The Bay Islands off Honduras' Caribbean coast are one of the primary tourism areas, and there is an almost feverish building boom on Roatan serving both vacationers and retirees. The islands are popular with divers, snorkelers and anglers because of the extensive barrier reef that lies near them. Although they were squarely in the path of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, there is now almost no evidence of any past destruction.
The islands have a distinctive culture. Among the settlers were Cayman Islanders of British descent (both English and Spanish are spoken). The Garifuna or Black Caribs—descendants of Carib Indians and escaped African slaves—have a long history there as well, though many have moved to villages on the North Coast of the mainland. If you get the chance to see a Garifuna traditional dance, it is well worth the time. In recent years, more and more mainland Hondurans have gone to the Bay Islands to find work, which is making the area less distinctive than it used to be.
The majority of the 70-odd islands and cays in the archipelago are uninhabited. The largest and most populated islands are Roatan, Guanaja and Utila, all of which have dive-oriented resorts that rent scuba equipment and arrange for boat excursions. Expect a range from luxury to basic (but comfortable and well-run) accommodations at these resorts. In addition, some homes on the islands of Roatan and Utila can be rented by visitors. Live-aboard dive boats anchor off Roatan. Combination sailing and beach vacations also can be arranged.
Light-tackle fishing is becoming more popular in the islands, especially bonefishing on the flats around Guanaja and Utila, where it's also possible to hook permit (similar to pompano), tarpon and snook. Deep-sea fishing charters are available from all three islands. Tuna, barracuda, shark, blue and white marlin, and sailfish can be found year-round. September-January, trophy wahoo, mahimahi, kingfish, grouper and red snapper are in the waters. Whatever you're doing or pursuing, take along plenty of repellent for mosquitoes and sand flies.
Guanaja—This small island used to be famous for its pine, ceiba and fruit trees and its lush jungle—sights that greeted Columbus when he landed there in 1502. But after Hurricane Mitch camped over it for 39 hours with wind gusts as high as 178 mph/287 kph, practically an entire town as well as trees and buildings were no more. The island has recovered remarkably well, however.
The town of Bonacca, Guanaja's only settlement of any size, has been almost completely rebuilt. There is a small airstrip on the island, and flights to and from La Ceiba, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula operate regularly. There are few roads on the island, so transportation is by boat and on foot. Roughing it can be a great adventure, if you feel safe and comfortable doing so.
Guanaja primarily caters to divers, and more than a half-dozen simple dive resorts are found there. The 40 or so dive sites around Guanaja are rich in coral, seafans, tropical fish and deep channels lined with sponges. (Approximately 10% of the coral reef was damaged by the hurricane—mostly in shallow water—but only a few dive locations were lost.) Out of the water, hiking is popular, especially to the island's waterfalls. Although the tall pines for which Gunanja was known are gone, things grow rapidly in the tropics, and the island is once again lush and green.
Roatan—The largest of the Bay Islands, Roatan is 40 mi/65 km long and measures not quite 4 mi/6 km at its widest point. A mountain ridge runs down the center, which proved to be a saving grace when Hurricane Mitch struck: The south shore of the island was somewhat sheltered from the storm.
Roatan is the most developed of the Bay Islands, with an international airport offering direct service to Miami, Atlanta, Newark and Houston, as well as more frequent flights to mainland Honduras. There is also twice daily ferry service from La Ceiba. Beautiful white-sand beaches, offshore coral reefs, ocean canyons, dramatic wall dives, marine life and a relaxed atmosphere are the keys to the island's popularity. It's possible to dive right off the beaches, but you need a boat to get to the best sites.
The center of tourist activity on Roatan is the western end of the island. The community of West End consists of a number of dive operations, small shops and moderately priced hotels and restaurants. West Bay, with truly beautiful beaches, is developing into a more upscale area with several new hotels and condo developments opening recently. West Bay is also home to Bite On the Beach, one of the island's oldest and best restaurants. Although most of the road connecting West End and West Bay has been paved, the best connection between the two areas is still by water taxi.
Near the island's airport is Coxen Hole, Roatan's largest village and the capital of the Bay Islands. Banks and other services are available, and buses and vans provide transportation from Coxen Hole to other areas. French Harbour, on the south side of Roatan, is home to a large fishing fleet. It has a collection of stores and restaurants used primarily by locals, as well as banks and small hotels. Nearby are the popular Fantasy Island Beach Resort and Marina, the upscale Barefoot Cay and the Coco View Resort.
Sandy Bay has the Roatan Museum and the Institute of Marine Sciences, both located on the grounds of Anthony's Key Resort and open daily except Wednesday. The resort operates a program where you can snorkel or dive with the dolphins. You don't have to be a guest at the resort to take part, but guests get a discount on the price.
Punta Gorda is Roatan's only Garifuna community and was the first such established in Central America. It was populated by the descendants of a group marooned on the island by the British in 1796. Located on the north coast, it suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Mitch: Almost half of the town was destroyed. Most has been rebuilt, although the small dive resort that was located there has not reopened.
For those who like to travel off the beaten track, the extreme eastern end of Roatan offers beautiful, pristine beaches and charming villages. Many of them are accessible only by boat.
Utila—Although smaller than Guanaja, Utila does have a paved road, a few cars and air service from La Ceiba, which is just 18 mi/28 km away on the mainland. There's also ferry service to La Ceiba and a daily catamaran to Roatan. People get around the island mostly by bicycle or on foot. Beaches are scarce, although there are some small beaches reachable by boat that have good sand. The tallest point is Pumpkin Hill, about 200 ft/60 m high. It's said that pirates once stashed their loot in the caves on the hill.
Utila used to be better known for fishing than diving, but that has all changed as many dive shops have opened. Many of them offer very inexpensive certification courses. If you're interested, exercise caution in selecting a program. If booked through a known dive operator, the course should be safe. If not, check with the Honduras Institute of Tourism on Utila to make sure the course meets all safety standards.
Diving is good right offshore, or make use of a boat to see exotic fish, sponges and canyons. One of Utila's claims to fame is that it offers divers and snorkelers an excellent opportunity to see whale sharks, the world's largest fish, and two research facilities are based on the island. Though they may be spotted at any time, they are most abundant on a specific lunar cycle August-October. Anglers can enjoy both offshore and flats fishing, with marlin, permit, tarpon and bonefish being the quarry. The fish populations are reported to be back to normal since the hurricane.
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