Aruba’s aloe history
HATO, Aruba — Aruba’s tourism tagline is “one happy island,” for its pleasant weather, leaning divi trees, beaches and resorts.
It also is known for the aloe vera plant, which for a while in the 19th century made Aruba the world’s go-to exporter for the key ingredient in laxatives.
The “A” in the ABC of Caribbean islands — Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao — is eight miles at its longest stretch and is about 250 miles northwest of Caracus, Venezuela. Low rainfall and an average daytime temperature of 82 degrees make the Dutch island a haven for tourists and a perfect spot for growing the aloe vera plant.
Aloe vera was introduced to Aruba's friendly environment in 1840 and harvested primarily for the yellow sap that was used as a laxative. There was a time when aloe vera was so in demand as a laxative that two-thirds of Aruba was covered with the plant.
This information comes from a visit to the site of the first aloe vera plants on Aruba, a 150-acre plantation in Hato, near the island’s northeast coast, between Eagle and Divi beaches. Today, it is the site of the Aruba Aloe Museum, Factory and Store, a sand-colored building resembling a strip mall beside a field lined with the spiky green plants.
A short film explains that when cheaper synthetic laxatives were discovered, the aloe vera industry
dried up on the island, with the exception of the largest company, Aruba Aloe, which was founded in 1890 by Cornelius Eman.
It has been reported that the gel inside the leaves of the plant — the part that was being tossed in favor of the sap — was used as far back as ancient Egypt for medicinal purposes, and the local population of Aruba also talked of its benefits as a moisturizer or for use on burns. Jani Eman, the founder’s grandson, took over Aruba Aloe and worked with technical director Koos Veel to repurpose the company.
In the 1960s, a plant was built to process the gel. “You have to imagine, back then nobody in the world knew about aloe as a cosmetic product, yet he was far ahead of his time, putting it in lotions and creams,” Dr. Veel said in an interview on the Aruba Aloe website.
In 1980, the Eckerd Pharmacy chain in Florida began importing Aruba Aloe products, and the company now makes 100 skin- and haircare products.
Outside the museum/factory, on the edge of the field, visitors surrounded a guide who demonstrated how the plant is “filleted” to get at the gooey gel inside the serrated green claws.
The factory is approached through the museum — no inside photographs allowed. You go upstairs and view through windows the whiteclad workers, giant silver tubs and apparently pristine rooms of the processing plant. The museum building houses aloe tools and equipment, newspaper articles and a library on the history, manufacture and qualities of aloe vera.
Entrance is free, and, of course, there is a store packed with Aruba Aloe items, where a busload of visitors and a couple of stragglers grabbed up products with names such as After Sun and Dream Soap, and product lines called Desert Bloom and Island Remedy.
After Sun seemed particularly popular on another sunny Aruba day.
Tours of the Aruba Aloe Museum, Factory and Store are held in English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento (Aruba’s native language) every 15 minutes; hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 9 to 5 on Saturdays. An 11-minute audiovisual presentation is available. More at https://www.arubaaloe.com/pages/tour.