By: Roger Bjoroy-Karlsen
Edited by: Lauran Timlin
The island has been in different hands throughout history and has borne names such as Rattan, Ruatan, or today’s name, Roatan. It has been inhabited by indigenous peoples, pirates, African slaves, as well as British and Spanish conquerors. Join us for a trip on the tropical lava rock in the west of the Caribbean, which from a human perspective is on the border of the third world, with everything from abject poverty to tremendous wealth.
Tourism and history
Roatan is the largest island of the Bay Islands archipelago, located approximately 65 km from the mainland of Honduras. It is somewhere around 77 km long and 8 km at its widest, with around 100,000 residents. It is a busy island that today is built by people who have created industries for themselves, preferably in tourism, and fishing. Small and large fishing boats have left the shores here since the dawn of time and caught most everything, whether it is for their own use, export, or for restaurants and local sales.
The tourist industry is formidable, with up to 5 cruise ship arrivals several days a week. However, 60% of passengers stay on board at landings, some because they think the offers are good enough there, others because they fear the country, which is known for a high murder rate. But like most other countries in the world, crime is limited in geographical areas. And Roatan is not one of them. Here there is a wealth of activities, whether you want to hang in a “zipline” over the jungle, touch exotic animals in captivity, go sightseeing, fishing, or simply relax on a white beach or restaurant serving all kinds of goodies.
In addition, there are several hundred thousand overnight stays with those who come to stay here for a while and dive or snorkel alongside enjoying the island’s many oases.
Much of the reason why the Bay Islands are popular is the pleasant climate (22 – 35 degrees Celsius) throughout the year, combined with spectacular sunsets over white beaches and umbrella drinks. What is defined as the rainy season (November to January) is also a relatively straightforward affair, with short torrential downpours in between sunny skies. The best time is February to May before the summer heat really sets in.
Many of those who can define themselves as “islanders” are descendants of African slaves who were either placed here by the colonial powers, or have moved here from other islands in the Caribbean. They speak English since the majority originate from the British project called the West Indies.
The single most famous people on the island are the Garifuna. They were deported from the island of St Vincent in the east of the Caribbean in 1797. A difficult time with what many considered genocide, in addition, a fatal illness struck.
(St Vincent was the location where they filmed the “Pirates of The Caribbean” films)
Read more about The Garifuna here
The activities in the Caribbean were characterized by the Spanish colonization of Central America, as well as France, England, and the Netherlands’ establishments on the islands in the area. The main reason for this interest was the access to mines on the mainland, as well as access to sugar and tobacco. This was at a time when sugar was regarded as beneficial to health and worth its weight in gold as a commodity. England and Spain were also at war for periods, which laid the foundation for later piracy.
People from England, France, and the Netherlands settled on Roatan. The Bay Islands were for a period British, first to and from between the 16th and 18th centuries.
British colonization forcibly ends
But the United States put its foot down after the last attempt at colonization, and Queen Victoria had to give it up to Honduras in 1861, based on a treaty (Clayton-Bulwer from 1850) which stated that neither the United States nor Great Britain should conquer more land in Central America. Honduras had no immediate interest in the islands as it consists of dense jungle and mangrove forests, so descendants of African slaves and the English language dominated the island for many years. The English language is gradually being erased and Spanish is taking over, since the country is Spanish-speaking and this part of the population is growing on the islands.
Many people speak English (Island – English) but cannot write it. English teaching is also declining in the public school system since they do not have enough qualified language teachers. But the private schools still maintain a good level, which many depend on when they want to further their education at university either at home or abroad.
Indigenous peoples are displaced
The first known people to live on the islands are apparently the Paya Indians. They were eventually driven out by the so-called “white man”. Columbus landed on the second largest island of Guanaja in 1502 and life changed abruptly for many of the natives after that.
The pirates who later ravaged the waters took Roatan as their hiding place because of the reef that surrounded the island which was a natural obstacle for deep-keeled ships, where one had to have knowledge of the channels (called bays) deep enough to sail into. And when you finally got inside, a massive wall of impenetrable mangrove forest awaited you.
You can take a look at mangroves by reading this article:
There are many stories from the pirate era when there were 5,000 at the peak of this period. Archaeological excavations are still taking place for the pirate treasures on the islands in the area. Did you know that robbing ships started out as almost a legal activity?
