J&D's Travelog



October 5-12, 2007

Map of Aruba.

Although we spent a week in South Carolina over the summer, the weather hadn’t fully cooperated, and the beaches were suited more towards collecting shells than relaxing with a tropical drink. Thus, we were yearning for a trip to a sandy beach lapped by clear blue water. We turned our attention to the Caribbean, but being early October, we wanted to minimize any intrusion by hurricanes on our idyllic plans. We narrowed down our focus to the Dutch islands of Bonaire, Curaçao, and Aruba situated just off of the Venezuelan coast. These islands are rarely subjected to hurricanes, and the temperature remains between 80-90°F year round. A look at potential flights from Boston pointed to Aruba as the most convenient choice.

The Riu is one of the most glamorous hotels in Aruba.
Palm Beach and the Riu Hotel.

Several hotels offer sunset dinners right on the beach.
Surfside sunset suppers.

Eagle Beach offers a reprieve from the tourist-laden Palm Beach.
The less-populated Eagle Beach.

Hotel Area

Unless you arrive by cruise ship, you’ll most likely be staying in one of the two hotel areas. The high-rise section contains the big name hotels with large beaches, fancy restaurants, and kiosks that peddle various watersport adventures. By contrast, the low-rise area has smaller, more moderately-priced hotels with quiet beaches and as many locals as tourists. Separating the two zones is a short stretch of rocky shoreline and a coastal wildlife refuge, but city buses transport tourists between them regularly. We opted for the quieter low-rise area around Eagle Beach. Our hotel was nice enough with two pools, a pool bar, a couple of hot tubs, and two rows of palapas on the beach across the street. Once checked into our room, we rummaged through our bags for our swimsuits, made a stop at the bar to buy an icy bucket of Balashi beer, and headed down to the beach to commandeer a palapa.

During our stay, we pretty much covered both hotel strips. The high-rise area has a path running along the beach in front of the hotels, and we walked the path in the daytime and nighttime to get a flavor of each of the resorts. The cream of the crop was definitely the Riu and the Occidental with lots of marble, waterfalls, birds, and even outdoor beds. These were all out of our price range, plus they seemed too glitzy and crowded. We were more than happy with our quaint little moderately-priced hotel – or so we told ourselves. One the major factors convincing us to choose Aruba came back to haunt us. The fact that there are daily flights from Boston and New York to Oranjestad means that Aruba is crawling with Northeasterners. If your idea of paradise is to watch a fat hairy-backed, Red Sox-capped, white guy wading through the water with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Bud in the other then Aruba is the place for you.

Aruba's motto is 'One Happy Island'.
Handicapped parking.

Aruba is visited by more than 100 species of land and sea birds.
A sandpiper.

Sunset is a special time in Aruba.  Everyon tries to be somewhere to watch it.
J enjoys another Aruban sunset among the palapas.

The fort was originally on the waterfront, but the results of a landfill project has it near downtown Oranjestad.
Fort Zoutman.

Oranjestad's city hall

Oranjestad has several pastel-colored, Dutch-gabled buildings.
Downtown Oranjestad.


Once we completed our tour of the hotel areas, we decided to venture into Oranjestad. As with most Caribbean islands, the capital city is situated on the leeward side of the island, only a short bus ride from the low-rise hotels. Much of Oranjestad lines Lloyd G. Smith Blvd, the strip that runs the length of the harbor where the cruise ships dock. The area hosts scores of bars and jewelry shops but is also home to Wilhelmina Park where one can relax and receive a full iguana experience. All of this area was created from landfill in the 1930’s, a fact illustrated a block inland by the 18th century Fort Zoutman which was built on the then-shoreline to protect the island from the threat of pirates.

Feeling a little peckish, we wandered further into town where we found more pastel-colored, Dutch-gabled buildings and restaurants specializing in a wide range of cuisines. We settled on a place serving Dutch pannekoeken - large crepes filled with meat and cheese. Of course, J ordered the sweet version with a fruit and ice cream filling. Without a clear plan in mind, we moseyed around town stopping in some of the various establishments to enjoy a mojito or a margarita before heading back to the hotel for a sunset dinner on the beach.

Queen Wilhelmina park is one of the best places to see iguana.
Gangs roam the park looking for trouble.

Queen Wilhelmina ruled the Netherlands for nearly 60 years - including both world wars.
Queen Wilhelmina Park.

Iguanas were once used in Aruban stews and soups .
Iguanas getting some ray action.

Mi Dushi drops off  bunch of snorkelers.
Fellow snorkelers.

The water in Aruba is warm year round.
J tests the water at Baby Beach.

Baby Beach is at the southern tip of Aruba.
Baby Beach

Snuba involves snorkeling with a hose from a floating air tank.
A school of reef fish.

