I went to Aruba looking for what I couldn’t find online: something outside the tourist infrastructure, something off-the-beaten-path.
I found wildly beautiful nature, vivid street food, and generous people. There is an Aruba off the tourist track. And it’s worth exploring. Despite over a million tourists per year on a 70 square mile island, some of the best beaches aren’t crowded, some of the tastiest food is cheap, and some of the most fun things to do are free. But you’ll need a sense of adventure to experience them.
I couldn’t find the kind of Aruba travel guide that felt right. So I made this one. I hope you love it. Since a few of these places are truly off the path, I created a free Aruba map for you right here, with all of my favorite spots, that you can take with you on the road. Let’s get started.
Here’s what I’m covering in this post:
- Know before you go
- Beaches for the adventurous
- Where to stay
- Where to eat and drink
- What to do and see
Know before you go
Aruba has been colonized more times than I can keep track of (natives were speaking Spanish as early as the 1600s). Almost everyone on the island is multilingual– Dutch, Papaimento (a creole language), English, and Spanish are all commonly spoken. Local food and culture is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, South American, Caribbean, and native cuisine. In the grocery stores you’ll find an incongruous mix of Dutch cheese and Nutella next to plantains and Caribbean fish.
Understanding the landscape is key to planning the kind of trip you want. The landscape changes sharply in different regions. Most of these are connected along the coast by Route 1.
To the west is the developed tourist infrastructure. It has dusky white beaches, calm blue waters, and a hair-ruffling wind that never stops. It also has pirate ship experience rides, frozen drink machines, time shares, and a private beach with non-native flamingos that have been shipped in for tourists. You get the idea. This is not my thing, but it is the main attraction for many visitors.
The eastern shore is a wild, unpopulated area. Much of it is in Arikok National Park. Craggy coves and beaches meet the churning Atlantic Ocean there. The big green part you see on my Aruba map? Most of that is only accessible by ATV.
The middle of the island is an impenetrable dessert full of thorny scrub, towering Yatu cacti, rattlesnakes, and wild goats with almost human faces. It is also home to the Ayo Rock Formations and petroglyphs by the Arawak Indians– the island’s original inhabitants.
The Southern area— that’s where the locals live.
The constant wind shapes every tree and rock. A field of impossibly heavy cacti sways at night. An endless game of pool is being played at the tiny bar by the local beach. The incongruous sound of the Dutch Army’s rifles– target practice–, occasionally rings through the island in the evening. The startlingly human face of a goat appears from behind a boulder. We carry a simple meal of cactus shakes, Dutch cheese, and grouper back to our porch and eat it in the full moonlight.
Aruba’s coast is packed with spots to hop into the water or rest on the shore. Everyone has a favorite. We stopped all along the coasts, hunting for that Goldilocks beach: not too crowded, not too inhospitable, but juuuust right. Here’s what I found, ranging from wild and dangerous to calm and familial:
- Mangel Alto in Savaneta – This is a lovely but no-frills beach where the locals go. It’s lined with pretty spots among the mangroves that open into the water. Stop in the tiny bar at the entrance to watch a local game of pool and have a Balashi. This beach is a great spot to watch the sunset. I am a fan of sunsets and I use the Golden Hour app to make sure I don’t miss them when I travel.
- Boca Grande is my favorite beach in Aruba– but it’s not for everyone. South of the state park in the west, it’s windier than its cousin beaches to the east, and also less crowded. Kite surfers come here for the waves, wind, and lack of swimmers. Pack in and pack out– there are no amenities. Swim with caution. And have FUN.
- Boca Prins is not exactly a beach — it is a series of cliffs and coves in Arikok National Park. Swimming is not allowed, but the view and the enormous waves are mesmerizing.
- If you want calm blue water and tourist amenities– but with less of the actual tourists– Baby Beach to the South might be your jam.
- Eagle Beach and Palm Beach are lovely but tourist-filled. If you keep driving up north of Palm Beach, to the Noord neighborhood, explore the quiet Arashi Beach, Boca Catalina Beach, and Malmok Beach. These are beautiful, but slightly rocky beaches, where you can walk in the waves, take a dip, and catch the sunset alone.
Where to stay
Here’s a travel rule of thumb: When in doubt, go where the fishing community goes. That’s where the good food and great culture invariably lives. In Aruba, that area is Savaneta, a neighborhood to the south. I rented a Dutch house on the edge of a yatu cacti field for less than a hotel room in the tourist areas. I was central to everything on the island and it was so still at night I could hear a pin drop. You’ll want to rent a car if you stay here.
