Travelogue: Roatan, Honduras

Title Slide Roatan

On June 21st, we reserved our tickets to Roatan for later in the summer. On June 28th, the armed forces of Honduras arrested President Zelaya, in the first coup the country had seen since 1963. We watched the news carefully the next few days, wondering how to react to the travel advisory the U.S. issued against “unnecessary” travel by American citizens to Honduras, and tried to take our cue from the cruise ships. We figured that as long as Carnival was still docking on the island every Wednesday, there was nothing to be concerned about. We also figured that we had no mainland connecting flight, and were not really traveling in Honduras but rather staying put on one of the Bay Islands—this was to be a beach vacation more than a cultural one. Besides, we were paid in full.

One of our fellow divers and the owner of the West Bay lodge, Milosh, remarked: “there are a lot of tanks here, but all scuba tanks,” and that was exactly our experience. We could see that the island’s business was affected by the ongoing political situation, but it had no effect on us.
Quite the contrary, our visit to Roatan was amazingly peaceful and relaxing—what a beautiful place!

We flew with Continental from LaGuardia to Houston and then directly to Roatan. After a tight embarkation at LaGuardia (the check-in before security took over an hour, and even then we ended up checking curbside to shave off some time), we had a 3 hour layover in Houston. I would say we know that airport very, very well—we even checked out the exhibit on Bush senior! When we arrived at the gate, Aron pointed out that we’d found all the divers. I looked around—I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed—one man was wearing what at first appeared to be a Hawaiin or Rein Schooner shirt, but on closer examination the print was of Hammerhead sharks. Another was wearing a shark-tooth necklace. Multiple had t-shirts from some other dive location (Cozumel or Bonaire), and everyone had carry-ons with some sort of wet/dry nylon feature. I was a little concerned that I was in for days of bravado-filled dive stories from troops of divers and an overload of the smell of wet neoprene.



Of course, I was also incredibly excited—a feeling heightened as the view from the plane’s windows switched from indistinct blue waters to waters striped with turquoise and the outlines of coral reefs.

We landed on an airstrip bordering the Caribbean, and walked onto the tarmac, immediately cognisant that we were much closer to the equator. We had arranged to be picked up by our hotel, Bananarama, and found two other passengers—Mack and his son, Tyler—who would be joining us; after getting our entry stamps, we all on our way.

The ride took about 45 minutes—the first portion of which was through an area of Coxen Hole with no paved roads, only mud and ditches made worse by recent rains. The conditions were arresting. I kept wondering in particular, as we all chatted away, what Tyler thought of the impoverished areas we passed through; we learned it was his first trip out of the country.

After passing briefly through West End, we drove over the hills to West Bay, where Bananarama was situated.


Walking to our cabana, we caught a glimpse of the beach—just steps away. The room itself was very comfortable, with a small kitchen and bedroom, and a front porch with a hammock. The most time we spent on our porch was when, a day or so later, we met the cutest kitten ever and snuck him some milk, but I can imagine it would be a nice place to relax.



Setting down our things, and with a good application of deet (a sunscreen/deet application was a ritual part of our days–and we had no trouble with sand flies as a result), we went straight to the Thirsty Turtle bar to take the hotel up on their welcome drink offer and followed the bartender’s advice: for me, a Monkey La La and for Aron, a Pina Colada.


The Monkey La La—sort of a signature on the island’s beaches, though with various names ending in La La—is essentially a frozen mudslide, and packs a punch. It’s also incredibly sweet, a character that was really too common to almost every non-beer drink we had (and that’s saying a lot for me and my sweet-tooth). Milkshake or cocktail, it didn’t we matter; we happily sipped them and strolled down West Bay Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in memory. White sands, turquoise waters, long-boats pulled up onto the sand, and a calm shore with just enough infrastructure to keep one satisfied without feeling too resorty.


