With miles of white sand and crystal clear waters, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to drag themselves away from Aruba’s many beautiful beaches. However, beyond the sparkling water and the idyllic coastline, for such a small island, Aruba has on offer an astounding variety of activities and fascinating sights.
Arikok National Park is a great place to learn about the microclimate and the geological make up that makes the island so special and you may also be lucky enough to spot some of the indigenous species such as colorful lizards and birds that are found only on Aruba. The park is on the more sheltered western side of the island which, because of the protection from the stronger winds, has traditionally been the most abundant for agriculture and hence the place where most people have lived throughout the centuries. The remains of traditional dwellings called “cas di torta” can still be found within the area of the national park.
It is impossible to visit Aruba without seeing some aloe plants. However, they aren’t native to Aruba; they were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century and soon almost two-thirds of the island was planted with them and on top of that, this distinctive plant has even influenced the architecture of the island too. Aruba Aloe products are highly regarded and a museum and visitor centre in Hato allows tourists to learn about the health benefits of aloe and see the production process from start to finish.
It was a different industry that was important to Aruba’s economy in the past. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries pirates sailed the seas around Aruba looking for ships carrying gold and jewels to plunder. It is believed that the name “Aruba” derives from “oro ruba” meaning “red gold” and, for several centuries, Aruba attracted many gold prospectors seeking to make their fortunes. Dotted around the island are the now ruined buildings of several goldmines.
Today the historical museum housed in the renovated Fort Zoutman, in Oranjestad, tells the story of those days among a series of diverse exhibitions. The fort, which dates from 1798, holds the distinction of being the oldest building in Aruba and it was built to offer protection from attackers; indeed an attack by the English was repelled from the fort the following year. Beside it, the Willem III tower, which dates from the 1860s, has acted both as a lighthouse and a clocktower. Now it forms part of the museum. On Tuesday evenings the Bon Bini Festival takes place at the fort; this happens all year round, rain or shine. It’s a traditional folklore festival and the name means “Welcome” in Papiamento, a traditional Aruban dialect. The dancers wear magnificent costumes while they perform to the music of the steel bands and visitors can try local food and drinks which is often, but not always, included in the admission price. If you’ve enjoyed the beer, why not make a visit to the Balashi brewery, home of Aruba’s only domestic beer, to see how it’s made. The admission price includes one beer.
Another species that is not native to Aruba is the ostrich. However, the landscape of Aruba does seem to suit this African creature and its close relation the Australian emu. Visitors to the ostrich farm can meet the animals up close and personal and learn about them from the experienced guides.
Several of Aruba’s most popular tourist sights are related to Catholicism. A trail of crosses leads from the town of Noord to the Alto Vista chapel. The chapel that stands today was built in the 1950s but the original chapel was built by Indians who had converted to Catholicism in the eighteenth century and settled here quietly to avoid the troubles elsewhere on Aruba but after some years it fell into ruin. During the Second World War the island was attacked by a German submarine and as a result of this, local people decided to build a new chapel on the site. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island a Catholic shrine known as the Lourdes Grotto also attracts visitors and local pilgrims. It was built in 1958 to mark the 150th anniversary of an apparition of the Holy Virgin in Aruba. Every year on the feast day of the Lady of Lourdes (11th February) a procession makes its way to the grotto for a special mass.
However you occupy yourself in Aruba you will always find your way back to the beaches and when you do you can be sure to find all kinds of activities to occupy yourself and your family. The diving is exceptional but there are opportunities for snorkelling, kayaking, jet-skiing and parasailing. If you’ve ever fancied trying your hand at windsurfing Aruba is the place to do it – Aruba is known as the windsurfing capital of the world!