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Updated: 7th January 2021
As the golden hues of another happy day in Aruba begin to illuminate the horizon, early birds who have headed south to Aruba’s sunrise city, San Nicolas, are rewarded with a spectacular start of day show. Nestled on the east of the island, the second city has long been a spot to witness the light rise, but in recent years, the spotlight has been firmly placed on the city itself.
A city, a creative community, a carnival hotspot, a cultural hub – you’ll hear San Nicolas referred to in many different ways these days. Thanks to investment in the arts, San Nicolas is relishing a colourful and creative revival. With international and local artisanship adorning street walls and pop-up Carnival experiences extending the happy vibes beyond the annual carnival festivities, the second city of Aruba is rightly earning itself more and more visitors.
So, if you are heading here for sunrise, or even if you aren’t, then perhaps stick around a while to be rewarded by acclaimed street art, artisan goods – and maybe even some steel drums and dancing as the dusk falls.
For many years, San Nicolas wasn’t a place many tourists would come to and remained rigidly a local community. Less than a thirty-minute drive from the capital, Oranjestad, the cruise ship arrivals preferred to lounge on nearby beaches or buy trinkets from the colonial-style buildings, while longer-term visitors occupied the beaches on the north of the island.
But, as the local creative community blossomed, so did the city. Employment opportunities were created through the Cosecha Creative Centre, international collaborations and friendships were formed between street artists, and the result is a colourful destination, still very much appealing in its local, personal touch, but against a backdrop of wall murals that easily fit on an Instagram grid.
One of the artisans setting up for a creative workshop in the centre told me San Nicolas was quite simply ‘the artistic soul of Aruba’. The gentleman who cracked my coconut on an upturned oil barrel grinned as he recalled all the work they as a community had put into making San Nicolas a destination worth visiting and ‘forgetting about the beaches for a while’.
Behind the murals of smiling-faces are coffee shops with white tiles and painted ceilings, among the elaborate falling deck of cards stencilled onto another building is a Chinese restaurant, down alleys where books and motos for life are spraypainted in such details, are little souvenir shops of strictly local arts. It might be a compact city, but the creativity certainly isn’t lacking.
San Nicolas Cosecha Creative Center
I started my visit at the Cosecha Creative Center (sadly, it closed during the pandemic), which has led the way in bringing a new lease of multicoloured life to the city. Here, you can purchase local artists’ work or turn your hand to create your own.
The Cosecha Creative Center is an airy building, wide open on either side on a pointed corner plot. A light, white, blank canvas of some sort, and a place where artists collectively share the studio to produce their art and products.
Check ahead before your visit to see if any local artists are leading talks or workshops during your visit, and you might find you can turn your hand to a sit-down classor perhaps even leaving your mark on the city with a mural painting workshop.
Street Art Walks
One of the best ways to get to know the city is through a street walk with one of the tour leaders from Cosecha. Once-run down walls have been smoothed over and now proudly display work from local artists, other Caribbean contributions, and, in-fact, street art from as far afield as Portugal.
In fact, two of my favourite artists from my adopted homeland were even there during my visit, and if you spot the ‘One Happy Island’ mural to the left of the centre, a little bit of my (terrible) spray-paint work is included!
The walk takes around 90 minutes and is almost reason enough to visit Aruba. It not only shows you some of the more hidden away pieces of art but also explains the stories, history and heritage behind them and the island. It’s not just a ‘this is a carnival dancer mural made of tiles’ kind of tour, but gives you back information on carnival itself, and the who, what, where of San Nicolas and the island as a whole.
Aruba Art Fair
Launched in 2016, the Aruba Art Fair brings even more creativity to the streets of San Nicolas.
Here, you’ll have the chance to see an extended range of arts, paintings, sculptures and prints throughout the city, and now the event attracts thousands of people over the three-day run.
Expect much more than just goods to buy, though, with performances, talks, tours and workshops for all ages to enjoy, alongside the chance to support local emerging artists who are prominently promoted during the fair.
San Nicolas is also home to the newly built carnival museum, paying homage to this colourful and electric festival, which occurs early in the year.
This relatively recent addition to San Nicolas opened to the public in late 2019 and shares the history of Aruba Carnival alongside some truly fabulous and flamboyant outfits on the dressed-up mannequins.
You won’t need too long here, but after a short visit, there will be no doubt in your mind how important these celebrations are for Arubans, a great starting point on the route into San Nicolas before getting into a creative activity of your own.
Pop-up Carnival Events
If you time your visit right, steel pans will echo across the streets as jewel-studded and feather-fitted outfits dance around you in a whirlwind of colour.
If I’m honest, I think it was this bite-size sampling of the carnival celebration that really stamped San Nicolas into my heart.
Most Thursdays (check with Cosecha in advance), you can sample the flavours of the festival here in the Sunrise City, with music, a mini carnival dance, and handicrafts that bring the streets alive.
From sundown, music blares out, people spill into the streets, and as guests, you are actively invited to join in the dance parade, and trust me, regardless of how you feel you’ll look, it will be good for the soul.
In addition, sometimes outside spaces are converted into pop-up carnival-style restaurants, with local bands playing as a buffet of delicious Aruban dishes is laid out, and groups of people mingle amongst what could have looked like bland roof-free buildings in the day but become a whole other playground during the evening illuminated by a kaleidoscope of colours.
One of the best reasons to visit Aruba, and certainly San Nicolas, is during January and February when the colourful spirit of the island truly comes alive for Aruba Carnival.
The nation’s month-long celebrations culminate in an eye-popping celebration of colour, music, laughter, and dance, but the events leading up to it and throughout the month provide plenty of opportunities to join in.
With San Nicolas holding many titles – the second city, the sunrise city, the creative capital of Aruba – it’s no surprise it’s a worthy destination to spend some of the carnival celebrations at. Regardless of the time of year you visit, though, be sure to slip on down to San Nicolas, admire the passionate work of so many locals, and share in the joy of their hometown.
Inspired by a visit to Aruba? Get planning with my One Week in Aruba Travel Guide, or discover more of the most beautiful islands in the world.