scuba diving site.The ship sunk off Aruba’s coast in 1910, and rests at a depth of approximately 45 feet.
GET CULTURED AT THE BON BINI FESTIVAL
Immersing yourself in local culture is one of the central tenets of the ecotourism ethos. In Aruba, there’s no better place to get a a lively taste of the island’s colorful history and traditional music and dance than the Bon Bini Festival.
Held every Tuesday night at 6:00 pm in downtown Oranjestad (in Fort Zoutman’s outdoor courtyard), the celebration offers a great introduction to Aruban culture.
There’s lively Aruban music, gorgeous dancers in traditional costumes from different eras in Aruba’s history, and even a brief introduction to the local Spanish Creole language, Papiamento.
There are also vendors selling handmade arts and crafts, and food is available at an additional charge. The entry fee is just $10 for adults and $5 for children, and includes admission to the Historical Museum of Aruba.
TAKE A 4X4 BACKCOUNTRY TOUR
For an in-depth exploration of Aruba’s wild side, take a 4×4 Backcountry Tour via Jeep or UTV.
They typically start on the island’s northernmost tip at the California Lighthouse, which was named after the S.S. California. The Lighthouse is arguably among the island’s best spots for catching the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea.
One of the country’s most popular landmarks, Natural Bridge, unfortunately collapsed back in 2005. But you can still visit other natural attractions in the area, such as Andicuri Beach (a popular spot for surfers).
The highlight of our backcountry tour was Natural Pool, which is known locally as “Cura di Tortuga.” This tranquil pool was formed naturally in the volcanic rocks, where dramatic sprays of water crashing into the shoreline provide a picturesque backdrop for a soothing midday soak.
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LEARN TO SURF AT HADICURARI BEACH
Thanks to the near-constant breeze coming in from offshore, Aruba offers some of the world’s best conditions for learning how to ride the waves.
Whether you’re interested in traditional surfing, stand up paddleboarding, windsurfing or catching some air via kitesurfing, there are numerous schools on the island that offer short or multi-day lessons to help you get your sea legs.
Many of them can be found on Hadicurari Beach at the Fisherman’s Huts, where the Aruba High Winds Tournament attracts some of the world’s best windsurfers and kiteboarders every July.
But fair warning: The winds in this area can get awful gusty at times. I’ll never forget the day my daughter (who was seven years old at the time) got blown nearly 100 yards off course before jumping off the board during her first windsurfing lesson!
SUMMIT “THE HAYSTACK”
For a more expansive panorama of the country than you can get from the water, visit the Hooiberg, one of Aruba’s most beloved natural attractions.
More commonly known as Haystack Mountain, or simply “the Haystack,” this volcanic formation in the center of the island requires climbing 561 steps up to reach breathtaking views of Aruba (and, in the distance, Venezuela).
Located at 541 feet above sea level, the adrenaline-pumping climb will give you an excellent overview of the surrounding rugged landscape and nearby scenic coastline.
TOUR THE ARUBA ALOE FACTORY
The Aruba Aloe Museum & Factory is another historical gem.
Aloe was first introduced on the island back in 1840. At one point, the islands of Aruba (which was the world’s largest aloe exporter at the time) was about 66% covered in aloe vera plants.
The 150-acre plantation on which the first aloe vera was planted is still in use today. It now features a state-of-the-art factory and a museum with exhibits on the industry’s ancient tools and equipment.
After the guided tour, there’s also a factory store offering an upscale line of products that help to heal skin seared by the fierce Caribbean sun.
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GO UNDER THE SEA AT DE PALM ISLAND
Located less than 10 minutes off the coast of Aruba, De Palm Island is a family-friendly attraction complete with a colorful water park, beaches, banana boat rides, volleyball courts, and more.
You can snorkel right off the beach on one of Aruba’s coolest coral reefs, where massive parrot fish come in schools of brilliant blue.
For an extra charge, you can also don a specially designed diving helmet (see photo above) for their Sea Trek Tour. The experience allows people who haven’t been Scuba certified to walk the ocean floor with no prior training whatsoever.
It’s pretty cool to stroll underwater on a 375-foot walkway that takes you past a sunken Cessna 414 airplane to shoot hilariously cheesy photos at the underwater “Sea Trek Cafe.”
Sure, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. But it’s a ridiculously fun one!
TASTE LOCAL FLAVORS AT THE PALMERA RUM FACTORY
Like most Caribbean islands, Aruba is serious about its rum and other spirits. And what Mount Gay Rum is to Barbados, Palmera Rum is to Aruba (a.k.a. a national treasure).
The Palmera Rum Factory has been an Aruba staple for more than 50 years now. Located on L.G. Smith Boulevard behind the Divi Golf Course, the local landmark offers free samples of locally distilled flavors such as Chocolate, Coconut, and even Almond Joy Rum.
