One of the most vibrant reefs in the Caribbean runs the entire lenght of Roatan, the largest of the seven islands that comprise the Bay Islands archipelago. Steady easterly current bring migrating whale sharks. Sailfish and schools of tuna roam the open water depths just mile off shore.
Lush, verdant hills as high as 750 feet roll into savanna valleys, tropical forests, mangroves and white sandy beaches. While Roatan’s Est Bay brach and West End host thousands of tourists every day, some spectacular beaches farther east, such as Paya Bay and Camp Bay, remain secluded.
For centuries Roatan’s diverse ethnic groups, natural environment and freedom of lifestyle has attracted a quirky mixture of people and cultures. While Paya Idians predate Columbus‘ visit to the archipelago in 1502, others have come to the island in the centuries since: Spanish conquistadors, English pirates, Scottish loggers, emancipated slaves and Caymanian plantation owners.
Roatan, an hour long boat ride from the Honduran coast, remained virtually undiscovered as a Caribbean tourist destination until the 1980s, when several dive resorts began introducing the island and its unsoiled reefs to U.S. diving enthusiasts. Since 2000, Roatan has bound itself ona rollercooaster ride of development and migration. Even so, the island retians the magic of a bygone era and plays host to everyone, from bacpackers on a budget to Hollywood movie stars. The island today is a much a part of the Caribbean as i tis a part of Central America.
Seven islands and over sixty cays form the archipelago of the Bay Islands, which sits on the cups of two Caribbean tectonic plates. The islands are the peaks of the submerged Bonacca Ridge Mountains. The archipelago spans 80 miles East to West and benefits from consistent easterly winds and currents.
Elongated and narrow, Roatan is the archipelago’s largest island, stretching 25 miles long and 3 miles wide. The Hog Islands or Cayos Cochinos lie 22 miles south of Roatan and on clear days are visible from the island’s shores. The misty mountain range od Sierra Nombre de Dios on the Honduran coast just 30 miles south of Roatan can also be viewed from the island.
Roatan’s steep ridges slope into the forests of pine, thorn-scrub and savanna, which then give way to the beaches, mangrove forests or iron shore-coral exposed at the water’s surface. The tropical island has two distinct sides: the greener more populated and developer western side, the eastern side which is drier and more rugged with large patches of pine forest covering the tall hills.
Summer time is occasionally marked by a dead calm that can stay for several days with the water around the island resembling tranquil, giant lake.
Long before Christopher Colombus cast anchor in the Bay Islands in 1502, Paya Indians, the original inhabitants of Roatan, maintained trading ties with the nearby Maya. In his journals Columbus described the island’s tall pine trees and “smart natives“ whose polupaltion was soon depleted by Spanish slaving expeditions. The Paya Indians who survived quickly allied themselves with English and Dutch pirates who raided Spanish treasure-laden galleons frequenting the Guatemalan, Honduran and Panama coasts,
In the 1630s, English settlers estabilished a Puritan agricultural colony at Port Royal, on the eastern end of the island. Though the settlement failed only after four years, a few Englishmen remained and continued to farm, turtle and trade with nearby Englishmen settlements in Belize, the Mosquito Coast and Jamaica.
During the XVII and XVII centuries, famous and little known pirates, hid and operated from the strategically positioned and virtually deserted Bay Islands. In the 1740s the English government set up an army garrison on the eastern shores of Roatan to establish more permanent control over the island. With its good harbor and defendable access, Port Royale was chosen as the best setting for development. Fort George and Fort Frederick, along with seven other defenses, were built to protect the harbor’s entrance. The fortifications were abonded in 1749 and only a handful of settlers remained.
In 17979 approximately 2 000 Afro-Caribbeans, descendants of the Carib, Arawak and West Africans people known as Garifuna, settled on Roatan. The Garifuna staged an uprising againts the British on the island of Saint Vincent and after their defeat, were deported and eventually brought to Roatan. Soon the Garifuna became the dominant population on the island.
The British Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1830s prompted dozens od White and many more Black families to move to Roatan from the Cayman Islands. By 1852, with a rising English population, the Bay Island succesfully lobbied to become part of the British Empire. In 1859, under increasing United States pressure, the British Crown ceded the Bay Islands back to Honduras. Despite commercial ties with the United States increasing, the culture and language of the island remained English.
The commerical growing of fruits, especially coconuts and bananas, spread in plantations across the island bringing wealth to many island families.
Shrimping, fishing and packing industry developed on the Bay Islands and Roatan in the 1950s. In the 1980s several resorts began attracting the first dive tourists to Roatan and its world class reef. In 1990s Roatan’s first cruise ship dock was constructed in the town of Coxen Hole and soon two international cruise ship companies operated cruise ship docks on the island.
The Bay Islands, strategically located in the Bay of Honduras were a favourite hideout for the buccaneers and pirates for several centuries. The archipelago‘s secluded, deep harbors provided great hiding places and easy escape routes. With fresh water, fertile land, and logwood fit for ship-building, pirates refitted their ships and replenished their food supplies with wild hogs and turtles.
Eventually several houndred English, Dutch and French pirates estabilished a base in Port Royal. From his bases on Roatan and Guanaha, famed Captain Morgan raided Spanish ships travelling to and from nearby Spanish cities Trujillo and Puerto Caballas. Other well known pirates Uring, Morris, Van Horn, and Coxen also spent time on the archipelago.
