Right off the coast of mainland South America you’ll find a string of southernmost Caribbean islands. They’re known as the “ABC Islands:” Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.
Although these vacation destinations are a stone’s throw from Venezuela, they are in fact part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (the same goes for Sint Maarten). Each is its own country, but they do not have full autonomy on the global stage, which can be a bit confusing to understand. It makes each country all-the-more interesting to visit, as you’ll find Caribbean and Dutch influences in food, architecture, & more.
So that’s just one of the things that makes the little slice of paradise known as Aruba so unique. Another noteworthy characteristic is its weather; Aruba is below the notorious hurricane belt and offers perfect, sunny, dry weather almost year round — accompanied by its famous trade winds. (For this reason, I always like to recommend clients consider Aruba in the fall!) That’s why Aruba has a desert landscape and greenery; You’ll see tons of towering cacti lining the ocean, in addition to resort-planted palm trees.
Aruba is a small island, and you can drive across its widest point — from the California Lighthouse down to San Nicolas — in just about an hour. But there is still so, so much to see and do. Below, I’ve broken down the top things for you to do in Aruba.
Get ready to do some serious day dreaming for your next Caribbean vacation!
1. Hit up the stunning beaches
All of the beaches in Aruba are public, meaning you don’t have to be staying at a resort or pay to enjoy any of them. By far the most popular ones are Palm Beach (in the high rise area) and Eagle Beach (in the low rise area). Other popular beaches include Baby Beach (the southernmost point), Manchebo Beach, Boca Catalina Beach, and Flamingo Beach (more on that in #5!).
Many of Aruba’s popular beaches are on the west coast & have calm, turquoise waters, without considerable waves. This is particularly true for Baby Beach — apparently it was named so because the water is gentle enough for a baby to swim in.
If you head to the east coast, you find rougher waters with large waves, towering cliffs & rocks. Much of the area is part of Aruba’s one and only national park: Arikok (more on that in #2).
Most resorts are on the west coast… a lot of the east coast is rugged, desert terrain.
2. Explore Arikok National Park
Aruba has just one National Park, taking up the eastern part of the happy island: Arikok National Park.
Exploring Arikok is something that fewer resort-goers get around to doing, but I think you have to in order to really get a feel for Aruba! You can do so by booking an excursion (like this one with high ratings), renting a 4×4 car, or setting out on foot.
Every local and guidebook will advise you to make your visit in either the early morning or late evening to avoid peak desert heat — especially if you’re planning to hike. And of course bring plenty of water. And bring a map… Believe it or not, a lot of the desert looks the same! If in doubt, simply hike with a local guide.
Personally, I rented a car (but not a 4×4, so I was unable to actually drive into the park), parked at the National Park Entrance at Shete, and hiked in.
There are tons of breathtaking natural sights, but I had my heart set on the Natural Pool, also known as Conchi.
On the eastern coast of Aruba in Arikok National Park, Conchi is a pool of ocean water, replenished by crashing waves. You can kick back in the cool water as tropical fish dodge around your feet.
Conchi is the most popular stop among tourists who make it to Arikok, so I planned my visit shortly after sunrise. Even as I was beginning my return hike, caravans of four-wheelers and Jeeps were beginning to arrive, toting endless tourists. This definitely detracted from the experience for me.
But luckily, trekking farther along the coast, the tourist swarms had faded. The only others I met were two taking in the views from horseback.
After experiencing Conchi, I hiked north barefoot along the coast until I reached Boca Ketu. Boca Ketu is a hidden beach with a curious outcropping, rough surf, and volcanic rock to wow you. A scenic place for both solitude and exploration.
3. Snorkel around reefs and shipwrecks
Aruba has some of the best snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean! In fact, the SS Antilla is the Caribbean’s largest shipwreck. You can access the wreck by booking a boat excursion like this one (it’s too far from the shore to swim to yourself).
Many of Aruba’s beaches offer clear water covering long stretches of smooth sand, while others are dotted with coral reefs.
These reefs right off the shore make for the easiest snorkeling. Pack your own snorkel or pick one up at a nearby store, then hit up a beach like Boca Catalina, Arashi, Malmok, or Mangel Halto. These are some of the places most hailed for snorkeling.
Out among the reefs, you’ll easily find endless tropical fish, crabs, sea urchins, star fish, and more. I got hooked on gliding through the waters in the midst of schools of hundreds of tropical fish.
