Seven years ago, we visited Aruba for the first time on a brief dive vacation. We would look out at the beautiful, calm anchorages and proclaim that one day we would arrive on our own boat. After more than 7,000 sea miles, we made good on that promise to ourselves.
Unlike the other islands of the ABCs, Aruba is not a popular destination for sailing cruisers. The good side of that is that we could anchor all by ourselves in front of luxury resorts with pristine beaches. The most crowded anchorage had less than six cruising boats on its busiest day.
The down side of visiting this “non-popular” destination is that customs and immigration do not have facilities that are small-boat-friendly. In order to clear in to the country, sailboats must announce their arrival to Port Authority on the VHF radio, and proceed to one of two ports – Oranjestad or Barcadera. The docks at each are massive commercial piers designed for cargo ships, and lined with old tractor tires. These tires make it challenging to get ashore, and leave the tell-tale and impossible to clean “Aruba stamp” on the side of your hull.
To our surprise, when we called the Aruba Port Authority upon arrival, we were directed to the small vessel area at the Barcadera port. What? There’s an area just for small vessels? We were confused, but could see a low wooden dock in the distance. Unfortunately the water depth at this very nice new dock is less than three feet; impossible for any sailboat. We had to settle for the crowded, uneven, rough concrete fishing boat dock, and attempt to parallel park in the only spot available, while several onlookers only a few feet away stopped loading boats to stare at us – no offers of help whatsoever. After several back and forth maneuvers, Kimberly was close enough to leap ashore and tie us off. We’d been told to wait for the officials to board and inspect us, but after no one showed we called again, and were told to go the offices for clearance. The officials seemed surprised to see us, but made quick work of the process, and were very welcoming. We made it!
The Airport Incident
After a quiet night at anchor, we took Pura Vida to a marina where we left her to fly to the US for a week. On our return trip, we learned about the challenges of trying to board a flight in the US to a foreign country when you do not have a return ticket. Because the system flagged us, we could not check in without talking to an airline agent. The agent quizzed us about the lack of a return ticket.
“We’re flying home”, we said.
Agent: “Oh, you live in Aruba?”
Us: “Yes, for now”
Agent: “Ok, can I see your residency documents from Aruba?”
Us: “We are not residents, we’re just there for a few weeks”
Agent: “What’s your address there, maybe I can enter that in the system”
Us: “We don’t have an address, we live on a boat”
Agent looks at us like we’re trying to pull a fast one.
Us: “Here are our boat papers stamped by Aruban customs and immigration”
Agent [staring at these never-before seen forms]: “We’re going to have to speak to a supervisor. Aruba is quite strict about these things.”
We ended up talking to three agents who, once they understood our situation, wanted to know everything about our lifestyle. They were fascinated by what we do and asked for our Facebook and Instagram info so they could follow us. The supervisor found the right computer screen, punched in the magic code, and the printer started spitting out our tickets. We made it!
Back in Aruba, we were prepared to have lengthy discussions with strict customs and immigration agents before we were allowed back in the country, our suitcases loaded with strange looking boat parts. When we reached the counter, the friendly customs officer said, “Welcome back, you’re the boat people, right? I stamped your passports on the way out last week.” That was it! No hassle, no discussion, just smiles. We made it!
Back aboard, we spent just a few days at the marina then went out to enjoy the breezy anchorages and white sandy beaches. Being marina guests gave us access to the adjacent resort’s private island and wildlife habitat. This idyllic spot has the friendliest wildlife that happily cavort in the sand and surf right next to the human guests. We spent hours playing with and photographing the flamingos, iguanas, pelicans, and doves.
A few days later, while enjoying a beachside café, we met Fiona and Sanne, two Dutch women on holiday. When they saw us getting into our dinghy to leave, they ran to us and asked if we could take them to the private island to help them sneak in. They were so enthusiastic, how could we say no? We motored past the main island dock that was full of vigilant staff, but just a ways beyond it we found the service dock. It was desolate. This was our spot. We dropped off our illicit human cargo who pranced excitedly in the direction of the flamingos.
We were dreading having to clear out of Aruba for the same reason we hated clearing in – that customs dock! Remembering that neither the customs nor immigration officials asked where our boat was, we decided to take a chance and arrive at the port in Barcadera by dinghy, without announcing our intent to Port Authority via VHF radio. That shallow dock we’d encountered on arrival was the perfect place to tie the dink. Until now everything we’d read insisted that you must dock your sailboat for clearance, but we hoped we’d get away with playing dumb. It worked! It was Sunday, and the entire port was empty of boats, but the friendly customs officer only wanted to get us on our way. The immigration official did ask if we arrived by taxi – we didn’t realize that was an option – or by boat. We didn’t lie – we told her our boat was outside. (Stamp-stamp-stamp!) We were outta there! We now wonder if we might have cleared in the same way. Take note, fellow cruisers!
Reuniting With Old Friends
On our previous visit to Aruba, we befriended Daan, and had stayed in touch. Back then, he was working to get his Divemaster certification at the same dive shop we used, and we ended up on many dives together. We were eager to see him and meet his fiancée, Janneke. Daan, now a SCUBA instructor, took us to some of his favorite dive spots, and we got to see our first frogfish ever!
Our timing was excellent, Daan’s and Janneke’s birthdays were coming up and they had planned a huge beach party on the day before we had scheduled to leave Aruba. We spent our last afternoon ashore playing beach games with old friends and making new ones. It was the perfect sendoff. Aruba certainly lives up to its motto: “One Happy Island!”