Where do you people live?
I have lost count how many times vacationers have asked me that question during the years that I worked in water activities at the beach. I believe most will acknowledge it is a rather silly question; but it does illustrate how many who come to the island have never looked beyond their resort or the more expensive "tourist" restaurants that cater to our principal industry to actually learn about what comprises authentic island life.
The irony of it all is that anyone can simply take a short walk inland, where one would easily come upon residential neighborhoods that illustrate native lifestyle. Not far from most resort areas are charming homes and gardens, many of them traditional cunucu style houses, our characteristic architecture, as well as eateries that cater to a local crowd.
Aruba Cunucu Houses
It is absolutely understandable that resorts seek to keep their guests within their grounds to use their restaurants and entertainment facilities, this is how they thrive. Travelers accustomed to all-inclusive resorts are conditioned to this, and believe their Caribbean destination is only about sun, sea and hotel dining and nightlife. Aruba, however, has the advantage of being a very safe island, where it is easy and desirable to venture beyond the borders of the resort areas for some truly immersive and authentic island experiences.
What is an "authentic experience"?
My personal definition of an immersive authentic experience is one that takes you away from the typical tourist scene to acquaint you, or submerse you, if you will, with authentic island culture and the spirit of its people. Yes, you always receive great hospitality and a warm welcome at Aruba's resorts, (for the most part) but do you really witness the islanders at play, or share what excites, moves and motivates them? Do you really get to know them beyond their professional roles as island ambassadors of goodwill?
Carnival Dancer in San Nicolas
As visitors, you have the opportunity to do so during every national holiday, weekend events, specialized tours, Carnival, weekly festivals and a myriad number of ways that will please your individual tastes. As a long-time resident, I have had the good fortune to do this, as well as becoming truly and deeply involved in island life. Surprisingly enough, this did not really happen for years after I first came to live here, as I was primarily occupied with a tourist-oriented business, and raising a family. It was not until I began working in the Aruban media that I became tangibly aware of the very many ways in which islanders express and enjoy their culture and pastimes. Hopefully, readers of this article will not wait so long.
1. Let's Party!!!
It behooves me to begin with the ultimate authentic experience: Aruba's Carnival. Of course, your concierge will be happy to recommend you take in any of the many, MANY parades and events taking place during the season, beginning from the first Saturday night in January with Fakkel Optocht, or Torch Parade, to the final Grand Parade in Oranjestad. The Torch Parade is an ebullient welcome event, where costumes are casual and the carnival royalty from the previous year, the kings, queens and jesters, make one final appearance before passing on their crowns to newly elected aristocrats.
The Grand Parade in Oranjestad, which takes place on the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday, is the most opulent of the parades, where carnival groups pull out all the stops in regards to costumes, road pieces and floats. It is an homage to the creative talents of dedicated carnivalistas, whose imaginations know no bounds.
What visitors will particularly enjoy is all the activity on the periphery of the actual parade; vendors selling special sweets and treats not always available during the year, and how eager islanders will be to welcome them to share a spot along the parade route. It is very possible you will be rewarded with cold beer and snacks for your interest, along with carnival history and insider's commentary on the excellence of the efforts (or lack thereof) from each carnival group; everyone is a critic.
I have always had a particular affection for the final night of Carnival, and the "Burning of Momo," a figure in effigy that represents all the craziness that is Carnival. It is a smaller parade and a more casual ambiance. Tradition demands that at the stroke of midnight on the eve of Ash Wednesday, "Momo" is ignited, thus putting to rest the spirit of this year's carnival, only to rise from the ashes like a phoenix, to enliven the next year's event. If there are any Carnival events taking place during your visit, be sure to attend. A full schedule can be found on www.aruba.com or the website of the acknowledged "bible" of Carnival, Bacchanal.
2. Exploring Aruba
There are island tours, and then there are ISLAND TOURS that take you completely off the beaten track, with very limited numbers, where you feel you are out with friends and family, rather than on a formal tour.
Taking a romantic hike in the Arikok National Park
Aruba is home to a number of groups concerned with preserving the environment, in particular, native flora and fauna. StimAruba is one of the longest established, and has long believed that recognition and appreciation of endemic species and their role in the environment a very crucial aspect of this goal. The members have written texts, hosted seminars and provided materials to schools to educate the succeeding generations.
Every month, StimAruba hosts a hike into the far reaches of the island, lead by a local expert who elaborates not only on the surroundings, but often the history and folktales of the area. The schedule varies; it could be during the day or evening, and is a fascinating way to not only learn about the land, but to meet islanders and share their affection for their "baranca ta stima" (beloved rock). Best of all, these nature walks are absolutely free. To take advantage of this most unique experience, check their FB page regularly to see if a tour is scheduled during your visit.
3. Keeping it Clean
How about showing your appreciation for Aruba's environment in a tangible manner? If you delight in the view of our stunning, pristine beaches and clear blue waters, plan to dedicate a morning to keeping them that way by volunteering for one of the many annual beach clean ups taking place throughout the year. You can not only feel a great deal of satisfaction about your good deed, but also interact with islanders, who will very much appreciate your efforts and contribution.
The grand daddy of clean ups is the Aruba Reef Care Project. Begun in 1994, it is a comprehensive clean up of not only the island's beaches, but underwater landscape. Almost every beach is policed, excluding the north coast beaches of Arikok National Park, which are addressed by the annual AHATA (Aruba Hotel And Tourism Association) cleanup. I have personally participated in both efforts, including under the water as a diver, and on every occasion have encountered island visitors who cheerfully allotted some of their vacation time to pitch in. They have all found it unconditionally satisfying as they made new friends among the islanders and established a sincere connection. Aruba Reef Care takes place usually the third or last Sunday in September, and the AHATA event is early or mid November. Registration for the September clean up is possible by contacting Castro Perez via the Aruba Reef Care Facebook page. To participate in the AHATA clean up, e-mail Vanessa Rasmussen at email@example.com.