After a couple more happy hour specials, we went back to our room; we were stopped on our way in by our neighbors, who raved about the week they’d spent there—particularly about the off-shore snorkeling. We’d heard that the snorkeling at West Bay had declined with higher tourism, so we were relieved to hear this. The neighbors also left us additional sunscreen and bug repellent before they left.


For dinner, we decided to stay at Bananarama and try the Garlic Shrimp special. Unfortunately, they’d run out when we arrived around seven. We learned that people tend to eat early here—it was made doubly clear by the fact that we were, within minutes, the only people out at the beachside tables. The quiet nights were fine with us, but if you were looking for a party, it wasn’t to be found here.



The following day, we dedicated ourselves to relaxing on the beach. We used the lounge chairs near Island Pearl, their fancier, sister resort next door—which may not have technically been allowed, but no one seemed to mind. Unbeknownst to us, we set our chairs under the shade of some seriously productive beach-grape trees. Occasionally, the staff of the hotels or the locals would walk by and stop to gather and eat the “grapes” that fell from the tree. There were very few vendors on the beach, but those that did come by never failed to pick up a few grapes when they stopped at our chairs.



At one point, there was even a man up in the tree gathering the fruit—we became aware when we were knocked by some falling pieces! Never wanting to miss out on sampling new food, Aron decided to dive in and popped one in his mouth the way we had seen others do it. They turned out to be quite good and tasted something like a cross between a pear and a leeche, but with just a small rim of fruit around the sizable seed.



I think Aron could spend the entire day snorkeling, so he was understandably eager to get in the water. Rather than walk to the end of the beach as our book has described, we headed straight out from a small dock—as suggested by the dive center—and before long we were swimming over remarkably healthy coral. It was some of the best off-shore snorkeling either of us can remember. We explored the reef for the next several hours, finding large schools of fish and several lobsters!


The rest of the afternoon was spent taking advantage of the two for one special at the Bananarama bar and reading on the beach.


We decided to walk to West End, the backpacker filled town where many more restaurants were located for dinner that evening. Although one could take a water taxi for about $6 while the sun is up or a cab for $10, we decided to walk along the shore. It was a beautiful stroll for the most part and it was interesting to see all the other private residences and hotels that were interspersed between West Bay and West End. Most seemed particularly deserted—everything seemed to be at low capacity, presumably due to the coup.



We had heard numerous people suggest we eat at the Lighthouse restaurant, so after a quick stroll down the main drag—really just a fairly muddy road with bars and eateries—we headed that way. The restaurant itself was good but not exciting. However, I say that with the caveat that we didn’t bring enough cash to explore the menu the way we would have liked to—and they didn’t take credit cards.
The next morning, we had scheduled ourselves for a dive. After grabbing our gear from the shop at the hotel, we waded a few feet into the water and hopped in the boat. An easy 5 minute ride away and we were already gearing up for our first dive. As good as the snorkeling was, the scenery only got better a bit further away from the beach. The coral seemed a bit healthier, the visibility a bit extended, and the fish a bit more plentiful. Though we had originally only planned on doing just two dives, we felt persuaded to pack the day with three. Everything was so easy, so affordable—we just couldn’t resist. It really is amazing to just walk in and out of the water, pull up to the shore for a lunch break; they even pulled up the boat to a dock in West End to that Aron could run ashore and get a replacement battery for his dive computer!


Our first dive was at Lighthouse Reef, followed by West End Wall. There was at least 100 feet of visibility and both dives were full of diverse, colorful corals. The first dive had more channels and shelves–interesting topography–while the second was more notable for things like decorator crabs, lobster, shrimp, a trigger fish, some turtles–lots of animals. We were in some more shallow water this time and there were a couple people who seemed to have difficulty with their buoyancy in the shallows; probably the only frustration during our dives was watching some more novice divers brush against the corals. There’s no saying “be careful” or “watch out for your fin” when you’re underwater.


