With its glistening white sands and crystal blue waters, Aruba is a stunning Caribbean paradise that truly lives up to the nickname of “One Happy Island.” The beautiful beaches and colorful stores contrast into the desert-like countryside, dotted with untouched natural wonders just waiting to be explored. Outdoor enthusiasts, honeymooners, friends, and families alike will love every minute of visiting this tiny island that packs a punch. Whether you love to actively explore or prefer to relax, here’s the ultimate Aruba travel guide to plan your picture-perfect escape.
What to Expect in Aruba
A Brief History:
Aruba is an island in the Caribbean Sea that is one of the four countries that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch colonized the island in 1636, and the island was previously part of the Netherlands Antilles. However, it has since obtained autonomous status as of 1986 within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Meaning, Aruba controls its own local matters while the Dutch government controls foreign affairs.
Is it Spanish? Is it Dutch? Technically, it’s both and then some! The official language of Aruba is called Papiamento – a beautiful Creole mixture of Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and Dutch. A gumbo of languages, if you will. You’ll hear the locals talk to one another in their native tongue, but with tourists they primarily use English. However, many of the residents are also fluent in Spanish, Dutch, Spanish, French and some German. You won’t have any problems communicating!
Weather Conditions | Best Time to Visit Aruba:
One thing I hear from all the residents: “Aruba never rains!” Of course, hardly any place can *never* rain, but it’s extremely uncommon here. Aruba’s got all the makings of a Caribbean paradise without the tropical storms. The unique ecosystem has a dry desert-like climate, so it stays sunny and dry all year round. Luckily, it also stays cool due to the high trade winds which blow from the northeast and southeast. Hang on to your hats! Because of the consistent weather, it’s always a nice time to visit.
The official currency of Aruba is the Aruban Florin, but U.S. dollars are widely accepted too. While I used cash for tips and other small purchases, majority of the time we chose to use our travel credit cards to earn points towards future trips (no foreign transaction fees).
A report by the UN found Aruba to be one of the safest Caribbean destinations. The crime rate is extremely low. As with any vacation, be sure to utilize common sense safety tactics. Don’t leave items unattended, trust your gut, and keep your phone charged. Since I enjoy exploring all day, I usually carry a portable power bank to keep my phone from dying mid-day. Basically, anything you’d do even while you’re in your home town.
Data and Phone Usage:
Most international plans don’t cover Aruba by default. To avoid running up a high bill, I recommend purchasing a SIM card from the Digicel kiosk at the airport when you arrive. It’s located at the last set of doors before you step outside. They have a variety of bundles to choose from and they’ll replace the SIM card in your phone for you. Just be sure not to misplace your primary SIM! You’ll need that when you get back home.
Where to Stay in Aruba
How to Get Around in Aruba
How you choose to get around Aruba will largely depend on the type of traveler you are! We had a rental car, and loved every minute of zipping through the streets and discovering new nooks and crannies on the island all day. If you prefer to hang out close to the accommodations and within walking distance of everything, stick to the taxis. However, taxi rides will start to add up. There’s also an “Arubus” system that’s affordable and relatively easy to understand. Here’s a short side-by-side comparison to help you figure out what’s best for you.
Rent a Car if…
- You enjoy visiting off-the-beaten-path areas and plan to explore the island for more than a few days
- Your accommodations for the trip are located in a residential area, such as an AirBnb
- The option to come and go as you please on your own time is important to you
Use the Taxis if…
- Majority of your time will be spent at an all-inclusive resort (or within a short distance of it) – you’ll only leave the area once per day or less
- Your preference is to spend time in the more developed areas such as the capital city and Palm Beach
- You’d prefer to take a guided tour of the island that includes a pick-up from your hotel
A few things to note if you rent a car:
1) All the major rental companies honor valid U.S., British, Australian, and Canadian driver’s licenses if you are over 21 years old.
2) Arubans drive on the right side of the road. In our experience, they’re very defensive drivers. Proceed carefully through roundabouts.
