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Aruba Travel Guide: 10 great attractions in Aruba other than the beach

Aruba is known as the perfect beach holiday destination: A Caribbean island full of resorts, happy sunbathers and of course white sandy palm tree beaches. This is far from all there is to see though. If you want, you can plan an entire holiday in Aruba without setting foot on a single beach. The interior and the east coast of the island are much less explored and have a surprising number of sights and hidden gems on offer. Trot Op! met with some locals and listed the ten best spots for you.

Zonsondergang Aruba

Did you know Aruba – despite having its own flag, parliament and head of state – is still officially part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands? In practice, this means that after a ten-hour flight from Schiphol, you’ll simply land back in Holland. This might feel like a minor setback, but no need to be alarmed: Aruba is still a paradise for sun lovers. Beautiful beaches, azure waters and resorts where the staff will still pretend your half-drunk jokes are funny, even after your tenth piña colada of the day. You wouldn’t get away with it in Amsterdam, that’s for sure.


Aruba Travel Guide: 10 great attractions in Aruba other than the beach

A holiday in Aruba means sun, sea and beach fun until you drop, but for a semi-transparent albino like myself, it would be nice if there was some stuff to do in the shade as well. I would simply not survive a week of unprepared sunbathing in the Caribbean, and on top of that bystanders would stare directly into the sun in panic to shield their eyes from the all-consuming supernova paleness that is my milky-white torso. Safety first, so I kept my T-shirt on and decided to look for alternatives to your standard beach holiday. The island is tiny – about 70 square miles – but some parts of the interior are hardly explored by tourists. Many visitors feel perfectly at home on the strip of sand in front of their hotel and only leave it for dinner or for a photo stop in colourful Oranjestad. That’s all very nice and dandy, but they’re sure to miss a lot. Aruba has more unique experiences and sights on offer than you might think.

“Aruba is a paradise for beach holidays, but if you go inland you’ll discover a range of unique activities and sights you wouldn’t expect at first sight.”

The history of Aruba is of course intertwined with that of the Dutch. They set foot here around 400 years ago (a century after the Spaniards) and never left. Their influence can be seen everywhere: in the street and city names, in the colourful architecture and in the Dutch language that is still spoken fluently everywhere. Yet the majority of tourists are not from the low countries, but from North America. The island feels quite international and cosmopolitan. The people who live and work here come from all over the world, which makes for an interesting mix of influences and cultures, and a lot of surprising encounters. Perfect for a varied visit.


1. Arikok National Park: a miniature island desert

Reisgids Aruba - Arikok National Park
Reisgids Aruba - Arikok National Park
Reisgids Aruba - Arikok National Park

You won’t notice when you spend every day on the beach with a cocktail on your belly, but Aruba is actually a desert. The east coast and the island’s interior are dryer than a mummy in a saltshaker, and Arikok National Park is driest of all. This is a hilly wasteland full of jagged rock formations, meter-high cactus forests, rattlesnakes and wild donkeys. No less than 20 percent of Aruba falls under this park, and the whole thing is more reminiscent of a rocky desert in Arizona, than of what a Caribbean island should theoretically look like.

“Did you know Aruba is actually a desert? The east coast and the interior are particularly bone dry, and the beautiful Arikok National Park is driest of all.”

A lot of companies offer tours through the park, but if you prefer not to listen to a guide’s one-liners in a bus full of other tourists, you can just as well rent a car and go by yourself. Take a good 4×4 in that case, because there’s quite some climbing on dirt roads involved. There are plenty of hiking trails to explore as well. Take double what you think you’ll need in water with you and then some. It could turn into quite the horrific walk pretty fast if you don’t. Wonderful but somewhat eerie place.


2. Conchi Natural Pool: swim in Mother Nature’s jacuzzi

Conchi Natural Pool

Need some cooling off while on your trip through Arikok National Park? You’ll find instant relief by visiting one of the most spectacular locations in Aruba. The Conchi Natural pool is located on the edge of the park next to the sea. It’s a natural pool where you can hang out in calm waters, while a few meters away the surf is beating down on the other side of the same rocks. Beautiful site, and in the pool’s deeper water, a few meters below the floating tourists, hundreds of coral fish of all shapes and colours will be swimming about. They’re stuck here until the high tide grants them access to the sea again. That’ll teach them to evolve without arms and legs.


3. Oranjestad: a colourful mini city trip in Aruba

Reisgids Aruba - Oranjestad
Reisgids Aruba - Oranjestad
Reisgids Aruba - Oranjestad

Oranjestad is the small but photogenic capital of Aruba, and is just a few minutes’ drive away from most of the resorts. It’s a bit chaotic in places, but the colourful colonial-Dutch houses, the atmosphere and the abundance of bars and little restaurants make it an interesting day trip. Main Street is pedestrianised and full of shops and eateries. A double-decker tram rides up and down and is free to board.

“Oranjestad is the photogenic capital of Aruba, and with its colorful houses and abundance of little cafes and restaurants, it’s ideal to switch things up for a day when you’re tired of the beach.”

