I recently came back from a trip to South America, and on the way there, we stopped over in Aruba for a few nights.
Aruba is an island in the Carribean, just north of the coast of Venezuela. It is an autonomous country but also a part of The Netherlands. This means that the country manages its own internal affairs independently, while on some aspects being considered a part of The Netherlands. For this reason, Arubans for example have a Dutch passport and learn Dutch at school).
Since I knew very little about Aruba and I had never been to the Carribean before, my expectations were mostly in the clear blue water and white sand beaches. Although my stopover was only a few days, I learnt things that I wasn’t expecting or could have found useful when planning my trip, so wanted to gather a few of those here in case you are planning a trip to Aruba sometime in the future.
1. Aruba is not the cheapest destination.
I’m a big fan of budget travel (student times taught me the perks of it) and stand that you can travel ”on a budget” to most places in the world. What that means in practice though differs from one place to another obviously, and some places might be more difficult to travel on a very tight budget. Aruba is definitely on the more expensive side of things and tourism seems to be more focused on high-end offer – food and drinks are closer to Northern European prices in most places, accomodation depends a lot but I didn’t see for example many hostel options, and if you want to do any excursions or activities to add some variety to beach days, you’ll have to budget those in as well. Even regular supermarkets were surprisingly expensive, which is understandable though for an island where most products need to be imported. Of course, you can always travel on a lower budget by finding the cheaper food options, compromising on comfort in accomodation, and opting for dyi exploration. In my opinion though, you do get more out of a relaxing holiday on this paradise island if you are able to stretch your budget a little bit. Constantly thinking about money when traveling is tiring and stressful, so having seen the nature of tourism in Aruba, I would rather opt for another destination than have to monitor my spending all the time if I would be on a very tight budget.
2. Tourism is very American (on some aspects).
This is not anything positive or negative in itself, but rather an observation. Of course, there is way more to the island than the touristy places, but if you visit Aruba you are bound to go to Palm Beach/Eagle Beach at some point. I seriously thought I was in the States. All the big chain resorts are aligned on the beach, and right next to them you can find all sorts of stores and restaurants in very American-style buildings (think about the architecture of a mall in LA for example). You’ll also find a lot of shopping malls as well as stores and restaurants you’ll see in the States (KFC, Cinnabon or Wendy’s). The way you pay at the restaurant is similar to the US as you sign for card payment, the US dollar as a currency is more used than the Aruban Florin, and there seemed to be a similar serving and tipping practice to the US. This makes sense with the location of the island, as well as with the number of American tourists around, but it still quite surprised me as I would have expected more Dutch than American influence. I also want to point out that I am not here trying to say that the local culture is American – no, Aruba obviously has its own distinct culture, but from the perspective of a visitor and specifically in the most touristy areas, the tourism industry in Aruba has parallels to American culture.
3. Seasonality is very visible in some parts of the island.
When we arrived and stayed the first couple of nights in Oranjestad, we thought the whole island was empty. The streets were very quiet, there were very few locals or tourists around, many stores were closed, and restaurants and bars were empty. When asking the locals about it, they said it is quite the typical low season. When we moved to our accomodation in the touristier area of Palm Beach, the place was busier, even if clearly not in full swing. I thought I would like to visit a place during low season to avoid the crowds, but I have to say that it felt a bit too quiet around Oranjestad. There is something about a lively, buzzing environment that ignites a spark in me and inspires me which was missing in Oranjestad at this time of the year. So my tip to you would be to check whether your trip falls on high or low season, and depending on which type of environment and holiday you prefer, schedule around that. While Oranjestad felt a bit too quiet to my taste, I really liked the feeling of Palm Beach at this time of the year and think it would have been too much during high season, so it really is a question of aligning your preference, location and timing.
4. Don’t rely on Google for opening hours.
I like to find restaurants and bars on Google Maps and check out their reviews before going. In Aruba though, I realised this is not always the best way. Firstly, I learnt the hard way that a lot of venues don’t regularly update the opening hours displayed, and secondly, the number of reviews for a place is often quite low which doesn’t give much information. I still did check places on Google, but I found that it was often more helpful to ask locals and other visitors for recommendations, or just walk around and see what you bump into.
5. Make sure to experience the whole island.
While a lot of tourists stay around Oranjestad and Palm or Eagle Beach, there’s plenty of things to do also on the rest of the island. Aruba is not big, so it’s quite easy to drive around and see everything that’s out there. For example, we took an ATV tour that would take us around the north of the island, where the sea was way rougher, and the scenery completely different from the white beaches, with dry, sandy hills covered in cacti. There’s also possibilities for hikes in the Arikok National Park, as well as more more beaches and the city of San Nicolas which is supposed to be more local on the eastern side of the island. I didn’t personally have the time to experience all of these, but make sure to also get out of the western side of Aruba, it has way more than that to offer!
6. Consider renting a car. We made the decision to not rent a car during our stay because it was relatively short, but I would strongly recommend this especially if you are staying longer. There is a bus network to get around, or you can use taxis, but a car brings a lot of freedom to see more, and especially other parts of Aruba than where you are staying. It is of course an additional cost, but by having a car you also don’t need to take a taxi or an organised tour if you want to visit sights that are not accessible by bus.
Overall, I had a wonderful stay in Aruba, it was a perfect spot to unwind after a long work streak as you could truly plan your whole trip around just relaxing at the beach. At the same time, there’s also so much to do that you definitely won’t run out of activities even if you have more time. As Aruba markets itself, it really is ”One Happy Island”, and you’ll for sure be one happy vacationer.
I hope you find this useful, and if you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate! I’ll try my best to answer them 🙂