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With stark windswept hills, towering cacti, and rough and rocky coasts, the outback is completely different from the posh resort areas, and worthy of exploration. The island's small enough to cover in a day or two. The circuit around the island's northern tip -- to California Lighthouse, Alto Vista Chapel, Bushiribana Gold Smelter Ruins, and Ayo and Casibari rock formations -- is the most popular. Although less frequented, Arikok National Park, with its flora, fauna, caves, dunes, and history, is just as worthwhile. If you're not the outdoorsy type, visit Oranjestad's small museums or drive down to San Nicolas on your way to Rodger's Beach or Boca Grandi.
For a bird's-eye view of the island, take a helicopter tour with Heli-Tours (tel. 297/965-5906), located at the Heli-Pad near the Renaissance Marketplace in downtown Oranjestad.
If you'd like to explore at your own pace, rent a jeep. Driving around on your own is fun, but be forewarned that road signs are often small, handmade, and unnoticeable. Ask for a map. Even if you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, the island's too small to truly lose your bearings (the wind always blows from east to west). If you're more interested in sites along paved roads and don't feel like getting lost, hire a cab.
At the south end of the High-Rise area, the tropical gardens of the Butterfly Farm (tel. 297/586-3656), dance with a thousand beautiful butterflies. The 40 species bred at the facility hail from every corner of the tropical world.
Aruba's most distinctive landmark is the Old Dutch Windmill, around the corner from the Butterfly Farm, near Palm Beach (tel. 297/586-2060). It's an anomaly in the Caribbean, but it's authentic. Built in Friesland, Holland, in 1804, it originally drained water from low-lying land.
Although Aruba is as arid as the desert, the lush Bubali Bird Sanctuary serves as a resting and breeding area for more than 80 species of local and migratory birds. Across the street from the Old Dutch Windmill, the sanctuary was once a salt pan. Today the two interconnected manmade lakes are flooded by overflow from a nearby water-treatment facility and surrounded by lush vegetation. The fish in the nutrient-rich ponds attract brown pelicans and black olivaceous cormorants. In the constantly undulating marsh grasses (like something out of a van Gogh painting), black-crowned night herons, Louisiana herons, great blue herons, common egrets, and snowy egrets abound. Gulls, skimmers, coots, and numerous species of ducks also make appearances. The observation tower gives birders a bird's-eye view of the oasis. Dawn and dusk, when the birds are most active, are the best times to visit. The sanctuary is always open; admission is free.
Originally built in 1776 and last renovated in 1916, Santa Anna Church boasts a soaring ceiling and an intricately carved altar, communion rail, and pulpit. The neo-Gothic oak altar, carved in 1870 for a parish in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabent by Hendrik van der Geld, came to Aruba in 1928.
The California Lighthouse sits on a hilltop perch at Aruba's northernmost tip, but its active days are over. Part of the adjacent restaurant once served as the lighthouse keeper's home. The surrounding area features some of the island's most spectacular scenery -- gentle sand dunes, rocky coral shoreline, and turbulent waves. The picturesque structure gets its name from the California, a passenger ship that sank off the nearby coast before the lighthouse was completed in 1916.
The island's most photographed attraction, the Natural Bridge rises 25 ft. above the sea and spans 98 ft. of rock-strewn waters. Centuries of relentless pounding by the surf carved the arch out of the limestone coast. One of the Caribbean's highest and most dramatic coral structures, it's a fitting crown for the tumultuous north coast. Because the bridge acts as a buffer between the sandy beach and the open ocean, many people come here to picnic. The nearby thirst-aid station supplies refreshments and souvenirs.
Looking like something out of "The Flintstones," the eerie Ayo Rock Formations served Aruba's early inhabitants as a dwelling or religious site. The reddish-brown petroglyphs on the boulders suggest magical significance, and the strange stones look as though they were stacked by giants. The site is open daily from 9am to 5pm, and admission is free.
If you like the Ayo rocks, continue on the main road to its end. Turn right, then take another right at the sign for the Casibari Rock Formations. These alien rocks rise from the cacti- and lizard-infested hills. Although the boulders weigh several tons each, they look freshly scattered by some cyclopean dice-roller. Look for the formations that resemble birds and dragons, or climb the trail to the top of the highest rock mound for a panorama of the area. Watch your head on the path to the top, though; the tunnels have low clearance. The rock garden is open daily from 9am to 5pm, with no admission charge. The nearby stands sell souvenirs, snacks, soft drinks, and beer.
