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Trip 24 -- Aruba Walk

Day 4: Arikok National Park
Friday, December 25, 2020

Today: 26537 steps/20.54 km/12.76 mi/4h 56m
Total: 95408 steps/76.60 km/47.60 mi/15h 58m

"Merry Christmas," said Tiffany, "if you observe it." She had just finished breakfast in Mammaloe's communal kitchen, and she was waiting for her friend to arrive.

I returned the greeting. I'm more offended by a meteorologist's telling me I need an umbrella (I can say for certain that I don't) than by an offer of cheer on a holiday I don't celebrate.

We left Mammaloe's at the same time, going to the same place. Her friend picked her up in his car, and I started walking. The dogs a few doors down paid me less attention today than yesterday. This was the third time I'd passed them. Were they starting to recognize me? Or were they taking a break for the holiday?

It was a glorious morning for walking, with temperatures in the 80s and enough cloud cover to provide intermittent respites from the direct sunlight. I'd thought the streets would be quiet, but people were arriving at each other's for Christmas get-togethers, and upbeat Latin music filled the air.

Arikok National Park takes up more than a sixth of Aruba's land area. After an hour and a half, I descended the scruffy road to Daimari Beach and entered the park at its northern end. Immediately I dealt with a quick rock scramble around a crater, but the path leveled off and it was easy walking.

I had the beach to myself, and I took off my socks and shoes and sat down under the shelf created by years of erosion. Here it was calm, but Aruba's eastern beaches have strong currents and I wasn't about to go to a swimming depth alone.

Another visitor came by, and we exchanged hellos. "It's beautiful!" she said.

"Worth the trip."

"And what a trip it was!"

I have no idea how she got there. By car, she'd have had to park at the top of the rough road and walk down and around the crater as I had. But all of Arikok's beaches take some effort, either on foot or in a hardy automobile. Some people come in on horseback.

To reach the natural pool known as Conchi (Papiamento for "bowl"), I climbed up the modest cliff and made my way in front of the dunes. I found Tiffany and her friend within shouting distance. They had parked much farther north and walked for miles along the shore.

I saw only one other couple as I approached Moro, an Aruba-shaped rock that cuts one beach in half, but there were around 20 people at Conchi. The natural pool is popular for its beauty and the opportunity for light snorkeling.

I climbed across a few rocks and reached the main pool. The water was perfectly refreshing but the cross-currents kept me hanging on to the rocks; on the northern side the waves would splash over a ridge of rock, and on the southern side they would come in from the beach, more gently.

Many of the other visitors were from one large family. A few of them were swimming, but I wasn't ready to trust my body to those currents yet.

"Can you see the fish?" the father said, handing me his snorkeling glasses.

I decided that he wasn't one of Aruba's 161 active coronavirus cases, and I put them on. Below the surface were beautiful neon yellow and blue fish, thumb-sized up to palm-sized.

"Over there is the quiet pool," he said, gesturing to the other side of the ridge. He led his family across.

Eventually I started swimming, and then I decided I was ready for the quiet pool, too. It involved climbing up the rocks on the other side -- only ten feet or so, but they were slippery, and it was hard to find footholds. Going across the ridge was impossible; a strong wave could easily knock anyone off balance and cause severe injury.

I started pulling myself up the rock -- and that's when I saw the giant wave coming over the ridge, bigger than I'd seen yet. "Whoa!" I yelled into it. Actually, it was a different four-letter word.

I expected the wave to wash me back into the water, and all I could hope for was that I wouldn't hurt myself bumping into the rocks. These were jagged rocks, made of hardened lava. Yet somehow I held on.

"I'll help you," said the dad. I grabbed his hand and he pulled me up and into the quiet pool. It really was calmer here; the waves usually missed this area, and it was easy to sit and stare out at the sea. This pool was smaller, however, and eventually it started to fill up.

I didn't need help getting back down into the main pool. I exited and started heading along the coast for Dos Playa, the next beach, but the path was hard to find and seemed as though it would involve picking my way across more rocks. Instead I made my way up toward Seroe Arikok, the park's second-tallest hill.

This was the road that people were complaining about down at Conchi, and perhaps the one the woman at Daimari was referring to. It was steep and made of rocks and dirt, and I imagined it was much more comfortable to walk it than to drive it.

For an hour all was quiet except for the breeze and the occasional bird; I saw no one save for a park vehicle coming in the other direction. As I neared the top, all of northern Aruba appeared to my right: Haystack Mountain with Oranjestad behind it (and perhaps the Norwegian Sun cruise ship still in port), the high-rise hotels of Palm Beach, the Ayo rocks, even the lighthouse -- all those places I've come to know in the past four days.

Three four-by-four cars caught up to me. It was the family from Conchi. "Do you want to come with us?" asked the dad.

"No, thanks, I like walking," I said. They paused for beers and then continued.

I paused for lunch. I'd brought some savory pastries from Huchada, a bakery on the way down to Mammaloe's. And I'd procured another liter bottle of water from the supermarket. The clouds had dissipated, and climbing up from Conchi was a slow, hot experience -- today's walk was about the same distance as yesterday's but took almost an hour longer. I neared the end of the second liter before I resumed walking.

I found an easy trail down; it was narrow but not dangerous as long as I didn't touch anything: Columnar cactus, bushy cactus, and acacia hemmed the trail in. Near the bottom a nature trail led to a rock bearing petroglyphs (and nests of stinging creatures) and a cluster of adobe houses, formerly a goat farm. Today the goats roam freely.

"You made it!" Tiffany said when I arrived back at Mammaloe's. She's visiting Aruba for much the same reason I am: because we can. "My mother said, 'You need to get away!"

She invited me to drive with her to watch the sunset near her previous lodging, but all I wanted was to shower and get in the pool. We chatted when she got back, however; she shared her insect repellent and we sat in Mammaloe's outdoor lounge area, where the cactus rose high around us. She's from the Boston area and here for a week; she works in design and photography.

We agreed that Aruba is underappreciated; it's got so much more to do and see than relax at the beach. And Aruba has done an exceptional job making itself tourist-friendly -- and keeping things safe this year.

"I only had a problem with the dogs," I said.

"Maybe you could carry a stick," Tiffany said. "Or a whistle."

Now that's another excellent suggestion. It's tiny and effective.

While we discussed our past travels and our excitement at the prospect of being injected with coronavirus vaccine, Mammaloe's resident cat climbed a tree, waited a few minutes to pounce, and came back down triumphantly, a bird in its mouth.

There's still one blight on Aruba's picture-perfect landscape: the giant, defunct oil refinery. Which is where I'll find myself late tomorrow.

Go on to day 5