Travel

Aruba off the Beaten Path

Double Beach Boca Ketu from above
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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.

Abandoned Beach Bar - Aruba

 

» 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.

Wind Turbines in Aruba

 

◊ 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.

Quadirikiri Cave in Aruba

 

◊ 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?)

Octopus Mural San Nicolas, Aruba

 

» 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 beachTwo-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:

Swimming Pool Yellow Escape Aruba

 

» 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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41 Comments

  • Reply Bill Scott February 2, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Great post!. Makes me want to to back and see everything I missed when we were there in 1998. All we dd was get off the cruise ship and spend a few hours on the closest beach with everyone else before the cattle call back to the ship. When I read this I realized that every tropical island must have numerous inexpensive places to visit and things to do that are off the beaten path. You just have to be willing to look for them.

  • Reply Hazel February 4, 2018 at 1:10 am

    I love that you deliberately avoided the flamingoes, I really get onboard with your ethos of avoiding exploitative animal tourism. Its so refreshing to find a list that avoids causing damage and aims to be sustainable, and these are fantastic ideas!

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:13 am

      Thanks so much! We have so much power as tourists to protect or destroy the places we visit. I think the issues around animal exploitation are getting more press lately, so hopefully those things will start to change!

  • Reply Jennifer Schlueter February 4, 2018 at 1:41 am

    Absolutely love your sustainable travel tips <3 Wish I had seen this post before going to Aruba, it's sounds much more fun than my trip was, haha 😀

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:15 am

      Haha there’s always next time! Glad you liked the sustainable travel tips, we’re trying to incorporate them into all our travels 🙂

  • Reply Cherene Saradar February 4, 2018 at 3:06 am

    Your photos are GORGEOUS! You are making me want to jump on a plane and go now.

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:16 am

      Thank you so much!! We’re back in rainy Seattle now, so we’ll join you on that plane 😉

  • Reply Morgan February 4, 2018 at 3:47 am

    great ideas! a friend of mine travels to Aruba once a year and is in love with this “happy island” 🙂 now i’m convinced i have to go!

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:16 am

      Sounds like you have a lucky friend! You’ll have to join them next time!

  • Reply Ashley February 4, 2018 at 4:04 am

    Looks beautiful, wish I was there!!

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:17 am

      Thanks for reading! We wish we were back there, too!

  • Reply Candy February 4, 2018 at 4:46 am

    So many great suggestions! I would love to go to the Quadirikiri Cave. That photo of the cave looks unreal! The sunlight coming through is breathtaking.

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:19 am

      It really is beautiful! We saw lots of photos of it online beforehand, and it lived up to expectations. So quiet and peaceful, too – I wasn’t expecting something like it in a beach destination!

  • Reply Hannah Lukaszewicz February 4, 2018 at 4:56 am

    Your trip looks very similar to ours, EPIC! Off roading is a must and we couldn’t imagine not having a 4×4 jeep on the trip. When were you there?

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:20 am

      We spent a week there just before Christmas. We definitely waffled on renting the 4×4 because of the expense, but we’re SO glad we went for it! Did we miss any spots that you loved?

  • Reply My Ticklefeet February 4, 2018 at 5:09 am

    Loved your photos!! <3 We hope to visit someday soon, thanks for that google map that is very helpful 🙂

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:21 am

      Happy to help! It’s a small island, but I can almost always find a way to get lost. Thus, the map 😉

  • Reply Meg February 4, 2018 at 8:31 am

    I love that you avoid crowds, and that you don’t participate in exploitive annimal tourism. Excellent post! Haven’t been to aruba, but need to consider it for the next trip. Hubby does love his tropical islands!

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 8:40 am

      Thanks! Aruba wasn’t really on our radar, we just stumbled on cheap flights and we’re glad we did!

  • Reply Kristin D. February 4, 2018 at 9:13 am

    Aruba looks like such a beautiful country! It’s high on my travel wish list and this post is super helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 10:41 am

      Thanks for reading! We were so pleasantly surprised to find that there’s sooo much more to do besides the big resorts! Hope you make it there soon 🙂

  • Reply Mary Paul February 4, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Zeerover’s sounds amazing. Great article, hope to go some time!

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 10:43 am

      Oh, we definitely ate there more than once. Could absolutely go for a basket of fresh fish and a giant beer right now, actually!

