Aruba: Week 252

The blue waters of Malmok Beach: Aruba

Aruba is a very arid island. The contrast between tropical Caribbean dreams and the desert landscape couldn’t be any starker than it is on the coast, where cacti grow straight out of white beach sand.

The sheltered SW side of the island is famous for its beaches and snorkeling. Barret and I spent our first morning at Malmok Beach, which is smaller and quieter than the resort beaches further south.

A large iguana lounged against a white wall while turquoise-speckled Aruban Whiptails scurried out from the shadows. One accidentally grazed the top of my hand with its soft underbelly and scratchy nails.

Turquoise-spotted Aruban Whiptail lizard: Aruba

Along the coast pelicans swooped into schools of fish while small boats cast their anchor further out. The tour boat blasting dance music was named Putin Pleasure. I blinked twice and realized the palm tree logo in the font was meant to spell out Palm Pleasure.

View of the Boca Prins Beach: Arikok National Park, Aruba

The NE side of Aruba has pounding waves and a jagged coastline reminiscent of shards of glass. A good portion of this coastline belongs to the Arikok National Park. The relentless sun beats down year round and is the reason only stray goats cross this desert landscape on foot. A rental car is the best way to visit to Arikok.

Desert landscape at Arikok National Park, Aruba

View of the coast at Arikok National Park, Aruba

Mikayla at Arikok National Park, Aruba

Cave art at the Fontein Cave: Arikok National Park, Aruba

The coastline north of the national park is unpopulated and largely difficult to reach without 4WD. The Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins is one of the few buildings that sits along this stark coast and is accessible by a paved road.

View from the Bushiribana Ruins: Aruba

The mill was built in the late 1800s and was in use until being replaced by the Balashi Mill on the other side of the island. Balashi operated until WWI, when the imported mining materials became impossible to secure. After the war, the neglected mill was in such a state of disrepair than no further production was pursued.

Collapsed Natural Bridge: Aruba

Close to the ruins is the former location of Natural Bridge. As its name suggests, it was a strip of land that spanned across a rugged cove. Although nature eventually had its way and the bridge collapsed, tourism still prevails.

A wooden ladder has since been constructed which allows people to access a small, protected pool during low tide. My friends and I happened to be there during high tide and it was one of those moments where I could imagine the following day’s headline: Security measures to be proposed in wake of tourists being dragged out to sea.

Driftwood folk art from Aruba

Leaving the ruins, along the single paved road, was my favorite gift shop on the island. It was actually a wooden shed on private property, but it had a massive collection of driftwood painted to look like colorful fish. It was folk art at its purest and I didn’t see anything like it near the cruise ship docks.

Cacti sunset near the Alto Vista Chapel: Aruba

Cacti sunset near the Alto Vista Chapel: Aruba

The Alto Vista Chapel can also be found on the desolate NE coast. It was built upon the location of the island’s first Roman Catholic Church. While the building itself attracts tourists and Tuesday evening service-goers, the most compelling reasons to visit are the sunsets and the footpaths through the cacti-filled landscape.

Alto-Vista-Chapel-Sunset-Walk

Exterior view of the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

Downtown Oranjestad, with its colonial architecture, is actually quite small. Aside from a spattering of museums, retail shops dominate the landscape. The National Archaeological Museum, which is free to the public, is located inside the former Ecury Complex.

Anthropomorphic ceramic jar from the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

Pottery shard from the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

The buildings, some of which date as far back as the 19th century, remained in the Ecury family until 1997. Today, the complex is a modern museum with a focus on Aruban Amerindian culture and the country’s colonial heritage.

Street art in Oranjestad, Aruba

Colonial building in Oranjestad, Aruba

Papiamento and Dutch are the two official languages, but Aruba is much more linguistically savvy than that. Because the island receives a significant amount of tourism from the US, English is very widely spoken.

Most of the ATMs dispense US dollars and stores usually expected me to pay in USD. I, of course, took all my money out in Florins and every time I went to the store I felt like the kind of tourist that wears a beret in Paris.

Chinese restaurant in Oranjestad, Aruba

Spanish is also understood because of the close proximity of Venezuela and it’s hard not to notice that most of the independent groceries stores reflect Chinese ownership.

Polaroid of a pink bungalow house in Aruba

Outside of Oranjestad’s historical area, the majority of homes are one-story bungalows. They come in an array of colors and would not have been out of place during the 1950s.

