Arid, rocky, prickly, scrubby, and almost otherworldly, this island’s interior is often a surprise for those expecting the lush foliage and verdant rainforests of other tropical isles. But it has its own terrestrial treasures; you just have to know where to look!
Preview the park
Aruba’s countryside, which the locals call cunucu or mondi, encompasses vast stretches of the northeastern interior and most of the land is part of the protected preserve called Arikok National Park. The park operations are financed by the government and overseen by the Arikok National Park Foundation (FNPA) whose mandate is to promote discovery of the area while maintaining stringent environmental safeguards to ensure its on-going protection. There are many unique facets to the park, and it encompasses diverse natural attractions spread across more than 18% of the island’s total land-mass. Some of these adventurous locales deserve and require more than a quick tour, so the best way to get the most out of the park, and do so in a manner that suits your trekking style, is to preview what the park has to offer at the new Visitor Center.
"Regardless of how you decide to explore, early morning is always better when the air is cooler and nature is most active "
Completed in 2010, the new building at the San Fuego entrance has an environmentally sustainable design that relies on Mother Nature’s help as much as possible to generate power and to keep it cool. There is an eco-friendly theme prevalent throughout, including gift shop souvenirs that are made of recycled or bio-degradable materials. The onsite restaurant/ café serves authentic local dishes, and out front you’ll see a re-creation of an ancient adobe house where cultural performances are presented the first Saturday of each month. Inside the center itself, you’ll find all kinds of information, printed materials, video presentations, and live demonstrations and exhibits highlighting the park’s flora and fauna. Free maps are also available of the 20 miles of marked hiking trails should you decide to explore on your own; you can also drive through the park along some newly paved roads. A guided tour is highly recommended for first-time visits since park rangers know where to find the hidden life among the park’s fragile micro-ecosystem. Regardless of how you decide to explore, early morning is always better when the air is cooler and nature is most active. If you want to avoid the heat altogether, you can also get a unique perspective of the area at night by joining one of their special guided moonlight hikes.
Creatures and critters
Though you’re bound to encounter some wild donkeys and meandering goats, many of Aruba’s indigenous creatures are masters of camouflage, so a guided hike will help you spot them. Park rangers can point out the many types of lizards, snakes, insects, and birds secreted among the craggy candelabra cacti, stubby brush, dry riverbeds, and torturously twisted divi-divi trees. And Aruba’s outback is home to some creatures you’ll find nowhere else, like the endangered burrowing owls called choco, the cascabel rattlesnake, and the blue whiptail lizard (kododo blauw). In fact, half of the lizard species of the world can be found living in this arid outback! Rangers will also enlighten you with cool nature trivia like how young choco owls make rattlesnake sounds to scare predators away from their underground nests; why the iguana symbolizes fertility; and how the tiny suction pads on the feet of lizards called pega pega, which means “sticky, sticky”, enables them to attach themselves to absolutely anything. You also might encounter cottontail rabbits and the prikichi, Aruba’s colorful yet rare native parakeet. And if you go spelunking in the park’s caves you’ll definitely encounter colonies of harmless bats. Aruba’s bats are integral to the island’s circle of life; they are essential for pollinating the cacti that produce the fruit that the birds need to survive.
Volcanic lava formations and limestone made of fossilized coral make up most of Aruba’s geology, but there are some odd outcrops of a diorite/tonalite that are found nowhere else on the island. Just outside the park’s borders, Ayo is an example of one of these cool rock oddities and well worth a visit for some interesting photos. The secret natural pool inside the park is another must. This churning seaside cauldron is called conchi, and with water warmer than the sea it’s like a natural Jacuzzi, though be prepared for a cold shower when the wave spray crashes over the walls! It is very hard to reach on foot or by car due to very rough terrain (ATVs highly recommended) so take advantage of the many tour operators that provide transportation via monster trucks, horseback, or jeep and ATV convoys. Swimming and snorkeling here can be wonderful depending on how restless the waters are that day. Beach shoes are recommended, as the stairs down can be slippery and sharp. Another secret spot is the ancient ruins of one of Aruba’s old gold mines. Look around while you’re there and if you’re lucky, you might see another kind of gold in “them thar hills”. The blooms of the native kibrahacha trees (meaning “axe-breaker”) come out very rarely – typically after a surprise shower – but when they do, their brilliant yellow flowers dot the entire countryside in gold!
Amazing vistas and ancient echoes
Aruba’s cool caves at Guadirikiri and Fontein can be explored on your own or with a tour. There you can almost hear the echoes of ancient peoples within, and you can view the images they left behind over 1,000 years ago. As you travel along the picturesque coastline within Arikok Park you’ll come upon some secret bays and tiny beaches – though not suitable for swimming as the water is too rough and there’s a very strong undertow – called Boca Prins (boca means bay or inlet) and Dos Playa (meaning two beaches). You might even stumble upon some sea turtles as both beaches are popular nesting spots. You’ll also see natural blowholes, hauntingly barren sand dunes, and some of the smaller natural land bridges. The two tallest hills on the island can also be found within the park: Jamanota at 617 feet and Arikok Hill at 606 feet, and hiking to the top of either affords some amazing vistas.
Get the back story
One can easily surmise that you are not the first visitor to be surprised at this unexpected outback. Imagine the early Amerindians who first came here from Venezuela via dugout canoes! For another perspective on Arikok Park and the ancient peoples who once called it home, be sure to visit the new National Archaeological Museum of Aruba. There you’ll get an insightful perspective of what it might have been like to attempt to tame and live in this unforgiving, arid, and yet beautiful land. You will surely appreciate the ingenuity and perseverance of those early inhabitants.
If hiking the park on foot, wear sturdy shoes and apply lots of sunscreen. Also bring plenty of water and, of course, don’t forget your camera! For more information on Arikok Park and the Archaeological Museum visit www.arubanationalpark.org and www.namaruba.org.