Swoosh. A black blur flies by, giving us a bit of a start. It’s just a small bat, now hanging on the other side of Fontein Cave, a safe distance from our heads. My group goes back to looking at the rock paintings above us, created by Awawak Indians about 1,000 years ago. It’s dark, and the passageways are narrowing, but our guide encourages us to explore further. Suddenly, a scuttle on the wet ground grabs our attention. Cockroaches. Big ones. We are seven women in flip-flops. Several shrieks and a few seconds later, we are back out in the daylight. I laugh to myself: Another reminder to be careful what you wish for.
My desire? Adventure. Or, at least, something more exciting than days spent shopping and lying on the beach. About 30 minutes into my flight to Aruba, I wasn’t sure I’d find it here. The glossy tourism magazine handed out by the attendants featured page after page of ads touting luxury watches (I stopped counting after 26) and waterfront steak restaurants. Two lowly pages in the back talked about natural wonders. My hopes sank. What was I getting myself into?
Aruba, a small Dutch island in the Caribbean, is known for its beaches – and for good reason. In the south and east, they’re white and vast, made of coral and limestone, which means the sand stays cool to the touch. The water is shallow and clear and just the right temperature. But these strips of sand represent only a small fraction of the land. Aruba is a desert island, and the interior makes that clear: cacti, a few shrubs, lots of pale, dusty earth. If not for the ocean in the distance, you’d swear you were in Arizona. It is not most people’s idea of a tropical paradise. But intrepid travellers who tear themselves off the chaise-lounges will discover a different, unexpected kind of beauty.
Fontein Cave is the halfway point on a tour that takes us to the northeast, windward side of the island. Here, the shore is rocky, the land bumpy; the air is so salty that maintaining property is almost impossible The only signs of life are tiny crab tracks in the wet sand and a few tall cacti in the distance.
In 1824, a boy discovered gold in the area and by 1872 the Aruba Island Gold Mining Company had set up shop, erecting a smelting works at Bushiribana. More than three million pounds of ore was extracted before mining stopped in 1916. We climb the brick ruins and take pictures of each other sitting in its empty window frames, blue waters in the background. Nearby is a collection of “wishing rocks:” You think of a number and then pile that many rocks into a tower. If it stands, your wish comes true, or so they say. At that moment, I wished for ice cream.
This is an area of no roads: Most visitors come to the north by Jeep or ATV; a few saunter through on horseback. Aruba is not a large island – 33 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide – but when you spend much of the day off-roading under an intense sun with fierce tradewinds (one companion’s sunglasses blew off the top of her head), getting around can be exhausting.
After a couple of hours, I am now wishing for a swim. We cross the island back to Palm Beach, the three-kilometre long strip populated by high-rise hotels. The turquoise water is invitingly warm, yet still refreshing. I use what energy I have left to try stand-up paddle boarding (easier than anticipated).
And then I decide to just chill. I escape to the Aruba Marriott’s H2Oasis pool, an adults-only refuge in the middle of a packed stretch. I sit in the shade of a cabana, eat fruit and feed my leftovers to rival iguanas. The largest one, bright green and about a metre long nose to tail, poses with me for a selfie.
But I am not ready to succumb to sitting under a palaypa just yet. The next morning, Anton Lampe, a congenial, chatty guide, picks me up in his bright green Jeep, eager to show me the side of Aruba most people miss. “I have friends who have been coming to the island for 12 years and never leave the resort,” he says, shaking his head.