Aruba- The Perfect Place to Pause

*This article was first publish and can be read on-line in Caribbean Compass issue NO. 239, August 2015 p.20-21.

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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.

Oranjestad, Aruba

Oranjestad, Aruba

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.

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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.

Palm Beach, Aruba

Palm Beach, Aruba

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.

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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.

Mira

Mira at Conchi- Natural Pool, Aruba

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:

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Kitesurfing in Aruba

Kitesurfing in Aruba

Ivo kitesurfing in Aruba

Ivo kitesurfing in Aruba

A couple of days after we dropped the hook in the calm waters of the bay near the Renaissance Hotel in Orangestad we met Tony. A friend of a friend, Tony is most probably the only Bulgarian who lives in Aruba, and he is here because of one thing and one thing only- kitesurfing.

Tony

Tony

Tony immigrated in Canada long time ago and until a few years ago he used to live in Montreal. He also used to travel all over the world to places of sea and wind. He used to windsurf all the time since 1979 until one day in 1999 in Hawaii, where he met and befriended Robby Nash and Pete Cabrina, he discovered a new thrill- a parachute attached to a board that allowed him to surf crazy fast on the surface of the sea, to jump over waves, and to fly! Kitesurfing became his life.

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He was the one who brought the first kitesurf in Montreal, introduced and developed the sport there when the sport was not only new, but also considered “ a suicide” and the kitesurfs were nothing like the modern ones but only had two lines and were hard to control. Kitesurfing used to be a dangerous business and to some extend still is.

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Then Tony discovered Aruba. The island became his favorite kitesurfing getaway and after a few vacations there he decided to move to Aruba and kitesurf full-time every spare moment of his life.

 

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Tony took us to Boca Grandi, a popular kitesurf beach on the north shore, where the reefs break the sea and the winds are constant and violent- just as he loves them. There are no hotels and no residential houses. The nearest building is the prison up on a hill overlooking the beach. To get there by car took us about half an hour form Oranjestad, past a few smaller towns, the abandoned oil refinery on the southeast corner until the road became bumpy sand dunes and we got to a small sandy parking lot. The only people on the beach were kitesurfers who all knew each other.

 

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We spent an afternoon watching Tony and about a dozen other kitesurfers fly around. Ivo was hooked. But Boca Grandi is not a place for beginners. To learn kitesurfing you need calm shallow waters and not many dangerous underwater rocks and reefs, as before you start “flying” you will be mostly splashing around and drinking seawater…

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So Tony sent Ivo to Armando.

Armando Wester is 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. The place is on the south shore of the island and is a lot more protected from big waves. In fact it is flat as a lake, shallow and with sandy bottom, which makes it excellent for kitesurf beginners. Here we met Armando, as well as the other guys and girls who work as kitesurf instructors, all super fun kitesurf maniacs. Everyone in Armando’s Shack are doing what they love to do- kitesurfing and teaching people to kitesurf.

Armando

Armando

Ivo took a couple of lessons with Carlos, who was super sweet and patient and fun. Then Ivo became the proud owner of a 12-meter kitesurf, a board and harness, which Armando sold him at a discount price.

Carlos and Ivo

Carlos and Ivo

Armando is a terrific dude. He is totally chill, with a permanent smile on his face, even (or especially) when kitesurfing. He is not one of those business-oriented lets-make-more-money lets-rip-off-everyone type of people who start with a dream and transform it into an industry and then become so preoccupied with profit, that forget about the dream in the first place. Not at all. He got the shack on the beach years ago and started giving lessons to people passionate about the sport. But mostly, he just wanted to kitesurf all the time. Today nothing much has changed, except that now he has a few people working for him as instructors, so he can just focus on chilling, kitesurfing and his young family. He was super cool with Ivo and helped him a lot with the choice of equipment, and he even let him practice with a smaller kite for the entire time we were in Aruba and while Ivo was still learning the ropes.

Ivo

Ivo

After a couple of weeks practicing every day, Ivo was finally able to enjoy the kite. And he will do so everywhere we go around the world, where there is sea and wind.

