Since a massive revitalization of Oranjestad’s infrastructure and with the introduction of pedestrian-only walkways served by free eco-friendly trolleys, visitors are finding it more enticing than ever to explore this vibrant and historic capital city.
A few years back it became clear that Aruba’s capital city was in dire need of major modernization and improvement, especially in the underground infrastructure, which hadn’t been updated for decades. Since the government knew they had to tear up the streets anyway, they decided to undertake an entire facelift at the same time and endeavor to bring locals and visitors back to the original heart of the island: Oranjestad.
Originally, Caya G.F. Betico Croes was the “main street,” a vibrant nexus of island commerce and history. But as time passed, few visitors wandered beyond the harbor front offerings while the neighborhoods behind the Renaissance Mall began showing their age with the streets, alleys, and shops appearing neglected, and in some cases downright decrepit.
Fast forward to 2016, and the completely rejuvenated downtown core is a thing of beauty. It’s a gorgeous marriage of old and new replete with palm-lined pedestrian walkways, additional shops and plazas, refreshed colonial buildings, and a renewed sense of local pride. There is also new signage to direct people towards the points of interest. And the best way to explore it all? Aboard the free trolleys!
All aboard a unique adventure
This avant-garde form of urban island transportation is unique to Aruba. In fact, there’s nothing else like it in the entire Caribbean. The first trolley began rolling in 2013, and by early 2016, the entire fleet of four trolleys were operating on a regular basis. Two are single-deck that can hold 42 people, and two are double-decker and can seat 64 passengers. All have shade coverings and run on a rechargeable battery (no impeding wires and no polluting engines), and all are equipped to accommodate wheelchair passengers/ or we can just say, and all are accessible. Do you think that’s clear enough? I agree that the word handicapped isn’t great, but I also don’t like physically disabled.
The route is a loop throughout the downtown center on a mile and a half of track that starts just outside the cruise ship terminal at the Paardenbaai Plaza, a lovely new welcome center with shops, visitor facilities, and information kiosks. Departures begin at 10 a.m. daily and leave every 20 minutes, with the final loop beginning at 8 p.m. There are nine stops in all, and the vehicles move slowly so you can get a good look at your surroundings and take advantage of the wonderful photo ops all around you.
If you’re a first-timer to Oranjestad, we recommend you do the entire trip to get your bearings, then hop on again and get off at spots that appeal to you. Each stop has interesting exploration options nearby.
Shopping is a given downtown, but there are far more than souvenir shops and flea market stalls. The newly refreshed retail grid is an eclectic mix of family-run mainstays: pharmacies, grocery stores, sporting goods, and the like, mixed in with modern new designer emporiums and retail giants. And the indoor/outdoor Renaissance Mall has upscale jewelry and designer fashions galore. Seek out made-in-Aruba products along the way like the new aloe-based handmade soaps (at Water Tower stop) or fuel up at a local gourmet coffee shop (Nicky Habibe Plaza stop.) Both stops are also within walking distance of Wilhelminastraat’s blossoming neighborhood now gentrified with new businesses and attractions, and also within walking distance of Aruba’s oldest cathedral, the Protestant Church, built in 1846.
You’ll find an interesting mix of eating options all along the route. Look for authentic local snacks at take-outs, or opt for more upscale with indoor/outdoor eateries in the Renaissance Marketplace. And if you begin to feel the heat, pop into one of downtown’s glitzy air-conditioned casinos for free drinks while you try to seduce Lady Luck into helping you replenish your retail therapy funds. You can also take in a first-run movie for a few hours break from the sun at the modern downtown cinemas. The beauty of the trolleys is that they are at your disposal whenever you’re ready to continue your Oranjestad explorations.
Arts and cultural attractions
Beyond the lovingly restored colonial buildings you’ll also encounter all kinds of new outdoor art as you roll, such as the beautiful Blue Horses series and the many stunning monuments to local heroes. You can also stop into the modern multilevel National Archaeological Museum and the small historical museum at Fort Zoutman for some interesting island history. And if you happen to be at the Fort on a Tuesday around 6:30 p.m., you can enjoy the famous Bon Bini Festival for local food, drink, dance, and music.
For quality, authentic locally made arts and crafts, check out the new Cosecha building off Mainstreet (Chipi Chipi Plaza stop) showcasing Aruba’s best artistic talents. For fine art, the new BEAM art complex (Water Tower stop) encourages visitors to interact with the artists in their workshops, and Gallery Ateliers ’89 (just off Nicky Plaza stop) is also a best bet for wonderful local work. If you’re lucky, the pop-up art fair called “Korteweg” might be in operation while you’re there. They build an entire art village street literally overnight in the heart of downtown!
Special events and surprises
The trolleys themselves are unique attractions, whimsical, old-fashioned-style streetcars in the bright cheery colors befitting one very happy island. The experience of riding on them is akin to being a child on a carnival ride. It’s great fun as people wave and smile as you pass by, and you just never know what kind of cool extras you might encounter in your travels. For instance, the raspao man who pushes a handcart around town. Track him down for a special cool treat of delicious shaved ice topped with tropical syrups.
Oranjestad has become a hotbed of special events and impromptu street life such as sidewalk sales, colorful parades, food, drink, and art kiosks that accompany annual musical attractions like the Caribbean Sea Jazz Festival. And after dark, this city is even more magical. Sparkling lights shine and twinkle on the water and the live music calls to you from the clubs and the marina to come and join the party.
These days, there’s always something enchanted happening around Oranjestad. So hop on board your free ride, day or night, to enjoy it all to the max. You’ll soon see why this city is well on track to becoming the coolest capital in the Caribbean!
Note: Aruba’s public buses stop at all major resorts, so you can hop a bus downtown and then hop aboard the trolley at the Rancho stop near the bus terminal. Or you can take a taxi to the cruise terminal stop to start at the beginning. But if you must bring a car downtown, there is parking beside the trolley cruise terminal stop for a fee.
by Susan Campbell