One of the best ways to see more of Aruba – especially the Aruba away from the tourist districts – is to rent a car and take a day trip south to San Nicolas.
Whether they’re arriving by cruise ship or airplane, most visitors to the southern Caribbean island of Aruba tend to base themselves in the northwestern part of the island. There, mammoth high-rise resorts line the lovely sands of Palm Beach, smaller “low rise” hotels sit behind world-famous Eagle Beach, and the capital city of Oranjestad welcomes day and overnight visitors to its colorful streets and world-class restaurants.
The pleasures, conveniences, and attractions in this part of Aruba are many, which is perhaps why so few of the island’s tourists spend much time outside of the resort areas. They make take an organized tour of the northern coast, or perhaps venture out to sea on a snorkeling trip or dinner cruise, but for most people the focus is on the gorgeous beaches, great restaurants, casinos, bars, shopping boulevards, and other attractions near their sumptuous hotels.
That’s all well and good – as a reformed travel snob, I’m not here to judge anyone for wanting an easy, relaxing, beautiful vacation. But you are missing something special if you never venture outside of the resort areas: the rest of (and the more authentic) Aruba!
One of the best ways to escape the resort areas and experience Aruban culture is to take a day trip to San Nicolas. Located on the southeastern tip of the island, San Nicolas is Aruba’s second largest city and is known for its beautiful beaches, colorful downtown murals, and great food. And since Aruba is so small, it only takes a half hour to get there from Oranjestad!
We were so glad that we took a day out of our week in Aruba to drive down to San Nicolas and the surrounding area. Read on to see how we structured our time, and get ready for plenty of photos and tips to inspire your own day trip to San Nicolas!
On the morning of our sixth day in Aruba, we left our hotel bright and early to maximize our time on the south side of the island. We took a taxi to the nearest Budget Car Rental office, grabbed our small sedan, and set our GPS for San Nicolas.
Roughly a half hour later, we found ourselves driving through the city and emerging at the southern tip of the island.
There, we stopped at a monument honoring sailors who had been lost at sea. The massive, bright red anchor is one of Aruba’s most famous landmarks, and stands in stark contrast to the terrain around it. Fittingly, the location is a bit lonely, with uninterrupted views out over the ocean and the barren countryside.
From the monument, we turned north to travel along the coast, admiring the scenery as waves crashed upon beaches to our right and rugged limestone cliffs loomed to our left. We drove until the paved road ended and then a little further, just to see what there was to see, before turning back.
The beaches on this end of the island were wild and mostly deserted, a far cry from the resort-packed stretches of sand further north. We stopped at windy Boca Grandi, a small, half-moon shaped bay that’s too rough for swimming…
… but a hotspot for kitesurfers, a few of whom were sweeping across the waves as we arrived.
The three of us spent some time walking along the pillowy sand. The views were great, though I was taken aback to see how much trash had washed up on the beach. It was sad to see such a beautiful place so polluted with the world’s garbage.
Thankfully, there was still a lot of beauty to be found at Boca Grandi, and it was delightful to stroll along the sand as the surf lapped at our feet. Had we had more time to spend on the southern end of the island, we very easily could have passed the morning relaxing along the shore. It truly would have been blissful to have such a place almost entirely to ourselves for hours on end!
After Boca Grandi, we continued down the coast in search of the Seroe Colorado Lighthouse, another of southern Aruba’s more famous landmarks. The road was dusty and lined with cacti and brush, with the occasional beach access road darting off toward the sea.
I’ve truly never seen so many cacti in my whole life. It was like driving through a prickly green forest.
When we reached our destination about ten minutes later, we learned that the “lighthouse” moniker was somewhat… misleading:
But while the lighthouse itself was less than impressive (especially compared to the stately California Lighthouse to the north), the rugged sea cliffs were definitely worth exploring.
We even spotted a natural bridge among the crashing blue waves.
Plus, the whole area was dotted with fun, spherical, red-topped cacti. And by “fun” I mean “cute,” because accidentally falling into one of them would be the exact opposite of a good time.
By the time the three of us returned to our car, we were ready for lunch! It was a little early, but we had spent the past five days hearing about how we needed to eat at Zeerovers, so we were excited to check it out.
Zeerovers is located in the seaside town – and former Aruban capital – of Savaneta, which involved a little backtracking up the coast. We could have visited for dinner on our way back to our hotel, but we were strongly encouraged to go for lunch because the suppertime crowds are apparently pretty formidable.
We didn’t mind, as it gave us more opportunities to check out the towns we were traversing. Crossing back across San Nicolas, we passed through neighborhoods and along residential streets. It was a much more authentic look at life in Aruba than we’d gotten so far up north.
We reached Zeerovers about twenty minutes later, just as they were opening for the day. A line was already forming, the universal sign of a great place to eat. My mouth was practically watering at the thought of the fresh seafood to come, and I hoped that Zeerovers was worth all the hype.
As we soon learned, it was. Zeerovers was awesome, and ended up being one of our favorite meals in Aruba.
Our experience started at a little service window, where we ordered as much caught-that-morning fish and shrimp as we wanted. The seafood was moved from a cooler to a basket, along with a note listing the sides we’d ordered as well. The basket was then shuttled to the open-air kitchen located further inside the restaurant.
In the meantime, we ordered drinks at a separate window and moved into the open-air dining room, which included beautiful views over the turquoise Caribbean.
