Aruba is known, first and foremost, as a destination for cruise ships and tourists (mostly from the U.S.) escaping colder climates. However, there are plenty of natural features to be found beyond the casinos, cruise terminal and beachside resorts.

Unlike many of its humid, tropical Caribbean peers, Aruba has a semi-arid climate. This fact, plus the island’s location — a mere 17 miles from the coast of Venezuela — give it a unique collection of plants, animals and landscapes. An expansive national park, some of the best bird watching in the Lesser Antilles, and both artificial and natural coral reefs put Aruba surprisingly high on the list of island eco-tourism destinations.

Even some touristy places are conscious of environmental issues. A few of the island’s most popular upscale resorts have drastically improved their Earth-friendliness, with the greenest of the green asking staff and visitors to get involved with the island’s many conservation projects. Green-minded tourists who want a mainstream Aruba experience can find a balance between classic luxury and eco-friendliness.

Sleep green

One of Aruba’s classics, the Hyatt Regency, has significantly bolstered its green credentials with a handful of significant upgrades. The hotel earned a silver rating from the Green Globe Earthcheck certification program. The predictable features that all aspiring green hotels adopt are present at the Hyatt: nontoxic cleaning products, energy-efficient appliances and water conservation. But there are also a couple of unique traits. The main lobby has a state-of-the-art ventilation system that relies on natural air flow, and one of the on-site restaurants features a rooftop garden. The hotel encourages employees to participate in cleanup projects at local landmarks, even allowing them to do so during regular work hours.

The Bucuti Beach Resort is the greenest of the island’s upscale Earth-friendly sleeping spots. This was the first resort in the Americas to be labeled an ISO 14000 business (a designation for businesses with outstanding environmental management systems). It claims to have been one of the greenest resorts in the Caribbean when it first opened its doors in 1987. A testament to its success is the fact that sea turtles still sometimes nest on the resort’s beaches. The Bucuti relies heavily on locally sourced goods for its restaurants and day-to-day necessities. Solar panels heat water, and the hotel supports local conservation-oriented charities, including a sanctuary for injured donkeys. The Bucuti’s Experience Aruba Green Package gives guests a high-end hotel experience as well as tours of a nearby aloe farm and treks through Arikok National Park.

Eat green

A movement has been in place for the past few years to increase the use of locally grown produce on Aruba. However, Aruba’s climate is not conducive to widespread farming. Much of the produce available in grocery stores has been grown elsewhere and imported.

Go green

Aruba has a decent public transit system with government-owned buses connecting the largest towns and privately owned minibuses covering the rest of the island. Most fares are in the $2 range for a round trip on larger buses. Hotels can provide fare information for the minibuses and probably can arrange a pick-up.

As Aruba is a small island, walking (at least around central areas) is possible. This is especially the case in the capital city of Oranjestad. Bike and scooter rental is also possible. For those who want to enjoy the convenience of a personal vehicle without opting for a rental car, these two-wheelers are the way to go. The arid climate allows for perspiration-free travel by pedal power.

See green

Arikok National Park covers nearly one-fifth of the island. Eco-tourism is a major part of the park’s mission with several areas reserved only for guided tours (some on horseback). Trails crisscross Arikok, giving hikers access to different parts of the mostly arid landscape. Abandoned plantations and mines built by early settlers have been taken over by nature and become popular attractions for park visitors. But it is the caves and rock formations that are the most popular sites. Limestone and volcanic rocks draw the majority of the park’s camera-totting visitors. Birds and bats (which inhabit the park’s caves) are the most visible animal inhabitants. Fontein Cave, one of three major caves in the park, also features drawings made by Aruba’s early Arawak inhabitants.

Dive green

It is possible to get involved in conservation while enjoying the waters of Aruba. The Aruba Reef Care Project is an annual event that allows locals and tourists to participate in a cleanup effort that keeps the reefs, and the island’s waters as a whole, free of refuse. Many of Aruba’s reefs were created by the sinking of out-of-date ships. These manmade wrecks are popular dive sites and a compliment to the naturally occurring coral on the side of the island that is closest to South America. Diving excursions to these underwater sightseeing spots are easy to find, with over a dozen dive operators offering services to people of all experience levels.

Aruba is a mainstream tourist destination. However, its unique desertlike landscapes and coral reefs give plenty for eco-tourists to explore. Even resort-goers can find themselves enjoying a low-impact vacation, provided they choose the right resort.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

Thumbnail photo: Shoun A. Hill/AP; MNN homepage photo: sfreni/Flickr

Destination of the week: Aruba
Semi-arid climate, expansive national park, excellent bird watching and coral reefs put this island high on the list of eco-tourism destinations.