Aruba is the smallest and most westerly of the “ABC” (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) islands. Just 15 miles (24 km) north of Venezuela, it has an exceptionally dry climate that is considered one of the most desirable in the Caribbean. Aruba's arid interior, marked by surreal, wind-bent divi-divi trees, sprawling stands of cactus and aloe vera, and huge boulders strewn like marbles contrasts sharply with the more tropical, palm-lined southwest coast. It is perhaps as much the desert landscape as the active nightlife that gives Aruba the reputation as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.
Assessments of Aruba's worth have varied since 1499, when Alonso de Ojeda claimed the island for Spain. Because the Spaniards considered Aruba worthless, the native Arawak Indians were spared the annihilation their kinfolk faced on islands thought more valuable. The Dutch, who hardly considered the island prime real estate, took over in 1636.
During the Napoleonic Wars the British settled Aruba for a few years, but by 1816 the Dutch had returned to stay. Compared with other Caribbean islands, Aruba had a rather quiet history; the island was fought over only twice and suffered few pirate attacks.
Gold discovered on Aruba in 1824 attracted considerable investment, but a century later the mine was exhausted. A different sort of gold renewed interest in the island in 1924, when the Lago Oil and Transport Co. built a large refinery that brought one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.
This prosperity was furthered by the development of tourism, which became Aruba's primary industry when the refinery closed in 1985. (It reopened in 1991 and closed again in 2012.) Because of the focus on tourism and the number of resorts on the island, Arubans enjoy a very low unemployment rate. A moratorium on building new hotels or timeshare resorts contributes to sustainable development and a high standard of living on the island. Arubans are proud of their heritage and are concerned that with the importation of additional workers the island's local flavor might be lost.
Aruba's location outside the hurricane belt, its near constant 82 F (28 C) temperature, the ever-present trade winds (which, at times, can be quite gusty) that cool off even the hottest days, its comparatively low humidity and infrequent rainy days combine to make the island a favorite for visitors year-round.
Practically all Arubans are fluent in four languages: English, Dutch and Spanish and Papiamento, the native language of the three “ABC” islands. A mélange of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, African, English and French, Papiamento is a lilting, melodic language spoken by locals at home and with friends. Arubans, known for their hospitality and their friendly, outgoing nature, treat visitors as important guests and extend a sincere Bon Bini (“welcome”). This conviviality can be traced to a line from the country's national anthem: “The greatness of our people is their great cordiality.”
Aruba became a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Jan. 1, 1986; prior to that date it was a member of the Netherlands Antilles, which was dissolved in October 2010. The Kingdom of the Netherlands, which also includes the Netherlands, Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and Saba, is responsible for the entire kingdom's defense and foreign affairs while the government of each country performs autonomously.
Aruba offers the finest in European luxury items, but it is always wise to check prices before leaving home, as not everything sells at a discount. Shops in Aruba charge 1.5 percent sales tax on purchases. U.S. dollars are as readily accepted as Aruban florins, and prices are frequently shown in dollars as well as the local currency. Credit cards are accepted at most stores. The main shopping areas are Royal Plaza Mall, Renaissance Mall, Renaissance Marketplace, Aventura Mall, Plaza Daniel Leo and the shops along Caya G.F. Betico Croes (Main Street) in cosmopolitan Oranjestad. In addition to these downtown shopping areas, many of the larger hotels have shopping arcades that feature branches of the downtown shops.
Paseo Herencia Mall, opposite the Holiday Inn Resort Aruba, features designer shops, restaurants and a cinema. There also is a main stage featuring a nightly waterworks extravaganza and musical performances; phone (297) 586-6533. In front of Barceló Aruba is Arawak Garden, featuring souvenir shops and restaurants, while the Village and South Beach shopping complexes are adjacent to the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino.
Palm Beach Plaza, just moments away from Aruba's Palm Beach hotels, is a multi-level mall with shopping, dining and entertainment as well as luxury condominiums. A variety of businesses include 20 retail stores, a bowling alley, movie theater, arcade, amphitheater, day spa, restaurants and food court; phone (297) 586-0045.
