Moon Honduras & the Bay Islands (Moon Handbooks) - Amy E. Robertson (2012)
THE BAY ISLANDS
The white powdery sand, transparent waters, and abundant sea life of these emerald islands and their coral cays form Honduras’s most popular attraction. As one of the world’s cheapest places for scuba certification, the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahía) are a paradise for novice and experienced divers alike, while snorkelers can simply wade out a few feet to immerse themselves in the rich undersea world boasting hundreds of multihued species of fish and coral.
For novice scuba divers, finding a more convenient place to get an Open Water certification or advanced training would be difficult. Eager instructors by the dozen are just waiting around for their next client, ready to take potential divers through the paces in calm, clear, 28°C (82°F) waters, all at remarkably low prices.
Diving and snorkeling may be the activities of choice for many Bay Islands visitors, but life above the waves has its own appeal. The islands have a tangled history of pirate raids, immigration, deportation, and conquest, including more than 200 years of British ownership of Roatan, Utila, and Guanaja. English is the first language of most native islanders—some settlers from the British Cayman Islands, others Black Caribs that claim runaway slaves as ancestors—although recent influxes of mainlanders (“the Spanish,” as the islanders like to say) have spread the use of the Spanish language. Resident expatriates have opened restaurants that span global cuisine, but seafood is naturally the traditional culinary choice, and grilled lobster dinners can be found for as little as US$12.
LOOK FOR TO FIND RECOMMENDED SIGHTS, ACTIVITIES, DINING, AND LODGING.
Diving Roatan’s Reef: Diving around all three Bay Islands is spectacular, and there are 100 dive sites surrounding Roatan alone, including walls and channels, sunken shipwrecks, and caverns. Hawksbill turtles, moray eels, spotted eagle rays, and yellowtail damselfish are just a few of the species easily spotted among the colorful coral gardens (see here).
Fishing and Island Tours: The waters off Roatan, with shallow, sandy waters on the south side and a 3,000-meter-deep channel on the north, are perfectly situated for fishing excursions in pursuit of marlin, wahoo, tarpon, barracuda, kingfish, and more. If you’d rather just enjoy the ocean breezes, explore Roatan from the water, and maybe watch the sunset from a boat, rum cocktail in hand, there are plenty of expert boaters who can arrange that as well (see here).
West Bay: Roatan’s West Bay is a vision of Caribbean bliss, a powdery ribbon of white sand in front of sparkling clear turquoise water with coral reef just steps offshore (see here).
Utila’s Nightlife: Those after the international traveler party life will not want to miss a few days frequenting the many bars making up the nightlife on Utila (see here).
Guanaja’s North-Side Beaches: These rarely visited beaches, like Dina Beach and West End, are home to nothing but kilometers of sand and palm trees, where you can camp or stay in one of the low-key and reasonably priced hotels (see here).
Chachahuate: Long popular as a day trip from either Roatan or the mainland’s north coast, newly developed cabin rentals and even a small hotel now make the Garífuna village of Chachahuate in the Cayos Cochinos a fantastic place to spend a few days snorkeling and sunning, at a fraction of the cost of the other Bay Islands (see here).
High season for Bay Islands tourism is most of the year apart from the September-November hurricane season. Vacation times in Central America, such as Christmas and Easter week, as well as the first two weeks in August, can be very hard times to find lodging, especially on Roatan, and many establishments take advantage to jack up their prices. Mid-January to mid-February is a great time to come to the islands, as tourists are fewer. September is the best month to take advantage of low-season prices, as it tends to be less rainy than October and November.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
You can never have too much time on the islands, a fact the many expatriates living there will cheerfully confirm. But most of us are on a tighter schedule. If you have only a few days or a week on the Bay Islands, you’ll probably end up choosing between the three big islands—or one of the smaller cays. Which island to visit is really a question of personal taste. All are surrounded by coral reef. Roatan is by far the most popular, with plenty of great beaches and towns, services like hotels, restaurants, and dive shops, and places to explore to keep divers and non-divers alike happy for a week or more. Utila is smaller, with only one town and a couple of beaches, and is generally more popular with those focused on diving and the low-budget international traveler crowd. Non-divers will likely only want to spend a couple of days here. Guanaja is much less frequently visited than the other two, but it has equally good reef, a few hotels and high-end dive resorts, and many deserted beaches to wander. Divers may want to stay a week, but non-divers again will likely feel content with a few days for R&R. In addition to the three large islands, there are also many cays, or small islands, that travelers can choose for a unique vacation, from renting an entire island off Utila to staying in the archipelago of the Cayos Cochinos, in either a full-service hotel or a tiny Garífuna village.
Those planning on doing some serious diving or taking a four-day scuba certification course should plan on five days or a week, with all the amazing diving on offer. A week or more would allow for trips out to more far-flung dive sites, which are often in the best condition. Dive courses (which may include budget accommodations) typically range from US$280-400, while many of the dive resorts on the islands specialize in weeklong dive, room, and meal packages, which can go for as little as US$600 or as much as US$2,000 per person, depending on the hotel and its amenities.
Roatan has daily flights to the mainland, and is the only island with international flights (from Atlanta with Delta, from Houston with United/Continental, and from El Salvador; charter flights also arrive from Canada and Italy). Guanaja has service Monday-Saturday, and Utila has service four times per week. Utila and Roatan also have daily ferries to and from La Ceiba, and ferry service from Trujillo to Guanaja is available three times a week. There are a few charter air and boat services as well. Both air and ferry service can be suspended in the event of bad weather (October and November are the rainiest months, although there can still be frequent rain in December and early January). Boats to any of the cays need to be arranged privately.
To get from an arrival in Roatan, San Pedro Sula, or La Ceiba directly to Utila or Guanaja, Island Air (tel. 504/9558-8683, U.S. tel. 901/490-2624, www.guanajaair.com) offers charter service in a twin engine, 10-seat, regional commercial commuter. On Saturday, seats can be individually booked (although contingent on a minimum of passengers); Roatan-Utila for US$112, and Roatan-Guanaja for US$195. Their website has a list of the charter prices for other routes and days. If you’re considering one of their charters, call or email before booking your international flight to possibly reduce your total flight costs. Charter flights are available with Sosa and CM Airlines as well.
The Bay Islands, arrayed in an arc between 29 and 56 kilometers off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, are the above-water expression of the Bonacca Ridge, an extension of the mainland Sierra de Omoa mountain range that disappears into the ocean near Puerto Cortés. The Bonacca Ridge forms the edge of the Honduran continental shelf in the Caribbean. Thus, on the northern, ocean-facing side of the three main islands, shallow waters extend only just beyond the shore before disappearing over sheer underwater cliffs to the deep waters, while on the south side the waters fronting the Honduran mainland are much shallower. The height of the islands generally increases west to east, from the lowland swamps of Utila to the modest mid-island ridges of Roatan to two noteworthy peaks on Guanaja, the highest being 412 meters.
Flora and Fauna
Ecological zones in the Bay Islands include pine and oak savannah, arid tropical forest, beach vegetation, mangrove swamp, and iron shore (fossilized, uplifted coral). Much of the once-dense native pine and oak forests has not survived centuries of sailors seeking masts, immigrants looking for building material, and hunters setting fires to scare game. The only forests left are on the privately owned island of Barbareta and in a few remote sections of Roatan, like by Brick Bay or around Port Royal. What was left of the famed forests of Guanaja was utterly flattened by Hurricane Mitch’s 290-kph winds, although the island’s vegetation has finally begun to recover.
Many of the once-abundant animal species endemic to the Bay Islands have been hunted to extinction or to the brink of it: Manatees, seals, fresh- and saltwater turtles, white-tailed deer, green iguanas, basilisk lizards, boa constrictors, yellow-crowned and red-lored Amazon parrots, frigate birds, brown pelicans, and roseate terns have all vanished or are now seen only rarely. Crocodiles were once frequently seen crossing streets in Utila, but now those that are left stay hidden in the swamps, along with the now-endangered Swamper iguana.
In spite of the depredations of hunters, 15 species of lizard still survive on the islands, along with 13 species of snake (including the poisonous but rarely seen coral), wild pigs, the small rat-like agouti, 2 species of opossum, and 13 species of bat. More than 120 bird species, most of which are migratory, have been spotted on the islands. Once at least 27 species of macaws, parrots, and parakeets lived on the islands; now the only macaws found are pets, and only about half the parrot species still survive in the wild.
The Roatan Marine Park (tel. 504/2445-4206, www.roatanmarinepark.com) is a grassroots effort (primarily supported by local businesspeople) to protect the waters and reef around Roatan. They work in conjunction with the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA, www.bicautila.org) based on Utila, which coordinates efforts to protect different endangered species as well as Utila’s reef. Both organizations have also been active distributing environmentally friendly bug spray and raising environmental awareness. In Roatan, dive shops collect a US$10 fee (payable once per year) from divers that is given to the Roatan Marine Park to support their environmental protection efforts.
The Bay Islands have a superbly comfortable climate, with year-round air temperatures ranging 25-29°C (77-84°F) and east-southeast trade winds blowing steadily most of the year. Temperatures average 27°C (81°F) in the daytime, 21°C (70°F) at night—hot but not stifling during the day, and pleasant for sleeping at night.
Annual rainfall averages 220 centimeters, more than half of this coming in October and November, the height of the hurricane season. Water visibility is best when there is the least rain, usually March-September. Water temperature ranges from 26°C (79°F) midwinter to 30°C (86°F) in summer. The rains usually start in summer, often in June, and continue until December or January. February and March are usually the driest months. However, weather patterns vary widely from year to year, and rain can hit at any time.
COPING WITH THE INSECTS
Sand flies and mosquitoes can be voracious on the Bay Islands, so come prepared. Sand flies (also called jejenes and “no-see-ums”) can be a nightmare on the beach, turning the arms and legs of an unsuspecting sunbather into pincushions of little red welts. DEET works great, but kills the coral, so be sure to rinse off thoroughly before heading into the water. A better alternative is a DEET-free repellent. TIKI Gift Shop and the Roatan Marine Park office, both in West End, are two of the many hotels and gift shops in the Bay Islands selling DEET-free alternatives. If you are state-side, DEET-free repellents (and coral-friendly sunscreens) can be ordered online at www.reefsafesuncare.com. Avon Skin-So-Soft and a thick layer of baby oil are also good repellents, as, of course, are long, loose-fitting clothes. A good stiff breeze will get rid of the sand flies entirely, so with luck, the trade winds will be blowing during your trip. Some beaches, including Roatan’s famed West Bay beach, are sprayed with eco-friendly insecticides, which has been highly effective in eliminating the problem.
In spite of almost 50 identified archaeological sites, little is known of the early inhabitants of the Bay Islands. Most archaeologists now agree, after years of dispute, that pre-Columbian islanders were related to the mainland Pech, who, prior to conquest, lived close to the coast near Trujillo. These island Amerindians are sometimes referred to as “Paya,” but that is a term that has been rejected by the Pech, as it was a demeaning word used by the Spanish conquerors to mean wild or savage.
The first full-time residents are thought to have arrived no earlier than A.D. 600. After A.D. 1000, several major residential areas sprang up, such as Plan Grande in eastern Guanaja and the “80-Acre” site in eastern Utila. Because all the sites are located inland 10-20 meters above sea level, one theory has it that the first islanders hated sand flies even more than the current residents and fled the shoreline to escape the pests.
The island Pech grew manioc (cassava) and corn, hunted for deer and other game, fished from dugout canoes for reef fish and shark, and carried on a lively trade with the mainland Maya and Pech, as evidenced by discoveries of obsidian, flint, and ceramics with mainland designs.
Most pre-Columbian sites have long since been thoroughly sacked by fortune hunters both foreign and local. The best place to see examples of pottery and jade artifacts is in the museum at Anthony’s Key Resort in Sandy Bay, Roatan, once called “yaba-ding-dings.”
Conquest and Colonization
Believed to be the first European to visit the Bay Islands, Columbus landed near Soldado Beach on Guanaja in late July 1502 on his fourth voyage. After anchoring and sending his brother Bartholomew ashore for a look around, the admiral named the island “Isla de los Pinos” (Island of the Pines) in honor of the impressive forests. He then commandeered a passing merchant canoe laden with goods from the mainland and forced its owner to accompany him to the Mosquitia coast to serve as an interpreter. He remarked in his journal on a “very robust people who adore idols and live mostly from a certain white grain with which they make fine bread and the most perfect beer.”
When the Spaniards returned on a slaving expedition in 1516, they made off with 300 Indians after a brief skirmish, only to have the would-be slaves take over the ship near Cuba and promptly set sail back to their home. But other ships looking for slaves soon followed, and not long after that, in 1530, the first encomienda was awarded on the Bay Islands. Encomiendas granted a conquistador rights to demand labor and tribute from the local inhabitants, theoretically in return for good governance and religious education.
This new economy had barely been established when European freebooters began appearing on the horizon, drooling at the thought of all the gold mined in the interior of Honduras passing through relatively isolated and unprotected Trujillo. French raiding boats appeared in 1536, followed by the English, who used the Bay Islands as a hideout for the first confirmed time in 1564, after capturing four Spanish frigates.
By the early 17th century, the persistent use of the Bay Islands as a base for pirate assaults and, briefly, as a settlement area for the British Providence Company had become a serious threat to the Spanish, so colonial authorities decided to depopulate the islands. By 1650 all the native islanders had been removed, most with the sorry fate of ending up in the malarial lowlands on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. The now-uninhabited islands were even more appealing to the pirates, who pursued their ventures unabated.
The many pirates who found shelter on the islands before the British military occupation in 1742—including Henry Morgan, John Coxen, John Morris, Edward Mansfield, and a host of others—spent most of their time hunting, fishing, or fixing up their boats, never bothering to set up any buildings beyond temporary camps. Smaller groups preferred to anchor in the bay on the south side of Guanaja, with at least seven escape routes through the cays and reef, while larger fleets stayed at Port Royal, Roatan, with just one narrow, easily defensible entrance.
Following the declaration of war between England and Spain in 1739, British troops occupied Port Royal for several years, building two small forts and granting homesteads in Port Royal and Sandy Bay. The Spanish were awarded the islands as part of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, and the last settlers were finally removed in 1751. The British returned in 1779 following another outbreak of war. In 1782 Spaniards attacked Port Royal with 12 ships and took the forts after two days of fierce fighting. The forts and surrounding town were destroyed, and Roatan was left uninhabited.
Development of the Modern Bay Islands
The earliest immigrant settlement in the Bay Islands that has survived to the present day is the Garífuna village at Punta Gorda, Roatan. Some 4,000 Garífuna were unceremoniously dumped on the deserted island on April 12, 1797, by the British near Port Royal. Most of the Garífuna moved on to the mainland shortly thereafter, settling first at Trujillo and then elsewhere up and down the coast, but one group decided they liked the looks of Roatan and settled at Punta Gorda.
