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.
GUANAJA, some 25km long and just 4km wide at its largest point, is divided into two unequal parts by a narrow canal – the only way to get between the two sections of the island is by water-taxi, which adds both to the atmosphere and to the cost of living. The island is very thinly populated and receives relatively few travellers. Note that sandflies and mosquitoes are endemic throughout the island, so arrive prepared to deal with them.
Most of Guanaja’s 12,000 inhabitants live in Bonacca (also known as Guanaja Town), a crowded settlement on a small caye a few hundred metres offshore. It’s here that you’ll find the island’s shops, as well as the bulk of the less unreasonably priced accommodation. The only other settlements of any substance are Savannah Bight (on the east coast) and Mangrove Bight (on the north coast).
Some of the island’s finest white-sand beaches lie around the rocky headland of Michael’s Rock, near the Island House Resort on the north coast, with good snorkelling close to the shore.
Wandering around the warren of tight streets, walkways and canal bridges in BONACCA makes for an interesting half-hour or so – though government plans to eliminate the town’s tiny waterways for new roads means the town may not be the Honduran Venice for much longer. Virtually all the houses in town are built on stilts – vestiges of early settlement by Cayman Islanders – with the main causeway running for about 500m east–west along the caye.
Diving is excellent all around the main island, but particularly off the small cayes to the east, and at Black Rocks, off the northern tip of the main island, where there’s an underwater coral canyon. The Mestizo Dive, off Soldado Beach, south of Michael’s Rock, was opened in 2002 to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s visit, with sunken statues of the explorer and national hero Lempira on a reef surrounded by genuine Spanish colonial artefacts, including a cannon.
Though Guanaja’s Caribbean pine forests were flattened by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, there’s still some decent hiking to be found. A wonderful trail leads from Mangrove Bight up to Michael Rock Peak, the highest point in the Bay Islands (412m), and down to Sandy Bay on the south coast, affording stunning views of Guanaja, Bonacca and the surrounding reef. Fit walkers can do the trail in a day, or you can camp on the summit, provided you bring your own provisions.
Some 50km from La Ceiba, ROATÁN is the largest of the Bay Islands, a curving ridged hump almost 50km long and 5km across at its widest point. A popular stopoff for cruise ships, Roatán can be a hard place to enjoy if you’re on a tight budget – expect your spending to go way above average. The island’s accommodation mostly comes in the form of all-inclusive luxury resort packages, although there are a few good deals to be found in West End. Like Utila, Roatán is a superb diving destination, and also offers some great hiking, as well as the chance to do nothing except laze on a beach. Coxen Hole is the island’s commercial centre.
Note that credit-card transactions are subject to a 16 percent fee in all establishments on the island.
Roatán’s abundance of great diving and superb beaches often takes away from the charm of the island’s smaller towns and villages, which are worth exploring to get a sense of what it would have been like before the tourists arrived.
COXEN HOLE (also known as Roatán Town) is uninteresting and run-down; most visitors come here only to change money or shop. All of the town’s practical facilities and most of its shops are on Main Street, near where the buses stop.
Leaving Coxen Hole, the paved road runs northeast past the small secluded cove of Brick Bay to FRENCH HARBOUR, a busy fishing port and the island’s second-largest town. Less run-down than Coxen Hole, it’s a lively and interesting place to spend a few hours.
From French Harbour the road cuts inland along a central ridge to give superb views of both the north and south coasts of the island. After about 14km the road reaches OAK RIDGE, a fishing port with wooden houses strung along its harbour – it’s attractive in a bleak sort of way. There are some nice, unspoiled beaches to the east of town, accessible by lanchas from the main dock, and other nearby communities can be reached by boat cruises through the mangroves. Boatmen offer trips to Port Royal, the mangroves and Morat for US$50 or to Pigeon Cayes for US$200 (up to ten people).
The road ends at PORT ROYAL, on the southern edge of the island, where the faint remains of a fort built by the English can be seen on a caye offshore. The village lies in the Port Royal Park and Wildlife Reserve, the largest refuge on the island, set up in 1978 in an attempt to protect endangered species such as the yellow-naped parrot.
