Roatan. Sounds so picturesque, rolling off the tongue even with an awkward American accent. A former Banana Republic, Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, which are a part of Honduras, lying about 50 miles from the northern coast of the Honduran mainland. Trace your fingertip on a large-scale map; down the east coast of Mexico, below Cancun. Continue down the coast of Belize and, as you reach the country of Honduras, where Central America has a big “hump” or shoulder, let your finger drift out to sea, and you will run right into the Bay Islands.
Descriptions of the Bay Islands typically run something like: “… a vacation paradise, home to pristine white sandy beaches, amazing tropical jungle-covered hills, a diverse and unique reef system, heartwarming people, unique cultures and authentic Caribbean charm.” For a Caribbean getaway often referred to in this Internet age as a “best-kept secret”, the island has been known to SCUBA divers at least since the 1970s, when diving and air travel both became somewhat more affordable to a broader American public.
I first heard of Roatan in the mid-1970s. I was a neophyte diver living in my home state of Florida, listening to friends as they described the arduous and often dangerous trip to and from what was then an incredibly remote diver’s paradise. At the time I remember thinking they were nuts, spending all that money to travel somewhere when I was enjoying some pretty incredible diving right off the coast of Florida. Of course, time went by, and development in Florida, global warming, storms and pollution have since taken their toll on not only Florida’s reefs but many reefs that struggle for survival in the increasingly more-heavily traveled, trampled and developed eastern Caribbean.
My own experiences traveling throughout the Caribbean in search of stellar diving and snorkeling have been challenged in the past few years. I did find one section of the reef off the northern coast of Ambergris Caye in Belize in 2006, in the national park, that is about as pristine as possible, but that has been the exception. Still, I search for islands I can get to fairly quickly and relatively inexpensively, where I can stay in affordable, relatively comfortable and safe digs while I explore for a week. Overbuilt islands, resorts, all-inclusive anything are not my bag but I do want a place where I can eat the food (if not drink the water) without having to report to the CDC when I return to the U.S. But I digress.
In my annual vacation destination quest Roatan didn’t make my consideration list until the spring of 2007, when I was gazing at an online map of the Caribbean, trying to figure out where Robin and I were going for our 2008 vacation. I performed much the same finger trailing described above, although my search area encompassed the eastern and western Caribbean basins. I kept looking at Belize, thinking “Dare I go for a third time? Haven’t I Been There, Seen That?” Roatan somehow jumped out at me, got me thinking, and after a few hours (days, truth be told) of Googling and reading info ranging from tourist sites to Travel Advisor forums, I decided I’d found the right spot, at the right time. I say the right time because I got a very clear image of an island sinking from too much love, too many cruise ship passengers leaving tons of trash behind, and too many ex-pats spurring a building boom that has left vast, untended infrastructure problems for an island ill prepared to meet the 21st century. And that was before we learned of the lawlessness, which we didn’t become aware of until mere weeks away from packing for the trip. But I digress.
From a tourist perspective, Roatan is indeed a lovely corner of the Caribbean. During our week’s stay, Roatan shared her many faces, from the sunsets every night to views from an afternoon drive to more rural areas of the island.
Our focus was snorkeling, and here we were able to do so every day. Our favorite spot was the west end of West Bay Beach, up the sandy channel from the water taxi dock. One early morning we spotted a young Hawksbill turtle. The sun was angling down through absolutely cobalt blue water and the turtle was just hanging there, snoozing, at about 40 feet of depth. We could see the sand and the bottom of the reef at about 60 feet below us, where the light from the early morning sun was just starting to penetrate. We were floating over the top of the reef, which at that place was about 20 feet below us. The reef fell away to the sand and we could hear little pops and squeaks and crackles of fish eating and shrimps snapping– it was a busy reef.
As we followed the sand channel that paralleled the iron shore, a large Queen parrot fish spotted us and she rose about 20 feet from her grazing spot on the reef to approach me face-on, apparently hoping for a hand-out! Talk about tame fish. I waved hello and when she figured out we didn’t arrive with any Cheez-Whiz or other foodstuffs, she dropped back down to the reef and resumed munching on the coral. I determined that all that bright orange offal streaming out of the many parrotfish all around us was hardly the normal, fine sand by-product from a strictly coral diet. Something tells me that Cheez-Whiz and parrotfish innards may not mix well. Next thing “they’ll” be advertising the orange sand beaches on West Bay beach! I say leave the junk food at home.
We likely swam over a nautical mile in an hour and a half, slowly cruising up and down the shallow part of the reef offshore and then moving out to the deeper reef, which is where we spotted the sleeping turtle. I kept a sharp eye out for fish cleaning stations and, after I pointed several out to Robin, she became expert at spotting this common fishy behavior. Like many things in nature, if you take the time to be still, quiet, and observe, you’ll often be rewarded with remarkable sights.