The Garífuna were followed in the 1830s by a wave of immigrants, both white and black, leaving the Cayman Islands in the wake of the abolition of slavery there. Although some isolated settlers lived on the islands when the Cayman Islanders arrived, the newcomers laid the foundations for the present-day towns. They moved first to Suc-Suc (Pigeon) Cay off Utila in 1831, and shortly thereafter to Coxen Hole, Flowers Bay, and West End in Roatan and Sheen and Hog Cays off Guanaja, which would eventually become Bonacca Town.
The British government, seeing the Bay Islands as a useful geopolitical tool in its struggle with the United States for control over Central America, initially claimed ownership of the islands. In 1859, the British were forced to recognize Honduran sovereignty over the Bay Islands, but many islanders continued to think they were part of the British empire until the early 20th century, when the Honduran government first began asserting its authority over the islands.
The economy of the Bay Islands has long relied almost entirely on the ocean, despite brief forays into the banana and pineapple exportation business in the late 19th century. Fishing has always been and continues to be the mainstay of the economy, with a fleet of some 400 commercial boats on all three islands, fishing mainly for shrimp, lobster, and conch. Overfishing has led to bans (vedas) during certain months of the year, but few inspectors means little control. Lobster season is closed by law March-June; tourists can help by ordering shrimp, calamari, wahoo, or any of the many other seafood dishes on offer during those months. A modest boat-building industry, based particularly in Oak Ridge, has declined in recent years. Islander men frequently join on with the merchant marine or work on international cruise ships for several months of the year.
This low-key existence began to change starting in the late 1960s, when tourists discovered the islands’ reefs, beaches, and funky culture. Since the late 1980s, the pace has picked up dramatically. In 1990, an estimated 15,000 tourists came to the islands; by 1996 it was 60,000. The accelerating development of Bay Islands tourism took a blow from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the ensuing bad publicity. But as memories of the hurricane have long-since faded, tourists are returning to the islands in skyrocketing numbers, and further growth and development is underway. The cruise-ship trade has boomed in recent years, with the opening of a second ship terminal in 2009. Depending on the season, anywhere from one to twelve ships a week dock at Roatan, unloading some 700,000 cruise-shippers in 2011.
The changes wrought by tourism have benefited many islanders immensely, and most now live off the trade in one way or another. Even before the tourist boom, islanders had always maintained a better standard of living than their mainland countrymen. Consequently, a steadily growing number of Latino immigrants have come over to get a piece of the good life, and foreigners (particularly Canadians and Americans) continue to come to run a business or to retire—trends some islanders are not too happy about. The last census put the population of all three islands at about 49,000.
Upon arrival in the Bay Islands, divers can be overwhelmed by the number of dive shops and courses. Here’s some basic information to get you started, whether you’re a first-time diver in need of certification or an old hand looking for the right shop.
First, try to realistically decide if you are ready to go diving. Bay Islands dive instructors have stories of would-be students who, believe it or not, could barely swim or were actually scared of the water. Although it’s relatively cheap and other people seem to like it, if you just can’t get rid of that lurking panic after a couple of shallow dives, accept the fact that diving is not for you. One of the best ways to find out how you will react to scuba diving is to try snorkeling a few times to see how you feel in the underwater world. Some people find they prefer the more relaxed shallow-water experience of snorkeling, which does not require all the gear, training, and expense of scuba diving. Many shops also offer a Discover Scuba Diving one-day course for around US$100, which allows you to try it out before investing in a certification course. It involves a half day of instruction followed by a shallow, controlled dive.
Most divers getting certified in the Bay Islands follow a course created by the Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI), the best-known scuba certification organization. Almost all dive shops on the islands work with PADI, but a couple of shops have other certifications instead or as well, such as Scuba Schools International (SSI) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). While PADI is by far the most popular, all three organizations have good reputations, and almost all scuba shops around the world accept certifications from any of them.
COURSE AND DIVE PRICES
Below are the standard course and dive prices, but naturally they are subject to change. While Utila used to be significantly less expensive than Roatan, that’s no longer such a big factor, especially for dive courses. When budgeting, remember that many courses on both islands include hostel-style accommodations if desired, and that the required accompanying dive manual can run US$35 and up, depending on the course, and may or may not be included in the price quoted to you (for Dive Master internships, check if the US$70 PADI fee is included). Prices at fancier resorts on any of the islands can be a little to a lot higher.
· Open Water: US$280-325 (Roatan), US$270-300 (Utila)
· Advanced Open Water: US$280-300 (Roatan), US$270 (Utila)
· Rescue: US$330 (Roatan), US$270 (Utila)
· Dive Master: US$700-770 (Roatan), US$750-800 (Utila)
· Fun Dive: US$35 for one (Roatan), US$55-65 for two (Utila)
· Ten-Dive Package: US$250-300 (Roatan), US$265-350 (Utila)
Check carefully when choosing a dive shop to make sure that you know what you’re getting for your money.
Novices ready to take the plunge into the world of scuba begin with an Open Water certification course. The Open Water certifications typically take 3.5-4 days, starting with half a day of videos, then a couple of days combining classroom work, shallow-water dives, and open-water dives. The last day is two open-water dives. You are then allowed to dive without an instructor—but never without another diver, invariably a dive master. It’s standard practice in the Bay Islands for all divers to go out with a dive master or instructor, as guides and to ensure the protection of the reef.
Dive shops will sometimes take referrals, wherein a person completes the academic and shallow-water training at home and finishes the open-water dives with the shop. Considering that the shallow-water training could be accomplished for less money in balmy, clear Caribbean waters instead of the local YMCA pool, there’s not much attraction in using a referral unless your time on the islands is extremely limited. A new and good option is the possibility to complete the theoretical part of certification online (www.padi.com), and arrive ready to hit the water for completion of your course.
Many newly certified divers come out of their Open Water course feeling slightly uneasy about the idea of diving without that reassuring veteran instructor at their shoulder; they may want to immediately continue their controlled training with the Advanced Open Water course. The advanced course offers five different advanced dive options, with two required: instruction in undersea navigation and multilevel diving—essential for planning your own dives—and a deep dive (to 30 meters). Other dive choices include multilevel, night, wrecks, naturalist, photography, search and recover, and peak performance buoyancy. Some shops will combine two of these in one dive (for example, photography and naturalist).
Recreational divers are allowed to descend to a maximum depth of 30 meters. Going deeper puts divers in serious danger of both nitrogen narcosis and severe decompression problems when ascending. With a different mix of gases in the air tanks, however, it is possible with training to descend deeper and stay down longer than with a regular air tank. Nitrox, a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, allows divers to (depending on the mix) extend their time at depth by 20 or 30 minutes, or minimize the surface interval and allow more dives in a single day. As well, divers seem to be slightly less tired at the end of the day. Nitrox is very popular with live-aboard dive boats, which try to squeeze in as many dives as possible in a week, and can be a nice option for older people as it lessens the effects of nitrogen (which can make just about anyone sleepy after a three-dive day). Nitrox diving requires certification and special equipment, which not every dive shop has. Extreme depth freaks will be pleased to hear that another, even more specialized gas mix known as Trimix (Nitrox plus helium) allows divers to go as deep as 150 meters, a truly spooky deep-sea world.
Nitrox has become pretty widely available, but Trimix is less common, and easier to find on Utila. The Bay Islands College of Diving and Utila Dive Centre offer full tech courses, Trimix, and rebreathers. Coconut Tree Divers and Ocean Connections in West End offer Trimix.
CHOOSING A SHOP
So, you’ve decided you’re ready to take a course or go on a series of dives. How to choose between all the different dive shops? Both Utila and Roatan have set minimum prices among nearly all their shops to avoid price wars—that price is currently at US$260 for an Open Water course in Utila and US$280 for an Open Water course in West End, Roatan. Those charging the least often do not include course materials and other fees (Utila has a US$4 daily reef tax, and Roatan a once-annually US$10 Marine Park fee), so check carefully to make sure you know what you’re getting and what any additional charges might be. Dive shops do get together throughout the year, though, to change prices based on the cost of fuel and the level of activity on the islands, so prices fluctuate. Guanaja has fewer dive shops, and they are more expensive. The Cayos Cochinos boasts two dive shops now as well: Pirate Islands Divers, taking folks from La Ceiba out to stay in rustic accommodations on the Cayos at bargain rates, and Plantation Beach Resort, a much pricier outfit.
Perhaps the most important criteria for choosing a shop, especially for novice divers taking their first course, is the quality of the instructors. A good instructor can mean the difference between a fun, safe, and informative course, and one that just follows the book—or worse. Certified divers will also want to ensure their dive leader is competent, as they will be, in part, relying on that person’s judgment and safety skills. Ask how many dives a dive master has completed—100 is very few; 500 is a decent amount; 1,000 or more is a lot. Also, a dive master with 100 or so dives is likely to have gone through all or most of his or her courses on the Bay Islands, where conditions are excellent much of the time. Consequently, that dive master will have less experience dealing with emergency situations than a diver trained in, for instance, the North Sea or the northern Pacific off California. At the same time, experience on Bay Islands reefs is essential to understanding local conditions. If you can find an instructor who has worked on the islands for several years but also has experience in other parts of the world, that’s best of all. Dive masters trained in commercial diving, mixed-gas diving, cave diving, or military diving can be very good because of their experience, but they are also sometimes extremely cavalier with safety precautions. Shops that are also IDCs, or Instructor Dive Centers, are qualified to teach others to become teachers, and consequently tend to have highly experienced instructors themselves.
After talking to the dive masters, look closely at the gear you would be using. The newer, the better. Especially crucial is having a well-maintained air compressor to ensure clean air in your tank. Cast an eye over the hoses, regulator, and BCD air vest, which should all look new and be without signs of wear and tear. Most shops should and do replace their gear on a regular basis. Ensure fins and mask fit snugly and comfortably—this may seem like a trivial detail in the dive shop, but a tight fin or a leaky mask can be very distracting in the water and ruin a dive if annoying enough.
THE BAY ISLANDS REEF SYSTEM
Coral reefs are one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, comparable in diversity to tropical rainforests. The Bay Islands reef is particularly varied because of its location on the edge of the continental shelf, at the transition between shallow-water and deep-water habitats. Some 96 percent of all species of marine life known to inhabit the Caribbean — from tiny specks of glowing bioluminescence to the whale shark, the largest fish in the world — have been identified in the waters surrounding the Bay Islands. Divers and snorkelers flock here in droves to experience a dizzying assortment of fishes, sponges, anemones, worms, shellfish, rays, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, and hard and soft corals.
It’s often claimed that the Bay Islands reef and the Belize reef system to the north together make up the second-longest reef in the world — after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Technically, the Bay Islands reef is distinct from the Belize reef — not only does a 3,000-meter-deep undersea trench separate the two, but they are different kinds of reef. The Belize system is a barrier reef, with the coral wall separated from shore by a lagoon at least a mile wide, while the Bay Islands system is a fringing reef, essentially beginning right from the shore. Sections of the north-side reef on the Bay Islands show characteristics of developing into a barrier reef in time but are still considered fringing reef.
Reef geography is generally the same on all three of the main islands. The north-side reef forms almost a complete wall, with only a few narrow passages allowing access to the shallow lagoon between the reef and the shore. The Guanaja north-side reef is much farther offshore (about a mile, or 1.5 kilometers, in places) than on Utila and Roatan. From the reef crest, which sometimes almost breaks the surface, the reef slopes to a plateau at around 10 meters, then falls off the wall. The south-side reef frequently starts literally at the water’s edge and slopes down at a more gentle grade to a depth of around 10-12 meters, when it hits the sheer reef wall bottoming on sand at around 30-40 meters. The southern reef is generally more broken up than the north, with channels, chutes, headlands, and cays. Sea mounts — hills of coral rising up off the ocean floor — and spur-and-groove coral ridges are common and are often the best places to see diverse sea life.
The Cayos Cochinos reef system shares similar characteristics with the other islands, except it lacks steep drop-offs and lagoons on the north side.
Two websites with detailed research information on the Bay Island reef system are www.yale.edu/roatan/index.htm and www.wfu.edu/~dkevans.
You may also want to take a look at the dive shop’s boat. A large dive boat is much more stable and easier to get in and out of than the smaller launches used by many shops, and provides a less choppy and wet ride to and from the dive sites—but it usually also means more divers at each site. (Those prone to seasickness should bring motion sickness pills, which are sold by many dive shops.) Some boats have a covering of some sort providing respite from the sun when going to and from the dive site, while others do not. Waters around the Bay Islands are usually a fairly balmy 28°C (82°F) or so, but if the water temperatures get down to the low 20s, as they sometimes do, you will want to make sure your shop has good wetsuits, full-length if you get cold easily.
Another factor to consider is the setup and schedule of dives at the different shops. Utila shops usually send out two dive boats a day for a total of four dives, two on the morning boat (around 8 A.M.) and another two on the afternoon boat (around 1 P.M.). Roatan shops usually send out three dive boats a day with one dive each, at 9 A.M., 11 A.M., and 2 P.M., although some have dives half an hour earlier or later. While the shop chooses the sites, clients should not be shy in requesting certain dives. Most dive shops are happy to accommodate, although some may put up resistance in going to a far-off site. And be sure the group you are going with will not be too large. An ideal group size is 4-6 divers, dive master included. Certainly, you don’t want to go with more than eight divers, or it starts to feel a bit like an underwater procession. Be aware that many shops advertise low instructor-to-student or dive master-to-diver ratios, but fail to mention that their groups number 12 or 15 divers, with three or four dive masters/instructors to herd everybody along. If you are sensitive to smoke, one last consideration is whether or not the boats are smoke-free. With the younger, partying crowd in Utila, this can be a particular nuisance if smoke bothers you.
Rattan-Island is about 30 miles long and 13 broad, about eight leagues distant from the coast of Honduras…. The south side is very convenient for shipping, having many fine harbours. The north side is defended by a reef of rocks that extend from one end of the island to the other, having but few passages through, and those of but small note, being mostly made use of by the turtlers…. It is likewise very healthy, the inhabitants hereabouts generally living to a great age.
Thomas Jefferys, Geographer to the King of England, 1762
Jefferys may have been a bit off on the measurements—Roatan is actually about 40 miles (64 kilometers) long and only a little over 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) wide—but he did accurately describe the natural features that have long made Roatan the choice of Bay Islands immigrants, from the first pirates 400 years ago to the resort builders, vacationers, and expatriates of today.