Kitesurfers we met in Aruba

Henry

Henry

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Armando

Armando

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Rocks and Cacti in Aruba

Rocks and Cacti in Aruba

Aruba was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t expect to find so many interesting places on such a small (32 km x10 km) flat desert island. After visiting California Lighthouse, the Alto Vista Chapel and the northwest rocky shores, we decided to go for a hike in the desert in the interior of the island and to check out some more of the tourist attractions.

Мира в Казибари

Casibari Rock Formations

The Casibari Rock Formations, abut 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…

Скали в Казибари

The first inhabitants from the Arawak tribe would 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.

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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 stretching in our feet, surrounded by blue waters. On a clear day one can spot the shores of Venezuela in the south.

Скални формации Казибари, Аруба

From the top of one of the cacti which had invaded the entire island, a small orange-and-black bird was watching us. The Trоupial is one of the few rare birds native of Aruba.

Трупиал от Аруба

Arikok National Park

 

The next day, we packed water and sandwiches, put on shoes good for hiking in a salty desert surrounded by sea, and went to Arikok National Park.

Мая и Иво в парк Арикок

 

The Arikok Park occupies 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, volcanic formations, abandoned gold mines, ruins of old traditional farms, rock formations, a natural pool and many beaches.

Северните брегове на Аруба, част от парк Арикок

 

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.

We decided to keep to the paths…

Мая в парк Арикок

 

Yet, a few times we did step off the path, mainly to take pictures of interesting things.

кактус

 

We didn’t step on a snake, but Mira did step on a cactus…

Мира стъпа на кактус.

 

In the park there are many hiking trails, as well as roads accessible by cars and off-roads accessible only by foot or 4×4 vehicles. The off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies are activities very popular with the tourists.

Оф-роуд сафари

 

We started on foot towards the natural pool. The park rangers told us that the hike is approximately 1.5 hrs. But we got lost, even though the paths are very well marked and there are signs at every crossroad. We just took the wrong turn at the beginning and after 1 hour of walking in the heat we got to a small traditional plantation house built in the cas di torto style.

Canucu Arikok

 

We had to turn back and walk another hour almost to the park entrance and when we got to the fatal crossroad with the sign we turned right and continued on to Natural Pool or Conchi.  But the deviation was worth it, as we enjoyed the monotonous rigid nature of this part of the park. 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.

Двойка соколи и козел

 

The time was advancing, yet we were still far from destination. The sun hung low on top of our heads as if its greatest ambition was to start a fire in our hats. We climbed one hill from where we could see the sea and the northern shores of the island and from there was just downhill on a dusty rocky road accessible by 4×4 vehicles and hikers. Maya started complaining of her shoes…

Път към естественият басейн

We decided to hitchhike. A jeep with two girls from Boston passed by and the first thing they saw must have been Ivo’s beard, as they were not sure if they wanted to pick us up, but they finally did and saved us at lest one more hour of walking on rocks in the heat of the desert. What followed was the bumpiest ride we have experienced since the beginning of our adventure two years ago, except maybe when we had to drive on the mountain roads destroyed by landslides in the Dominican Republic countryside.

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Conchi- Natural Pool

 

We finally got to the natural pool- number one destination in the park. We were lucky and got there before all the off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies unloaded hundreds of noisy visitors, whose only wish was to jump in the cool waters of the pool and quickly transformed a secluded place into a soup of tourists.

Естествен басейн в Аруба

 

Mira in the Natural Pool

Mira in the Natural Pool

The Natural Pool is surrounded by rocks and protected by the stormy sea. It is like a small lake on the shore. They say that many years ago the islanders used the pool as “a prison” for sea turtles, who couldn’t escape in the sea.

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The place is excellent for swimming and snorkeling or just for hanging out in the clear waters heated by the sun. But when the waves are too big and crush high above the rocks, it is risky to go in.

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On the way back we hitchhiked again and got a ride in the back of one of the park’s 4×4 vehicles with three guys, one of whom was the park’s manager. He complained that the goats are eating up the vegetation and all there will be left soon are cacti. And by the way, we saw one goat eating a rotting cactus too.

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Arashi Beach

 

Another beautiful place we were fortunate to visit in Aruba is Arashi Beach. it is located near palm Beach and is just 15 minutes walk from our anchorage.