Many seek happiness
There is also a steady flow of people moving out to Bay Islands from mainland Honduras, which is 70 km away from Roatan. But how consistent it is, is uncertain since the Bay Islands are part of Honduras and there is thus no organized control in and out of the islands. Poverty has driven many to the islands, hoping to get a job in the tourism industry. But expertise is often required to run tourism, so many end up unemployed, and often settle in a shed on a hill in the jungle, hoping that the landowner will not show up and throw them out. Several villages have been created in this way.
A monster hurricane rages
The Caribbean is a hurricane-prone area, primarily for its warm ocean temperatures during hurricane season (July – November). Now the Bay Islands are well south of the so-called “hurricane belt” (the passage hurricanes use from the time they build up in the Atlantic Ocean to those that most often hit the islands in the north of the Caribbean and eventually the southern coast of the USA)
But in 1998, the monster hurricane “Mitch” took a different route. It hit Honduras and the surrounding countries. It is difficult to estimate precisely due to the scale of the disaster, but somewhere between 8,000 – 11,000 perished. Whole villages disappeared in landslides and floods.
It wasn’t only its strength but the fact that it went very slowly so that it stayed and wreaked havoc for days. All vegetation on the neighboring island of Guanaja was gone. Bodies washed ashore on the beaches of the south side of Roatan, which mostly escaped the brunt of “Mitch”.
Another strange effect of this hurricane is that since 3,000 schools were lost in the storm, they have not returned to the same educational capacity, even after 25 years. On Roatan, first through fifth grades attend school in the session before lunch, then sixth through ninth grades attend in the afternoon.
A few steps behind
Roatan and the surrounding islands are incredibly exciting to explore. Here you can just take a few steps backward, and end up behind the sunny beaches and encounter a completely different world that is in many ways behind us in time in certain technological areas. Being able to see your bank account balance on the Internet came here just a couple of years ago. But if you are going to pay a bill, you usually have to not only do so at the bank but at the recipient’s bank. However, in recent months, more and more services can be paid for online.
Natural medicine and witch doctors is still powerful in the region. Not long ago, the villages on the island were without a road network and only accessible by boat. So much had to be handled internally. The fact that modern medical treatment is relatively expensive for locals is probably also a reason why people resort to the so-called “witch doctors”. More about them here:
The police on the island have by far the same tasks as they have in Europe and North-America. However, there is no speed control, no speed limits, and no technical control of vehicles. Many cars are repaired with duct tape, often rear windows are covered with packing tape and rear brake lights are non-functioning.
The police, do however, often set up checkpoints along the road and check whether you have a license and if the annual tax on the vehicle has been paid. They are also looking for motorcycles with two men sitting on them. It is illegal since many robberies have been carried out by just two men on motorbikes. The result if one is caught is that the bike is confiscated forever.
The road network is a challenge, especially in the rainy season when mud dominates, but parts of the main roads have been heavily upgraded by laying concrete surfaces. On these stretches, there may still be a risk of landslides or rockfalls.
A diver’s paradise
The Mesoamerican reef that surrounds the island has made Roatan a diver’s paradise. Snorkeling is also reasonably good because the reef in some areas is easily accessible. The colorful diversity makes most people gasp. A number of places run diving training, rent out equipment, or transport people and equipment out to the reef and to wrecks that can be dove to.
Roatan is an island for most people. There are around 4 000 ex-pats here. Many live here full-time, others have it as a holiday home and are here 1-3 times a year. Americans, British, and Canadians make up the majority, and of all things, Czechs are in the upper echelon as far as numbers are concerned. They established a village on the east side of the island some years back. Scandinavians are few in number, with a few Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes.
The west side of the island is the most populous, with tourist areas, including resorts, restaurants, beaches, and buildings. The further east you go, the more scattered the settlements are. Here you find peace, where you can enjoy somewhat more deserted beaches, horseback riding, kiteboarding, or a rum punch at a small bar on stilts in the water.
The American actor Michael Douglas has bought a plot of land on the eastern side of the island, in quiet surroundings. Doug Clifford, the drummer of Creedence Clearwater Revival also lives here.
Pro British descendants
In the far east, behind an impenetrable mangrove forest, lies the community of St Helene, once founded by African slaves who were dropped on the island by the British authorities. The reason was that certain islands, such as Jamaica, were “overpopulated” after slavery ended in Britain in 1833, and the British chose to spread the African population and its descendants around the islands of the Caribbean.
The strangest thing is that they are very pro-British in the community of St Helene. Some have Queen Victoria on the wall in the living room, others Queen Elizabeth II. Something that perhaps testifies that slavery was not always as brutal as described in the history books? Read more about the phenomenon here: