A May 2002 trip
to Aruba by Idler
Quote: Aruba is a favorite among sun worshippers who come to party and be pampered. Restless, I abandoned the Americanized resorts seeking "unspoilt Aruba." Though rewarded for my efforts, I was saddened by the degradation of the island and its surrounding waters. Tourism both saves and sullies this island paradise.
Everywhere we went, the wind kept us company, blowing strongly from the east. I went out one day on a sailboat, going the length of the coast and back. The boat heeled over sharply to the side in the wind – exhilarating.
The white sand beaches along the western coast are justifiably famous, though the entire strip is built up solidly with hotels, so don’t expect to have the beach to yourself. The best times for some peace and quiet are early in the morning and in the evening, when glorious sunsets make postponing dinner worthwhile.
The elemental nature of the landscape away from the developed areas was striking. Small cunucu (homesteads) in earth tones of orange and yellow are set higgledy-piggledy in the cactus- and acacia-covered terrain.
Getting up early to watch birds from our balcony was a favorite ritual. Aruba is blessed with numerous types of exotic birds, many of which I’d never seen before.
Aruba is a fairly easy place to drive. Arubans are mostly polite and easy-going drivers. Mind you, it can be hard to navigate at times. The locals know where they’re going and apparently don’t see the necessity of marking the roads. Still, how lost can you get on an island that’s only 19 miles long and 6 miles wide? Not very.
We rented a tiny Suzuki Alto, which was fine for our needs, though we wished at times we’d sprung for a 4WD, especially in the National Park, which has some rough roads. Many people rent open jeeps, but personally we were thankful for the shade and air conditioning our car provided.
Best Things About the Resort:The grounds are lovely, the staff courteous, and the condos are quite nice. The two swimming pool areas are meticulously maintained. We liked the tranquil atmosphere.
Resort Experience:A lushly landscaped, inviting oasis of two separate pool areas is one of the chief draws of Caribbean Palm Village, one of the few sizeable resorts on Aruba not located directly on a beach. Depending on your interests, this is either an advantage or disadvantage.
Many of the people staying at this quiet resort were obviously perfectly happy poolside, away from the bustle of the beach resorts. C.P.V. features two good-sized, meticulously maintained pools. There are plenty of comfortable lounge chairs and tables with umbrellas, and the ubiquitous palms provide plenty of shade. In addition, there’s a spa/Jacuzzi area set on a pillared dais overlooking a small waterfall splashing into the second pool. Several large odd-shaped boulders serve as intriguing natural sculptures.
We stayed in a two-bedroom unit in a back section of the resort, so the view from our balcony was not of the lovely landscaped interior of the resort but rather over the scruffy area behind the resort. There was, as it turned out, a silver lining to this as the many scrubby acacia trees and hardy desert plants turned out to be home to a variety of birds, including lively small finches that flitted in and out of nests they’d built under the building’s roof overhang.
The décor of the condominium was what I’d call "standard resort utilitarian," nothing particularly inspiring but not depressing, either. The kitchen was fairly well equipped, with a few omissions, such as no baking sheets or pans appropriate for the oven. The air conditioning worked well but was somewhat noisy. Deferential maids emptied the trash, made beds, and provided basic daily cleanup. We were given two nonfunctioning remotes for the three TV’s in the condo; the "music entertainment system" promised by the Interval International resort description was nonexistent. Three TV’s but no music? Hmmm.…I wasn’t happy about that.
The staff at the front desk was cheerful and moderately efficient, though I did wonder at check-in when we were told to "just bring back the remotes" if they didn’t work. (Hint, guys: Don’t expect guests to do this, or better yet just leave working remotes in the condos!) A security guard is conspicuously positioned at each of the two entrances, which just made me wonder why that was necessary on the self-advertised "happy island."
Many of the clientele seem to be retired folk, content to work crossword puzzles and bake yet a deeper shade of dark brown poolside. I had no particular desire to socialize with the folks staying at C.P.V., but for what it’s worth the young activities director gamely organizes bingo sessions, pizza parties, and so on for those who do.