Soon, our baskets returned to us, this time loaded with freshly flash-fried (not breaded) fish and shrimp, along with seasoned fries, fried plantains (my weakness), pickled onions, and homemade tartar sauce.
It was heaven.
Considering the place had been constantly recommended to us for the first few days of our week in Aruba, it could have been a real disappointment. But every ounce of hype was completely deserved. The food was so fresh and delicious, and the scenery was just icing on the cake.
I wish I had had two stomachs to fill at Zeerovers, but eventually we had to call it quits and head to the final stop on our day trip to San Nicolas: Baby Beach.
The most popular beach on the southern end of the island, Baby Beach sits in a wide, sheltered lagoon south of the city of San Nicolas. While many day-trippers and tour groups make a stop here, it’s also very popular with locals. The crystal-clear water is shallow and gentle, making it perfect for kids, and onsite facilities include bathrooms, free beach shelters and palapas, and a bar and grill. There’s also snorkeling toward the mouth of the lagoon, though you need to be careful to stay within the marked area for your own safety.
There were plenty of people at Baby Beach, but we were still able to find a shady spot in the foliage to stash our beach gear and take a break from the sun when needed. The beach was also big enough that it didn’t feel crowded and we could just enjoy this lovely spot.
Our little home base was right near the midpoint of Baby Beach’s half-moon curve, giving us a great vantage point out over the whole area. Later in the afternoon, Brooke and I took a walk to check out the scenery in either direction. Heading right led us to a more deserted area and a rockier section of the coastline.
Then, when we swung the whole way around to the other end of the beach, we found another rocky spot where snorkelers hang out.
The color and shallowness of the water was unbelievable. Instead of walking back along the beach, we decided just to trek directly across the water back to Mom. The water never went past our shoulders!
After our grand adventure, we were content to spend most of the afternoon lounging at Baby Beach. When we begrudgingly decided that it was time to start heading back north, we didn’t get far before making a stop at the famous Charlie’s Bar in downtown San Nicolas.
A neighborhood institution for over eighty years, it’s not hard to believe Charlie’s Bar’s age once you catch sight of the interior. Decades worth of bric-a-brac, antiques, and left-behind junk cover every available surface along the walls and ceiling.
Charlie’s also serves food, but we were more interested in grabbing a corner of the bar and ordering three pints of Balashi – it was only the second time we’d seen Aruba’s national beer on draft!
Other than some friendly chatter with the bartender, the three of us mostly sat in silence, fascinated by the hodgepodge of miscellaneous objects around us. Before we left, we made sure to sign a dollar bill and staple it to the bee’s nest-looking mess above our corner of the bar to prove we’d been there.
At last, we headed back north toward Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort, our home for the week. The final stop on our road trip to San Nicolas was the famous Aruba sign on the outskirts of Oranjestad. After taking the obligatory photos, we made our way back to the hotel for the night.
Overall, we were so glad that we had devoted some of our short time in Aruba to taking a day trip to San Nicolas. From the deserted beaches around Boca Grandi and the grandeur of the Seroe Colorado sea cliffs, to the excellent lunch at Zeerovers and delightful lounging on Baby Beach, the day really couldn’t have gone better. I highly recommend that you find time in your own Aruba itinerary to check out this off-the-beaten-path destination!
Tips for a Day Trip to San Nicolas, Aruba, (including Baby Beach)
- There are lots of car rental agency options on Aruba, ranging from international companies to local outfits. Make sure to compare prices!
- Although rates at airport rental locations may be a bit lower, you should factor in the cost of a taxi to get to your pickup location when comparing prices. We actually could have saved money overall by picking up at Budget’s Palm Beach office rather than traveling to the airport because of the difference in taxi rates.
- Driving in Aruba is pretty straightforward, and the major roads between the resort areas/Oranjestad and San Nicolas are well maintained. Just be prepared for roundabouts!
- If you’re leery of driving in another country (or on the right side of the road), there are many guided tours that include stops in San Nicolas and/or Baby Beach. (I recommend this comprehensive tour or this this Baby Beach shuttle service.)
- As mentioned above, don’t attempt to swim at Boca Grandi, as the current is dangerously strong.
- Zeerovers is a very popular spot, so either come early for lunch or be prepared to wait in line!
- Just east of Baby Beach is a huge dog cemetery where decades-worth of beloved pets have been lovingly interred. It’s an oddly moving spot and worth a drive-by.
- Just across a little headland from Baby Beach, Rodger’s Beach is a hidden local gem with clear water and fewer crowds, especially during the week.
- We didn’t get to spend much time there, but there are lots of beautiful murals throughout the city of San Nicolas. Try to build in a little time to appreciate the murals, or take a guided tour to learn the stories behind the art.
- A little ways up the coast, Mangel Halto is a small beautiful beach beloved by locals and devoid of Baby Beach crowds. It’s worth a stop (and some snorkeling) if you have extra time.
- We based ourselves at Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort in Eagle Beach during our stay in Aruba and had an excellent experience.
- Alternatively, consider turning your day trip to San Nicolas into an overnight to allow yourself more time for the beaches, murals, and great restaurants in the area. Doing so also helps spread your tourist dollars to an area of the island that generally sees fewer of them.
Like the post? Pin to save or share!
Need some help planning your day trip to San Nicolas or your whole Aruba vacation? Full Life, Full Passport offers customized planning services for all kinds of vacations and budgets!