Sunday, October 14, 2012

18 ways of Pinto and Gallo: Our adventures in Sitio De Mata, Tayutic Valley, Costa Rica

Sitio de Mata
July 22nd: We arrive in San Jose Airport at 1:00pm local time and took the reserved car to the village. On the way, we stopped at Multi Mall to pick up a phone sim card and a USB wireless card. Getting the phone card was not a problem. It seems the unlocked phone we brought with us was locked so we ended up buying a local phone and sim card for $54 dollars. That included phone plus 70 mins of US calling. The wireless card for the laptop was much harder. A vendor called Movistar had a USB device in which you insert a data sim card and it supposedly provides mobile internet access. However, for whatever reason that device did not work on our laptop. After spending approx two hours trying to troubleshoot the data card, we gave up and continued our journey. It is approximately 2 hours from the airport to Sitio de Mata. Yoselin and her husband Norberto and their teenage daughter Charlene were waiting for us as we arrived. We received a very warm welcome. They had prepared a typical Rican dinner for us that included gallo, pinto, fried fish, salad, and a vegetable. After dinner we were too exhausted to do anything else, so we all crashed and went to bed. The kids had one bedroom with bunk beds and I had the 2nd bedroom with 2 twin beds.
July 23rd: Charlene left for her high school at 8:00am. She takes a bus from the village to Turrialba the closest town approximately 20 min bus ride. We had breakfast of Pinto Gallo and fried eggs, fresh queso and caffe. Kids chose to eat cereal. After breakfast Yoselin took us around the village community to introduce us to various folks and see the various parts of the village. First we met Dona Fressy con Arraga, the primary host for the village. Most student and teacher groups who come to Sitio de Mata generally stay at her house and she along with her son Marlon started this program of inviting teachers and students to visit their small community. Donna Fressy and Yoslin determined that my son would start teach Taikwondo that day at 3:00pm. Next we went to visit the local school. Approxmiately, 74 kids study there. There were two classrooms; one for younger kids…mostly young kids.. maybe K to 3 and then one class for the older kids (4 & 5). There was one principal (director) and another teacher for the older kids. The school had a cafeteria, a small playground). School starts from 7 am until 12:30 pm ish.
Tayutic Plantation
Tayutic Plantation Church
After that we went to visit the Tayutic resort, a local boutique high end resort. We learnt that George Clooney came to this resort and stayed at there for 2-3 days (it is a small local hacienda style the middle of sugarcane, coffee and macademia nut plantation). It is a beautiful area..surrounded by mountains on all sides and the river Reventazon flowing through the valley. The village sits on a hill top with Turrialba volcano across the valley. The mountains are always covered by clouds during this rainy season, but the whole area is incredibly green.
After the hotel we walked to the plantation. There the caretaker Another Donna Fressy don Sandoval showed us the sugar mill; where they juice the sugarcane and cook the juice into sugar (dulce). Then we saw an outdoor wedding gazebo and the party hall where birthdays, and weddings take place. The gazebo and the hall were surrounded by beautiful gardens. Also part of this plantation was a small coffee mill, they hand collect, crush, dry, roast and grind coffee locally. Most of the work is done manually and its all organic.
After our walk we came back home, Yoselin cooked our lunch, we rested for a bit. At three o clock my son taught the Taekwondo class. It was awkward for both the village kids and my son. The class lasted about 30 mins this day. After taekwondo, Yoslin took us to meet another American visiting the community. Her name was Teresa a school teacher from Arizona. She had come initially to Costa Rica as part of the teacher’s free trip and heard about Sitio de Mata women making Jewellery from recycled materials. Teresa is also big into making Jewellery and came here to learn what materials the women here use and how and she in turn is teaching them what she uses and how. For us, it was great being able to talk to someone else in English and more importantly having someone who can translate for us…though Teresa is not fluent in Spanish either. She knows much more than us and is able to converse much better. After having tea with Teresa’s host (Elissabeth who is Norberto’s sister) we came back home. A few neighbors came to chit chat.. and then we had dinner of Rice and beans, pan fried ham/pork steak and Salad. I did my little bit of helping by cleaning our dishes and in the days to come, that became my chore.. I would clean our dishes after every meal.
A bit about the houses in Sitio de Mata…they are if nothing but quite open with plenty of ventilation. The front and back doors are always open. There is about a foot of gap between the roof and the walls (interior and exterior).. that keeps the air circulating especially during the rainy season. The traditional kitchen is outdoor with wood burning stoves. More and more houses seem to be building an inside kitchen as well, with electric burners, refrigerator, sink and running water. The houses have no heating  nor cooling. The temperature stays a pretty steady 70 – 80 degrees.  Most of the houses are built by the owner themselves.

