While I was thrilled with the beautiful surf, sun, and sand of Aruba, Jeff wasn’t enamored. He prefers locations that are more off the beaten path and he was disappointed by how American everything was. But we know so many people that adore Aruba and return again and again. What were we missing?
We discovered it on our off roading exploration of the far side of the island. We loaded up on groceries, rented two UTVs from Arubiana, and used their app to explore the island. There are very few stops to get food or drink, so make sure you stock up. The entire Eastern side of the island is accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles. Other than the handful of tourist sites, we had it largely to ourselves. From the California Lighthouse we headed south past rugged beaches, cacti, and incredible views.
Our first exploration was the Bushiribana Gold Mine ruins. Gold was first discovered in Aruba in 1824 and remained an important industry for nearly 100 years with the island producing more than 3 million pounds of gold. When it was no longer profitable the mill was abandoned and is now a historical site. While it was crawling with other people, we really enjoyed climbing on the ruins and seeing the blues of the sea from an elevated point of view.
Not far away was our favorite spot on the island: Small Natural Pool. The large tour groups only had time to peer down into these swirling pools, but since we were exploring on our own, we climbed down the soaked ladder to get a deeper look. We were hoping to spy cool critters in the tide pools but the reality far exceeded our expectations. We spent hours letting the waves and currents move us around the pools, spied bright fish as we snorkeled, and felt the foaming bubbles as the waves crashed through the narrow gaps. Full disclosure: every member of our family ended up scratched and bloody by this experience, but loved it anyway.
We headed inland, climbing near some wild goats over and around the Ayo Rock Formation before entering Arikok National Park. While you will see our next destination, Natural Pool, on many lists of the best sites in Aruba, it is a challenging destination to visit. We stopped at the park office to use the restrooms, pay our entrance fee, and check out the small displays before following the well labeled signs to “Conchi” a rugged natural pool surrounded by volcanic rock. It was a long, dusty, bumpy ride out to this pool and the ride is not for the faint of heart. There are many spots where you are angled precariously or have to figure out how to let two vehicles by on the narrow path. Getting there was half the adventure. Once there we ate a quick lunch overlooking the waves before climbing over to the natural pool. The terrain is volcanic rock, so you definitely want water shoes, and there are very few dry spots to stow any gear. We brought one bag with our lunch and snorkeling gear and accepted it would probably get soaked. The footing on the way to the pool is precarious and we saw several people slip and slide. I fell all the way to my back on the way out and was thankful for helpful strangers that stopped me from sliding along the jagged rocks all the way into the pool. There was a lifeguard on duty, but his job seemed mostly to ensure people didn’t get swept over the rocks out to sea. The tide was really high and it was a challenge to swim and snorkel around the pool at times. It was stunning, and we saw quite a few fish and crabs, but we all preferred the solitude and size of the small natural pool further North.
After all that time in the water, we were ready for some land based exploring and were racing daylight to get to the caves we hoped to visit. The first was Fontein Cave. This particular cave is well known for its native Arawak wall paintings that are believed to have been etched by the Amerindians. Historians say that these same Indians performed tribal rituals and ceremonies within these caves. We had read that bats live in the caves but didn’t spy any.
Our last planned stop was Guadirikiri Caves. The photographs we had seen of these caves were beautiful, with natural skylights. The advertised hours stated that the caves closed at 4pm so we raced to get there. As we pulled up at 3:45 we saw several workers walking away, and they told us the cave was closed for the day. We were disappointed, but have found this sort of thing to be a reality of “island time”. We tried to peek through the gates and gaps in the stone, but couldn’t see much. We gathered together around our UTVs formulating a plan for the last bit of our rental time. As we did so, another worker drove up and asked if we needed anything. We explained what had happened, and then a little bit of that adventure magic happened. His official job is to go location to location to secure locks. Instead, he unlocked the large gate and got out a flashlight. He gave us a private guided tour of the caves, pointing out the colony of bats up close using a red lens, taking family pictures for us (including the one on my home page!), and filling us in on local lore. These sorts of experiences have happened the world over and always end up being some of the most memorable parts of our trip.
We returned the UTVs with minutes to spare dusty, sunburnt, tired, and happy. This day was wonderful and helped move Aruba way up on our lists. While many people never stray from the palm trees and beaches, they are missing out on some magic.
Some recommendations if you want to set off on an off road adventure (which you absolutely should!):
- Book the UTVs as far in advance as possible. On the day we rented, they were sold out, and several people stopped us along the way asking about where we had gotten our rentals. We reserved ours about eight weeks ahead of time.
- Go solo as long as you ore comfortable driving. We were so thankful to be on our own to set our own pace, stop where we wanted, and not have to be closely following a bunch of other UTVs. That being said, the driving was a little perilous in Arikok National Park, especially on the journey to Natural Pool. They are not for the faint of heart. Many of the roads are one way, steep, and very rocky.
- Be prepared to get dirty. The East side of Aruba is gritty, sandy, and dusty. As we drove we were constantly being pelted with dirt and grime. We were so thankful for our sunglasses and wished we had purchased bandanas to cover our faces.
- Be prepared for the sun. We thought we had planned ahead but were sunburnt and had finished every drop of beverage we had long before we returned the UTVs. Even with sunscreen, there is no shade as you drive and it is a bit brutal.
- Have a rough idea of sights you want to see, but don’t stress about the journey. I worried about finding the right paths or missing a destination, but with the Arubiana app to point out interesting stopping points, a map that works without service, and the fact that with a UTV you don’t need a set “road” this was a non issue. This side of the island is pretty uninhabited so it was easy to find our way.