Aruba provides some top-notch snorkeling opportunities.
A parrot fish eyeballs us suspiciously.

Several types of coral can be found on the reefs around Aruba.
Pipe coral

The German freighter Antilla was sunk in 1940.
A view of the Antilla.

The Antilla is one of Aruba's most popular dive spots.
The sunken freighter.


We heard that some of the best snorkeling in Aruba was to be had at Baby Beach. Unfortunately, this beach was located at the southern tip of the island, and we were in need of transportation. While we were by now well-acquainted with the bus from the tourist hotels to Oranjestad, we had not ventured any further. To our frustration, we could not find a single bus schedule or route map anywhere nor could we find anyone, including our hotel services rep, who could tell us where to get one. Apparently, tourists don’t take the bus beyond Oranjestad since the bus station there is no more than a café. With the help of a friendly bus driver, we found the right transfers to get us to San Nicolas, home of the nation’s largest employer – the Valero oil refinery. But it was also the bus terminus meaning we were on our own to make it the rest of the way. After buying a few pastechis from a local shop for breakfast, we walked around what appeared to be the seedier part of San Nicolas looking for a taxi. This was definitely not tourist area, be we managed to hail a cab whose driver agreed to take us to the beach. The driver was understanding of our predicament, gave us his card, and insisted that we call him when we needed a lift back.

Baby Beach was truly delightful - a soft white sand crescent around an aquamarine lagoon. We found a nice spot near some divi divi trees which we could use for shade if necessary. The beach began to fill up as the day progressed, but most of the sunbathers appeared to be locals which was not too surprising considering the hotels were on the other end of the island. Snorkeling in the lagoon provided some glimpses of a few colorful fish, but the real action was out by the breakers where we found brain coral, pipe coral, and some pretty fearless large fish. Three hours later, we returned to shore, and our jaws dropped at the sight of our bright red backs. It was going to be a painful night. To make matters worse, we called our taxi man who refused to pick us up because a cruise ship was coming in and meeting it would be more lucrative. Thanks to the kindness of some fellow travelers, we hitched a ride back to our hotel in their rental car.

Though we were both in pain from our snorkeling, we had booked a trip to snuba – snorkeling with an air line- near the wreck of an old German freighter. The voyage was all you can drink which helped dull the pain, and we received some quick lessons on the snuba technique before we were allowed to go on our own. It took some getting used to, but we were able to dive to about 15 feet which gave us a nice view of the freighter. From time to time, D felt a stinging sensation on his arm which caused him to freak out and frantically wave his arms around like a man possessed - a truly comical sight. Our guide told us they were called pico pico and that the rash would go away in a few hours. So between numerous cocktails, too much sun, and stinging aquatic organisms, we decided to hang up our swim fins for the rest of the trip.

The Stripper welcomes us aboard the Kukoo Kunuku bus.
The Kukoo Kunuku party bus.

The success of the Kukoo Kunuku bus has spawned competing tours.
Mr. Smooth gets us underway.

The Kukoo Kunuku bus stops near the California lighthouse for a sunset champagne toast.
A sunset champagne toast.

Kukoo Kunuku

Our research prior to arriving in Aruba indicated that there was one adventure that we just couldn’t miss – the Kukoo Kunuku bus. For a moderate fee, this bus of rowdies will whisk you around to a handful of bars for a night out on the town. We made our reservations online the day before and waited at our designated pick-up point around dinnertime. This seemed like a perfect opportunity for J to really let loose after weeks of working overtime to finish a priority project. But as the kaleidoscopic bus pulled up with blaring salsa music and screaming passengers, we began to have second thoughts. We were greeted by The Stripper and Mr. Smooth who checked our names and issued us our maracas. The first stop was a champagne toast near Arashi Beach to watch the sun set and rendezvous with the other bus. The owner of this enterprise laid down the ground rules, of which there was only one – have a good time. The evening’s plan included dinner at a traditional Aruban cunucu homestead and then on to five local nightspots for a drink at each. Our fellow passengers were a healthy mix of old timers and newlyweds, most of whom shared our apprehension of what we had gotten ourselves into. Dinner wasn’t anything special, but it gave us the opportunity to get to know some of the people on the bus and to have a few kickoff drinks. Of course, the real reason for the dinner was to get some food in our stomachs and have the opportunity to purchase some Kukoo Kunuku souvenirs.