Arikok National Park
Arikok National Park (tel. 297/582-8001), Aruba's showcase ecological preserve, sprawls over roughly 20% of the island. Rock outcrops, boulders, and crevices create microclimates that support animal species found only in Aruba, including the Aruban rattlesnake, Aruban cat-eyed snake, Aruban whiptail lizard, Aruban burrowing owl, and Aruban parakeet. Iguanas and many species of migratory birds live in the park as well, and goats and donkeys graze on the hills. Examples of early Amerindian art, abandoned mines from Aruba's gold-rush past, and remains of early farms dot the park. Sand dunes and limestone cliffs ornament the coast. It's easy to explore the preserve, but bring water, sunscreen, and food, and wear a hat and comfortable walking shoes. Birds and animals are most active in the morning, so go as early in the day as you can.
Miralamar, a complex of gold mines and trenches, was active during the first decade of the 20th century. The hills along the path here are overgrown with yellow poui and white gum trees, and derelict buildings at the site include the foundations of an ore-testing lab, sleeping quarters, and a forge. Due to transportation problems and low-quality ore, the mines were abandoned in 1916, and many of the shafts collapsed. Century plants have now reclaimed the area.
Masiduri served as an experimental garden in the 1950s; the convergence of several creek beds makes the location reasonably moist. The eucalyptus trees and cunucu (farm) house date from the same era. The site now features an aloe-cultivation exhibit. In the early 1900s, Aruba was a major exporter of this plant known for its medicinal and healing properties.
The partially restored farm known as Cunucu Arikok recalls Aruba's agricultural past. It takes 45 minutes to complete the circular hiking trail through boulders, vegetation, and wildlife; shaded benches provide relief along the way. The restored adobe farmhouse has the typical small windows and a sloping roof. Cactus was used to make roof beams, and mud and grass formed the walls. Before Europeans arrived, Amerindians left drawings of birds and marine animals on overhanging rocks just off the trail near the parking lot. At dawn and dusk, the area is alive with parakeets, doves, troupials, mockingbirds, hummingbirds, lizards, and cottontail rabbits.
At the seacoast, the terrain and vegetation change dramatically from hills covered with cacti and divi divi trees to sand dunes and limestone bluffs studded with sea grapes and sea lavender. Soldier crab and lizard trails crisscross the morning sand of Boca Prins, and in the early spring, baby sea turtles hatch and wobble frantically toward the sea. Steps from the parking lot, stairs descend to Fuente, a rocky cove pounded by the surf. On the limestone bluff across the sandy beach, salt spray infuses the air, and small salt pans form where trapped water has evaporated. Bleached coral and bones litter the sharp plateau, and ospreys and caracaras patrol the coast. A 20-minute walk farther west along the coast, Dos Playa features two coves carved out of the limestone bluff. With its wide sandy beach, the first cove attracts sunbathers and is perfect for picnics, but its strong current makes swimming too dangerous. Stop by the nearby restaurant for some tasty local fare; it's the only restaurant in the park; good thing the view and food are both pretty good.
Tucked away on the coast northwest of Dos Playa, the Natural Pool or conchi known as Cura di Tortuga is protected from the rough sea by surrounding rocks. It's said that the pool was once used to hold sea turtles before they were sold (tortuga means turtle in Papiamento).
Fontein Cave is the most popular of several small limestone hollows along the north coast (you'll pass the park's only restaurant on the way to the cave). Brownish-red drawings left by Amerindians and graffiti etched by early European settlers ornament the walls and ceilings. Calcareous-rich water dripping through the limestone has caused stalagmites and stalactites to form, some in the shape of bison or human heads (park rangers stationed at the cave will point them out). The hole is an important roosting place for long-tongued bats. Early in the evening, the flying mammals leave the cave for nectar and pollen.
The Quadirikiri Cave features two large chambers with roof openings that allow sunlight in, making flashlights unnecessary. Hundreds of small bats use the 30m-long (98-ft.) tunnel as a passageway to their nests deeper in the cave. A tale associated with Quadirikiri is dubious: The fiercely independent daughter of an Indian chief was trapped in the cave with her "unsuitable" suitor and left to perish. Defiant even in death, the spirits of the star-crossed lovers burst through the cave's roof and up to heaven.
Also known as the Tunnel of Love because of its heart-shaped entrance, the Baranca Sunu cave requires a flashlight to explore. Stories of pirates using the cave to hide treasure have circulated for generations, but there's no evidence to confirm the rumors.
