Aruba Rocks: Desert Island

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2000

I'd never given much thought to the term "desert island" until I visited Aruba. But if the phrase is taken to mean "an island covered by desert" rather than "an island that's deserted," then, as they might say elsewhere in the Caribbean, Aruba's the ting.

The island's arid, rumpled landscape is bristling with long-armed cactuses, aloe plants and sad, spindly divi-divi trees bent low by the persistent winds. The key features of the island's interior are gigantic rock piles inhabited by wild goats, dry stream beds called rooi, the remains of early gold-mining operations, a few caves with ancient inscriptions and a massive volcanic stub of magnetic rock. In the last 24 years of record-keeping, the temperature in Aruba has not dropped below 66 degrees, and as late as 1926, people on the island died of thirst. The north coast's stony perimeter supports little more than wild donkeys, stray dogs, iguanas the size of house cats and a distinctive species of rattlesnake found only on Aruba. The candlestick cactuses are so abundant householders cut them down and build fences with them. Early Spanish settlers, not knowing what to make of this small, isolated and rocky place, dismissed Aruba among the islas inutiles, or useless islands.

Happily, the island's very desert-ness has protected it over the years. While many of its more lush and populated Caribbean neighbors have suffered the serial devastations of slavery, colonization, economic exploitation and mass tourism, Aruba has made it through the past couple of centuries left pretty much alone. Today the island sports a pair of wide white-sand beaches on the southern coast, lined with up-market tourist hotels; a reasonably safe and, in places, charming capital city that reflects a bit of the island's Dutch heritage and harbors some superb restaurants; and an efficient modern airport that can land the big birds most tourists prefer to fly. The northern coast, meanwhile, remains exotic, rocky desert, almost completely undeveloped and partially protected by national laws.

In other words, Aruba is a desert island that has a great beach and comfortable resort hotels. Or, if you prefer, a pleasant resort island with a nearby desert playground. Either way, it's a distinctive Caribbean island, a good place to combine the pleasures of a typical resort getaway with a little bit of Discovery Channel-style stimulation--"soft adventure," as the tourism industry likes to call it. Add the fact that Aruba stands safely outside the hurricane belt, and this arid, scrubby place starts to look, by contemporary standards, quite "useful" indeed.

Which is not to say Aruba is by any stretch "off the beaten track" or "undiscovered." If you're looking for that, look elsewhere. More than 680,000 people visited Aruba in 1999, more than 50 percent of them Americans, and its 6,800 hotel rooms run at about 77 percent capacity year-round. The hotel we stayed in, an 800-room, time-share beachfront behemoth called La Cabana, featured a Dunkin' Donuts in the pool courtyard right outside our patio, and from our front door I could see--past the parking lot and across from the sprawling miniature golf course--an Outback Steakhouse. The hotels all have cable, the water is perfectly drinkable, and if you have no interest in native cuisine you can eat at one of three Wendy's, two Pizza Huts or a Tony Roma's. Everything is denominated in U.S. dollars, and you'll need to bring plenty of them--nearly all the food is imported, so it's hard to find a place where lunch entrees are under $10 and dinners under $20. One headline in Aruba Today, the local daily, read "Christmas Seafood Buffet Dinner Just $14.95 plus 15 percent." After spending a week eating at the very expensive restaurants, I could appreciate why such a modest price might be considered headline news.

Despite the size of La Cabana, or maybe because of it, my family and I were comfortable and well-entertained. The complex features three pools--one a huge polygonal affair across from the beach, one with a swim-up cave and one with a swim-up bar and three-story water slide. The water slide was unforgettable; it propelled my body faster than it's ever moved, I think, without the benefit of a vehicle. Our boys, 9 and 10, would slide down and climb back up for hours. When they rested, they fed the fuchsia-red cherries from my wife Pam's and my tropical drinks to the fat, tame iguanas that prowled the grounds. The expected resort activities--aqua aerobics, bingo, limbo--punctuated the days, and banana boats, sailboards and jet skis were never far from sight on the beach. In the resort's casual outdoor restaurant, we ate Americanized meals and, one night, enjoyed an incredible show by the young members of the Ballet Folklorico Nacional di Aruba. They performed dances from the many cultures Aruba has absorbed over the centuries--South American, African, European and more. The native dance finale was awesome, with the performers' arms and legs flapping with such impossible speed it seemed their limbs might burst from their joints and fly off into the night sky.

