Beats scraping snow off my car windshield...!
11/01/2008 - 11/04/2008 90 °F
My rented mountain bike and a beautiful cove in Aruba
I remember scraping snow off the windshield of my car, yesterday evening in Columbus. My shoulders hunched involuntarily at the memory. As I stepped outside the airport, the golden afternoon sunlight and Aruba's 90 degree heat washed over me. My shoulders uncoiled like a sigh. Unfortunately, there wouldn't be much time to relax: I was in Aruba for only two days. Two days! Who goes to Aruba for only two days? Well, the answer was really quite simple. My airline job meant the flights were free. I had to be back at work in three days. And there were interesting things I could squeeze in during a short time in Aruba.
First, I needed a place to stay. My trip was so last minute that I had made no reservations. I asked another employee which Aruban hotels offered us discounts, and she gave me a couple names. I was directed across the street to DePalma tours, where two men graciously called around and found me the cheapest room. I'd read the hotels on the island were notoriously expensive, but at $85, my room at The Mill Resort and Suites was a relative steal. It had its own balcony and jacuzzi, and was much nicer than places I usually end up staying.
Young girls in traditional dress performing Aruban dances
After unpacking, I caught the bus which runs from the hotel districts on Eagle and Palm beaches into downtown Oranjestad. The Fort Zoutman cultural show was scheduled to start shortly. It is held every Tuesday evening inside the walls of the 19th century Dutch fort near the center of downtown. Conveniently enough, I'd arrived on a Tuesday! The show began with the harsh jangling music of a "Tingilingi Box," or crank organ. Made locally of brass cylinders and nails, these organs are cranked by the musician and create a musically frightful racket that apparently is enjoyed by the islanders. The show's emcee ran through his recycled jokes before introducing several troupes of traditional dancers -- various ages of children from very young to teenagers. Their costumes and dances were enjoyable, at first, but the show started to drag towards the end of its two hours. I skipped out early to wander the waterfront, checking out the anchored cruise ships which were lit up like Christmas trees.
View of Hooiberg, or Haystack Hill, in Aruba
I nosed around, looking for a likely restaurant for dinner. I settled on Iguana Joe's, and had a Caribbean Jerk Chicken sandwich while I watched the strollers and traffic on the main street below me. I toyed with the idea of playing some blackjack at one of the casinos. Aruba is best known for its beaches, and second best known for its casinos. With only two days, though, I didn't plan on sampling either. So, I headed back to the hotel, snagged a beer at the bar, and took it up to my room. I eased myself into the steamy water of my jacuzzi and read my book. I was to be up before daylight to maximize my sightseeing the next day. So, I made sure I was good and relaxed, so that I could fall right to sleep.
While it was dark and quiet outside, I woke up, showered, and checked out of my hotel, leaving my backpack for them to hold for my return. I took the early bus into Oranjestad and transferred to one headed to inland Santa Cruz. I asked the driver to drop me off at the closest point to the Hooiberg, or "Haytack Hill," the second highest point on the island. Naturally, the pathway up the hill ended up being on the opposite side from the main road. I found my way to it, though, with only one wrong turn and two barking dogs. It was getting lighter as I approached the hill. The terrain looked quite a bit like the Arizona desert -- lots of cacti and large boulders. Aruba is an arid island, so don't expect jungle when you come here! I found the path leading up Hooiberg, and its nearly 600 concrete steps. I'd timed my visit perfectly. The sun was just breaking free of the clouds that hung low on the horizon. Even though it was morning, the humid air and steep climb soon had me dripping with sweat. My "Travelpunk.com" T-shirt was soaked by the time I made it to the top. The view was great. You could see both the north and south coasts of Aruba from Hooiberg's summit. I took some photos, drank some water, and caught my breath, enjoying the panorama.
View from atop Hooiberg Hill, second highest point in Aruba
I then broke out my maps (neither of which were very good) and tried to decipher the spiderwork of roads I could see spread out beneath me. There had to be a quicker way to the town of Santa Cruz than walking back the way I'd came and waiting for another bus. By matching the shapes of the roadways on my maps with what I saw below me, I thought I could identify Santa Cruz -- not far away at all. I could see a church with a bell tower, and my map showed a church in Santa Cruz. I picked out landmarks, and started down the hill. I hadn't gone very far when I heard some movement in the underbrush to my left. I peered through the foliage and saw a strange little herd of mountain goats. Instead of being conical, their horns curled downwards and flattened out like tortillas. I took some pictures, but the lighting was still pretty dim, and they were skittish. My presence must have spooked them.
I continued on down, meeting two Jamaican guys at the bottom, who were getting ready to climb up. They were stretching out, as if they were getting ready for a run. So, I asked them, incredulously, if they ran up the hill. "Yah, mon," one replied, "Tis good for de body." I was impressed. I run 4 miles every other day, but couldn't imagine hoofing it up that hill! Five minutes later, though, when I turned around to take a picture of the hill, I saw them walking up its steps -- not running. Must have been the language barrier!
As it turned out, the church wasn't Santa Cruz, but that of a much smaller village. So, I had to keep walking down the road for another half hour till I found the town. Along the way, I befriended a dog, who I shared my breakfast with. Luckily, he didn't follow me all the way to Santa Cruz, giving up when the food supply seemed to run low. Despite its small town status on a small island, Santa Cruz is in the big leagues when it comes to fast food. It had a McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and a Subway. This would prove vitally important later in the day! I found the place that rented bicycles, Tri Bike Santa Cruz, arriving 15 minutes before they opened. More good timing!
