Roatan is the largest and most developed of Honduras’ three Bay Islands in the Caribbeans. Most of the villages of Roatan are situated along the waterfronts where makeshift homes overlook the ocean. The reef system enclosing Roatan is part of the second largest in the world (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), which makes it unsurprisingly a major Scuba diving destination in Central America. But Roatan’s landscape is much more than just beautiful white sandy beaches, aquatic lagoons, and coral reefs teeming with colorful marine life. The interior is mountainous and full of pastures and lush forests as well. A trek or drive up the slopes and you’ll find spectacular views of the coast and the island.
The people in Roatan are rather laid-back, most of them are of Afro-Antillean descent. The main language is English, but most of the residents also speak Spanish. The economy of the island is heavily dependent on fishing and tourism. While most residents fish for a living, the rest of them prey on the consumption of cruise passengers making day-excursions on the island. For longer-term visitors, Roatan has many decent hotels, rental homes, and resort-like villas and apartments along the beaches.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Roatan was inhabited by the Maya, Lenca, Paya, and Jicacque. On Christopher Columbus’ fourth voyage to the New World around 1502, he landed on the Bay Island of Guanaja. Roatan was soon after discovered and like the other Bay Islands was used for slave raiding, which ultimately wiped out Roatan’s indigenous community.
Over the course of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Roatan was fought over by various European powers, mainly Britain and Spain. And Roatan was subject to pirate attacks, raids, and military occupations at various times. Britain occupied the island from 1550 to 1700 and used it for safe harbor and transport. Roatan, like the other Bay Islands, were used during this time by the British, Dutch, and French as bases for raiding Spanish cargos of gold and silver mined in Central America. At one point, Roatan was inhabited by as many as 5,000 pirates.
Roatan’s first post-Columbian permanent settlement was by the Black Carib, an Afro-indigenous group said to be an intermingling of pre-Columbian African explorers and Native Americans. The Black Carib were defeated by the British in a battle to control St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The British then deported the Black Carib to Roatan, where many of them have remained to this day.
Roatan was later settled as well by Cayman Island natives who became enslaved to their Roatan British owners, many of them living in the seaside residences along western Roatan. When slavery ended in the British overseas territories, many of the Cayman Island natives remained on Roatan.
In the late 1850s, Roatan became a part of independent Honduras and the island saw an influx of settlers from various parts of the world. Roatan began developing a fruit trade industry in the late 19th century and later a fishing industry. Today, tourism has become the bread and butter of the island’s economy, overtaking fishing. Some 250,000 people visit Roatan each year, which unfortunately has put stress on the island’s environment and reef system.
Roatan offers a number of attractive beaches, bays, towns, and coastal areas. The western part of the island is quite developed while the eastern regions are more unspoiled by tourism. Coxen Hole, French Harbour, Sandy Bay, West End, and West Bay each have unique characteristics and features that make them popular touristy spots.
Coxen Hole is a town named after John Coxen, a buccaneer who settled on the island in the late 1600s. It is the largest town on the island and a good base for exploring the rest of Roatan. The airport and ferry terminals are located in Coxen. The town has a dominion of old makeshift homes that are somewhat dilapidated. You’ll also find a few eateries, internet cafes, and the island’s main medical facility in Coxen Hole, but not much else.
French Harbour is located some six or seven miles east of Coxen Hole. It is the busiest town on the island because of its large fishing port. Tourists come to French Harbour to enjoy the best seafood and supermarket on the island. French Harbour is especially famous for its king crabs. You can also do some scuba diving at Palmetto Bay, visit one of the deserted islets off the coast in a yacht or speed boat, or just picnic and tan on the beaches.
Sandy Bay is in the north coast of Roatan. This laidback town has a great stretch of sandy beach (hence its name). It is considered the cultural center of the island, home to the Roatan Museum and the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. The former is one of the best small museums in Central America, housing archaeological collections found in the Bay Islands. The latter is a research and education center for marine animals and features an opportunity to interact with live bottlenose dolphins.
The Tropical Treasures Bird Park is a great refuge for exotic birds like various macaws, parrots, toucans, and exotic varieties – a must-visit for bird-watchers.
Sandy Bay also features the unique and beautiful Roatan Butterfly Garden, which is a butterfly house sheltering colorful butterflies that are native to the island. The garden has a number of tropical trees as well like the hogplum and the breadfruit.
Besides the museums and parks, Sandy Bay is also a great town for scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, and other water sports. The town’s ocean beaches are very resort-like and the local restaurants and cafes are respectable.
The West End is located about three miles southwest of Sandy Bay and is a popular low-budget destination. It has many tropical beaches, including the picturesque Half Moon Bay. The scuba diving spots in West End are some of the best on the island.
West End also has some great bungalows and dock-side cabins that overlook private lagoons. The town’s restaurants and eateries are superb, especially the seafoods like the shrimp, snappers, crabs and lobsters.
West Bay is located next to West End and is a more luxurious area with the best beaches in Roatan. The coral reefs in West Bay are extremely close to the shores of West Bay and teem with the most colorful and diverse marine life on the island.