What to Do in Aruba When You're Tired of Sunbathing
For many, the allure of a vacation in Aruba has to do with sun, slot machines, and shrimp dinners. If that’s you, we get it. Life is hard; sand is soft. Still, some of us prefer to bask in moderation, interspersing our lolling-around time with activities that require removing our backsides from beach chairs. Fortunately, Aruba has stuff for those kinds of visitors, too—whether they’re interested in nature, history, food, shopping, or a taste of adventure. The island may have a reputation as one of the more touristy spots in the Caribbean, but there are still locals to learn from, resort-free areas to explore, and enriching experiences to seek out. You just have to get up.
Though the island is only 6 miles (10km) across at its widest point, the east and west sides of Aruba differ in terrain the way that Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Upper East Side are said to differ in temperament. In Aruba, it’s the east side that’s wilder and the west that has the more expensive real estate. Head east on an ATV or guided Jeep safari (such as the ones offered by ABC Tours) from the Dutch-inflected capital of Oranjestad or the popular beach resorts, and you’ll pass from golden, tourist-dotted sands through arid, unpeopled scrubland sprouting spiky aloe plants and the occasional cactus. It’s a bumpy, off-road ride but still more pleasant than most cross-town buses back home. On the rugged northeastern coast, you can jump into a cave pool, snap selifes next to limestone formations (though not the still-lamented Natural Bridge, which collapsed in 2005), and see the island’s only black beach, the stony and aptly named Blackstone Beach.
Pictured: part of the Twin Bridges rock formation
By the standards of textbooks, Aruba has remained in footnote territory for most of its history. Originally inhabited by the Arawak people, the island was seized by the Netherlands from Spain in the 17th century—and then pretty much forgotten about until the 19th. That’s when gold was discovered, supposedly by a 12-year-old boy, setting off something you don’t usually associate with Aruba: a frenzy. An estimated 3 million pounds of the precious metal were eventually extracted from the island, until there wasn’t anything left to extract. Not far from Blackstone Beach stands what remains of the Bushiribana Gold Mill, built in the 1870s to smelt ore mined nearby. Climb to the top of the fortresslike stone ruins for a commanding view of a sea the color of Cool Mint Listerine.
Continuing north via unpaved pathways (those ATV and Jeep tours we mentioned earlier remain your best bets), you’ll eventually reach a long road lined with cacti and white crosses leading to the site of Aruba’s first Roman Catholic church. Built in 1750 by Spanish settlers and Caquetio people, the original thatched-roof Alto Vista Chapel was abandoned in the 19th century. The canary-yellow structure standing here today went up in 1952. Mass is held weekly, and each year on Good Friday pious Arubans mark the Stations of the Cross along the road to the chapel. Tour guides will tell you that the altar is a good place to pray for miracles.
A 15-minute drive further north will bring you back to pavement and another noteworthy manmade landmark. The 30m-tall (98-ft.) California Lighthouse, which takes its name not from the U.S. state but a steamer that sank close by, was finished in 1916. It no longer guides ships and for a long time nobody was allowed inside. But following a 100th-birthday restoration in 2016, the interior was reopened to paying visitors, who can ascend the beacon for a 360-degree look at crashing waves, coral cliffs, and desert expanses from Aruba’s northernmost tip.
If you want to taste how the locals eat, you’ll need to tear yourself away from your hotel’s buffet and visit Zeerovers (pictured) in the village of Savaneta on the southwest coast. At this humble seaside spot where off-duty fishermen loaf along the perimeter, freshly caught grouper and prawns are served alongside homegrown specialties such as pan bati (a kind of pancake) and sweet plantains.
A fancier but still unstuffy dinner alternative is Papiamento, named after the Creole language spoken only on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Just as that tongue mixes elements of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, the restaurant’s Ellis family fuses flavors from all over in a menu that ranges from seafood bouillabaisse with coconut broth and a dash of curry to locally grown mushrooms baked with fresh herbs and gooey Muenster cheese. The restaurant is housed in a century-old former country home in the northern district of Noord. But the best seats are on a courtyard decorated with a pool and strings of twinkling lights. Try not to swoon from all the romance in the air.
When it comes to souvenirs, you can do better than key chains and shot glasses. Try one of the Cosecha stores in Oranjestad and San Nicolas instead. Local artisans make everything that’s on sale here—canvasses, fashions, jewelry, and keepsakes built from reclaimed driftwood or native trees such as kwihi and divi divi, otherwise famous for trunks that reach out over the ocean like bendy straws. Even if you don’t buy anything, Cosecha’s gallery-esque space is worth perusing. To make your own mementoes, the San Nicolas location has a workshop area where nationally certified Aruban artists lead classes (prices vary by group size; call ahead to make arrangements) in turning wood, paint, clay, and cloth into mantel-worthy creations.
Pictured: a weeping flamingo made in a Cosecha art class—because sometimes birds fly and sometimes birds cry
Leaving the sand doesn’t only mean going inland. You can also head into the sea. Opportunities for swimming, sailing charters, snorkeling excursions, and standup paddleboard rentals are as plentiful as in any other beachside locale. But for a watersport especially beloved by Arubans, you might try your hand (and your abs and your center of gravity) at windsurfing. Though the island is fortunately south of Hurricane Alley, the constant trade winds create excellent conditions for the sport—and for creating a windsurfing phenom such as Aruba native and frequent world champ Sarah-Quita Offringa.
She makes it look graceful and thrilling. First-timers who sign up for lessons and rentals (via Vela or other outfitters) are liable to look more like wobbly-kneed infants. It’s not easy to stay upright on those mast-and-board contraptions—and turning seems impossible—but eventually you’ll catch a gust of air just right and feel completely at one with the elements for those few seconds before you slip, fall, and end up with a snootful of saltwater.
Nearly 20% of Aruba is set aside as national parkland, preserving what the island looked like before colonizers and tourists showed up. Hiking trails and tours on horseback or in 4x4 vehicles traverse Arikok's thorny, scraggly landscape inhabited by iguanas and grazing donkeys, giving way to coastal dunes, limestone caves (Quadirikiri Cave is pictured), and formations such as the Natural Pool, a swimming hole encircled by rocks that keep out rough waves. Marks of the island’s human history are confined to stone wall etchings left by Native peoples, a lonely adobe farmhouse, and the overgrown remains of abandoned gold mines.
We know we’ve been advocating for expanding your Aruba itinerary beyond sun worship. But it’s impossible not to be awed by the island’s sunsets, particularly at MooMba Beach Bar & Restaurant, a laid-back oceanfront spot with a spacious, thatched-roof bar and tables scattered in the sand. MooMba is situated smack-dab between two resorts belonging to the Holiday Inn and Marriott, but Arubans have been known to hang out here anyway, presumably drawn in by a seafood-centric menu of local comfort food and a full calendar of live performances from DJs and musicians. By the time you leave, the sunset might be a distant memory.