First-time visitors to miniature little Aruba in the midst of the ABC Islands could be forgiven for thinking they weren’t actually in the Caribbean.
With its rugged coastal reaches of chiselled cliffs and salt-sprayed headlands (particularly along the wild east coast), sweeping areas of windswept sand dunes and cacti groves in place of lush rainforest, this one’s got very little in common with its near neighbors in the Antilles and Leeward chains.
But that’s all part of Aruba’s draw.
Not only does the island enjoy a sheltered position away from the main Atlantic Hurricane belt (meaning it’s typically acceptable to visit all year round), but also a unique balance of Carib luxury and adrenaline-pumping activities.
Visitors can dune buggy by morning and laze on Eagle Beach by afternoon, slap casino chips or guzzle rum in the night, trace Dutch history or roam forests of curious divi divi trees – the list goes on…
Here are the best things to do in Aruba:
1. Enjoy the sands of Eagle Beach
Hailed by many an Aruban veteran as the single most handsome stretch of sand on the island, Eagle Beach arches its way around the west coast here just a stone’s throw from the capital at Oranjestad.
Both accessible and gorgeous, the spot comes with talcum powder sands and calm shore waters coloured like an aquamarine and deep-blue camouflage.
Visitors enjoy excellent snorkelling opportunities, along with oodles of sea kayak and jet ski rentals, not to mention all the top-class cuisine and cocktail joints that line the banks of nearby Divi Divi.
What’s more, thanks to its elongated length, Eagle is rarely overcrowded.
2. Gasp at the Natural Pool
Head for the rugged reaches of Conchi on the west coast and make your way over the craggy headlands and promontories to witness the wonders of the Natural Pool.
A curious formation of volcanic rock that pokes its way out into the swells of the Caribbean Sea, the spot is famed for its geyser-like eruptions of salty water and sea spray, which spouts up from the plunge pools in whitecaps and fountains throughout the day.
Those who do opt to make the trek here can come by foot, or – if you fancy getting the adrenaline pumping just a little – go for a 4×4 adventure over the dunes and cliffs!
3. Have a splash at Palm Beach
Fringing the coastal reaches of Noord a little around the headland from Eagle Beach, pretty Palm Beach boasts a whopping two miles of shimmering, scintillating Caribbean sand that’s so soft it feels like a cushion underfoot.
Hailed by many as one of the prettiest beaches on the planet, this one’s got everything you’d expect of a self-proclaimed tropical paradise: the glowing blue waters; the peppering of coral gardens out at sea; the lanky palm trees.
It also tends to be a tad quieter than its near neighbor to the south, but there are still plenty of snorkelling and water sports concessions to add a little of energy to the day!
4. Try your luck on the tables of the Stellaris Casino
Sprawled out in the rooms of the Marriot Resort towards the northern end of Palm Beach, the Stellaris Casino counts a whopping 26 separate gaming tables, hundreds of slot machines and sports betting facilities amongst its many draws.
As the largest casino on the entire island of Aruba, the attraction promises patrons a true Vegas-esque experience that’s complete with poker, blackjack et al.
Add to that a packed calendar of regular entertainment events and parties, like stand-up comedy shows and open bar evenings, and it’s easy to see why so many gamers opt for a trip to Stellaris.
5. Have a romantic bout of Caribbean food at Pinchos Grill & Bar
Pinchos Grill & Bar can be found jutting out into the swells of the Caribbean Sea from the lively downtown strips of Oranjestad.
Oozing Arawak island charm, the establishment revolves around one central cabana, all of which stands aloft above the water on a timber-built pier, illuminated by twinkling fairy lights and the dying glow of the sunset in the west.
Considered one of the most romantic spots for an evening meal on the island, Pinchos offers fantastic broadside views of the ocean, along with a menu of taste-bud-tingling Caribbean staples.
Expect sesame-crusted tuna, spicy fish cakes, grilled shrimps, and more.
6. Tour the ruins of Bushiribana and Balashi
Eerie and haunting, the remnants of Aruba’s humble gold boom in the 19th century can still be seen crumbling and collapsing between the dusty hills south out of Oranjestad.
They were constructed way back in the 1870s by the British, who discovered gold seams running through the Aruban backcountry.
Visitors can wonder at the looming buildings of the old smelting works, and see the fortified constructions that were raised to turn away invading pirates coming in from the coast.
Oh, and then there are the views of the deserted south-west shore to enjoy, along with some adrenaline-inducing country tracks to rumble over in a 4X4!
7. Visit the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary
A regular stop-off on Jeep safaris and 4X4 excursions through the rugged southern reaches of the island, the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary is almost singlehandedly responsible for conserving the old animal in these parts.
Opened back in 1997, the facility has worked to protect the population of donkeys on the island of Aruba since a sheer decline in numbers set in over the last 100 years.