Alhambra Casino and Shops, south of Palm Beach Plaza and opposite the Divi Village Golf Course, features restaurants, boutiques, a casino, a market and a spa. Retail highlights include Aruba Aloe, Bijoux Terner Boutique and The Lazy Lizard; phone (297) 588-9000.
Royal Plaza Mall on L.G. Smith Boulevard features designer clothing, jewelry and watches. Souvenirs, beachwear, local and foreign music, and Cuban cigars also can be found at the colorful mall built in the Dutch Caribbean style of architecture; phone (297) 588-0351.
Behind the Royal Plaza Mall are a post office and Botica Kibrahacha, a drugstore and pharmacy. Two ATMs inside the mall offer local currency and U.S. dollars. The Renaissance Mall adjoining the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino has entrances on Havenstraat and L.G. Smith Boulevard. The mall, where visitors can see the hotel's indoor boat lagoon, contains some 40 shops and designer boutiques; phone (297) 523-6115.
On Plaza Daniel Leo across from the Renaissance Mall are European boutiques, perfumeries and cosmetics shops. The square is recognized by its Dutch Colonial architecture painted in pastels.
Shops along Caya G.F. Betico Croes, which starts at Plaza Daniel Leo, offer clothing, perfume and cosmetics, sunglasses, souvenirs and imported items such as Dutch pewter, Delftware and Hummel figurines.
Renaissance Marketplace is on L.G. Smith Boulevard across from the Parliament building. Situated on the waterfront next to a marina and the Seaport Casino, the market contains a movie theater, restaurants and souvenir shops; phone (297) 582-4622.
Most Oranjestad stores are open Mon.-Sat. 9-6. Some stores also are open Sunday mornings and holidays when cruise ships are in port. The port, which can handle up to four ships, is near downtown Oranjestad and convenient to the main shopping areas. Banking hours are Mon.-Fri. 8-4. The Caribbean Mercantile Bank at the airport is open Mon.-Fri. 8-4:30, Sat. 10-6.
Food and Drink
Menus catering to all tastes and budgets can be found in Oranjestad. Signs reading Aki ta bende kuminda krioyo mean “local food sold here.” Island specialties include funchi, a polenta-like cornmeal staple served with meat or fish; pan bati, a somewhat sweet Aruban pancake made of cornmeal; and keri keri, a mixture of tomatoes, peppers, shredded fish and herbs.
Other popular Aruban dishes include keshi yena, a Dutch cheese stuffed with meat, chicken or fish that is seasoned with raisins, olives, onions and tomatoes; and pastechi, pastries filled with cheese, meat, seafood or other ingredients. Erwten soep is a thick pea soup cooked with pork, ham and sausage; stoba is a stew of vegetables and meat (usually goat); and soppi di pisca is fish soup seasoned with yerbi hole, a local variety of basil. Robo porco, salted pig's tail, is often added to traditional dishes.
Island flavors are evident in fresh caught fish such as wahoo, snapper or grouper simply prepared and served with a Criollo (Creole) sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic and bell peppers. The proximity of the island to South America accounts for the popularity of Argentinian churrasco steaks and churrascarias, Brazilian steak houses. A popular accompaniment to any Aruban meal is the locally produced Balashi beer, a pilsner-style brew.
Most restaurants automatically add a service charge of 15 percent to the bill, which is shared among the restaurant staff. An additional tip is appreciated, especially when service is exceptional. Dinner reservations are recommended at the island's better restaurants, and the majority accept credit cards.
As for liquid refreshment, sparse rainfall used to make drinking water scarce, but modern technology allows fresh water to be distilled from the sea. In fact, Aruba boasts one of the world's largest desalinization plants; drinking tap water is safe and refreshing.
Sports and Amusements
As on its sister islands, vegetation on Aruba is sparse. The dusty interior contains huge boulders and wind-bent divi-divi (watapana) trees. Recreational activities include hiking through Arikok National Park; cave exploring at Fontein, Huliba and Guadirikiri; and horseback riding through the outback.