  • Reply Dianashealthyliving February 4, 2018 at 10:07 am

    All of your photos are gorgeous and making me want to book a trip to Aruba right now. I love that you went off the beaten path – exactly what I plan on doing. Going to save your post for my future trip.

    • Reply Emily February 4, 2018 at 10:45 am

      Thanks, so glad you found this helpful! Definitely rent a 4×4 when you go – it’s absolutely worth it if you want to get off the beaten track!

  • Reply Lara Dunning February 4, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    I’m a super big fan of off-the-beaten-path locations and I so appreciate knowing about these spots, particularly the empty beaches, cave and National Park, including the tip to buy the day pass to return multiple times!

    • Reply Emily February 7, 2018 at 2:51 am

      So glad you found this helpful! We were so happily surprised by all the awesome out-of-the-way spots we found on this little island.

  • Reply Susanna Kelly February 4, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Oh my gosh Aruba looks so dreamy. I love the street art and those hidden beaches. I always thought of it as resorty, so it is good to know there would be something for me there to enjoy with renting a 4×4 and going on an adventure.

    • Reply Emily February 7, 2018 at 2:53 am

      It is dreamy! Aruba really wasn’t on our radar for the same reason – we thought it was all big resorts. But we stumbled on cheap flights and it turns out there’s like half the island that most tourists are missing! We loved it.

  • Reply Zac February 4, 2018 at 5:35 pm

    Killer pics, killer philosophy, killer post! It’s so easy write off tropical islands as beaches, cocktails and not much else, but I would seriously hate to miss out on San Nicolas or Arikok National Park. And I love how every decision you made was as ethical as possible!

    • Reply Emily February 7, 2018 at 2:54 am

      Thanks so much! Nobody’s perfect in the ethical travel world, but we do our best! And Aruba was such a great reminder that even the most touristy spots probably have other awesome things to do if we just dig around a little.

  • Reply Ghia Lorenzo February 6, 2018 at 12:03 am

    Wow! thanks for sharing this great post about Aruba! This place is so beautiful plus the perfect beach for some vitamin sea! That sunlight coming through from Quadirikiri Cave is breathtaking. It looks that you are in calm and peaceful place. It is also nice that you are doing your very best not to participate in exploitative animal tourism.

    • Reply Emily February 7, 2018 at 2:57 am

      Thanks! We got lucky to reach the cave when only a few other people were there – it was so quiet and peaceful. And thanks for your kind words about animal tourism – we saw lots of photos of tourists posing with flamingos, but once we realized they were captive it didn’t seem like a great idea!

  • Reply Lance February 6, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    We love off-the-beaten-path locations. I could spend weeks at Arikok National Park. I love the cave and the legends attached to them. Yep, I’d buy an annual pass too. A day on your private beach would be a perfect for my wife and daughter.

    • Reply Emily February 7, 2018 at 2:59 am

      Agreed, off the beaten path is the best! We definitely could have spent more time at the National Park. It was just so unexpected when all you usually see of Aruba is hotels and beaches!

  • Reply therainbowroute February 7, 2018 at 2:56 am

    I absolutely love this! I tend to avoid resort destinations because I’m afraid I’ll get bored, but this shows there’s so much to see beyond the hotels. Finding secret beaches is one of my favourite things:)

    • Reply Emily February 7, 2018 at 3:02 am

      Thank you so much! I totally agree, resorts usually aren’t my preference. We ended up at an all-inclusive in Cancun a few years back and got SO bored after the first day of sitting by the pool. Actually, we ended up renting a jeep then and discovering some awesome natural swimming holes and it ended up being one of our favorite trips ever!

  • Reply 100cobbledroads February 8, 2018 at 11:32 am

    All of the places you mention in this post seem fabulous. But what caught my attention was the Quadirikiri Cave where sunlight drops through holes in the ceiling. It must create unbelievable atmosphere in the caves!

    • Reply Emily February 9, 2018 at 11:54 am

      It really does! It was so peaceful and completely unexpected. We were lucky enough to have some time all to ourselves in the cave and it was magical!

  • Reply Carmen Edelson February 9, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Private beaches?! YES please! Also, I LOVE that colorful street art! I try to seek that out whenever I travel.

  • Reply Cristina Luisa February 10, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Wow, it seems like you guys were able to dig deep into the culture of Aruba via Jeep. Sometimes you simply can’t get to know a place unless you drive through it. With endless beaches, cave paintings, kick-ass street art, and 365 of sunshine, Aruba seems like the place to be!

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