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Reflections on my trip

Before going to Aruba I, like most people of my generation (late 20s), googled the crap out of Aruba. I especially googled what life outside of the resort/hotel zone is like. While there was lots of info on Aruba hardly any of it pertained to the non-resort life. Meaning, when people on forums ask "where do the locals eat", or "where can I get a reasonably priced meal", the answers given were absolutely given by people living the high life in Aruba. $30 entrees? The locals aren't eating there. And, if the place advertises itself as "where the locals eat!" (like Driftwood does), then that's not where the locals eat. That isn't to say that none of the locals eat there, as I'm sure many do. But when people from my generation ask "where do the locals eat?" they mean "where does the working class eat?".
Now that I'm back from my short trip to Aruba, I feel like I have some info to share to others of my generation who aren't looking for a 5-star Aruban experience, but who are traveling on a shoestring, want to see Aruba without paying >$100 for a two hour tour in a 4x4 with six strangers, etc.
First tip: Airbnb
Hotels in Aruba are plentiful, and very nice. They're not even necessarily expensive. But Airbnb has penetrated Aruba and it's great. We were lucky to stay with a local who has an attached suite, rather than simply simply renting out their condo while they're away. As a result, we had locals (like, 365 days a year-type locals) feeding us info. Airbnb also kind of forces you outside of the hotel zone: we were a good 8-10 min drive away from the Highrise area, which helps when you're trying to be adventurous and explore the neighbourhoods. Our Airbnb hosts were very attentive, provided a lot of "gear", like a cool, beach chairs, maps, coupons, flippers, etc. They warned us when something went down on the island (we were there during the recent flash flood), and had ideas about how to get around. And of course, Airbnb is cheap, often come with kitchens, which allow you to head to the supermarkets and cook using local ingredients. Which brings me to the next tip.
Tip two: Supermarkets
Prior to arriving, whenever grocery shopping was mentioned in anything I googled it basically always referred to the large supermarkets, and especially Super Food. We went to Superfood and found the prices comparable to grocery prices in Canada (even after the conversion. Also note, we live in Victoria, BC). Items that were packaged (like cereal) were more expensive. Fruits (like limes) were ever so slightly less. And everything else (like meat and veggies) were about the same.
And while Superfood was great, we found little to no reason to return; there are plentiful mini-marts and neighbourhood markets were everything was cheaper. There was nothing we needed that we couldn't find in these markets, from groceries to sunblock to booze to personal care products. I honestly don't think you need to bother with the large supermarkets, the little neighbourhood ones will do. If you're in the high rise zone, the closest one is at the Unicasa, beside the Wendy's. If you're anywhere else, there are lots.
Tip three: Beaches
The Palm Beach and Eagle Beach areas are indeed much fun. There's a lot going on, people to mingle with, booze everywhere, and happy hour is easy to find.
If you're anything like us, we kinda didn't love that. We wanted more spacious beaches, with calmer atmospheres. In that case, allow me to suggest three spots.
The first is just off the high rise beach zone. Heading towards the lighthouse, right after the casino on the left if a parking lot that was never ever full. The only people that seemed to park there were trucks with boat trailers. Park here and find a very peaceful beach with no rocks, and soft sand. It was a fabulous spot, with all the same view and sand quality of Palm Beach without any of the buzz and crap.
Second, is a short walk from the lighthouse north, across the dunes, to an oddly shaped rock I doubt you could miss. When we first arrived there were some nudists there hanging out in what is clearly a secluded and rarely frequented spot. Water was clear, and the view was spectacular. Not to mention how good water feels after a 10 min walk through the desert sand dunes in a blazing sun.
Third, is Daimari beach, which I'll say more about in the next tip...
Tip four: Arikok
Definitely worth the time. But also not something you have to rent jeeps for or take expensive atv tours. If you dedicate a day to Arikok (like, 8 am to 5pm) you can do all you need to. I'll tell you what we did on our "Arikok day", which was probably the highlight of our trip.
First, recognizing that Arikok is a desert, we woke up early and drove to the main entrance to the park. We arrived exactly at 8:00am on a day that was slightly cloudy. Bought our wrist band and promptly exited the park the way we came. Leaving the park there's an immediate right that says "Daimari" onto a gravel/dirt road. We followed that until it intersected witha paved road and a sign saying that to the right is an entrance to Arikok. Down that road is the Shete entrance to Arikok. It allows you to turn a very long hike to the Natural Pool into a short hike. Hiking from Shete to Natural pool took 45min (and I am in no way in shape). We arrived just as the first tour left, allowing us full access to the pool with not another soul around for about and hour. Then, heading up the coast from the Natural Pool we hiked the 15 min to Daimari Beach, which was easily our favourite beach of the whole island. It is isolated, strikingly beautiful, unique in that the "shelf" that has been eroded in the middle divides the beach in two, and most importantly there was shade provided by the cliffs. This was vital, since by this time the sun was out in full force. Hiking became less than safe, so, we stayed, lounging at the beach, for hours waiting for the sun to go down a bit. This was wonderful. Shaded by the cliff, dipping in the slightly wavy ocean, in the beautiful location... Daimari is an Aruban paradise. Two tour companies took people here while we were there. They jumped off the cliffs and promptly left. For us, we drank 5L of water on this hike.
As soon as 3:00 rolled around, we started to pack up and began our hike out (about 55min).
Now, since we spent so long at Daimari we decided to do more Arikok the next day. We drove around to the south side of the island and the Vader entrance. We easily drove our small, compact rental car up the gravel road alongside the wind turbines (very impressive), and up to the Guadiriki caves. Spent some time there and continued up to the Fontein caves and Boca Prins. After returning, it was all basically just a couple hours; less than a half day. If we had planned our hike to be an hour or two quicker we likely could have done it all in a single day. Since we didn't drive all the way through the park's main road I can't speak to the drive-ability of it all. However, I do have some car tips!
Tip five: Cars
The rental companies, and the Arikok website, do a fair amount of fear mongering about the quality of the road that runs through the park (IMO). If I were to speculate, it would be because the nation's economy makes a fair amount of coin off of Jeep rentals, 4x4 tours and such. So, they would have you believe that travelling into Arikok with a compact car spells certain doom for your vehicle, and the rental agenies will warn you multiple times that if you have car damage or trouble that occurs within Arikok park, you are not covered at all, even if you purchased their limited liability coverage plan.
So, I was pretty worried as well about road conditions but there was no need to be. Day two we drove our little compact rental through the road that runs from the California lighthouse, along past the dunes and down the North East coast, up to the chapel. It was slow going, to be sure, as we made sure to go at little more than the speed of a quick walk or slow jog. But at that speed all the bumps become easily managable and we didn't bottom out the car once.
Similarly, driving the dirt road past the wind turbines in Arikok and up to Boca Prins was more than fine. It's like driving a country road in rural Alberta, in my opinion. Take it slow and you'll be golden.
As long as I'm talking about cars, a few sub tips: they don't do as many lights in Aruba. Mostly round abouts. Might wanna brush up on round about etiquette before going if you're not familiar. The map that you get at the airport has common road signs on it! And while the road system on the ground looks complicated, with many un-named roads branching off of main routes, honestly, just worry about the main routes (of which there aren't many). Parking in ample pretty well everywhere, even downtown. It's cheap for pay parking where that's needed. No right turns on red lights. And finally, they do street lights on the same side of the intersection as where you stop, rather than opposite. So, you kinda have to lean forward to see the lights if you're in a low vehicle.
