Our tiny plane bumped down out of the clouds and landed on one wheel, a cockpit alarm blaring. Only a crosswind, I learned later, but at the time I thought, “well, this is one hell of a beautiful place to die.”
Roatán is an island located about 40 miles off the northwest coast of Honduras. It is the largest of Honduras’s Bay Islands and a popular cruise ship port of call, making it somewhat misaligned with mainland Honduran culture. At first I was reluctant to go there, but with a bit of research I realized there is much on this tiny island that is remote and overlooked and worth checking out.
Roatán has just one road that runs the 48 mile length of the island, with a few offshoots that dead-end at little villages along the coast. At the east end of the island the road is dirt, overgrown with vegetation and liberally potholed…this is the area that is not to be missed. It’s pretty much impossible to get lost, but tales of robberies and scooter hijackings (not entirely unfounded) keep many people away from the wilderness at the east end.
For backpackers or other thrifty travelers, the Roatán Backpackers Hostel, run by the exceptionally friendly Canadian Mel, is the place to stay. It’s away from the resorts and touristy areas in the West End, and Mel is a font of knowledge about her adopted home. She suggested I rent a car to see the island and she even dropped me off at the rental agency the next morning. This was especially awesome because the place looked like a chop shop so I never would have found it on my own. For $30 US I was able to quickly acquire a tin can with a dented front end that loudly complained every time I shifted gears but worked just fine.
After puttering alone for hours around the east end of the island, I saw a small hand-painted sign advertising “Mangrove Tours” outside the town of Oakridge. I drove down a steep dirt road that dead-ended at a general store with one solitary shopkeeper inside. After butchering some Spanish phrases and gesturing wildly, I was delivered to a man with a large smile and a small boat. He and I motored alone into the bay to what I hoped was the mangroves.
It was. With a lot of other nice views on the way.
Roatán’s airport is a one-runway affair sandwiched between lush hills and the sea. The views on takeoff and landing are gorgeous, but the flight back to Belize City was the most meditative 40 minutes I’ve ever spent on a plane. We slowly sailed through some of the largest, puffiest clouds I have ever seen. I spent the entire time with my face pressed against the glass, just staring. A fitting end to a short but lovely trip to Honduras.
You can watch 20 seconds of flying through the clouds at the link below.
Music: “Snowmen” by Kai Engel, CC-BY 3.0
CAYE CAULKER, BELIZE
Whose house is this? I wish I knew.
Belize City is a tangle of traffic, stray dogs and guys softly asking if you’d like some weed. After one night in a spartan room behind a double locked iron door, I hopped the ferry for Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker is a small limestone coral island that is a scant 5 miles long and less than 1 mile wide. No cars are allowed and signs everywhere ask you to “Go Slow.” It’s hard to disobey. The best way to get around is by bike.
Caye Caulker is bright, charming and stunningly beautiful. The water is calm (due to the reef lying a bit away from the shore), warm and exceptionally blue. One of the most interesting days I spent there was visiting the Hol Chan Marine Reserve.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve is huge…4,448 acres to be exact. It includes the aptly named Shark & Ray Alley, where you can snorkel among enormous manta rays, nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays (on my bucket list) and loggerhead turtles. The coral is decent and there are many types of colorful fish, eels and sea anemones. Snorkeling around a shipwreck filled with underwater creatures was especially creepy/cool.
And I am proud to report that I was the first one to jump into the water when we stopped among a school of around 15 sharks.
On the way back our boat stopped at an area known for its tarpons. Tarpons grow about 4-8 ft long and can weight 60-280 pounds. They have very big eyes and their lower jaws jut out from their faces quite prominently. They can jump extremely high.
Tarpons love watermelon. Having just watched an enormous fish leap out of the air to scarf a slice of fruit, I was processing this very information when something grabbed the foot that I was casually swinging off the bow of the boat. I was looking away when it happened, but it felt like a bear trap encircled my ankle. I kicked once and nothing happened; on the second kick I felt a scraping sensation and the thing let go. A few Belizeans on the shore were shouting. It was a huge tarpon. I felt bad for him, knowing I dug my big toe into the roof of his mouth.
A few hours later, bandaged up a bit to protect from tropical ANYTHING, I wandered into the local store. The guy at the counter asked if I was the girl who got bit by a tarpon. Small island.
You can watch a short slo-mo video of the very tarpon I was watching (and filming) just before I was bitten below.
Caye Caulker is laid back and beautiful and very much worth the trip. You can get there by ferry or by plane. Both are worth it. I took the ferry in and flew out from the tiny airport (above).
Up next: El Salvador and Honduras….