*This article was first publish and can be read on-line in Caribbean Compass issue NO. 239, August 2015 p.20-21.
Our boat, a 38-foot Leopard catamaran named Fata Morgana, as well as we: Ivo, Mira and 11-year-old Maya, prefer to sail slowly but safely in mild weather conditions which in March, in this part of the Caribbean Sea between Puerto Rico and Colombia can be long to come. We had to wait for a month in Ponce checking PassageWeather.com daily before the orange, yellow and green zones on the small weather chart finally turned blue and we spread the sails.
After three days and two nights of uneventful sailing in calm seas and winds on a beam reach between 8 and 20 knots, we decided to go to Aruba for a quick pit-stop in order to rest and check the weather before continuing on to Santa Marta, Colombia. A month later we were still in Aruba, kind of stuck but also reluctant to leave. Stuck, because sailing from Aruba to Colombia is a dangerous business, crossing an area where high and low pressures meet creating violent winds and huge waves, and so we decided to wait until the winds calm down a bit. And this took a month. Reluctant to leave, because this small vacation island lying well outside of the hurricane belt, its clean manicured capital Oranjestad with lots of nice shops and restaurants, its sparkling resorts and world-famous beaches, its many natural wonders, and its welcoming people became one of our most favorite Caribbean destinations. It was free and easy to check in and out of Aruba, and free to drop anchor anywhere in its many protected bays on the south and southwest shores. It was safe to leave the boat at anchor unattended day and night, and safe to roam the island as there is virtually no crime in Aruba. We met and befriended a wonderful local family, who welcomed us in their home and showed us around; Ivo learned to kitesurfing; and Maya took windsurfing lessons. It felt like a vacation.
It took about 2 hours to clear immigration and customs at the commercial docks in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital and main port, mostly waiting for the officials to arrive from Barcadera where a new port is currently under construction, and bring the paperwork. Passports were stamped, documents exchanged, no one boarded Fata Morgana, and the entire procedure was completely free and done right on the pier. We never had to leave the boat. Checking in and out in Aruba is almost like ordering a burger and fries at a drive-through. The service is slow and painless, but also- free of charge. No fees whatsoever for a two-month stay, which can be easily extended. What a pleasant surprise!
While visiting Aruba, most cruisers choose to stay at one of the marinas or at anchor in the bay near the marinas which offer all sorts of facilities and tranquil atmosphere, and this is probably the best option for yachts. Instead, we anchored in the calm shallow stunningly beautiful waters in front of Palm Beach, Aruba’s most popular white sand beach with tall palm trees and a strip of big sparkling hotels all lined up along the west coast, facing the Caribbean Sea and the spectacular sunsets. Radisson, Holiday Inn, Marriott’s, Global Suite, The Ritz, and the all-inclusive Riu Palace- the Caribbean Taj Mahal. With marble floors and crystal chandeliers, infinity swimming pools, artificial waterfalls and tropical gardens, restaurants surrounded by goldfish ponds with black swans, beach bars and every comfort and luxury the tourist might dream for, these resorts offer the ultimate beach experience, including jet skis and motorboats pulling infallibles loaded with happy vacationers, which we endured for weeks just because it was close to the fishermen shacks, where Ivo was initiated in kitesurfing and Maya – in windsurfing.
Aruba lies in the southern Caribbean Sea 990 mi west of the Lesser Antilles and 18 mi north of the coast of Venezuela, directly on the path of the accelerated tradewinds which are always strong and always from the same direction, which is perfect for kitesurfing and windsurfing. Here we met the legendary Armando Wester, one of the first kitesurfers in Aruba. He opened a kitesurf shack on the north corner of Palm Beach – Armando’s Kitesurf Shack, which is exclusively for kiteurfing lessons, equipment rentals and sale. (For information go to www.seabornaruba.com. ) The place is on the southwest shore of the island and is a lot more protected from big waves than Boca Grandi, another kitesurf beach we checked out on the north side, where the pro kitesurfers fly. In fact, the sea at Palm Beach is flat as a lake, shallow and with sandy bottom, which makes it excellent for kitesurf beginners. Here we met Armando and his buddies and soon Ivo was flying around with a kitesurf like a disoriented butterfly…
And when we were not busy with water sports, we explored the island. Our new Aruban friends, a family from Europe, who moved to live in Aruba and contacted us through our blog, took us to a couple of great restaurants and drove us to Aruba’s most popular tourist attractions starting at California Lighthouse and Alto Vista Chapel, passing by Arashi Beach. The Arashi Beach on the west side of the island is a popular snorkeling destination away from the big hotels and crowds, attracting locals and tourists with its secluded sheltered from the winds little bays hidden among beautiful rock formations ,with abundant underwater sea-life. On the backdrop of limestone carved by the sea and tall cacti standing on the edge of the rocks two pirate ships had dropped anchors bringing tourists to swim and snorkel in the shallow coral gardens.
After a short drive on a narrow road surrounded by sand dunes and spiky Divi Divi trees all twisted and bent from the constant tradewinds, past Arashi Beach, we got to the northwest tip of Aruba where the island’s most famous landmark rises 30 meters tall. California Lighthouse was built in 1916 near Arashi Beach. It was named after the steamship California which wrecked near the shores in 1891.
Further down the winding sandy road we got to a small chapel built on a hill overlooking the sea amidst a forest of cacti which cover most of this hot dry flat island. Alto Vista Chapel was built in 1750 by Domingo Silvestre, a Venezuelan missionary, and rebuilt in 1952. It is also known as “Pilgrims Church”. Here started the conversion of Aruban Indians to Christianity. Behind the chapel we found an intricate labyrinth like a huge rock drawing on the ground which didn’t seem very complicated but it took us a long time to get to its center without cheating… A long time under the burning desert sun.
