Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017

© Aruba Tourism Authority

The Guadirikiri (pictured) and Fontein caves were used by visiting Caquetios Indians for political and spiritual reasons for 1500 years.

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The hidden side of Aruba

Arikok National Park shows the island is more than just rum and beaches

I had heard about its beaches, its popularity as a cruise ship port of call, and its reputation as a honeymoon haven. However, upon arrival, my agenda was set and geared towards venturing off this island’s irresistible “beaten” path and discover some of its other alluring parts. The island I was preparing to land on and delve into was none other than Aruba: the Dutch Caribbean, the “A” in the ABC islands, the first lyric in the famous Beach Boys song “Kokomo” — the One Happy Island.

WIND BENEATH ARUBA’S WINGS

I had never been to Aruba before. Exiting Oranjestad’s Reina Beatrix International Airport, I was immediately struck by the two constants that would stay with me for the duration of my stay: the heat and the wind. The heat I was expecting, the wind not so much. As it turns out, the winds are actually the famous trade winds, those predominating northeast and southeast swirls that prevail around the centre of the earth. By luck of location, at 12 degrees above the Equator, Aruba enjoys the equivalent of a Canadian summer breeze all year long. It’s no surprise that Aruba is ideal for sailing, windsurfing and kiting aficionados. From a sustainability perspective, the benefits of the winds are not lost on Aruba either. Since 2010, these same winds have been channelling through a state-of-the-art windmill farm lined along the island’s southeast coast and providing a quarter of Aruba’s electricity.

Having endured a disappointingly cold summer in Montreal, I just couldn’t get enough of it. And sure enough, throughout my trip I heard the same refrain from locals and tourists alike. Guaranteed great weather — the constant balmy breeze coupled with minimal annual rainfall, entwined with the fact that the Lesser Antilles Island is outside of the hurricane corridor — is one of the reasons why Aruba has one of the highest percentages of repeat visitors in all of the Caribbean.

FROM RESORT TO ROCK

The leeward/west side of the island is Aruba’s tourism epicentre. The resorts are there, the capital city and airport are there, and most of the beaches are there. Like its weather, it’s Aruba’s sure thing, money in the bank. But as I was in the midst of discovering, Aruba has much more to it, which is why I headed one early morning to visit the much talked-about Arikok National Park on the other side of the island.

Our group of eight was led by Giovanni, our De Palm Tours (depalmtours.com) guide, who helped us board a safari-style 4x4 jeep in front of our hotel. The park, outlined on every Aruba map I came across, takes up almost one fifth of the island. When you consider that Aruba is only 179 square kilometres in total area and 34 of those kilometres are dedicated to a National Park, it speaks volumes about the peoples’ dedication to conserving their unique history and land. They’re proud of their park and it shows.

Going the tour route instead of getting to the park on my own offered me a chance to see the townscapes and hear the anecdotes of island life. We saw people, from the almost 100 nationalities represented on the island. We passed by schools, where under a Dutch school system, children are taught Dutch, Spanish, English and the island dialect Papiamento, mostly Roman Catholic churches and pristine baseball fields that suggested that America’s national pastime was also Aruba’s.

THE ARIKOK INTERIOR

Ten or so minutes into our drive towards the island interior, Giovanni informed us that we were now entering Arikok. The jeep began its ascent and immediately we thankfully understood why a four-wheel drive is said to be mandatory when visiting the Park.

The land of Arikok is arid and desert-like. With an average rainfall of 50 centimetres per year, there’s not much in terms of lush plantation. According to Giovanni, the only plants that are truly indigenous to the park are various types of cacti and the watapana, or divi-divi tree. The divi-divi and the similar-looking fofoti, are easy to spot, because of their southwesterly bend due to the ever-present winds. The land is very rock-strewn, and at times the terrain got so rocky that the jeep seemed to seesaw from left to right at times.

Later in the tour, as we headed for the Fontein and Guadirikiri caves, Giovanni recounted the history of the arrival of Aruba’s First Nations. The Caquetios Indians were said to have come from Venezuela by canoe to fish for as long as they could, until it was time to go back to the mainland to profit from their catch. The caves, used by the Caquetios for political and spiritual reasons, have Indian drawings of animal-like figurinesthat are said to date back some 1500 years. Although their actual meaning is unknown, what is known is how they eventually disappeared. Once the Spanish invaded the island and the Caquetios were captured, they were brought to the Dominican Republic and enslaved. The Caquetios never returned to the island and a vital chunk of Aruba’s history was consequently lost forever.

We saw hikers and horseback riders in the distance, reminding us that if time is on your side, you could visit the park by foot or on saddle. It’s on foot or by horse that you’re more likely to come face-t0-face with some of the island’s wildlife. On a lucky day you might see the shoco, the island’s own burrowing owl or the cascabel, Aruba’s endangered rattlesnake. On this day, safely perched in our jeep, we witnessed free-spirited wild goats or cabrito, that date back to the 17th century when they were brought to the island by the Dutch.

THE NATURAL POOL

As we reached the park’s plateau, Arikok’s eastern coast came into focus and became the main attraction. The site of the vast and belligerent ocean crashing up against the coastline would turn out to be the highlight of my trip. The wind- and water-weathered rock formations as well as the carved-out natural bridges and sheltered beach areas, like Andicuri and Dos Playa, were simply magnificent.

To no one’s surprise, swimming is not really permitted on this side of the island because of the ocean’s strong undertow, but you can still experience its water by taking a dip in Conchi. Conchi in Papiamento means natural pool, a self-contained area that’s protected from the ocean by high rock walls. As the ocean’s waves crash into the coastline, water spills over the pool’s high rock walls and fills Conchi with ocean water. Getting to the pool, once we got out of our jeeps, required some effort but we were rewarded as we carefully slid into the pool and stayed inside it until it was time to go.

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