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August 19-26, 2009
Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, also known as the “ABC” islands or the Netherland Antilles, line up east to west just off the north coast of Venezuela—each island offering the adventurous traveler a veritable playground of spectacular leeward beaches, pristine underwater reefs, and hiking trails that cross an arid landscape.
The most popular island in the Dutch Caribbean, Aruba plays host to vacationers all around the world—the best beaches in the ABC’s, colorful Dutch architecture, friendly locals who are fluent in several languages, a wild arid landscape complete with fantastic geological formations, great snorkel and dive sites, and reasonably priced restaurants combine to create a nearly perfect travel destination. In addition to the numerous reasons to visit listed above, one very special reason tops the list of thousands of travelers—their wedding/honeymoon.
Kris and Brea, better known to the hiking world as Cupcake and Spree, divulged their plan to tie the knot barefoot on a white sand beach in Aruba and asked if we would join them for the celebration—what better reason to fly to Aruba then to watch your nephew marry the love of his life! We sure couldn’t think of one, so we packed our bags, jumped on a plane, and headed for the Caribbean—friends and family along for the ride.
After a relatively uneventful airport day, we arrived to an afternoon of fun and sun in Aruba—Kris, Brea, Chase aka Chaser, Lori, Marsha, and Ryder hopped on the shuttle to the Renaissance, where Wendy, Doug, Pat, and Hailey—having arrived on the island earlier— were waiting. In the meantime, Pick and I commandeered a rental car—a taxicab yellow hunkajunk—destined for the Arubiana Inn.
The Arubiana Inn, a lovely and inexpensive boutique hotel located inland from the Palm/Eagle beach area, is the perfect island home for those looking to save money on accommodations—they offer 18 comfortable rooms, freshly prepared breakfasts for a fee, free use of a cooler, and a lovely courtyard with a pool—all from $77.50 in the low season to just $102.50 per night in the high season.
Oranjestad, the bustling capital city, plays host to a variety of restaurants, casinos, and shops—a great place to enjoy a meal or browse a boutique.
While driving from the airport to the Arubiana Inn, we scoped out the busy streets of Oranjestad for future reference—all that was on our mind for our first afternoon on Aruba was to get to the beach—next stop the California Dunes.
Aruba’s California Dunes and Lighthouse, located on the isolated northwestern tip of the island, are named for the famous ship that sank offshore, but the recreation opportunities encountered in this windswept region will certainly raise your spirits—photo ops at the old stone lighthouse and endless rolling sand dunes are sure to please.
The California Dunes, locally called Hudishibana, allow the adventurous hiker to explore without limit—there are no marked trails through the dunes, so you can simply hike for as long and as far as you like. Sunset and sunrise offer relief from the hot Aruban sun, and the light at these times of day are perfect for photography—ripples in the dunes cast shadows and add depth to the scene, and the sky is sure to be ablaze with color.
To explore both the California Lighthouse and the Dunes, park at the lighthouse and walk down the road to the sprawling expanse of the dunes—elevation at the lighthouse is 80 feet, and the dunes are around 50 feet, so the elevation change is minimal.
The lighthouse, which is closed to the public, can be explored from the exterior from every angle—the structure is also visible from the dunes, allowing for a myriad of compositions.
If hiking amid the dunes causes you to work up an appetite, head for La Trattoria el Faro Blanco Restaurant located adjacent to the lighthouse—open daily from 9:00am to 11:00pm, the establishment offers Italian cuisine and a spectacular view of the island. Unfortunately, time constraints kept us from trying La Trattoria—our fast paced week found us eating mostly fast food—Aruba’s “Americanized” food choices include Wendy’s, Taco Bell, McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, and Domino’s Pizza.
We ended our first day on Aruba watching the sunset from the California Dunes—the sun painted the sky orange, creating the perfect backdrop for the silhouetted sails in the distance.
Day two on Aruba found us gathering with our friends and family for a private snorkel trip aboard the gorgeous 40-foot trimaran dubbed The Octopus, with Captain Jethro Gesterkamp and First Mate Jeff of Octopus Sailing at the helm—Wendy and Doug had generously set up and paid for the entire trip—thanks guys!
Our crew of twelve boarded The Octopus and set sail for our underwater morning adventure—with mimosas and fresh baked breads in hand we sailed the clear blue water and basked in the warm Aruba sun. While we relaxed, the capable and attentive crew of The Octopus sailed us north along Aruba’s white sand coast, eventually dropping anchor at our first snorkel excursion—anticipation mounted as the trimaran hovered motionless above the 400-foot-long hull of the wreck of the Antilla.
