Strung in a gentle curve 60km off the north coast, the Islas de la Bahía, with their clear waters and abundant marine life, are the country’s main tourist attraction. Fringed by a coral reef, the islands are the perfect destination for inexpensive, water-based activities – diving, sailing and fishing top the list – or just relaxing. Composed of three main islands and some 65 smaller cayes, the chain lies on the Bonacca Ridge, an underwater extension of the Sierra de Omoa mountain range. Roatán is the largest and most developed of the islands, while Guanaja, to the east, is a bit smarter. Utila, the closest to the mainland, is a backpacker hotspot.
The Bay Islands’ history of conquest, pirate raids and constant immigration has resulted in an unusual society. The original inhabitants were recorded by Columbus in 1502, but the indigenous population declined rapidly as a result of enslavement and forced labour. Following a series of pirate attacks, the Spanish evacuated the islands in 1650. Roatán was left deserted until the arrival of the Garífuna in 1797. These 300 people, forcibly expelled from the British-controlled island of St Vincent following a rebellion, were persuaded by the Spanish to settle in Trujillo on the mainland, leaving a small settlement at Punta Gorda on Roatán’s north coast. Further waves of settlers arrived after the abolition of slavery in 1830, when white Cayman Islanders and freed slaves arrived first on Utila, later spreading to Roatán and Guanaja.
Today, the islands retain their cultural separation from the mainland, although the presence of Spanish-speaking Hondurans and North American and European expats, who are settling in growing numbers, means the reshaping of the culture continues. A distinctive form of Creole English is still spoken on the streets of Utila and Guanaja, but Spanish has taken over as the dominant language in Roatán. The huge growth in visitors since the early 1990s – a trend that shows no signs of abating – has been controversial, as the islanders’ income, which traditionally came from fishing or working on cargo ships or oil rigs, now relies heavily on tourism. Concern is also growing about the environmental impact of tourism.