Tip six: Eats
I can't express enough how the most mentioned places were just tourist traps. Driftwood, Smokey Joe's, Wacky Wahoos: all very expensive. That isn't to say they're bad (we thought Wacky Wahoos was fabulous), but there not "where the locals/working class eat". The best (in terms of the matchup of quality and cost and authenticity) of these more expensive places that we went, we felt, was Red Fish. The catch of the day pan fried was delicious, and the local corn bread stuff they serve all over town was the tastiest at Red Fish as well. We never got to Zeerover's, sadly. I'm bummed about that. But the point is I can't comment on it.
The best recommendation I have for those who want some real eats is to explore the 4A/B route. There are a lot of neighbourhood eats along that road that are fabulous. Fermin's BBQ was a highlight, where you could get a 2 person BBQ Platter with Yuca Frita (fucking YUM) for 34 Florins (whereas all those places mentioned about are usually 50 Florins or more per dish!). Buckets of six local beers for 25 Florins. It's great. The ambiance is fantastic, the locals chatty and open for conversation if you reach out. Just don't couple blocks south east from Fermin's is a small Columbian food diner kind of thing. Delicious arepas con queso. Had some chicharrón there that was as authentic as it gets. From there, I'd stress being brave and trying the food trucks. They mostly open after dark (I imagine because being inside one of those in the day would cook you), and there are dozens on every route. Since the water on the island is pristine (by the way, the water is pristine!) we didn't worry about getting sick, and we didn't. We tried some Dutch pancakes for what felt like was a dime, more Columbian food, some of the "snack" places (essentially you pick a filling and they put it in a hot dog bun), and some delicious burgers. I couldn't even tell you where these places were since we just drove by them and pulled over when we were hungry. But they're great! At these trucks we were paying 20-40 florins a meal for two people rather than 80-120 (or 140 at Wacky Wahoos. Ouch).
Be brave and you'll be rewarded.
Tip seven: Shopping
Much the same thing applies to shopping. Now, I'm no shopper; that's my partners deal. But we did the High Rise mall area and found all the usual high-end brands: Pandora and a thousand other jewelers, Calvin K., whatever. And downtown at the "fashion capitol of the carribbean" we found Gucci and Mango and all the European brands. Whatever. The prices weren't any better than back home, so we were left asking "why?"
Well, then we started going into other stores we found kicking around a little outside these zones. The most rewarding one (at least for her)? DShop. Good prices (slightly cheaper than home) and lots of variety with good quality and unique styles.
Feel free to explore the local stores rather than just stampeding the big brands. Aruba's government has done a lot to encourage the local fashion industry, and it seems to be paying off. You can buy Prada back home.
Random dump of tips!
The rest of my tips don't have enough substance to equate to a whole section, so I'll just dump them here.
Tip the bag boys/girls at the supermarkets. Chances are they don't have a wage and only make money based on tips. If you're gonna buy cherry tomatoes at Super Food, don't put them in a bag; they have designated plastic cups for those. Whatever produce you do get there, take it to a weigh station which will print a ticket with the price for you. Cereal is absurdly expensive at Superfood, as is milk and butter. The Cherry Limeade at Save Lots is delicious! We did not love Baby Beach by any strech of the imagination. In fact, most of the South East side of the island felt like it was all the rage once upon a time, and then it was overshadowed by the North West; many abandoned businesses and homes down there, but I wouldn't make a whole day of it. Interesting to see and worth just driving around. Bring water shoes. Especially if you're going to walk out to the shipwreck because there's some coral that stings out there. For Canadians, it cheaper to pay for stuff in Florins than USD. It is easy to get cash, especially if you bank with RBC or CIBC, as they have branches in Aruba! Buy lots of sunscreen. The aloe museum is very accessible and worth the trip. I preferred the beer Chill to the staple Balashi. Sunday and especially Monday, everything seems to be closed for most of the day. English is the lingua franca pretty well all over the toursit zones, as expected. But outside of that, while Enlgish is still very present, we found Spanish more useful. So, if you know Spanish then great!
Oh, and Aruba is great! Enjoy.‎
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