Араши плаж

 

This is the most picturesque rocky shore we have ever seen. 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. They bring tourists twice a day- in the morning and in the afternoon, to snorkel in the reefs.

Пиратски кораби, Аруба

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Easter Beach Camping in Aruba

Easter Camping in Aruba

or Los Locos Felices (The Happy Crazies)

by Mira Nencheva

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Palm Beach, Aruba

We sailed to Aruba in the middle of March and dropped anchor 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 for somewhere between 200 and 500 dollars per person per night. Maybe even more.

Hotel Riu, Aruba

Hotel Riu Palace, Aruba

Aruba is a world famous vacation destination for the rich and tourism is the country’s main industry. It is “Heaven on Earth” for those who can afford it…

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But imagine if you can fly to Aruba and pitch a tent on the beach, next to Marriott’s Resort, at a very low cost. Wouldn’t that be something! If you are a backpacker or a student, or anyone with limited financial means traveling on a budget and you still want to enjoy the same island, the same beach, and the same sun and sea as the rich and the privileged, why not camping for a week or two in Aruba? You just have to time it well and plan your Arubian camping trip around Easter.

Tents in front of Marriott Hotel, Palm Beach, Aruba

Tents in front of Marriott Hotel, Palm Beach, Aruba

Actually, camping in Aruba is a very popular activity among the locals. It is a decade old tradition which transforms the coastline of the island, especially the western side, into a huge camping ground but only for a couple of weeks in March or April, whenever Easter happens to be that year.

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Easter is among the most important holidays for the Arubans and “Easter Beach Camping” is a highly anticipated and very well organized event taking place every year since forever, even since before the first hotel in Aruba was built. Families gather on previously determined big camping sites on one of Aruba’s many beaches during the kids’ Easter vacation and pitch their tents and tarpaulins. But first, they have to apply for a special camping permit -one for one camping site which may include many tents, issued by the local police for 5 $US per tent. The biggest camping site I saw this year included 11 brothers and sisters and their families- about 70 people in total, of which 30% were children. The permit holder becomes the “president” of the camping site and has to ensure that everyone respects the strict rules, otherwise he might lose the permit: no excessive noise after 10 p.m., no littering, no fire, no BBQ, no driving and no animals on the beach.

Playing dominos

Playing dominos

Normally, they apply for a permit by filling in a form and paying the fee at the local police station a month before the event, to make sure they will get the desired spot on one of the many beaches all around Aruba: Arashi Beach, Eagle Beach, Baby Beach, and Palm Beach among others.

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The camping is perfectly organized with portable toilets and small open kitchens. Every compound includes many tents and a large common area where everyone gathers to eat and celebrate together. Every meal for the next two weeks is transformed into a party.

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I met and talked to a few of the campers. They were super welcoming and happy to share a beer and a nice meal with me, while telling me all about Easter camping in Aruba. And I must say, the chicken was fabulous!

We are “locos felices” (happy crazies), they said proudly. We have been getting together every year for Easter in this same spot for twenty years now. We are a big family, about 30-40 people. The children love it, and this activity is mainly for them! The little cousins play together on the beach all day long and sleep in the tents at night. On Easter morning we do Egg Hunt on the beach. The grown-ups, we don’t sleep in the tents, they are for the kids. We sleep all under this tarpaulin in hammocks, all together, in open air. It’s all about spending time together, as a family, living as one with the peaceful nature.

Maria, 85 with four of her children

Maria, 85 (right) with her three daughters and a son

At age 85 Maria is the oldest camper. She only spends the days in the camp and returns to sleep in her house at night. But in her younger days, 20 years ago when she was only 65, she used to stay overnight as well.

This year, she has four out of five of her children, as well as many of her grand and great-grandchildren camping together just north of hotel Marriott on Palm Beach. Her son is the “president”, or the “chief”.

 

Maria and her daughters in the common area. Behind Maria is the area where the adults spread their hammocks and sleep at night together.

Maria and two of her daughters in the common area. Behind Maria is the area where the adults spread their hammocks and sleep at night together.

Marriott is the newest hotel on Palm Beach and was finished just months ago. Before, the campers used the beach area which is now reserved for the hotel, and they got pushed away. Their grounds are becoming smaller because of the large resorts which are taking over.