Tourists and retirees began arriving on Roatan in the 1960s, and the island is now home to a large expatriate community consisting mainly of Americans but also many Canadians and a sprinkling of Europeans.
After years of raging real-estate speculation and building fever, few nooks and crannies have escaped the scrutiny of developers. Remote sections of coastline on all sides of the island have been divided up in lots for development as private homes or resorts. Nevertheless, towns like West End and Sandy Bay remain relatively slow paced and not outrageously expensive, especially when compared to other Caribbean islands.
One facet of the tourist profile that sets Roatan apart from the other Bay Islands is the international cruise ships. The monstrous crafts come in Tuesday-Friday, especially in high season, and disgorge hundreds of tourists for the day. West Bay can get rather crowded those days, particularly at the southern end of the beach. While the crowds can be a bit disconcerting for other foreign visitors, the islanders are all for the new business, especially since the tourists spend well and only stay for the day, thus offering high income and limited stress on local infrastructure.
Theories on the source of the island’s name vary wildly. The most popular explanation, supported by Jefferys and many other colonial-era chroniclers, is that Roatan is a derivation of rattan, the English word for a common vine found in the Caribbean. Another possibility is that it’s a severe corruption of the Nahuatl expression coatl-tlan, “place of women.” A third, far-fetched hypothesis is that the name comes from the English expression “Rat-land,” referring to the island’s pirate inhabitants.
THE HEALTH OF THE BAY ISLANDS REEF
Generally speaking, the Bay Islands reef is in pretty good shape, although certain high-impact areas are showing signs of damage from overdiving and decreasing water quality. According to a recent study, the Roatan reef has 25-30 percent live coral cover (the rest covered by sand, sea grass, sponges, rubble, algae, dead coral, fire coral, etc.), a relatively healthy percentage compared to other Caribbean reefs.
Tourism development poses the most direct threat to the reef, since coastal and hillside construction generates runoff and other forms of water pollution. Degraded water quality leads to algae blooms, which steal sunlight, oxygen, and other nutrients from the coral, literally choking the reef to death. This threat is particularly severe on Roatan, where the island’s long central ridge is being carved up on all sides for roads and houses, while coastal wetlands, which filter runoff, are being filled in for construction. The reef off West Bay in Roatan is particularly threatened, due to all the construction and tourist activity in the hills backing the beach. While Guanaja is quite hilly, construction on the main island is still limited, making runoff less serious. However, water pollution around Bonacca, Mangrove Bight, and Savanna Bight has damaged most of the reef surrounding those towns. Utila, mostly flat and still retaining much of its wetlands, does not face much erosion at the moment, but water pollution is a problem around East Harbour and Pigeon Cay.
Coral bleaching occurs on the Bay Islands reef, as it does on reefs all over the world. During these usually temporary events, higher water temperatures than normal cause the coral to expel the zooxanthellae (algae cells) that give coral its color pigments. The cells return when the sea temperature returns to its normal level, ideally 23-30°C (73-86°F). In 1998-1999, there was a global bleaching event, in part as a result of the warming of the world’s seas after the 1997-1998 El Niño phenomenon. Hurricane Mitch - so devastating above the water - helped spur the recovery of the Bay Islands reef from the prolonged bleaching episode by bringing up colder water from deeper in the ocean and cooling off the waters near the surface by as much as 3°C.
The proliferation of divers has taken a toll on the reef; some oversaturated dive sites are closed off to allow for the coral to recover. These days, dive boats more regularly tie off on buoys instead of anchoring on the reef, but divers continue to bump and grab coral in spite of frequent warnings. Each brush with a piece of coral wipes off a defensive film covering the polyps, allowing bacteria to penetrate. Just one small gap can compromise the defenses of an entire coral colony. Think about that when you see the reef in front of West Bay Beach, Roatan, swarmed with hundreds of cruise-ship visitors.
Black coral, formerly common around the Bay Islands, has been depleted in recent years by jewelry-makers, whose work can be seen in several local gift shops. For those tempted to buy a piece, remember it is illegal to take black coral into the United States.
Roughly 80 percent of the Bay Islands’ population, or around 40,000 people, live on Roatan. Coxen Hole, the island’s largest town, is the department capital. Thanks to highly effective (and ecologically sensitive) spraying, sand flies are no longer the plague they once were on Roatan, although it’s always wise to pack an eco-friendly repellent, or pick one up in a local store.
Although Roatan has a better financial situation than the mainland thanks to its tourism, there are still plenty of pockets of need. Visitors who might like to contribute toward development in Roatan can check out SOL International Foundation (www.solsite.org), a highly regarded U.S.-registered nonprofit (founded by two Americans) that supports education, community centers, and after-school activities. There is information on their website about how visitors coming to Roatan might help, as well as how to sponsor a child or a program.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
As the most frequently visited of the three Bay Islands, Roatan has plenty of air service, although much of it comes via La Ceiba. There are also a few direct flights per week to the United States, weekly flights from Toronto, Canada, and for those staying at one of the Henry Morgan resorts, weekly charter flights from Milan. Those flying out of Roatan to an international destination must pay a US$37.80 departure tax in the Roatan airport; for a domestic flight the departure tax is US$2.
A new, low-cost airline, Easy Sky (tel. 504/2445-0537), has recently taken to the Honduran skies. The low price of their flights between Roatan and La Ceiba (US$29.50 each way) has been causing a ruckus among the airlines, and a San Pedro Sula-Roatan route has opened too (US$84 each way). Another newcomer to the Roatan airways is CM Airlines (tel. 504/2233-5050, www.cmairlines.com), offering daily service between Roatan and Tegucigalpa (US$132 one-way) or San Pedro Sula (US$112 one-way).
Sosa (tel. 504/2445-1154, www.aerolineasosa.com) offers four to five flights to and from La Ceiba (US$55 is the standard rate, although the competition from Easy Sky means lower rates are often available for this route only), with connections to San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, the Mosquitia, and Grand Cayman Island. They also offer service between Roatan and Guanaja six days a week, departing at 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. (US$101). Taca (tel. 504/2445-1918, www.taca.com) offers twice-daily flights to San Pedro Sula and thrice-daily flights to La Ceiba with connections onward to Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, including Miami, New York, and Houston. They also offer daily flights between El Salvador and Roatan.
The newest threat to the reef around all the Bay Islands can be found underwater: lionfish.
Released by accident into the Atlantic at Biscayne Bay, Florida, in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew hit, lionfish thrive in the Caribbean. Reproducing once a year in their native cold waters, lionfish can reproduce monthly in warmer waters, and the venomous spines protruding from their bodies keep native predator fish from consuming them. The lionfish, on the other hand, eat a variety of fish, invertebrates, and crustaceans, and can consume a fish up to half their own size.
Lionfish derbies have been organized by concerned businesses on both Utila and Roatan, spears to kill lionfish have been distributed among fishermen, and locals in the Cayos Cochinos are being taught how to de-spine and cook them. Do your part when you visit the Bay islands, and if you see the tasty white-fleshed fish on a menu, order up a plate!
At the time of writing, United/Continental (www.continental.com) was offering flights Thursday-Monday between Roatan and Houston, Texas, a less than three-hour trip.
Delta (www.delta.com) also has two direct flights to Roatan from Atlanta on Saturday, with service to San Pedro Sula (3-4 flights per week) and Tegucigalpa (4-5 flights per week).
American Airlines (www.aa.com) has daily service to Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, which may be convenient for some in the United States, but it means booking the mainland to Roatan flight separately.
Those coming from Canada can book flights, as well as hotel packages, with Sunwing (www.sunwing.ca), which flies every Monday between Toronto and Roatan in less than four hours.
Apart from rental car stands and a couple of uninspired gift shops, there’s not much to hold a traveler’s attention at the airport. There’s a small café and an Espresso Americano if you need a food or caffeine fix before heading on your way, as well as an ATM.
The airport is three kilometers from downtown Coxen Hole, on the highway toward French Harbour. Taxis at the airport operate with fixed prices (US$25 to West Bay, US$10 to West End, US$5 to Coxen Hole). Prices are applicable 6 A.M.-6 P.M.; at other times it’s up to your bargaining skills. If you haven’t got a whole lot of luggage or cash, it’s possible to walk the short distance out to the highway and catch a much cheaper taxi (about US$5 to West End, depending on your negotiation skills), or a bus to Coxen Hole, and from there on to West End (US$2). Buses run until about 4 P.M.
Note: When visibility is poor on the north coast due to bad weather (not uncommon during the rainy season), the airport at La Ceiba closes with regularity. Don’t be surprised to find yourself stranded if the weather turns bad.
The MV Galaxy Wave and the MV Tropical Wave (tel. 504/2445-1795, www.safewaymaritime.com) run daily between La Ceiba and the Transporte Marítimo Charles McNab dock, just east of the Roatan airport; the 70-90-minute ride costs US$26 (or US$32 for first class; a dollar more when departing from La Ceiba). Some snacks are available on the boat, and there is a small coffee shop and gift shop at the ferry dock. The Tropical Wave normally leaves Roatan at 7 A.M. for La Ceiba, then departs from La Ceiba at 9:30 A.M.; it then leaves Roatan again at 2 P.M. and departs from La Ceiba at 4:30 P.M. It’s a good idea to plan on arriving 15 or 20 minutes before the boat is scheduled to depart to have time to buy your ticket, even earlier during peak season. Luggage handlers wait outside the building and will take your suitcase or large bag, giving you a luggage tag in return, and you don’t have to worry about the suitcase again until you arrive in La Ceiba. As with air transport, though not as frequently, the boat is sometimes cancelled due to bad weather. Because the boat is quite large, the ride is pretty smooth, but if the wind has been blowing and the boat goes anyhow, be prepared for some stomach-turning swells.
If coming from (or heading to) Utila, it might be possible to sail by catamaran with Captain Vern Fine (tel. 504/3346-2600, firstname.lastname@example.org). He charges US$55 for the ride and travels back and forth daily in high season, a couple of times per week in low, departing from West End, across from the Coconut Tree hotel and dive shop. On Utila he departs from the dock by Bush’s Supermarket at 6:10 A.M., and the ride takes about four hours. Caribbean Sport (tel. 504/ 9643-6944) runs overnight trips from Roatan to Utila, departing from West End at the Sueño de Mar dock at the southern end of town. The boat departs most Saturdays at noon, returning on Sundays at 4 P.M., and the budget-conscious can sleep onboard for free (US$80). One-way rides are possible too (US$50).
Roatan has the Bay Islands’ only major highway; it runs east-west connecting various island settlements. While the majority of visitors are likely to stay put in West End, West Bay, or the confines of their resort, the more adventurous, and in particular those who don’t scuba dive, may wish to explore Roatan’s less frequented corners, and this highway offers easy access.
Bus and Taxi
Most of the island can be covered on minibuses, which leave Coxen Hole at the Mercado Municipal (the municipal market) frequently from 7 A.M. until 6 P.M. Westbound buses (“ruta 2”) run to Sandy Bay and West End (around US$1.60, pay when you leave the bus), while eastbound buses go to French Harbour, Polytilly Bight, Punta Gorda, and Oak Ridge (US$1-2). It takes roughly an hour to reach Oak Ridge from Coxen Hole. All buses leave from the main street in Coxen Hole near the post office, but they will stop anywhere they are hailed (both in town and on the main Roatan road). Be sure to verify the rate before stepping onto the bus. Fares must be paid in lempiras.
Colectivos (collective taxis) run the same routes for a bit more money—just make sure you clarify that you want a colectivo, not a private taxi, which will cost considerably more. Colectivos stop along the way and pick up whoever flags them down. Rates in colectivos are per person. It’s about US$1.50 from the airport to Coxen Hole by colectivo, and another US$1.50 from Coxen Hole to West End. From West End to Sandy Bay it’s about US$1.30. From West Bay to French Harbour costs around US$8. It is virtually impossible to get colectivo rates in Coxen Hole on the days the cruise ships are in. After 6 P.M. all rates go up and are negotiable (and you’re unlikely to get a colectivo. Note: Most taxi drivers are mainlanders who do not speak much English.
DOLLARS OR LEMPIRAS?
No need to change dollars for lempiras if you are headed to Roatan’s West Bay or West End. Not only do all businesses accept dollars, most of them make a “quick and dirty” calculation of 20 lempiras to the dollar if you decide to pay in lempiras - a lempira or so above the official rate. This five-percent surcharge might not be a big deal on a two-dollar ice cream, but can add up when applied to US$50 boat rides or over the course of a week’s stay. So to get the best prices, be sure to pack your dollars, including plenty of small bills.
Private taxis typically charge US$10 per person from Coxen Hole to West End, US$15 per person to West Bay. The 10-minute ride from West Bay to West End typically costs about US$10 (per taxi, not per person). Hotels can call for private taxi service when needed, but if you prefer to call yourself, one individual offering taxi service as well as tours of the island is Oscar Acosta (tel. 504/9629-8818, email@example.com). If hiring a private taxi for the entire day, the going rate is usually US$100.
When negotiating taxi rates, be sure to specify the currency (lempiras or dollars), as the occasional unscrupulous driver may try to take advantage of the obvious tourist.
Car, Motorcycle, and Bicycle Rental
Several companies rent compact cars and small four-wheel-drive vehicles at rates ranging US$45-75 per day. A couple have stands in the airport (sometimes staffed only if they are expecting someone with a reservation), as well as central offices elsewhere on the island, and many will bring the car to your hotel or resort. Avis (tel. 504/2445-1568, www.avis.com), at the airport, has a couple of automatic cars—be sure to book in advance if this is what you need—as well as plenty of stick shifts. The best rates can be had by booking through the U.S. website, but be sure to bring a printout of your reservation with you to ensure your rate is honored. Roatan Best Car Rental (tel. 504/2445-2268) has offices in the airport and the ferry terminal, and ATVs and scooters for rent as well as vehicles. Caribbean Rent A Car (tel. 504-2455-7351, www.caribbeanroatan.com), also has an office at the airport (cars start at US$34 per day or US$210 per week plus insurance and tax), and has infant car seats and booster seats available for US$4 per day. Roatan Rentals (tel. 504/2445-4171, www.roatansalesandrentals.com), in West End, has a variety of Nissans, Toyotas, Suzukis, Jeep Wranglers, and Trackers for US$50-85 a day. Airport pickups are available only with a rental of a week or more, but West End, West Bay, and Sandy Bay pickups can be easily arranged. Not all cars have air-conditioning.
Note: Sign a contract only for the number of days you are absolutely sure you want, as it can be very difficult to get any money back if you end up turning the car in early. You may also want to take a look at the car before signing the contract if you are with a lesser-known company. While most are reputable, there have been some reports of cars being in less than tip-top condition, and it’s good to know what you’re getting into.