If you’re looking for luxe accommodations, but still want to get away from the heavily-trafficked tourist spots, try the Noord neighborhood in the north. You can rent an apartment or a villa there on the sea, but prices are high.
Tiny groceries dot Route 1 and have everything you need for cooking. They also sell alcohol. Super Food is another grocery option — it’s a mega store by the airport that is extremely popular– and crowded, and frankly exhausting– I would only go if you must. Wine is available in grocery stores or markets, but is more expensive than in the US. Stock up on wine at the airport duty-free store– this is the most affordable option and it is what all the seasoned Aruba travelers do as soon as they disembark.
Plastic “thank you thank you thank you” style bags are not allowed in Aruba. Bring a re-use-able bag. I travel with one of these inexpensive French market totes because they are weightless, expandable, and pretty.
Aruba is known for its potent aloe crop. The antidote always grows near the poison, as they say. I picked up this brand, Aruba Aloe to heal from the sun at night. This stuff really works, and I’m a true aloe convert now. It’s also a fun gift to bring back.
Where to eat and drink
There are many wonderful guides to high priced meals in Aruba– I won’t repeat them here. Instead, here’s an outsider’s guide on local food. A starter kit, if you will.
By far the best food I had was in the roadside eateries that dot highway 1 near Savaneta and San Nicolas. Every single one is worth a try. Don’t be afraid to stop into an unassuming place. (I felt very safe in Aruba, but of course you should always use caution and go with your comfort level.) The list below is just the beginning. And they are all on my free Aruba Off the Beaten Path Map.
- Happy Arubian Kitchen – Skip the American fare here and instead get salted fish, fish cakes, and cactus shakes whipped up by a local.
- Ora’s Bar – Virtually untouched by tourists, Ora’s bar has great food and great company. You can meet locals here, have a few beers, and get to know more about the roots of the island. Ora will also cook up a fine sit-down supper for you as good as any pricey restaurant at 1/8 of the cost. Tip her well!
- Empanadas – This roadside stand did not have a name that I could find. The word “Empanadas” was painted on the front. We did a lot of pointing and shrugging to order our food(this is the only person I met on the island who did not speak English). Then we sat, wondering what we had ordered for 30 minutes. Out came the best empanadas I’ve ever had. Ever. Check out my Aruba map for the approximate location of Empanadas– if it’s still there!
- Zeerovers is a more well-known spot where locals and tourists gather. You pick out your fish, have a Balashi on the dock, and in a few minutes your whole order arrives in a fried delicious pile.
- Flying Fishbone is Savaneta doing fine dining. You can wear your fancy pants, but put your toes in the sand, and I like this combination. You get a decent but overpriced meal mere feet from the water. Honestly, it was fun– even if it doesn’t quite fit into my off-the-beaten-path vibe.
Do and see
There are many guides to all-inclusive spas and self-care experiences on the island, so I won’t repeat them here. If you are looking more to explore and wander, here are my favorite starting points:
- Wander in the cities: I recommend parking and walking among the decaying colonial mansions in Oranjestad, the capital. Visit Cosecha, a local artisan shop that only sells authentic work by Aruban artisans. Drive or walk through Savaneta and St. Nicolas. The homes are painted in sherbet colors and each family gets creative with color schemes and brick patterns.
- Visit Arikok National Park: The visitor’s center is a good place to start. Here you can get the lay of the land, rent an ATV, or start your hike.
- Visit Fontein Cave. This is an easily accessible cave that you can walk through or linger in (we lingered). It has high ceilings and dramatic shafts of light pierce the interior.
- Visit Ayo Rock Formation: This boulder field in the middle of the island is surreal. Wild goats inhabit the area, and there are petroglyphs from the Arawak Indians nestled into some of the rocks. Climbers can occasionally be found bouldering here.
- Rent a car simply explore. It is incredibly fun to simply pack a car with snorkeling gear, lunch, and water– and GO.
- Scuba Diving: Even without a license, you can be trained and complete a 1-hour dive in Aruba. I had a good experience at Red Sail Sports .
- Rent an ATV – A patch of the island is inaccessible by car. It’s also wild and beautiful. You can get a guided tour by ATV, or rent one on your own.
I honed my skills at packing light on this trip– so stay tuned for my packing guide, coming right up. Until then, you can revisit my Spring Carry-On Packing Guide for inspiration. And tell me all about your own Aruba or island travel experiences. I’d love to hear them.
Wherever you are, and wherever you are able to be, I wish you all the best in your explorations.