The most impressive tropical fish I happened upon were at Baby Beach. In some deeper waters, a saw a group of fellow snorkelers drawing schools of foot-long fish by dangling sliced bread beneath the water. The fish seemed to come in every color and pattern there is. The snorkelers generously offered me their last slice… I tried holding the bread between my toes, then sure enough the fish began to swarm my feet. They only nibbled on my toes instead of the bread about half the time!
4. Check out Oranjestad & the high rise area
If you somehow tire of the miles and miles of beautiful coastlines, Aruba has great downtown areas with awesome restaurant & bar scenes.
Oranjestad is Aruba’s capital city. Found right nearby the airport, the downtown area is worth a bit of your time. Although not many visitors stay here, and the stores and restaurants can be hit or miss, it is still one more part of Aruba you can explore. There is more going on towards the port and cruise docks, where the Renaissance Aruba Resort is. And even more going on in the high rise area of Palm Beach.
If you do decide to spend time in Oranjestad, check out any festivals and events ahead of time here. Especially Aruba’s Carnival festival — a month+ long festival that peaks in early March. Accommodations sell out far in advance for this!
The high rise area is near Palm Beach, and north of the low rise area of Eagle Beach. It’s an area practically made for tourists, but it is filled with tons of restaurants and bars. And you can carry open containers around the streets!
There’s a lot of action and nightlife in the high rise area, as well as casinos & large resorts. The low rise, in contrast, is quieter part of Aruba, although there are still plenty of resorts there. Many people end up caught between these two areas when deciding where to stay on the island.
5. Day trip to Flamingo Beach
Okay… back to the beaches! That is after all Aruba’s #1 draw. So let’s talk about my favorite: Flamingo Beach on the private resort-owned Renaissance Island. In case you missed it, you can read my blog post all about the perfect day I spent at Flamingo Beach here.
To summarize my previous blog post, Flamingo Beach has an endlessly entertaining flock of flamingos living there, and you can swim around with them and feed them pellets of food.
To access the private island, you need to either stay at the Renaissance Aruba Resort or snag a coveted day pass. However depending on the resort’s capacity, they don’t always offer the passes. Plus, they’re a steep fee of $125 (at least including lunch & a drink!).
Costs aside, once you’re on the island, you’ll be so happy you came. There’s a water taxi running every 15 min sun-up to sun-down, but I don’t think you’ll be in any hurry to leave. Explore the area to find a restaurant, several bars, the best cocktail selections, tennis courts, a gym, nature trails, over-water hammocks, floating docks, an adults-only beach, and baby flamingos!
If you want to experience Aruba’s beaches with a hint of exclusivity, or if lounging beach-side with flamingos has made it onto your bucket list, contact me to plan your visit to the Renaissance Aruba! I have tons more advice after taking a full property tour on my visit (Plus I toured several other resorts for comparison).
6. Hike to the top of Hooiberg
Just like a visit to Arikok National Park, you might want to plan this hike either with the sunrise or the sunset. Aruba’s midday heat is no joke.
The peak of Hooiberg can be reached with a short hike. It is Aruba’s second highest point, second only to Jamanota, a hill in Arikok National Park (which you cannot drive to the top of without 4-wheel-drive). Much of the rest of Aruba is quite flat, and from these high points you can sometimes spy Venezuela.
Hooiberg’s peak sits at a manageable 541 ft, and you can easily hike up & back within an hour. There’s a parking lot at the base, and the hill has a well-marked trail comprised of a straight shot of stairs… making for a short but super intense hike. It’s worth every bit of effort! Similar to Arikok, only the dedicated tourists will make it this far.
7. Catch the sunrise & sunset over the ocean in the same day
I love that Aruba is such a manageable size to really be able to explore its entire expanse. In the same day (my birthday, in fact!), I was able to watch the sunrise at Baby Beach at the farthest point southeast, then lounge on the High Rise beaches in the mid-day heat, and finally drool over the lazy sunset from the northern beach Arashi.
Bonus points if you summon the motivation to hike up Hooiberg or around Arikok for the sunrise! But the beaches will serve you juuuuust fine. I did only wake up for the sunrise twice, but each day I loved planning out the perfect spot for another spectacular sunset.
Don’t miss out on the unique Caribbean experience that is Aruba… It is known as “one happy island” for a reason! Flamingos & cacti alike will be vying for a piece of your heart, from the time you set foot in Queen Beatrix.
Whether you’d like to learn more about how Aruba compares to other Caribbean islands, or you’re wondering which all-inclusive will best suit you, or you’re after the perfect active itinerary, contact me to begin planning: firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy Caribbean day dreams!