The third port in our fun-filled and action-packed cruise was the beautiful Dutch island of Aruba. If you read my post about Curacao, you know that Aruba is one of the ABC islands, three beautiful, Dutch islands that lie just a stone’s throw from Venezuela. Okay, maybe a tad farther than I can throw a stone, but you know what I mean…
Because we had not been to Aruba for nearly 10 years, we wanted to take a good, comprehensive tour of the island. Searching Cruise Critic and Tripadvisor for well-reviewed tour companies, I landed on ABC Tours, which has great reviews and offers several different options to appeal to just about everyone. Of their many choices, We went with the Island Ultimate tour, as it would take us to most of the places on my Aruba wish list, including a 4×4 adventure to the Natural Pool in Arikok National Park.
When we arrived in Aruba, we quickly disembarked the ship and headed into the cruise terminal to meet our guide. This meeting location felt a bit chaotic to us, as there were so many cruise passengers waiting for so many different tour operators all in the same building. However, our ABC guides came soon enough and we were on our way.
We first loaded up a van that would take us to their main office building where we signed waivers–you know, the whole death or dismemberment thing–and got situated with our vehicles and guides. Our driver/guide was Hugo, and he was a pretty informative & entertaining guy. He seemed to genuinely love his job, quick to joke and have fun, but also passionate about his island.
Here is a preview of where Hugo took us on our Island Ultimate tour of Aruba:
Mangel Halto Beach
Once we got on our way, Hugo took us to Mangel Halto Beach. Not on the list of planned stops, this turned out to be a beautiful little bonus. This secluded beach is gorgeous, with soft sand, palapas for shade, and mangrove trees. We did not swim or snorkel here, but it has a reputation for some amazing snorkeling along the reef.
There is also a long stretch of ankle-deep water filled with swaying sea grass. Here we were able to walk out a good distance to enjoy beautiful views of the ocean and coast.
After Mangel Halto, we continued down the coast toward our first scheduled stop, Baby Beach. This beach is a great place for everyone to swim and snorkel, as the water is calm and clear, and there is not a strong current in the protected bay. Incidentally, this beach is also near the old oil refinery, which used to be a primary source of jobs and income on the island. Hugo told us that once it closed, the island relied heavily on tourism. Interesting bit of trivia, and also a great excuse to go back and support Aruba tourism!
When we waded into the water with our masks and snorkels, we were treated to a front row viewing of a fishy feeding frenzy, as a man was throwing out food for them. Fish of all colors and size clustered together in hopes of snatching some of the morsels that floated about. Of course, I did not have the camera on me at this point, so I can’t share any pictures of this fun scene. We did however get some video from snorkeling in the stretch of water between the shore and the breakwater to the left. Here are a few pictures:
Once we got our fill of swimming and snorkeling, we loaded up the Land Rover and headed north to Fontein Cave in Arikok National Park. As we entered the park, Hugo called out, “Bon Dia!” while honking enthusiastically at the Arikok gate keeper, and off we went to explore Fontein Cave and its ancient Arawak drawings. As we ventured farther into the park, we noticed the roads getting rougher and landscape changing to show off Aruba’s rugged and desert-like terrain. Hugo’s zeal for 4×4 adventure began to show face as we revved up and tackled the plentiful pits and rises of the road.
The cave itself is pretty impressive. It is a good size and, though I don’t tend to think of caves as being very appealing, the structure and colored limestone of Fontein Cave is kind of beautiful. When we looked up at the ceiling, we saw not only the Arawak drawings, but also old graffiti from as far back as the 1800’s.
After exploring the entrance of the cave, it was time to get lunch. And here is my only real complaint of the day: we drove all the way back to the ABC Tours office for lunch only to turn back and head right back to Arikok National Park. This was about an hour and a half of our day out the window, time that we gladly could have spent at the beach with a sack lunch instead. But on the other hand, lunch was delicious! We ate at Waka Waka Safari, the restaurant next to ABC’s main office. The lunch was basic–barbecue chicken and beans–but delicious, and we were able to sample Aruba’s own Balashi beer, which is proudly made with the island’s high quality distilled water.
Natural Pool (Conchi)
After we filled our bellies and drove the 25 minutes back to Arikok National Park, we began our 4×4 trek toward the natural pool. During this drive, Hugo gave his all to make sure we had a fun off-road adventure. We had a great time charging up and down hills as we made our way to through the national park.