Scenery from my bike ride to Arikok National Park
A short time later, I was heading off on two wheels towards Arikok National Park. I really wasn't sure how long it would take to get to Fontein Cave, which was my main destination for the day. More than 600 years ago, indigenous Arawak Indians had created paintings on the cave's ceiling and walls. They in are plainly visible today, and you can walk around the bat-haunted cave and view them at your leisure. I tried to follow the bike shop owner's directions, but made a mess of it, I think. Nevertheless, after about 20 minutes of pedaling, I arrived at the main entrance to the park. I stopped at the booth manned by an old Dutch guy, thinking there'd be an entrance fee. He told me that the road was closed, and I'd have to take an alternative trail there. He gave me directions, and soon the blacktop ended and I was on a mountain bike trail. I guess that wasn't all bad, as I had rented a mountain bike. And I'd always wanted to try mountain biking. However, riding over a rocky, dirt and gravel path is a lot slower -- and more importantly for my novice buns -- bumpier than going over blacktop! The pounding of the trail on my butt steadily got worse. The road climbed higher and higher. A couple of times, I admit I had to get off and walk the bike up the steepest portions. Eventually, I reached the turnoff which would take me to Mt. Jamanota, the highest point on the island. I stayed left and began to head downhill towards the sea and the cave. When the road bounced through an old quarry, I felt I'd been strapped to a jackhammer. People do this for pleasure...?
Fontein Cave, decorated with paintings made by Arawak Indians
Finally, after an hour of exhausting pedaling, I reached the sea. The sand which began to show up in the pathway made it much smoother and I zipped along until I came to a snack bar just before the cave. I got off my medeival torture device and waddled up for a cold drink. I overpaid for a Gatoraid (on ice!), but my body told my head is well worth it. After ducking into the souvenir shop and finding nothing of interest, I saddled back up and rode another few hundred yards to Fontein Cave. Although there were three attendants, nobody approached me to solicit their services as a guide (which suprised me). However, one peaked in after I'd been inside a few minutes and pointed out I'd gone past the paintings. Sure enough, my guidebook's description had been a bit off. The paintings were only about 10 yards inside the entrance to the cave -- not 50, like it said! It was humid inside, and stalagtites and stalagmites divided the cave into a number of chambers. Bats fluttered past me as I explored the dim interior. Interestingly, the sign Interior of Fontein Caveat the entrance said "No flashlights," but you were able to take flash photographs. Hmmn. After I'd poked around in the recesses with my contraband flashlight, I returned to examine the Indian paintings. They reminded me a lot of what I'd seen in Sedona, Arizona, awhile back. They were mostly of various abstract symbols and designs, painted in a deep red color. Once your eyes got used to the lighting, you saw them on most of the ceiling surfaces in that chamber. I took a number of pictures, feeling guilty the times I used the flash (but the attendant had told me it was okay!).
Paintings, 600 years old, on the ceiling and walls of the cave
As I was leaving, three jeeps bounced up the road to the cave, and a few loads of tourists poured out. My timing again had been good. I'd had the cave to myself during my visit. I saw them look at me, as I put my helmet and gear back on. I could see them thinking, "He's biking...in this heat...and in this terrain?" As I rode off, I was thinking, "I'm biking in this heat, and in this terrain...?" I pedaled over to the ocean shore, where steps led down to a really cool cove. If I'd brought my bathing suit on the bike ride, I'd have been seriously tempted by the beautiful, blue water -- despite the "No Swimming -- Undertow" sign. Aruba's sand is amazingly white, and its water crystal clear. One day, it might be a good idea to come back here to actually go to the beach like a normal person!
The ride back was a notch above grueling, and one beneath torture. Okay, maybe TWO notches below torture. I did finally figure out the gear system on the bike, though. The 1-2-3 on my left handlebar combined with the 1-8 on the right to create 24 gears (or something like that). Clicking it down to the lowest settings, I was actually able to pedal uphill most of the way, stopping only a couple times. On the trip out, I'd had the left gear set on "2," which meant I had been using the middle gears. I think. As I neared the end of the trail back to Santa Cruz, any thoughts of going on to check out other sights had been bounced out of my system. I'd thought about visiting Ayo or Casibari Rocks after the cave. They supposedly were very scenic and unusual rock formations with an 600 year old paintings on ceiling of Fontein Cave in Arikok National Park, Arubaexcellent view of the countryside. I'd figured since it felt like I'd sat on a rock for the last two hours, I didn't need to go look at one. As I pedaled into town, I was just one notch below whining. I was happy to see the "Tri Bike" sign and be able to turn in my metal monster.
Honestly, the scenery had been wonderful, and it was great to be out enjoying it (especially considering there was snow on the ground back home!). I simply have a new respect for mountain bikers after the experience. The cave paintings were cool, like I'd expected, and the cove had been a nice little bonus. It was time for food, though, and I limped down Santa Cruz's main street. I picked Subway from among the American fast food joints for its free refills on drinks. I figure I needed all the rehydration I could get after the ride. Then I caught the bus back to town and the hotel strip. The Mill Suites and Resort had very kindly said I could use a courtesy room to shower up and change after my day of sightseeing, at no charge. I did that, and as I was dressing, the phone in the room rang. The shuttle bus to the airport was there -- more good timing! I hurriedly tossed things into my backpack and was soon on my way to the airport.
Aruba had been a pleasant two day idyll. I'd seen some nice scenery, enjoyed some warm weather, and learned to avoid mountain bikes like a Hammerhead shark. My body was sore, but I figured it was better than scraping ice of windows back in Columbus!