After the first two dives we stopped for lunch; we went to Celeste’s for baleadas—a sort of taco. Celeste’s husband, Milosh, was on our dive with his son and gave us a glowing (no doubt, unbiased) review of the food. His review, happily, was completely right. It was absolutely excellent. After having fish and lobster baleadas, we both wished that we could have them for every meal. Sadly, Celeste’s was only open at lunch—so we returned, getting them for takeout so we could eat them on the beach, for the rest of our lunches in West Bay.


The third dive took us to Blue Channel, with lots of cuts and swim-throughs in the reef. They were definitely a challenge and one of the other members of our group decided to swim above and meet us on the other end. There was also a section with lots of beautiful, waving grasses.



In the evening, we went for a sunset snorkel and found lots of lobsters coming out. And after dinner down the beach, we packed up—wondering if we had made a mistake to leave this side of the island where it seemed to us we had found a small piece of absolute paradise.


The next day, after leaving our bags in the office, we went back out to the beach to spend another full day toggling between lying under the shade of the grape tree and swimming and snorkeling in the sea. Breakfast that morning was awesome, by the way: fried bananas and mashed black beans with scrambled eggs. Why couldn’t every morning’s breakfast be that good? (Other days included lackluster attempts to please tourists, like soggy pancakes with fake butter.)

We left Bananarama in their shuttle, which turned out to cost about twice as much as it would have had we caught a taxi (next time…), and headed to our second location on the East side of the island—Barefoot Cay.


I was initially most excited about our time at Barefoot Cay. It was the luxury part of our trip—we had splurged a bit to stay here for our last 4 nights (2 nights in the loft studios and 2 nights in one of the Master Bedroom portions of a cabana on the cay). Here are some photos of the studio loft—also called the diver’s loft. We were welcomed with a rummy-fruity drink and a bottle of champagne!

And I feel a bit spoiled saying this—because it was quite beautiful—but I was a little disappointed when we first arrived. I’ll explain later that my feelings did change (especially once we moved onto the cay), but at first I felt like we’d made a mistake. It seemed so fancy, and set in the midst of these large ports nearby—it felt a little isolating. And it was really windy. And where did the beautiful beach go?


But it really turned out to be great; and Aron did remind me that one reason we were happy to be there for that half of our trip (our first full day at Barefoot was Wednesday) as opposed to being at West Bay, was that the cruise ships dock in Roatan on Wednesdays and Fridays. We’d heard that every passenger, at some point or another, seems to end up on West Bay—the taxi drivers corroborated. So who knows what our little beach would have been like at that point anyway? I can’t imagine it packed with people—it was so peaceful! (As an aside, I’m curious what it’s like these days—last we heard there was a new cruise terminal opening and one company—Princess?—was going to send a ship there every day. If that’s true, it doesn’t bode well for that healthy coral just offshore…)


The next day we went down to the dive shop and got ourselves signed up to join the boat. There were quite a few of us—and plenty of dive masters. Everything was full service and it was nice to get onto the boat without having to carry tanks or set up the BC—we went straight to the safety check. Again, the dive site was mere minutes away.


Our first dive on this side took us to Menageray (not Menagerie, but Manageray–get it? Insert slightly dorky laugh here.) The immediate distinction was that we were on walls for many of our dives here–rather than swimming through shallower reefs. There were huge grouper–in fact, there were lots of giant fish!
Next came Cemetary Wall with its incredibly steep walls and nothing but blue below. (We were told there were places where it dropped to 600 feet!) One of our dive masters, Cynthia, saw a nurse shark–but our notable spottings were some very large, green moray eels.



After the first two dives, the others went elsewhere for a shark dive. Had there been room, I had actually agreed to go (which, in retrospect, I can hardly believe!?). But the dive was filled, and it sounds like it was actually a bit crowded. Instead, we went on a dive with two dive masters, out to Connie’s Deep. We all spent a long time searching for a sea horse that is usually spotted there, but to no avail.