One day we were snorkeling the reef approx. 500 yards offshore from Villa Joya when we were visited by the squid equivalent of the Blue Angels. The underwater precision maneuvers of these 7 critters was as intriguing as it was spectacular. They basically ignored us as they formed up in varying formations in mid-water, first sculling this way then quickly darting to realign on a different diagonal, followed by a languid pivot. They reminded me of when I was in marching band, carefully monitoring and correcting to hold the exact distance between myself and marchers around me as we executed intricate formations on a football field. But here, the precision took on a whole new dimension – the Third Dimension. Imagine keeping track of your position in a formation in 3-D! To make matters more interesting, the squid would sometimes individually shift translucence and/or colors, either over one or the other lateral face of their body or radiating up or down the length of their sleek form– rather like a psychedelic Circque du Soleil. We were fascinated for probably 10 minutes or more until the formation slowly moved off over the reef.
I always look for large, spotted puffer fish when we snorkel, but it wasn’t until our last day on the water that we found one. We had joined our friend Linda Kay at her home in Palmetto Bay Plantation, somewhat up-island from Villa Joya, situated in absolutely beautiful, lush foliage and right on a lengthy, untouched sandy stretch of sugar-sand beach tucked into a protected bay. Linda Kay arranged for us to join her aboard the dive shop’s boat for a mid-day quick trip just offshore to “The Wreck,” remains of a steam boiler and other ships’ parts on a shallow reef. Toward the end of a very fishy swim around the wreck and surrounding shallow reef system, we spotted a really large puffer, its broad head barely noticeable under a reef ledge in about 15 feet of water. I dove down and swam around the backside of the little coral haven where it was cringing (they are very shy and easily frightened). The fish responded to my presence by slowly poking its head out, long enough for Robin to get a really good look at it from her surface position. We then backed away so as not to scare the poor thing. They always look so downcast and plum terrified, with those big, brown cow eyes and wide, slightly down-turned mouth.
Another day we joined friends Pat and his wife Carol, whom we’d met on a Travel Advisor Roatan forum, for a day-sail aboard a 39-foot catamaran. It was a breezy day to sail up-island, and the 6-foot seas made for fun trampoline riding for Robin. The bow horsed through the waves, drenching Robin each time the bow dropped into the oncoming waves while she clung to the tramp ropes and grinned like a fool. After a couple of hours of riding the wind, we arrived at a snorkel stop, where I watched the depth-finder rise from over 100 feet to less than 15 in less than 3 boat lengths– time to drop that anchor! The wave heights were running 3 feet or more in the lee of the reef but we still enjoyed floating along, looking off into the void where the reef dropped away to the sand. I dove down 20 feet or more to check out a large crab that I had spotted from the surface as it slowly crept out from under the reef. The crab’s body was as large as a serving platter. As soon as the crab spotted me, it slowly pulled back into its gloomy hole.
Beyond snorkeling, our accommodations, carefully researched and selected, was the 2 bedroom, 2 bath Villa Joya, located on the beach at “Bayside”, a small community of 6 condos on the east end of West Bay Beach, just east of Las Rocas dive resort and busy bar.
This was a very quiet location, perfect for us. The shared pool provided us with a refreshing setting one starlit night when a meteorite streaked down the sky right in front of us, sizzling green and blue and yellow, before fizzling out within 20 feet of the sea. Other highlights include walking to the condo from a beachfront restaurant after dinner on West Bay Beach under a full moon, the warm breezes on our skin, the water gently lapping at our bare feet. And of course snorkeling every day.
Adventures included rental car SNAFUs in which “The Little Car That Could” (dubbed by Robin) had 2 flats, one of which was the morning we were to catch the catamaran for a day-sail. Pat-from-Canada changed the tire lickity-split while we girls stood around sipping early morning coffees. Turned out the spare went flat overnight, and after waiting 3 hours for the rental car folks to go back and forth from the town center of Coxen Hole to get proper tires and tools, we headed out for what was originally scheduled to be a day-long tour of the island. We were approximately 15 minutes into our drive, headed to Coxen Hole, when the car let out a big BANG. I managed to steer it over to the side of the road in Flowers Bay, before the car arrived at its final resting place.
Robin, ever the optimist, had the cell phone ready and, in a flash, connected with the rental car agency. They didn’t seem surprised to learn we had been stranded by LCTC. After another 45 minutes of standing in the shade, enjoying the breeze off the ocean while providing idle amusement for locals killing time at a tiny veggie stand perched on rickety stilts over the iron shore, we greeted the rental car guy as he showed up in a new car. We didn’t wait around for him to tinker with poor, dead Little Car That Could. I signed the paperwork and we were off, headed up-island.
Highlights of our afternoon drive through the countryside were the vistas of wind-swept, grassy hills and the stop for a bite at The View restaurant atop one of the highest ridges of a once-active volcanic island. We made it as far east as Oak Ridge, a scenic fishing village built on stilts out over the protected bay waters. All too soon, it was time to head down island, (West) to arrive back at Villa Joya in time for a dip in the pool, a sunset libation next door at Las Rocas and a pleasant stroll down the beach to another dinner spot in West Bay Beach.
