There was something especially haunting about diving around the SS Antilla, a cargo “Ghost Ship” built for trading between Germany and the Caribbean. The captain was sailing through Dutch waters when the Germans had invaded Holland in 1940. When the Dutch Marines attempted to board the ship the fearless captain set fire to it and opened the valves to let the sea in. The combination of the rough waters paired with the historic story of this underwater and well-preserved wreck make for a truly adrenaline-filled dive experience. The wreck, broken into two parts, is covered in coral formations and filled with sea creatures and tropical fish.
The next day, after an early morning swim in the soothing warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, I set out to explore the island’s Arikok National Park (www.arubanationalpark.org), which sprawls across roughly 18% of the island. In 2000, the park was established to protect and preserve the flora, fauna, geological, and historical elements of the 34-square-kilometer landscape. De Palm Tours (www.depalmtours.com) is the go-to for adventure tours in Aruba and their open-air Land Rovers are the perfect way to get out and explore the island.
Just before heading to the park, I stood on the wall of the Bushiribana Gold Mine Ruins and looked out over the ocean. A handsome man rode by on a horse, and I had a few moments where I sat on a rock and imagined the year was 1872 and the gold mine below me was active. In the 1400s and 1500s, explorers and treasure-seekers named the island “Oro Ruba”, which means “red gold”. It’s there on the northeastern coast of the island where stacks of rocks line the beach and sandy coast. Tourists and locals alike take time to make a wish while stacking found rocks along the beach. There’s an enormous rock wish garden just a “stone’s throw” from the Bushiribana Gold Mine Ruins. A careful walk through the stacks of rock, surrounded by the intent of others hopes and dreams, is peaceful and reminiscent of walking through a labyrinth, like the one behind the nearby Alto Vista Chapel.
In Arikok true history unfolds: the Caquetio Indians left rock drawings in Cunucu Arikok and the Fontein Cave. Everyone you talk to on the island also recommends checking out the Conchi, or the natural pool, which is a fun swimming area protected by surrounding rocks and volcanic stones. It can be a little challenging to get to the pool: a four- wheel drive away or by the nearby trail leading up to the pool.
The locals are quick to recommend the Conchi, but I was especially impressed with the sweeping caverns inside the Guadirikiri Cave. Legend has it a local Indian chief was unhappy with his daughter’s choice in love and imprisoned her in one of the cave’s chambers and her lover in a neighboring chamber. Rumor also has it the pair was reunited inside the cave and found a way to escape through the roof and “into heaven.” The skylights allegedly formed by this star-crossed duo make it possible to view the spectacular cavern walls and also make it an ideal nesting site for the majority of the island’s bats, who are responsible for pollinating the island’s local cacti and aloe. Nearby the Casibari Boulders Clusters is a fun path through monolithic boulders north of Hooiberg. The Ayo Rock Formations offer a peek into the native culture with a scattering of ancient rock drawings and mysterious pathways where natives used to hide and attack incoming conquerors. A scenic hike through either of these boulder formations is a cool change of pace from an otherwise sunny day.
During this trip, I realized I hadn’t properly applied my sun- screen on my first few days in Aruba, so I couldn’t wait to pay a visit to Aruba Aloe (115 Pitastraat, Tel: 297-588-3222. www.arubaaloe.com) in nearby Hato. This museum, factory, and store is a great place to learn about the history of this wonderful plant and to buy some wonderful gifts for your family and friends back home.
Aloe vera was introduced in the island in the mid 1800s because of the perfect weather conditions for the plant to grow. The island quickly became one of the largest exporters of aloe vera products, giving it the nickname “Island of Aloe.” I was lucky to meet up with Jessica Posner at her family’s historic location where one of her aloe experts told us how aloe was first cultivated and delivered to the international market. Aruba Aloe was founded in 1890 and the company has evolved throughout the years. On site I learned some of the secrets of Aloe: that it was believed Cleopatra bathed in Aloe gel to enhance her natural beauty and that Christopher Columbus once said: “Four vegetables are indispensable for the well being of a man: Wheat, the grape, the olive, and aloe. The first nourishes him, the second raises his spirit, the third brings him harmony, and the fourth cures him.”
