The Allure of Aruba

As I have grown older and wiser, my travels have become less about “turning up” and having a good time and more about relaxing and cultural exploration.  I have learned to stop and smell the roses.  My trips away are a time to reflect on the things that are important in life, thank God for the blessing and opportunity to travel, and to just open my mind to cultures and lifestyles that are different from my own (whatever that is).  In keeping with that theme and continuing my quest to visit all of the islands in the caribbean, I spent some time earlier this month in Aruba.

My trip to Aruba (a.k.a One Happy Island) originated from the east coast of america and took approximately 4.5 hours for me to reach the island.  Once I touched down, I proceeded to immigration where an officer collected the immigration card that I completed on the plane and directed me to proceed to one of the four available entry lines.  Now, this was a different experience.  Usually I am used to walking up to an immigration officer in a booth, answering a few questions pertaining to my visiting, intended length of stay and details about my lodging, but that did not happen this time– initially.  When it is your time to process in, you actually enter a 1 person man-trap where you scan your passport and are supposed to have your picture taken.  Well, that is if there are no problems and your passport actually scans.  Of course, mine did not, so I had to actually retrieve the immigration card that I provided to the officer and actually go speak to a real person. No worries, she scanned my passport and a minute later I was on my way to collect my luggage and find my shuttle.

Wait, what about customs?  Um, not sure if this is normal, but I was just waved through and allowed to go outside to ground transportation.  With my luggage and transportation voucher in hand, I boarded a luxury bus that would take me to my temporary lodging in the high-rise section of the island, close to Palm Beach.  The ride took approximately 40 minutes due to traffic and the fact that there was an impatient couple on the bus who didn’t feel like that should wait for others with reservations to board.  Umm, I guess they do not know what “shared” transportation actually means.  American privilege.  What can I say?  My stop was the second on the route and once there I checked in with no problem and headed out to grab some lunch.

I started day two by traveling in town (Oranjestad) using public transportation.  The colors and vibrancy of the buildings in town is amazing.  The architecture is reminiscent of europe meets caribbean meets asia, simply spectacular.  I found a grocery store where I was able to grab a few staples to take back to my hotel and then visited a local craft market for some browsing.  It was early afternoon, so I decided to have lunch at “The West Deck” which is near the Renaissance hotel.  This is a really nice spot on the water and they have my beloved johnny cakes!!  For less than $15 I was able to dine on johnny cakes, fish cakes, and banana hasa which the a version of sweet plantains.  Belly fully, I took a moment to take a few pictures in the park next to the restaurant because they had a really beautiful sculpture dedicated to Anne Frank.  After taking a few pictures, I headed back to the hotel where I put my purchases away, changed clothing and headed to Palm Beach.  The beach is nice and the water is pretty clear, but it was bit too crowded for my taste, so I stayed for about two hours before calling it a day and going back to the hotel.

Day 3 I was all set to travel to Eagle Beach to beat the crowds, but apparently mother nature had other plans in mind as it rained– a lot!  Since this was a Sunday, the stores in Oranjestad were closed for the day.  Stores in the high-rise district do not open until 5p.m., so I had to find something to do between waiting out the rain and doing some window shopping (I already had my obligatory shot glass and magnet for my friend, so my shopping was done).  The rain finally let up around 3p.m. so I actually took a trip back to The West Deck for two more johnny cakes (yes, they were just THAT good) before going to Eagle beach.  There were quite a few people on the beach, but I did not find it to be as crowded as Palm Beach.  Nothing better than laying in the sun, listening to the birds, feeling the sand on your feet and just enjoying life.  Since my day started later than normal due to the rain, I only stayed on the beach two hours, but could have stayed there for two days.  So clean, beautiful and serene.  Oh, and there is free wi-fi as well, but who needs that when you are in paradise relaxing.

My last two days were spent just lazing out, enjoying the culture, having fun taking public transportation, visiting some of the dining establishments frequented by the locals, and alternating between english, spanish and papimento during conversations.  I purchased a few cuban cigars (not for me, they were gifts), so t-shirts for my sweet pea (if I had a little girl, she would be so spoiled), and a bottle of local rum from the grocery store.  My trip overall was nice, I enjoyed exploring the terrain, meeting the locals and just getting some rest in the sun.  So, I rate this trip 7 bottles of rum out of 10.

