Collectively known as the ABC Islands, Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are three gems clustered just off the northern coast of Venezuela.
Their location in the southern Caribbean makes the ABC Islands extremely easy to visit from Panama and Colombia, and we started with Curaçao in August 2019. We enjoyed that trip so much that we booked another to visit Aruba and Bonaire in 2020. You can probably guess what happened next: The global pandemic hit, and we had to back-burner that trip along with several others. With Covid cases on the wane in the Caribbean and South America, in late October we finally rounded out our ABC Island experience with a visit Aruba and Bonaire.
Comprising the Netherlands Antilles, the three islands share many interesting similarities — one of the most striking of which is language. Almost every citizen speaks at least three: Dutch, English, and the local dialect known as Papiamento (sometimes spelled Papiamentu), and many speak Spanish as well. This diversity is reflected in the faces of the locals – a mixture of Dutch, African, and Hispanic, with a faint echo of the long-lost indigenous cultures that first inhabited the islands.
Aruba: Beaches for Miles
Like Curaçao and Bonaire, Aruba was originally a Dutch colony and has a deep historic connection within the Netherlands. In 1986 Aruba became an autonomous nation within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and its citizens are Dutch nationals.
Of the three ABC Islands, Aruba is the most highly visited by American tourists and is the most popular stopover for ginormous cruise ships. For the month of November alone, 40 ships were scheduled to call in to Aruba, and that’s just the beginning of the cruise industry’s gradual comeback from Covid.
Sadly, the historic downtown of the capital city, Oranjestad, has seen better days. We thought Covid was the driver for the scores of boarded-up storefronts, but we were told that the development of the newer Palm Beach area up-island had been siphoning business from the downtown mom-and-pop merchants. Progress . . .
(USUAL NOTE: Most of our pictures are in galleries. Just click on the first one to click through larger versions with captions.)
While we weren’t too impressed with the scores of American-style condo complexes, casinos, and high-rise hotels, the beaches were what we loved the most about Aruba. One in particular, Eagle Beach, is regularly listed as one of the top beaches in the world. It’s a stunning stretch of white sand that just cries out for you to spend a day with a couple of beach chairs, a cooler of beer, and a good book (so we did!).
We did do two very choppy and rough boat dives in Aruba but were a bit underwhelmed with the marine life. We were looking forward to the legendary shore diving of Bonaire, and it did not disappoint!
Bonaire: Diver’s Nirvana
There’s a good reason Bonaire is known as one of the top diving destinations in the world. Unlike Aruba, the entire reef encircling the island has been designated as a national marine park, and the locals are serious about protecting its pristine beauty. Bonaire makes diving easy with more than 60 officially designated and well-marked shore diving sites, many of which are also great for snorkeling. Until this visit, we’d only done one other shore dive on our 2019 trip to Curaçao, and now we’re spoiled forever for boat diving. And the WATER: I don’t think I’ve seen so many shades of turquoise, and it’s clear enough to spot bright tropical fish just by looking down from the end of a dock. Heaven!
If you’re not a diver, there’s plenty more to see and do on Bonaire. Head to the southern end of the island and you’ll learn plenty about the salt mining industry past and present. You’ll also see flock after flock of Bonaire’s famous flamingos, who thrive in a sanctuary of salt flats that are well-managed by the Cargill salt harvesting company. Here’s an interesting article about Bonaire’s salty history and Cargill’s present-day solar salt operation.
Bonaire is also a mecca for kite boarding and wind surfing, and a world-famous wind-surfing school is located on the windward side of the island at Lac Bay. There’s also horseback riding, caving (both dry and wet), and exploring the history-soaked town of Rincón, the oldest settlement in the Dutch Caribbean.
Curaçao: Awash in Color
We enjoyed our visit to Curaçao in August of 2019 so much that we’re thinking of a new trip next April, combined with a repeat visit to Bonaire. After visiting Aruba and Bonaire, what stands out about Curaçao is the excellent job they’ve done in preserving their colorful past. A couple of examples are the beautifully restored buildings in the downtown area and the Queen Emma floating pontoon bridge. Here’s our post about our 2019 visit, and another little post we did about the birds and other critters we encountered there. We’re really looking forward to seeing Curaçao again!
Bring your wallet.
Coming from super-economical Colombia, we were prepared for sticker shock – but maybe not the $15 mojitos we encountered our first night on Aruba! (We were tired and landed at the first beach bar we found. Lesson learned!) From then on, the “mojito index” became our benchmark for the affordability of an eating/drinking establishment. Of the three ABC Islands, Aruba is the most expensive – possibly because it’s also the most touristic. All three islands gladly accept US dollars, BTW.
