They say the Caribbean islands offer something for every type of sun baby, but for the outdoor adventure lovers, the 21-mile-long island of Aruba tops the chart. Being an avid scuba diver, I’ve experienced the intricate depths of the Tulum caverns in the Mexican Caribbean to the heart racing blue holes of the Bahamas. However, it wasn’t until I descended into the depths of Aruba’s clear waters that I realized something new and exciting was about to happen.
The YS-11 and Convair 240 are two airplane wrecks that were sunk for recreational purposes a short boat ride away from Aruba’s Renaissance Island. After being mildly interrogated by family and friends over the course of the pandemic for taking flights, it was refreshing to be absorbed into an underwater world where there were no COVID-19 risks, no judgements, only the exploration of these mask-free planes.
Starting with the Convair 240, an airplane that was said to have been confiscated during a drug-bust in the late 1980s, it was later sunk by the government to form an artificial reef. A hurricane in the 1990s split the fuselage into two big pieces, but the amazing part of the dive is that the split allows you to penetrate the plane and explore the interior of the fuselage. My underwater photographer buddy captured a few pictures of me waving from the cockpit.
A short swim away, I arrive at the second plane, the YS-11: an old Air Aruba passenger plane that sits at around 45 feet deep and is missing its nose cone. Of course, I had to take the opportunity to dive through the fuselage and revel in the colorful, coral crusted surroundings. If you’re a diver, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to see these impressive artificial reefs teeming with marine life like moray eels, pufferfish, lobster, crab, and the occasional shy nurse shark. I recommend starting a trip off in Aruba with becoming a PADI-certified open water diver at a local PADI dive shop. This new certification allows you to dive to depths of up to 40 feet and you can use the certification to dive for a lifetime.
If I could stay underwater and dive for days (and nights) on end I would, but thankfully Aruba has tons of other water adventure offerings to bring me back to my gill-less reality. Being a part-time pescatarian (I give it a good try), seafood is at the top of my menu. There’s nothing like being able to eat what you catch. Driftwood restaurant, located on the west side of the island in the capital city of Oranjestad, will grill up any of your catches for dinner. For deep-sea fishing on island, some of the possibilities during your half or full day excursion include catches of blue and white marlin, dorado, wahoo, shark, barracuda, kingfish, and blackfin and yellowfin tuna. After a four-hour excursion, my family and I were able to pull up a dozen red snapper, grouper, bonita, and I even caught (and released) a baby shark. Our puffed-out chests at our bounty made up for a few embarrassing bouts of sea sickness during the rolling journey.
Sometimes it’s nice to create peaceful, solo moments on the water, especially if you catch a mild day in Aruba where there are few ripples on the surf. I took advantage of those days with paddle boarding through the Spanish lagoons: the mangrove lagoons that sit along Aruba's southern fringe. There’s nothing quite like drifting along serenely while listening to the calls of the birds that rely on the ecosystem of the intricate mangroves. Also, the shadows of the mangrove leaves and branches that play along my body create an ethereal existence. You can also choose to take an organized tour by paddleboard or kayak, which usually leave from the neighborhood of Savaneta, and traverse through places like Mangel Halto and finally, the Spanish Lagoon.
You can’t leave Aruba without spending at least one day at Arikok National Park. This government-protected park comprises almost 20 percent of the island’s landmass and is a conglomerate of cactus-laden, beautifully dusty and dry desert terrain. It was an intense journey exploring the vastness of this rugged park by Jeep Safari, most of the trip spent climbing and descending at fast and sudden rates. Around us, there were fellow adventurers exploring the land by ATV, UTV, and horseback. Some of the wildlife that you have a chance of spotting (or accidently happening upon) in the park include Aruba rattlesnakes, burrowing owls, and blue whiptail lizards. In the northern part of the park, there are a few hidden beaches and coral limestone bridges and caves that you can safely explore.
For the more mellow travelers that like a little culture with their adventure, a walking or bike tour of San Nicholas is a must. This southernmost neighborhood of Aruba is also known as Chocolate City for the large population of Afro-immigrants that worked in the now closed oil refinery. Being located an hour south of the commercial touristy areas of Palm Beach and the capital Oranjestad, San Nicholas has emerged as being one of the largest Caribbean enclaves with sweeping murals that blanket its downtown area. One of the busiest seasons for San Nicolas are the three days every November during the Aruba Art Fair which brings together Aruban and international artists, music and dance performances, on-site sculpture making and culinary competitions.
San Nicolas also happens to be the under-the-radar location of Aruba’s best beaches, including Baby Beach and Boca Grandi. I had lunch with Tito Bolivar, founder of the Aruba Art Fair and resident of San Nicholas who took me to his favorite local restaurant (which I 100 percent recommend), Kamini’s Kitchen, where you can eat authentic Trinidadian food. Choose from dishes like curry chicken, lamb chops with mushroom curry, and grilled red snapper. Don’t dress up, this is a casual spot that you can just pull up to after a day at the beach or road tripping around the island. If you seek adventure and you seek to meet friendly people that will put you on to the best local food spots and hidden beaches, stay for a while in Aruba. The surprises don’t stop.