Aruba—Just what is it, really? An island in the Caribbean where a coconut falls into your banana shake? I did not know much more about it when I discovered that Aruba is currently a loophole. It is a pathway for all those who want to travel to the United States to their partner and who need to bypass the US border closures for Europeans. So, without a second thought, I started a Beach Boys song, booked a flight, and thought to myself, “What can go wrong with a 16-day trip on such a Bahamas fuss.”
Aruba is an island nation almost 1,000 miles from the Bahamas and only 30 miles from mainland Venezuela. This means it is not in hurricane area, which is an advantage if you are not a fan of watching sheet metal flying in the wind. Aruba was once a Dutch colony. The country still belongs to the Netherlands today, but internally it is a completely autonomous country. It sounds strange, but that is how it is. The little island-nation is only 20 miles long and six miles wide, people speak four languages and because of its proximity to the equator there are no seasons, only summer: 85 degrees, sun, five million percent humidity. Every day. Well, almost every day.
Here are the things I learned not from a book, but in reality: if you cycle six miles to a mountain, a tropical storm breaks out; half of the island is accessible only by off-road vehicles; and the flamingos are so big that they can nip your shoulder. Here come my crazy and surprising adventures on the treasure island of Aruba with several tips for planning your own journey.
Aruba is small. That much is clear. Instead of a rental car for 600 bucks, I rent a bike for 100 dollars for two weeks. Shortly thereafter, I realize that it is a South American bicycle. There are three gears, but only one works, the brakes need a lead-time of 500 yards to stop, and there is no light at all. With the bike as my chariot, I begin to pedal to the Hooiberg, a towering mound rising to a gargantuan height of 540 feet that belongs to the Aruban version of the Alps. It is only a three-mile ride from my rental apartment. But I soon realize that the streets are also South American. Sloped gravel roads, sand piles, potholes as deep as the Mariana Trench, barking street dogs, and pick-up trucks that roar past with broken exhaust pipes all accompany me on my merry excursion. All of this in a temperature of 85°F and a humidity of five million percent.
Completely dead and with burning lungs, I arrive at the Hooiberg, which of course I now also have to climb. Damn. One way or another, I manage to reach the top only to find the cacti are so tall that I cannot really see anything other than cactus spines and transmitter towers right beside me. But I see purple clouds on the horizon, from which a white wall falls to the ground. It is at this moment that I get severe abdominal cramps from my chronic illness Ulcerative Colitis. I must sit down because I feel like I'm about to fall backwards. Now there is thunder.
As the rain begins to fall. I just manage to make it to a small shelter. As I sit on the ground, I find that the roof is leaking. This is not a normal storm. The wind darts around, the raindrops are as big as marbles, and within minutes the mountain becomes a chocolate fountain made of mud. And I note that it is still 90 degrees. Suddenly I begin to laugh. What kind of crazy shit is this? I begin to bellow, "I'm singing in the rain!" into the raging tropical storm. Forty minutes pass and I finally have no more pain, but there seems to be no end to the storm in sight. So, I take off my shoes, stuff them into the damp backpack and just go. Streams continue to shoot down the stone stairs to where my bike is. I briefly consider calling a taxi now. But my cell phone has no reception. Of course.
Now at the bottom I realize that now I must get this worthless South American bike and myself home somehow. On foot. Alone. So, I swing myself onto the dripping saddle and begin to ride in the middle of the thundering rain, which swirls into my eyes so hard that I must stop every ten yards and wipe my face. Now I find the next problem: The South American roads are flooding. The Trevi fountain seems to have sprouted from a gully and in some places, I have to get off the bicycle because even the cars are already in water up to their tail pipes. Everything is full of swampish water and chaos, dogs are barking, vehicles are honking.
After almost an hour, I am back at my Airbnb. Completely drenched, but now, after overcoming all the obstacles that
nature has thrown at me, I am filled with self-confidence and very sure that nothing can upset me now.
After a few days resting on white beaches with a turquoise ocean, I am ready for another adventure. This time in the form of a jeep tour through the hinterlands. Well, the Jeep is really a Toyota, but let’s face it, calling it a “Toyota Tour” sounds pretty blasé. Since I am the only one traveling alone, I get to sit in the front, next to the driver, a Jamaican woman who calls herself Mama Boss. She is the only female driver in a team with 20 men and a really cool woman that you would not necessarily want to meet in the dark. We rumble over the roads of Aruba with luxurious suspension and thick tires, see fabulous street art in St. Nicolas, find the surreal blue lagoon of Baby Beach and stop to look at the prison right on the coast.
“Once a super-dangerous Spaniard did escape from it,” explains the Jeep lady. “He had organized everything, bribed the employees and even had a boat out at sea at the start. He was never heard from him again.”
I think of Alcatraz. Prison with a view. The greatest punishment: Looking at the things you cannot have.
Now we drive to the Arikok National Park. I originally had planned to see the Park on my bike, but after tumbling over huge boulders almost the size of the moon as the temperature hits 95 degrees, I am pretty sure that would have been an even shittier idea than the Hooiberg in a tropical storm.
It turns out that the entire eastern side of Aruba is essentially an uninhabited desert. We drive down a steep slope over monstrous scree to a couple of natural pools of calm water. There are swim goggles and snorkels for everyone. For a moment I feel a bit strange, as if I am a great crested diver with a test tube on my head. But as I look under the water, I see the most fantastic, colorful fish. Blue ones with yellow stripes, black ones with orange spots and a neon-colored sea cucumber. Everything is right in front of and below me. It is as if I have suddenly dived into another universe. Wow!
