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Many first-time visitors are surprised to discover that Aruba is no typical tropical paradise. It’s rocky and flat. The island’s interior is a cacti-studded, desert-like outback full of meandering wild goats, donkeys, iguanas and twisted divi-divi trees.
Its barren beauty is a stark contrast to its colorful Dutch colonial capital, but all sides of Aruba are well worth exploring to really get a sense of place. On both land and sea, there are plenty of interesting things to do beyond simply sunbathing on its beautiful beaches.
Sail and Snorkel
Aruba’s waters are teeming with marine life and the top snorkel spots are all close to shore. There’s also a sunken ship — the Antilla — to explore. The shipwreck is in such shallow water that snorkelers get to experience a scuba-like dive without descending into the depths.
You’ll often spot sea turtles there, too. There are many snorkel sail operators, and most stop at the same three spots because that’s where all the fish are. Jolly Pirates’ wooden schooner often makes an additional stop to showcase rope swing acrobatics in deeper waters. Most operators also offer romantic dinner and sunset sails as well.
Take a Jeep Safari
There are many ways to explore Aruba’s arid outback, but taking a jeep safari to the natural pool is the best. The volcanic rock formations of the coast create a tranquil swimming spot well worth the trek.
Hang on to your hats, however (and your sunglasses, too), as it’s a rough ride over tough terrain, especially when the driver shows off his off-roading skills. The scenery is stunning though, and you can snorkel in the natural wonder (equipment provided), but be forewarned there are steep stairs and the seaside rocks can be extremely slippery.
Most safaris also take in some other famous landmarks en route like a fallen natural coral bridge.
Explore Arikok Park
You need not be a hardcore hiker to enjoy the island’s Arikok National Park, which encompasses 20 percent of Aruba’s landmass. Drive through by rental car or take a guided tour with many outfits by road.
But if you do want to hike, there are many options for all skill levels, including guided treks with nature experts. The best place to start is at the large visitor center where you can learn all about the flora and fauna you will encounter, receive maps and info, and even take a complimentary mini-hike provided by the park’s rangers.
Visit San Nicolas
If you’re not on island during Carnival, then a visit out to San Nicolas for its weekly Carubbian Festival is the next best thing. Every Thursday night the oil-refinery-town-turned-cultural-gem hosts a major celebration with colorful parades, food stands, art and live music.
Many resorts offer packages that include return bus transportation. You can also day trip out on your own. Plan to spend time at beautiful Baby Beach there, and then visit the new Carnival Village Museum and workshop.
Lunch at legendary landmark Charlie’s Bar — a mini-museum in its own right — is also a must.
Learn a New Sport
Did you know that Aruba is one of the world’s first pioneers of beach tennis? There are always games and instruction at MooMba Beach Bar and often upcoming tournaments.
Aruba also boasts some of the best conditions on the planet to learn windsurfing and kite boarding. Constant trade winds and shallow waters at Fisherman’s Huts cove are ideal for beginners, and expert instruction and equipment rental is available. Then there’s the odd sport the Dutch call “blokarting.”
Learn to drive a cart powered by a sail on land through Aruba Active Vacations, also located on Fisherman’s Huts Beach.