Trading our drinks for mask and snorkel, we lowered ourselves into the Caribbean waters for our first look at Aruba’s underwater world—the ghostly hull of the Antilla, a sunken German freighter, rests in a state of repose 60-feet below the water’s surface. Parts of the huge ship stick up above the water, allowing snorkelers to investigate the colorful sponges and corals that attract a variety of tropical fish—those who are able to dive deeper might also find eels, lobsters, and octopus hiding in the ship’s crevices. Kris, Pick, and Chaser dove down for a closer look, while the rest of us admired the view from the surface—schools of yellowtail snapper and sergeant majors surrounded us as we snorkeled around the wreck.
Back aboard The Octopus, we continued our adventure and sailed toward the Arashi Underwater Park—encompassing the shores of three breathtaking beaches (Arashi, Boca Catalina, and Malmok) and the reef that protects them, the underwater park offers divers and snorkelers calm water, gentle currents, shallow reefs, and superb visibility.
The trimaran floated lazily above the colorful reef as we filled our bellies with a freshly prepared buffet lunch, which featured a meat and cheese board, French bread, crisp green salad, and a beautiful arrayof exotic tropical fruits—with one hunger satisfied, it was time to satiate our senses with a foray into the Arashi Underwater Park.
As promised, the reef delivered an amazing snorkeling experience—French angels, sea turtles, reef squid, and butterflyfish darted in and out among the forest of yellow sponges. Healthy specimens of brain and elkhorn coral created a maze on the ocean’s sandy bottom where starfish and camouflaged scorpionfish were waiting for the adept snorkeler to find their hiding places— masters of disguise, scorpionfish use cryptic coloring and specialized appendages to help them hide from predators and surprise prey. Experienced snorkelers often become skilled at locating the more incognito marine life—just another reason/excuse to snorkel as often as possible.
One last fin flippy around the reef and it was time to get back on the boat—the wind had picked up substantially since our morning departure, causing the crew to enact a brief drama over how and when to dock the boat. Luckily, nothing came of the commotion and we were back at the Pelican Pier at the prearranged time—next up, a civil matter.
A very civil matter indeed, bells and whistles aside, the afternoon was dedicated to a very special ceremony—Kris and Brea’s Civil Wedding.
In anticipation of the big event, we gathered in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel—decked out in our best island attire, the twelve of us, with bride and groom along for the ride, piled into a van and made our way to Aruba’s Town Hall— a Caribbean-Aruban styled mansion erected between 1922 and 1925. The historical building, a lime green mansion trimmed in white, greeted us from the curb as the driver escorted us inside—sunlight flooded the interior, washing the white walls with a warm shade of gold. At the forefront, a stately wooden table provided an air of formality to the beautifully appointed room. Kris and Brea, led by the official presiding over the ceremony, took their place at the table with their parents by their sides—they joined hands and pledged their love to one another surrounded by smiling faces and teary eyes.
A couple of “I do’s” later and the room erupted in a flurry of hugs and congratulations—time to celebrate with blue martinis and a seafood feast at Aquarius.
After dinner, we returned to the Renaissance to watch the sun set over the Caribbean Sea—the colorful display a mere preview for the showstopper in store for us the next day—the wedding day.
The next morning, left to our own devices for a few hours, Pick and I decided to head to Catalina Bay for some shore snorkeling—we drove old yeller to the beach parking, just mere feet from the main road, carried our cooler and dive bags to the exposed ironshore beach and entered the water for a morning with the fishes.
We had enjoyed identifying the usual list of underwater suspects for an hour so, when we decided we should return to the shore—we wanted to make sure we would have plenty of time to return to our hotel, gather our official wedding video and camera equipment (some of which was in the trunk, some of which was in the in room safe), shower and dress for the wedding and drive the 20 minutes to Oranjestad. It was only noon and the wedding wasn’t until 4:00pm—no worries right?
Swimming back to our entry point, we continued to enjoy the underwater world, blissfully unaware of the fact that we were the victims of petty theft—a fact that soon left us reeling when we discovered that our dive bags were missing. Okay, remain calm—no biggie, lesson learned, so we lost our dive bags, we could replace those pretty easily right?
Wait! What exactly was in the dive bags? Cue stomach sinking to toes.
Yeah, never mind the fact that my favorite pair of sunglasses were in my dive bag—it was the epiphany that Pick’s dive bag contained a key ring, a key ring that held the keys to the rental car, the key to our hotel room, and the key to the in room safe that made me want to throw up. Lovely.