Finally, we drive to the ruins of a former gold mill. Yes, there really was a gold rush in Aruba in the 19th century. I have no idea why, but I stare a little expectantly at the stones and hoping that something glitters somewhere. I have probably read too much Pippi Longstocking in Taka-Tuka-Land as a child.
We now drive over red sand, past a wild coast with gigantic waves crashing into the shore. "Swimming is prohibited here," says our Jeep-Toyota driver. "The water is much deeper and colder than on the other side of the island."
"Can we surf?" An American participant asks hopefully.
"Swimming is forbidden because there are sharks here," says Mama Boss, as she almost drives over a small lizard and explains that they are very quick, and the little guy was alright. No further questions.
If you google Aruba, you will inevitably come across photos of flamingos on a white beach. As you explore further, you will probably find some egocentric Instagrammer posing with the flamingos, but also learn that the flamingos are not native to Aruba. They were once brought here, and they now have found a home. If you are really clever, you will also read in the small print that you only find them on Renaissance Island, which is a private island and only accessible to guests of the Renaissance Hotel. However, day passes are available for the common people. They cost $125 per person, but they lead you into an absurd-surreal paradise that you simply must see.
I take the first ferry at 7 AM. The motorboat races across the sea and then docks on a jetty full of wicker chairs and yellow lanterns. There are two lagoons created by man-made barriers on Renaissance Island. One is at the Flamingo Beach and the other at the Iguana Beach. I walk straight to the Flamingo Beach. Although the pictures on the internet and the name of the beach leave no room for doubt about what I will find, the moment I see the pink, elegant birds wading in the turquoise water, I am simply overwhelmed. Six flamingos strut up and down in the shallow water, their feathers fluffed up in the wind.
Of course, there are a few wannabe Gucci models at the start who put their prominently displayed bums between the animals for a few cell phone photos which drives me a little crazy. Meanwhile, I lie with my knees and elbows in the wet sand to get the perfect perspective of the flamingos. They have piercing yellow eyes and they are a lot bigger than I thought. Then I notice that even her feet are pink!
I then make myself comfortable on one of the beach chairs. Soon, a waitress from the nearby cocktail bar comes by, brings me a menu, and
assures me that she will be happy to serve me lunch right on the recliner. I feel like a Pampered Princess—and a bit absurd. Such a luxury fuss is just not my thing.
Nevertheless, around noon, a thick burger with fries in a bamboo bowl is placed right in front of my nose. There is even a peach smoothie. Before long, a small, yellow bird lands
on the edge of my glass and keeps trying to steal something from my smoothie. Then a blue lizard grabs a fallen piece of French fries. But when a plump 18-inch iguana suddenly
appears and starts to eat my ketchup, the fun is over. I carefully lift him to the ground and explain to him that he had crossed a red line there. When the sun goes down in the evening, I sit
beside small wooden huts and rustling palm trees and watch the flamingos in the twilight. It is wonderful. Unreal but totally beautiful.
You can purchase the Day Pass anytime on www.renarubaislandpasses.com [October 2020].
As you can see, during a trip to Aruba you can do more than simply lounging listlessly by the hotel pool. Now I need to clarify a few burning questions:
Is Aruba Safe?
Yes. I was there for two weeks as a woman traveling alone, I bicycled a lot and with one exception (more on that in a moment), I always felt safe. The island is not affected by hurricanes. You can leave almost anything on the beach without anything being stolen. Of course, I would not necessarily stick my cell phone half out of my backpack. Driving and cycling are safe despite the sometimes spartan road surfaces. The eastern part of the island can only be reached by off-road vehicle (4x4 with a high ground clearance). The people of Aruba are extremely careful about Corona virus and they are extremely strict about hygiene rules and distance. I felt much better safer in Aruba than I did in Europe.
How do you deal with the locals?
Everyone in Aruba speaks English, and some also speak Dutch and Spanish. Almost everyone is incredibly happy and relaxed. BUT: Dark-skinned young men often aggressively approach women on the street. I was once approached by such a person in a car while I was riding my bike. The person was very persistent and asked for my cell phone number several times. My best friend once had her derriere patted after a harmless conversation that turned aggressive in Aruba.
My advice: do not panic but be careful! First Commandment: Just ignore these men. Do not stop to talk to them, do not look at them, do not answer them, and just keep doing your thing. It is extremely unfortunate that I must give this advice, because I am absolutely anti-racist and certainly there are many harmless young men, too. But in this case, security comes before open-mindedness and friendliness. The problems seem to occur more inland. I always felt 100 percent safe on all the beaches.
What can you do in Aruba?
Much more than just lie on the beach! But if you do want to simply bask in the sun, I can recommend my favorite place: Divi Beach. It is cozy, of course, with trees and hammocks available. Palm Beach is often touted but it has super ugly hotel which block the view. If you like snorkeling, then definitely go to the area around Malmok Beach.
Otherwise, I can definitely recommend an off-road tour through the east of the island. If you book a tour with a guide, you do not have to navigate the grounds yourself and you will be able to see more. The street art in the city of St. Nicolas is particularly beautiful. Several international graffiti artists participated in various competitions that were held there and they painted the walls of many houses. There are fascinating small trails among the magnificent boulders at the Ayo Rock Formation. Those who want to learn more about the local island culture should visit the colorful, public cemetery of Paradera.
If you have further questions about Aruba, sights, special features as well as entry (from Europe) and exit (to the USA), you can write to me at any time on Facebook, Instagram or by email. And to answer my original question: Yes, the loophole worked [October 2020]. I am now with my boyfriend in the USA. You can find all the requirements to enter Aruba and the Covid restrictions on the Homepage of Visit Aruba.