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When I asked them if visitors to the island can also apply for a permit and camp in Aruba on Easter, some told me sure, but others replied it is just for the locals.

And even if it was permitted, they said, we wouldn’t like it for tourists to do it. Imagine everyone instead of going in the hotels, pitching a tent on the beach. There wouldn’t be space left for us!

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Yet, as confirmed by VisitAuba.com, everyone is allowed to apply for a camping permit from the local Police Station in Noord (Call+297 587-0009) for two week around Holy Week on Easter, locals and tourists alike, and as long as there is space available and the permit is granted 10 days in advance, you can camp in Aruba! The cost of the permit is $5 per tent for the entire period (1-2 weeks).

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The problem is, you have to apply for a permit in person in the police station and preferably one month in advance… So I guess, Easter camping in Aruba will remain predominantly a local tradition.

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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 their Facebook page Facebook/The Life Nomadik where Mira is publishing stories and pictures.

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Welcome to Aruba

“Hello and welcome to our One Happy Island! I have been following your adventure and always wondered if you were to venture to Aruba, and here you are! Love to meet you in person and hear all about your travels. “

This was the most unexpected and wonderful message we received just a couple of days after we landed in Aruba, and it led to some awesome adventures and a great friendship.

North Coast, Aruba

North Coast, Aruba

The first place this guys (a family from Europe who now live in Aruba) took us was Taste of Belgium, a restaurant located in the Palm Beach Plaza Mall. Great style, food and service.

Maya at Taste of Belgium Restaurant, Aruba

Maya at Taste of Belgium Restaurant, Aruba

After coffee and hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream, we piled up in their jeep and went to check out couple of Aruba’s most popular tourist attractions: California Lighthouse and Alto Vista Chapel.

Aruba

Aruba

After a short drive on a narrow road surrounded by sand dunes and spiky Divi Divi trees all twisted and bent from the tradewinds, stretching branches to the southwest, we got to the northwest tip of Aruba where the island’s most famous landmark rises.

Lighthouse California, Aruba

Lighthouse California, Aruba

California Lighthouse is a 30-meter lighthouse built in 1916 near Arashi Beach. It was named after the steamship California that wrecked near the shores in September 23, 1891.

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The Arashi Beach itself is a popular snorkeling destination away from the big hotels and crowds attracting locals and tourists with its rock formations and underwater life.

Divi Divi tree, Aruba

Divi Divi tree, Aruba

The Arashi Beach is a participant in the Aruba Reef Care Project to clean up reefs, shallow waters and public beaches. Arashi is Blue Flag certified, part of a program to promote green behavior and increase eco-awareness on the island.

Further down the winding dusty road with a string of crosses all along one side 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. From this small hill we could see not only the Caribbean sea but the entire island stretching to the south.

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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.

Alto Vista, Aruba

Alto Vista, Aruba

Behind the chapel we found an intricate labyrinth 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.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth

On the way back we made a few stops just to look at the sea and shores which on the north side of the island, the harsh, unprotected by the relentless tradewinds shores, looks wild and unforgiving. Swimming here is forbidden by law.

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We didn’t even think about swimming here, nor sailing… It’s one of those awesome places of power where nature just wants to be left alone. Respect.

The same afternoon our new friends picked us up from Palm Beach near where Fata Morgana was anchored (us and a huge bag with dirty laundry), and took us to their home for a “washing party”. While our clothed, towels and bed sheets were miraculously being washed and dried in a real big washing machine and drier, we shared stories, drinks and nice dinner- BBQ and the tastiest butter potatoes with mozzarella cheese, and crème brule for dessert. The kids played in the sun-heated swimming pool.

Not many land-based people truly understand the needs and daily problems of the cruising liveabord family (laundry and land transportation mostly). But these guys knew. They gave us a tour of Aruba, and insisted to help us do our washing and grocery shopping. Our gratitude cannot be expressed with words. The hospitality, generosity and kindness of these people whom we had just met the same morning are immense.

When we got home that day Maya couldn’t believe that all those things happened in just one day. She kept asking: “Did we really just meet them this morning?” It felt like we knew them for much longer time.