Captain Van’s (www.captainvans.com, 9 A.M.-4 P.M. daily), in West End (tel. 504/2445-4076) and at the West Bay Mall (tel. 504/2445-5040), rents motorcycles for US$45-55 a day, scooters for US$39 a day, mountain bikes for US$9 a day, and vehicles for US$55-65. Weekly rates are available, and they provide maps, helmets, and information on the best spots on the island. Cell phones, DVD players, and DVDs are available for rent as well at the West Bay location.
Bodden Tours (tel. 504/9910-5217, www.boddentours.com) is a reputable, islander-owned tour company offering customized tours that may include a canopy ride, off-shore snorkeling, or fishing. Daylong tours for two people, including driver and guide, are US$40 per person, plus the cost of activities.
If you need a full-service travel agency, contact MC Tours (tel. 504/2445-1930, www.mctours-honduras.com). Their office is at the airport, and appropriately enough, they can help you with flights, as well as other travel needs.
There is something to suit absolutely every budget and taste on Roatan, from US$10 dorms to the luxury properties that rent for US$4,000 per week. Many house vacation rentals are available across the island. A few are listed here, or try Roatan Life Vacation Rentals (tel. 504/2445-3130, U.S. tel. 970/300-4078, www.roatanlifevacationrentals.com) for a larger selection (more than 100 options) of both short-term rentals and long-term leases. Island House (www.islandhouseroatan.com) is another company offering rentals in West Bay, many right on the beach. There are also listings on the website for Subway Watersports (www.subwaywatersports.com).
DIVING ROATAN’S REEF
The reef topography in Roatan, as with Utila and Guanaja, is divided into a north side and a south side. On the north side of the island, the reef is separated from shore by a shallow lagoon, sometimes a kilometer wide but usually less. From the crest, which sometimes almost breaks the water’s surface, the reef slopes down to a plateau or moat, followed by the reef wall. On the north side, sponges, sea fans, and elkhorn coral are common. The south-side reef slopes out gently until reaching the edge of the wall, normally dropping from 10 meters down to 30 meters, with a sandy bottom. Here grow a bewildering assortment of colorful soft corals. On the western end of the island, where the north- and south-side reefs meet, the reef shows characteristics of both formations.
The most popular dive sites in Roatan are in the Sandy Bay Marine Reserve, a protected water reserve between Sandy Bay and West Bay on the western end of the island, conveniently near the dive shops in West End. The reefs on the northern, eastern, and southern sides of Roatan have many spectacular, infrequently visited sites—your best bet is to stay at one of the resorts out that way, or ask around in West End for shops diving more remote sites. While dive shops often have a site in mind, some are open to requests by divers.
Near West End
Hole in the Wall, a crack in the reef just around the bend from Half Moon Bay on the way to Sandy Bay, is justifiably one of the favorite dives near West End. Cruise down a steep sand chute from the upper reef, which leads downward through a cleft and pops out on the reef wall at around 40 meters. Below is very dark water—here is one of the places the Cayman Trench comes in closest to Roatan, and water depths just below Hole in the Wall are around 800 meters. Keep a close eye on that depth gauge. While the wall is the obvious highlight of the dive, leave time to explore around the labyrinth of sand chutes on the upper reef, where you might spot a barracuda or eagle ray.
Myriad fish make their home in the colorful reef.
Right out front of West End is Blue Channel, a canyon with a narrow opening that gradually widens and deepens as you swim away from shore. A mellow dive, good for the afternoon, the channel has swim-throughs, interesting rock and coral formations, and plenty of fish to watch. Look for a green moray that hangs out near the entrance to the channel.
Off the southwest point of Roatan is West End Wall. Because of its location, strong currents flow past the site, meaning divers need to plan a drift dive. While the wall is worth seeing, it’s also fun just to let the current zip you across the reef fields above the wall, which are invariably filled with hawksbill turtles, spotted eagle rays, and a dazzling array of colorful fish.
Near Sandy Bay
Near Anthony’s Key Resort is the wreck of El Aguila, a 71-meter freighter the resort bought and sank in sand flats at 34 meters, near the base of the reef wall, to create a dive site. Take good care not to catch yourself on any metal parts as you swim around the deck—and look for the green moray and large grouper that live at the site.
Just east of Anthony’s Key, right in front of Sandy Bay, is Bear’s Den, a cave system lit from above. The cave entrance, on the upper part of a steep reef wall decorated with much boulder and lettuce coral, is tight to get in but widens out into a spacious cavern inside. Beautiful, shifting light from above illuminates schools of glassy-eyed sweepers that patrol the cave. The cave system continues farther, but only experienced cave divers should continue beyond the main cavern.
Spooky Channel, at the eastern end of Sandy Bay, is exactly what it sounds like, a channel through the reef almost completely closed over, and a bit unnerving to swim through for the dark water. The dive starts at 12 meters or so and deepens as you go in to a maximum of about 38 meters. While rock and fossilized coral predominate in the lower reaches of the channel, up higher on the reef, barrel sponges, sea fans, and hard corals are common.
Fortunately, safety standards are high throughout the Bay Islands. But when choosing your shop, it is a good idea to personally verify minimal safety standards. Below is a set of questions to ask (and be sure to verify the answers with your own eyes; don’t just take the staff’s word for it).
· Do you carry oxygen on the boat?
· Do you carry a VHF radio? (A cell phone is not nearly as reliable.)
· Does the boat stay at the dive site after dropping off divers?
· Is the boat manned by a captain at all times? (Some shops expect dive masters or instructors to also serve as the captain.)
· When was your air last analyzed? (The analysis certificate should be dated within the past three months.)
Elsewhere on the Island
Considered one of the most dramatic dives on Roatan, Mary’s Place, just west of French Harbour on the south side, is a narrow cleft in the reef wall. Enter at around 25 meters, then zigzag into the cleft, where you’ll see plenty of large sponges and also lots of seahorses. Because of the tight channels, Mary’s Place is for experienced divers only.
Right in front of Coco View Resort, east of French Harbour, is Valley of the Kings, an exceptionally lovely wall dive noted for the tall stands of pillar coral, several different types of sponge, and a profusion of marine life tucked into crevasses and overhangs on the wall.
Other Recommended Dives
Other sites around the island that are highly recommended by divers who know the Roatan reef well include: Mandy’s Eel Garden, Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Bay Wall, Fish Den, Canyon Reef, Odyssey Wreck, Peter’s Place, Pablo’s Place, and Front Porch.
On the north side, Melissa’s Reef is a shallow dive with deep, wide canyons and walls filled with crab and lobster. Silver jacks, towers of pillar coral, gaping barrel sponges, and the occasional turtle have all been spotted here. It’s popular also as a night dive.
The clear, clean waters surrounding Roatan, stroked by steady trade winds most of the year and stocked with most of the known fish species in the Caribbean, are superb for sailing and fishing trips. The Bay Islands are a growing destination among the yacht crowd, and docking services can be found at Barefoot Cay and near Oak Ridge on Roatan, and in La Ceiba.
Many boat owners offer fishing trips, either deep-sea or flats fishing, or both. Day trips, cocktail cruises, and other customized boat trips can be arranged. One of the easiest ways to get what you are looking for is simply to ask around, or keep an eye out for posted fliers offering cruises.
Fishing and Island Tours
Situated at the division between the shallow waters toward the mainland on one side and the 3,000-meter-deep Cayman Channel on the other, Roatan and the other Bay Islands are ideally located to go after a variety of different shallow- and deep-water species. Favorite game fish around Roatan are marlin, wahoo, tarpon, barracuda, kingfish, and jack, to name just a few. Waters around most major settlements are usually heavily fished by the locals, so more isolated spots, particularly on the north and east sides of the island, offer the best luck.
Captain Loren Monterrosa of Early Bird Fishing Charter (tel. 504/2445-3019 or 504/9955-0001, www.earlybirdfishingcharters.com), in Sandy Bay, offers deep-sea and flats fishing as well as island tours and trips to Utila. Half-day deep-sea fishing trips cost US$350-400, and full-day fishing trips and tours cost US$600-750 (including drinks, snacks, fruit, and lunch). Some trips have lower prices if there’s only one person going. Fishing trips can also be arranged (for a little less money) with Hook ’Em Up (tel. 504/9919-7603, www.westendroatan.com), run by top-notch local fisherman Captain “O” Miller, who can also be found by asking at Diddily’s gift shop near the church in West End. He charges US$65-75 per hour for fishing trips, and also does snorkeling outings (US$20 pp per hour) and island tours (from US$300). Lonnie and Cynthia of Roatan Anglers (tel. 504/3386-7148, www.roatananglers.com), located at the end of West End at Barefeet Bar, get high marks from travelers for their commitment to customer satisfaction. Half-day fishing charters are US$400, but groups of four or five can also book by the hour (US$25 per hour, minimum two hours). Snorkel trips are available too.
Roatan Boat Tours (tel. 504/9934-3067), run by Captain Sam, a native of West End, also offers fishing, snorkeling, and island tours, including fishing by the hour for US$125 for one hour, up to four people.
Often at West Bay, but also available in West End, is Captain Wayne (tel. 504/3237-9417 or 504/9466-7834, or ask for him at Daniela’s Gift Shop in West End), who promises “more adventure for less money.” His boat is well-equipped with a big motor and a cover for shade. Trips are customized according to customer preference; he is happy to take people as far as Cayos Cochinos for a day-long trip, or arrange a 15-minute banana boat ride in West Bay or West End. Snorkeling is typically US$50 per hour including high-quality mares gear, as is line fishing (great for kids). Trawl fishing (for big fish such as tuna, barracuda, and wahoo) costs a bit more and is best done in the early morning for the best chance of some bites.
Marina and Boat Services
Yachties can tie up in Roatan at Barefoot Cay (tel. 504/2455-6235, VHF Channel 18A, www.barefootcay.com), between French Harbour and Brick Bay, charging US$1.25 per foot per day, or US$18 per foot per month. Boats up to 165 feet can be accommodated; water and electricity are extra.
Farther east at Calabash Bight (near Oak Ridge), boaters can moor at Turtle Grass Café and Mini Marina (tel. 504/8950-7588, www.turtlegrass.net). Turtle Grass has four slips that can accommodate boats of up to 48-foot length and 9-foot draft, and one catamaran slip (30 feet wide). Dockage is US$11 per night or US$58 per week for live-aboard (includes free wireless Internet), or US$46.25 per week or $175 per month for storage (maximum 48 feet). Services such as electricity, bottom cleaning, and water are available for an additional charge.
Although it is the main tourist town of Roatan and lined with cabañas, restaurants, and dive shops, West End remains a slow-paced seaside village and an undeniably superb location to lose yourself in the relaxing rhythms of Caribbean life. Even during the high season (mid-December-April), people and events move at a languid pace up and down the sandy, seaside road that constitutes “town.” It’s a telling sign that the road has been left rutted and unpaved—cars and bicycles must slow to a snail’s pace, bouncing along, while pedestrians are free to wander at leisure, stopping to browse for T-shirts or to admire yet another spectacular sunset.
Half Moon Bay in West End is a good place to snag a boat for fishing or an island tour.
Construction of new houses and cabañas continues, but in a relatively unobtrusive way—new developments are tucked away among the palms and don’t dominate the visual landscape. West End is not overwhelmed by wealthy tourists, as it has no luxury resorts, but there are a couple of higher-end options for those who prefer a few more comforts. The roughly 500 local residents have not lost their easy friendliness and, fortunately, seem to be influencing the newcomers more than the newcomers are influencing them.
West End’s main attractions are in plain view: beaches, 28°C (82°F) bright-blue water, and, a couple hundred meters offshore, the coral reef, marked by a chain of buoys. The waters around West End are kept very clean, and visitors can jump in pretty much wherever it’s convenient. The best beach in town is Half Moon Bay, a swath of palm-lined sand right at the entrance to West End, bordered by points of iron shore (fossilized, raised coral) on either side forming the namesake shape. A good spot to lay down a towel is in the stretch in front of the Posada Arco Iris hotel (they will also rent you a beach chair for US$5, free for guests). Another good place to swim and sunbathe is off the docks at the far south end of town, just after the road ends. Both of these spots happen to be near two good snorkeling sites off West End. The reef passes right across the mouth of Half Moon Bay, an easy swim from shore, with better reef near the more southern of the two points. Sea turtles and rays are often seen in the sand flats and shallower sections of reef here.
One of the buoys in front of the south end of the town beach marks the entrance to Blue Channel, a dramatic channel cutting through the reef. It’s a bit of a swim for snorkelers, so take your time heading out to conserve energy for exploring the reef and the trip back.
Posada Arco Iris is happy to rent out its beach chairs at Half Moon Bay.
There are several other sites on the reef off West End, but watch for boat traffic while looking for them. Snorkel gear can be rented from many of the dive shops for US$7, or a bit less from the gift shop at the Roatan Marine Park office (tel. 504/445-4206, www.roatanmarinepark.com). A passport or US$10-20 deposit is usually required.
West End’s fully equipped dive shops offer dives and courses for all levels and in several languages. Courses and dive packages should cost close to the same everywhere: US$280-325 for the standard or Advanced Open Water certifications, US$100 for a half-day Discover Scuba Diving course, US$35 for a fun dive, and US$25-30 per dive for 10 or more dives. Prices can fluctuate somewhat with the season and have risen slightly over the years. Generally, all shops have three dives daily—one at 9 A.M., one at 11 A.M., and one at 2 P.M. (although some run dives half an hour earlier or later)—and start new certification courses every couple of days. Apart from the shops listed, there are a few outfits based out of West Bay, for people who prefer to stay there. Fun dive prices typically do not include equipment, which can tack on another US$5-15.
Coconut Tree Divers (tel. 504/2445-4081, U.S. tel. 813/964-7214, www.coconuttreedivers.com), in the same building as the Coconut Tree Store in front of Half Moon Bay, has plenty of good gear, two well-equipped 40-foot dive boats, and an air-conditioned classroom. The PADI-certified shop can pick up guests in their West Bay accommodations for morning and afternoon dives. They offer Nitrox and instructor courses as well. Equipment rental is included in their fun dives (US$35 each). The dive shop is one of the most experienced in West End; they cater to technical divers, and as a PADI Career Development Center (their instructors teach others to become instructors), they have a very high-caliber staff. We wish the accommodations were a little nicer, but the US$5 dorm for folks diving with them is good enough for penny-pinchers. If you’re willing to spend more, you can simply stay somewhere else.
