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
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.