On the way back we made a few stops just to look at the sea and the shores which on the north side of the island, the harsh, unprotected by the relentless tradewinds shores, look wild and unforgiving. Swimming here is forbidden by law. We didn’t even think about swimming here, or sailing… It’s one of those places of awesome power where nature just wants to be left alone. Respect.
Aruba was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t expect to find so many interesting places on such a small island (32 km x10 km). After visiting California Lighthouse and the Alto Vista Chapel we decided to go for a hike in the desert. The Casibari Rock Formations, about 3 km from the capital Oranjestad, are brownish- reddish boulders sticking out in the middle of the desert as if they had fallen from the sky, surrounded by cacti. It is still a mystery how this pile of huge rocks smooth and strangely shaped came to be on such a flat sandy island, where the tallest elevation is a hill barely reaching 189 m. One of the theories is that their origin is in fact extraterrestrial… The first inhabitants of these lands- the Arawak indigenous people- used to climb on top of the boulders and stare at the eastern horizons to see if a storm is approaching. Here, hundreds of years ago, they used to pray and perform rituals for the gods of rain and lightning. A narrow path through cacti and heavy rocks lead us to the steep steps of wood and stone. We climbed on top of a flat boulder. Aruba was at our feet, surrounded by blue waters. On a clear day you can spot the shores of Venezuela in the south from up here.
The next day, we packed water and sandwiches, put on good hiking shoes, and went to Arikok National Park occupying a huge territory on the island, almost 20 percent of Aruba. It is one of the main tourist destinations offering a variety of attractions and landscapes to the visitors: caves with pertroglyphs, sandy dunes, abandoned gold mines, ruins of old traditional farms, rock formations, a natural pool and many beaches. We paid 11 US$ per adult (free for kids under 17) admission fee, we got a map of the area and we were warned to watch out for snakes. Among the most common snakes in Aruba are the boa and the casabel- a type of rattlesnake endemic to Aruba, which you will not see anywhere else in the world. We’ve been told to stay on the paths in order to avoid stepping on a cactus or a rattlesnake. “What do we do if a snake bites us?”, we asked. “You start counting, because you have 20 min to live”, was the answer.
In the park there are many hiking trails and rocky roads, and the off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies are activities very popular with the tourists. We started on foot towards the Conchi natural pool hiking for hours through the monotonous rigid nature. We walked through forests of cacti and met a few goat families roaming in the shadows of the big boulders. We even encountered two caracara hawks perched on a rock, in the company of big brown goat.
We finally got to Conchi or Natural Pool– the number one destination in the park. Surrounded by rocks and protected by the stormy sea, it is like a small saltwater lake on the shore. They say that many years ago the islanders used the pool as “a prison” to keep live sea turtles, who couldn’t escape in the sea. The place is excellent for swimming and snorkeling or just for hanging out and chilling in the clear waters heated by the sun after a long hike in the desert.
Thus, a month passed and we kind of settled on the island, where there were still more places to discover, we had many new friends, and Ivo and Maya wanted to continue perfecting their newly acquired kitesurfing and windsurfing skills. We truly didn’t want to leave Aruba and we considered staying for another month, but we knew that more wonderful places were waiting ahead. When the wind calmed down and the weather forecast was favorable once again, we lifted anchor and said good-by to Aruba.
Some Facts about Aruba:
• Aruba sits well outside of the hurricane belt and is safe for cruising all-year-round
• Checking in and out from Aruba is easy and free of charge.
• The maximum stay by boat is two months, which can be extended. For longer stay, there is an import permit required.
• Barracuda is served in every restaurant and it is a delicacy more valued than dorado and tuna.
• There are many small grocery shops all over the place, owned by Chinese and the prices are same or cheaper than the other Caribbean islands. There is a big shopping store like Sam’s club, which requires a membership card and has an excellent selection of provisions as well as cheaper prices.
• Aruba is maybe the safest Caribbean country with a very low crime rate, especially against tourists, which are the main support of the local economy.
• Aruba is one of the four countries that form the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with the Netherlands, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Its citizens are Dutch.
• The official languages are Dutch and Papiamento. Papiamento is the most popular language on Aruba. It incorporates words from other languages including Portuguese, West African languages, Dutch, and Spanish. English is known by many because of tourism.
• Europeans first learned of Aruba following the Spanish explorations in 1499. Spaniards soon colonized the island. But because it didn’t have much rainfall, Aruba was not good for plantations and slave trade. This is why there are not as many African descendants as in the other Caribbean islands.
• The Dutch took control 135 years after the Spanish, leaving the Arawaks to farm and graze livestock, and used the island as a source of meat for other Dutch possessions in the Caribbean.
• Aruba became independent in 1995
• Aruba is a flat, riverless island in the southern part of the Caribbean. It has white sandy beaches on the western and southern coasts, sheltered from ocean currents and waves. This is where most tourists go. The northern and eastern coasts are more battered by the sea and have been left almost untouched by humans.
• Most of the population is descended from Indians, Africans, and Dutch, as well as from Venezuelan immigrants.
• Aruba has one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean region and the Americas, with low unemployment rate.
• The island’s economy has been dominated by five main industries: tourism, gold mining, phosphate mining, aloe export, and petroleum refining. Before the oil refinery was shut down, oil processing was the dominant industry in Aruba. Today, tourism is the most important.
• The holiday of Carnaval is an important one in Aruba and it goes on for weeks. It starts from the beginning of January .
• Beach camping is allowed in Aruba during the Easter and Christmas holydays and is a very popular activity among the locals.
• Aruba, with constant strong winds, is an excellent place to learn or practice kitesurfing and windsurfing. Many world kitesurf and windsurf competition are held here every year.
About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: