Tourists and retirees began arriving on Roatán in the 1960s, and in recent years the influx has increased dramatically. Roatán has been deemed respectable—enjoying fawning write-ups in travel publications and the limelight of frequent celebrity sightings—and is now home to a large expatriate community consisting mainly of Americans but also many Canadians and a sprinkling of Europeans.
After years of raging real-estate speculation and building fever, few nooks and crannies have escaped the scrutiny of developers. Remote sections of coastline on all sides of the island have been divided up in lots for development as private homes or resorts. Nevertheless, towns like West End and Sandy Bay remain relatively slow-paced and not outrageously expensive when compared to other Caribbean islands.
One facet of the tourist profile that sets Roatán apart from the other Bay Islands is the international cruise ships. The monstrous crafts come in several days a week, especially in high season, and disgorge hundreds of tourists for the day. West Bay can get rather crowded those days, particularly at the southern end of the beach. While the crowds can be a bit disconcerting for other foreign visitors, the islanders are all for the new business, especially since the tourists spend well and only stay for the day, thus offering high income and limited stress on local infrastructure.
Theories on the source of the island’s name vary wildly. The most popular explanation is that Roatán is a derivation of rattan, the English word for a common vine found in the Caribbean. Another possibility is that it’s a severe corruption of the Nahuatl expression coatl-tlan, “place of women.” A third, far-fetched hypothesis is that the name comes from the English expression “Rat-land,” referring to the island’s pirate inhabitants.
Just less than two-thirds of the Bay Islands’ population, or around 22,000 people, live on Roatán. Coxen Hole, the island’s largest town, is the department capital. Thanks to highly effective spraying, sand flies are no longer the plague they once were on Roatán, although it’s always wise to pack repellent.
Getting to Roatán
As the most frequently visited of the three Bay Islands, Roatán has plenty of air service, although much of it comes via La Ceiba. There are also a few direct flights per week to the United States, and for those staying at one of the Henry Morgan resorts, weekly charter flights from Milan, Rome, and Toronto. Those flying out of Roatán to an international destination must pay a US$34 departure tax in the Roatán airport; for a domestic flight the departure tax is US$2.
Taca/Isleña (tel. 504/445-1918, www.taca.com, www.flyislena.com) offers twice-daily flights to San Pedro Sula and thrice-daily flights to La Ceiba with connections onward to Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, including Miami, New York, and Houston.
Charter services are available through Bay Island Airways (tel. 504/9858-8819, U.S. tel. 303/242-8004, www.bayislandairways.com) and Roatan Air Services (tel. 504/445-1417, Gill García, www.roatanair.com).
The airport is three kilometers from downtown Coxen Hole, on the highway toward French Harbour. Taxis to West End cost US$25, US$5 to Coxen Hole (there is a price sheet posted on one of the columns near the exit). Prices are applicable 6 a.m.–6 p.m.; at other times it’s up to your bargaining skills.
If you haven’t got a whole lot of luggage or cash, it’s possible to walk the short distance out to the highway and catch a bus to Coxen Hole, and from there on to West End (US$2). Buses run until about 4 p.m. You can also catch cheaper taxis out here, which charge about US$5 (more or less, depending on your negotiation skills) to West End.
Note: When visibility is poor on the north coast due to bad weather (not uncommon for much of the year), the airport at La Ceiba closes with regularity. Don’t be surprised to find yourself stranded if the weather turns bad.
The MV Galaxy Wave (www.safewaymaritime.com) runs daily between La Ceiba and the new Transporte Marítimo Charles McNab dock just east of the Roatán airport; the 90-minute ride costs US$28 (or US$33 for first class). Some snacks are available on the boat, and a movie is shown in the cabin. The Galaxy Wave normally leaves Roatán at 7 a.m. for La Ceiba, then departs from La Ceiba at 9:30 a.m.; it then leaves Roatán again at 2 p.m. and departs from La Ceiba at 4:30 p.m. For more information, call the office in Roatán (tel. 504/445-1795), or in La Ceiba at the Cabotaje dock (tel. 504/443-4633).
As with air transport, though not as frequently, the boat is sometimes cancelled due to bad weather. Because the boat is quite large, the ride is pretty smooth, but if the wind has been blowing and the boat goes anyhow, be prepared for some stomach-turning swells. You can get a free antiseasickness pill (à la Dramamine) at the security checkpoint.
If coming from (or heading to) Utila, it might be possible to sail by catamaran with Captain Verne Fine. He charges US$50 for the ride and travels back and forth a couple of times per week. ** NOTE: Due to tragic circumstances, travel via the Utila Princess is no longer available. We have kept this listing live for reference. If ferry service via the Utila Princess returns under a different captain, we will restore the contact information.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition