Relax in the Old Caribbean

Sitting down at a local restaurant on the Island of Roatan, I shift my gaze past the waiter over the railing to the seashore. I see the moonlight reflecting over water leading my eye past the horizon up into the starry cosmos as it looks so relaxing. I sip my monkey la-la (a delicious island concoction named after a local lizard) and think, “That is my ‘to do’ list for the next few weeks: relax.”

Roatan, along with Utila and Guanaja, form the Bay Islands of Honduras. Roatan lies 65 kilometres off the northern coast of mainland Honduras.

The island is small enough to explore by car or motorcycle in a day (about 60 km east to west and 7 km across at its widest point), but you’ll want to stay much longer.

According to the Islands history, Roatan was originally populated by Paya Indians, and the Bay Islands were discovered by Europeans in the 13th century, and for almost 200 years British pirates and Spanish conquistadors fought to control the islands. The Europeans were victorious.

Former slaves from Saint Vincent, the Garifuna, populate much of the islands, and one Garfuna village on Roatan is Punta Gorda and is open to visitors wishing to experience the unique culture of the Garifuna people. In the 1960s, the islands were given back to Honduras and residents of the mainland began coming over.

Roatan has become home to many expat´s from Europe and North America in recent years. In fact on the first day of my trip, I met several people from Saskatchewan — onetime visitors who loved it so much they decided to stay.

The island is situated atop the underwater Bonacca Ridge. Mountains stretch over the island making for breath-taking views of the rainforest percolating down to the white sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters.

You can also discover the jungle, via zip line, for a bird’s-eye view of exotic wildlife like parrots, monkeys and iguanas or visit the botanical gardens and hear the sounds of tropical birds as butterflies fly around the flowers, horseback riding, bicycle or scooter around the island, or just enjoy the sparkling ocean view while relaxing in your hammock. And for the more energetic travelers, there is windsurfing, sailing or kayaking.

The reef that draws scuba divers from around the world is the largest in the Caribbean and second largest around the world. Roatan´s coral reef extends directly from the shoreline. Thus providing the best dive sites just minutes from land and snorkeling with the sea turtles a short swim away from nearly any point on the island.

The reef cliffs drop dramatically into the clear water that provides awesome visibility to see dolphins, sharks and rays. Dive down to one of the many ship wrecks or try a night dive where you can observe fascinating creatures such as octopi.

There are plenty dive resorst on Roatan, as well as smaller hotels and independent diving operators. Not only is the diving remarkable; it’s also relatively inexpensive.

Prices for a dive can range from $25 to $35 and it’s cheap to get certified in almost all PADI courses. You should take your course at home to save valuable holiday time and do your certification dives on the reef. Gear is available for rent from virtually all dive shops and nitrox is also widely available on the island.

Coxen Hole is Roatan’s municipal hub and point of entry onto the island, is home to the airport, ferry and cruise ship dock. Once on the island, It’s easy to catch a taxi or bus, make sure you negotiate the price before you get in. Car rental agencies are also widely available around the island. Chartered deep-sea fishing trips allow you to enjoy your own fresh catch or feast on the sumptuous selection of seafood.

Most ATMs are situated in Coxen Hole and West End so make sure to bring some extra cash. It’s a good plan to have Lempira, the Honduran currency, on hand or some American cash or traveller’s cheques, but usually the price is slightly hiked for the latter.

Accommodation in the island of Roatan range from shared hostel rooms to air-conditioned cabanas and all-inclusive resorts. As a backpacker on a tight budget, I opted to stay in Westend.

A long dirt and sandy road lined with assortment of shops restaurants, bars, dive shops and hotels winds along the beach at Half Moon Bay in Westend. There are several small markets, and roadside fruit and vegetable vendors hawk fresh produce from organic island farms.

This vegetarian had no problem with the food selection, from the local baleadas (a variation on the burrito) to the ocean-front restaurants on the water. No matter what your budget — or taste — you’re guaranteed a decent meal.

You can also take a water taxi for two dollars over to West Bay Beach for the day and enjoy soaking up the sun and come back for dusk at Sundowners Beach Bar, where you can bring your beer right into the water or head over to Fubar, a giant pirate-ship-turned nightclub.

Roatan is often referred to as the Old Caribbean. It’s a place to relax, meet crazy people and enjoy the magnificent natural beauty. I went to Roatan alone with a handful of books and a bathing suit, and came back with wonderful new friends and mind-boggling memories.

If You Go to Roatan make sure to:
– Bring bug spray for mosquitoes and sand flies.
– Stop during an island tour at The View to dine in a sublime state of viewing ecstasy in First Bight.
– Try the delicious and inexpensive eats at the Cannibal Cafe in Westend.
– Visit the Iguana Farm in French Cay (bring a banana and they’ll love you).
– Watch the sunset and sip a monkey la-la at Sundowners Beach Bar in the warm Caribbean ocean or on the beach under the palm trees.

By Janessa Johnsrude
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