We were already feeling pretty good when we loaded ourselves back on the bus to head out to the first bar. The music was blaring, maracas were shaking, the passengers were drinking, and Mr. Smooth, our driver, spun us around every traffic circle three times to warn off all other motorists. The price of admission included dinner and one drink at each of the bars on our route; however, if you buy the official Kukoo Kunuku koozie, the bars will fill it instead of the much smaller house glass. We went for the deal, and it definitely paid off – especially when you consider the amount of booze J would have spilled without it as the night progressed. To our surprise and delight, we did not make stops at the regular tourist traps in and around Oranjestad, but rather were taken to hangouts where the locals cut loose. Each successive stop escalated the infectious partying atmosphere on and off the bus. Now fully into the swing of things, J led the charge as we made our final stop. This particular club had a stage in the corner that included a pole. Decorum prevents us from posting images of J’s pole dancing prowess here, but suffice it to say that it was memorable to all present. It was sometime after 1 am when the bus, music still blasting and passengers screaming "Aay Parrandaaa!", delivered us at our hotel.

Sailors from Africa brought aloe to Aruba in the mid-1800's.
Aloe fields.

The Balashi gold mill is located near Frenchman's Pass - the site of a skirmish between the Arawaks and French pirates.
Balashi gold mill ruins.

The lighthouse gets its name from the wreck of the California passenger ship which went down a few years before the lighthouse was completed in 1916.
California Lighthouse.

Around the Island

The island of Aruba has had a somewhat peculiar history. It was originally settled by the Arawak tribe of Caquietios natives from Venezuela whose presence is commemorated by drawings on some of the rock formations around the island. From a European perspective, the Spanish discovered the island at the end of the 15th century and were responsible for its name – a derivative of oro hubo suggesting a presence of gold. Aruba’s arid climate did not offer much for the Spanish other than ranching, so they enslaved the entire Arawak population and relocated them to the northern Caribbean island of Hispaniola to work the mines. Eventually many of the Arawak returned to their native island to live alongside the Spanish. Towards the end of the Eighty Years War, the Dutch wrestled Aruba away from the Spanish and began serious colonization. The English briefly took control of the island for a decade during the Napoleonic Wars, but Aruba was returned to the Dutch for good in 1816. Aruba became an autonomous state in 1986 but remains part of a Dutch Commonwealth along with the Netherlands Antilles. The result of this chaotic past is a population of mixed culture that speaks Dutch and a hybrid creole language called Papiamento derived from Spanish, English, and Dutch influences.

With two days of vacation remaining, we were badly sunburned and hungover. We decided that it was time to see more of the island but to do that we needed some reliable transportation. We rented a bright yellow moped for a couple days and motored from one end of the island to the other. Much of the island is not accessible by paved roads, especially the 20% that constitutes the Arikok National Park. We covered as much as we could, starting with the California Lighthouse at the northern tip, and making our way down the rugged windward side of the island. We stopped by the aloe fields that the aptly named Aruba Aloe Co. harvests to make their lotions, soaps, and shampoos for export. Further on, we explored the Ajo rock formations and the Alto Vista chapel, Aruba’s first place of worship built in 1750 by the Spanish.

In 1824, gold was discovered in Aruba which led to sort of a boom period for the island. The mined ore was processed at one on of two smelters at Bushiribana and Balashi. Given our backgrounds in mining, we felt obligated to visit both sites, but there is little left at either to ponder. The initial gold rush petered out after only a few years, but another strike was made in 1854, and a concession was granted to a Dutch company that was handed down through the years. The outbreak of World War I saw a final cessation of all mining activity since many of the spare parts needed to operate the mills came from Germany.

As long as we were off the beaten tourist track, we decided to find some real Aruban food. The guidebooks offered little help in finding the native fare, so we drove around until we found something that looked authentic. We popped into the Salo y Sucu (Salt and Sugar) and were given a brief rundown of the specials by the owner’s wife. The selections were all traditional dishes, and J opted for pisca criolla, the fish special served over rice with a spiced tomato sauce. D went for the concomber stoba, a beef and potato stew with a spiny cucumber. Both meals were washed down with a delicious coconut soda all for the grand total of $12 – the cheapest meal we had all week.

The Mi Dushi is a charter boat offering snorkeling, diving, and dinners.
Local anglers try their luck .

The bananaquit or chibichibi is the most common bird in Aruba.
A successful crime needs a good lookout.

Services are held outdoors at the Alto Vista Chapel.
Alto Vista Chapel.

Enjoying a fine meal with toes in the water.
Waterfront dining.

Divi Divi trees provide some  welcomed shade from the Aruba sun.
Divi Divi trees - symbols of Aruba.

The Bushiribana gold mill used the wind from the sea to grind the ore.
Bushiribana gold works.

Authentic Aruban cuisine at the Salo y Sucu.
Cushino Arubiano

The rocky windward coastline of Aruba.
Aruba's eastern shore.

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