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The Aruba you never knew

Aruba - boats
Its perfect climate, ideal beaches and vibrant nightlife make
Aruba one of the top Caribbean getaways. And for those who
learn its secrets, this easily accessible island presents an entire
new world of color, texture and taste.

By Rich Rubin

Palm Beach is a colorful patchwork of bodies, blankets and chairs, all fringed with scraps of golden, fine-grained sand. Some baskers sip potent rum concoctions while others remain motionless, allowing the brilliant Aruban sun to work its calming, bronzing magic. Gazing over the glistening crowd, I realize that they probably deserve their indolence. No doubt some had a rough day of shopping on Oranjestad's Main Street. Others, I'm sure, went to Royal Plaza, a grand shopping mall that faces the waterfront and looks like a giant cake with pink and white icing. The jewelry, china, crystal and fashion are enough to keep even the most dedicated shopaholics happy. And based on the buff bodies around me, quite a few vacationers are likely to have done real exercise - windsurfing, snorkeling or scuba diving. Then again, maybe everyone lazing here spent the entire day doing just exactly this - and why not? The weather here, as usual, is nearly perfect: warm and dry with a hint of a breeze.

Once they shake off the sand and slather on the aloe, many will hop the Kukoo Kunuku, a brightly painted tourist bus that does a circuit of Oranjestad's bars and clubs. The confident ones will spend their night flirting with Lady Luck at one of the numerous Aruba casinos. Afterward, everybody will meet for nachos and beer at a balcony restaurant overlooking the waterside strip that's as busy at midnight as it is in midafternoon.

This is the Aruba everyone knows - and even if this were all it had to offer, it would be well worth the trip. "I just asked the travel agent to find us somewhere safe and warm", confides first-time Aruba visitor Mike Sellinger as we enjoy brunch at Le Dôme, one of the island's premier restaurants, "an island I could get to and get around easily. I had no idea how much more Aruba would offer."

It's no wonder he's surprised. I've visited several times, and I'm still just getting to know the other Aruba. Secret Aruba is an island of wide-open spaces and supernatural caverns that house ancient rock drawings. It's a low-key place where simple local eateries serve up Aruba's lineage every day and moonlight shines brighter than any neon casino sign. If it's not as familiar a picture as the glitzy, glamorous Aruba, if it takes some doing to find, well maybe that's just as well.

Aruba Au Naturel

As Aruba's daily tourist ritual begins along the northwest coast, Palm Beach and Eagle Beach attract sun-worshippers like the Vatican attracts Catholics at Easter. I joined the multitudes at these well-known Aruban shores on my first trip here. I was thrilled with the clean beach, the buzz of activity. But sometimes I like my sand sans people, so today I head east out of Oranjestad to Arikok National Park.

Covering almost 20 percent of Aruba's land area, Arikok Park is a desert delight crisscrossed with rough twisty roads. I see a sign for Dos Playa, a pair of golden and wonderfully empty strands, but continue on to Boca Prins, which is even more uninhabited.

I park and follow a sandy trail, scattering bearded goats into the brush as I head across a sugar-white dune. On the other side I'm suddenly faced with a tableland strewn with gravel where the sea shoots up in immense sprays. Below lies a small, utterly deserted beach snugged between two jagged cliffs.

This is Aruba's natural state, far from the palm-studded greenery of the beach resorts. It's not so much a landscape as a collection of panoramas: deep-rutted grottoes, vast plateaus, gently rounded dunes, sea-sprayed craggy cliffs and reddish-orange hills covered in multiarmed cacti. Black asphalt and gray concrete vanished miles back, replaced by the desert's creamy tans and the ruddy browns of the rocky hills. The fast-food joints have given way to the slow, unyielding pace of nature. I'm alone with the elements and spend the day letting the roaring waves that pound offshore rocks and then pour back down like liquid curtains entertain me. Several hours pass and I never see another human.

After crabbing back up from my own personal ocean, I head inland to explore Arikok's many caverns and caves.

In Fontein Cave, I enter a world of rough-hewn rock archways and stone pillars that the forces of nature have carved into eerie and bizarre shapes. The ranger shines a flashlight on the ceiling so I can see the Indian drawings made, he tells me, with the sap of the Brazil tree. He says that no one knows the meaning, but the locals claim it's magic. His words are truer than he knows. These crude images and the trail of history attached to them have completely captivated me.

In Gaudirikiri Cave, sunlight pours through gaps in the roof, illuminating walls streaked green and russet. Long columns of spine-shaped fossils and irregular, furrowed stone columns give the cave a gothic ambience.

Carefully descending rough rock steps into the Tunnel of Love, the largest of Arikok's caves, I cling to the flashlight given to me by the attendant back at the entrance. I creep through labyrinthine corridors overhung with low, jagged arches. It's an entire underground city. I'm doing fine following the mazelike pathways until I round a corner and suddenly find myself in a chamber with no exit. I retrace my steps, turn and move back down the corridor until - I'm back in the same chamber. For a moment, the dark walls seem to close in around me. I hear - or maybe imagine - the faint rustle of bat wings, and the toothy columns look ever more ominous. Panic joins me in the cave and I wonder how long the flashlight batteries will last. I wheel around frantically, hoping to find anything that might give me at least a subtle hint as to how to find the exit. The cone of light catches something ... oh, an arrow with a sign: ''50 meters to exit.'' That might help. I'm soon back out in the glorious sunlight.

At Ayo rock formations, I climb to the top of the huge boulders and look out over a cactus-covered vista. The sienna-hued hills are covered with bushy trees appointed with tiny purple blossoms. Above, the sky is scorched clean by the intense Aruban sun. To one side, an iron gate protects a boulder that retains a set of Indian rock drawings. The graphics show concentric circles and archways, one figure that looks human and another that looks like a bird. While most visitors stop at the Casibari formations on their way to Natural Bridge - Aruba's most touristed sight - not as many find their way here, so it has a wilder feel. I'm stunned that it has taken me this long to uncover these many wonders.

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