Guanacaste Day Celebrations at the local school
July 24 (Tues): Guanacaste Day. At 9 am we visited the kindergarten school. There were about a dozen little kids that performed a dance for us. Then we all drew pictures and ate a snack. Around 10:30, we left kindergarten school and walked to the upper school (1st grade until 6th grade). The school was celebrating Guanacaste Day, a Costa Rican holiday celebrating Costa Rica's annexation of Guanacaste province from Nicaragua in 1824. There were dance performances by all grade levels including kindergarten and the teachers. The whole celebration wrapped up around 2:00pm at which point we came home. Jayant taught his taekwondo class at 3:00pm.
Sitio de Mata women hosts
July 25 (wed): A bunch of American HS kids camping with Costa Rican Resource in their LEAD program visited Sitio de Mata for the day. These HS kids conducted the summer camp for local kids, which included soccer games, sack races, water balloon fight. They made sandwiches for the local kids for lunch and presented a brief talk on Environment and recycling. Both my kids spent the day outdoors with local kids and other American kids. We learnt that that student group was scheduled to go rafting in Pacquare river the next day. I spoke with Tom Ranieri about us joining. Tom arranged for an extra raft and river guide.
Sitio de Mata kids
Pacquare River Rafting\
Pacquare river camp site
Lunch spread by the river guides
July 26 – 27 (Thursday & Friday): We were picked up from Sitio de Mata around 9:30am en-route to Pacuare River rafting drop off location. There were three of us, the 9 students from US and 10 locals consisting of the river guides and the student trip counselors. The Río Pacuare is a popular location in the world for white water rafting, and kayaking. It is surrounded by rainforest that is home to indigenous Indian tribe, to exotic animal species such as jaguars, monkeys, ocelots, and a very large number of birds. Also it is considered one of the 5 nicest rivers to practice rafting. After drop off, we hiked downhill approximately a mile to the river. We picked up our life jackets, paddles and helmets and were divided into three rafts. On day 1 we rafted mostly level 1, 2 and 3. The river was surrounded by rainforest and we rafted by several beautiful waterfalls. After 2 hours we stopped for lunch (sandwiches prepared by the river guides). We did a short walk to a waterfall and swam in the water hole. We rafted for another 2 hours until we stopped at the camp site. The overnight camping was definitely unique. The camp site was right by the river. It included about 20 or so camp sites, an open air lounge and a small kitchen. The bathrooms and showers were all au natural (enclosed on four sides but open from the top). There was no electricity at the camp. The dinner was prepared by the river guides and we dined by candlelight. All the kids including mine spent a huge chunk of the night talking and sharing stories with other kids. My teenager really enjoyed meeting other kids and being able to speak in a familiar language. The kids and local guides played soccer, did headstands, and wrestled each other. One highlight was a competition among boys and the men to see who could climb up to the lounge level (approx 10 foot high) without using the stairs. Jay literally flew through that height with very little effort and was the envy of all.  We slept in camping tents. The tents were set up on platforms approx 2 foot high. The tents were covered by a roof (made either of tin or tarp) to protect from heavy downpour. It poured all night. We could hear all kind of critters at night. Next morning several of us commented on weird dreams that night. Almost no one slept well… for me it was the uncomfortable mattress, for kids it was the sound of heavy rain and the fact that we were in the middle of a rainforest. The following morning after breakfast we all got ready and started rafting again. If we thought day 1 was great, day 2 was simply amazing. We rafted some wonderful class 4 rapids, went through gorgeous canyons and saw amazing waterfalls. Along the way we passed Pacuare River Lodge, a supposedly beautiful and boutique hotel nestled right on the Pacuare River and the only way to get to it is through the river. The kids jumped off several rocks in the river to swim as the water was relatively comfortable.. not too cold. While it rained quite a bit it was not a downpour, we were able to raft in relative comfort..

Sat: July 28th It rained the whole night and whole day. Our hosts had made plans to take us to Turrialba to show us an archaeological site and museum but due to the heavy downpour, we had to cancel those plans. The rain was so heavy and loud, that we could barely hear each other talk. The fact that the roof of the house was made of aluminum sheets further magnified the sound. We had a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, fresh queso and tortilla with caffe and tea. The kids played cards, read their books and surfed the internet to pass the time indoors.. until….
Homes washed away by landslides
We found out around 2-3 o’clock in the afternoon, that a house in the village had been completely washed away by a landslide. We all put on our rain jackets and slippers and ran to see the damage. One house was completely gone. The house and all badly damaged …was on top of another house across the road. The only road in and out of the villge was blocked by a huge mound of trees and mud. The adjoining two houses were severely damaged. Their side and back walls were crumbling under the pressure of rain and sliding mud. These two houses were being evacuated to their family/neighbors houses. The drainage gutters along the two sides of the road was overflowing with muddy water. Many houses along the road were fighting flooding from these overflowing gutters and were building temporary walls to prevent the water from coming inside the houses. Around this same time, the water pipe to the village broke (by sliding mud and rocks) and our host’s house lost all water and electricity.
We ourselves were completely soaked and our feet covered by mud. There was not much anyone could do until the water stopped. The men from the village brought their shovels, carts whatever they had to help dig additional gutters around houses, clean the existing gutters from the fast collecting debris of stones, plants and mud, help carry belongings from the two risky houses to adjoining houses and so forth. The Tayutic Hacienda (the boutique hotel and plantation in the village) sent their bulldozer (fortunately, they kept a bulldozer and few other machinery on site with ongoing field and construction work) to help clear the road. The mud was collecting as fast as the bull dozer was clearing. We heard the bull dozer go up and down the road several times that night to keep the road somewhat clear.
This whole mess started me thinking about when we will be able to leave the village and if it made sense to leave the village a week early. More rain was expected rest of the week. It was still pouring dogs and cats, so nothing could be done but wait until the rain stopped.
Sunday July 29th: We woke this morning to find out that rain had let up somewhat. While the bull dozer had worked all night to keep the road open, the two at-risk houses were badly damaged but still standing. The village was now a proud owner of a brand new waterfall.  The entire valley area was covered by heavy fog and drizzling rain. Several sections along the sides of the road had washed away making the road even narrower. The men were busy digging out a supply truck that was stuck in mud. That while the local village road was passable, the road that connected Sitio de Mata to Turrialba was not passable. That highway had several landslides blocking the road, several other sections (narrow passes) were completely water logged, and several poles with live electric wires were down. There was no direct way in and out of Sitio de Mata to Turrialba or to Siquirres (another big town) and the rest of the world.
It was no longer possible for my husband to come to Turrialba or Sitio de Mata. It was no longer a possibility of us going to Limon or Puerto Veijo (a carribean beach town) to spend our last few days in Costa Rica. The roads from Sitio de Mata to Limon (a big port town) was closed until water ebbed and damage could be assessed by local authorities.
Most importantly, our only option was now to go back to San Jose, the moment the roads became passable. We determined that we should try and get out of Sitio de Mata today while the rain was stopped. More rain was expected rest of the week and that if we did not leave the village today, we could be stuck for another whole week. While the electricity was back, there was still no running water to the house. Our hosts were also beginning to feel anxious. If we stayed, there was not much we could do to pass our time pleasantly in the village, the rain and landslides had closed all schools for several days, we could not travel to Turrialba or other places as we had planned. Staying inside the house with a book and sporadic internet made them and me feel uncomfortable. It was determined, that we would try to leave the village in a round about way.. go from Sitio de Mata to another few villages further inside and then try to catch the road to Turrialba from a different point. I called Tom to see if he could arrange a car. It was determined that, one of the river guides who lived in Turrialba and grew up in the village and knew of this back road will try and make his way to Sitio de Mata. If he managed to make it, he would take us to San Jose and Tom will book us into a Hotel for the rest of the week. Around 2 pm, fortunately, the river guide named Marlon made it. We hastily packed our bags and left before the rain started again. I had already settled our payment with Yoselin (our host). Along the way, we saw several major landslides, and areas where the river Reventazon was flowing much higher than normal. Near the city of Cartago, approx an hour from San Jose, the rain started again, but this time, we were not worried as we had cleared the mountain area and the landslide areas. Marlon dropped us off at Hotel Grano de Oro, an expensive boutique hotel close to San Jose downtown area that seemed quite popular with older American Tourists.  

