If you can lift yourself from the sand, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and venture into the island's outback. Follow the dirt roads as they toil through alien landscapes of oddly balanced boulders, jagged cliffs, and furious seascapes. The terrain may seem harsh, but the cacti and divi divi trees love it. The tall organ-pipe cacti are known locally as cadushi, the prickly-pear variety is called tuna, and the barrel species is Bushi. Start from the resort area, head toward the California Lighthouse, and then follow the dirt road as it traces the island's perimeter.
Ready for something completely different? At the south end of the High-Rise area, the tropical gardens of the Butterfly Farm, on J.E. Irausquin Boulevard, across the street from the Divi Phoenix Beach Resort (tel. 297/586-3656; www.thebutterflyfarm.com), you can dance with a thousand beautiful butterflies. The 40 species bred at the facility hail from every corner of the tropical world. It's fun to marvel at the colors of the ethereal flutterers, and guides provide amusing explanations of the short but sweet life of the average lepidopteran. Did you know that caterpillars double in size every 24 hours? That butterfly sex lasts for up to 48 hours? Visit as early in the day as possible -- that's when the wing flapping is maximal. Admission is $15 for adults and $8 for children 4 to 16, and is good for unlimited return trips for the duration of your vacation. The farm is open daily from 8:30am to 4pm.
Aruba's most distinctive landmark is the Old Dutch Windmill, J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 330, around the corner from the Butterfly Farm, near Palm Beach. It's an anomaly in the Caribbean, but it's authentic. Built in Friesland, Holland, in 1804, it originally drained water from low-lying land. Damaged by a storm in 1878, it was later rebuilt at another site in the Netherlands to mill grain. In 1929, another storm hit the windmill, which stood idle until 1960, when a Dutch merchant shipped it to Aruba. It reopened in 1974 and has at various times over the years housed a series of restaurants and late-night bars, which seem to open then shut down depending on the direction of the wind, perhaps.
Although Aruba is as arid as the desert, the lush Bubali Bird Sanctuary, on J.E. Irausquin Boulevard, serves as a resting and breeding area for more than 80 species of local and migratory birds. Across the street from the Old Dutch Windmill, the poorly marked but worthwhile sanctuary was once a salt pan. Today the two interconnected man-made lakes are flooded by overflow from a nearby water-treatment facility and surrounded by lush vegetation. The fish in the nutrient-rich ponds attract brown pelicans and black olivaceous cormorants. In the constantly undulating marsh grasses (like something out of a Van Gogh painting), black-crowned night herons, Louisiana herons, great blue herons, common egrets, and snowy egrets abound. Gulls, skimmers, coots, and numerous species of ducks also make appearances. The rickety observation tower has fallen into disrepair and is now unsafe to climb, but if it gets the restoration it deserves, it will provide avian enthusiasts a bird's-eye view of the oasis -- though nonbirders and romantics alike will enjoy the spectacular view of the entire area. Dawn and dusk, when the birds are most active, are the best times to visit. The sanctuary is always open, and there's never an admission fee.
Go north from the bird sanctuary, past half of the High-Rise hotels, and turn right at the first traffic light. Proceed a mile or two to the next traffic light. Originally built in 1776 and last renovated in 1916, Santa Ana Church boasts a soaring ceiling and an intricately carved altar, communion rail, and pulpit. The neo-Gothic oak altar, carved in 1870 for a parish in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant by Hendrik van der Geld, came to Aruba in 1928. The two stained-glass windows, dating from 1932 and 1965, honor four former lay priests of Alto Vista Chapel. The adjacent cemetery contains a hodgepodge of crypts painted in tropical pastel colors and festooned with a verdant garden of plastic flower wreaths that are both bright and meditative. The quiet observer may catch a glimpse of a resident burrowing owl staring down from a perch at uninvited intruders. The church, which is usually locked, is on Caya F.D. Figaroa at its intersection of Palm Beach in Noord (tel. 297/586-1409 or 587-4747). Sunday Mass is celebrated at 7:30am and 6pm in Papiamento. Mass in English is at 11am.
From the church, drive north for about 5 minutes. The California Lighthouse sits on a hilltop perch at Aruba's northernmost tip, but its active days are over. Part of the adjacent restaurant once served as the lighthouse keeper's home. The beacon itself has been closed to the public for a number of years, ever since a distressed woman committed suicide by jumping from its summit. The surrounding area features some of the island's most spectacular scenery -- gentle sand dunes, rocky coral shoreline, and turbulent waves. The picturesque structure gets its name from the California, a passenger ship that sank off the nearby coast before the lighthouse was completed in 1916.
Now it's time to leave paved roads behind. Turn right at the lighthouse and follow the dirt trail along the dramatic northern coast. The road's rough state precludes speeding, but within 15 minutes you'll reach another man-made attraction. Built in 1750, abandoned in the 1800s, and rebuilt 200 years later, the picturesque Alto Vista Chapel radiates serenity from its cactus-studded perch overlooking the sea. The chapel, Aruba's first, was built by Caiquetio Indians and Spanish settlers before the island had its own priest. The church's ancient Spanish cross is one of the oldest European artworks in the Dutch Caribbean, and the altar's statue has a devoted local following. Secluded near the island's northwestern corner, just off the road hugging the northeast coast, the tiny bright yellow structure rests at the end of a winding road lined with white crosses marking the Stations of the Cross.
Five minutes farther down the coast, you'll come to the Bushiribana Ruins. According to local legend, in 1824 a 12-year-old boy came across gold in one of the dry creek beds on Aruba's north coast. Naturally, the discovery set off a gold frenzy. For 30 years, Arubans were allowed to collect the precious metal, provided they sold it at a set price. In 1854, a gold-mining concession was granted to the Aruba Island Gold Mining Company, which built this smelter on the north coast in 1872. Although the facility operated for only 10 years, its hulking ruins still dominate the area. Climb the multitiered interior for impressive sea views. Too bad the walls have been marred with artless graffiti.
From the ruins, you'll be able to see a line of cars heading for the next site, just minutes away. Once the island's most photographed attraction, the Natural Bridge rose 7.5m (25 ft.) above the sea and spanned 30m (98 ft.) of rock-strewn waters. Centuries of relentless pounding by the surf carved the arch out of the limestone coast and no doubt led to its unfortunate collapse in September 2005. Luckily, the appropriately named Baby Bridge stands only a few feet away. While it lacks the dramatic arch of its namesake, it's still pretty cool and is sturdy enough (so far) to stand on, where you can view the rugged sea below. The nearby thirst-aid station supplies refreshments and souvenirs.
Retrace the dirt road back to the first intersection and turn left. The road soon becomes paved, and within 5 minutes, take a right. (Signage is nonexistent here, so don't be shy about asking for directions.) Looking like something out of the Flintstones, the eerie Ayo Rock Formations served Aruba's early inhabitants as a dwelling or religious site. The reddish-brown petroglyphs on the boulders suggest magical significance, and the strange stones look as though they were stacked by giants. The site is open daily from 9am to 5pm, and admission is free.
If you like the Ayo rocks, continue on the main road to its end. Turn right, then take another right at the sign for the Casibari Rock Formations. These alien rocks rise from the cacti- and lizard-infested hills. Although the boulders weigh several tons each, they look freshly scattered by some Cyclopean dice roller. Look for the formations that resemble birds and dragons, or climb the trail to the top of the highest rock mound for a panorama of the area. Watch your head on the path to the top, though; the tunnels have low clearance. The rock garden is open daily from 9am to 5pm, with no admission charge. The nearby stands sell souvenirs, snacks, soft drinks, and beer.
If you have children, or just like animals, stop by the Donkey Sanctuary (tel. 297/965-6986 or 568-4091; www.arubandonkey.org), .8km (1/2 mile) from the Ayo Rock Formations, where dozens of these feral yet gentle animals are corralled, fed, and cared for. The staff will eagerly share their knowledge with you about the history and ecology of Aruba's donkeys, many of which still roam the countryside. A small refreshment stand serves drinks and snacks. Hours are from 9am to 12:30pm weekdays and 10am to 3pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Even if the sanctuary is closed, you can still pet and ogle the friendly donkeys over the fence. For VIP treatment from the resident inmates, be sure to bring an apple or some carrots; if you forget, a buck will buy you a bag of food or a bruised apple from the small shop on the porch, either of which will make you very popular indeed. Just be sure to cut the apple in small pieces and feed it to them with a flat hand. This is by far the most fun you can have on the island with a dollar. Don't miss the tiny shop, filled with donkey-themed gifts that you can buy guilt-free, as all the proceeds go toward feeding the resident burros. Particularly nice are the French milled donkey soap, colorful children's books, and adorable stuffed donkeys in every shape and size.
Another opportunity for animal encounters is the Ostrich Farm (tel. 297/585-9630; www.arubaostrichfarm.com), on the road between the Baby Bridge and the Bushiribana Gold Smelter Ruins. Here you can tour the grounds and meet the resident ostriches and emus; the 20-minute tour is sadly lacking in any valuable information about these amazing birds, which stand over 1.8m (6 ft.) tall and can weigh close to 136 kilograms (300 lb.). The tired tour guides seem more interested in getting the tour over with than bestowing pearls of wisdom about the ecology of the birds themselves. Visitors can, nonetheless, feed a hungry harem of females; compare and contrast the ostriches with their close kin, emus; test the incredible strength of an egg at the hatchery; then head back to the pavilion to browse the impressive gift shop full of carved wood and textiles shipped in from Africa. One can also sample ostrich meat at the African-themed restaurant. While the idea is disturbing, the dark meat is surprisingly tasty and bears a striking resemblance not to chicken, but rather to steak. The ostrich farm and restaurant are open daily from 9am to 5pm. The last tour is at 4pm.
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.