Google “what to do in Aruba” and you’ll see plenty of articles telling you to sunbathe on Eagle Beach, take a tour to the natural pool, and feed the captive flamingos on Renaissance island. But we travel to have unique adventures and avoid crowds (plus we do our best not to participate in exploitative animal tourism), so we made it our mission to explore Aruba off the beaten path! We love to laze on the beach as much as anybody, but we also crave adventure and we knew there was plenty to be found on this tiny island.
Six days and one very dirty Jeep later, here are our favorite things to see and do in Aruba:
» Drive the deserted northeast coast and explore your own private beaches
The undeveloped beaches on Aruba’s northeastern coast are just as empty as the resort-packed West coast beaches are full. You’ll need to rent a 4×4 to reach them, but the rewards are absolutely worth the effort!
If you prefer a beach umbrella and table service, this may not be the spot for you – but we relished the feeling of having the island to ourselves, listening to the waves crash against the cliffs, scrambling over the rocks to explore hidden tidepools, and wading in the rough surf without another soul around. (Just be cautious! Many of the beaches on the northeast side are not safe for swimming, with fast currents and gnarly rocks.)
We also drove past many abandoned bars and beach havens, their vivid paint colors starting to fade, but still conjuring scenes of rowdy parties and customers sipping cocktails with a killer view. Many were still intact enough to appear only recently deserted.
Did locals start these businesses only to find they couldn’t lure tourists away from the resorts on the west coast? How recently were these secretive places playing music and pouring drinks? I loved imagining what happened to cause these once-cherished buildings to be left vacant for the sun, wind, and sand to reclaim.
» Arikok National Park
This rocky, windswept national park makes up 20% of the entire country of Aruba! Fortunately, on an island that’s only 80 square miles, that means you can still see most of it in a day.
Day passes are $11, but we rolled up to the park gate in our rented Jeep and asked if they offered week passes – the 4×4 was ours for the entire trip, so why not? Turns out that an annual pass is just $28, so we enthusiastically asked the friendly park employees to just take our money already. We returned multiple times that week (proudly flashing our annual passes), but even if we hadn’t, our funds were way better spent supporting a national park than buying a few more cocktails!
Once inside the park, there’s plenty to see:
◊ Windmills: We were super stoked to learn that Aruba is at the forefront of the clean energy revolution! The island aims to get 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
◊ Quadirikiri Cave: These two peaceful, otherworldly chambers are illuminated by sunlight spilling through holes in the ceiling. Local legend has it that the cave is named for Wadirikiri, an Indian chief’s daughter who was believed to be a descendant of the God of the Sun. Her father imprisoned her in this cave after he became enraged when she fell in love with a foreigner (this guy is not winning Father of the Year). After her death, Wadirikiri’s soul was released through the holes in the cave ceiling to be reunited with the God of the Sun.
◊ Native Arawak Paintings – Inside the smaller Fontein Cave are drawings left by Aruba’s earliest inhabitants. The reddish designs decorating the cave walls were drawn using Brazil wood and are believed to be 1,000 years old.
◊ Stop for lunch: Boca Prins Restaurant is the only place within the national park to enjoy a meal and a cocktail with a view of the beach. You can even dip your toes in the pond for a fish pedicure!
» Street art in San Nicolas
As we were passing through the small town of San Nicolas on the way to the southern coast, we were delighted to stumble upon a smorgasbord of stunning murals! Apparently this community is host to the annual Aruba Art Fair – and the evidence is visible in a riot of color on every street.
The city is basically a giant street art gallery, with vibrant pieces adorning nearly every available space. We wandered around admiring them ourselves, but I would have loved to take a guided tour to learn more about the stories behind the art! (Anybody know if something like this is in the works?)
» Skip the famous Natural Bridge and find the secret one
Decades of waves relentlessly shaping coral limestone resulted in an impressive natural bridge that drew crowds of visitors to Aruba… until it collapsed in 2005. We drove up to the spot where it once stood, to find it still packed with visitors snapping pictures nevertheless.
Deciding it wasn’t worth a stop, we continued on down the rocky dirt road and stumbled upon another natural bridge just about a quarter mile away! We felt like we’d discovered something no one else knew – we had this gorgeous spot all to ourselves unbeknownst to the folks who were still flocking to the original natural bridge even long after it collapsed.
It seemed like the perfect metaphor for the issue of overtourism in general – no single place can support the weight of an endlessly growing crowd, but if we make the effort to explore off the beaten path, we can discover something unexpected and unique while easing our impact on some of the world’s most cherished places.
» Enjoy peaceful West-coast beaches – minus the crowds
After all the off-roading and cave exploring, we were definitely ready for a couple days of extreme oceanside relaxation. Popular Baby Beach came highly recommended – and there’s no arguing that it’s a glorious place to spend the day – but it just had a few too many people for our taste! After pulling out our phones to take a quick look at the surrounding area on Google Maps, we just drove west around the corner to Rodgers Beach.
◊ Rodgers Beach has the same calm turquoise waters as Baby Beach, minus the crowds. What it lacks in amenities is easily made up for by tranquility and privacy. We watched multiple postcard-perfect sunsets here, sharing the view with just a few other beachgoers. The only downside is that there is an oil refinery marring the view to the west. If you want our advice, just turn your chair away from it!
◊ We also spent one entire day holed up at a perfect little secret beach we’d discovered by accident earlier in the week. We packed a cooler full of drinks and snacks, beach chairs from our Airbnb, our kindles, and a bluetooth speaker, and we were set for the day. We didn’t even leave for lunch because we didn’t want to risk losing our premium spot! Our perfect day was topped off by watching pelicans dive over and over in pursuit of fish against the backdrop of the setting sun.
How to get to our secret beach: Two-thirds of the way down the south coast of the island taking Route 1, turn towards the water onto Savaneta Street, then turn right onto Spaans Lagoenweg (this street has a big pipeline running along the beach side). You’ll see a small unpaved bridge crossing over the pipeline – that dirt road will lead to you to several tiny secluded beaches in a row, each separated by mangroves.
Just make sure to get there early so you can snag your own private spot before someone else does! Check out the map at the bottom of this post to see exactly where it is.
One thing Aruba is definitely NOT short on is beaches! For more options, check out this great list of Aruba’s beaches.
(BTW, if you’re a fan of secret beaches, check out our post on Manzanillo, Costa Rica)
» Where to eat in Aruba off the beaten path:
Truth: We’re not big foodies. We kept getting so caught up in adventure time that we’d realize it was late afternoon and we were STARVING.
Zeerovers was the perfect fix after a long day in the sun. The atmosphere is low-key and locals will tell you it’s their favorite place to eat. Seating is right on the water, prices are cheap, and you’ll eat whatever happens to be the fresh catch of the day.
Zeerovers only offers a few options – fish, shrimp, fried plantains, french fries, Aruban cornbread, and onions in vinegar. That’s it, and it’s perfect.
After you place your order at the window on your way in, make sure to swing by the bar and ask for a large beer (be prepared to be pleasantly shocked by how just how large it is!). Your food will be dropped off at your table in a basket, leaving you to eat with your hands while you enjoy your giant beer, a great view, and the breeze over the water.
There are plenty of nice restaurants in Aruba with romantic oceanside seating, but we tend to save our budget by cooking at home for dinner. Speaking of which…
» Where to stay (that’s not a high-rise hotel):
We can’t recommend Roxanne and her Airbnb Yellow Escape highly enough! Roxanne was the perfect host (available when we needed her but never encroached on our privacy at all). Our very own two-bedroom cottage was stocked with everything we needed and more: kitchen supplies, beach chairs, a cooler, snorkel equipment, beach towels, even pool noodles! Yellow Escape is located in a residential neighborhood in Santa Cruz, pretty much in the center of the island, making it a great base from which to explore.
Plus, check out this amazing pool that we had all to ourselves:
» Here’s a map of all our favorite off the beaten path spots:
» Extra details for exploring Aruba (plus some sustainable travel tips):
◊ You will absolutely need a 4×4 if you want to go off-roading on your own! It was definitely more expensive than renting a regular car, but within the first day of exploring in the national park, we were SO glad we’d gone for it. We rented from Jay’s Car Rental and got as good a deal as we could find on the island. Remember, no off-roading on the beaches or sand dunes – it can permanently damage them!
◊ You’ll be handed a map of the island (in a re-usable cloth bag – yay sustainability!) as you leave the airport, but you can also download the entire country on Google maps to be used offline throughout your stay – here’s how.
◊ No need to change any money if you’re American! Aruba’s official currency is the Florin, but US Dollars are widely accepted. We used them everywhere without any issues.
◊ Water in Aruba is drinkable and delicious! It’s distilled in a desalination plant in the town of Balashi, and Arubans are so proud of it that you can order a Balashi cocktail at a restaurant and get a glass of tap water. Make sure to pack a reusable water bottle so you can skip the bottled water when you head out for the day. Bonus points if you bring a reusable straw, too (did you know that 550 million plastic straws are thrown away EVERY DAY in the US and UK alone? Most of them end up in our oceans. Just toss a reusable one in your daypack and say no thanks to your waiter or barista.)
◊ This should go without saying, but leave nothing but footsteps. Do your part to keep Aruba’s beaches pristine by packing out all your trash. Better yet, join Take 3 for the Sea‘s initiative and take three pieces of rubbish with you when you leave the beach!
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