Native Sons Divers (tel. 504/2445-4003, www.nativesonsroatan.com) has its office at Chillies Hotel. Native Sons is a frequently recommended, locally run shop certified with PADI and providing experienced instructors. Fun dives here are US$30 (US$25 for multiple dives, or during low season), while courses like Open Water are US$280 plus the cost of the manual. Two specialty dives are US$120, including certification, and cameras can be rented here to capture those underwater moments (US$20 per dive or US$30 per day). Daylong and overnight charter dive trips can be arranged as well. Dorm rooms at Chillies are US$5 when diving with Native Sons.
Ocean Connections (tel. 504/2403-8221, www.ocean-connections.com), a well-respected dive shop, has equipment for Nitrox and other technical dive training, as well as the standard courses and dive tours. PADI classifies it as a Gold Palm dive center, in recognition of the shop’s quality and volume of business, and they are also qualified to train instructors. They have a shop in West Bay as well. Free dives are US$35, including equipment, and the Open Water certification is US$280 plus the manual (US$35). They offer accommodations for courses (three free nights), or for fun dives if you’re diving twice a day with them, at the Roatan Backpackers Lodge (tel. 504/2425-3350) in Sandy Bay (about US$1 each way by taxi from West End, and Ocean Connections can help you arrange it). If you want to join a trip to snorkel, it’s US$10.
Splash Inn Dive Center (tel. 504/2445-4120, U.S. tel. 203/309-0095, www.roatansplashinn.com), another PADI five-star Gold Palm resort-rated shop, has three boats, an air-conditioned classroom, and a spacious wooden porch for hanging out. They offer dive trips to Utila and Cayos Cochinos, snorkel tours (US$15), and Bubblemaker, a two-hour dive class for kids ages 8-10 (US$75). Fun dives are US$35, or US$25 if you have your own equipment or buy a 10-dive package (which can be split, say between you and a friend). Those taking a course get three nights free accommodations in a basic room; rooms are US$10 if you do fun dives with Splash Inn.
Reef Gliders (tel. 504/2403-8243, www.reefgliders.com) is run by an English couple who rebuilt the two dive boats, bought new gear, and refurbished the shop. The reputable Reef Gliders offers all the certification courses through Dive Master, as well as numerous specialties. Fun dives are US$40, a 10-dive package is US$300 (gear included for all fun dives), and Open Water is US$280 plus US$30 for the manual. They have improved their accommodations option, and now give divers US$10 vouchers to use at Georphi’s (which means a free night if staying in the six-bed dorm; otherwise it’s US$10 off your room).
Enomis Divers (tel. 504/9567-8948, www.scubadiveroatan.com) is a relatively new shop that is already getting positive reviews from those who have dived with them. Fun dives are US$35, Open Water certification is US$310, and they say they will meet or beat “any reasonable price” of another dive shop in the West End. They do not have accommodations or hotel discounts as part of their course price.
Tyll’s Dive (tel. 504/9698-0416, www.tyllsdive.com) is one of the oldest shops in West End. It offers a full range of courses in a variety of languages (the owners are Danish and German), and prices are on the lower end of the scale.
West End Divers (tel. 504/2445-4289, www.westenddivers.com) is known for diving a larger variety of sites and venturing farther out than some of the other shops. The fun dives at West End cost a bit more (US$40 each, plus US$5 for gear rental, or US$30 when purchased in a package of 10 or more, gear included), but the course prices are competitive.
Seagrape Plantation (tel. 504/2445-4428, www.seagraperoatan.com) is well located for visitors staying at any of the hotels on the point, such as Posada las Orquideas, Cocolobo, and Casa Calico. The Open Water certification is US$300 including materials, and fun dives are US$30 including equipment, a few dollars cheaper if you buy a dive package.
Also on the point, based at Half Moon Resort, is Atlantic Sea Divers (tel. 504/8963-6222, 8 A.M.-5 P.M.). The shop is relatively new, but dive master Reno grew up on the island and knows all the best nooks and crannies for diving. Their equipment is well maintained, and prices are standard (US$280 for Open Water, plus US$35 for the manual).
Snorkel equipment is available for rent at the offices of the Roatan Marine Park (tel. 504/445-4206, www.roatanmarinepark.com, US$5 for 24 hours, with a deposit), as well as at many of the dive shops and some of the hotels.
While diving and snorkeling are justifiably premier attractions on Roatan, there are plenty of other excellent water and land-based activities, many based in West End.
Sea kayaks are available for rent at the Sea Breeze Inn (tel. 504/2445-4026), for US$7 an hour for a double. Half-day rentals cost US$18, and full-day rentals cost US$21. They are also available for rent at Seagrape Plantation (tel. 504/2445-4428), US$10 for two hours, US$5 each additional hour, and at the Posada Arco Iris.
Note: Visitors should take good care when paddling out into the open water on sea kayaks. Choppy waters and ocean winds can quickly get the better of inexperienced kayakers. If in any doubt at all, stick close to shore, and be absolutely sure you have enough energy not only to get out, but to get back too.
Another option for vacationers who like things active are paddleboards, which you stand on and paddle through quiet waters. Rentals and instruction are available from Steve’s Paddle Shack (tel. 504/9684-7083, firstname.lastname@example.org), opposite Sundowner’s. Kitesurfing (tel. 504/9983-3109) is taught near Punta Gorda or Camp Bay, but lessons come with free transportation from anywhere in the island. A beginner’s class takes 6-8 hours, spread over a minimum of two days.
Glass-bottomed boat tours (US$30 for an hour, kids 5-12 US$20) leave from a dock on the southern end of town—look for the sign, and double-check on the schedule, as it varies with the seasons. Trips are also available from West Bay beach, a quick water-taxi ride away.
Half Moon Bay has a pretty beach, perfect for a relaxing afternoon, and Posada Arco Iris rents the use of its beach chairs and kayaks to nonguests. Those looking for a spectacular Caribbean beach should catch a water taxi over to West Bay for its seemingly endless stretch of powdery white sand (US$3 for the 10-minute ride, slightly cheaper if you pay in lempiras).
Based out of West End, Captain Arthur (Arthur Johnson, tel. 504/9612-7065 or 504/2443-4319) is happy to take folks fishing, snorkeling, or whatever they might desire. He charges US$50 per person (four pax minimum) for a half-day trip to Palmetto Bay to snorkel around a shipwreck, with water and soft drinks included. Fishing is US$75 per hour per person (four pax minimum) for a fishing excursion, including beer, water, soft drinks, chips, and all the equipment. He’ll take folks as far as the Cayos Cochinos (US$150 pp including the park entrance and lunch), or as close as West Bay (US$3 pp, if you have a group).
Just east of West End on the road to Coxen Hole, walkable if you watch out for traffic, is the Butterfly Garden and Bird Park (tel. 504/445-4481, www.roatanbutterfly.com, 9 A.M.-5 P.M. Sun.-Fri., US$7), with a collection of 18 or so butterfly species as well as a few toucans, parrots, and macaws. It’s a modest little collection, but a break from all the water-oriented recreations if you’re in the mood for something different.
There are a couple of canopy tours available just outside of town, on the road to West Bay.
Perhaps the most popular spot in town for a sunset drink, Sundowners Bar and Restaurant (10 A.M.-10 P.M. daily), on the beach across the road from Chillies Hotel, draws a mellow crowd of tourists looking for good vibes and a good variety of drinks.
At the other end of town is Eagle Ray’s, a bar and restaurant set on a dock out over the water. We haven’t received good reports about the food, but the water setting is an unbeatable spot to stop for a drink and watch the sunset, and it’ a laid-back place to hang out at well into the night. Next door is the waterfront Booty Bar, the kind of place where shots are sometimes poured straight into the buyer’s mouth, and pole dancing can break out spontaneously. A few doors down is Mucho Bueno Caribbean Club; ask for the list of shots.
Another favored spot for a drink, the Blue Marlin (www.bluemarlinroatan.com, noon-midnight Mon.-Thurs., noon-2 A.M. Fri.-Sat.) looks at first glance to be a tiny bar, but the wraparound porch leads to seating over the sea. Karaoke night on Thursday are popular with the resident expat crowd, and there is often live music on weekend nights. There is a full menu, with lunch entrées US$4-10 and dinner US$8-15 (the conch balls are the house specialty).
Foster’s (noon-midnight Mon.-Thurs., noon-2 A.M. Fri.-Sat., and noon-10 P.M. Sun.) is an unpretentious hangout that draws a jovial crowd of locals and expats as well as tourists on Friday and Saturday nights. The restaurant/bar is a two-story wooden contraption built on a dock over the water, with a couple of hammocks swinging between the wood beams. It’s a shame the place is empty the rest of the week. Happy hour is 4-6 P.M.
The restaurant Blue Channel (tel. 504/2445-4133) has live music Wednesday-Saturday and frequently shows movies; details are posted on the board out front. Up for sale in 2012, we hope any new owners won’t change a good thing.
Those looking to escape Honduras’s strict nonsmoking laws and try a fine Honduran cigar can head to Frank’s Cigar Bar (tel. 504/9607-4410, until 9 P.M. daily), next to Reef Gliders dive shop.
On the northern point, just a few minutes from the heart of West End, is The Green Flash Bar at Land’s End Resort (tel. 504/9817-8994, www.landsendroatan.com, Wed.-Mon.), with live music on Monday and sometimes on Wednesday.
If you have the energy to keep going when everything closes down, try to track down a cab to take you to Hip Hop in Flowers Bay, near Coxen Hole—just don’t arrive before 2 A.M. or you’ll be the only one there.
Waves of Art (www.waves-of-art.com, 9 A.M.-6 P.M. Mon.-Wed., 9 A.M.-8 P.M. Thu.-Sat.), located in a Victorian-style building across from the church, offers art and handicrafts that promote sustainable living among low-income Hondurans, including candles, carvings, note cards, and jewelry made by co-ops from across the country. The upstairs gallery features art in numerous media, including paintings, photos, sculptures, and metalworks, and hosts new gallery showings every six weeks. Credit cards are accepted.
You can grab an inexpensive tee for yourself, or to take to someone back home, at T-Shirt Shack, where all shirts are US$8.
Run by the Roatan Marine Park, the Marine Park Green Store sells T-shirts, disposable underwater cameras, dive guides (US$20), waterproof fish identification wristbands (US$15), and environmentally friendly sunscreen and bug spray. They also rent snorkel equipment (just US$5 for 24 hours, with a US$20 deposit).
A number of Guatemalan artisans have made their way to the Bay Islands to sell their fine handicrafts; Evelyn Gift Shop, next door to the Splash Inn dive shop, has a good selection of both Guatemalan and Honduran crafts.
TIKI Gift Shop, just beyond the Splash Inn dive shop, sells T-shirts with good graphics, and also DEET-free repellent, a must for those who like to spray while on the beach (DEET kills coral, and so should not be used as a repellent on the beach if you’re planning to be in the water at all).
If a good beach read is what you are looking for, Booknook (11 A.M.-5:30 P.M. Thurs.-Tues.) at Chillies Hotel has a decent selection of second-hand books.
Hotels in West End mostly fall into the moderate range, US$25-50 for a double, generally in a cabin with ceiling fan, screened windows, and private bathroom. The budget traveler will be glad to hear, however, that less expensive digs are still available—although groups of two or three can often find better quality rooms for the same price in the midrange accommodations. There are a couple of higher end spots, too, for those who prefer the buzz of West End over the quiet nights on West Bay beach or at the resorts. Keep in mind that the lower-end prices are available September-November. The 16 percent Honduran tax on hotel rooms has been added here for those hotels that do not include it in their quoted rates. Many hotels that normally charge the tax as an add-on are often willing to include it in their rates for guests who pay with cash.
For those who become transfixed with diving and the mellow lifestyle in West End, locals rent many apartments and cabins of differing quality for about US$350-800 a month, more in the high season. Rents in nearby locations like Gibson Bight and Sandy Bay are lower.
Most budget accommodations are affiliated with dive shops, and rooms are given as part of dive courses and packages. If you’re not a diver, and you don’t find space at the place below, you can try asking around at dive shops to see who might have a spare room available for cheap.
Chillies Hotel (tel. 504/2445-4003, US$10 dorm, US$20 s/d, shared bath and cold water only; US$30 s/d, US$35 t in cabin), facing Half Moon Bay, is very popular with the low-budget crowd, for its doubles with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, as well as a sociable front porch. Reservations can only be made for the cabins, and only if you are diving with Native Sons, but walk-ins are always welcome to try their luck.
Some local residents rent rooms out of their houses for US$10-25 d—ask around.
Half a block north from the entrance to town is the highly recommended Posada Arco Iris (tel./fax 504/2445-4264, www.roatanposada.com, US$42-48 s, US$48-54 d), run by an Argentinian couple. The spacious and clean rooms in the wooden house are each decorated with colorful artistic touches. The top-floor ocean-view rooms facing Half Moon Bay are the more expensive rooms, and some have kitchens. The individual wooden cabins, with ample front porches, rent for US$66 (one bedroom) and US$72 (two bedrooms) for two people during high season. All accommodations cost US$15 more per day with air-conditioning. Out front is a good Argentine-style restaurant.
The Sea Breeze Inn (tel. 504/2445-4026, www.seabreezeroatan.com, US$30-75 d), at the entrance to town, has a variety of room layouts including studios and suites that can accommodate larger parties with a little bit of privacy. The standard rooms are fairly charmless, and the grounds are rather cramped, but there are a few rooms with porches, hammocks, and kitchenettes. Kayaks and snorkel equipment are available for rent.
Georphi’s (tel. 504/2445-4205, www.roatangeorphis.com), located next to Rudy’s restaurant, is named for owners George and Phyllis. The rambling grounds, dotted with tropical plants, feature a number of individual wooden cabins with spacious porches. Prices start at US$25 for one room in a two-bedroom cabin with fan (sharing the bath and kitchenette with the other room), and go up to US$60 for cabins with more space and air-conditioning. Most have kitchenettes; those that don’t do have a small fridge. There is even a small chalet available, with a king bed in a bedroom and a twin bed in the loft, and extra beds can be added for more kids (US$125 per night, monthly rates available). Two cabins have been converted into dorms, the best low-budget digs in town, for US$10 per person in the six-bed cabin with fridge, or US$15 per person in the three-bed. Internet and a book exchange are available in the reception (US$3 per day or US$10 per week), and free wireless Internet is available in the cabins closest to the reception; laundry service is available too. They are working with Reef Gliders dive shop, who will give you US$10 vouchers if you book a course or dive package with them, valid either for a night in the cheaper dorm, or for US$10 off a night in one of the other rooms (the number of vouchers you get depends on your course or package). The one downside? Reservations are possible only for stays of seven nights or more, the rest is all by walk-in.