Consider renting a cell phone if you plan to make many calls while staying at C.P.V. as phone fees are steep. A daily $7.50 "timeshare tax" was an unexpected charge imposed at the end of our stay – this has nothing to do with C.P.V.’s policies but is rather a fee extracted by Aruba.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 12, 2002
Located in a somewhat unprepossessing but tidy-looking commercial building, the Captain’s Corner is open only for dinner (closed Tuesdays). It specializes, as you might expect, in seafood, though the menu like many other things on the island has a Dutch twist. Side dishes are usually Dutch-style potatoes or vegetables and the desserts are European favorites. There are two seating areas, inside in a cozy-looking nook or outside on a low-roofed patio area among potted palms rustling in the ever-present breeze. We decided to sit outside, as the evening was reasonably cool and the casual outdoor décor was charming.
We were given bilingual menus (Dutch and English) by an attractive blond-haired waitress, who, along with another pretty blonde was circulating among the outdoor tables, chatting with the guests. While we ordered our drinks, we asked the two where they were from (they clearly weren’t Arubans), and they answered that they were Dutch. As the Netherlands administers Aruba, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was frequently struck by the number of young Dutch people working on the island, especially in the restaurants, where their facility with English is clearly a bonus.
Even though the small restaurant seemed fairly busy, with a mix of Arubans and tourists seated at nearby tables, our dinner arrived quickly. I figure this is always a good sign, as the longer it takes, the greater the chances of my fish being overcooked. I had ordered the ‘catch of the day,’ mahi mahi (dolphin – the fish not the mammal!), and the size of the portion set before me was huge, at least 10 ounces. It was blanketed in a delicious-smelling garlic sauce and accompanied with tender vegetables and ubiquitous potatoes.
I’m finicky about fish. It takes a light touch and timing to prepare it well. But this fish - WOW! - it was superb. I can only recall two or three other seafood meals that I have enjoyed as much. The mahi mahi was incredibly tender, mild, and perfectly married to the mild piquancy of the garlic sauce. Fears that I wouldn’t be able to finish my meal were quickly set aside.
My tablemates were equally pleased with their selections – a mixed seafood platter and fried white fish. We were given complimentary glasses of wine with our dinner, and, as a final grace note, our charming waitresses gave my sister-in-law and me small gifts (change purses) in honor of Mother’s Day. We topped it all off with dessert (crème brulee, in my case) and coffee. It was truly a meal to remember.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 12, 2002
I’d been to a few of Aruba’s best-known snorkeling spots offshore and had been disappointed. The coral looked diseased, the water was murky with algae and sediment, and the fish weren’t very abundant. Perhaps by going further out, in a boat, conditions would improve.
Sail Tranquilo seemed to fit the bill. The boat went to a couple of spots that were inaccessible from shore, taking snorkellers to deeper (15-20’) water. I’d also read that the 43’ boat took out only a dozen or so passengers, which I found appealing.
In fact, there were only six people signed up for the tour (it was low season), though with the three crewmembers and their girlfriends, there were 12 on board. The mood was festive, the crew bantering with each other and enjoying themselves as much as the guests. I gathered that on such "off" days, the crew made the best of it by bringing along friends and having a party.
Departing from a pier near Palm Beach, we sailed down the coast toward the southern tip of the island. I hadn’t been on many sailboats before and found the experience exhilarating. Aruba, as always, delivered its trademark winds to fill the sails. I sat near the prow of the boat with the other lone passenger, a younger woman who, like me, was wearing a long cover-up to shield her fair skin from the sun (we both burnt, despite repeated applications of sunscreen). The other four passengers, two couples, were intent on partying. By the time we’d reached our destination, about an hour and a half later, they were having trouble donning their fins and masks.
We moored in a shallow area inside a reef and the six of us and a few crewmembers were soon in the water. Reef conditions were better than those I’d seen on my own offshore, but far from healthy. One reason for this became evident as one of my fellow tourists, in his attempts to "snorkel," began walking over the coral!
Oh dear. "Drink more, damage more coral," I muttered to myself. (I deliberated taking the fellow to task, but fear of incurring his hostility held me back. I wish now that I’d said something.)
After 40 minutes or so, we moved on for the promised "deep water" snorkel. Thankfully, the coral trampler and his wife were by that point so sozzled that they opted out of this portion, which involved going out in a dinghy amidst some fairly large swells. The coral was healthier here, as I’d hoped, and there were more fish. All too soon it was time to get back in the boat.
However, my inner sightseer won out over my inner animal lover this time. After perusing tourist brochures, I booked a tour with Rancho Daimari, out near Arikok National Park. The route traversed a rugged landscape, up and down fairly steep rocky slopes to a natural pool near the seaside. The views were breathtaking, but the terrain made challenging riding.
