San Nicolas has now become the nexus of art and culture on One Happy Island. And you must see it to believe it!
Not that long ago it was very difficult to imagine that San Nicolas was once the shining gem of Aruba. As the epicenter of the oil industry, it was the beating heart of economy and totally abuzz with life long before Oranjestad came of age. Then, as the tourism industry exploded onto the other end of the island and need for Aruba’s refined oil dwindled, time took its toll on the tiny town until it slowly spiralled into a sad scene of decay. But not anymore.
If you build it… will they come?
Once the government had completed a total revitalization of downtown Oranjestad, they set their sights on breathing new life back into San Nicolas. It began with improving infrastructure and building a modern new Museum of Industry out of the historic old water tower. They also held weekly Carubbian Festivals at night—a mini carnival of sorts on Mainstreet. But the problem was, few visitors returned to San Nicolas afterward unless they were out to visit legendary Charlie’s Bar. In fact, there wasn’t much else to see or do there during the day. Until now. Now there’s art.
It all started a few years back with a simple trip to Colombia where Oscar “Tito” Bolivar, a local Aruban up-and-coming entrepreneur, fell in love with all the great outdoor art that was transforming old neighborhoods into cool, trendy enclaves there. So, he thought, “Why not San Nicolas?” From that moment on, Tito, as everyone calls him, was on a mission to somehow turn San Nicolas into the next Wynwood: Miami’s famous outdoor art district. The first thing he did was to invite famous international street artists and local creators to the first ever Aruba Art Fair in 2016. And they came!
It was a huge success, and the best part was that they left their creations behind! Tito was also able to enlist support from Aruba’s Ministries of Culture and Tourism as well as sponsorship from the local banks and businesses, and he was delighted at the army of volunteers his nonprofit organization PuraAruba/ ArtisA was able to garner. Since its inception, there have been two more art fairs (always held in the fall), and each event has been bigger and better than the last. Today, there are 30-some murals and counting, but the cultural revolution in San Nicolas—though it might have been spawned by the annual three-day event—has taken on a whole new life of its own that now continues year-round.
Painting the town—literally!
Today, San Nicolas, which the locals call Sunrise City, is fast becoming the largest outdoor art museum in the entire Caribbean, and it’s getting bigger and better every day. After the last art fair in the fall of 2018, you can hardly turn a corner in this little town without running into an amazing larger-than-life creation. Ceramics have also played a big part, and even the resting benches are works of art. As more visitors flock to San Nicolas to witness the new art, more new businesses have begun opening like cafés, restaurants, shops, and museums. And more regular festivals and events are being added each year such as the monthly Experience San Nicolas, which brings crafters, farmers with their produce, artists, and all kinds of local vendors to Mainstreet with lots of great food, music, and revelry for all. If you’re feeling creative yourself, you can visit Cosecha, an art collective and workshop space, and take a few art classes too. There are workshops for kids as well.
Much more than just murals
The annual art fair encompasses far more areas of creative expression than traditional arts. There is a culinary competition where Aruba’s budding young cooks from the local tourism schools are charged with creating dishes inspired by paintings. There is also a youth competition for art. And photography is in the mix as well with an annual competition called Nature and Faces. The Fashion Meets Art event highlights local and international designers in a gala fashion show. There is also live painting, cool pop-up restaurants, interactive acts, and lots of live music, local food kiosks, and dancing in the streets!
Walking the walk and talking the talk
Tito says, “It’s not really what I would call a renaissance for the town, it’s more of an art and culture revolution for the island. Typically, Aruba has had a lot of talent, but there’s never been one central ’art district,’ and galleries are few and far between. Now, it’s all out in the open and the attractions are luring a whole new generation of young, modern, and cosmopolitan visitors to San Nicolas. You can feel the energy in the streets—everyone is very excited.” In keeping with the new modern approach, Tito also created an online map for those seeking to do a self-guided tour of the murals: http://www.arubaartfair.com/arubamurals/. But now, there are guided tours offered too!
The new San Nicolas Walls Tour runs four times a day and takes about an hour and half to discover over 25 murals. They have a museum and art tour, and private tours are also available: https://www.arubamuraltours.com. The beauty of a guided tour is that there are a lot of nuances in the art you wouldn’t learn from simply viewing it. Sometimes the creator has left behind a secret hidden message within, and it’s also very interesting to learn more about the artists themselves. Some installations will appear 3-D if you know how to shoot them, where to stand, and what to look for, which make them seriously “Instagrammable.” A guided tour also offers all kinds of cool tidbits, for example, did you know the giant iguana sculpture is made entirely of recycled trash found around the island? Great stuff!
So, what are you waiting for? Get out to San Nicolas and see what all the fuss is about. For news on the coming art fair events in the fall of 2019, visit www.arubaartfair.com.
(Photos by Aruba Art Fair and Susan Campbell)