3) There may be many traffic signs you’re unfamiliar with – be sure to check out this list for reference.
Things to Do in Aruba
Hit the Beach
The beaches in Aruba are exactly what you’d expect from a Caribbean Island. Gorgeous coastlines. Picture-perfect white sand. And that crystal blue water that you’ll never forget. There are a variety of beaches to visit, all with a different vibe and something that makes it special. Here are a few to consider visiting during your trip.
Eagle Beach is among the top picks for both locals and visitors alike. In fact, it was voted TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice for 3rd Best Beach in the Caribbean and 5th Best Beach in the World! The area is the island’s widest beach, providing plenty of space to hang out, relax, and enjoy the view. This area specifically sits in front of the low-rise hotels, and has both quiet and more populated areas to lounge.
Here’s where all the action is! Set against a backdrop of high-rise hotels, luxury stays, souvenir spots, and water sports, Palm Beach is where the tourists are. Dotted along the beach you’ll find lounge chairs, umbrellas, restaurants, and other bustling businesses. For thrill-seekers, discover heart-pumping adventures on banana boat rides, wakeboarding, parasailing, jet skis, and other fun activities.
Looking for something a bit quieter? Head to the northwestern tip of the island to Arashi Beach for soft sand, calm waves, and a radiant blue sea. Because of the peacefulness of the surf, it’s one of the best beaches to go snorkeling and spot sea life. It also has a great view of the California Lighthouse!
Spot the Divi-Divi Tree
Speaking of beaches, add this one to your Eagle Beach bucket list: A photo with the Divi Tree! Locals call it divi-divi, but the Arawak name is Watapana, and it’s the island’s national tree. Due to the trade winds that blow across the island consistently, the tree is a “natural compass” of sorts – always facing southwest. The tree is at the northern most part of Eagle Beach and is so popular that you might have to wait in a small line for the photo op.
Take a UTV Tour of Arikok National Park
An untouched beauty not to be missed, Arikok National Park is Aruba’s rugged and cactus-covered desert preserve. The park is so large that it covers approximately 20% of the island, as protected land that truly represents Aruba’s ecosystem. Arikok hosts everything from beaches to lava fields to caves, but the trip requires having a sturdy 4×4 vehicle. During our research, I thought to myself “do you really need a 4×4?” And the answer is yes. That’s why we decided to take a UTV tour instead of braving the rugged terrain in our budget rental car, and I’m so glad we did! Not just for the safety aspect, but also because zipping through the island on a UTV was THRILLING.
Natural Pools and Caves
Climb the Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins
Once a working gold mill, this abandoned 19th century structure holds a unique history of the island. During Aruba’s little-known gold rush in the 1400’s and 1500’s, prospectors searched the island for gold. The Bushiribana Gold Mill was built in 1872 by a London-based company who utilized the power of the trade winds to crush stone and isolate gold ore. Today, all that stands is a castle-like fortress that you can climb and enjoy the beautiful views of the ocean.
Witness Alto Vista Chapel
Often referred to as the “Pilgrim’s Church,” Alto Vista Chapel is the site of Aruba’s first Catholic church. The first structure was built by the Spanish and natives in 1750, but has since been reconstructed in 1953. A small and winding road leads to the chapel, perched proudly on the hill. You’ll notice the semicircle of pews that sit outside its main doors. The sanctuary is a lovely place not just because of its beauty, but the aura of reverence and respect that encompasses you within the hallowed walls.
See the Splendor of California Lighthouse
Located toward the northwest tip of the island is California Lighthouse. Built in 1910, the lighthouse stands as one of the most famous landmarks in Aruba. For a $5 admission fee, you can even climb to the top for 360° views of the island! While any time of day is a great time to visit, sunset in particular is one of the best times to catch a glimpse of the big orange fiery sun dipping behind the horizon of the sea.