Finally, Sunday night drew to a close after major excitement, high adventure and bit of bitterness. After eating Pinto and Gallo for the last week, we decided to celebrate our escape from a potentially horrifying situation by eating the American way.. we had burgers and fries at a nearby McDonald’s.

Monday, July 30th : Grano de Ore was a beautiful but expensive hotel. While it is located in downtown San Jose, it is not very central to the shopping and entertainment areas of downtown San Jose. For those that do not have a car and plan to spend a couple of days in San Jose, there are three other hotels that seemed more interesting. Hotel Balmoral, Hotel Presidente and Gran Hotel. We chose Balmoral Hotel, a modest 4 star in the heart of financial and business district where all activities and nightlife were easily accessible. (On a prior trip we had stayed at Gran hotel, a bit older but still nice 4 star hotel central to all activities and entertainment). Balmoral was quite mediocre, the room decor and furnishings could use updating, but the rooms were comfortable and clean. It had a nice café and restaurant. We found a local grocery store nearby and bought twits (the famous Rican Ice cream sandwiches). I am hoping we can use this same store to buy water, snacks and some laundry soap. Tomorrow we will head out to look for a local laundromat where we can do some much needed laundry.
Playa Tamarindo
July 31st Tuesday: After breakfast, we headed to Laundromat. We found a dry cleaning place that did laundry. Our cost came to approx $12 for 4 kilos of laundry. We walked a bit but not much…the kids just want to hang out in the room reading and catching up on Olympic games. Our 3rd week in Costa Rica we plan to go to Guanacaste area, a very popular and sought after beach resort area of Costa Rica.  After much research and talking to local folks, we picked Tamarindo resort. Since we will have a rental car, we decided not to go for an all inclusive, which turned out to be great. Tamarindo resort was located in the middle of Tamarindo town and right on Tamarindo Beach. 
Tamarindo Beach

To end our trip on a positive note and reflection of the last week.. overall I think our week in Sitio de Mata was fantastic and well worth it. Kids were forced to converse in  Spanish. My older one was able to teach kids Taikwondo for a couple of days. We saw heavy monsoon and soil erosion and its impact on a community in live action. Neither kid complained about eating Pinto and Gallo 18 times in a row. We got a chance to raft level 4 in Pacuare river. And so many other positives. It’s a pity we had to leave the village early but such things are always for the best.

Monday, April 16, 2012

DiVi Aruba All Inclusive Resort

Divi Aruba All Inclusive Resort: Spring Break 2012 (overall 3.5 stars)

As far as first impressions go, my first impression of the resort was quite dissapointing. On day one I gave the resort a two star. First, my check-in experience was not good; Second, we started comparing this resort to some of the larger all inclusives on Cancun, Punta Cana and other popular destinations. You can't compare.. they are just different destinations, different resorts and each has its own pros and cons.

