Arikok National Park (tel. 297/585-1234), Aruba's showcase ecological preserve, sprawls across nearly 20% of the island. Rock outcrops, boulders, and crevices create microclimates that support animal species found only in Aruba, including the Aruban rattlesnake, Aruban whiptail lizard, Aruban burrowing owl, and Aruban parakeet. Iguanas and many species of migratory birds live in the park as well, and goats and donkeys graze on the hills. Examples of early Amerindian art, abandoned mines from Aruba's gold-rush past, and remains of early farms dot the park. Sand dunes and limestone cliffs ornament the coast. It's easy to explore the preserve, but bring water, sunscreen, and food, and wear a hat and comfortable walking shoes. Birds and animals are most active in the morning, so go as early in the day as you can.
The government has done a good job of developing the area responsibly, with a breezy open-air welcome center and gift shop complete with educational wall panels and exhibits showing live specimens of local residents, including an invasive boa constrictor and native rattlesnake. Trail routes are clearly marked, and signs indicate the names of local plants. If you're really into it, though, stop by the park office at San Fuego z/n, on the main road between the Low-Rise area and Santa Cruz, to pick up a map. The office is open Monday through Friday from 7:30am to 3:30pm. Admission is $3.
Miralamar, a complex of gold mines and trenches, was active during the first decade of the 20th century. The hills along the path here are overgrown with yellow poui and white gum trees, and derelict buildings at the site include the foundations of an ore-testing lab, sleeping quarters, and a forge. Due to transportation problems and low-quality ore, the mines were abandoned in 1916, and many of the shafts collapsed. Century plants have now reclaimed the area.
Masiduri served as an experimental garden in the 1950s; the convergence of several creek beds makes the location reasonably moist. The eucalyptus trees and cunucu (farm) house date from the same era. The site now features an aloe-cultivation exhibit. In the early 1900s, Aruba was a major exporter of this plant known for its medicinal and healing properties. Today the sheltered location and comparatively moist conditions draw a variety of reptiles, including Aruban cat-eyed snakes. Feral donkeys, descendants of animals domesticated for transportation, come at night to rest.
The partially restored farm known as Cunucu Arikok recalls Aruba's agricultural past. It takes 45 minutes to complete the circular hiking trail through boulders, vegetation, and wildlife; shaded benches provide relief along the way. Beans, corn, millet, peanuts, and cucumbers were once cultivated at the site, and to protect the crops from goats, sheep, and donkeys, cactus hedges and stone walls were built. The restored adobe farmhouse has the typical small windows and a sloping roof. Dried cactus stems were used to make roof beams, and mud and grass form the walls. A barn, threshing floor, pigpen, and outhouse surround the house. Before Europeans arrived, Amerindians left drawings of birds and marine animals on overhanging rocks just off the trail near the parking lot. At dawn and dusk, the area is alive with parakeets, doves, troupials, mockingbirds, hummingbirds, lizards, and cottontail rabbits.
At the seacoast, the terrain and vegetation change dramatically from hills covered with cacti and divi divi trees to sand dunes and limestone bluffs studded with sea grapes and sea lavender. Soldier crab and lizard trails crisscross the morning sand of Boca Prins, and in the early spring, baby sea turtles hatch and wobble frantically toward the sea. A 20-minute walk farther west along the coast, Dos Playa features two coves carved out of the limestone bluff. With its wide, sandy beach, the first cove attracts sunbathers and is perfect for picnics, but its strong current makes swimming too dangerous. Stop by the nearby restaurant for some tasty local fare; it's the only restaurant in the park so it's a good thing the view and food are both decent.
Tucked away on the coast northwest of Dos Playa, the Natural Pool or conchi known as Cura di Tortuga is protected from the rough sea by surrounding rocks. It's said that the pool was once used to hold sea turtles before they were sold (tortuga means turtle in Papiamento). On quiet days, the pool is great for a swim, but bathing is risky when waves leap the rock barrier. It's a considerable hike to the pool from the parking lot at Boca Prins; take a horseback or ATV tour to the site on another day to fully enjoy the unforgettable experience of taking a refreshing dip in this anything-but-placid pool.
A 15-minute walk from Boca Prins, Fontein Cave is the most popular of several small limestone hollows along the north coast (you'll pass the park's only restaurant on the way to the cave). Brownish-red drawings left by Amerindians and graffiti etched by early European settlers ornament the walls and ceilings. Calcareous-rich water dripping through the limestone has caused stalagmites and stalactites to form, some in the shape of bison or human heads (park rangers stationed at the cave will point them out). The hole is an important roosting place for long-tongued bats. Early in the evening, the flying mammals leave the cave for nectar and pollen.
The Quadirikiri Cave features two large chambers with roof openings that allow sunlight in, making flashlights unnecessary. Hundreds of small bats use the 30m-long (98-ft.) tunnel as a passageway to their nests deeper in the cave. A tale associated with Quadirikiri is dubious: The fiercely independent daughter of an Indian chief was trapped in the cave with her "unsuitable" suitor and left to perish. Defiant even in death, the spirits of the star-crossed lovers burst through the cave's roof and up to heaven.
Also known as the Tunnel of Love because of its heart-shaped entrance, the Baranca Sunu cave is home to a colony of bats sensitive to disturbance. As a result the cave is temporarily closed and may become permanently closed if studies of the colony indicate the bats require protection. Stories of pirates using the cave to hide treasure have circulated for generations, but there's no evidence to confirm the rumors. Rather than return to the park entrance, follow the road along the coast. It eventually becomes a paved route that leads to San Nicolas.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.