Annual AHATA Coastal Clean Up
If one of these annual events does not line up to your trip time, I then advise you to investigate Pop Up Clean Ups. These are organized by a group of young professionals deeply concerned about the environment and the sustainability of their island. Impromptu cleanups take place about once a month or more and the organizers, sisters Tatiana and Manou, absolutely love for like-minded vacationers to their convivial group. To check their schedule and register, visit their FB page or contact them via: firstname.lastname@example.org; you will receive a warm welcome.
4. Dining Like a Local
I must admit, if you only eat at the hotels and tourist-targeting restaurants in these built up areas, you would likely wonder how anyone living on the island can afford to dine out. You do not always have to travel all that far to eat where islanders frequent, (actually, nothing is very far on Aruba) and you will likely find a charming island ambiance that is the epitome of immersive.
I would say premiere on the list of favorite fish spots (and you MUST try our local, freshly caught fish before you leave) is Zeerovers in Savaneta. It is an absolutely unique experience, and you are assured fresh fish to the point where you will very possibly witness the catch being brought to the kitchen.
Zeerovers only offers fresh fish and shrimp, with various garnishes and fries. The style is moochi, with the fish cut into steaks and flash fried with just the right amount of seasoning. Fish and shrimp are priced by weight, and you actually examine what they have to offer and pick out the pieces that you favor. Side dishes are priced a la carte, and everything is served in big baskets, family style. You have to try the papaya pica; this locally produced relish is very spicy, so use sparingly.
Presently, my favorite restaurant for fish and many other items is in San Nicolas, called O'Niel's Caribbean Kitchen. They do a whole steamed snapper in a vegetable sauce that is to die for, and will please even those who are stringently watching their diet. Another superb item is the Steel Mussels appetizer, and O'Niel's is one of the few restaurants where you can enjoy authentic regional and island dishes such as cabrito, or goat stew, but with a definitive gourmet touch. The prices will knock your socks off, they are so reasonable. Most certainly worth the trip to San Nicolas, simply to eat there.
O'Niels Caribbean Kitchen in San Nicolas
Closer to most hotels is a cute little place on the principal Sasaki Highway just in line with the hospital. It is Red Fish, located at the front of the Orange Mall. Red Fish is from the people who brought you Driftwood, ardent fishermen, catching daily what they put on your plate. They have quite a diverse menu of seafood, but again, moochi is the star here, and very reasonably priced. You will see a steady stream of islanders coming through. Though close to the hotels, Red Fish has a distinctive island ambiance. Fish dishes come with a nice assortment of local side dishes, sweet fried banana and funchi, the Aruban version of polenta, and is my favorite place for local criollo sauce, which is traditional with fish.
5. Aruba Culture and Art
One cannot live very long on Aruba without being caught up in Latin dance. You can see when you attend any sort of event with dancing that salsa, merengue and bachata dancing are in their blood. One of the island's premiere dance groups and schools, (where I learned) was Pachanga, run by Oslin and Janice, who brought home the top place trophy from the 2002 World Salsa Championships in Miami, and were sub champions in 2005.
Dance classes at the resorts
Janice's father, Franklin, is a world-class dancer and he gives FREE salsa and bachata lessons at various resorts five days a week. Here is where you will find him:
- Monday - Marriott 5:30 PM
- Tuesday- Divi Resort 4:15 PM
- Wednesday- Costa Linda 4:30 PM
- Friday- Tamarijn 4:15 PM
- Saturday- Costa Linda 4:30 PM
I personally have found you can master quite a bit in a short time, thanks to Franklin's most congenial manner and superb teaching technique. You can then show off your moves and admire those of some remarkable dancers any Saturday night at South Beach Lounge in Palm Beach.
Oslin and Janice are now working with Aruba Dance Studios in Oranjestad, offering salsa and kizomba classes. Every Friday evening Aruba Dance Studios opens their doors with a free practice night for all comers. This is a great chance to watch and learn from superb dancers as well as enjoy the festive ambiance and enthusiasm for lively dance that is integral to the Aruban people.
Those seeking a less athletic cultural experience and food for the soul should attend Poetry Nights from the BASHA Foundation, conducted on the last Thursday of the month. Believe me when I say they will take you completely by surprise. The locations change from one month to the next, showcasing traditional neighborhoods, cultural centers are lovely natural locales. You might be in the center of Oranjestad or the aloe fields of Hato, but it will always be interesting if not downright exhilarating. Check Vibrations Facebook page for each month's location.
Poetry Nights Aruba
Poetry could be in any of a number of languages, but for the most part, English dominates. Often, they have an open-mike period at the end of the evening, and all are welcome, so jump in if the spirit moves you.
Aruba is an island comprised of people from all over the Caribbean, and the world. Each nationality and ethnic group has brought their traditions, cuisine and mindset to further enhance the life of the residents. These influences are evident in Carnival, poetry nights, dancing at the local clubs and eating at authentic local restaurants. I have always believed these interactive experiences expand your world view and are extremely rewarding. Aruba is a place where you can indulge in much more than laying on the beach and hanging around your resort, and you should definitely explore these options beyond the typical, they will contribute to a most memorable island encounter.