Aruba is famous as being an all inclusive tourist paradise, and with good reason, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that is all it is. For those intrepid travellers willing to look beyond the surface Aruba will reveal a deeper, wilder side that is perfect for independent backpackers.
Given that Aruba has the perfect credentials for mass tourism it is hardly a surprise that it has been a staple of travel agents brochures for a long time. I get it. The stunning white sand beaches, the turquoise waters, the infamous nightlife, the easy going attitude and the all inclusive resorts willing to cater to every whim and need, it’s easy to see why this happy island has a string of tourism accolades to its name.
But Aruba is much, much more than an all inclusive destination.
My own experience of Aruba wasn’t just a decadent bit of relaxation sipping cocktails by the pool and listening to Kokomo on endless repeat (although to be fair I could not get that damn song out of my head the whole time I was there!) It was a trip filled with epic adventures, a few misadventures, cultural immersion and exploration, and as a backpacker I found Aruba to be wholly welcoming and infinitely addictive.
Of course being Aruba there is no real culture of hostels or cheap beach huts on the island. The traditional budget backpacker accommodation options just don’t exist on the whole, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay in the many resorts either.
I stayed in a unique and charming studio apartment just off Palm Beach for a little bit of flashpacker comfort, but there are a whole smorgasboard of smaller, family run bed and breakfasts or guesthouses that are perfect for the independent traveller to use as a base to explore the island, and with the governments recent embracing of the sharing economy there are more options than ever for travellers to choose cheap, easy and independent accommodation options.
But staying away from the resorts isn’t just about sticking to a cheap budget and travelling independently either. Aruba is trying to foster a more balanced approach to tourism, concentrating primarily on accommodation options and taking an unprecedented step of limiting all inclusive activities, so by travelling independently to this tourism dependent island (over 91% of Aruba’s GDP is tourism based) you will be ensuring some of your tourism dollars are spread more evenly instead of just going to the international chains and minimising at least some of the negative effects of tourism that comes with mass package holidays, by supporting a sustainable model that benefits locals.
The same is true for the eating options on the island too. Aruba is home to some of the most amazing restaurants I have been too in a long time, and package tourists are served extremely well with truly world class restaurants nestled in between the casinos and bars on the strip, home to Aruba’s famous nightlife. I would never deny anyone a good meal and if you can afford to splash out with your budget then choose a good restaurant and order some fish (it is an island after all, the seafood is always good!) You won’t regret it.
But some of the best places to eat aren’t fancy restaurants that cater to tourists (as good as they are). It is a universal truth that local is usually better and Aruba is no different. I found my best dinner on Aruba purely by chance when we got totally lost in our rental jeep and pulled up into a small restaurant that had a line of locals queuing out of the door.
Top tip: You know a place is good if it is jam packed with locals!
The fish was so fresh if was as if we were eating on the fishing boat itself, and was prepared to absolute perfection.
But my favourite place to eat in Aruba had to be the local legend Charlie’s Bar, a place so unique and characterful that the food would be secondary to it if it wasn’t so damn good! I mean when the spicy honeymoon sauce comes with a warning of ‘may lead to violent intercourse’ (I kid you not!) you can only imagine how good the food itself is!
Yes the mass tourism is a huge part of what Aruba does very well, but does this mean that you will be missing out as a backpacker in Aruba? Not a chance! You can still go and do whatever you want, you’ll just be doing it independently!
Want to try out some watersports or take a scuba lesson? Go for it! Head down to one of the beaches and go and speak to the guys running the adventure sport centers. They’ll happily help you out. Want to grab a bike and explore the interior? Want to grab a Kayak and head to a hidden cove with crystal clear waters? Do the exact same thing! There are endless adventure activity opportunities in Aruba and you don’t need an expensive package tour operator to go and do them.
Exploring independently is where you can really see Aruba’s hidden wild side.
The East coast is an untamed stretch of craggy wilderness that frames the desert like interior like a defensive wall, an interior that is being increasingly protected by the expanding Arikok National Park.
If you are hiking on your own in the park then getting a ranger for a guide is of course a must, but it is here where you can really begin to get a deeper understanding of Aruba beyond the touristy T shirts and fridge magnets. The park is home to some uniquely stunning wilderness and displays through a variety of cave drawings evidence of the islands first inhabitants, the Caquetio Indians.
The park is also one of the main sources of Aruba’s only source of income other than tourism, a mind boggingly dazzling array of flora and fauna, many of which are used for natural medicinal purposes, including the famous Aruban Aloe Vera.
Of course anyone can take a tour to see the cave paintings or across the national park, but I think that taking the time to learn about and appreciate the history and culture of any given destination gives you a much deeper understanding of and connection to it, and this is much easier when you choose to travel independently.
Aruba has a wild side that is rarely seen by package tourists and is perfect for backpackers and independent travellers.
But this doesn’t mean that you have to avoid the whole tourist experience completely either. Sometimes it can be fun to cut loose and enjoy yourself, and if you want to you can easily join a jeep tour heading to the famous natural pool or one of the catamaran snorkelling tours and have a few Aruba Arriba’s with the tourists too. The point is you have the choice when you travel independently, you aren’t limited to whatever is on the itinerary at the resort.
So I still got to experience everything any package tourist would, and a hell of a lot more besides! Most of which were a world away from the private resorts and exclusive high rise hotels.
In short, backpackers are missing out.
If the fancy hotels and all inclusive resorts are your thing then great, you will be well catered for in Aruba, but if you are reading my articles I’m guessing you want far, far more than that from your travel experience, and for backpackers and independent travellers there is a whole hidden paradise on Aruba just waiting to be discovered.
What are you waiting for? Find a good, backpacker friendly studio or B&B, hire yourself a bike or a jeep, and just start exploring this happy piece of paradise!
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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.