Also, at this writing both Aruba and Bonaire require a PCR test for entrance – and without proof of full vaccination, Bonaire requires it to be done within 24 hours of your arrival. Trust us, this can become a major expense if you’re going to hop between the islands as we did. Covid testing will definitely be a budget consideration for us going forward as we start to dip our toes more into international travel.
We puddle-jumped between Aruba and Bonaire on a tiny EZAir plane that made a stopover in Curaçao. These flights turned out to be surprisingly expensive, but we were using vouchers (this trip was one of several we had originally scheduled for 2020 but had to rebook because of Covid). Our recommendation is to shop around, since there are several different inter-island carriers.
Also, we highly recommend renting a car on both islands. On Aruba we used Budget, but we would probably go with a less expensive local company next time. On Bonaire, we lucked into Libertad Car Rental, a local outfit that was both convenient and economical. The friendly owner met us right at the airport entrance with our car and handed us the keys. No waiting, no fuss, no filling out millions of forms.
Food and Drink – Aruba
We didn’t eat out much on Aruba, but when we did, we stuck mainly to happy hours that also offered food deals. Our favorite – hands down – was Bugaloe Beach Bar, an over-the-water hangout in the Palm Beach area. Mojito index: $7 at happy hour, with an awesome fish special we shared. And as a happy hour bonus, Bugaloe has singing servers. The night we were there, a pint-sized gal with a kick-ass voice belted rock classics for over an hour. It might sound cheesy, but she was seriously talented! Bugaloe also serves a good and economical (at least for Aruba) breakfast.
Other Aruba restaurants we enjoyed were Terraza for good Italian food and a birds-eye view of Eagle Beach; The Old Fisherman in downtown Oranjestad, where we shared an excellent fish chowder; and Crosta Pizza in the Bochincha Container Yard, which turned out to be quite the scene on Halloween night. We also heard rave reviews about Yemanja Woodfired Grill and Zeerover, although we didn’t make it to either (next time!).
Food and Drink, Bonaire
Our Bonaire favorite was Karel’s Beach Bar, another over-the-water establishment on the main waterfront promenade in Kralendijk. Mojito index: $8, with equally reasonable food and great service. Also check out The Beach, a great little beach club south of town where you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast with an unmatched seaside view. And one of the best deals on the island is Julian’s Cafe, just across the street from Karel’s, with lunch specials in the $10-$15 range and super-friendly people. Finally, do not miss Gio’s Gelateria & Cafe on the main street a block over from the water. Their extra-dark chocolate gelato is some of the best I’ve ever had!
On Aruba, we spent most of our time in a spacious and beautiful condo at Oasis Condominiums on Eagle Beach (booked through Airbnb). It was a bit of a splurge, but the kitchen was so well-appointed that we were able to save money by eating in most of the time. But we want to give a special shout-out to our lodging on our last night in Aruba, after flying back from Bonaire and just before flying home to Colombia: Wonders Boutique Hotel. We’re kicking ourselves a little that we didn’t pick this place from the beginning, and it was a shame we only had one night there. Wonders is a little gem in the middle of an otherwise uninteresting Aruba neighborhood, but it’s also within walking distance to downtown Oranjestad. It’s beautifully landscaped with a nice pool and wonderfully appointed, comfortable rooms. The host, Gaston, welcomed us warmly and even drove us to the airport the next morning, saving us Aruba-priced cab fare. Wonders, we’ll be back!
Well, this is kind of a complicated topic. We did not have great luck with our lodging on Bonaire, for a variety of reasons (message us if you want the full story). But we got some good ideas about where to stay next time. For divers, what little research we’ve done shows that hotels that offer diving packages are a very cost-effective way to go.
Honestly, we can’t recommend the dive outfit we used on Aruba (message us if you want more info). It was a different story on Bonaire with VIP Diving. The VIP staff call themselves “professional dive butlers” and it shows in
every level of their service. Example: I was having a problem with the second stage of my regulator, and Kevin the friendly tech manager loaned me another one (and installed it on my reg) for our day of diving. He also gave me some great advice about why my 20-year-old BCD is leaking air (it’s toast, sadly). We had two really enjoyable and stress-free dives with Sage from the Cliff and Tolo dive sites.
Note: Anyone entering Bonaire waters to dive or snorkel is required to pay a nature fee to the National Parks Foundation, which goes to preservation and protection of the fragile underwater ecosystem. The pass is $45 for divers and $25 for non-divers and is good for a year. Here’s more information.