You can’t drive fast on the northern coast of Aruba; the roads are narrow and rustic, signs are few, and it’s easy to take a wrong turn. But we were happy to take our time. Driving slow, my girlfriend and I could admire the cliffs, the turquoise sky, the crashing waves. No vehicles in sight. Not even a hiker in the dusty outback.
“Look!” Kylan cried.
I followed her finger to the horizon, where windmills emerged. They looked large from a distance and colossal as we closed in. The tall white towers stood venerably on the rocky land, their blades silently spinning through the sun’s glare. As sea breeze whipped through our open window, so did it move the turbines above.
Wind power, I marveled. Clean water. Giant national parks. Who knew Aruba was so progressive?
Hidden in Plain Sight
Until I arrived, I didn’t know about Aruba’s Dutch colonizers, nor its history of slavery, pirates, gold-diggers, and even its one U-boat attack. When a talkative cabbie drove us from the airport to our hotel, I couldn’t even identify the language she spoke: Papiamento, a Creole combining at least five different vernaculars. All these things were new to us.
And it’s green. For such a modest islet, known mostly as a port for cruise ships, Aruba has a conspicuous interest in the environment. Despite their desert landscape, Arubans boast that their drinking water is the tastiest in the Caribbean, thanks to the world’s third-largest desalinization plant. The Vader Pier wind farm, completed in 2009, was designed to partially replace oil power. The 10 turbines generate power 24 hours a day and distribute it to the entire country. So far, the island gets 20% of its power from solar and wind. During the Rio + 20 conference in June, Aruba pledged to transition to 100% renewable energy in coming years, making it one of the summit’s great success stories.
Land and Sea
But Aruba’s real triumph is its protected lands. Arikok National Park, Aruba’s largest parkland, contains nearly 8,000 acres of undeveloped hills and seaboard. Kylan and I spent days in Aruba’s northern coast, hiking through cactus forests, exploring caves and dipping into the Natural Pool—an enclosed circle of rocks and cliffs that’s perfect for diving. There’s the Natural Bridge, an arc of rock that stretches over the water (overhyped, Kylan and I decided). And naturalists can also visit the ostrich farm, the donkey sanctuary and a horse ranch. Not bad for a nation smaller than Martha’s Vineyard.
Outside of Arikok, we also found the Ayo Rock Formations, a collection of giant boulders that mysteriously appear in the middle of the island. Ayo isn’t nearly as rugged as Arikok; there are well-trafficked stairways that lead tourists through the rocks. Tour buses deposit droves of visitors, and there’s even a restaurant. Ayo behaves more like a roadside curiosity than a national park, but the monoliths are impressive all the same. And the view from the top of these boulders was breathtaking.
Much of Aruba’s most beloved land isn’t even land, per se. The coral reefs that surround Aruba have drawn divers for decades. Not only is the marine life bountiful, but divers can also explore sunken boats, ships and even an airplane—which, despite the manmade litter, make for dynamic underwater habitats. I couldn’t convince Kylan to take scuba lessons, given her lifelong fear of drowning, but experienced divers sang their praises.
“Some of the best diving I’ve ever done,” one diver told me. “I come back year after year. The wildlife. The reefs. They’re just amazing.”
Aruba has its darker side, of course. When locals told us to visit Baby Beach, we asked why. “It’s the best!” they exclaimed. And truly, Baby Beach is a beautiful spot: a crescent of white sand that stretches around an opal bay, where the water is warm and never rises higher than your chin. The place is placid and free, and native Arubans clearly flock here, yet it never gets crowded. The beach is tricky to find, and most tourists stay far away, cocooned in their luxury resorts.
But Baby Beach is also within sight of Aruba’s oil refineries. It’s eerie seeing blackened smokestacks rising above the dunes, vomiting black exhaust into the air. Most visitors ignore the sight of Aruba’s single industrial park, but green tourists like me find it alarming. It just goes to show: Even paradise isn’t perfect. But in a few years, it might get close.
ROBERT ISENBERG is a writer, photographer and stage performer living in Pitts-burgh. He is online at robertisenberg.net.