There is plenty to do along the coast, with beach-related and water activities at the top of the list. Although all of Aruba's beaches are public, beach chairs are reserved for hotel guests. Palapas, or thatch-covered beach huts, are so coveted for shade that guests line up early in the morning for reservations.
Seven miles (11 km) of uninterrupted beach stretch from Druif Beach to Eagle Beach and from Palm Beach to Malmok Beach. The best swimming spots are Eagle and Palm beaches, due to the fact that the water is the calmest off the island's southwest coast. These beaches also are where the majority of the island's hotels are concentrated. Banana boats and parasailers being towed behind speed boats are a common sight along Palm Beach. For those in search of expansive stretches of sand, Eagle Beach and nearby Manchebo Beach offer wider strips than can be found at Palm Beach.
Druif Beach, south of Eagle Beach, also is a pleasant place to swim for those not averse to some slight wave action. There are small beach coves on the north coast—Boca Prins, Boca Grandi and Dos Playa. Although the scenery is beautiful, the north coast is not recommended for swimming, due to strong currents and large waves.
The beaches in the southeast section of the island just beyond the oil refinery tend to be less populated than the southwest beaches. Baby Beach, a large, secluded inlet at the island's southeast tip, is so named because it is perfect for small children and inexperienced swimmers. This is because the water remains shallow quite a distance from the shore, achieving depths no greater than 5 feet (1.5 m). It also is a popular beach among the locals for relaxing and picnicking.
At Rodgers Beach, next to Baby Beach, swimmers can enjoy a little more surf and find good swimming and snorkeling opportunities. And although it can be somewhat disconcerting to see the large refinery looming so close by, the water and air at Baby and Rodgers beaches are crystal clear, and the beaches are ideal for a family outing.
Trade winds that blow at a maximum speed of 27 knots (31 mph, 50 km/h) daily, with an average speed of 18 knots (21 mph, 34 km/h), make conditions perfect for windsurfing and kitesurfing; the Aruba Hi-Winds Tournament takes place in June or July. The entire area of coast between Hadicurari and Malmok beaches provides excellent windsurfing opportunities. Hadicurari, locally referred to as “Fishermen's Huts,” is one of the most popular spots.
North of Fishermen's Huts, the Malmok Beach area is a great place to learn how to windsurf since the water is only between 2 and 3 feet (.6 and .9 m) deep. There are many small guest houses and day-rental apartments in this area which cater to windsurfers, and windsurfing lessons and equipment rental are readily available. Boca Grandi, just north of Seroe Colorado Point, is an area famous for professional windsurfing.
Visibility in Aruba's clear waters can extend as far as 90 feet (27 m) and the water temperature is never under 70 F (21 C), making the area very desirable for snorkeling and scuba diving. A vessel often explored by divers is the Antilla, the wreckage of a World War II German freighter off the coast midway between Arashi and Malmok. One of the largest wrecks in the Caribbean, the ship was purposefully sunk in 1941 in order to avoid capture by Allied forces. Another cement cargo ship, the Jane Sea, lies near the Barcadera Reefs.
Arashi Beach, north of Malmok on the southwest coast, is frequented by both scuba divers and snorkelers. Mangel Halto, a reef off the southeast coast halfway between Oranjestad and San Nicolas, is a favorite with divers; snorkeling also is possible in this area. Isla d'Oro, about 1 mile (1.6 km) east of Spanish Lagoon, is another popular dive site. Barcadera Reef is especially recommended for scuba diving.
Snorkeling is a featured activity at De Palm Island, and a beautiful reef is easily accessible off the shallow channel of Baby Beach. Berth Reef, off Rodgers Beach, and the reefs off Bachelor's Beach, on the northeast coast, are favored snorkeling spots for advanced swimmers. Rental equipment for diving, windsurfing and water skiing is available throughout the island.
Fishing for blue and white marlin, king fish, tuna, bonito and other game fish is best July through October. Also in abundant supply are sailfish, mahi mahi, amberjack, wahoo and barracuda. Boats for deep-sea fishing can be chartered at the Seaport Marina and Oranjestad piers. Some yachts and catamarans offer 2-hour coastal cruises, complete with snacks and beverages. Motorboats, small sailboats, pedal boats and sea jeeps (wave runners) can be rented for shorter periods of time at diverse aquatic facilities.
As for non-aquatic recreation, most hotels and private clubs provide tennis courts and information about horseback riding. Tierra del Sol, (297) 586-7800, features an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. A nine-hole course is available at The Links at Divi Aruba, (297) 581-4653.
Regardless which outdoor activity you choose—whether languidly soaking up some sun on the beach or energetically hiking or bicycling through the island's interior—always remember that you are in the tropical Caribbean, and the effects of the sun can be devastating. Keep hydrated, use plenty of high-octane sunscreen and wear a head covering.
In addition to the many activities available during the day, Aruba also has an active nightlife: Hotel casinos and various nightclubs and restaurants offer dancing and after-dinner entertainment. The island's resorts sponsor more than 50 themed events that occur on a weekly basis, including folkloric, limbo and steel-band shows.
Casino gambling is a popular pastime in Aruba, with 11 casinos offering blackjack, roulette, baccarat, craps and slot machines. One of the most common games is Caribbean stud poker, which can be played by table or machine. Visitors to the casinos must be at least 18. Aruba's casinos are not as formal as those in Atlantic City or Las Vegas, and casual attire is acceptable.
Some of the best local entertainment takes place at the Bon Bini Festival, held every Tuesday evening at Fort Zoutman in Oranjestad at 6:30 p.m. Offerings include food, music and crafts. Concerts and folkloric shows also are performed at the Cultural Center (Cas di Cultura) at Vondellaan 2 in Oranjestad. Movies, usually American, are shown at the cinema at the Renaissance Marketplace.
The Carubbian Festival takes place in San Nicolas Thursday night from 6-10 p.m. and showcases diverse cuisines from the region and a parade of local entertainers. Tourists can purchase a package at hotels including round-trip transportation. The main street is closed to traffic, becoming a pedestrian mall filled with colorful booths selling local food, handicrafts and logo souvenirs.
The island version of New Orleans' Mardi Gras, Aruba's Carnival is celebrated during January and February and enlists locals and tourists alike in parades, dances, contests and parties; the Grand Parade takes place the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Other major events include The Soul Beach Music Festival in May, Aruba International Film Festival in October and December's Dande Festival.
Aruba Today, Aruba's English newspaper, is available free of charge at most hotels.
Aruba has good roads, though many are unmarked. However, the government has marked the roads to point the way to the resort areas and specific attractions. You might have to rely on word of mouth or try navigating by the divi-divi trees which always point southwest away from the trade winds; if you are lost, just remember that these trees blow in the direction of the resorts. The island is about 19.6 miles (32 km) long and 6 miles (10 km) wide at its broadest point and most of it can be toured by car.
Jeep tours are a popular way to experience the otherworldly rock-strewn, almost moon-like landscape common to Aruba's interior, and caravans of four-wheel-drive vehicles are a familiar sight along the hilly, bumpy dirt roads of such spots as Arikok National Park. A guide, who rides in the lead vehicle, provides a narration, which can be heard through speakers mounted in each visitor-driven jeep.
For an adventurous excursion, drive into Aruba's cunucu, or countryside, where fields of cactuses and aloe vera are punctuated by wandering goats and colorful cottages. Old-style cunucu houses, which appear throughout the island, are characterized by such features as rain tanks, a necessity in the days before desalinization, wooden windows and doors, and chimneys once used for cooking.
Chances are you will find your own Kodak moment—perhaps one of the huge rock formations that mark the area around Casibari and Ayo, from which a road continues northeast to Andicuri. Here was the famed Natural Bridge, a coral limestone formation that collapsed into the sea in 2005. A smaller “daughter” bridge is nearby. With a little further exploration you might discover secluded inlets where crashing waves leap upward above the cliffs.
On J.E. Irausquin Boulevard, the main road leading to the high-rise hotels at Palm Beach, is an Aruban landmark, the Old Dutch Windmill. Built in the Netherlands in 1804, it was moved to Aruba and reconstructed at its present site in 1974. It currently houses a restaurant.