Maya Ivo and Mira in Aruba Мая Иво и Мира в Аруба

Maya Ivo and Mira in Aruba
Мая Иво и Мира в Аруба

Such was our unforgettable Friday in Aruba.

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Passage to Aruba

March 16th, Monday

After one last big shopping spree in Sam’s Club for boat provisions we sail to The Coffin Island (Caja de Muertos) 7 miles southeast of Ponce. Every weekend a boat unloads a mob of Puerto Rican weekenders with their beach umbrellas and beach creams to spend a few hours on the beach of this little island which is also a National Park. It is a small tourist attraction with a very interesting history. The legend has it, that a Portuguese pirate buried his beloved, along with half of his treasure, in a glass coffin on the island. Years later, the grave and the coffin were found, but to this day no one knows what happened to the treasure…

Caja de Muertos

Caja de Muertos

And among the sailors there is a superstition that if you want to have a safe passage, you better stop and visit the Coffin Island right after leaving Ponce. We do stop there for a night, but not entirely out of superstition. Rather, we want to start sailing early on the next day, before sunrise and without turning on the engines. In Ponce the wind dies at night because of the katabatic mountain effect until 8-9 a.m., when the sun’s heat cancels the effect, and even though this makes for an excellent night’s sleep, it is impossible to sail near the shores of Puerto Rico before 8 a.m.

March 17th, Tuesday

We set sail for Aruba around 6 a.m. It’s still dark. We have 380 nautical miles ahead, which is a big 3-day passage for us. In the Caribbean we have been sailing for just a few hours between the islands in the past year.

The weather forecast is perfect. East winds 15-20 knots, 1-2 meter waves every 5-6 seconds. We have been waiting for such mild tradewinds for a month now. But the weather forecast is not always exact and we don’t trust them 100%. Often the wind can be 5 knots more or less than predicted and there is always the danger of squalls. First a small innocent white cloud forms on the horizon. The cloud quickly grows tall, heavy and dark at the base. The wind dies for a minute or two- time to reef the sails. And then it starts squealing 30-40 knots, sometimes more, just for a few minutes. Such sudden squalls have ruined many boats.

Nothing extraordinary happens the first day of the passage. The wind is slower than predicted 8-12 knots. Fata Morgana is sailing calmly with 4-5 knots. We sleep, read, Maya plays the piano.

Maya and her piano

Maya and her piano

The dolphins find us again and stay to race with the boat for about two hours, which is unusually long. Usually, after a few minutes they get bored and leave to look for other boats to race. We always love to see them and we always talk to them and we admire their skillful fast movements through the water, how they swim, sometime on their backs, just for fun, how they exhale bubbles just before they come out for air, how they jump sometimes, how they enjoy the sea. We love them incredibly much and they know it.

Иво с делфини

Иво с делфини

Мая с делфини

Мая с делфини

March 18th, Wednesday

The night passes slowly, the wind remains calm, the sails are well adjusted and tight. We are 100 miles south of Puerto Rico and can still hear the US Coast Guard on the radio, and this is great comfort for us. We cross paths with a few big ships. Two of them even change course to avoid us. Celia, Harmen Oldendorff and tanker Lue Liang Wan on its way to Curacao.

No moon. Only billions of stars, so bright they illuminate tiny star-paths in all directions. Fata Morgana skims over the dark surface of the sea leaving a trail of white foam, like a veil, sprinkled with tiny photo luminescent glimmers- glowing jewels on lacework.

The morning arrives slowly. We are very tired and take turns on the helm, Ivo and I, every two hours. We keep sailing and everything is calm.

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In the morning Maya makes us omelets with feta cheese and reads another history lesson. There are no more ships around us, we are alone, 150 miles from the nearest land, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Ivo is not happy with the fact that we still don’t have a fish on the hook. He goes below for a nap.

Добро утро!

Добро утро!

Not long after, I see, just a few meters away from the boat, a marlin jumping out of the water vertically, and splash – a flamboyant splash, like a whale. White belly and dark sleek back, long body and a pointy nose, like a spade. I can’t believe it! He jumps again. Suddenly, the hiss of the fishing pole. Ivo appears eyes wide open, takes the rod and we see the marlin again. He shoots up vertically, falls and snaps the cord. He takes off with the lure. A beauty. Gone.