Content provided by Frommer's Unlimited© 2012, Whatsonwhen Limited and Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Warm sunshine and beautiful beaches are Aruba's major attractions. The seemingly endless strips of white, sugary sand along the southwestern coast rank among the Caribbean's widest and most beautiful, and the shallow aqua surf is ideal for swimming. Toys like jet skis, waverunners, parasails, and banana boats are plentiful. Near the island's western tip, steady winds draw windsurfers, while the shallow waters and abundant marine life attract snorkelers. Shipwrecks, sunken planes, and coral reefs dot the entire leeward coast, keeping scuba divers happy, and along the south-central coast, mangrove forests, barrier islands, and calm seas combine for favorable kayaking conditions. For those who prefer to see the wonders of the sea without getting wet, submarines and glass-bottom boats make daily excursions. Anglers can struggle with barracuda, wahoo, marlin, and tuna in the deep waters not far from the coast.
Tierra del Sol Golf Course (tel. 297/586-0978; www.tierradelsol.com), designed by Robert Trent Jones II, is Aruba's only championship course. With its desert terrain, ocean vistas, and challenging winds, it's an interesting one, located on the island's northwest tip near the California Lighthouse.
The sun is hot, and shade is scarce, but if you bring water and a wide-brimmed hat, traipsing around Aruba's hills and coastline is full of rewards: otherworldly rock formations, bizarre cactus groves, fluorescent parakeets, and dewlapped lizards. Hiking boots are nice, but sneakers are fine. There are no organized tours; Arikok National Park has many clearly marked trails. Scale the island's highest hills, explore abandoned gold mines, tiptoe around plantation ruins, trek through caves, and comb sea bluffs for coral and bones.
Aruba's coastline and outback are just as dramatic when viewed from the saddle. Several ranches offer early morning and midday excursions, or you can ride off into the sunset. As you wend your way through cacti and random boulders in the outback, watch for iguanas and skittish cottontails. Stop at Alto Vista Chapel and California Lighthouse, then ride along the shore. Or start at the crashing waves and sand dunes of the northern coast before heading for the Natural Pool. Keep your eyes open for bickering parakeets and hovering hummingbirds. That ominous bird circling over your head? Not to worry: It only looks like a vulture.
The leeward (south) coast's calm waters are ideal for kayaking. Starting near the old fishing village of Savaneta, guided tours hug the coastal mangrove forests before crossing a lagoon to a small island, where you can have a bite to eat and snorkel.
All-terrain vehicles that look like a cross between a dune buggy and a tractor mower let you play Road Warrior, and can be rented by the hour or the day. For those who want the thrill of the ride without the fear of getting lost, guided tours embark from several tour agencies.
Aruba looks even better from 180m (591 ft.) in the air. Flight time is only 10 minutes, but secure in your boat-towed parachute, you're on top of the world. Several watersports centers along Palm Beach will be happy to put wind in your sails.
Sailing adventures are available day and night. Some include watersports, while others feature drinks, snacks or a full gourmet dinner. For night owls, dance-and-booze cruises include a midnight dip in the sea.
Aruba offers enough coral reefs, marine life, and wreck diving to keep most wetsuit-wearing folks happy. The water temperature averages 80°F (27°C), but during winter it can dip into the mid-70s. Due to currents and plankton, visibility varies, but at the leeward dive sites it usually ranges from 18 to 36m (59-118 ft.). The bountiful plankton nourishes a dense coral population, especially brain, sheet, finger, and mountainous star coral. Sunken airplane fuselages and shipwrecks (including the largest in the Caribbean) are among the most popular destinations. In addition to snappers, grunts, angelfish, damselfish, and parrotfish, divers regularly spot less common species like frogfish, seahorses, nudibranchs, black crinoids, basket stars, scorpionfish, and eels. Barracudas, tarpons, and jacks also call Aruba's waters home.
Good visibility, several shallow reefs, and a couple of wrecks give snorkelers an array of options. All sites are on the southern, or leeward, coast. Slightly north of Palm Beach, Catalina Bay and Arashi Reef feature brain and star coral, sea fans, parrotfish, angelfish, and an occasional octopus; the 400-foot Antilla shipwreck is impossible to miss. De Palm Slope, off De Palm Island, features magnificent coral as well.
Although no organized tours are offered, ardent birders have the opportunity to spy 170 different species in Aruba. In early winter, migratory birds swell the number to about 300. In the High-Rise area, the Bubali Bird Sanctuary's ponds and wetlands attract more than 80 species, including brown pelicans, black olivaceous cormorants, herons, and egrets. Arikok National Park, which makes up much of the island's north-central region, is home to hummingbirds (common emerald and ruby-topaz), rufous-collared sparrows, ospreys, yellow orioles, American kestrels, black-faced grassquits, yellow warblers, Caribbean parakeets, long-tongued bats, common ground doves, troupials, crested caracaras, and Aruban burrowing owls.
Content provided by Frommer's Unlimited© 2012, Whatsonwhen Limited and Wiley Publishing, Inc.