Time for assurances—at least all our valuables were in the trunk. Wait! The thieves have the keys to the car—what if, no don’t say it, what if they opened the trunk? Oh f*ck, just shoot me now.
After a brief mental breakdown accompanied by a Turret’s like verbal tirade, we returned to “Normalville” and began drawing up a plan of action—first up, locate a kindly local with a cell phone who can call the police and the rental car company. Check. Next up, wait for officials to arrive—it couldn’t take that long right? I mean, it’s just a tiny island—oh no, did you say island? Cue island time.
The police arrived first, and assured us that the rental car company should be along shortly—long story short, they arrived about an hour later and opened the trunk to find all of our valuables intact, allowing just enough time to get ready for the wedding. I’ll spare you the details of the key replacement chain reaction, just know it all turned out okay and we learned our lesson on unattended beach belongings. Egads.
The afternoon of wedding festivities provided the ideal way to forget the horrors of the morning—in fact, the ceremony on the beach at sunset was worthy of a fairytale! The newlyweds, this time with bells and whistles, once again exchanged I do’s—albeit in a more romantic atmosphere. Standing barefoot in the soft white sand, they exchanged vows and kissed each other just as the sun was dropping below the horizon—on this evening, as if on cue, the sun set the sky ablaze with color. As the photographer, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect backdrop—the wedding photos are beautiful.
Day three on Aruba found us exploring the many fascinating sights and attractions that the island has to offer—from the Bubali Bird Sanctuary to the unique geology of Casibari Rock Formations, we spent the day exploring the eco side of Aruba.
Gearing up for nature mode, we arrived bright and early to Bubaliplas—The Bubali Bird Sanctuary, or Bird Pond, is the perfect place to stretch your legs on an early morning or late afternoon—home to several species of birds, you are sure to find any number of beautiful specimens. Bubali, located adjacent to De Olde Molen Restaurant, is one of the best, and most easily accessible, places to see bird life on Aruba—tri-colored herons, little green herons, snowy egrets, Aruban parakeets, burrowing owls, greater yellow-legs, brown pelicans, and moorhens all congregate at the ponds.
After enjoying the bird life, we made our way towards Oranjestad—arriving in town just in time for lunch. Our choice for a little afternoon sustenance was Iguana Joe’s—for eight years running, Iguana Joe's has been Aruba's most popular and critically acclaimed Caribbean restaurant, and rightfully so…we loved it! The extensive menu features fresh mahi-mahi, delicious burgers, coconut shrimp, chicken enchiladas, island jerk fire-roasted chicken and Joe's bar is the home of the legendary, deliciously smooth and refreshing Pink Iguana—a creamy concoction of crushed strawberries, pineapple, rum, and coconut cream.
Just after lunch, we met up with the rest of the gang at the Renaissance for an excursion to their private island—Renaissance Island is approximately 40 acres in size with two horseshoe-shaped beaches. Iguana Beach is popular with families, while Flamingo Beach is adult-only. There's plenty to do on this far-from-secluded island just off the coastline: Snorkel, scuba, go deep-sea fishing, board a sailing cruise, take out a float, kayak, or paddleboat—you can even play tennis. You won't go hungry on Renaissance Island either—a grill serves burgers, salads, grilled fare, and ice-cold tropical drinks. However, the highlight for us was the resident iguanas and flamingos who willingly pose for photographs—hands down, some of the best flamingo photography we have encountered.
Back on the mainland, we continued our tour of the island, driving south towards Seroe Colorado—coastal views compete with inland vistas of the arid island vegetation as you make your way to the island’s southern tip. Two beaches, Rodger’s Beach and Baby Beach, brought us on this journey—practically every visitor to Aruba ends up on Palm Beach and Eagle Beach, our goal was to visit a few places a little off the beaten path.
Rodger’s Beach, sometimes spelled Roger’s, is south of San Nicolas adjacent to the oil refinery—a backdrop sure to dampen your Caribbean mojo. Despite the beach’s proximity to the industrial eyesore, the white-powder sand and excellent swimming conditions make it a worthy destination for intrepid travelers. Baby Beach, located just a stone’s throw from Rodger’s Beach, sits in a lovely lagoon at the island’s southern tip—tranquil, shallow waters make it ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
From the picturesque southern beaches, we made our way back to the town of Seroe Colorado intent on exploring the rugged southeastern coast of Aruba—setting off in no particular direction, we found ourselves on a dirt road driving towards the windward side of the island. At the end of the road, we discovered a small beacon, known as the Seroe Colorado Lighthouse, where we parked and set off to explore the coast on foot—our hiking adventure led us to a serendipitous discovery. A virtually undiscovered natural bridge, can be viewed from the clifftop or reached by a short scramble down the jagged cliffside—simply park at the lot adjacent to the Seroe Colorado Lighthouse and follow any of the obvious unmarked trails to the edge of the cliff. Once you reach the cliff’s edge, continue hiking in a northerly direction up the coast, glancing over the edge occasionally until you catch sight of the glorious natural bridge—henceforth dubbed as the Seroe Colorado Natural Bridge.