Check in (1 star): While booking our vacation, we had purchased upgraded beach side accomodations (FROM STANDARD ROOMS). When we checked in, our room was facing a fence (right outside our sliding door & window). When we asked to change our room and reminded them that we had purchased an upgrade from standard room, their first response was sorry.. nothing we can do.. rooms are not guaranteed at the time of booking, we are fully booked, we have no other rooms available, we have no more rooms with two double beds..yada yada yada. After an hour of arguing and haggling, we finally did get a beach side room which was very nice. We also noticed later, that there were another 1-2 rooms in our building that seemed unoccupied for the entire duration on our stay. It seems Room 402 in Vista II building is not a popular room (as it faces an ugly fence) and the resort management probably tries to assign it to every new guest hoping someone will take it without complaining. That just left a bitter taste and skewed my overall resort experience.  Oh, and ask for room 400 in Vista II if you can because it is larger than the other rooms, and also has a great view to the beach.

Resort Facilities (4 stars):
The Divi resort is a fairly compact, comfortable and clean resort. The lobby had several comfy couches, large screen TV's for kids to hang out in the middle of the day, a convinience store, kiosks for Herts and DePalm tours.
Next to the lobby is the snack hut, the main dining area, and the pool. The sitting area around the pool is nicely done. There is no swim up bar but the pool itself is not large, a rectangular shaped perhaps the size of a country club pool. There is a bar outside the pool and beyond the drink bar is the beach. The rooms are located on north and south end of the lobby along the beach. I think the rooms on the north end (Vista I and Vista II buildings) were really nice.

Resort Rooms (2.5 stars): The rooms in general were clean and comfortable. Each lower level room open to a patio. The bathrooms were clean but they could use a renovation. Our bathroom floor became completely wet after shower no matter how we positioned the shower curtain.

Food and Drinks (2 stars): If you like food spicy, gotta try Aruba's Papaya Sauce.

Overall, the food at the resort was mediocre, if that. The snack hut at Divi served pizza, sandwiches, popcorn and drinks. The bar served both alcoholic and non- alcoholic drinks, but the cocktail drinks were too sweet (seemed like you were drinking syrup) and used domestic brands of alcohol. We stayed with soda, fresh smoothies and drinks like gin & tonic. The main dining area served buffet style meals. The breakfast was fairly standard.. omelette station, various breads, yogurt, fruit, a few warm dishes, etc. It was the same breakfast every day.. same choices. The lunch had some more variety but not much. After a day or two, the buffet choices became too boring and bland. At dinner, the food was not much different from lunch menu. Between the two resorts Divi and Tamarjin (both allow guests to freely use each other's facilities) they had 4 reservation only restaurants, which offered some variety for dinner. All these 4 restaurants had limited seating. You had to make reservations by 8 am two days in advance or the preferred dining times were not available. In fact, despite our efforts we only got either 6-6:30 pm or 9-9:30 pm seating at all the 4 places. The restaurants were not great, but atleast had more variety than the buffet menu. The desserts in every dining area just about sucked. My recommendation is to not to go to the Italian or the Asian food places, because they weren't that great. 

Resort Beach (5 stars): The resort is located on the southern section of the Eagle Beach. It was a wide and a beautiful white sand beach. The waves were gentle, no rocks, no undertow nor steep declines, water was very clear. The immidiate beach area in front of our resort did not have any natural shade, no cocomut palms but there seemed to be enough palapas though they were usually gone by 7 am in the morning.

To resort's north lay the majority of the Eagle Beach, a very popular public beach fringing the main road. There seemed plenty of natural and man made shaded picnic areas and a variety of motorized water sports. There were several other hotels along the beach and also just across the road. During spring break (Easter week), we saw a lot of families camping in tents on the eagle beach, and on baby beach. It seems to be a local tradition for extended families to camp out on the beach during this week. The tents were pretty elaborate.. each gathering seemed to have 5-7 tents ranging from small to large, a separate tent for cooking and eating.

