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Travel Story

The road to Roatan, and the Bay Islands of Honduras

Travels in Central America, Part 4

After nearly four hours on the road the bus rolled into San Pedro Sula and our group of 12 naive gringos headed straight into the depot in search of the washrooms. There weren't any. The locals were lining up across the parking lot where an enterprising entrepreneur had cobbled together three primitive biffies from bits of plywood and corrugated iron roofing. The proprietor, whom we dubbed "Loo", was busy collecting three lempiras (about 20 cents) from each prospective client – no extra charge for a wad of toilet paper.

Thankful that I had drunk only one cup of coffee I queued up at the end of the line. Loo directed people, according to gender and the nature of their need, into the correct queue. One stall contained a makeshift urinal, one had a couple of planks slung over a hole in the ground, and the third sported a toilet bowl bereft of tank, seat, or any visible flushing mechanism. Enter Loo, who, between each client, scooped up a tin of water from a nearby barrel and sluiced down the bowl. Next!

The express bus that delivered us to San Pedro Sula left Copan at six, long before anything was open for breakfast. But coffee and a banana from a roadside kiosk was enough to kick-start the day and we settled back to enjoy the drive. From Copan the road winds through low mountains covered with dense cloud forest and occasional steep fields of corn and beans but little habitation. An hour out of San Pedro Sula we dropped down into a savannah-like valley with broad fields, cattle ranches, and banana plantations.

San Pedro Sula was the planned half-way point in our bus trip from Copan in western Honduras to La Ceiba on the Caribbean Coast, where we expected to catch the ferry to the island of Roatan. But before we were even finished with Loo the news of a general strike spread through the crowd. Protesters had blocked the highway. The only way out was by air and the airport was the other side of the blockade.

An hour later Martin, our resourceful tour leader, had cut a deal with a private bus operator to run the blockade. The old bus lurched through narrow back roads and muddy residential streets where surprised kids ran out to wave at us. But we arrived too late for the scheduled flight to Roatan. Because we were 12, a full load for a Cessna Grand Caravan, Martin was able to negotiate a special flight. But 10 minutes after takeoff the pilot reported that Roatan airport was shut down by torrential rain. He would be dropping us off at La Ceiba, still on the mainland and long after the ferry to Roatan had departed.

Two hours and many cups of good Honduran coffee later Roatan airport reported the rain had abated and we made the half-hour flight in clear weather. But the brief storm that had lashed the airport a few hours earlier was a reminder that the Bay Islands, 50 km off the north coast of Honduras, are potentially vulnerable to almost every tropical storm that sweeps in from the Caribbean. It’s just a matter of luck. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch swept onto the coast and struck the island of Guanaja with the full furry of its 290 km/h winds. The island, only 25 km west of Roatan, was utterly devastated, but Roatan itself was relatively unscathed.

Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, is about 50 km long and 3 km wide. From the airport at Coxen Hole we took a taxi to the tiny village of West End on the north side and checked in to the Pasada Arco Iris Hotel where Tako, the resident pet monkey, gave us an enthusiastic welcome. We arrived in time to watch the sunset, and have a brief dip in the ocean before dinner. That evening, over a fabulous seafood dinner at the Light House Restaurant, we drank a toast to Martin for getting us here. Without his ingenious route-finding we might still have been back in the parking lot with Loo.

Our semi-detached cabana at the Pasada Arco Iris is set in lush tropical foliage and the private deck, with comfortable chairs and a hammock, faces the palm-lined beach of a sheltered lagoon. Farther offshore a turbulent line of seething white water outlines the wave-swept edge of the reef.

The fringing coral reef that sweeps down from Belize and swings out along the north coast of Honduras is one of the longest on earth, second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Roatan and the other Bay Islands are perched on its outer edge, making them prime destinations for recreational divers. The village of West End abounds with dive shops, signs on private homes advertise snorkel gear for rent, and charter boats of all sizes and shapes are tethered to the wharfs. Some of our group rented tanks and went for a dive, others chose a hammock, but most of us went snorkeling.

Betty, Nancy and I followed the beach to West Bay, a 40 minute hike/wade from our hotel. There the edge of the reef is only about 100 metres from the beach and we were able to find our way across a garden-like growth of brightly coloured coral to a cluster of tiny islets on the very edge of the deep abyss. The next day we chartered a boat to a couple of dive-sites farther off shore and had a long memorable swim through the "blue channel". After seeing the pathetic state of dying coral reefs in other parts of the world I was encouraged by the vibrant colours of living coral here at Roatan. Even the fragile fan-corals were unbroken and the water teemed with schools of exotic, brightly coloured fish that seemed oblivious to our presence. At least here in the Bay of Islands one of the world’s great barrier reefs is still alive and well.

The Arco Iris Hotel has a good selection of single and double kayaks and we spent a morning using them to explore the rugged outer coast. From the shelter of our lagoon three of us found an opening in the reef, pushed through to the low swell of the open Caribbean, and paddled east to the next lagoon. The weathered coral of the coastline, carved by the surf into jagged, tooth-like spines, hissed and sighed like some giant sea monster as the swells forced air in and out of the porous rock. How many sailing ships, I wondered, had been devoured by the wave-swept coral monsters of the Bay Islands.

Through much of the 17th century the Bay Islands were a refuge for English, French, and Dutch pirates, including the notorious English buccaneer Henry Morgan. At one point as many as 5,000 pirates had set up shop in the Bay Islands and, despite vicious battles among themselves, they managed a lively and profitable business by raiding the cumbersome, gold-laden Spanish cargo ships headed for Europe with their New World booty. In 1782 the pirates were finally annihilated by a Spanish raiding party. The abandoned islands were gradually resettled by the British who remained in control until 1859, when the Bay Islands were ceded to Honduras. Even now the islands seem more English then mainland Honduras, and English, spoken with a broad Caribbean accent, remains the preferred language of many islanders.

Although tourism is an important and rapidly growing segment of the Roatan economy fishing is still the primary industry. Many of the 15,000 people who live on the island work in the shrimp and lobster fisheries, others farm, work as merchant seamen, or run the banks, shops, and services for the local people.

Before leaving Roatan we went to Coxen Hole for a glimpse of the other side of Roatan society.

The main street of Coxen Hole, Roatan's largest town and centre of commerce, is lined with shops, food stalls, government offices, and markets. When we arrive the streets are still awash from the torrential rain three days earlier. Our taxi gets stuck and needs a push. But everyone laughs, bystanders help and the taxi lumbers back up the hill, inching its way through a gridlock of people, trucks, and carts.

Behind the main street incredibly ramshackle homes are strung with laundry and surrounded by mud. By our standards the place is a slum, but the people are friendly and greet us with "Hola", or more often "Hello". We buy some yarro cake from a street vendor and find a bench where we sit down and eat. The people of Roatan, better off than most Hondurans, are living on the edge of poverty but, unlike so many other places in Central America, we are not approached by beggars, vendors, or street kids.

At noon a crowd of exuberant, uniformed school children swarmed through the vehicle-snarled streets back to their homes for lunch. Primary education here is compulsory and free – a policy that may ultimately be the solution to Honduras’ many social and economic problems.