Half Moon Resort (tel. 504/2445-4242, www.roatanhalfmoonresort.com, US$52 s, US$64 d), on the quiet northern point of Half Moon Bay, offers somewhat spartan, but spacious, wooden waterfront cabins with air-conditioning and hot water. The cabins closest to the water are the best—enjoy views of Half Moon Bay from your porch hammock. Guests can use free kayaks and snorkel gear in the small bay and reef right out front, the seafood at the porch restaurant is reliable, and the staff is an amiable bunch. The hotel’s access to the water is via iron shore (calcified coral reef), but there is a little stairway to get you past that.
On the same land outcropping as Half Moon Resort is Seagrape Plantation (tel. 504/2445-4428, www.seagraperoatan.com, US$70 s/d). Rooms are nothing fancy, but there is a good dive shop on-site, and a swimming pool. The bungalows have an ocean view and a little porch with a hammock (the other rooms have a TV instead of a view, and less charm). Iron shore (calcified coral) stands between you and the water, but there is a path with access to the water. Kayak rentals are available here too (US$10 for two hours).
Also out on the point, along Mangrove Bight is Posada Las Orquideas (tel. 504/2445-4387, www.posadalasorquideas.com, US$49-70 s, US$56-87 d, depending on what floor the room is on and whether it has a/c), with absolutely lovely rooms in a large wooden building set along the iron shore, a good deal if you are looking to get away at the end of the day (although it’s only about a 10-minute walk, it can feel like a bit of a hike, particularly late at night—bring a flashlight). Room 14 on the third floor has the best views of the water and mangroves. The PADI-certified Seagrape Dive Shop (tel. 504/2445-4297) is just steps away (and charges a few bucks less for its fun dives than its competitors in town).
Right in the center of town is Splash Inn (tel. 504/2445-4120, U.S. tel. 203/309-0095, www.roatansplashinn.com, US$56 s, US$65 d), with clean, airy, tile-floored rooms with hot water, air-conditioning, TVs, and wireless Internet. The hotel has 26 rooms and an Italian restaurant on its front porch. Although the website claims that most rooms have sea views, many do not, and those that do might be peeking at the sea through the telephone and electricity wires that run along the street. All in all, it’s a fairly priced, clean, no-frills hotel. Their dive shop offers all types of courses, including classes for kids such as Bubblemaker and Junior Scuba Diver, and non-divers can head out on the boats for snorkel trips for US$10.
Just down the side street by Splash Inn, in a rambling three-story wooden house built atop a small hill a couple of hundred meters back off the main road, is the eggshell-blue Mariposa Lodge (tel. 504/2445-4450, www.mariposa-lodge.com, US$64-75 s/d depending on amenities, five-night minimum for all rooms), with four simple but spacious apartments with a homey feel (US$64), all with private kitchens, TVs (for DVDs only as there’s no cable), wireless Internet, fans, and hot water, as well as a breezy porch to relax on. Air-conditioned rooms lack the kitchen, but have small fridges, microwaves, toasters, and coffeemakers (US$75). In addition, there’s a small house with three bedrooms that rents for US$104 d, with fan, hot water, and kitchen facilities—a bit worn, but decent. There is a book exchange in the reception, as well as a collection of some 600 DVDs. They do not provide beach towels, so be sure to pack your own. Sue and Mike, the Canadian couple who own the place, go out of their way to be helpful to their guests, and also offer professional shiatsu, therapeutic, and reiki massage service (very popular with the diving crowd) for US$40 an hour.
A longtime resident of West End, Lost Paradise Inn (tel. 504/2445-4210, www.lost-paradise.com, US$70 s, US$79 d) rents rooms in well-made wooden cabins on stilts in a nice layout right on the beach in the south end of town. Rooms are equipped with air-conditioning, small refrigerators, and hot water, and some have small porches. Many have two double beds and can sleep up to four. A restaurant operates in the high season only.
US$100 AND UP
Mame Tree Bungalows (tel. 504/2445-4125, U.S. tel. 718/710-4392, www.mametrees.com) is set on a bluff above town, just a minute or two’s walk along a hillside path from West End’s main drag and beach, a perfect place for being close to the hubbub of town without being in the middle of it. The two main bungalows have two bedrooms each and a kitchen/living room, and can sleep up to five each (US$126 with a view, or US$116 without), while two smaller rooms are perfect for romantic couples (US$68-80). Prices can be a bit higher during January, June, August, December, and Easter Week. The young American owners have decorated with a lot of character (mosaic tiling in the Caribbean room, lush fabrics in the Moroccan), as well as with luxury touches such as flat-screen TVs and soundproofed walls. Wireless Internet is only available in their office (on your computer), but they do also offer free calls to the United States and Canada in their office.
Although only a short path separates Half Moon Resort from Cocolobo (tel. 504/9898-4510, www.cocolobo.com, US$110 s, US$157 d, including breakfast), this hotel feels far removed from the hustle and bustle of West End. Most rooms have a sweeping view of the iron shore and ocean. Conceived by a British environmental architect, the wooden structures are designed with windows that create cooling cross-breezes—but the air-conditioning is there for those who can’t live without it (albeit at an additional US$10 per night). Luxury touches include an infinity-edged pool and flat-screen TVs, but the vibe is relaxed, perfect for grown-up beach bums. There is wireless Internet as well, but only in the restaurant and pool area, and iPod docks, but they aren’t great quality. Small apartments are also available, with full kitchens and peek-a-boo ocean views (US$110 s/d), but no air-conditioning, and breakfast is not included in the rate.
Nearby is Lily Pond House (US$110-120), still on a quiet street, but a few steps closer to the bustle of West End. The small hotel is a three-story building set in a lush garden, with just three guest rooms and a rooftop patio. Rooms are romantic, with wood floors and canopied beds, air-conditioning, TVs, and DVD players. Their restaurant is one of the best in West End, and a delicious breakfast is included with the rate. Laundry service and airport transportation are included for stays of three or more nights; maid service is available upon request.
One choice breakfast spot in town is Rudy’s (6 A.M.-5 P.M. Sun.-Fri.), next to Georphi’s hotel, where the owner, if he’s there, will serve you up a steaming cup of coffee and invariably reply heartily, “Still alive!” when you ask how he’s doing. The response is so famous it appears on a specially made T-shirt. The omelets are excellent (you pick the fixings) (US$4-6.25). The smoothies (US$4.50-5) are outrageously priced if you’re used to mainland licuados, but good nonetheless.
Conveniently located in the center of town, Earth Mama’s (8 A.M.-4 P.M. Tue.-Sun.) offers yoga along with its breakfasts and lunches. The garden setting with butterflies and hummingbirds flitting through is lovely. Although there aren’t a lot of places to grab breakfast in West End, we just wish that canned peaches and old bananas hadn’t been part of the “fresh fruit” served with its crepes and granola (US$5.50-9).
SNACKS AND LIGHT MEALS
At the entrance to Georphi’s hotel is the well-loved Creole’s Rotisserie Chicken, serving up chicken meals for US$5.25-7.40, whole chickens for US$9.50, and sides for US$2 apiece.
The baleadas sold next to Enomis Divers dive shop are especially good, and always a cheap way to fill up (US$0.65-1.30). Another spot for Honduran snacks is Chapi Catrachos, a storefront located next to Ocean Connections dive shop, offering baleadas (US$1-2) and plato típico (US$4-5), either of which can be washed down with a fresh-fruit licuado (US$3).
A locally run restaurant specializing in fresh islander food is The Lighthouse Restaurant (7:30 A.M.-10 P.M. Mon.-Sat., 10 A.M.-10 P.M. Sun.), located on the south side of the point dividing the main part of West End from Half Moon Bay. A sign on the main road points the way to the patio restaurant, right on the water. Fresh fish and shrimp are served in a variety of ways, including with the fiery escabey sauce made with lots of hot island peppers (US$8-13). The more extravagant “surf and turf” and seafood platters are US$20-30. The menu is on the pricey side, but lunch is a better deal, with specials such as grouper burgers and lobster avocado salad. A champagne brunch is served on Sunday for US$15. Service can be slow—better to come here when you have time to enjoy the view, and don’t have a deadline for an afternoon dive.
The waterfront porch at Half Moon Resort (tel. 504/2445-4242) is a fine location to enjoy mouthwatering fish fillets, lobster, shrimp, and other seafood. Most dinners run US$10-15 (lobster is US$20), are served with coconut bread, and are worth every penny. Large chicken or fish sandwiches with fries are an option for an inexpensive meal, and conch balls are the house specialty (US$8). The kitchen is open daily until 10 P.M.
Located at the southern end of town right on the beach is Barefeet Restaurant and Bar, a casual joint with sandwiches (US$5-8) as well as seafood, meat, and pasta (US$10-16), and even king crab (US$19). There is a Sunday barbecue with live music, and happy hour every day 3-7 P.M.
If all this fish has got you hankering after a steak for a change, stop in at Argentinian Grill (tel. 504/2445-4264, 10:30 A.M.-10 P.M., closed Mon.), at the Posada Arco Iris, and try the beef tenderloin or the filet mignon for around US$16, or a chorizo sausage. Even the half portion of meat, served with a twice-baked potato and veggies for US$13, is a generous plate. (Specials can be pricey, US$24 for a skirt steak at our last visit.) Don’t worry if your companion isn’t a meat-eater, as there’s vegetarian lasagna and a daily vegetarian plate. Seafood is also available, but it can be hit or miss (as can the service).
Linga Longa opened at the end of 2011 to a very warm reception. Located near the entrance to West End at the Beach House hotel, the menu is modern fusion, serving items like Indian curry and savory crepes with shrimp.
Italian owner Adriana oversees the kitchen at Splash Inn (tel. 504/2445-4120, www.roatansplashinn.com), which has an extensive menu of salads, sandwiches, pasta, pizza, fish, and meat (US$5-17), all served up on an open-air deck along West End’s main road.
The Blue Channel (tel. 504/2445-4133, www.bluechannelroatan.com, closed Tues.) offers movie screenings and frequent live music along with its Italian pastas and pizzas (US$9-14). The breakfasts are good too. The restaurant was for sale at the time of writing, so the menu may change when the owners do.
The menu is short at Lily Pond House (tel. 504/3265-0220, lunch and dinner daily), but who’s complaining when every dish is well-made? Readers rave about chef-owner Luis’s lobster and grilled fish, served with homemade bread. Most dishes are US$10-19, the “surf and turf” of steak and lobster is US$25. The lunch menu includes items like chicken fajitas and hamburgers, and prices are US$6-8. The garden seating is nice, although we wish they would upgrade from the plastic chairs.
Featuring Tex-Mex dishes such as tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, and chimichangas for about US$3.50-5, Cannibal Café (tel. 504/2445-4026, 10:30 A.M.-10 P.M. Mon.-Sat.) is in front of the Sea Breeze Inn—you can’t miss the life-like “cannibal” sitting out front. The “big Kahuna burrito” is famously large; if you can stuff down three within an hour, they’ll give them to you for free.
Tong’s Thai Cuisine (tel. 504/2445-4369, 5:30-9:30 P.M. daily, US$12-18 entrées, plus open for lunch Fri.-Sun.) is set out over the water, and wildly popular for its excellent Thai food. The curries and basil chicken are authentically spicy, while those looking for something milder will be happy with the fried rice. The service isn’t quite on a par with the food, so if the restaurant is busy, you can expect your food to take a good long while, or consider coming when the crowds are gone).
A popular, if pricier, addition to the restaurant scene is Besos, with creative gourmet food such as lobster gnocchi and mojito chicken. The setting is beach swank, with a crimson wall behind the bar, billowing cloth swags for the other walls, and a thatch roof. “Small plates” are US$8-12, and mains are US$14-28. With 23 types of flavored martinis, it’s also a low-key place to have a glam drink.
The best, and really only, grocery store in West End is Woody’s (tel. 504/2445-4269, 7 A.M.-6 P.M. Sun.-Thurs., 6 A.M.-8:30 P.M. Fri., and 7 A.M.-5 P.M. Sat.), with a decent selection of packaged goods and the occasional, slightly limp-looking vegetable. Eldon’s in French Harbour and Coxen Hole are far superior grocery stores. Plaza Mar, on a hill above Coxen Hill (turn up off the main Roatan road by the Bojangles), is another decent grocery store, with an Internet café as well. The Coconut Tree Store (7 A.M.-9:30 P.M. daily), at the entrance to town, has a decent selection of packaged food and supplies. You can find fresh produce sold from pickup trucks parked throughout West End every day except Sunday.
OUTSIDE OF TOWN
The fanciest place in the West End, Ooloonthoo (tel. 504/9936-5223, www.ooloonthoo.com, 6-9 P.M. daily, reservations required) is actually just outside of town in a hilltop home. Run by a top Canadian chef (who lived in India for three years studying the regional cuisines) and his Indian wife, the restaurant features a different chutney daily and a menu that varies with the season and the available produce. Main courses run the gamut, from coconut-citrus fish to lamb or oxtail curry. Two-course meals start at US$39.50; the pork vindaloo and the homemade ice cream are especially recommended.
Several stores and dive shops will change dollars, and most businesses accept payment in either dollars or lempiras. Take care of exchanging money in Coxen Hole if you’re carrying travelers checks or another currency (like euros). There is a 24-hour ATM at the Wet Spot, and another inside the Coconut Tree Store at the entrance to town, but don’t wait until you’re down to the last dollar, as they have been known to run out of cash.
The small office of Barefoot Charlies Internet (9 A.M.-9 P.M. daily), opposite Foster’s dock, has a quick satellite connection for US$0.10 a minute, US$6 an hour, or US$10 for a two-week, unlimited time account. Headsets and mikes are also available for semi-private Skyping. The staff is very helpful on island information; T-shirts, guidebooks, and a selection of used books in many languages are also available.
There is also a small internet café at Seagrape Plantation (7:30 A.M.-6 P.M. daily) on the point, US$1 for up to 15 minutes, and US$2.60 for an hour.
Bamboo Hut Laundry (8 A.M.-4 P.M. Mon.-Sat.), just north of Georphi’s hotel on the bottom floor of the owners’ house, efficiently washes and dries five pounds of dirty duds for US$4, US$0.80 for each additional pound, all ready in a couple of hours. Or, drop off your clothes at Chapi Catrachos, next to Ocean Connections, who will wash and dry a medium bag of laundry for US$6.80.
Those interested in picking up a bit of Spanish can study at the Central American Spanish School (tel. 504/2443-6453, www.ca-spanish.com), which offers popular and recommended Spanish classes on Roatan for US$200 a week for 20 hours of private classes or US$150 for 20 hours of group classes (discounts are often available for the private classes). CASS has its main office in La Ceiba, with offices in Utila and Copán Ruinas as well, and can arrange monthlong programs combining a week on Utila with a dive course, a week of classes and beach time on Roatan, classes and a homestay in La Ceiba, and a week of classes and homestay in Copán. It is located near the Posada Arco Iris, and has a second office at the Bananarama hotel in West Bay beach.
