A hike through Arikok National Park, the largest in the Caribbean, steeps visitors in the island’s rugged beauty.
There are a few questions that one would like to be asked while vacationing in Aruba, such as, “Would you like salt on your margarita?” or “Which palapa would you like to sit under today?”
“Are you afraid of bats?” is not one of them.
Yet I am being asked about my feelings toward bats, and unlike the other, easier questions (yes to the margarita salt, always yes), I don’t have an answer regarding bats, mostly because I’ve never given bats much thought.
“Um … I don’t think so,” I tell Aldrick Besaril, the ranger who’s leading me and three girlfriends on a hike through Aruba’s Arikok National Park, which covers about 18 percent of the island.
We’re in Aruba for a destination wedding. In a few days, I’ll be co-matron of honor at a beachside ceremony. Now, though, my co-matron, Julie, is a few steps ahead of me on the trail and looking as sweaty as I feel. I’d call Aruba’s inland climate “oven-like” were it not for the humidity that hangs heavily in the air. Our one salvation is Aruba’s mighty and constantly blowing trade winds, which make me sigh gratefully each time the breeze crosses my neck.
“We’re glistening,” Julie says, as we pause on the trail for a water break.
“No,” I correct her, wondering whether I can wring out my shirt when we get back to the visitor center. “We’re sweating.”
I’d visited Aruba seven years earlier on a girls’ getaway with three of the same friends who’ve come for the wedding. Kristine, Julie, Sara and I had spent most of that long-ago trip lounging on the beach, sipping cocktails and wondering about the kids we might have someday. We didn’t leave the resort’s beach or pool unless it was to head out to sea for banana boating, parasailing or snorkeling. And we had no way of knowing that the next time all of our feet would touch this tiny island, it would be for Kristine’s wedding, or that this time we’d have real kids to talk about and fret over and miss while we were away.
My pre-motherhood jaunt to Aruba was spectacular in its simplicity and mindlessness: I buried my toes in the sand and my head in magazines without any real cares or worries. But life is bigger and wilder than that, and sometimes — often — the most beautiful paths are rockier and more rambling. My mission for this trip? Leave the resort.
In our case, the rocky path is a literal one, as we follow Aldrick on a two-hour hike that includes the relatively easy Cunucu Arikok trail, a little loop that leads to a roughly 100-year-old white adobe farmhouse.
Bright lizards add color to trail
Aldrick is funny and sarcastic. One minute he’s knowledgeably telling us about the medicinal properties of the basora-pretu plant’s minty-smelling leaves. The next minute he tells us that Dutch explorers found gold in Aruba, adding, “If I found gold, I’m not going to tell you guys.” He makes us guess how old he is (19, although we all guess older) and makes us happy by guessing that we’re 27 (we’re not, and I’ll just leave it at that). He vacillates between expert ranger and buddy, telling us about his girlfriend and their upcoming trip to Disney World and about how boa constrictors have become an invasive species in Aruba, ravaging the island’s native bird populations.
The snakes are wisely hiding: At 11 a.m., it’s way too hot out here for them.
We do get the chance to “ooh” and “aah” at a lot of whiptail lizards, whose bright, jewel-like bodies of sapphire blue and emerald green scuttle along the gravelly path among wiry branches and dust-colored brush. The park’s cactuses and bushes would all blend into a scrubby-looking palette of dull brown and green, were it not for Aldrick’s frequent botanical lessons. He steps off the trail and squats to point out the thorny bringamosa. “The devil plant,” he says, rubbing his wrist against its spines. Immediately, his skin erupts into an angry-looking rash. But next to the devil is always an angel, Aldrick says. He breaks off a small branch of a nearby plant and rubs the oozing sap onto his arm, calming the rash.
So Aldrick knows what he’s doing, obviously. This is about where he slips in the bat question. Because as we round a corner we see a big rock formation that creates a small, open cave that’s teeming with bats. They swoop down at us, and a friend shrieks and covers her head with her arms.
“Don’t worry. They won’t hit you,” Aldrick says nonchalantly.
Exploring the park’s caves