That evening, one of the dive masters—Mike, from the UK—invited us out with some guests whose last night it was, to a bar down the road. We went with him and the group of five and talked over beers before heading back for a late dinner by the pool. We didn’t opt for the hotel’s meal plan; we would just let them know in advance for which dinners we would be joining them. As much as we often enjoy trying new restaurants when we travel, it was lovely to come back after a day in the sun and not need to arrange to go out or to find a good spot–so relaxing!


There’s a lovely palapa at the end of a pier, perfect for sitting and reading, as well as a nice pool with lounge chairs at Barefoot Cay.

But for Thursday, we decided it was worth it to us to take a taxi (especially after Mike showed us how to go for a low fare) back to West Bay to repeat our previous patterns of reading, swimming, baleada-eating and cocktail-sipping at the beach. We did pay a small fee for a drink/lounge chair combo, but it was worth it.


We came back for dinner at Barefoot Cay and found that our bags had been moved (as expected, don’t worry) to our next location on the cay itself. Though the loft would have been considered nicer to some (it had the big view, the large patio, the open floor plan and kitchen), we much preferred the Master Bedroom.


It had this amazing outdoor shower, you could hear the water breaking on the reef beyond—it was cozy and romantic. And if both of us weren’t completely won over by Barefoot by this point, the room-change went a long way toward making that happen.


The restaurant at Barefoot Cay serves a different main dish every night of the week. We were going to miss the Lobster, but we requested it and they were happy to make it for us that evening. Delicious! In fact, all of the food there was really great. You definitely have to be content being on “island time”–everything went very slowly, but we were never in much of a rush.
Friday morning, however, we were met with some disappointing news. Two of the divers had gone out the previous day to Mary’s Place—which is rumored to be the best site on the island. They had also done this dive earlier in their trip, so the dive center wasn’t planning on going today. Lucky for us, the two divers agreed to go back again (as they agreed it was the best). Going to Mary’s tends to cost extra if you leave from the West side, but it’s just minutes from Barefoot Cay.

This time, we were joined by some new people—three members of the crew for the 90-100′ boat…er, yacht… that docked at Barefoot Cay (pictured). We especially enjoyed chatting with one of them, Arley, and exchanged photos after the trip.

We learned that we’d been lucky: this side of the island was so much windier than West Bay (which we found out is a seasonal difference), and apparently some of the previous dive days had been really rough—so rough that they drove the divers along the coast to the other side rather than take the boat. It was just too choppy. Today, the sea was glass-like, calm—it made for a perfect day of diving and a great afternoon at the palapa.


Our last two dives took us to Insidious Reef and Mary’s Place. As expected, Mary’s Place was the highlight. It was pretty spectacular; with tons of steep walls and swim-throughs, the topography was stunning.


That afternoon, we rested up at the palapa on the pier and tried out the snorkeling inside the reef. There was a huge (HUGE) barracuda that hangs out just under the deck and there were some giant puffers under a boat that had sank just a few feet away. But the most exciting we saw was a group of 15 or so squid, hovering above the sea grasses. They were so beautiful! We tried to stay as still as possible, but at some point we startled them and they all took off in a flash, leaving clouds of black ink in their stead.
On Saturday, we had a 1pm flight and needed to leave around 11am for the airport. It had been sort of an early to bed, early to rise type of trip, so we were able to fit in one more morning of lounging about at the palapa as well as another swim.
We grabbed a beer and waited for the first leg of our flight. We were sorry to go.

When we arrived in Houston, we couldn’t believe the immigration lines. It was mad. I’m not sure how many flights come through there—I imagine they must have so many connections to the Caribbean and to Mexico. We made it in time to our flight, but I’d say half of the flight did not. It was to be a full flight, but we weren’t the only couple with a row to ourselves!

Visited: August 2009

I’d love to hear from someone who has been to Roatan and stayed on West Bay beach since the new cruise terminal opened—I’m hoping to hear that it’s still as beautiful and peaceful as we found it to be. It really was a perfect beach vacation.

P.S. Find more travelogues.

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