If your muscles need a break from all that snorkeling, diving, or beach lounging, try a massage at Healing Hands (tel. 504/2403-8728, US$40 for a 60-minute massage), located at the Mariposa Lodge.
The offices of the Roatan Marine Park (tel. 504/445-4206, www.roatanmarinepark.com, 8 A.M.-5 P.M. Mon.-Fri., 9 A.M.-5 P.M. Sat.-Sun.) are located in the center of West End, for those interested in finding out more about where their US$10 dive fee is going. The office also runs the Marine Park Green Store on the premises, which sells T-shirts and knickknacks and rents snorkel equipment (just US$5 for 24 hours, with a US$20 deposit).
ROATAN MARINE PARK RECOMMENDATIONS
The Roatan Marine Park (RMP) was formed in 2005 by concerned dive operators and other local citizens, in an effort to help protect Roatan’s surrounding reef. A voluntary fee of US$10 is charged to divers to help fund their protection efforts—money well spent. All visitors can also help the efforts by adhering to the following RMP suggestions:
· Use only biodegradable and nontoxic sunscreens.
· Use only eco-friendly insect repellents, especially when swimming. (DEET is highly toxic for the coral. Many stores in Roatan sell a fairly effective product called Cactus Juice, or look for Nuvy’s Repelente de Insectos, sold in grocery stores and pharmacies on the mainland.)
· Do not consume iguana, shark, or turtle. Limit consumption of lobster and conch. (All are currently endangered. We admit to eating lobster; one board member of the RMP told us the problem is the sale of lobsters whose tails are less than 5.5 inches long. Order only in reputable restaurants, and avoid eating during the closed season of March-June.)
· Recycle plastic bottles, glass, paper, and aluminum cans. Keep your use of water bottles to a minimum by refilling.
· Do not purchase marine life souvenirs. (And remember that it is illegal to leave the country with them.)
· Turn off the lights, fans, and air-conditioning when you leave your hotel room.
And for those planning to stick around Roatan for a while:
· Volunteer with the Roatan Marine Park (www.roatanmarinepark.com).
Getting There and Around
Minibuses to and from Coxen Hole (14 kilometers) leave frequently between 7 A.M. and 7 or 8 P.M., US$1 each way. Collective taxis cost US$2. The ride to and from Sandy Bay is US$0.50 in a minibus or US$1 in a collective taxi. After dark, rides can get progressively scarcer, with the last taxis leaving toward Coxen Hole at around 10 P.M., later on weekends. Most taxis hang out by the highway exit by the Coconut Tree Store. After dark, hitching a lift in a passing pickup is often possible.
Water taxis to West Bay leave frequently during the day; they fill up from Foster’s dock and cost US$3 (slightly cheaper if you pay in lempiras). Arrangements can be made with the captain to get picked up for the return trip later on, even after dark if you like. You can walk to West Bay along the beach in about 25 minutes, although it involves a little scamper around some wet rocks about halfway, and then crossing a tall footbridge over a canal. It can be a little treacherous at night if you don’t know the way.
There is a branch of Captain Van’s Rentals (tel. 504/2445-4076, 9 A.M.-7 P.M. daily) here, renting scooters (US$39), motorcycles (US$45-55), mountain bikes (US$9), and vehicles(US$55-65). There are discounts for weekly rentals. Scooters are a great way to see the island, but unfortunately in December 2011 there were a couple of incidents of tourists on scooters getting mugged at gunpoint on the far eastern end of the island (where the roads are fairly deserted). Check with staff at Captain Van’s before heading much farther east than French Harbour by scooter. Chauffeured tours by car or van are available as well.
It’s possible to buy airline tickets in Coxen Hole, or by calling the airline offices at the airport to make reservations. For the ferry, you have to go buy tickets at the dock, as they do not accept reservations. But apart from unusual circumstances (like the first boat after several days of rough seas), it’s not a problem to get a seat if you show up half an hour before departure. A few taxis are available early in West End to catch the ferry, but it’s best to speak to a taxi driver the previous day to arrange for a pickup—the drivers are usually very much in need of business and happy to get up early for the work.
Around a couple of rocky points about two kilometers south of West End is one of Roatan’s greatest natural treasures—West Bay beach, 1.5 kilometers of powdery, palm-lined sand lapped by exquisite turquoise-blue water. At the south end of the beach, where a wall of iron shore juts out into the water, the coral reef meets the shore. For anyone who wants a low-key encounter with an exceptionally fine reef without a long swim or any scuba gear, this is the place—more like an aquarium than a section of live reef, with brilliantly colored fish dodging about, the odd barracuda lurking, and sponges and sea fans gently waving—all just a few feet from the beach.
Local kids somersault off the dock at West Bay beach.
The reef comes closest to shore at the beach’s southern end, but for anyone willing to swim out a bit, the entire bay is lined by excellent reef, although it’s been showing the ill effects of heavy traffic in recent years. Keep an eye out for boats when in the water. The cruise-ship day-trippers frequently descend in numbers on West Bay, so it’s worth checking what days the ships are coming in. Even on those days, though, the beach is generally quiet in the early morning or late afternoon, and always quieter at the northern end. Many cruise-shippers end up at a section of the beach near the south end referred to as “Tabayana Beach,” where beach chairs and snorkel equipment are available for rent.
Until the early 1990s, West Bay was totally deserted, save for a few bonfire-building partyers. After a sudden flurry of real-estate transactions and building, West Bay is now lined with houses and hotels, most thankfully built out of wood in a reserved, unobtrusive style.
The construction boom on West Bay and in the hills behind has brought unfortunate consequences for the nearby reef. A large wetland area a few hundred meters behind the beach, at the base of the hills, formerly served as a buffer, to catch rain runoff and either filter it or let it evaporate in the sun. Developers promptly filled in the wetlands (annoying little swamp!) when construction began in West Bay. As a result, and coupled with the hillside construction and road building, the West Bay reef is coated with waves of silty water after every strong rain. Reefs do not take well to such sudden drops in water quality, nor to the huge increase of inexperienced snorkelers and divers who bump, grab, or step on the reef, causing damage every time. The reef will still be lovely for several years to come, but it remains to be seen whether island authorities will take action to protect perhaps the single most important tourist attraction in Roatan for the future. The efforts of concerned business owners who have come together to form the Roatan Marine Park conservation group have gone a long way in the battle to save the reef.
Note: If you are staying elsewhere and visiting West Bay just for the day, many hotels will rent their beach chairs (and then let you use their restrooms). If you are saving pennies and laying out just on your beach towel, there are public restrooms near the restaurant at Foster’s West Bay.
There are several dive shops operating out of West Bay. Bananarama (tel. 504/2445-5005, U.S. tel. 727/564-9058, www.bananaramadivecenter.com, fun dive US$35, beginner’s Open Water certification US$325), toward the southern end of the beach, has a good reputation. TGI (www.tgidiving.com, fun dive US$35, beginner’s Open Water certification US$391) has a PADI five-star dive shop that works with the Henry Morgan, Paradise Beach Club, and Infinity Bay resorts. A US$40 discount is available if you book online. They sell equipment as well as rent. Mayan Divers is a 5-star PADI dive shop run out of the Mayan Princess hotel (tel. 504/2445-5050, U.S. tel. 786/299-5929, www.mayandivers.com, Open Water certification US$350), to which the Casa de Paradise hotel also sends its guests. Mornings the boat takes divers for a two-tank dive, in the afternoons it’s single tank, and trips to the Cayos Cochinos can be arranged (US$165). Gear costs US$10 per dive to rent. Snorkelers are welcome to tag along (US$25 in the morning, US$15 in the afternoon). At the northern end of the beach, Las Rocas (tel. 504/408-5760, U.S. tel. 877/379-8645, www.lasrocasresort.com) has a dive shop, offering Open Water certification for US$350 and fun dives for US$40, plus US$15 equipment rental. The diving is a little pricey, but the dive packages with accommodations are good deals, starting at US$469 per person for a week, with 10 dives. Ocean Connections (www.ocean-connections.com, US$40 for a fun dive, US$325 for a package of 10, and Open Water certification for US$409) have opened a little hotel off the beach, and offer seven-night, 10-dive packages starting at US$575 per person.
One of the main attractions of West Bay is the reef located right offshore, easily accessible to even the most novice snorkeler. Locals set up tables along West Bay beach from which they rent snorkel equipment, usually for US$10 per day. At the southern end of the beach, the reef is just a few meters offshore, while reaching the reef from the northern end of the beach requires a long swim, which should be done with a companion for safety. Tropical fish and colorful coral abound. Stay attuned to the buzzing sound of the occasional water taxi.
Note: Snorkelers must take care to avoid touching the reef at all. The thousands of visitors every month who descend upon West Bay’s reef are taking a heavy toll. It may be easy for novice snorkelers to enjoy the reef, but it’s also easy for them to bump into or actually step on the coral.
If you came to Roatan with family and your child is too little to snorkel, or someone isn’t able, a trip on the glass-bottom boat (US$30 adults, US$20 kids 5-12) that moors at the dock near Foster’s is a good, albeit pricey, way to see a few of those fish that everyone else is talking about.
Many of us land-based creatures feel slightly ill at ease strapping on all that scuba gear and descending to the watery depths. We would much prefer to admire the undersea world wearing nothing more complicated than a mask, a snorkel, and fins. Snorkel gear is easily rented at any dive shop on the islands. When renting gear, be very careful to check that your mask fits snugly. Hold the mask against your face and suck in with your nose—it should stay held against your face without the help of your hand. Also, see that the snorkel has no obvious leaks (some shops are more conscientious than others) and fits in your mouth comfortably, and that your fins are neither too tight nor too loose. A constantly dripping mask or a painfully tight fin can ruin a good snorkel trip. Bringing your own mask is one way to avoid this problem. A good fit for the fins is important also.
On all the Bay Islands, snorkelers will find several good locations to paddle out to from shore. But more adventurous snorkelers, who are also confident swimmers, can often go out with scuba boats and snorkel the same site as the divers, but from above. Ask around at different shops for appropriate dive sites, preferably shallow ones.
To get your adrenaline rush on, try parasailing, now available at West Bay beach, with Honduras Water Sports (tel. 504/9707-7432, www.honduraswatersports.com), located at the Mayan Princess hotel. It’s US$65 for a single rider, US$130 for a double, US$195 for a triple, and US$20 to ride in the boat and watch (US$30 for the photo package). They accept riders ages three and up, and prices can be negotiable on a slow day.
For a more sedate way to get over the water, pedal boats and kayaks are available for rent on the beach by the Mayan Princess (US$15 per hour), and by Beachers Bar and Grill. Kids might enjoy Aqua Splash, the inflatable slide and trampoline that is pulled out over the water on Sundays or cruise ship days (US$5 for one hour, US$10 for the day).
Somewhat corny, but fun nevertheless, is Gumbalimba Park (tel./fax 504/9914-9196, www.gumbalimbapark.com, 7 A.M.-5 P.M. daily, US$30), a little natural oasis in West Bay complete with a waterfall, cactus garden, 100-plus species of orchids, 25 species of heliconia, and—the part that makes it worth a trip—a parrot, macaw, and monkey park where the trained animals roam and fly free. The animals are best viewed between 8 A.M. and 3 P.M. Be prepared to have any or all of the three tropical critters perch on your shoulder. Guides are included in the price, as is transportation—be sure to take advantage of both (the guides will make sure you go home with that shot of a parrot or monkey on your shoulder), but it can be hard to track down a guide if you arrive on a cruise-ship day. The park also runs canopy tours (US$45), and offers a significant discount for a combo ticket (US$55). The park, on the land of the owner of Anthony’s Key Resort, has an assortment of attractions catering generally to the cruise-ship crowd, but available to others also, including a beach with snorkeling, clear kayaks for rent (to see the reef below), and horseback riding in the park (US$35 for 1.5 hours). Snacks and meals are served at an outdoor restaurant. It can be pretty busy when the cruise ships are in town, or extremely quiet when they are not.
Also located along the road between West Bay and West End is South Shore Canopy Tour (tel. 504/9967-1381, www.southshorecanopy.com, US$40), with ziplines that cross between two hills, affording spectacular views out to the sea.
There have been some mixed reports about the horses and service at Barrio Dorcas Ranch (tel. 504/9555-4880, www.barriodorcasranch.com), but if you’d like to see a bit of the island by horseback, this is the only gig in town (US$40).
If all these activities have left your muscles aching, look for one of the impromptu massage shops that spring up on the beach when the cruise ships are in town, typically charging US$20 for a 30-minute massage, US$50 for an hour.
One of the best places to arrange any activity is at the Roatan Tourist Info Centers (tel. 504/3336-5597, www.roatantouristinfo.com), located in front of Foster’s West Bay or at the Roatan Activities Center (www.roatanactivitiescenter.com) at Bananarama. They offer tickets to Gumbalimba and for the glass-bottom boat, book catamaran sail and snorkel tours of Roatan (US$35), and can arrange activities around the island, such as a visit to the pirate canopy tour and iguana farm near French Harbour, Jet Skiing in Flowers Bay, kayak rentals at West Bay, car rentals, and so forth. Surprisingly, prices are usually the same as you pay if you purchase services directly, or slightly more but transportation is included (a big perk).
Hotels in West Bay are a decided step up in price from West End, although there are still many reasonable options by international standards. Those who are really after some peace and quiet, and some serious beach time, may enjoy staying in West Bay. And while the restaurant selection can’t compete with West End, there are several spots worth seeking out. Some rooms in West Bay also have kitchens, or at least mini-fridges and microwaves, which can be useful for breakfasts and snacks.
Rates skyrocket from those listed here during Easter and Christmas weeks, when rooms should be booked well in advance. Remember, all room rates are subject to a 16 percent tax, which has been included here but may or may not be included in the price quoted to you by the establishment itself.
Foster’s West Bay (tel. 504/2445-1124, U.S. tel. 877/245-5907, www.fostersroatan.com, US$64-81 d, US$87-162 for suites, cabins, and duplexes that sleep 2-5) owns several cabins near the north end of West Bay beach. In addition, a small room built into the branches of a mango tree, complete with electricity and running water, rents for US$64-104 d, depending on the season. One-, two-, and three-bedroom units are also available. Rooms are pretty basic, and cleanliness can be a bit of an issue. On the other hand, these are some of the cheapest rooms on West Bay beach.
