The Aruba Budget Travel Guide
An Introduction to Aruba
Aruba is a tiny constituent country located in the mid-south of the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of Venezuela. A part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Aruba is culturally Dutch and those influences can be seen, smelled, and heard throughout the island. Make no mistake, though, Aruba has an identity all its own.
The entire island is less than 70 square miles, about the size of Washington, DC. Unlike most of the other Caribbean islands, Aruba is a desert- expect to see quite a few cacti and little to no rain. This largely muted landscape creates a surreal juxtaposition with the turquoise seas that are visible from practically any location around the country.
Though Aruba has a reputation for being an expensive travel destination, it is surprisingly affordable for the savvy planner. Opportunities to save money are available throughout the island with little to no impact on your enjoyment. From accommodations to transportation to sightseeing, proper planning can be the difference between a great, cheap trip and burning through a budget.
Aruba’s Cities and Towns
Despite being such a small country, the different regions of Aruba have a feel all their own. Shaped like a tilted rhombus, Aruba is a tale of two halves. The windswept east-facing shoreline is home to Arikok National Park, interesting rock formations, and beaches with unforgiving waves. The West side boasts all of the towns and cities on the island, as well as the main highway that connects them all together. Highway 1 runs from the northwestern tip of Noord along the west coast over to San Nicholas in the far southernmost point.
Oranjestad, the Capital City
The capital city of Oranjestad is best known for it’s cruise port, Dutch Colonial architecture, and ample options for shopping and dining. The city spans for quite a distance and makes up a majority of the total population of the island- most locals either live here or commute to here. In Oranjestad you’ll find some interesting museums and plenty of opportunities to pick up some souvenirs. The main bus terminal hub is here, so you’ll have to stop and swap busses if you’re heading around the island.
In the mood to explore a bit? Take a stroll around Schelpstraat, the main street, and take in the sights and sounds. You’ll find tons of restaurants, unique bars, and eclectic shops all around. One of my favorite restaurants, Universal Restaurant, and my favorite bar, Apotek Speakeasy, are along this stretch as well. Read my reviews of both and be sure to check them out.
The Beach Resort District
The tourist districts begin just northwest of Oranjestad. World-famous Eagle Beach and Divi Beach form the foundation for a multi-mile stretch of exclusive resorts, luxury hotels, and high-end retailers. A lovely area to take in some sun and lay on the beach, but not the most affordable for the budget-conscious. This strip continues until Arashi Beach at the extreme northwest, and California lighthouse right next to it looking over the sea.
My time here was mostly limited to the beaches, but there are some other affordable sights to see. The Bubali Bird Sanctuary is an excellent location to take a stroll and do some birdspotting. Entrance is free, and the observation tower in the center of the reserve offers sweeping views of the surrounding meadow. The California Lighthouse is also quite nice, offering occasional tours to walk to the top of the tower and look out across the Aruba skyline.
Pos Chiquito and Savaneta
South of Oranjestad you’ll find some of the smaller beaches and residential neighborhoods. I stayed in Pos Chiquito, a sleepy little subdivision bordered by the Spanish Lagoon to the west and Mangel Halto beach to the south. Apartment rentals here are an absolute steal considering the best snorkeling beach in Aruba is steps away. Since route 1 cuts through the town, a bus pickup is never more than a quarter mile walk. I was lucky and had a bus pickup about 20 steps from my front door.
Continuing along Route 1 heading east, Savaneta is the next town you’ll pass. A larger residential area with a few delicious restaurants, Savaneta is the last stop before the end of the line at San Nicholas. Zeerover is the best restaurant in this area (and arguably the whole island) boasting truly local seafood at an affordable cost.
The last stop of any eastward bus. San Nicholas is known for their seedier past and their vibrant resurgence, developing from a sketchy oil town to a thriving arts district. Vibrant murals cover walls at every corner, and open air cafes entice you to visit. The air is hopeful, creative, and young. The best time to visit is during the Island Festival, a celebration of the art and culture of the district, which takes place at the end of each month. This event was paused during COVID, but is set to restart soon.
What the murals and cafes bring to the day, the eccentric bars bring to the night. Charlie’s Bar needs no introduction and is absolutely worth a visit.