Directly across the road from the windmill is the Bubali Bird Sanctuary. An anomaly in semi-arid Aruba, the lush refuge is a resting and breeding grounds for more than 80 species of migrating waterfowls, including herons, egrets, cormorants, ducks and gulls. There is no charge to walk through the marsh grasses or bird-watch from the observation tower.
Visitors can view the entire island at Hooiberg, also nicknamed Haystack Mountain, between Santa Cruz and Ayo. Athletically inclined individuals may choose to climb the almost 600 steps that ascend to the mountain's top, which at 541 feet (165 m) is the island's second highest elevation. Mount Jamanota, to the southeast at the center of the island, is Aruba's highest point at 617 feet (188 m). The panorama from its summit includes Frenchman's Pass on the south coast, where Indians defended their island against the French.
At the island's northern tip, the California Lighthouse, named for the wreck of the cargo ship California just offshore, is on a cliff that offers a panorama of Arashi, Malmok, Palm and Eagle beaches. At this point, the difference can be observed between the calm southern coast and the northern coast with waves crashing against the shoreline.
Glass-bottom boats provide views of colorful fish, coral formations and shipwrecks during 90-minute trips to the California Lighthouse. Trimaran and catamaran sailing excursions, which offer snorkeling trips and sunset cocktail cruises, also are available.
Reputable ticket booking establishments include Atlantis Submarine, De Palm Tours, Pelican Adventures, Red Sail Sports and Unique Sports of Aruba. Both half-day and full-day tours, in various combinations, are available; check with your hotel for details.
Some companies offer tours that cater to such specialized interests as wildlife or history. Information about excursions can be obtained at the guest service/concierge desk at hotels, at Aruba Tourism Authority at L.G. Smith Boulevard #8 or at most hotels; phone (297) 582-3777 or (800) 862-7822.
Queen Beatrix International Airport has direct flights from Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington, D.C.; interisland flights to the other “ABC” islands are available. Direct flights from Aruba to Colombia and Venezuela also are available. In addition, Aruba is a popular port of call for cruise ships.
Hotels, by law, are not allowed to provide transportation to and from the airport for their guests. Taxis, however, are readily available at the airport. Cabs are not metered, but fares are set by the government and are based on destination rather than mileage. The fare (per taxi, not per person) from the airport to the downtown area is $18; the fee to the Eagle Beach hotel area is $22; and to the Palm Beach hotel area the cost is $25. Fares slightly increase between midnight and 6 a.m. and on official holidays.
Most American car rental firms have branches on the island, and there also are several local companies. Many rental agencies have outlets across from the main terminal at Queen Beatrix International Airport, though if you prefer to rent a car for just a few days, the larger hotels have rentals available on-site. Hertz—with outlets at the airport, the cruise terminal and at several major hotels—offers discounts to AAA members; phone (297) 588-7570 or (800) 654-3080.
Speed limits in Aruba are generally 30 mph (50 km/h) in town and 50 mph (80 km/h) on out-of-town roads. Drivers should be aware that most of the traffic in Oranjestad is one-way, and vehicles approaching from the right have the right of way when there is no road sign posted. Driving is on the right side of the road, and right turns on red are not permitted. “Roundabouts,” traffic circles common in Europe, also can be found at major intersections in Aruba.
Traffic in the heart of Oranjestad can be quite congested during peak hours, and parking spaces are often at a premium. The free parking lot near Royal Plaza Mall, adjacent to the main bus station, is a good alternative; from there it's only a short walk to the main shopping areas.
A trolley route begins by the Cruise Ship Terminal on the outskirts of Oranjestad, taking visitors through to the main street of Caya G. F. Betico Croes for shopping and access to historical sites. The trolley operates from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Due to Aruba's European heritage, speed limits and distances on road signs are presented in kilometers, and the international symbols used on the signs may be unfamiliar to drivers accustomed to U.S. signage. Not all of these symbols are self-explanatory; be sure and familiarize yourself with their meanings before setting out.