Entertainment (2 star): During the day, there was not much organized entertainment. Our kids were quite dissapointed. They seemed to have one kid related activity a day e.g. bingo one day, tie-dye t-shirts another day, rock wall climbing one day, kite flying one day, beach side olympics one day. Rest of the time kids were on their own either at pool or on the beach. Now the good part is that the kids got a lot of R&R, simply hanging out with the family. The bad part is that after 2-3 days they were looking for things to do. During mid day when the sun was directly overhead and quite hot and there were no kid activities in the shade or in the pool. It also seemed that the staff and the schedule was a bit dis-organized, staff at Divi towel hut did not always seem to know what activities were scheduled for a given day, or if the time and location of an activity was changed. When the information got changed it was not necessarily communicated to them in a timely manner. Most activities were on Island time.. always a few minutes behind schedule. Not a biggie except it seemed that there were not enough supplies for most acctivities, so if you were not in front of the line when the organizers arrived, you may either have a long wait or out of luck. e.g. for rock climbing there was only 1 adult helper, 3 helmets and 4 straps between the two resorts and a line of 10-15 kids. So there was a lot of waiting around for helmets especially if there were kids who wanted to try multiple levels of climbing. Similarly, for tie-dye t-shirts there were insufficient kid sized t-shirts. Some kids ended up getting large adult sizes. For windsurfing there was one instructor and only 8 adults allowed per day between the two resorts, so if you did not sign up within the first 5 min once the signup window opened, chances are you could not windsurf that day.

For adults, there were almost no organized activities. We did manage to convince staff to teach us salsa dancing one day, and yoga another day. Thats about it.

Between Divi and Tamarjin, there was daily nightly entertainment. It usually included a band/music component, and a dance troup. There was also a small straw market every day (except Sat) at one of the two resorts.

Tamarjin All Inclusive Resort Facilities: (2 stars)
Divi Aruba All inclusive and Tamarjin All Inclusive are two separate properties located right next to each other and owned by the same company. Consequently, guests between the two are free to use the other's facilities and the two resorts share staff, gym, and activity areas. Tamarjin seemed older while Divi Aruba seemed newer. Since we stayed at Divi, I cannot really talk about the accomodations at Tamarjin, but based on what I saw, the rooms, the lobby, the dining room, and the pool area at Divi seemed much nicer. However it seemed that all the rooms at Tamarjin were ocean front. The gym, the watersport and the activity center were only located at Tamarjin. We had to go to Tamarjin to use the gym, to rent snorkling gear, for rock wall climbing, for kite flying, for windsurfing lessons, etc. The snack hut at Tamarjin also offered a little more variety in foods.. like fries and onion rings, in addition to pizza and sandwiches. Tamarjin had 3 of the 4 reservation only restaurants while Divi only had 1. It was an easy 5 min walk between the two resorts and there was also a free shuttle between the two so going from one to the other was not a big deal.Sometimes though it was annoying to have to go to the other resort for small things..e.g to just to get a plate of fries or onion rings in the middle of the afternoon.

Staff: (1 star)
More than anything else, I felt the resort was short staffed. Perhaps it had to do with easter week, but the staff seemed always rushed, had a "I'm busy" frown, they were never impolite never rude just not very warm. Don't think I saw very many smiles from the staff. The shortage was felt most acutely in the dining room and the snack hut. Periodically there were long lines. When the supplies ran short, the cook was running to get the supplies as well as trying to manage the orders from people waiting. In late afternoons, the snack hut was busy with people waiting for pizza and there was only one cook. Also the age group for majority of staff seemed to be in 50s. hmmmm

Suggestions to the Resort:
1. They really need to work on the quantity and quality of the staff. With more staff, perhaps the pressure on the existing staff will ease. If the staff is more relaxed the guests will feel more relaxed too. With younger staff, perhaps there will be more activities and overall energy at the resort to engage guests.

2.They need to organize more day time activities such as morning and evening yoga, dance classes for adults and kids, some board games, beach side games, family group activites etc. to engage the guests more.

 3. Improve the quality of the various dining options, especially the buffet menus, and the snacks and drinks available. They should make the quality of the food served in reservation only restaurant a bit more gourmet.