Luckily, the horses on Aruba are hardy Paso Finos, elegant but small horses noted for their smooth gaits. Upon arrival at the ranch, the eight members of our group were assigned horses based on experience. Classified an "advanced" rider, I was mounted last. My horses back home are modest sized, standing at 15.2 hands, but "Horizon," the gray Paso I was matched to, seemed tiny. I felt momentarily sorry for him until I realized he was pure muscle and was having little difficulty carrying me.
On the contrary, what he wanted to do was blaze along as far out in front of the group as possible, becoming quite agitated when I slowed his pace to match the rest of the group, which was plodding along at a crawl the first-timer riders were bemoaning as "too fast," but which was in truth the Bataan Death March pace favored by riding tours worldwide.
Horizon and I reached an understanding: I’d let him trot rapidly along out front a ways, then trotted him back to rejoin the group. When we rode in the group, he made a complete nuisance of himself, nearly getting kicked several times. He was definitely a "type A" horse.
After about an hour we stopped by the seashore, near a lovely natural pool sheltered from the crashing waves by a rock formation. Many of the tour members went for a swim, but I didn’t fancy riding in wet clothes afterward and chatted with the guides instead. After about a half hour, we resumed the ride, soon coming to the advertised high point of the tour, a canter across some sand dunes.
Approaching the dunes, Horizon began tossing his head and dancing in place like a racehorse approaching the starting gate. I’d wanted to wait until the others had started off first, as the novice riders were understandably nervous about cantering, but the little gray horse was psyched. Getting a little distance from the others, I gave him his head.
Whoosh! Horizon charged across the sand, weaving in and out of the dunes. The world became a blur of white sand, blue sky, pounding hooves and crashing surf. We were flying.
When the dunes ended, I pulled the little horse up. We’d left the others far behind, so Horizon was happy: he’d "won" the race. I couldn’t suppress the big grin on my face as we trotted back to the group.
However, my brother and I gamely went snorkeling at several beaches reputed to be good spots. The best fish we saw were at Baby Beach, on the southern tip of the island. The fish, including snapper, wrasse, tang, puffers, and surgeonfish, mostly congregate at a break in the reef off to the left. My brother, who’s a very strong swimmer, went outside the reef and was pummeled by the waves crashing into the coral, earning some nasty cuts for his pains. My advice would be to stay inside the reef unless conditions are calm.
Another spot that was interesting, though there weren’t many fish, was just north of the windsurfing area at Hadicurari. There’s a wreck just offshore in shallow water, easily explored from shore, especially at low tide. Aruba is famous for the wrecks lying offshore, and this is the most accessible. Reef shoes are recommended, however, as the entry is rocky.
Malmok Beach is a bit of a misnomer; the "beach" is mostly a rocky ledge with a few sandy entry points. However, when the water’s calm this is a nice place to snorkel and the fish like to congregate near the rocky outcroppings. I went out alone one morning (tsk tsk… my excuse was it was dead calm) and snorkeled from a sandy inlet. It was so becalmed that I hung motionless near a school of small silver herring-like fish, fascinated by the Möebius-like motion of the drifting strands of the shoal. Fishermen in a small boat nearby were casting their nets, guided by brown pelicans diving for fish.
Arashi Beach, north of Malmok, was a disappointment, awash in nasty algae that made it difficult to see. (Perhaps fertilizer run-off from the nearby golf course has something to do with this?)
Several evenings I walked along Eagle Beach at sunset, parking not far from a much-photographed divi-divi tree, extravagantly sculpted by the wind. Few people were out on the beach then, though perhaps if they’d been alerted to the glorious spectacle that would take place on the horizon they would have stayed. I’d walk southward a mile or so, stopping to observe the grand finale as the sun sank below the horizon and the sky glowed a vibrant reddish orange.
One of the most heartening things I saw on Aruba was Arikok National Park, the result of a relatively recent decision to set aside land in an ecological preserve. With careful stewardship, this may provide the last best hope for the survival of Aruba’s endemic species such as the "cascabel," or Aruban Rattlesnake, which has a precarious toehold on survival.
My sister-in-law and I spent a good part of the morning simply trying to find the park, having misinterpreted a confusing set of directions given at a gas station in San Nicholas. In fact, the park is easy to find if you turn toward Santa Cruz, but before we discovered that, we’d traversed a number of interesting back roads searching for the elusive park entrance.