Once you’ve had your fill exploring San Nicholas (and after grabbing a drink at Charlie’s), head to the calm waters of Baby Beach. Baby Beach is the southernmost point in the country, with crystal clear waters that rival any of Aruba’s other beaches.
Arikok National Park and the Wild East Side
Far away from the resorts and golf courses, a completely different Aruba remains. Untamed desert and wild beaches make for an inhospitable landscape, with few roads and no services available. Geologic wonders like the Ayo Rock Formation and Tripod Bridge abound, accessible by four wheel drive vehicle. For the properly trained, beaches along Aruba’s east side are ripe for extreme watersports- for everyone else, the waters spell certain death.
Saving Money in Aruba
While some accommodations, dining options, and activities are very expensive, others are far less than what you’d expect to pay in the United States. For my trip to Aruba, I was able to stay for a full month without spending more than two thousand dollars- including air fare and hotel. Now, granted, some of my decisions were a bit unconventional (few other people enjoy walking 20 miles across the desert in a single day) but many of my cost-cutting tips could be applied by anyone. If you want to save money in Aruba, here are some ways how.
Finding Affordable Hotels and Airbnbs
This may be obvious, but skip the all-inclusive hotel. Better yet, disregard hotels altogether. Airbnb will provide you with a significantly discounted stay in a much larger, better-stocked accommodation. There are just a few things you need to do to find the right deal.
Don’t focus on the tourist districts. Yes, Eagle Beach is beautiful. No, it isn’t worth the cost of housing. Look for neighborhoods nearby that are much more affordable, such as Pos Chiquito, which is walking distance to Mangel Halto beach, Spanish Lagoon, and the Balashi Gold Mill ruins. Savaneta is another option, but is a bit more removed from attractions so be sure to pick lodging close to a bus stop. A bit further out but brimming with hipster fun is the town of San Nicolas, home to the beautiful Baby Beach and renowned Charlie’s Bar.
Find the sweet spot of Airbnb hosts. There is a careful balance you want to maintain between trustworthy and professional, and affordable and fun. Many of the career, multi-unit Airbnb hosts (many of them superhosts) charge a premium for their rooms since they already show up toward the top of the Airbnb ranking. The listings are usually well-manicured and the hosts are usually lovely people, but… well, it’s basically the equivalent of getting a hotel room. By looking for hosts with only one or two properties that are relatively new to Airbnb, you can find MUCH better deals. One of the highlights of my trip to Aruba was getting to meet my host family, some absolutely lovely people.
Plan as loosely as possible. Start planning your trip at least several months in advance and use the ‘I’m Flexible’ option on the Airbnb search feature to find the best possible deals. I usually go for a month-long stay so I can get discounts of up to 65%, then include 3-5 months as possible travel months to provide the widest possible range of deals.
My strategy may sound like a bit of a hassle, but it works. During a two-minute test search I was able to find a 2 bedroom apartment right on Mangel Halto Beach for $714 per month. Compared to the average hotel cost of $260 per day, that isn’t a bad deal.
Like on any island, transportation can become very expensive very quickly. Rental cars rates are through the roof, and will take up a significant part of your budget if you opt to rent one. Fortunately, the Aruba bus system is comprehensive, dependable, and safe, providing an easy way to get around the island.
As a reminder, the entirety of Aruba is under 70 square miles. With so much condensed into such a small land area, it makes sense that the bus system would weave through almost all of the towns and beaches. Starting on the far west corner of the island near Arashi Beach, a bus ride across to the easternmost town of San Nicolas will only take about an hour- and cost $5 if you play your cards right.
Aruba Bus Fares
A one-way trip on Arubus will cost 4.50 Florin, or about $2.60. A round trip card can also be purchased for $5.00 USD. If you plan to travel throughout the day or need to take multiple routes, a day pass will likely be your best bet- these are only $10.00 USD.
Retour cards and day passes can be purchased from many locations across Aruba, including at major supermarkets and at the major bus stations in Oranjestad or San Nicolas. Personally, the slight cost-savings of the cards never outweighed the inconvenience of acquiring them; I usually just paid out of pocket. Do be careful to have enough money for the trip, as the Aruba bus system does not take credit or other alternative forms of payment.