If you prefer your shops a bit more international, you’ll find all the big names in the Renaissance Mall, and if you fancy some history you can visit Historical Museum Fort Zoutman – the oldest building in Aruba. There you’ll learn all about the colonial times under Spain and the Netherlands, and you can see some indigenous art. Need some green space? Go for a picnic in Wilhelminapark: a beautiful park full of iguanas where, somewhat surprisingly, a statue of Anne Frank can be found.  I had lunch at The West Deck: a popular beach bar with a view on the water, where pelicans sit snoozing on shabby little boats, waiting for their next meal.


4. San Nicolas: Aruba’s street art capital

Reisgids Aruba - San Nicolas Street Art
Street Art in San Nicolas Aruba
Reisgids Aruba - San Nicolas Street Art
Reisgids Aruba - San Nicolas Street Art

San Nicolas is a town in the south of Aruba, and with just under 20,000 inhabitants it’s the second largest on the island. In the past, a few thousand workers lived here who were employed by the nearby oil refinery. It’s been closed and abandoned for years now, so the city had to start looking for a different identity. In 2016, the first Aruba Art Fair was held: a three-day art festival to which artists from all over the world were invited. This turned out to be a great success, and since then the festival took place every year.

“The Aruba Art Fair transformed San Nicolas from a dusty industrial town into a street art paradise.”

The lasting legacy of this festival, is that it covered the entire city in cheerful and colorful street art. In just a few years, dusty San Nicolas became an open-air museum with some serious hippie vibes. You can support the local artists by buying their work at the San Nicolas Community Museum, and while you’re there you can immediately check out Charlie’s Bar: Aruba’s most famous pub that’s been around since the fourties and is full of left-behind memorabilia. Looking for something more local or small-scale? Try White Star or the Aruba Rum Shop.


5. Visit Aruba with a local guide: meet up with Taki

Reisgids Aruba - Taki
Taki kookt op het strand
Wat te doen in Aruba: Taki op verborgen strand

There’s no better way to discover the hidden gems and corners of a destination than to get out and about with a local, and in Aruba I was matched with the best possible option. Taki is a free spirit, a world traveler and an independent Dutch-speaking guide you can book to discover the Aruba not pictured in the brochures. After handing me a first cocktail – mixed with home-made rum – he took me inland in his old Chevrolet. We drove on a number of obscure back roads along industrial ruins covered in graffiti (not infrequently by him – keep it quiet), we visited secluded bays and drove all the way to San Nicolas. We had dinner on a completely deserted beach around sunset. Taki brought everything he needed for an impromptu feast: salmon baked in seawater – immediately salted – with pistachios, flanked by a salad of mushrooms with okra and seaweed. Without a doubt my most relaxing afternoon in Aruba. If you want to contact Taki for an assignment, message him on Instagram or Facebook.


6. Snorkelling in Aruba: sailing to Mangel Halto

Montforte Luxury Cruise Aruba
Snorkelen in Aruba
Reisgids Aruba - Mangel Halto
Reisgids Aruba - Mangel Halto

Aruba is a great snorkelling and diving location. The number of sites you can check out is significant. The most spectacular diving site is the wreck of the SS Antilla. This is a German ship from WWII and the largest ship reef in the region, but to get there you need a diving license. I didn’t have any, so they put me on a sailing ship from Pelican Adventures instead, to sail to Mangel Halto together with a bunch of Americans. Mangel Halto is located between a number of mangrove islands south of Oranjestad, and is the healthiest coral reef in the area, full of anemones, beautiful brain corals and vast fields of seagrass.

“Aruba is a top destination for snorkellers and divers, and Mangel Halto is the most beautiful and healthiest coral reef in the area.”

Fish can be seen in all shapes and colours here: from rainbow parrotfish and yellowtails to sturdy bass and even barracudas. Fantastic snorkelling site and the vibe on the ship was jolly as well. All food and beverages were included in the price, and after a good hour, dozens of half-naked vacationers were belting along to Don’t Stop Believing by Journey. Classics will always stay classics.


7. Ceru Colorado: visit the local ghost town

Wat te doen in Aruba: vervallen huis in Ceru Colorado Aruba Urbex
Wat te doen in Aruba: Ceru Colorado

The abandoned oil refinery near San Nicolas used to employ a few thousand people. The upper management were mainly Americans who lived in Ceru Coloradu: a gated commune just outside the city, with its own shops, bars and a private beach. Since the closure, most of them have returned home, which means a large number of old villas now stand vacant. Years of weather, wind and unwashed squatters made for a somewhat creepy but photogenic ghost town in the middle of the desert. When I was there, you could just walk in almost anywhere and recreate your own version of The Walking Dead. Recently a number of buildings were refurbished and re-inhabited – please stay out of those – but the majority of houses are still slowly crumbling away. Ideal location for urbex lovers.


8. Donkey Sanctuary Aruba: pet some rescued donkeys

Donkey Sanctuary Aruba
Peter in Donkey Sanctuary Aruba
Donkey Sanctuary Aruba-28

Not even that long ago, donkeys were the main means of transport in Aruba. They were used as beasts of burden and to carry overly drunk Dutchmen from place to place. Somewhere in the last century, the car was introduced for these kinds of tasks – time does not stand still – but that doesn’t mean every donkey suddenly disappeared. In the emptier parts of the interior, some of them still live in the wild. Unfortunately, every now and then they get hit by one of their motorized successors. If they survive the ordeal, these poor creatures are taken to Donkey Sanctuary Aruba, where they’ll enjoy their old age in peace and with some relatives for company.

“In times not that long gone, donkeys were the main means of transport in Aruba. In Donkey Sanctuary Aruba they can enjoy their old age safely and among colleagues.”

This donkey garden of Eden is located in the centre of the island and can be visited freely. You can walk among the animals and if you are in a generous mood you can buy them some pellets they’ll eat from your hand. The sanctuary is mainly run by volunteers, but two people are employed full-time. One of them is Peter from Kortemark, West Flanders. He met his Aruban wife in Ghent and a few years later wisely decided to follow her to less rainy places. From Ghent University to a donkey farm in Aruba: life takes strange leaps sometimes. Say hello to him for me.

PS: if you’re more into big weird birds, you can visit the Aruba Ostrich Farm instead.


9. Aruba Pet Cemetery: the island’s most quiet and beautiful spot

Wat te doen in Aruba: Pet Cemetery Aruba met Caracara
Wat te doen in Aruba: Pet Cemetery Aruba
Reisgids Aruba - Aruba Pet Cemetery
Reisgids Aruba - Aruba Pet Cemetery

To me, the most beautiful spot in Aruba is a deserted stretch of coastline near the popular Baby Beach. For years, an improvised animal cemetery has organically grown here, facing the sea. Here, Arubans pay their last respects to any four-legged friend passed to the eternal hunting grounds. Hundreds of lovingly crafted crosses and tombstones stand here, peacefully in between the dune grass – over a distance of more than half a mile – many colourfully decorated with personal messages. Some of them still have flowers on them, years after the date on the grave. This makes even a cynic like me have a quiet moment. When I was lost in thought about a fitting eulogy for my non-existent dog (“You were the best of boys, Billy”) – a pair of raptors suddenly landed on two of the nearby crosses, quietly watching me with piercing eyes before nonchalantly but gracefully taking to the skies again. Unique encounter, and it was for my eyes only. Get off the beaten track every now and then and you’ll always come across something unexpected.


10. The best beaches in Aruba

Koppel bij famous tree Eagle Beach Aruba

It would be quite ridiculous to write an article on Aruba without mentioning the many beautiful beaches you can enjoy here. To conclude, I’ll leave you with this handy list discussing the most important ones in alphabetical order.

Andicuri Beach is a beautiful beach in the east of the island. The waves are a bit more powerful, so bodyboarders in particular come here to enjoy themselves.

Arashi Beach is located in the northwest and is one of the best places for snorkeling. The water is calm and full of fish. You also have a good chance of spotting sea turtles while diving.

Baby Beach can be found in the southeast near the pet cemetery, and is a perfect place for a day at the beach with the kids. Shallow water and one of the best beaches on the island for turtle spotting

Vrouw op natural bridge Aruba

Boca Catalina lies on the northernmost tip of Aruba and is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. The beach is more than 300 meters long and you can get to the water via steps in the rocks. Sea turtles often swim here as well.

Boca Ketu is a more secluded beach in Arikok National Park. You can only get here by hiking or by 4×4.

Druif Beach has a strange name, but offers a wide range of water sports. One of the most photogenic and well-equipped beaches on the island.

Reisgids Aruba - Stranden van Aruba

Eagle Beach is probably the most famous beach in Aruba and can be found opposite some of its largest resorts. The old gnarly trees that grow in the white beach sand are some of the most photographed objects on the island.

Flamingo Beach is a private beach on Renaissance Island – a narrow islet along the west coast. You pay an entrance fee to get in, but the pink and selfie-tolerating flamingos cheerfully standing about make up for a lot.

Manchebo Beach is a wide stretch of sand full of huts, lounge chairs and cocktail stalls. Ideal family beach.

Palm Beach is one of the more photogenic and luxurious beaches in Aruba, close to the big hotels and restaurants. The many palm trees provide some shade.


Accommodation in Aruba and useful information

Reisgids Aruba - West Deck

I stayed at the beautiful Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort, which is ten meters from Eagle Beach. The rooms are spacious – some are full apartments – and the breakfast was fantastic. At sunset, they offer romantic dinners on the beach.

Papiamento Restaurant is probably the best restaurant I’ve visited in Aruba. It’s housed in a beautiful old mansion with a swimming pool, and is one of the few true fine-dining options you have here outside of the hotels.

For all information about Aruba and the tourist opportunities of the island, check

As a Belgian, you don’t need a travel visa for Aruba.

Fancy some other tropical destinations? Read my articles about Singapore, Malawi, São Tomé, Dakar, New Delhi or Eswatini here.


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