By Richard Varr
ARUBA, SOUTHERN CARIBBEAN – Only a ten minute drive takes you from white sand to desert sand – from the pristine beaches and swaying palm trees of a tropical paradise, to rocky terrain with parched grass and prickly pear cactus.
Welcome to Aruba’s wild northern side – where surf pounds natural rock bridges, caves lie deep within rocky bluffs and where the arid countryside looks more like a craggy Arizona landscape than a lush Caribbean rainforest. You can call it a rock climber’s delight or geologist’s dream as this highly developed, Dutch-rooted island has unusual rock formations amidst a moonscape-like coastline.
In Arikok National Park, a hilly area taking up one-fifth of the island’s landmass, goats scurry by as our car moves through a panorama of scruffy plants, dried grass fields, towering cactus and contorted divi-divi trees bent and shaped by non-stop trade winds.
“You feel the salt from the ocean and you listen to the wind and to all the noises from the birds and iguanas. You’re just at home in nature,” says Park Ranger Rodney Cedric Yarzagaray. “This area is one of the most beautiful parts of the island with lots of beautiful things around you.”
Taking a jeep tour or renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle are ideal ways to see rugged Aruba – that is, for visitors willing to break away from the luxury hotel-studded Palm Beach and Eagle Beach areas on the island’s calmer western shores, or from the shopping paradise in the capital Oranjestad with its Caribbean-hued Dutch colonial buildings.
We begin our jeep tour with a visit to the California Lighthouse on the island’s northwestern tip. Atop a hill with sweeping views, the lighthouse was completed in 1916 and named after the California, a passenger ship that sank just offshore 25 years earlier. Our next stop is the Alto Vista Chapel – the island’s first – built in the 18th century by Spanish settlers and Caiquetio Indians. After neglect, it was rebuilt in the 20th century. The red roof and muted yellow façade give it a fresh look.
“For the people of long ago, it would be tough living in a place like this where you can dig only a few fresh water wells and where they had to walk for a long distance to get water,” notes tour guide Juan Guzman. “With the hot sun and this type of weather, that’s the reason why the Spaniards thought these islands were useless and they moved to other places.”
Our jeep jerks from side to side as we traverse bumpy dips along dirt roads hugging the coast. We pass natural stone bridges where pounding surf has eroded the base of the rocks leaving an overhead stone bridge. We stop at the dilapidated walls of the Bushiribana Ruins – once a gold smelter built in 1872 after gold was found a half-century earlier. Today, only some of its walls of stacked stones remain. Within those walls, visitors climb boulders strewn on the site like a child might pile rocks in a sandbox.
Our next stop is where the island’s most photographed natural wonder once stood. Today, only ruins of the Natural Bridge remain after Aruba’s largest stone bridge unexpectedly collapsed in September 2005. The similar Baby Natural Bridge sits adjacent to the ruins and, while not as big, is still exciting to cross and certainly worth a photograph.
“Seeing the waves smashing against the rocks – it’s beautiful,” exclaims Guzman. “I first came to Aruba many years ago and saw the northern side. And that’s what I will always remember about Aruba.”
Particularly unusual along this stretch of moonscape-like shoreline are hundreds of mini rock columns, where small stones are carefully stacked atop each other and gently balanced to withstand even the swiftest island breezes. “People stack the rocks and make a wish,” says Guzman. “It’s something that everybody is doing, even the local people, so it became part of the island. They mostly wish for love, happiness and maybe to come back to Aruba,” he jokes.
“You can see some rocks with different shapes. They look like animals. People put names on the rocks,” he adds. “I did it myself and made a wish for my family – the most important thing in the world.” Guzman suggests that perhaps there are wishes for rain as well. “Too dry,” he says.
Two other massive rock formations, Ayo and Casibari, are a short drive inland from the Natural Bridge ruins. Both feature boulders jumbled atop each other. Once religious sites for early island inhabitants, faded reddish-brown petroglyphs remain on the rocks today.
The same is true for caves in Arikok National Park. The stalactite and stalagmite-filled Fontein Cave is perched within a rocky bluff near the island’s northeast shoreline, where Ranger Yarzagaray points out ancient Arawak Indian drawings of animals and other figures, some of them 1,000 years old. “The Indians lived mostly on the beach, but used the caves for ceremonies and for a hiding area,” he explains. In one corner, I see a bat hanging upside down, resting in the cave’s cool and dank darkness.
Other Arikok caves include Quadirikiri Cave with ceiling openings allowing in natural light and Baranca Sunu cave, known as the “Tunnel of Love” because of its heart-shaped opening. Also in the National Park, Natural Pool is protected from harsh ocean waves by a rock perimeter and is ideal for swimming during calmer surf. Rough waves at the pure-sand beach within Dos Playa’s rocky coves, however, make it more of an ideal spot for surfing than swimming.
On this relatively flat island, other natural wonders include the 620-foot Mount Jamanota – Aruba’s tallest – in Arikok Park. Heading back toward Oranjestad, the can’t-miss-it Hooiberg hill is the island’s most popular landmark at 541 feet high.
“Aruba is a big contrast when compared to other islands,” says Guzman. “Seeing how rugged the terrain is with cactus is unique. It’s something that catches the attention of everyone that comes to Aruba.”
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