A visit to the Balashi Beergarden is also a must for beer lovers, because it offers the island’s only locally-made brews. Balashi is Aruba’s national beer, and its name is derived from words meaning “near the sea.”
READ MORE: The Top 10 Things To Do in Barbados
GET UP CLOSE WITH ANIMALS
Animal lovers will find plenty of things to do in Aruba, despite the fact that there aren’t a lot of endemic wildlife species to be found on the island.
Founded by Philip Conrad Merryweather, the non-profit Philip’s Animal Garden is a foundation that focuses on rescuing exotic animals from throughout the Caribbean region. The attraction is home to more than 50 different species, from alpacas and axis deer to bengal cats, pythons, and white-faced capuchin monkeys.
The Aruba Ostrich Farm is one of the island’s more unusual attractions, offering educational tours that include up-close encounters with around 80 of the world’s largest bird species.
The Donkey Sanctuary in Santa Lucia features around 40 adorable donkeys, with floppy ears and inquisitive personalities. Arrive early enough and you and your kids can even volunteer, helping to feed and care for the cuddly nuzzlers!
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TAKE A WALKING TOUR OF DOWNTOWN ORANJESTAD
Located on the southern coast near the island’s western end, downtown Oranjestad features a number of lovingly restored historical landmarks that are easy to see on a self-guided walking tour.
Start at Fort Zoutman, the capital city’s oldest building, which was built in 1798 by the Dutch army to protect the city from pirates. It was named after was named after Dutch Rear Admiral Johan Arnold Zoutman, who never actually visited the island. The current walls date back to 1936, and the building now houses the Historical Museum of Aruba.
Then there’s the Willem III Tower, which was built in 1966-1868 and was once a lighthouse and public clock tower. Named after King William III of the Netherlands, the tower and the fort were both renovated extensively from 1974 to 1980.
One of the city’s most distinctive buildings is the green “stadhuis” that houses Oranjestad City Hall, where many of Aruba’s legal marriages are performed. Along with many of the pastel-colored buildings that line Plaza Daniel Leo, it’s a fine example of classic Dutch colonial architecture.
SHAKE A TAILFEATHER DURING CARNIVAL
Started in 1954 as a series of street festivals, Carnival has grown into Aruba’s most extravagant annual cultural event.
This month-long celebration is filled with jubilant street parties (also known as “Jump-ups”) and lively parades, winding down the night before Lent begins.
The Tivoli Club starts things off with the Lighting Parade, a twinkling nighttime extravaganza. There are also Children’s Parades and a Pajama Party.
The Grand Parades hosted in San Nicolas and Orajestad literally shut down those cities, with spectacularly colored costumes, lively music, and an infectious community atmosphere that nearly rivals the more famous festivals in New Orleans and Rio.
TAKE A CATAMARAN CRUISE AT SUNSET
Aruba’s coast is arguably among the most beautiful (and unusual) we’ve ever seen, with white sand beaches offset by windswept fofoti trees.
Local tour operators such as Red Sail Sports boast fleets of luxury catamarans, which offer a great way to explore the island’s brilliant aquamarine waters. Taking a sunset cruise with my daughter was a major highlight of our visit.
Your captain and crew will ensure that the boat is in a perfectly picturesque position to watch the setting sun, providing spectacular views of the island’s coastline along the way.
The 2-hour trip sets sail at 5:30PM Monday and Thursday through Sunday, and includes hors d’oeuvres as well as an open bar featuring local Balashi beer and cocktails.
WATCH WINGED WONDERS TAKE FLIGHT
The Aruba Butterfly Farm offers exceptional views of countless varieties of winged wonders, with educational exhibits on the miracle of metamorphosis and great photo ops.
This lovingly tended tropical garden is a lush Eden filled with colorful butterflies from all around the world.
Visitors get a chance to witness their complete life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to first flight, making it a dream for kids and photographers alike.
Best of all, you can buy a ticket at the beginning of your vacation and return for as many visits as you like while you’re in Aruba.
GET SOME R&R ON ARUBA’S BEAUTIFUL BEACHES
Of course, the most popular activity in Aruba is simply enjoying a nice sunny day on one of the island’s many world-class beaches. Though the island may be tiny compared to others in the Caribbean, there are literally dozens of gorgeous spots to choose from.
You can walk the the plush, deep sands of Eagle Beach, the longest one on the island. You can swim and snorkel in the tranquil 5-foot-deep waters and man-made reef of Baby Beach.
You can kick back and enjoy the colorful people-watching of Palm Beach. Or you can get away from the crowds and enjoy the more off-the-beaten-path pleasures of Arashi Beach.
And since most of Aruba’s best beaches are on the island’s northwestern side, almost all of them providing stunning sunset views. –text & photos by Bret Love unless otherwise noted
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