What to know before you go:

  1. The official language is dutch; however, english, spanish, and papimento are widely spoken as well.
  2. The local currency is the aruban florin, also known as the AWG or the guilder.  Not to be confused with the same guilder in Curaçao or St. Marteen.  $1.75 AWG is equal to $1US; US currency is widely accepted, so you do not have to exchange money, if coming from the states.
  3. Public transportation is excellent and reliable, if you are not journeying too far off the beaten path.  If you are taking the big, public bus (Arubus) the fare is $2.35 (US).  There is a smaller bus (I affectionately call it the maxi as that is the term used on other islands) and the fare is roughly $1.80US.  Public transportation runs from 5:30a.m. until 11:00p.m. everyday.
  4. Aruba participates in the US pre-clearance process for individuals traveling back to the states.  Feel free to review my post explaining pre-clearance for more information.
  5. When departing Aruba, you definitely want to give yourself between 3-4 hours to clear security, process through customs and immigration, and get through all of the many lines.  Global entry helps a bit, but not much.  Maybe buys you about 15 minutes.  But please make sure you err on the side of caution and arrive earlier than you normally would for any other departure.

 

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What is Pre-Clearance

Most well-traveled individuals are familiar with TSA pre-check and global entry and its benefits, but I am willing to be that not all of those individuals are familiar with pre-clearance.  TSA pre-check is a program sponsored and managed by the Transportation and Safety Administration that vetted individuals to enjoy expedited security screening at various airports in the states.  To enroll, individuals must pay a non-refundable fee of $85 and subject themselves to a background check and investigation prior to approval.  Once approved, individuals will be issued a “known traveler number” (KTN) which the traveler will add to the profile of the airline carriers participating in the pre-check program. Travelers enjoy pre-check status for five (5) years before they have to re-apply and pay the enrollment fee again.  The benefit of using this service is that you normally are not subject to lengthy security lines (except during peak travel times and when TSA pre-check is not operating during the early morning hours at some airports) and you do not have to remove your shoes, jackets, electronics, or liquids from your bags.

Global entry is similar to TSA pre-check with a few exceptions.  The major difference is that global entry is used when individuals are re-entering the states from most foreign countries.  Enrollment in the program is initiated online at which time you pay a non-refundable fee of $100 which initiates the background investigation process.  Individuals will receive conditional approval at which time they must make an appointment to visit a Global Entry Enrollment Center to be interviewed, fingerprinted, have your identification documents verified, and complete the process.  Upon approval, you can use the KTN provided to you to update your travel profile for participating carriers and enjoy the benefits for five years.  It is important to note that enrollment in global entry automatically provides you with enrollment in TSA pre-check.

So, now what is this pre-clearance program?  How is it different from the other two programs.  Well, first of all, it isn’t a program that one enrolls in; pre-clearance is actually a service provided by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  This service is not widely available like pre-check and global entry.  In fact it is only offered at roughly 15 boarder entry points internationally in the following countries.  Abu Dhabi, Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, and Ireland.  Basically, if you are departing one of the CBP pre-clearance locations, you will actually clear US customs and immigration while still on foreign soil.  How is this possible?  It is possible because the US government has entered into special agreements with the foreign countries where the pre-clearance facilities are operated.  The benefits are that you do not have to wait in long customs and immigration lines once you re-enter the US.  You can proceed directly to your connecting flight or simply go to baggage claim and get your bags and head home.  Another benefit is that any items that you purchase from duty free can be carried on board the plane after purchase, even if you are connecting to another flight when you reach the US.  The downside of pre-clearance is that you will endure approximately 4 or more check points at some locations when processing on foreign soil.  So pack your patience and make sure you arrive at the airport at least 3 hours in advance to allow ample time for processing.

If you would like more details on the various programs, please visit the following sites:

TSA Pre-check

Global Entry

Pre-clearance