After a few days of driving around the island, I thought about the couple at the airport that passed through immigration before us. This was their 28th visit to Aruba and they were excited to be back.

No matter how much I’ve enjoyed a destination, I’ve never felt that strongly about one place. I liked Aruba and I loved the desert sunsets, but the One Happy Island was a little too small and commercial for me. I’d dipped my toes into Aruba and it just left me curious about all the other Caribbean islands. Good thing we’d already planned on jumping over to Curacao.

Polaroid of the road leading to the Alto Vista Chapel in Aruba

About: Alto Vista Chapel

About: Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins

About: Arikok National Park

About: National Archaeological Museum Aruba

Polaroid of a tangled cactus in Arikok National Park: Aruba

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Salento & Valle de Cocora: Week 227

View of Carrera 6 in Salento: Colombia

Colombia has a lot of three-day weekends. They are called puentes, which means bridges, and when my first one came up I leapt at the opportunity to get out of town.

So early Saturday morning Barret was squished in the back of a small buseta while I sat next to a woman in a blue cardigan and torn jeans. Ten minutes into the trip she pulled out a multi-colored rosary and began crossing herself every time we passed a church, went over a bridge, or stopped at a tollbooth.

She got off at a bus station in Pereira and on the way out of the parking lot I noticed a glass display case with the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. It made me wonder who decided that was the right pose for a bus station statue.

It was mid-afternoon when Barret and I arrived in Salento. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the most popular and photographic street in the city- Carrera 6.

Architectural detail in Salento: Colombia

Only after our stomachs were full did we start the search for accommodation. The first guesthouse we visited was on the outskirts of town. The garden was filled with toys and sunflowers and the foyer was actually a living room with an overstuffed couch. It was an odd juxtaposition of private versus public.

The place was completely booked though, and the only thing they could offer was a tent on the porch with a thick sleeping pad and some blankets. Barret and I declined, but after a disparaging walk around the city, we quickly realized that the tent was our only option. If there is anything I have learned from traveling on a puente weekend, it’s that reservations are imperative.

We spent the first half of the evening watching a very untalented caricature artist and the second half in a small cafe listening to excellent live music. We weren’t in a rush to make it back to the tent, but when we eventually did, we slept well. The only exception being the return of a group of drunk Colombian tourists. Upon seeing a row of tents on the patio, one of the guys yelled out. Look at those gringos! What are they thinking?! 

Horses outside the trail head of Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

The following morning Barret and I woke up very early to begin our hike to Valle de Cocora. From the main square in Salento, we caught a jeep to the trailhead. There was an option to hire horses, but Barret and I decided to walk the whole circuitous route.

Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Valle de Cocora is famous for its sweeping views of the wax palms- Colombia’s national tree. This is in no small part thanks to the herds of grazing cattle that nibble all the vegetation around the wax palms. The trees are already slender and insanely tall, but when viewed unobstructed, they are even more impressive.

Rutted trail through the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Bridge crossing in the Valle de Cocora: Salento, Colombia

Several hours into the hike we stopped at the Aicame Natural Reserve. It was a small hummingbird sanctuary located at the end of a seemingly never-ending ascent. There was a fee to enter the reserve, but it included a beverage. We also discovered that the reserve had a very basic but insanely cheap lodge. Beds were available for something like 10,000 pesos (USD$5) and the cost included food!

Hummingbirds at the Acaime Natural Reserve: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

We weren’t prepared to rough it another night, so after viewing all the hummingbirds we double-backed and continued walking the full circuit. An hour or so later the trail came to a head at a lookout point named Finca La Montaña.

The lookout point had a flower garden and a small building with a covered porch. An open door led from the porch into a small dark kitchen where a woman was making traditional Colombian hot chocolate over a wood-burning stove.

Woman making hot chocolate at the Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

In its raw form, the chocolate comes in hard blocks that are dissolved inside a metal jug. Once prepared, the hot chocolate is served with a thick slice of queso campesino (a soft, spongy, and slightly salty cheese).

Hot chocolate and cheese at Finca la Montana: Valle de Cocora, Colombia

I was initially reluctant to drop cheese into my hot chocolate, but it actually tasted delicious. The cheese softened and the saltiness balanced well against the sweetness of the chocolate. I felt like that was a good metaphor for the weekend- the salty frustration of lugging our backpacks around town in search of a room was tempered by the charm of the city and the beauty of the valley. Having the one makes you appreciate the other so much more.

How to get to Salento: Direct buses are available from the bus stations in Armenia and Pereira.

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