The beachfront towns of West Bay Beach and West End, while similarly named, couldn’t be more different. By water taxi, they are separated less than 10 minutes. Driving the precipitously steep, twisting roads between them is a mere 20-minute trek, even in the dark. However, the character of the settings, and the common denizens, are in my mind quite dissimilar. I would describe West End as a funky village, more hippy enclave than beachside, Third World Caribbean resort-ish. West End is dressed for, and welcomes, the hard-core, younger, serious drinking, and SCUBA set.
The narrow, sand “street” running along the beach is squeezed in between rough-hewn buildings on either side, the road a stitched-together, potholed ride for anyone daring enough to creep along its jaw-grinding potholes. We soon learned to park up at the “top” of the town, near the little roundabout, in the shade, and walk the hot, dusty street to restaurants and hot, dusty shops. Did I mention it was dusty?
Restaurants abound in West End, and the two we tried on separate occasions were each perched over Half Moon Bay, where we could catch the few fitful breezes available at that time of year. Our island friends Linda Kay and Scott introduced us to one of their favorite restaurants on the bay, Mavis and Dixie’s, run by a mom and sister act that featured excellent food, attentive service, good prices and a view of the scattered night lights reflecting on the calm waters around the town dock.
In contrast, West Bay Beach is more touristy, up-scale, noisy, with bars and restaurants and condos beginning to crowd each other well above the high-water mark. The beach itself is lengthy and gently curving, with iron shore at either end, with narrow sand paths demarking the safer places to walk bare-footed. Our plans had led us to select digs well away from the noise and activity of this popular beach. As it was, we were easily within walking distance of world-class snorkeling, excellent restaurants and even our favorite coffee shop located in a small strip center with a small deli that featured good breakfasts and a nice selection of food stuffs and drinks. Plus, Linda Kay and Scott’s condo was located on West Bay beach, so we were able to visit with them and enjoy the ambiance of the resort they called home.
Here, I will digress briefly to explain how we came to know Linda Kay (LK) and Scott. As property manager for Villa Joya, LK was our point person for all things Roatan, and as the months of vacation planning unfolded, we became friends via email and postings on the Trip Advisor Roatan forum. By the time we met LK in person I felt like we’d known each other for years. She and Scott were a delight to hang with, and their sense of dry humor played well, as they shared their knowledge and insight to Honduras and the experience of living as an ex-pat in a not-so-paradisiacal island paradise—one which Scott referred to as rather like a beautiful daughter who has been prostituted by her parents.
LK and Scott’s assessment is based on having spent six years living on the island, and can be somewhat summed up by snippets cut from the virtual front pages of the island’s police report: “Roatan has tourist police specifically to watch for the safety of tourists. Areas with high foot traffic of tourists tend to be safe, even at after dark. Coxen Hole is not safe for foot traffic after dark. In spite of stepped up police presence, most of the police force is on foot. Violent crime and robberies have been increasing. Theft is common on the island, especially with the drug problems that persist. Remote homes have been the sites of home invasions, with armed intruders tying victims and robbing the homes. Vehicles have been stopped at night occasionally in remote areas with road blocks for robberies. Taxi drivers have been killed occasionally. Guards were reportedly killed at Anthoney’s Key resort, April 2008. April 15, 2008: Three security personnel were reportedly killed in Coxen Hole during a bank money transport robbery.”
Tourists are warned: “Some Honduran police have beaten people severely. These incidents usually involve natives that argue with the police. Do not ever offer a police officer a bribe.” And this insightful tidbit: “Highway robbers may obstruct the roadway with a vehicle or a log. If they stop you, give them your money without hesitation. They may kill you if you resist a robbery.”
Scott and LK filled us in on other incidents, accidents, and the never-ending issues with lack of clean water, sewage and garbage disposal, and electrical problems. Not that we didn’t experience sewer smells from the shower taps or electricity shutdowns, sometimes for hours at a time. One does expect some inconveniences when traveling to a country emerging from Third World status. However, the more knowledgeable, and the more observant, we became, the more cautious we grew as we drove around the island, or walked the beaches after dark. I wasn’t sure if I was heartened or frightened by spotting the guards lurking in the darkness along beach property boundaries, riot guns slung over their shoulders. By the time we’d heard the stories and lamented over the conditions, we were more inclined to spend evenings in our little condo. Which was fine, as we were tuckered out by snorkeling all day anyway. But it’s one thing to stay indoors because you’re tired and want to go to bed early, and quite another to remain indoors to feel secure. I have to admit that in all my Caribbean treks, I have never before felt like I had a target on my back. Well, maybe in Santo Domingo, when I was there in the early 80s.
Ultimately, we enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed spending time with newfound friends, enjoyed seeing the beauty of the island and, to some extent, enjoyed the craziness of just learning how to get around in a very different culture. I believe that Roatan’s fate is much the same as many “discovered” Caribbean destinations, so I’m glad we chose to go now, before the new multi-million dollar cruise ship terminal is completed, before more homes and resorts crowd each other along the beautiful island beaches and bays, before the landfills become full and incinerators spew particulate matter into the wind and before the fragile reefs positioned so close to shore around this island jewel become bleached-out, damaged and barren of the shoals of fish that now swim in a virtually Cheez-Whiz free Caribbean ocean realm.