One of the giants in West Bay is Hotel Mayan Princess (tel. 504/2445-5050, U.S. tel. 786/299-5929, www.mayanprincess.com, US$196-242 for one-bedroom units), a collection of plaster-and-tile condos along the beach equipped with comfortable wicker furniture, satellite TV, telephones, master bedrooms, sofa beds, and kitchens. “Suites” have two bedrooms and rent for US$300-416. Price includes breakfast and transportation to and from the airport, and there are discounts for low season and stays of a week or more. The hotel has a lovely large pool, and its restaurant/bar is open 7:30 A.M.-10 P.M. daily—all-inclusive packages are available, although there are better places to eat on the beach. Cruise-shippers come to the Mayan Princess on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, when snagging a lounge chair and a beach towel can get complicated.
Perhaps the best of West Bay’s collection of large upscale hotels is Infinity Bay (tel. 504/2445-5016, U.S. tel. 866/369-1977, www.infinitybay.com, US$144-173 studio, US$231-417 one bedroom, US$260-463 two bedroom, US$579-811 3 bedroom), located at the southern end of West Bay, close to where the reef reaches the shore. Prices are steep, but rooms have beautiful furnishings, patios or balconies, and amenities such as large flat-screen TVs. Many of the hotel condos are privately owned and can be rented through websites like www.vrbo.com and www.roatanlifevacationrentals.com—a savings (often significant) for booking with owners, but no maid service. The massive complex will have 145 rooms upon completion, the largest hotel on West Bay. All but the studios have full kitchens, and many have sofa beds for additional capacity. A long swimming pool runs down the center of the complex, leading to the bar on the beach. What’s noteworthy about this resort is its significant efforts to have zero negative impacts on Roatan’s beach and reef. Environmentally friendly aspects include state-of-the-art water treatment and septic facilities, solar water heating, the use of biodegradable soaps in housekeeping, and an awareness of erosion control in the construction process. The only drawback we found (besides, perhaps, its behemoth size) was that the windows for ground-floor units open onto walkways, limiting privacy for those who like to keep the curtains open.
A relatively budget choice on West Bay is Bananarama (tel. 504/2445-5005, U.S. tel. 727/564-9058, www.bananaramadive.com, US$110-135 d, including breakfast, with specials available in the low season). A variety of simple but decent garden and beachfront rooms can sleep up to five, although there is a US$10 per person charge for more than two guests. There is also a two-bedroom house that can sleep up to 12, priced at US$300 for six guests. Cruise-ship excursions are offered through Bananarama, so it can get fairly chaotic some days, but the on-site dive shop has a good reputation and fair prices. The bar, Thirsty Turtle, has different activities each evening (quiz night, fire dancer, live music, crab races, and so on). Guests have free use of the hotel kayaks. What we especially like is their commitment to the community, through support of local health and education projects (recognized with a 2010 award for “Social Responsibility and Community Contribution” from the Bay Islands Chamber of Commerce).
Bananarama also owns the neighboring property, Island Pearl (tel. 504/2445-5005, U.S. tel. 727/564-9058, www.roatanpearl.com), a quieter, more upscale accommodations. The attractive apartments in four separate houses set among shady trees rent for US$230-270, and a studio with queen bed is available for US$120. Accommodations for 3-5 guests are available for an additional US$10 per person. The on-site restaurant, Vintage Pearl, is highly regarded. Guests here also receive a free breakfast and use of kayaks.
An Italian conglomerate (tel. 504/2445-5131, www.hmresorts.com, call or check online for rates) is the owner of several all-inclusive hotels, including three on West Bay: Henry Morgan Resort, Paradise Beach Club, and Las Sirenas. The first is especially renowned for its throngs of Italian package tourists. Paradise Beach Club has lovely grounds, with winding paths and lush tropical foliage leading between the buildings and around the swimming pool. Guests have reported being disappointed by the somewhat simple rooms given the price. What worries us are the reports we’ve heard about environmental violations—if you’re considering one of their hotels, please ask about their environmental practices. They have a fourth resort, Media Luna, located on the eastern half of the island, just past Juticalpa, on the southern side of Roatan.
Casa de Paradise (tel. 504/9961-5311, U.S. tel. 740/251-4123, www.casadeparadise.com) is actually two casas (houses), with five different accommodations ranging from a one-bedroom efficiency suite to a four-bedroom apartment. Amenities vary by room but may include a king bed, TV, hammock, balcony, or full kitchen. All rooms come with coffee from owners Ron and Myra Cummin’s plantation in Olancho. Prices range US$104-327; weekly rates are also available. Unusual in this price range, air-conditioning is charged separately (US$12 per unit per day); maid service is once midweek. Thankfully the hotel’s small size hasn’t kept it from getting a generator to keep the air-conditioning running during the occasional power outage. There is also a deluxe two-bedroom “penthouse” available for rent by the week (US$2,100). Casa de Paradise works with the well-regarded dive shop at the nearby Hotel Mayan Princess.
Accommodations in West Bay range from large resorts to small property rentals, like Casa de Paradise.
Las Rocas (tel. 504/2408-5760, U.S. tel. 877/379-8645, www.lasrocasresort.com) has several two-story wood cabins tucked along its own private beach, two minutes along a wooden boardwalk from West Bay proper. Rooms are named after Italian islands, such as Capri and Stromboli, thanks to its Italian-expat owner, Piero. The best rooms are the “superior” (US$92-184), which are spacious and tasteful, with wood furniture and floors, and peaked ceilings. Standard rooms (US$69-162) lack water views but are just as spacious and have porches with hammocks, while the “value” rooms (US$58-203) are smaller and in cabins built claustrophobically close together. Prices vary according to the season and the number of guests (value rooms can accommodate up to six, standard and superior up to four), and include breakfast, as well as transportation to and from the airport (but not the ferry). The resort has its own dive shop, and dive packages are available, a good deal at US$579-799 per week, based on double occupancy.
A four-minute walk from the beach is West Bay Lodge (tel. 504/2445-5069, U.S. tel. 503/761-7172, www.westbaylodge.com, US$110-140 d), with cute little bungalows tucked into tropical gardens, each with its own porch and hammock, as well as air-conditioning, TV, and DVD player (and the hotel has a generator, to make sure your movie doesn’t get interrupted). “Supreme” units with kitchens and two double beds are available for US$162, while “royal” bungalows, with larger seating areas, are US$174. There is a small pool on-site, perfect for cooling off after the beach, and a restaurant (guests rave about the breakfasts, which are included in the rates). The owners live on-site, and are attentive to their guests.
Note: While crime against tourists is rare, be attentive to your surroundings after dark, particularly on the path that leads between the beach and West Bay Mall (put that SLR camera in your bag rather than flashing it around at night!).
Food and Entertainment
Located on the wooden walkway between Foster’s and Las Rocas is Bite on the Beach (noon-9 P.M. Mon.-Sat., with extended hours for the bar), a great spot to enjoy a snack, beer, or full meal on a large, breezy deck right on the edge of the glorious Caribbean. Come at night, and watch the green moray eels swim along the water’s edge, hoping for scraps. The standard fish, shrimp, lobster, and chicken are available in a variety of creative preparations such as pesto or green olive sauce, as well as more unusual dishes such as caprese salad and Thai curries, for US$8-18 per plate. If you’ve been fishing, they’ll even cook up your own catch of the day.
Foster’s West Bay (8 A.M.-9 P.M. daily), at the north end of West Bay shortly before Bite on the Beach, serves tasty breakfasts, seafood entrées (US$9-18), and sandwiches, burgers, and tacos (US$6-9) prepared at an open-air champa, or thatched hut. The coconut bread French toast and the grilled lobster (just US$12 on Thurs. after 5 P.M.) are especially recommended. The bar/restaurant is a popular hangout spot with locals and foreigners alike during the lazy afternoons at West Bay.
A few steps down the beach from Foster’s is Beachers Bar and Grill (tel. 504/3287-2228, 10 A.M.-9 P.M. daily, opening at 8 A.M. on days cruise ships are in port), popular with tourists and Roatan expats alike. The islander staff are friendly, serving up salads, shrimp sandwiches, and seafood soup for lighter appetites (US$6-15), and entrées like chicken breast, calamari, and surf and turf (US$9-35) for those in the mood for a big meal. There’s even a grilled cheese sandwich for US$3 if you are down to your last dollar. Happy hour is 5-7 P.M. daily.
Vintage Pearl (tel. 504/3311-4455, www.roatanpearl.com) is a good, upscale restaurant—a great place for a romantic splurge. While the menu selection is limited, most dishes are well executed, particularly the seafood. The prix-fixe menu changes daily and runs US$30-45 for the three courses; a few appetizers and the homemade desserts are also available à la carte. The restaurant has the largest wine cellar on the island (over 65 wines), and there is live music on Wednesdays. Despite the romantic ambience, the restaurant also welcomes children, and the chef can prepare something simpler for them if desired.
Trattoria da Piero, at Las Rocas Resort, has good Caribbean food with an Italian twist, thanks to hotel owner Piero. Fresh seafood is of course the specialty, and the shrimp in pesto sauce and seafood risotto are great ways to shake off the monotony of beach cuisine, while the lobster burrito is a crowd-pleaser. There is even pasta in meat sauce for those looking for a real change from fish (mains US$16-23).
Set under the palm trees on the sand, Infinity Bay’s restaurant La Palapa serves up pizza for US$9-18, as well as burgers and ceviche.
Those used to paying a dollar for a baleada on the mainland may find it hard to fork out a whopping US$14 for one, but the gourmet baleadas at Celeste’s Island Cuisine (8 A.M.-3 P.M. Sun. and Mon., open through dinner the rest of the week) are stuffed with your choice of grouper, shrimp, or lobster, and according to many happy customers, worth every penny. (Prices start at US$7 for the vegetarian baleada.) If you’re not in the mood for a baleada, there is a good selection of salads on the menu too.
Mangiamo Market and Deli (8:30 A.M.-5 P.M. Mon.-Sat.), in the West Bay Mall (take the path from the beach between Bananarama and Paradise Beach Club), makes excellent sandwiches, including prosciutto with mozzarella, a spicy chipotle chicken, and good ole turkey for US$8-9, perfect for a picnic on the beach. Breakfasts are available too (around US$6), for takeout or to munch at one of the deli’s small tables. Next door is Hungry Munkey (10:30 A.M.-7 P.M., closed Mon.), with plated specials, subs, pizza, sandwiches, and soft-serve ice cream, more economical prices than on the beach. Lastly, the mall also houses Java Vine (tel. 504/2445-5048, 7:30 A.M.-5 P.M. Mon.-Fri., 8 A.M.-noon Sat.-Sun.), a classy (and pricey) coffeehouse with sandwiches and pizzas (US$5-8), bagels, and wine by the glass or bottle. Customers can use wireless Internet for half an hour with a US$5 purchase, or pay US$2.60 per hour.
Beyond the main strip of hotels and restaurants is Smugglers Beach Bar (tel. 504/9861-0826, 10 A.M.-10 P.M. daily). Food runs US$5-22 (burgers, nachos, lobster), and the chicken wings are especially recommended. With kayaks, a good beach for snorkeling, and games like corn-hole (a type of beanbag toss) and ladder ball (similar to horseshoes) set up, it’s easy to spend an afternoon or an entire day hanging out here. For those who don’t want to miss the game, there are TVs with the latest college and pro ball games playing. To get here, take the main West Bay road all the way down to Infinity Bay, which seems like the end of the road. It’s not. The road continues through Infinity’s parking lot and out the other side, to the tip of the island, where Smugglers is located (it’s a longish walk). It is also possible to snorkel from West Bay around the rocks at the southern tip of the island over to Smuggler’s Cove, but wear fins, make sure there isn’t a strong current that day, and don’t do this alone.
The Mini-Mart (8 A.M.-9 P.M. daily, on the beach between Foster’s and Henry Morgan) has limited and very basic supplies such as Panadol (a good substitute for Tylenol) and pasta, as well as Internet access for US$0.10 per minute.
The petite West Bay Mall has a number of handy shops—to get there, follow the path that’s between Bananarama and Paradise Beach Club out to the road, and the mall is just to the left. Those looking to stock up on their own supplies can find a nice variety of high-quality goods at Mangiamo Market and Deli (8:30 A.M.-5 P.M. Mon.-Sat.), such as gourmet chocolate, granola bars, beer, and ingredients for pasta. There is a branch of Captain Van’s Rentals (tel. 504/445-5040, 9 A.M.-7 P.M. daily) here, renting cell phones, DVDs (and players), scooters (US$39), motorcycles (US$45-55), mountain bikes (US$9), and vehicles(US$55-65). There are discounts for weekly rentals. Scooters are a great way to see the island, but unfortunately in December 2011 there were a couple of incidents of tourists on scooters getting mugged at gunpoint on the far eastern end of the island (where the roads are fairly deserted). Check with staff at Captain Van’s before heading much farther east than French Harbour. Chauffeured tours by car or van are available as well.
On that same little road between West Bay Mall and the beach is Yony’s Rent a Car (tel. 504/2445-5017 or 504/9937-0775, email@example.com), where small cars rent for US$43-50 per day including taxes and insurance, and scooters for US$30. If you didn’t rent from them but came to West Bay with your own wheels, you can park in their big lot for US$2.
There is an Internet shop just across the road from the mall, and an ATM at the mall.
If relaxing on the beach and drinking rum cocktails isn’t enough to relax you, head to Serenity Day Spa (tel. 504/2445-5069, www.westbaylodge.com) for one of their massages (US$50-80) or aromatherapy soaks (US$40-45). Facials, manis, and pedis are available as well.
While one always hopes that there won’t be any need for medicines or doctors while on vacation, it’s nice to know that there is now a small pharmacy and doctor on call in West Bay. Holistic Life Center Drugstore/Clinic (in the West Bay Mall, tel. 504/9985-0445 or 504/3141-3849) is open daily, including Sundays until midday. It has a small selection of medicines and toiletries. Fabian Vallejo MD, can be called in if circumstances require.
If you’d like to learn or brush up on Spanish during your stay, the Central American Spanish School (tel. 504/2443-6453, www.ca-spanish.com) has a branch working out of the Bananarama hotel on West Bay beach.
From West End, you can walk to West Bay (45 minutes along the beach, past the rickety wooden dock on the point—do not carry valuables as there has been the occasional mugging along this route), go by car or taxi (a four-kilometer paved road turns off the main highway near the entrance to West End, while another paved road connects Coxen Hole to West Bay via Flowers Bay; a taxi typically charges US$10), or take a water taxi (US$3 from Foster’s). Water-taxi captains are happy to arrange a return trip to pick up weary but content sun-fried beach bums at the end of the day.
With a full-time population of about 1,200, Sandy Bay is considerably larger than West End, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it. The town is a collection of weather-beaten wooden houses, most built on stilts among patches of shady trees a hundred meters or so from the edge of the sea