The wind picks up 14-18 knots and we speed up to 6-7 knots. The sea gets more agitated too. The waves are now bigger but still gentle, coming slowly behind us at an angle and we surf comfortably down with 8-9 knots. At noon we doze off in the cockpit. We see seagulls. Thousands of seagulls, flying low over the water, some perched on the waves, rocking. What are seagulls doing hundreds of miles away from land in the middle of the sea? Fishing! Beneath us, a school of hundreds of tunas are feeding on smaller fish and the seagulls are waiting for the abundant pickings. We are passing right in the middle of the commotion with one lure all tangled with seaweed, but the other clean and completely available for the grabs. We catch a striped tuna. They are also called watermelons, as they do look like watermelons, all round, with red juicy meat. Extremely tasty with garlic butter just a few seconds on the frying pan. Ivo is happy.

Иво с туна

Иво с туна

March 19th, Thursday

We are halfway there. The second night is as calm as the first, even more so with no ships around. Ivo decides to see how he would singlehandle the boat and orders me to go and sleep all night. He just lies in the cockpit and sleeps too, opening one eye every now and then to see if everything is normal. It is.

To imagine sailing at night you must imagine driving at night in complete darkness in a bumpy field, without headlights. Not any lights, no moon. Everything is black and you cannot see ahead. The only lights are the stars and the two screens- one is the GPS showing you on a map where the boat is and another indicating the wind speed and direction. The autopilot is keeping the course. You do nothing. Even if the tiny lights of a ship appear on the horizon (and you first see the ship on the GPS or the radar), it’s 2-3 hours at least before you get close to it.

The wind picks up in the morning 18 to 24 knots. The boat is going faster now 7-8 knots surfing with 9 down the waves. White caps form and it’s bumpier. But the distance to destination gets shorter a lot faster too.

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We catch a female dorado. She is a beautiful golden fish with an extravagant blue dorsal fin. Some fishermen will tell you that the dorados, also called mahi-mahis, get married and remain with their spouses for life, not like most people who divorce when they get fed up with each other. The couples love each other dearly, without questions, jalousies and complications. They swim together in oceans and seas, give birth to billions of babies, and die together at the end. When you catch one dorado, the other will desperately follow the boat without thinking, without a plan. It will just swim after the boat on which his beloved better half is, with a broken hearth and without hope till the end of the world.

Ivo gently unhooks Mrs. Dorado and puts some medical alcohol in her gills (anesthesia), and we watch her die. The shine in her gold skin fades away, she stops trembling and the terror in her eye freezes. Ivo puts the freed lure back in the water and carefully starts operating, like a skillful surgeon. First, he removes her guts, then he slices the filets on both sides of the middle bone, he peals the skin off, and he amputates the head.

Of course, after just a few minutes we hook Mr. Dorado, it’s inevitable. On the same lure. He comes out without a fight, he gives up, abandons himself, brokenhearted. The last thing he sees before he dies is the dismantled body of his wife. And Ivo leaning over him with a bottle of medical alcohol.

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We decide not to fish any more. One 15-pound tuna and a couple of dorados is enough food for a week. Like experienced shamans, satisfied, solemn and sad, we thank Neptune for the fish.

Sunset. It gets dark. We are approaching Aruba. In the night we first see a glow on the horizon, then the light from a lighthouse and then the many lights of buildings and cars and ships anchored. Hotels and restaurants, drunk people are singing somewhere on land. We drop anchor at midnight, after a 66-hour passage. Three sunrises, three sunsets, three fishes, not a single squall. Three people in a boat.

The next morning, March 20th, Friday, we go to the docks in Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital, where we clear in immigration and customs. It takes about 2 hours, mostly waiting for the officials to come to the boat and bring the paperwork, which we have to fill in and return, without ever leaving the boat. Passports are stamped, documents and exchanged, no one boards Fata Morgana, and the entire procedure is completely free and done on the pier. No fees whatsoever. What a pleasant surprise!

Фата Моргана на док в Аруба

Фата Моргана на док в Аруба

Welcome to Aruba!

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