Locating the trail that leads down to the natural bridge, which is quite spectacular by the way, can be a bit tedious until you find (with a little luck) just the right spot to descend—at this point, you have to climb down the rocks to reach the base of the approximately 27-feet tall by 60-feet wide span that towers over turbulent churning waves reminiscent of a witch’s brew. If you do find, and you most likely will, the trail used by the majority of hikers, closer inspection of the rocky descent should reveal a rather well-worn path leading down to the crashing waves—just follow it to the bridge and then return the same way.
Feeling quite thrilled with our discovery, we set off to find yet another adventure—as the sun dropped lower in the sky, we made our way to the Casibari Rock Formations.
Aruba is dotted with massive diorite boulders that weigh several thousand tons and rise up as high as many rural buildings—you can explore the most impressive collections at Ayo and Casibari.
The boulders, which leave scientists scratching their heads, offers the adventurous tourist a unique island hiking experience—at Casibari, climb to the top of the tallest boulder for a panoramic view of the island and a bird’s eye view of Mount Hooiberg, also known as the Haystack.
Exploring the huge wind-carved boulders is a hiker’s delight—tunnels and narrow ledges make climbing the rocks exciting and fun for all ages.
Casibari, the more developed of the two locations, even provides a souvenir shop and snack bar—Ayo is a bit more isolated and lower on the list of most visitors and thus more rugged.
We arrived at Casibari in the late afternoon, the perfect time to watch the sunset from atop the rock formations—kadushi cacti silhouetted against the colorful sky provided an extra bonus. Speaking of bonuses, as we were heading back to our car, we noticed an odd shape perched on the top of one of the rocks—closer investigation revealed a cute little burrowing owl.
Day four of our Aruban holiday brought cloudy skies and rain showers, but the gloomy weather didn’t stop us from enjoying the day—if it’s going to be wet outside, then why not swim with the fishes! We spent the day snorkeling at Catalina Bay and Malmok Beach—wiling away the hours until dinner at Iguana Joe’s with the downtown crew.
Sunny blue skies greeted us on our fifth day, providing the perfect weather to photograph and enjoy the many beautiful beaches on Aruba—we found two in particular, Eagle Beach and Druif Beach, to be unsurpassed in tropical splendor.
Eagle Beach, directly south of the congested Palm Beach, is consistently voted by those in the know as one of World’s 10 Best Beaches—miles of powdery white sand, palapas placed for shade, and twisted Divi-divi trees make Eagle Beach a setting worthy of a postcard.
Druif Beach, just north of Oranjestad near the island’s most westerly protrusion, features white sand mixed with pebbles and palm shaded areas perfect for a day on the beach—photographers particularly enjoy the pelicans that perch on the rusty pylons just offshore.
Beaches, Divi-divi trees, and pelicans made for a memorable morning, but our afternoon would take us to the top of a Haystack—Hooiberg, also called the Haystack, is a 541-foot high volcanic formation located almost in the center of Aruba—you can see its classic cone-shaped presence from virtually anywhere on the island.
Visually the Haystack appears to be the tallest point on Aruba, but 617-foot Mount Jamanota in Arikok National Park holds that status—Jamanota is absorbed into the surrounding hills and doesn’t stand out like the prominent and isolated Hooiberg.
The beautiful panoramic view from the top of this local landmark is the reward for climbing the 561 steps that lead to the summit—on a clear day you can see as far as Venezuela, and you are always treated to magnificent views of Aruba.
Hot and tired from our climb up Hooiberg, we returned to our car, grabbed a cold drink from our cooler, and set off for Ayo Rocks— if you visit Ayo Rocks, located less than three miles west of Andicuri, be sure to make time for an excursion to the nearby Donkey Sanctuary Aruba—founded in 1997, this non-profit organization provides a safe haven for the island’s donkeys. The donkeys love visitors, and you can even bring carrots or apples (also available for purchase) to feed the hungry asses. We happily purchased a bale of hay for $30.00, which also gets you a snazzy t-shirt that reads, “I donated a bale of hay and I bought this shirt, to support the Aruban donkeys.”
Waving goodbye to our new donkey friends, we continued driving inland to see the bizarre rock formations at nearby Ayo—the monolithic boulders at Ayo Rock Formations host a scattering of petroglyphs—images carved into the rock by the early inhabitants of the island—and a system of paved paths that lead around and through the large rocks.
Ayo, just to the northeast of Hooiberg, and usually less crowded than Casibari, offers a slightly more rugged experience—tunnels and narrow passageways weave through the boulders, but unlike Casibari, no steps have been carved into the rocks. Therefore, if you want to stand on top of an Ayo boulder, it is up to you to scramble to the top on your own accord.
Leaving Ayo for Arikok National Park, the last stop on our list of Aruban eco-destinations, found us driving in circles for several hours—how the hell did they hide a national park? Eventually, we found our way to Arikok National Park—Aruba’s peerless ecological preserve, which protects approximately 18% of the island—unique rock outcrops, caves, and bays create microclimates that support wildlife found only in Aruba. Within the park’s boundaries, you will find the Aruban parakeet, Aruban whiptail lizard or Kododo blauw, Aruban rattlesnake or Cascabel, Aruban cat-eyed snake, and the Aruban burrowing owl—along with these endemic species, you might also see donkeys, iguana, and goats grazing the hillsides.
Adventurous travelers who make their way to Arikok will most likely be drawn to the limestone cliffs and sand dunes that beautify the coast—Boca Prins is one such example and it is easily explored on foot.
The trailhead, located just off the main park road, has ample parking with the dunes and coast immediately visible—follow the marked path towards the pounding waves. A sandy path bordered by rocks soon leads to a wooden staircase that allows access to a bay, or boca, descend the steps to the sandy inlet. A sign warns of the dangers ahead—turbulent crashing waves within the bay make swimming or getting near the water hazardous.
We endured the wind and heat at Boca Prins for as long as we could before returning to our trusty rental car—further exploration of the park was accomplished via driving.
Later that day, after touring most of the island, we found ourselves back at Eagle Beach just in time for sunset—yet another colorful lightshow prompted “oohs and ahhs” from the appreciative audience.
Last full day on Aruba, time to spend some quality time on the water—on the agenda, a morning snorkel at Arashi Beach and then an afternoon spent windsurfing with Kris and Brea.
Arashi beach is yet another fantastic white sand beach—you would be hard pressed to find an undesirable beach anywhere along Aruba’s leeward coast. All beaches are public, clean, free, easily accessible, and relatively safe—just don’t leave any valuables out of sight!
Calm water and a shallow healthy reef combined to make Arashi Underwater Park our favorite snorkeling spot on the island—virtually everything listed on our fish I.D. card could be found at Arashi.
Directly south of Arashi, you will find Hadikurari Beach, also called Fisherman’s Huts—a site well-known for terrific windsurfing and our destination for the afternoon. After swinging by the Renaissance to pick up Kris and Brea, we made our way back to Hadikurari for some fun in the sun—Kris and Pick honed their windsurfing skills while Brea and I enjoyed strolling along the beach and resting beneath the shade huts.
Mad skills allowed Pick and Kris to windsurf effortlessly in a northerly direction, it was the returning part that left them befuddled—Brea and I had a few good laughs watching them cruise up the beach all smiles, just to have to walk back in the water dragging their rig behind them. All kidding aside, they really got the hang of the sport pretty quickly for first timers—way to go crew!
A few hours later and a few shades of red darker, we left the beach for some dinner—Moomba Beach, recommended to us by Kris and Pick’s windsurfing instructor, is a wonderful, casual place to enjoy a meal or a tropical drink on beautiful Palm Beach.
After a great lunch, we returned Kris and Brea to their hotel and then we spent the rest of the day lounging on Malmok Beach. As the day came to an end, we decided to enjoy dinner at the Italian restaurant Gianni’s—good food, nice ambience, and al fresco dining made for a wonderful dinner, our last on the island.
Aruba, Jamaica, ooo I wanna take you—the famous Beach Boys lyrics played over and over in my head as we spent our last hours on the island. Sitting in the airport waiting to return home, I reflected on the fact that Aruba was everything we had hoped it would be—beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, and a rewarding eco-adventure destination, and thanks to one very special wedding, Aruba will forever be one of our fondest vacation memories. Anniversary trip anyone?
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