Visitors are invited to meet the curious, often stubborn creatures, participate in feeding sessions and learn all about the onetime work animal of choice for the Caribbean.
There’s also an on-site coffee shop for kicking-back in afterwards!
8. Hike into the wilds of the Arikok National Park
Occupying a great big slab of south-eastern Aruba, the sprawling Arikok National Park is unquestionably one of the most beautiful parts of the island.
It counts for more than 20% of the overall land here, and encompasses everything from the deep and dimly-lit caverns of the Quadirikiri Cave to the sweeping viewpoints of the Arikok Hilltop.
Hiking is one of the top draws of the area, with trails weaving through groves of spiny cacti, past ruined farmhouses from centuries gone by, and down to bays of turtle nests and rugged cliffs.
9. Unravel the island’s Dutch heritage at Fort Zoutman
Standing tall and proud in the very heart of the capital at Oranjestad, Fort Zoutman offers travelers a glimpse at the long Dutch heritage that has grown up on the island of Aruba.
Its most noticeable feature is the glimmering whitewashed and magenta tower (the King Willem III Tower), which is actually a later, 19th-century addition to the original fort.
Today, the site has been converted to a museum, which chronicles the story of Aruba from the earliest years.
The utilitarian bulwarks and fortifications that once warded off pirates and other colonial powers can also still be seen.
10. Flutter by the Butterfly Farm
Now with two separate branches in the Caribbean, one on Aruba and the other on Sint Maarten of the Leeward Islands, the Butterfly Farm has proved itself a real hit with travelers making their way around the region.
Perched close to the coast between the Bubali Bird Sanctuary and Palm Beach, the spot offers visitors a chance to see some of the colourful and rare butterfly species that make their home in the tropics.
The folk here also offer regular workshops to teach all about butterfly-friendly gardening and proper butterfly rearing techniques.
11. Take an off-road adventure
Unlike many other of the Caribbean’s rainforest-clad islands, where soaring peaks make the backcountry inaccessible, Aruba’s hinterland is something of a dusty, more desert-like affair.
That means it’s prime territory for getting off-road, with 4X4 excursions over the rocky dunes and undulating canyons around Conchi proving a particularly popular outing for those wanting to get the adrenaline flowing.
Similarly, there are oodles of opportunities for dune buggying, UTV riding and quad biking, making Aruba a fine choice for the budding petrol head!
12. Hop aboard the Kukoo Kunuku party bus
Once you’re done sunning yourself on the sands of Palm Beach, or snorkelling through the shallows of Eagle, perhaps it’s time to discover what the A of the ABCs can offer after dark? Well, there’s certainly no better bunch to show you what’s what on the nightlife front of Aruba than the folk over at Kukoo Kunuku.
The evening begins when these guys’ fleet of kaleidoscopically coloured buses comes to pick revellers up.
This is the transport for the evening, and partiers are driven from club to club, downing gratis shots and enjoying Caribbean tunes as they go.
Be prepared for some flamboyant fancy dresses, oodles of shaking maracas and a night to remember (or not, depending on the amount of rum you drink!).
13. Have a beer amongst the knick-knacks in Charlie’s Bar
Rattling keyrings from the 1930s, old beer bottles, make-believe crowns, novelty hats, tattered car registrations that read like amusing mantras, countless picture frames, shipping ropes, miner’s lanterns, vintage plates and antique vases are just some of the multitude of knick-knacks you can expect to find at Charlie’s Bar.
Located off-the-beaten-track, in the Zeppenfeldstraat Area on the southern side of the island, this quirky little drinkery has become nothing short of legendary on the Aruban bar circuit.
It’s packed to the very brim with interesting things to gaze at while drinking, and there are friendly owners, cold beers and local foods to boot!
14. Walk the California Dunes
Poking their way out of the northern tip of Aruba in a sea of undulating ochres, browns, beiges and yellows, the California Dunes are amongst the most breathtaking natural wonders on the island, nay in the whole Caribbean! Making a change from the cacti-spotted hinterland and divi divi groves that pepper the rest of the landscape here, they showcase a moon-like habitat of sandy peaks and troughs.
Driving on the California Dunes of Hudishibana is not permitted, but visitors are invited to come and walk the trails, while youngsters often love to try their hand at dune boarding on the hillsides.
15. Don the snorkels at Boca Catalina
Boca Catalina is one of the less-trodden beaches on the western coast of Aruba.
A small enclave of sand and boulders and rock that’s hidden between Noord and romantic Malmok Beach, it’s got plenty for those seeking a bit of seclusion on their Caribbean holiday.
The rocky little cliffs that line the sand make for some great sunset viewing spots, while the waters themselves are both calm and laden to the brim with multi-coloured marine life.
Yep, snorkelers can expect everything from colossal starfish to paddling sea turtles!