Spend a Day on Flamingo Beach
When we decided to visit Aruba, only one thing immediately came to mind: “I HAVE to see the flamingos!” Who can resist beautiful pink birds gallivanting across white sand and crystal blue waters? To visit the flamingos, you’ll need to secure passes for the Renaissance Wind Creek’s private island, Renaissance Island. It can be tough to get access, but luckily I’ve laid it all out for you! Click here for everything you need to know about how to get Flamingo Beach Day Passes, costs, how to get there, things to do when you arrive, and more.
Paddle in a Clear Bottom Kayak
Get a glimpse of the ocean under the surface – without going under water! Paddle a “Crystal Kayak” with a transparent bottom to see what lies underneath. We booked a one-hour rental with Island Cabana Aruba, floating on top of the waters and admiring below the sea. The boat launch is located on a gorgeous and quiet stretch of Palm Beach. The owners are super sweet – they even gave us handmade iced tea infused with fruit and mint from their home garden.
Hot Tip: They also offer drone photography if you want to be captured from above!
Trek Up Hooiberg Mountain
Someone made a joke to me once that Aruba is “Phoenix with beaches.” Once I hiked Hooiberg, I knew exactly why. The desert-like landscape and cacti-ridden trails made me feel like I was back at Camelback Mountain. Hooiberg, translated to “Haystack” in Dutch, is a cone-shaped volcanic mountain in Aruba that’s easily spotted at the center of the island. The hike features 561 stairs to the top of a summit that gives you a birds-eye view of the island. We visited at 8:00am on a Sunday and found a good little crowd working out and climbing the mountain.
Shop Big and Small in Royal Plaza Mall and Wharfside Flea Market
In the heart of Oranjestad, shop big names and small trinkets at Royal Mall Plaza and Wharfside Flea Market. You absolutely cannot miss Royal Mall, since the outside looks like a giant pink palace complete with grand staircases. But what may seem over-the-top from the outside hosts Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and other big name stores. Across the street from the side that faces the main road, you’ll find a more local feel at the Wharfside Flea Market, where local vendors set up stalls with every souvenir you’d want, from tee shirts to magnets to postcards.
Where to Eat and Drink in Aruba
Diana’s Pancakes Place
You can’t leave Aruba without having traditional Dutch pancakes for breakfast! Stop by Diana’s Pancakes Place to indulge in pancakes as big as your plate. The delicious pastry is reminiscent of a crepe, but even flatter. You can choose to have it covered with a variety of toppings spanning sweet to savory – don’t miss out on the tasty bacon!
Water’s Edge Restaurant
Enjoy dinner with a side of views at Water’s Edge Restaurant, a beautiful eatery sitting on Eagle Beach alongside the Caribbean Sea. With white table cloths, blue waters, and delicious food, this is the perfect place to have dinner the first night. While we watched the sun dip behind the horizon, there was also a live vocalist on the patio. The salmon and the snapper are both delicious dishes!
If craft cocktails are your jam, you absolutely should not pass up the opportunity to visit Apotek. The name stems from Apotheek, which is Dutch for “apothecary,” and the establishment has the theme perfected. From the outside, you’ll approach a call box and ring the doorbell. On the inside, you’ll see antiques and signage that makes you feel like you’re in a pharmacy. And you actually are (well, almost). The wall nearest to the entrance is full of prescription slips featuring craft cocktails that you can give to your “pharmacist” behind the bar. They whip up these masterful cocktails and serve them up in both glasses and little beakers.
The Pastechi House
Yet another authentic Aruban food to try is the pastechi, a deep-fried half-moon pastry that’s filled with your choice of meats or cheeses. The Pastechi House is famous for their delicious pastechis and smoothies. You know it’s good when both locals and visitors alike are there!
Super Food Super Market
Here’s a fun activity in a new country: going a grocery store! Since we stayed in an AirBnb, we decided to buy groceries for times that we didn’t want to eat out. Visiting Super Food is an experience in and of itself, with a variety of fresh meats, multicolored cheeses, Dutch-labeled packages, and products I’ve never seen before. It’s worth making a stop, even if just to buy snacks!
As you can see, Aruba is full of adventures that are just waiting to be explored! Where will you go first on your vacation?