Today on Roatan’s east side townspeople in Jonesville celebrate their pirate heritage at an annual spring festival. They wear Jolly Roger bandanas and parade through town’s only street with black flags. As the day progresses the celebrations turn to platpole dancing and grease pole climbing, music and dancing.
Island time has its benefits. Things move slower in the humidity and few people are in much of a hurry, except on game days, that is. Soccer is Honduras’ national sport and its presence on Roatan continues to grow steadily. It’s nearly impossible to drive the island’s main road without seeing at least one soccer game under way.
Baseball, not cricket, is king on the west of Roatan. Unlike Jamaica, Cayman Islands and Belize, over the last 100 years Bay Islanders have estabilished more economic and cultural ties with United States than with British Isles. The evidence of this nexus is the islanders‘ love of baseball and fondness for country-and-western music.
Volleyball is also popular contender for islanders‘ free time, with strong following on Roatan’s east end.
Since 2003, a yearly international Bay Islands Triathlon has been organized on Roatan’s West Bay. With steep, windy hills, the Bay Islands Triathlon os considered one of the toughest in the Americas and attracts top international athletes. In the weeks and months prior to the event, Roatan’s roads fill with runners and bikers. Expats residing on Roatan, as well as locals participate in this event and train for it intensely.
Islanders take adventage of any opprotunity to celebrate. Any time a funky mix of country-and-western, reggaeton and punta music reverberates through the cool island breeze, it is likely a party is in full swing. A successful fishing trip, a visit from relatives or simply the end of a work week are reason enough to burts into festivity.
The island’s different communities celebrate their uniqueness in festivals such as the Jonesville Pirate Festival in the spring and April 12th Garifuna celebrations. Each September the West End community hosts catch-and-release deep sea fishing tournament that attracts boats from the Cayman Islands and the United States. The French Harbour community, the island’s second largest, celebrates carnival and parades in December.
Island-wide festival parades, such as the September 15th Independence Day and the June Shrimp Festival, bring the various cultural groups together. Drums and xylophones resonate through streets of Coxen Hole, the island’s largest town, as dozens of school bands showcase their talent.
The much anticipated parades follow months of arduous practice and preparations. Another Honduran national holiday, Dia de la Raza on October 12th, is intended to engage the rich cultural diversity of Central America’s indigenous population. During Semana Santa, or Easter Holy week, the entire island fills with vacationers heading for Roatan’s most popular beaches.
Blooming flowers fill Roatan’s tropical forests, savanna and mangroves year round. European bees thrive on the island pollinating its plants and trees, along with blue and blackwinged Monarch butterflies and fruit bats.
From June to September, the sweet, fermenting aroma of mangoes permeates the humid island air. Roatan is a fruit lover’s paradise with plentuful papaya, banana, cashew, mango, hog plums, breadfruit, and avocados. Thousands of giant Cohoon palms, yellow steamed bamboo, Trumpet, Sum wood, and Dogwood trees cover the island.
Approximately half of Roatan’s seacost is protected by mangrove forests. Vital to the island’s economy system, mangroves work in tandem with the fringing reefs to stabilize soil, break down pollution and protect the island from hurricanes, water surges and erosion. They also servee as breeding grounds and nurseries for several fish species before they are big enough to venture onto the reefs.
Roatan is home to dozens of unique inimals found nowhere else in the world. The Roatan Opossum, a squirrel-like animal and Roatan Agouti, small brown rodent are endemic to Roatan. The Monkeylala, tiny lizard with dinasour-like features, is often spotted scurying to safety on its two hind legs.
The rare spiny-tailed iguana, fastest lizard on earth, is a native island reptile. For generations islanders have hunted uguana for their good meat and nutritius eggs. On a diet of leaves and fruit, the biggest iguanas grow to three feet.
Thirteen species of snakes can be found on Roatan including boa constrictors, rat snakes and coral snakes. Another native island reptile, the american saltwater corcodile, lives on the eastern portion of Roatan. The white tail deer can be seen in isolated areas of the island, while turkey and manatees, once abudant, are now gone from the Bay Islands.
The protected Hawksbill and Green turtles are occasionally seen in waters around Roatan. Whale sharks, manta rays, stingrays. Goliath groupers, nurse and six-gilled sharks attract divers and submariners to the island and surrounding waters. Tuna, barracuda, blue marlin, and sailfish are abudant in the water around the island.
The Bay Islands are resting place for migratory birds: warblers, tanagers and vireos make their semi annual stops here in route between South and North America. Brown pelicans, blue herons and frigate birds are also frequent visitors to the islands. Three species of parrots: red-lored, white-head, and yellow-napped inhabit the island’s forests, as well as red-headed woodpecker, green hummingbirds and ching-ching bird.
Island life becomes more introspective on Sunday mornings. Women and children dressed in their finest, with Bibles in hand, head for two-to-three hour church services. On Saturday evenings as well, dozens of evangelical churches sill with worshippers singing, playing music and listening to sermons.
There are numerous churches and temples represented on Roatan: Catholic, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Evangelical, Jehovah Witness and Latter Day Saints.
The biggest religious celebration of the year take place during Easter Holy Week or Semana Santa. For many islanders this is the highlight of the island’s religious calendar with long hours spent attending religious ceremonies, while thousands of tourists and visitors flock to the island to enjoy its beaches and nightlife.
Medical doctors, veterinarians, US Navy personnel, dentists, optometrists and other belonging to various religious groups offer their time and skills in an effort to improve the human condition of the island. The groups set up impromptu clinics, bring in medical equipment, supplies and provide free medical consultations and treatment.