No this isn’t a tale about a dog eared copy of 50 shades and a dodgy back room, this is the story of what happened when the tropical paradise of Aruba showed me her wild, adventurous side with a host of adventure travel activities and showed no mercy!
Aruba can lull you into a false sense of security when you first step foot into her warm tropical air, and it is all to easy to become mesmerized by the some of the Caribbean’s finest stretches of soft white sand beaches and the easy going, laid back attitude that permeates everything here.
It is completely understandable of course, from the moment you arrive into this little stretch of paradise Aruba practically seduces you into laying back in a hammock with a cocktail in hand and relaxing in a way only an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea can do.
Who wouldn’t want to do just that?
But then Aruba has a wild side too, and once you embrace it she doesn’t hold back!
Not content with simply being a desert island paradise, Aruba is also the perfect place for some wild, rugged adventure travel that would put even the most dedicated adrenaline junkie through their paces. From international level kite surfing and off road mayhem to exploring sunken WWII ships, Aruba has it all! And for someone like myself with all the gung ho attitude of an 80s action hero on a sugar rush but without an ounce of the skill, grace or ability needed to master the adventure activities on offer, this means a lot of scrapes and bruises and a battered ego, but one hell of a wild ride and a happy, satisfied grin that will last long after my Aruban adventure has ended!
Don’t be put off by all the professional level kitesurfers and windsurfers that are gracing the shores and sailing through the air with graceful ease either, there are activity levels here to suit everyone, from the avid professional to the absolute newbie.
Of course wherever you go on Aruba you are just a stones throw from the warm Caribbean sea, and with constant trade winds and conditions that make Aruba perfect for a bit of paddle boarding, windsurfing, diving and snorkeling, it was only natural that I started off with a few water sports.
Anyone who knows me well will tell you that as much as I now love it the ocean is not my natural environment. I mean I have tried most water sports and activities before and am almost universally pretty bad at them. So my usual ‘screw this let’s do it’ attitude definitely battled with my desire to not face plant the ocean multiple times as I grabbed a board and pulled it into the ocean.
As expected I was as universally useless on the water as a big 6″2 guy should be, but I still loved it!
The instructor was endlessly patient as we all took turns to try and not look completely useless on the water, even when I almost pulled a Del Boy and headed out into the open water because I forgot how to turn around!
Countless mouthfuls of salt water, a sprained thumb and a cracked skull from hitting the boom of the windsurf board’s sail later, not to mention those aforementioned countless face plants into the sea itself, and I managed to stay afloat long enough to catch the wind and call it a legitimate attempt at windsurfing!
It felt epic! Until I couldn’t turn away from an oncoming kite surfer and fell in again.
At least I was a little better in the water than on top of it. I would never call myself an expert in either but I do genuinely love diving and snorkelling, and Aruba provides opportunities to do both of these in abundance with a variety of schools and packages available from many of the major beaches. You can do anything from snorkelling off the beach itself to heading out on a 40 foot catamaran for some open water fun and a bit of partying to boot.
Known – with good reason – as the wreck diving capital of the Caribbean with over a dozen sunken planes and ships to explore, the highlight of my time in Aruba had to be floating above the surreal wreck of the scuttled German WWII ship the Antilles.
This was genuinely one of the absolute highlights of not just my trip to Aruba but every snorkelling experience I have ever had.
Of course with this trip seemingly being the one that was proving medical insurance is always a good idea, even the seemingly harmless act of snorkeling exacted a price of a heavy sunburn. Talk about epic backpacker fails. I even wore factor 50 (supposedly waterproof) suncream and a T Shirt dammit! Curse my pasty English skin!
But the real adventures began when I was drawn deeper inland to Aruba’s interior.
Aruba is a truly stunning island, but not in a way you would ever expect. Of course it has the white sand beaches and the turquoise, crystal clear waters that are synonymous with the Caribbean, but this desert island also has a unique ecosystem that creates a stark but beautiful alien landscape the further inland you go.
One of the best ways to explore part of the interior is to grab a mountain bike from one of the many adventure tour operators. At least on this trip the only thing that was hurt was my pride as I tripped over my own lace getting off the damn thing, although I very nearly did develop a case of heat exhaustion by completely underestimating the power of the Aruban sun! I thought I took every precaution I could, sunscreen, plenty of water, the works. In hindsight though I should have worn a hat as well because it hit me hard. Seriously, if you are ever in a tropical or desert environment, never underestimate the sun, it can be fierce!