Once we got to Santa Cruz, however, the signs to the park were easily followed. A small kiosk staffed by a park ranger marks the entrance to the park. We stopped to talk to the ranger, who advised us that the best time to visit the park was in the morning. In fact, temperatures by then were pretty intense, so we decided to forgo the hike we’d planned and simply drive through the park. Before we set out, we had an interesting talk with the ranger about some of the animals and sights we’d encounter. His enthusiasm and passionate interest in ecology were testimony to Arubans’ emerging environmental awareness.
Our drive through the park took us through some fairly rough roads that bore evidence of eroding wash-outs during infrequent downpours. Views out over the cactus- and acacia-strewn landscape reminded me a bit of parts of the American Southwest. We stopped near a short marked trail and braved the heat for a short walk on a high plateau, then resumed our journey toward the rear of the preserve, where strikingly white sand dunes are pounded by the surf and caves containing ancient Indian petroglyphs can be found.
Fontein Cave contains the best examples of Indian artifacts. Entering the cave, we became aware of the musty odor of bats. Fontein contains not only Indian petroglyphs, but interesting old graffiti dating back several centuries near the entrance. Not far from the cave is an Aruban ‘cunucu,’ or homestead, set near the only naturally-occurring water source on the entire island. The central building of the cunucu contains a somewhat lacklustre "natural history museum," consisting of a few glass cases of unmarked specimens (although we recognized the somnolent rattlesnake in one case as being the endangered cascabel).
With so much of the island overburdened by the growing population’s demands, Arikok stands as a reminder of what the island was once like. I wanted to come back at dawn and hike through the deserted canyons, but I never managed to do so. Still, our afternoon excursion was a memorable one that made me hopeful Arubans would safeguard their remaining undeveloped areas.
"In the last decade the island of Aruba has experienced all of the above problems when, after the closure of the refinery in 1985, the economy was revived by a massive tourism expansion program which resulted in the local industry tripling its room capacity."
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND TOURISM IN ARUBAIslander Magazine, Issue 4 (July 1997)
My hazy, optimistic pre-trip expectations of what Aruba would be like ran smack into the reality of the island. As Jake Ryan has pointed out in his honest journal on Jamaica, the tourist industry performs a disservice to travelers when it promotes overly-glossy, romanticized images of the Caribbean. While I’m not necessarily comparing Aruba to Jamaica, the two islands share one essential trait: They are both dependent on tourism for their economic survival.
Now the question I should have asked myself beforehand was what kind of place would result from this. Had I been a more savvy, less gullible traveler, I would have taken the trouble to learn a little objective information about the island I was about to visit. I focused on glowing accounts at tourist sites of Aruba’s lovely white sand beaches.
What I didn’t realize, however, is that the island has undergone almost a complete transformation in the past 17 years, making a stunning transition from an island almost completely dependent economically on the oil industry to one dependent on tourism.
The facts are these. According to a United Nations Development Programme report:
"Aruba's tourism development strategy is of relatively recent origin and is widely held to be a success story, if not economic a "miracle". In 1985, Aruba embarked on a strategy of tourism development increasing the number of hotel rooms from a little over 2000 rooms (2208) in that year to around 7,000 (6,843) by 1996. The number of visitors grew from around 200,000 visitors to 641,000 by the end of 1996, exclusive of cruiseship day visitors."
Stop and think about that for a minute. In a little over a decade, the number of visitors increased three-fold, not including the masses of people who disembark from cruise ships. It’s a small island, with almost all the development concentrated along the west coast. What would the consequences of this rapid change be?
I won’t say I found Aruba especially crowded (we visited offseason), except when cruise ships disgorged masses of day-trippers in Oranjestad. Nor will I say that the overall Aruban tourist experience is unpleasant. It's all very benign, almost bland in its careful cultivation. Aruba has taken great pains to draw tourists in, but some of the things that were selected as tourist "draws" are, in my book, complete turn-offs.
Take, for example, the numerous casinos. I’ve got nothing against gambling; in fact, I occasionally enjoy a day at the racetrack. But slot machines, blackjack tables and late-night casino action have limited appeal to travelers like me whose primary interests are local culture and a healthy natural environment. On the contrary, this sort of tourist development, much in evidence on Aruba, panders shamelessly to the "party hearty" booze-cruisers. In fact, there's a symbiotic relationship between Caribbean ports-of-call like Oranjestad and the massive Carnival-style cruise ships that belly up to the docks. The ports trick themselves out into frothy theme parks, full of glitter and attention-grabbing attractions, all no farther than six blocks (your average passenger's walking tolerance, apparently) of the dock.