If you are going to be staying in Aruba for an extended period and will need to use the bus system often, consider getting a smart card. You don’t have to be a resident to get one, and the cost savings are significant. After about 10 trips it will have paid for itself, though it can be a bit of a hassle to secure one. Innominate Thoughts provides an excellent breakdown of the what, why, and how for Arubus Smartcards– definitely consult this before trying to get one.
Aruba Bus Routes and Schedules
Most bus routes start around 5:00-6:00am and run every 30 minutes to an hour. The Arubus website has a list of all bus routes, though the feature is somewhat difficult to use. A map of all Aruba bus routes is below, courtesy again of Innominate Thoughts.
Bus stops are available sporadically along the route- be careful to pay attention, as the drivers will sometimes pass by if you don’t look at them and make them aware of your presence. To find a bus stop near you, the easiest resource is Google Maps. Most stops are marked, though you can also just hang by the road and wave them down as they drive by- I did this a few times and it never failed, so long as it wasn’t on the major highway.
The most centrally-located town on the island is Savaneta. In addition to having some pretty cool small restaurants nearby- not to mention the Balashi brewery– it allows easy, quick access to both sides of the island. I stayed right along the bus route, so after leaving my apartment I could be on Eagle Beach or in San Nicolas within 40 or so minutes.
Walking and Biking Aruba
I get it, this isn’t for everybody. Just hear me out.
There are bike trails connecting Savaneta to Oranjestad, and hiking paths all over the island. There is even a separate (quite beautiful) bridge crossing the Spanish Lagoon, made just for bikers and walkers. With the very noticeable exception of Hooiberg, the mountain just outside of the capital city, the landscape is flat and manageable.
During my time in Aruba, I walked across basically the entire island. From east coast to west coast, and from north coast to south coast (the latter I did within the same day, there and back). While I had a great time and would recommend the adequately prepared adventurer to try it as well, there are some things to be aware of.
So, first of all, expect it to be dry, hot, and windy. Water consumption is a major consideration, with 2-4 liters being an appropriate amount to carry into Arikok and 1-2 liters being good for general hiking elsewhere. Be sure to take regular stops for hydration, grabbing some Gatorade when possible as you pass by gas stations or markets. Sun exposure must be managed too, requiring a wide-brim hat and long sleeve shirt with SPF protection.
The sun isn’t the only problem. There are… dogs. Though it is common elsewhere in the Caribbean for stray and owned dogs to wonder around aimlessly, the dogs in Aruba are uniquely aggressive and common. Practically every other household had a dog barking at me as I past, either from afar or running up to a gate (if I was lucky) to let me know it was prepared to eat me if need be. If you are scared of dogs barking at you and approaching aggressively, I would recommend to avoid walking around any residential areas. This is, unfortunately, a simple reality of Aruba. All that being said, I was never bitten nor did I feel like I was ever in any real danger. Be smart, and you’ll be fine.
In terms of general safety, Aruba is perfect for exploration by foot. Nowhere that I walked did I feel unsafe, and though I heard countless stories on other Caribbean islands about crimes against tourists, these tales were completely absent in Aruba. The hyper-masculine, overtly sexist culture that plagues some other parts of the Caribbean was also fortunately missing, making Aruba an excellent island for solo female travelers.
The Best Cheap Restaurants in Aruba
Honestly, Aruba’s restaurants were somewhat underwhelming compared to other islands I’ve been to (looking at you, Roatan). The food was more expensive than I’m used to, and the quality was lacking. Luckily for my price-conscious friends, the best food I encountered was overwhelmingly the affordable, locally-owned gems. I tried the tourist-oriented restaurants and the local spots alike, and one group was superior by far. A good rule of thumb is look for the menus in Papiamento and the price expressed in Florins. You’ll get much better food at a much better price, every time.
I don’t include restaurants I wouldn’t go to again, so this is going to be a short list. For the restaurants that are included, just know you’re in for a treat- and if you consider going to a restaurant not on this list, I’d recommend doing your research first. I tried many different restaurants, and left unsatisfied from almost as many. Here are the select few that blew me away.
BEST BREAKFAST SPOTS
A quaint coffee shop in the heart of San Nicholas. Located next to the entrance of the San Nicholas Community Museum, Kulture Cafe offers affordable, tasty breakfast fare with decent service. Admittedly, it won inclusion due to the location- San Nicholas is a cute town to explore by foot, and Kulture Cafe fits perfectly with the ambiance. Grab a cappucino, read a bit, and relax.
Another cool café that fits perfectly along the murals and art museums of San Nicholas. Art.ish is one of the newer restaurants around Aruba and is quickly making a name for itself. Friendly service and delicious pancakes make Art.ish Cafe a must-stop if you’re in San Nicholas and in need of a pick-me-up. For the budget conscious, Art.ish Cafe is a better choice than Kulture Cafe down the street.
Best Lunches and Dinners
Absolutely delicious seafood at a fraction of the cost of basically anywhere else. Zeerover is no-frills- you choose between fish or shrimp, which you order by weight, alongside a few side dishes such as fries or plantains. Order at the window when you walk in, grab a beer, then sit down and wait to be served. The shrimp are served heads-on, so be aware of that. This is THE seafood restaurant in Aruba, a clear favorite of the locals and an absolute gem that must be visited before you waste your money at any of the other seafood themed tourist traps.
A quality Cantonese restaurant in the heart of Oranjestad. The price was a bit higher than what I would’ve liked, but for delicious Chinese food I was happy to pay it. I ordered the crispy pork and steamed dumplings, both of which came out perfectly, and came back a second time to try the half duck- again, outstanding and well worth the cost. A word of warning- there are many Chinese restaurants around Aruba, but not many are worth writing home about. I was excited at first and tried quite a few of them, but quickly grew disillusioned- Universal was a rare exception.
An unassuming house and garage along the picturesque Mangel Halto beach. Don’t let the storefront fool you- the food here is legit. Appy warmly greets you and offers you lamb or chicken shawarma with portions large enough to guarantee leftovers, all at a fraction of the cost of most other restaurants in the area. Your meal comes with suspiciously delicious french fries and a garlic sauce that ties everything together.
A small food truck parked alongside the local supermarket. These meals are sloppy, saucy, delicious, and CHEAP. There are a ton of options, but I’d recommend the choices that sound right coming out of a food truck- the only complaints I’ve heard are from their more expensive, higher-end fare. Stick to the ‘Plate’ offerings, drown it in both of their mouth-watering sauces, and enjoy! You’ll likely have enough for at least two meals.
Best Bars & Drinks
It’s not cheap, but some things are worth it, you know? Tucked away next to the shops of Oranjestad, Apotek is dripping with sophistication and oozing out cool. As someone that has neither of those traits I expected to feel more uncomfortable, but nope- this was the perfect location to grab a couch, sip the best old fashioned I’ve ever had, and make casual conversation with some of the other rulebreakers. Some speakeasies are gimmicky and overplayed. This one is neither.
The legendary Charlie’s Bar? Yeah, you have to come here. I’m not much of a nightlife guy, so I came in the middle of the day for lunch and a beer. The lunch was decent, but of course that isn’t why someone comes to Charlie’s. The place is covered top to bottom with random junk from every corner of the globe, all interesting in some way with plenty conversation starters. The servers were friendly and attentive, and the atmosphere generally warm and welcoming.
A fever dream of rusting painted metal, bumping bass lines, and massive TVs. Welcome to the Bochinca Container Yard. This weird, fortification-esque venue is compromised of several restaurants around the perimeter of a large central gathering space with a massive bar right smack in the middle. The food options are diverse, the drinks inventive, and the environment varying levels of insane depending on the time and day of the week.
A more subdued location for a quick bite and a delicious drink. If you’re not into the bar scene, be sure to check out Que Pasa- between the art covering almost every inch of wall space and the wide selection of wines and specialty cocktails, you’ll have a good time. While I had lunch here twice (and enjoyed it both times, mind you) I think Que Pasa is better as an after-dinner spot. Come a bit later into the evening with a few friends and let the conversation- and wine- flow.
Top Cheap Activities in Aruba
There are many ways to blow a large sum of money in Aruba, but fortunately there are some cool free activities, too. Most of these are natural wonders that only exist in Aruba, and are not to miss when you’re on the island.
Visit the Abandoned Gold Mills
The Balashi Gold Mills is an abandoned gold mill facility next to the Spanish Lagoon, just outside of Pos Chiquito. The gold mill itself can be driven right up to, but take time to explore the full facility- it extends across several buildings and abandoned pieces of machinery, all overlooking the sparkling lagoon at the bottom of the hill. Once you’ve had your fill at the ruins, take a stroll through the mangrove trees next to the lagoon- just be wary of the mosquitos! Right down the street is another great free activity, the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary. While the sanctuary is free to visit, please do provide a donation to help support their work.
