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We arrive back at the visitor center, sweaty and red-faced, but Aldrick’s not done with us yet. He offers to drive us across the park to check out two of Aruba’s large caves, so we pile into a ranger truck and head toward the Caribbean side of the island. Aldrick blasts the air conditioning and a hip-hop radio station that’s playing “The Humpty Dance.” The goats grazing in the rocky brush turn their heads at us inquisitively as we drive by.
We stop briefly to marvel at the churning, cerulean ocean from atop the rocky cliffs at Dos Playa before heading to Fontein Cave, a stalactite-spiked cavern where the walls are covered in 1,000-year-old reddish-brown paintings left by the indigenous Arawak people, who performed rituals and ceremonies here, Aldrick tells us. He creeps behind a stalagmite and dips his hand into a little pool fed by a natural spring. “Holy water,” he says.
Next we head to Quadirikiri Cave, where tunnels open suddenly into huge, cavernous rooms flooded with sunlight from gaping holes that open to the sky. We crane our necks toward the rocky ceiling and marvel at these natural skylights as we make our way deeper into the cave. Up ahead, Aldrick beckons us toward a tunnel so small and dark that I wouldn’t have noticed it if he’d not been crouching in its entrance. He wants to show us the bats.
“I’ll go first,” he says, “and then I’ll turn around and light the flashlight on the ground so you can see.”
We have to bend over double to get through the dark, narrow, low-ceilinged tunnel, following Aldrick’s weak beam of guiding light. The tunnel opens into another small chamber, but there are no skylights here. Aldrick shuts off his flashlight and we’re plunged into blackness. I stand, hunch-shouldered, unsure about the room’s dimensions; it seems very small. I sense the bats before I see them; the hot cave smells acrid, and high-pitched squeaking fills my ears. Aldrick shines his flashlight up to the ceiling, and it’s covered in bats, some clinging to the rocky surface, others swooping down around us. Again, Aldrick tells us just to stand still and be quiet and they won’t fly into us. I’m amazed that he’s right.
“Do you want to go further in?” he asks, which is met with a chorus of “No, thanks.” We’ve got the gist.
Back at the resort, we meet our husbands and friends for poolside happy hour, which feels oddly bright and sunny after our pitch-black bat encounter.
Instead of having dinner at the resort tonight, we’re heading into Aruba’s capital city, Oranjestad, to Gostoso, a restaurant tucked into a residential neighborhood. We’ve chosen it for its traditional Aruban fare. The restaurant is tiny, and the 14 people in our party seem to take up half of its tables.
Since we had earlier regaled the goats in Arikok National Park with the strains of ’90s hip-hop, I order the cabrito stoba, a thick stew of goat meat that’s served alongside vegetables, rice and two thick, sweet plantain slices. It’s delicious, flavorful and impossibly tender, like the best osso buco you can imagine. The owner visits each table, proudly telling us details about every dish.
Early the next morning, I kiss my sleeping husband, get a coffee and head out for a solitary walk on the beach. My eyes comb the water’s edge for shells, but the sand at the resort is perfectly clean and manicured. So I walk away from the high-rise hotels and toward little beach huts where small, brightly painted wooden fishing boats are moored just offshore. The farther I walk, the bigger the coral and shell fragments become, until finally, I spot whole shells — tiny ones no bigger than my thumbnail with intricate swirls of black and pink, and white ones with rippling, frilled edges that remind me of Kristine’s wedding gown. I sidestep scuttling crabs and wade past little schools of tiny, translucent fish. The rising sun glistens off the water. The air smells salty and clean. Yes, sipping margaritas under a palapa is great. But this is pretty great, too.
Alexandra Pecci is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer.