A mere 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is a Dutch island paradise: one brimming with cacti, wild donkeys, and winds that make watersports such as kitesurfing and Hobie cat sailing a dream. While you'll find plenty of places to sip cocktails and lounge by the sea, you'll also be treated to a world of adventurous outdoor activities and boutique offerings well-off the typical tourist route. Get ready to explore!
The rugged Arikok National Park, which covers 20 percent of the island, offers a crash course on Aruba's flora and fauna. Here you'll find native Watapana trees that always grow toward the southwest, wild aloe vera plants, and fast-growing mesquite trees. The park is also home to the deadly Manchineel, an innocent-enough looking tree—with shiny green leaves and sweet-smelling fruit resembling apples—but one that you should steer clear of at all costs. Lizards take up residence along Arikok's pathways, and you'll often see goats scurrying up its many hillsides. There are even invasive boa constrictors hiding near tree bases and in rocky outcrops. Climb to the top of Jamanota hill, Aruba's highest peak, for panoramic views of the island. Later, go cave exploring or take a refreshing dip in a natural pool.
Aruba's ABC Tours provides two unique ways to see the island—either aboard a UTV or in the back of a custom-built jeep. The company offers a variety of off-road experiences that take you to some of the island's top sites: historic gold mines; the Baby Natural Bridge on the island's northeast shore; Blackstone Beach; and the remote “conchi,” a natural swimming hole that's only accessible via 4WD, on foot, or horseback. ABC lets you set out on a self-driving adventure, or join up to nine others for a half-day island exploration. Either way, expect plenty of high-flying bumps as you go.
The "A" in the Caribbean's ABC islands is home to a trio of bat-filled caves worthy of a bit of exploration. Fontein Cave is an easy-to-navigate entity filled with petroglyphs and loads of stalagmites and stalactites. One of the coolest things about Fontein is its nearby pond, where resident fish are happy to provide "natural" pedicures for free. There's also Gaudirikiri, a double-chamber cave that gets some sunlight through its rooftop holes. Huliba Cave (aka Aruba's own “Tunnel of Love”) features five entrances—including one that's shaped like a heart. Rumors of buried treasure in this dark and often low-lying passageway abound.
The island winds here are legendary. In fact, Aruba's warm temperatures, steady winds, and a mix of calm waters and challenging wave conditions make it a windsurfer's paradise. It's the perfect destination for windsurfers of all levels, and Vela Sports offers lessons for both beginners and well-seasoned enthusiasts. If you want to try your hand at something new, you can instead go Hobie cat sailing or sign up for a kitesurfing lesson (though harder than windsurfing, you can advance much more quickly). Once you're done, there'll be plenty of time to soak in the island's turquoise waters.
Set Out on Horseback
There are plenty of ways to experience Aruba's stunning beauty on horseback, whether it's riding across the island's vast sand dunes or embarking on a private adventure through wild desert scenery at sunset. Some guided trips include a visit to the island's Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins, while others highlight the scenery of Rancho Daimari, one of Aruba's former coco plantations. Tours vary between one and three hours and, depending on which company you choose, adhere to a variety of skill levels. Rancho Notorious offers a tour that visits the island's historic Alto Vista Chapel, a bright yellow Catholic church with its own outdoor labyrinth and stunning sea views.
Play a Game of Beach Tennis
Beach tennis originated in Italy in the early 70s, but it took three decades for this unique sport to catch on globally. Aruba has particularly taken to it, and today the island is home to the world's largest beach tennis event: the Aruba Open Beach Tennis Championships, which takes place annually on Eagle Beach in November. This week-long festivity welcomes hundreds of participants, and features plenty of imbibing opportunities for viewers. Of course, you can also try beach tennis yourself at the Eagle Resort Aruba, which features rental courts and paddles (both free for Eagle Resort guests), or at the MooMba Beach Bar & Restaurant in Noord, on the island's north end.
Discover the Sea
Whether it's snorkeling among parrotfish and Caribbean reef squid or diving through swaying gardens of seagrass, there's a lot to see below the surface in Aruba. You'll find both reefs and wrecks, including the largest sunken ship in the Caribbean: the Antilla. This 400-foot-long German freighter from WWII is broken into two parts, and is a favorite among wreck divers. No worries if you don't have an open-water diving certification—there are several places to get one on on the island. You can also try Snuba, a combo of snorkeling and scuba that doesn't require prior certification.
Engage with Wild Donkeys
Aruba's wild donkeys date back to the island's pre-Dutch period, when Spaniards inhabited the land. They mainly used them for transport, though eventually the donkeys simply became a part of Aruba's landscape. Although nearly extinct by the 1990s, today the island's donkey population is around 200, thanks in part to the Donkey Sanctuary. At this volunteer-run non-profit, you can pet donkeys, feed them apples and carrots, and help clean them.
While most of the island's accommodations consist of high-rise beachfront hotels, for true relaxation you'll want to book a stay at The Boardwalk Hotel. Just a short walk to the sea, this recently renovated boutique property is home to dozens of colorful casitas. Some boast hanging rattan chairs, others feature their own hand-painted wall murals and outdoor showers, and most have a hammock perfect for whiling away an afternoon poolside. Two Aruba-born sisters run the property; they can help set up personalized island experiences, like a foraged dinner with local chef Frank Kelly (Taki Aruba) on a secluded north coast beach.
On the island's south end, San Nicolas is a hub for local street art. This newish endeavor began in 2016, when the city's ArtisA gallery started breathing new life into Aruba's once-thriving refinery town with outdoor murals. There are now dozens of brightly colored works throughout San Nicolas, from a larger-than-life iguana to a deck of cards decorating the full exterior of a bar and nightclub. Most were created in conjunction with the island's Aruba Art Fair, which takes place each September. ArtisA hosts a series of walking tours highlighting these works and the artists who created them, including Bordalo II (known for his "Trash Animals") and Mexico's own Farid Ruedah.