Aruba - One Happy Island

"Palm trees, the cool ocean breeze,
salty air, and the sun kissed hair,
That endless summer, its all there." (unknown)

ahh the palm trees and the cool ocean breeze
The one thing I absolutely loved about Aruba was its most wonderful cool ocean breeze. This cozy beautiful island which is about 15 miles from Venezuela in the southern Carribean sea and outside the tropical hurricane belt is a perfect tourist haven.
Divi Tree
the arid country side

It has hot hot sun made bearable by the constant cool breeze, no rain, no humidity, gorgeous white sand beaches, and a very laid back island atmosphere. You can go from one end of the island to the other and see just about everything there is to see on the island in one whole day. The vegetation is quite sparse and arid. While the island is known worldwide for its Divi trees, most of the native vegetation seems to be cactii, aloe vera and tumbleweed trees. We saw only two Divi trees our entire trip. In residential and resort areas, we saw coconut palm, mango, Poinsettia, Hibiscus, Bougainvillea, and a few others. If you are looking for a lush green island, this is not it. There were no signs of poverty, and generally it seemed the island was very well maintained and clean.

Most resorts and most of the popular attractions are located on the north to north west end of the island, and much of it in and around the capital city of Oranjestad. Most of the smaller, low rise all inclusive resorts are located on the Eagle beach (ranked #2 among the world's best beaches) just north of Oranjestad. The larger, newer and high rise resorts are a bit further north on the Palm beach.

The North east coast is fairly rugged, made of volcanic rock, no sandy beaches and very arid vegetation. The ruins of the gold mine and the natural bridge are on this side of the island. The Natural Bridge, once a very popular attraction in Aruba, was a formation of coral limestone cut out by years of pounding surf, and was one of the largest in the world, some 23 feet above sea level and more than 100 feet long. Due to natural causes this bridge collapsed a few years ago, but it still remains a very popular spot to visit. There is no admission fee or specific hours for visiting. This coastline is carved into coves by the wind and water action. Sharks supposedly take shelter in these coves to birth. All along the coastline (eastern shore), you can see small rocks stacked on larger rocks.. a local tradition to make wishes come true. The other popular attractions in this area are California Lighthouse (named after a ship that sank near this coast), Ayo and Casibari rock formations. The rock formations are clusters of huge rocks quite unique to the area, they inexplicably rise up from the desert soil to create an unusual setting. It is believed that these rocks had sacred significance for the Arawak Indians. There is nothing special about the lighthouse except the area is high enough that both east and west coastlines, and the capital city are visible.
Collapsed Natural Bridge

The south east end of the island has Arkok National park (we did not go there, so cant talk much about it). The national park is supposed to have caves with Arawaks cave drawings,and a natural pool worth a visit.

The south west end of the island is more residential as you go towards San Nicholas. San Nicholas itself looked quite deserted. Since Valero oil refinery shut down (located in San Nicholas) most of the island economy is supported by the tourism. At the SW end of the island is a popular beach and snorkling spot named Baby Beach. It is a shallow, sheltered lagoon frequented by locals and tourists. It is named Baby Beach as the water is so calm that it is considered safe for very small children. The beach is popular mostly due to the lack of waves and its shallow waters. The snorkeling here was OK. Most of the fishes were closer to the reef (inlet).. but they were not very colorful. Aruba did not seem to be a snorkling haven. It was very expensive to rent cabanas and chairs on baby beach..approx $25 each for an hour or $30 per day. There were a few trees for shade but not a whole lot.

To tour the Island, there seemed to be two companies that were most popular.. ABC tour company and De Palm tour company. Their Jeep Safari tours (whole day island tours) seemed most popular. Most of the guests in our resort that we spoke to enjoyed these Jeep tours. We did not tour with either of these two companies, but chose instead to rent a van with a driver independantly. He took us to the most popular 4 attractions above, then dropped us off at Baby beach for about 2-3 hours. At the designated hour, he picked us up and brought us back to our resort. The total cost came to approx $350 for about 12 people and 5 hour tour (approx 2.5 hours touring and 2.5 hrs at baby beach). Contact Johnny at if you wish to hire him for a personal tour. He can also help rent vehicles cheaper than what Hertz and other companies provide.

Dutch Colonial Architecture
The downtown was very convinient from our resort. There is a public bus that runs from right outside the resort for $1.25 each way and it takes approx 10 min or less to get to the downtown. It is a touristy port with a local straw market and lots of souviniers and jewellery shops. We took about 2-3 hours just walking around and it was sufficient. The Dutch colonial style buildings were quite unique.. I called them colorful gingerbread houses.