With its arid climate, crystal-clear waters and cactuses aplenty, you wouldn’t think that Aruba, a tiny island on the coast of Venezuela, shares much in common with Chicago, a giant city on the coast of Lake Michigan. And you would be mostly right.
But on my recent visit to Aruba, I was surprised by just how much this island nation has in common with our fair city. And since it takes a relatively easy flight to experience this alt-version of our Midwestern reality, a trip to Aruba is ideal for Chicagoans looking for a tropical escape, some adventurous activities or a little good old-fashioned sunshine.
Here’s what to see for a slightly quirky taste of home.
If you like Shedd Aquarium: Try snorkeling at one of the island’s beaches
Get up-close-and-personal with the jewels of the sea when you go for a dive at one of the many beaches in Aruba. Beginners can hone their skills at Arashi Beach, which has shallow water and a sandy bottom, while snorkeling pros can explore the gorgeous shores at Mangel Halto, which are a bit trickier to navigate. In addition to fish of all sizes and hues, you may be lucky enough to spot a sea turtle or two on Eagle Beach; four species nest on the island, where they have special protected status.
If you like the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven: Check out The Butterfly Farm
Butterflies (and some moths) from around the world make their home at The Butterfly Farm, a unique attraction that both kids and adults will love. Informative guides lead tours throughout the day, and butterflies emerge from their chrysalises every morning, to great excitement from visitors. Or you can just bask in the many-colored creatures flitting about and take photos galore. (If one lands on you, be sure to make a wish!) Pro tip: Visit the farm early in your trip and re-use your tickets throughout your stay.
If you like frolicking along Lake Michigan: Frolic along the Caribbean Sea
There’s no shortage of water-based fun on this island! Whether you want to try out wave running, stand-up paddle boarding, parasailing or water skiing, Aruba’s got your back. Splash in the translucent water, which averages about 80 degrees year-round. And in case you were wondering, yes, we do count soaking up rays, sipping a tropical beverage and snoozing in the sun as water (um … sand?) sports.
If you like Chicago’s museum scene: Explore Aruba’s unique museums
For such a small island, it has its fair share of museums. If you’re interested in ancient artifacts, the Archaeological Museum features items from as far back as 2500 B.C. and delves into the unique cultural mix that exists in Aruba. Beauty enthusiasts can learn about the country’s vibrant aloe vera industry—its exports are world famous!—at the Aruba Aloe Factory, which walks you through the whole production process. And at the Aruba Toy Museum, kids will be fascinated by the wide variety of vintage toys—and maybe newly inspired to appreciate their own playthings.
If you like navigating potholes on Lake Shore Drive: Jostle around on an off-road adventure
There will be bumps. De Palm Tours hosts open-air truck tours through Arikok National Park, where you’ll take in some of the most awe-inspiring sites on the island. Tours visit the stunning Natural Bridge and Natural Pool (if the waves cooperate, you can even take a dip!) as well as Aruba’s first church, the gold mill ruins and a picture-perfect lighthouse. Be forewarned: You’ll need a shower when the tour is done, but all the dust is more than worth discovering what makes Aruba so special.
Where to stay
Tourism is a big deal in Aruba, and many of the popular hotels cater to Americans. But for a less cookie-cutter hotel stay, we recommend Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort, a boutique hotel with just 72 rooms and an abundance of charm, thanks to its striking Dutch architecture. Each room is equipped with a kitchenette—which can be easily stocked at the nearby supermarket—to make easy meals, or opt to dine at one of the hotel’s two restaurants.
Amsterdam Manor has its own swimming pool with waterfall and is just steps away from the lovely Eagle Beach.