The eastern tip of Roatán is made up of mangrove swamps, with a small island, Morat, just offshore. Beyond is Barbareta Caye, which has retained much of its virgin forest cover.
About 5km from Oak Ridge on the northern coast of the island is PUNTA GORDA, the oldest Garífuna community in Honduras. The best time to visit is for the anniversary of the founding of the settlement on April 12, when Garífuna from all over the country attend the celebrations. At other times it’s a quiet and slightly dilapidated little port with no buildings of note, though the black, white and yellow of the Garífuna flags brighten things up.
Midway between Coxen Hole and West End, SANDY BAY is an unassuming community with a number of attractions. The Institute for Marine Sciences (anthonyskey.com), based at Antony’s Key Resort, has exhibitions on the marine life and geology of the islands and a museum with useful information on local history and archeology. There are also bottlenose dolphin shows, or you can enjoy “encounters” in waist-deep water. Across the road, several short nature trails weave through the jungle at the Carambola Botanical Gardens (carambolagardens.com), a riot of beautiful flowers, lush ferns and tropical trees. A thirty-minute hike to the summit of Carambola Mountain gives a view of the coral in the ocean beyond.
The waters around West End offer fantastic watersports – primarily diving, and superb snorkelling in the reef just offshore, but with plenty of other activities available.
Diving courses in West End are available for all levels, and prices are officially standardized. A four-day PADI Open Water course will cost about US$280, with some schools offering discounted accommodation. You will also have to buy a manual (US$35). Fun dives costs US$35–40 a dive, with ten-dive packages around US$300. All divers must also buy a US$10 pass, which is valid for a year. Recommended West End-based schools include: West End Divers (2445 4289, westenddivers.info); Ocean Connections (ocean-connections.com); Coconut Tree Divers (2445 4081, coconuttreedivers.com); Native Sons (2445 4003, nativesonsroatan.com) and Roatán Divers (8836 8414, roatandiver.com).
The best snorkelling spots around West End are at the mouth of Half Moon Bay and at the Blue Channel, which can be accessed from the beach 100m south of Foster’s bar; you can rent equipment (around US$10/day) from many of the dive schools and some shops along the main road.
You can rent sea kayaks from the Sea Breeze Inn, close to the entrance road; they also offer waterskiing. Alfredo (contactable through Sea Breeze Inn or on 9866 4582) offers fishing trips. Captain Danillo offers glass-bottomed-boat tours, leaving from the jetty opposite Coconut Tree Divers.
Some 2km southwest of West End, towards the extreme western tip of Roatán, is the stunning white-sand beach of West Bay, fringed by coconut palms and washed by crystal-clear waters. There’s decent snorkelling at the southern end of the beach, though the once-pristine reef has suffered in recent years from increasing river run-off and the close attentions of unsupervised day-trippers.
From West End, it’s a pleasant 45-minute stroll south along the beach and over a few rock outcrops; alternatively, you can take one of the small lanchas that leave regularly from the jetty near West End Divers (US$3/50L each way; three-person minimum).
With its calm waters and incredible sandy beaches, WEST END, 14km from Coxen Hole, makes the most of its ideal setting at the southwest corner of the island. From the beautifully sheltered Half Moon Bay at the northern end of town, a sandy track runs 1km or so along the water’s edge, past guesthouses, bars and restaurants geared towards independent travellers of all budgets. The year-round community of sun-worshippers and dive shops gives the village a laidback charm during the day and a vibrant, party feel after dark.
The smallest of the three main Bay Islands, UTILA is also the cheapest and one of the best places in the world to learn to dive (and even if you don’t want to don tanks, the superb waters around the island offer great swimming and snorkelling possibilities), factors which combine to make it one of Central America’s best destinations for budget travellers.
The island’s principal main road, a twenty-minute walk end to end, runs along the seafront from The Point in the east to Sandy Bay in the west. Utila Town (also known as East Harbour) is the island’s only settlement and home to the majority of its two-thousand-strong population.