And as we approached Conchi, we were amazed by the stark contrast of the brown, brown, brown desert terrain against the bright blue water of the Caribbean. This coastline is pretty stunning!
To access the natural pool, we had to walk down the rocky path, ditch our belongings near the water, and then climb carefully over the slick volcanic rock into the water. ABC Tours advises shoes with grip, and we were awfully glad we complied.
I love how calm the natural pool is, especially when compared to the crashing waves on all sides of its natural barriers. You can see how clear the water is, making it great not only for swimming, but a bit of snorkeling along the sides as well. Hugo pointed out a puffer fish skulking about under a ledge.
The natural pool also offers redemption opportunities for those who were too scared to cliff jump in Curacao. This may not have been as big of a jump as was offered the day before, but it was plenty big for me. 🙂
Eventually Hugo convinced all of us to get out of the water. We were by no means ready to leave, but we eventually agreed, as there was still much of Aruba to be discovered. So out of the water, up and over the slippery rocks, and back up the trail we went to resume our trek up the northern coast of Aruba.
Driving the Northern Coast
We found that the northern side of Aruba differs greatly from the resort areas on the south. The winds seem stronger on this side of the island, creating heavy waves that crash against the dark rocky coastline. The occasional fishing shack or shanty would come into view as we drove by, causing me to daydream about a little Caribbean hut of my own. sigh.
Along the way up the coast, we stopped at one of Aruba’s natural bridges, formed from years of wind and waves beating against the limestone. The largest and most well-known of these bridges collapsed years ago, but Baby Bridge is still standing strong.
Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins
In the 1800’s, gold mining was a prosperous venture on the island of Aruba. Ore was processed at the Bushiribana Gold Mill in an industry that eventually produced over 3 million pounds of gold. Although the gold mill is no more than ruins now, you can still visit the site to glimpse a bit of Aruba history. From the top of the ruins, you can see beautiful views of the island and sea.
Though discouraged, many people stack stones and make a wish. It is a lovely sentiment, but environmentalists have expressed concerns that each pile of stones is taking away from little critters’ habitats. We did not stack any stones of our own–we were on a cruise, what else could we wish for?!–but we came across a few piles already made.
Alto Vista Chapel
From the gold mill ruins, we made tracks to the Alto Vista Chapel, a small yellow chapel that marks the site of the first Catholic church on the island. Minus the steady flow of tourists, this Alto Vista would otherwise seem to be the perfect place for peaceful prayer and worship.
The final stop on our ultimate island tour was supposed to be the California Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1910 and has become an iconic tourist destination in Aruba. You can take a tour or just park and look around. Or if you are like us, you can see the insane amount of tourists swarming the lighthouse and hightail it to the beach instead. Sorry California Lighthouse, maybe next time. 🙂
Do you remember my earlier wish to have skipped the restaurant and to instead have had a nice little sack lunch at the beach? Well, this would have been a pretty good spot. Since we all agreed to forego the lighthouse, Hugo dropped us off here to rinse and relax after 9+ hours of being bounced around in the back of the land rover. Not too far from the northernmost tip of the island, Arashi is one of the first beaches as you head down the southern side. The sand is soft and white, and the calm, clear water is perfect for swimming. From the water, we had a view of the lighthouse to the north and to the south, beautiful beachy coast as far as the eye can see. What a perfect end to the day!
Back to the Port
From Arashi, returning to port was a straight shot down the main beach boulevard. We passed resorts, restaurants, and shops, all of which seemed to promise perfect days of fun and relaxation, and I began to silently contemplate the merits of another trip to Aruba, maybe next time the beachy sort on the soft white sands of a south-side resort. A girl can dream, huh? 🙂
Tips and Lessons Learned:
- Our Island Ultimate tour with ABC Tours was amazing, but it is not for everyone. It is 9.5 hours of go-go-go, not to mention the rough nature of the off-roading. As much as I enjoyed it and am glad I went, I learned that 9.5 hours exceeds my personal limit for an excursion. If you think it may be a bit much for you as well, you can check out some of their shorter tours.
- If you want to see all of these sights but at your own pace, there are many rental car agencies to choose from. Just remember that you will need four-wheel-drive and a sense of adventure if you want to make it to locations like the natural pool.
- Don’t be afraid to drink the tap water in Aruba–it is all distilled and delicious.
- If and when you book a trip to Aruba, don’t forget to invite me 😉
One of my very favorite islands: St Kitts ❤