Okay, I know. Booze cruisers are entitled to their pleasures, too. There’s no ocean near Vegas, so perhaps it was fate that some island would become the self-styled "Vegas of the Caribbean." I just wish it hadn’t been Aruba.
Another problem results from the development of major American brand-name resorts. Maybe I’m atypical – in fact, I know I am, because Aruba has a lot of happy return visitors – but I just can’t see the appeal of coming to stay in a cookie-cutter Hyatt or Marriott resort. Why not just stay in one in the U.S., if that's your thing? There was nothing about them that seemed to me even remotely "Aruban." From what I could tell, there isn’t much overall difference between staying in Aruba and staying in, say, Florida, except Florida is a lot closer.
No doubt, some bright spark on the Aruban planning commission was responsible for this, having done his homework on what drew tourists in like gangbusters back in the USA. They’ve obviously sought to cash in on the growing demand for pre-fabricated, all-inclusive, stress-free vacations. Is this a good thing? It depends on your perspective, I guess.
One of my main issues with Aruba is the way it is promoted. Here are some of the terms I personally focussed on while looking at tourist information: "pristine coastline," "dynamic culture," "natural wonders," "ruggedly scenic landscape," "protected underwater park." It’s what I chose to focus on, I’ll admit. If I’d looked just a little harder, I would have realized that the windswept, rugged island image didn’t mesh with the casinos and Americanized resorts I knew were there. Oil and water, so to speak.
I have no legitimate quarrel with Aruba's decision to set itself up to draw in the greatest number of tourists, though unfortunately they seem to have set the bar for the lowest common denominator. By agressively developing its tourist industry Aruba went from having 21% unemployment after the closure of the oil refinery to no unemployment. Aruba must actually import labor from South America, neighboring islands, and the Netherlands to support the tourist industry.
My concern is that the waves of outsiders visiting and working on the island have diluted the local culture to the point of no return. There's evidence that the influx is causing an increase in crime and social tension. I heard Arubans grumbling about South Americans, South Americans grumbling about the Dutch, and the Dutch deploring - without going into cultural specifics - the general "decline" of the island. Clearly, the much-touted tourist slogan "One Happy Island" is true only if the smiling demeanor of Arubans that tourists come into contact with is taken at face value.
Cultural issues aside, tourism has definitely had a negative impact on the island’s ecology, despite some recent enlightened (in comparison to other Caribbean islands) environmental policies. But it may have been a case of too little, too late. To quote again from the Islander Magazine article:
"Government macro-economic policy in Aruba does not adequately address socio-economic factors and does not recognize the necessity of limits to growth, which is essential to sustainable development…
"National environmental policy in Aruba should recognize tourism as the mainstay of the Aruban economy and set a limit to growth by instituting a ceiling for the receptive capacity (number of hotel rooms and number of annual visitors), allow community participation in decision making, stress long term planning, institute environmental restoration and protection, and emphasize quality over quantity. It should also target less damaging ways to raise net tourist revenue in national strategic tourism marketing plans." [Emphasis mine]
In closing, I'll just say that something important happened to me in Aruba, though I feel a little sheepish admitting it. For the first time, I started thinking very seriously about the impact of my own actions as a tourist. When I came back to the U.S., I started to research the effects of tourism on the Caribbean and was dismayed by what I found. I was startled to read, for example, that while the average Aruban household generates 170 liters of waste water per day, that the average hotel room generates 840 liters. No wonder Aruba has waste disposal problems! While I’d always prided myself in being a fairly responsible tourist, it took Aruba to really bring home to me what can happen to a small, contained environment in a very short time.
Although there is now a moratorium on building more resorts in Aruba, the moratorium unfortunately does not apply to projects which had already been approved before it took effect. And here is the irony: At a certain point, people like me become completely disinterested in visiting places like Aruba. Over-development essentially kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. When the tourists leave, the local people are left with... what? A despoiled island.
I enjoyed my visit to Aruba in many ways, but I don't picture myself going back there, at least not until I’m sure my visit will do something for the island itself rather than merely add to some resort developer’s bank account.
Postscript: For an honest appraisal of tourism's effects, I urge you to read "The Politics of Travel," a ground-breaking critique of tourism which appeared in The Nation in 1997.