But the highlight of the hotel was the beach. La Cabana sits across three narrow lanes of access road from Eagle Beach, a wide, white spread of sand and blue-green waves that were almost suspiciously well-tuned for low-impact body-surfing. Like many Caribbean islands, only the side of Aruba that faces the open sea is rugged and inhospitable. The quiet side, in this case the southern coast where the hotels stand, is delightfully calm, the horizon decorated with cargo ships headed from Venezuela, just 18 miles away. Pelicans prowl the waves, their wing-tips nearly skimming the foam.

The beach in front of La Cabana is spotted with thatched-roof sun-relief huts, and there are plenty of vinyl-webbed chairs. If only the hale young men who set them up for us were seeking nothing more than a cash tip, the beach scene would have been completely pleasant. Unfortunately, some were commissioned real estate and water-sports pitchmen circulating their brochures, trying to cut day-trip snorkeling deals and extract time-share-visit commitments. They were at least as annoying as the ganja dealers who prowl the beaches in Jamaica, and in some ways worse: The dope guys at least seem to know who the prospects are and stay away from others, but the time-share dudes hit up everyone. Worse, every time you passed through the lobby at La Cabana, the time-share pushers would press a brochure on you. Who wants this kind of hassle on vacation?

The gentle currents of Eagle Beach toss up a selection of seashells and coral, making sunrise and sunset great times to comb. Shells of conchs and other gastropods the size of toy footballs were so common in some areas they were piled up almost like trash. To be fair, the quantity of this treasure may have been anomalous because three weeks before our holiday-season visit, Aruba had suffered a severe wind-and-rain storm. One middle-aged Aruban woman said it was the first time in her life she'd felt obligated to buy a raincoat. It rained and blew for more than a week, and for once the wind came from the south rather than the north. The hotel beaches facing south were filled with debris for a week or two and were still recuperating while we were there. One of the strangest sights was the hulk of one of Aruba's popular shallow-water diving wrecks, the Baboo II, tilting preposterously in the sand. The powerful winds and tides had blown the wreck back onto the shore on Palm Beach, by a stretch of swank high-rise hotels. There it stood, a rusty behemoth waiting to be dragged back down where it belonged.

But if you're just going to hang around the resorts, there's no good reason to choose Aruba over any number of more affordable, nearby islands. The payoff comes when you rent a jeep (not a car, of which more below) and tool around the desert--and largely deserted--north coast. It's possible to take a jeep "safari" with any number of outfitters, but when we toured the island independently, we saw many lines of jeeps 20 or 30 vehicles long, creating traffic jams and human crowds at each attraction. Not the best way to take in the subtle beauties of the desert, I'd argue.

In what may be an egregious case of guidebook authors quoting one another without verifying, many guides say something like this: "The entire island can be toured in half a day, though you may want to pack a picnic and make a day of it." What a hoot. My family and I spent three hours one (hot) afternoon exploring Aruba's delightfully mystifying interior roads (in a four-wheel-drive Samurai with no air conditioning) trying to find (just) one much-touted attraction, something called the Natural Pool. As far as I could tell, no matter where you are in Aruba, the Natural Pool is "straight ahead and on the left." At least this is what the many friendly and helpful residents (the guidebooks are at least correct about this) told us when we stopped to ask directions.

Though the roads were mostly unpaved, dusty and unmarked, we had a fine time as long as the drinking water in the plastic bottle held out. At one point, when we were hopelessly lost, I steered the Samurai down a savage little rut with no apparent exit (this is why you should not "save money" by renting the small Toyota you may be offered by rental firms without jeeps or other 4WD vehicles). Pam and the kids disembarked while I tried to turn the jeep around without tipping it. Meantime, they wandered down the path and saw a small flock of green parrots in the trees, one of the great natural highlights of the trip. Soon a man with a red cap and a cane walked slowly up to our jeep, perhaps to tell us we were on his property. I asked him how to get to Natural Pool and it became clear he was mute. He lifted his cane and pointed.

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