Posner and her team showed me the different facilities and labs by which her family makes their skincare products. I was able to work closely with her team to touch and smell and even taste how fresh all of their products are. Their Aruba Aloe collection contains 100% pure Aloe Vera gel extracted by hand from the Aloe leaves and serves as Sunscreen, After Sun Lotion, and Special Care Lotion (a well-known local “secret weapon” for anti-aging and skin damage prevention). I left with shopping bags filled of new products to try, especially their Aruba Aloe Skin Care Gels. It’s no wonder their Burn Aid Gel is a bestseller. This ultra-rich oil-free gel is formulated with Pure Aloe Vera Gel to pamper the skin with soothing, cool- ing, and intense hydration after a long day in the sun. By sundown my sun burned skin had calmed down.
Another great spot worth exploring on the island is The California Lighthouse, which was built in 1910 and named in honor of the steamship SS California, which wrecked nearby in 1891. Surround- ed by the California Sand Dunes, crowds come out to check out the sunset from this area, known as “Hudishibana.” The nearby El Faro Blanco Restaurant (L.G. Smith Blvd., Tel: 297-586-0786. www.aruba-latrattorial.com) located just beside the lighthouse, is a great dinner option once the sun goes down. The Aruban-style house is home to some of the best Italian food in the Caribbean. Chef Alberto Castillo’s Risotto Lobster with Prosecco is a great dinner to indulge in while you take in the view.
With a population of a little over 100,000 (just slightly bigger than Boulder, Colorado) it’s no wonder there’s only one gay bar on the island. Jimmy’s Place (32 Windstraat, Tel: 297-582-2550. www.jimmysauruba.com), a Dutch-Caribbean café, is unarguably the gay mecca on the island. The no-frills, laid- back attitude, fun atmosphere, and friendly crowd make it a must for queer visitors seeking a place to sip a tropical cocktail surround- ed by “family.” Drinks of the week like their strawberry mojito are worth a try, as are repeat visits to take in different theme nights like Latin Friday, Thursday Cocktail Night, and their infamous Glitter and Glamour Night.
EetCafé the Paddock (12 Lloyd G. Smith Blvd., Tel: 297-583-2334. www.paddock-aruba.com) is another local place popular with gay locals and visitors. Their varied menu with a nod to Dutch cuisine is well worth the wait, and the friendly staff sets the scene for all sorts of fun. Starting the night off right with one of their Diver cocktails will surely help you loosen up, and before you know it you’ll make new friends.
Bugaloe Beach Bar & Grill (79 J.E. Irausquin Blvd., Tel: 297-586-2233. www.bugaloe.com) is now celebrating ten years of fun in the sun. Located right on the water on Palm Beach, this hotspot offers a variety of events throughout the week. Saturday night’s Spareribs & Karaoke Night always has a big draw, as is Salsa Wednesdays and their daily double happy hour!
Closer to Palm Beach, casino-goers can absolutely get their fix at the Stellaris Casino (101 L.G. Smith Blvd., Tel: 297-586-9000. www.stellariscasino.com) with 26 tables and walls of slots. When I was waiting for the car to pick me up for airport, I said one final hello to “Lady Luck” and put the last of my local bills into a “Wonder Woman” penny slot machine just to the right of the entrance. When I thought I was about to lose everything, I heard the theme music from “Wonder Woman.” The whole machine started rattling and illuminating, and the numbers on my screen started increasing dramatically. My driver called me, but because I won big I wasn’t able to get up immediately. I stood there for what seemed like 15 minutes as the theme song played over and over and a small crowd formed behind me to get a peek at just how much I had won. I hit my $500 “cash out” when all was said and done and flashed a big smile at the clerk when I handed in my ticket. I’m glad I stopped at the casino on my way out…it was an unexpected windfall to represent the luck I felt just visiting this wonderful Caribbean destination.
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