Part of L.G. Smith Boulevard, which runs in front of the Palm Beach hotels, is known as J.E. Irausquin Boulevard. Some street signs in the stretch of road between the Divi Tamarijn and the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino reflect this name.
Although maps might show street names and highway numbers, once you leave the downtown area in Oranjestad road signs and street markers are few and far between. Also, outside the main commercial and residential areas, and especially if you venture into the countryside (cunucu), roads are not likely to be paved. Even so, it's a small island and not difficult to navigate as long as you remember to ask for directions before heading out.
Use caution when traveling on wet roads; dirt and oil accumulate due to scarce rainfall, resulting in slippery conditions in the rain. If you are planning an excursion through Aruba's interior, a car with four-wheel-drive is a good idea. Make sure your vehicle is in good working order, since repair facilities are not always available.
Scooters and motorcycles also can be rented, but keep in mind that the island is deserted in certain areas and the terrain can be rough and hilly. Taxis also can be hired for sightseeing. If you choose to take a cab, check the fixed taxi rates beforehand. To order a cab phone (297) 587-5900.
An inexpensive transportation option to Oranjestad from the hotels at Eagle and Palm beaches is the regular bus service provided by Arubus. Stops are conveniently located in front of most major lodgings along the road to the downtown area. The main bus terminal is on L.G. Smith Boulevard, exit to Royal Plaza in downtown Oranjestad.
Buses run daily 5:40 a.m.-11:40 p.m. From Monday through Saturday the buses make scheduled stops 20 minutes before the hour, 10 minutes before the hour, on the hour and 25 minutes after the hour; after 7 p.m. buses only stop 20 minutes before the hour. On Sunday buses run on a reduced schedule, stopping 20 minutes before the hour. The fare is $5-$8 for a round-trip; $10 for one-day pass.
Since the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has officers stationed at Queen Beatrix International Airport, U.S. visitors save time by clearing customs in Aruba before departure rather than at their destination.
Area181 sq km (70 sq mi.).
Highest Point188 m (617 ft.), Mount Jamanota.
Lowest PointSea level, Caribbean Sea.
Time Zone(s)Atlantic Standard.
LanguageDutch and Papiamento are the official languages, but Spanish and English are widely spoken.
GovernmentAutonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
CurrencyAruba florin divided into 100 cents. $1 U.S. = approx. 1.8 Aruba florin. U.S. currency is widely accepted.
Electricity110-120 volts, 60 cycles AC.
MINIMUM AGE FOR DRIVERS21-25, depending on the rental car agency; maximum age 65-70. U.S. license valid; drive on right.
Minimum Age For Gambling18.
Seat Belt/Child Restraint LawsSeat belts are required for all passengers. Children under 12 must ride in the back seat. Child restraints are required for children under age 5.
Helmets for MotorcyclistsRequired.
HolidaysJan. 1; G.F. “Betico” Croes' Day, Jan. 25; Carnival Monday, Feb. or Mar. (Mon. before Ash Wednesday); National Anthem and Flag Day, Mar. 18; Good Friday; Easter; Easter Monday; King's Day, Apr. 27; Labour Day, May 1; Ascension Day, May (6th Thurs. after Easter); Christmas, Dec. 25; Boxing Day, Dec. 26.
TaxesShops charge 1.5 percent sales tax on purchases. A 6- to 10-percent room tax and 10-15 percent service charge are added to most hotel and restaurant bills. For flights to the United States, a departure tax of $36.75 U.S. and a special facility charge of $3.25 are usually included in airline ticket prices.
ImmigrationPassport or proof of U.S. citizenship and return or onward ticket are required. No visa needed for stays up to 3 months. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security requires all U.S. citizens returning from the Caribbean to present a valid passport.
PHONING THE ISLANDSTo call Aruba from the U.S. or Canada, dial 011 + 297 + the 7-digit local number beginning with “5.”
Further Information Aruba Tourism Authority, New Jersey 400 Plaza Dr. Secaucus, NJ 07094. Phone:(201)558-1110 or (800)862-7822
Aruba Tourism Authority, Oranjestad L.G. Smith Blvd. 8 Oranjestad, ARUBA . Phone:(297)582-3777
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.