If you haven’t had your fill of ruins, head to Bushiribana. The Bushiribana Gold Mill is a bit underwhelming after exploring the Balashi complex, but is gorgeous in it’s own right. Located on the beach with a backdrop of the wild, windswept oceans of Aruba’s national park, Bushiribana is perfect for photography.
Cool, right? Just you wait. Conchi, the natural pool within Arikok National Park, is crowded and costs money to enter. This natural pool, on the other hand, is free and only a few steps away if you go to Bushiribana. Don’t expect anything fancy- it is just a rickety ladder down to the pool- but man is it gorgeous. The crashing waves you witness from above give way to calm, crystal clear blue water. Partially submerged rocks are dyed hues of pink and red.
Hike Hoiberg and Explore the Ayo Rock Formations
I grouped these together because they’re both essentially hiking, but that doesn’t give either the justice they deserve. Hoiberg is the sole mountain of western Aruba bursting out of an otherwise flat landscape. Beautiful from a distance and challenging to conquer, the steps of Hoiberg are a major tourist attraction for a reason. The Ayo Rock Formations are, by my estimation, some of the weirdest rocks you can find anywhere. The labyrinthine channels wind around, slowly gaining elevation, until you’re looking out over the surrounding area from above. Both attractions are completely free to visit and enjoy for as long as you’d like, which for me, was quite a while.
Hiking Hoiberg is a matter of numbers- from the parking lot, you have about 600 steps to go. There are gazebos at the bottom, railings every once in a while, and some benches so you can catch your breath. Take it slow, enjoy the walk, and don’t hurt yourself. Keep your eyes peeled for some of the local wildlife, including mountain goats, and on clear days you can sometimes see Venezuela to the south. Getting to Hoiberg is easy, with a parking lot on-site and a bus drop-off right down the road from where the trail starts.
The Ayo Rock Formation is the lesser known of the two formations on Aruba, the other being the Casibari Rock Formations. While cool, Casibari didn’t have the same appeal to it and was much busier- they have an on-site bar and gift shop. Ayo focuses on the rocks, and accomplishes that task spectacularly well. Starting from the entrance you’ll have a few paths to choose from- I’d recommend taking the path to the right, but it’ll circle around either way. As you approach the rocks, the path will start meandering next to, over, and under the formations- if you’re claustrophobic, I’d recommend getting over that fear real quick. Spaces are not too confined, but it does get a bit tight and a bit dark. When I went there were also quite a few hornet nests, so that was… also not ideal.
Truth be told, I considered turning back once or twice. I didn’t. I persisted. And so can you.
After climbing around all these fantastically shaped and sized rocks, you’ll come out towards the top of the formation with sweeping views of the region. Another much less scary path will continue on the other side, guiding your gentle descent back to ground level.
Keep an eye out for some of the wildlife that call the rock formations home, including mountain goats- if you look closely, you’ll see one in the top left of one of my pictures above. The Ayo Rock Formation was considered a holy site to the indigenous Arubans, with carvings and paintings still being visible around the structure.
Explore Museums and Galleries
Aruba is proud of it’s history and cultural heritage. The San Nicholas Community Museum, the Museum of Industry, and the National Archaeological Museum are three of the most popular choices, but other niche options include the Aruba Model Train Museum and the Aruba Aloe Factory and Museum.
If art is more your style, you have a few options. San Nicholas boasts many gorgeous outdoor installations, in addition to the local favorite ARTISA Gallery. Oranjestad has a few smaller locations to peruse locally made art, with Mopa Mopa being my personal favorite. Mopa Mopa acts as both art exhibition and museum, explaining how the art style originated and the traditional process of manufacturing the artworks.
About Baylen McCarthy
I’m a marketing strategist based in Norfolk, Virginia. When I’m not busy hurting myself by walking unreasonable distances, I can be found reading in a hammock or watching my soccer team underperform.
Have a question about an upcoming trip you’re planning? Shoot it over to me, I’d love to help if I’m able.
Like cheap vacations? Your friends probably do, too.
Share This Article