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Bay Islands (Guanaja, Roatan, Utila), Honduras

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Did You Know…?

  • The port town Coxen Hole, on Roatan, was named for a pirate, John Coxen.
  • The largest whale shark ever measured was 40 feet long.
  • Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter the cacao bean, on his 1502 visit to Guanaja.
  • Roatan’s Garifuna (African Carib) community was founded by people marooned there by the British in 1797.
  • Bottlenose dolphins can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second.

Diving from the beach

The Bay Islands, in the Caribbean off the north coast of Honduras, are especially popular among anglers, divers and snorkelers.

Most of the few dozen Bay Islands are uninhabited. However, the three largest, Guanaja, Roatan and Utila, are tourist ready with resorts and outfitters offering equipment, boats and guides to facilitate the visitors’ pursuit of pleasure. Roatan also receives direct air service from some American airports.

The islands’ tourist appeal stems from their proximity to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast with many Caribbean locations, divers and snorkelers in the Bay Islands don’t have to take a boat ride to start explorations but can head right off the beaches into the water to be awed. For lovers of the rod and reel, choices include deep-sea fishing and fly-fishing.

Land-based activities encompass bird-watching, cycling, hiking, horseback riding, ziplining, sightseeing and visiting museums.

Back to the water: Sea kayaking is frequently on offer, as well as the obvious, sunbathing and swimming. A couple of research centers offer programs with an educational angle rolled up with the fun.

As to the islands themselves, Roatan is the largest, at 31 miles long and up to five miles wide, and the most developed. A mountain ridge runs the length of the narrow island. There are several communities, including Coxen Hole, the largest, and French Harbour, home to a fishing fleet and noted for its restaurants. Punta Gorda is a Garifuna community, settled by black Caribs.

There are no roads on Guanaja; transportation is by canal boats or on foot. Bonacca is Guanaja’s only settlement of any size. Utila, the smallest of the three, has a paved road, but people generally get around by bicycle or on foot. The island is considered the place to look for whale sharks.

A few words of caution: Take plenty of repellent for mosquitoes and sand flies. And, the U.S. State Department, in a travel warning, says crime and violence are serious problems across Honduras although less so in the Bay Islands. Tourist police are in service on Roatan, but State says avoid Coxen Hole after dark.

Things to do for Venturers

  • On any of the islands, scuba dive for access to barrier reef walls, caves, canyons, underwater volcanoes, abundant marine life and shipwrecks.
  • Choose a live-aboard dive boat, anchored off Roatan, as your route to the islands’ below-water scene.
  • Book a Naturist Week at the Paya Bay Resort for clothing-optional snorkeling, sunbathing, swimming and beach parties.
  • Take a boat trip to seek out pristine beaches and charming villages on the very eastern end of Roatan. Many sites are only accessible by boat.
  • Kayaking on the Caribbean waters here is a smooth ride. Go for an excursion of a few or many hours or, if in a small group, arrange an overnight kayaking trip.
  • Attend workshops and join highly focused dives and tours, all designed to raise awareness of marine conservation issues. This option, called a Discovery Week, is hosted by the Utila Lodge and operated by the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Visit Punta Gorda, a Garifuna village. (The Garifuna people are descendants of African slaves and Caribs.) See a Garifuna traditional dance if you get the chance. Improve the odds by attending the April 12 festival at which the Garifuna celebrate the anniversary of their arrival on Roatan.
  • From any of the three islands, charter a boat for deep-sea fishing. Sample the light-tackle fishing on the flats around Guanaja and Utila.
  • Put on the hiking shoes for a walk on Guanaja. Point your toes in the direction of the island’s waterfalls, a popular hiker’s destination.
  • Snorkel with dolphins. On Utila, snorkel with whale sharks.
  • At the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences, be a dolphin trainer for a day, spending the time with the dolphins’ training staff. Or, if more serious, go for the specialty program that includes classroom time.
  • See Utila from the seat of a bicycle. Or, from a saddle. And, get around on Guanaja by canal boat, especially practical given the island has no roads.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Dine around in French Harbour on Roatan. The town boasts some of this island’s best eateries and shops.
  • For housing, choose a resort with over-water sleeping quarters. Enjoy outdoor bars and cafes.
  • Get serious — about local history and the environment. Visit the Roatan Museum and the Institute of Marine Sciences, both on the grounds of Anthony’s Key Resort.
  • Take a narrated cruise of a few hours to observe Utila’s marine life. Guides will direct passenger eyes to dolphins, manta rays and, if lucky, whale sharks.
  • Fly-fishing is available on Roatan.
  • Spend time in Bonacca, Guanaja’s only significant-sized settlement, for a look at a village that has been almost completely rebuilt in the wake of 1998 Hurricane Mitch’s blow to the island. Noted for its canals and houses on stilts, Bonacca is actually on a tiny island just off the coast of Guanaja.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Honduras official tourism site at www.honduras.travel and choose your language if necessary.