Open-water courses cost around US$280–300; prices are supposed to be fixed but in reality some schools charge more and some less. The price normally includes accommodation for at least part of the course, and discounted accommodation afterwards. Fun dives cost around US$35. There’s a US$4 reef conservation fee to pay too.
Alton’s 2min west of the airstrip 2425 3704, diveinutila.com. Accommodation on site (discounted following courses), and use of kitchen. It has a conch nursery and a stringent ecological policy.
Bay Islands College of Diving 5min west of the dock, next to Utila Lodge 2425 3291, dive-utila.com. Professional school, with an indoor training pool and the island’s only hyperbaric chamber on site.
Captain Morgan’s On the corner opposite the dock 2425 3349, divingutila.com. Accommodation provided at Pirate’s Bay Inn and the Lonestar Hotel.
Cross Creek 5min east of the dock 2425 3397, crosscreekutila.com. Based in the hotel of the same name.
Deep Blue Divers 10min west of the dock 2425 3511, deepbluediversutila.com. Based at the hotel of the same name, where accommodation is provided.
Gunter’s 8min west of the dock 2425 3350, ecomarineutila.com. A small, relaxed operation that offers a “lazy boat” for late risers. Its dock is a favourite haunt of sea horses.
Parrots 2min west of the dock 2425 3772, www.parrotsdivecenter.com. Free accommodation and a dynamic environment.
Underwater Vision 2425 3103, underwatervision.net. Good accommodation provided at Hotel Trudy.
Utila Dive Centre Near the end of the road west of the dock, close to the bridge 2425 3326, utiladivecentre.com. Perhaps the best reputation for quality and safety, and courses are a bit pricier as a result. Free dorm accommodation at Mango Inn.
Most visitors come to Utila specifically for the diving, attracted by the low prices, beautifully clear water and rich marine life. Even in winter, the water is generally calm, and common sightings include nurse and hammerhead sharks, turtles, parrotfish, stingrays, porcupine fish and an increasing number of dolphins. Whale sharks also continue to be a major attraction – the island is one of the few places in the world where they frequently pass close to shore.
On the north coast of the island, Blackish Point and Duppy Waters are both good sites; on the south coast the best spot is Airport Caves. The schools will be happy to spend time talking to you about the merits of the various sites.
It’s worth spending a morning walking around checking out all the schools. You want to feel comfortable with your decision, as diving can be dangerous – it is imperative that you get along with your instructor.
The best swimming near town is at the Blue Bayou, a twenty-minute walk west of the centre. You can also snorkel further out; there’s a US$1.50 charge to use the area, which also boasts a small sandy beach. Closer to town, where the road ends beyond Driftwood, Chepes Beach offers a narrow strip of sand, shallow water and a bar. East of town, Bando Beach (or Airport Beach) offers good snorkelling just offshore, as does the little reef beyond the lighthouse. The path from the end of the airstrip up the east coast of the island leads to a couple of small coves – the second is good for swimming and sunbathing.
The Utila Cayes – eleven tiny outcrops strung along the southwestern edge of the island – were designated a wildlife refuge in 1992. Suc Suc (or Jewel) Caye and Pigeon Caye, connected by a narrow causeway, are both inhabited, and the pace of life is even slower than on Utila. Small lanchas regularly shuttle between Suc Suc and Utila, or can be rented to take you across for a day’s snorkelling. Ask at The Buccaneer or call Steve Christiensen (2425 3988).
Water Caye, a blissful stretch of white sand, coconut palms and a small coral reef, is even more idyllic. Captain Hal charges around US$45 for return trips to Water Caye (ask for him at Parrots).
The Utila Iguana Station (utila-iguana.de), signposted from the road five minutes west of the dock, is a breeding centre for the endangered Utila spiny-tailed iguana, found only on the island and facing extinction. Guided tours explain the life cycle of the species. It’s worth a visit, especially if you need a break from all the diving.