The ride itself was epic though, taking in the alien, cactus filled landscape of the interior, the rugged coastline and right up to the California lighthouse, one of the prime must see sites on the island. During the ride I realised too late I am in nowhere near as good a shape as I used to be though as I pretended to look like I wasn’t out of breath and having a coronary half way through. Bright red and sweaty, always a good look for an Englishman in the tropics!
I felt awful that night with the heat exhaustion, but a cool shower, a cold compress on my head and plenty of fluids later and I was back to my normal self the next morning. But Aruba wasn’t about to let me off so easily. Grabbing a bike is one thing, but if you really want an adventure experience in Aruba then you have to get an off road jeep experience with a psychotic driver hopped up on Aruba Arribas on a suicide run. Okay, the last part isn’t exactly mandatory but that is who we seemingly ended up with as our jeep tour of the island started with a full speed off road jaunt that could have been taken straight out of one of those high speed police chase videos and ended up using sand dunes as obstacle course launch pads in an insane, but highly addictive, off road adventure.
I was lifted out of my seat on more than one occasion, had my spine shortened by at least three inches, cracked my head on the roof multiple times and had my knees and ribs battered against the hard cage of the jeep, but I have not laughed so hard or enjoyed myself so much in a long time! Who needs rollercoasters?
Of course it isn’t the only way to see Aruba’s interior, you can also hike up or get your own dune buggy, but it was certainly a hell of a lot of fun to just let go and enjoy being thrown around a bit! (And no, we aren’t back on 50 shades again, get your mind out of the gutter!)
These off road adventures aren’t just about the experience itself, half of the point is to see some of Aruba’s most stunning locations. Part of Aruba’s beauty lies in her sheer ruggedness, and within that lies the opportunity to swim and snorkel in natural pools carved out by the sea itself.
Apart from the opportunity to rest your jolted and battered bones for a short while, climbing over a rock face to share a rare moment with a surprising amount of sealife for such a small rock pool is a genuinely amazing experience. Okay so it was a little crowded at times as other tour groups came and left, I suppose that was always inevitable on a heavily touristy island, but I loved the fact that our own guide didn’t rush us and left us to explore and play at our leisure.
This is one of the things I loved about the adventure tourism side of Aruba, yes there were the touristy activities such as the party catamarans and the jeep safari caravans which were relatively crowded, but there were also opportunities for independent adventures away from the crowds too, and there were genuinely times on these activities where I barely saw other travellers or tourists at all. One way isn’t better than the other, it all depends on what you are looking for and what you feel like doing on any given day, the beautiful thing about it is that you have the choice.
Of course being an island, I couldn’t stay away from the ocean for too long. The opportunity to go ocean kayaking came up and despite already sporting an epic fail sunburn and multiple aches and bruises from the previous adventure activities, there was no way I could turn that down.
So after a quick and perfunctory safety briefing (in which admittedly I paid more attention to the kayak center’s cat), I jumped in and began rowing. What the guide didn’t tell us before we started that the wind was particularly heavy that day, and was creating a few strong waves that made it difficult to remain upright and certainly made it a challenge to keep to the coastline.
This adventure suddenly jumped to the next level!
What began as a relaxing paddle out of the pier became much more of a challenge as the waves began to pull me out to sea, and we lost half our group who gave up and headed back to shore after being capsized by the wind, so I hastily shouted instructions to the others to make up some epic last words if I got blown out to Venezuela and put my back into the rowing.
What followed was a tiring, hand blistering, sunburning, but infinitely more gratifying and fun challenge to reach our destination, a small, hidden cove with clear turquoise waters and a stunning beach. More than enough reward for the effort taken to get there.
And that was true for my entire experience with the adventurous side of Aruba. I had the absolute time of my life on this happy little island. I may have come away exhausted, sunburned, bruised, bitten and more than a little battered from my misadventures, but it was all more than worth it to experience what were truly world class escapades on one of the most strikingly beautiful islands in the Caribbean.
I mean where’s the fun in any challenge if it’s easy?
Aruba’s beauty is matched by her raw, wild nature, and the adventure activities on this happy island reflect that. Aruba’s natural landscape and climate combine to make the perfect conditions for any type of adventure tourism, and any adventure enthusiast will be spoiled for choice when it comes to thrill seeking activities. They are not sedate, not easy, but if you let them, they will throw you into the deep end with wild abandon and give you the adventure of a lifetime.
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This article was written in partnership with the Aruba Tourism Authority UK. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.