Aruba doesn’t perch atop many adventure lists. There’s incredible windsurfing and scuba diving, yes, but the Dutch Caribbean island is better known for its luxury resorts, white-sand beaches, and bustling nightlife. Still, this island just north of Venezuela is not exactly an overgrown, tropical paradise. A fifth of the country’s landscape is barren desert. And that’s where tan visitors can find sunburned thrills.
Encompassing more than 7,900 acres along Aruba’s northeastern shore, the protected Arikok National Park is full of enough lizards, rattlesnakes, owls, limestone cliffs, and cave drawings by indigenous (Arawak) people that it could pass for New Mexico, if it weren’t for the Natural Pool, a beachside swimming hole closed off from the ocean by rocks and volcanic stone. This rugged area, largely accessible only by ATV or horse – attracts the sort of tourist who doesn’t relish reclining in a beach chair with a rum punch.
Adventure outfitters such as De Palm Tours lead three-hour excursions through Arikok. Drivers shift into four-wheel-drive for steep climbs and churn up dirt along the arid Andicuri Trail, which winds along the beach before turning inland. Drivers and passengers alike are quickly covered in dust. This off-road safari includes stops at Bushiribana, the eerie ruins of a 19th-century gold mill; Alto Vista Chapel, built on the site where Venezuelan missionaries began converting Aruban Indians to Christianity in the 1700s; and the California Lighthouse, named for the British steamship that ended up shipwrecked there in 1891. As such, it offers a fascinating look into the history of an island that could easily be mistaken for an oversize beach bar. A particular highlight of the tour is the stop at Wishing Rock beach, home to hundreds of miniature towers of stones. Local legend says that whoever stacks the flat rocks will have their wishes granted – unless, of course, they wish for rain.
Some tours culminate with a refreshing dip. The cool water serves as a reminder that you aren’t in Arizona anymore and a way to wash off the layers of khaki grime.
More information: There’s rarely a bad time to be had in Aruba, which is rarely hit by hurricanes. Treks through Arikok with De Palm Tours start from $169 per two-person vehicle to $99 per person for a four-hour Jeep journey. The eco-friendly Manchebo Beach Resort makes a great base of operations with rooms from $210 a night.