When I travel, I look forward to seeing. Not just the big sites in guidebooks, not just the beautiful beaches and the hailed natural wonders. I like to see everything; the energy and mood, the roadside stands, the way people live. It’s the things you can’t really discern from a book or a picture. I like to explore.
With that in mind, one of the things we were most looking forward to in Roatan was renting a motorcycle and driving around the island. We had a few tourist attractions we wanted to see along the way but we were mainly focused on just soaking up the island atmosphere. Our motorcycle dreams were crushed when we got to Captain Van’s Rentals and saw the cost for the day, but we settled on a more budget friendly scooter, which I thought made up for in cuteness what it lacked in speed.
Our first stop was Anthony’s Key Resort, a sprawling complex including a dolphin encounter program and a Roatan Museum. We weren’t really into doing an encounter for a few reasons (I’ve already done one, money, moral issues since seeing The Cove) but when we heard they did free educational shows once a day, we were in. Free just happens to be my favorite price.
Of course when we arrived we realized that all the narration was in Spanish, but it was still fun to watch the dolphin splash around and imagine what the trainer was telling us. There were also displays around so we filled in some of the gaps after the show. It was then that I saw they offer an actual scuba dive with the dolphins, and my heart suddenly panged for a bigger budget. Oh well! Have to leave something to look forward to for when we’re independently wealthy (ha). Also at Anthony’s was a small museum, emphasis on small, but it was only 20 lempiras (one dollar) so worth a look. The most interesting this to me about it was seeing how connected Grand Cayman and the Bay Islands are by history. Of course the Bay Islands were populated hundreds of years before, creating a much richer history and culture, which is why we chose to vacation here while living in Cayman!
After our little detour in Sandy Bay we were on the main road and away from mass tourism, at least what level of it exists here. Passing a Bojangles fast food restaurant, a casino, and a two-story supermarket shocked us, but they were nothing compared to – I cannot tell a lie – Applebees. From the area and appearance we gathered these were not for tourists but for Bay Islanders themselves, a fact confirmed later by our hosts. It was an interesting discussion, obviously we come to far away places like Honduras to escape the common and the commercialism of fast food and the like, and its presence makes a destination less attractive to people like us by tainting its authenticity. But don’t the people of the Honduras deserve fast food the same as I do when I’m driving around in the suburbs? We appreciate these creature comforts at home but we don’t want them to reach our favorite traveling spots for fear of ruining them. An odd double standard.
The presence of Applebee’s took an even weirder perspective we drove through the residential area of French Harbour. Homes appeared to mostly be one room dwellings with a mattress on the floor and little else. These are not the photos you see in guidebooks. I later read that the majority of the population in the Bay Islands lives in extreme poverty with limited access to running water and plumbing. They are constantly threatened by tropical diseases, infections and parasites and nearly 10% of the local population is affected by HIV/AIDS. I wonder if anyone from the cruise ships docking less than a mile away ever sees this less shiny side of the island.
The next stop on our map, a much lighter destination, was an iguana “farm” though according to our guidebook it was not much more than the home of a serious iguana enthusiast. The price was exorbitant, for the area, I think something like $8 each. Mark more or less hated the entire experience (emphasis on the more) but I love roadside attractions and photo ops like nobody’s business. The iguanas were enormous! There were also monkeys and other animals around the property as well as an enclosed area at the water where there were lobster, tarpon and other sea creatures. But the real attraction was the reptiles. As we were turning to leave we heard a sound from the garage, and when we peeked in we saw the biggest one of them all, tearing into a bag of dog food. We laughed until it hurt and for me the admission paid for itself.
At this point we were starving. We had heard of a place Hole in the Wall, a restaurant actually off the shore accessible by boat. We were told if we drove into Jonesville and “just asked anyone” they would call ahead to let the restaurant know we were coming and find a boatman. As unique and fun as it sounded we were a bit concerned that it wouldn’t be cheap. Warily we drove around but we didn’t see many people to approach, as it was Saturday and the island is rampant with Seventh Day Adventists. Eventually we decided to stop at a true hole in the wall, a little establishment known as… Pukey’s. Luckily the name seemed to be a misnomer and we had a delightful lunch by the water for under $7.
Our last stop was Oak Ridge, another residential town where the houses are brightly painted and raised on stilts. Poverty was apparent here as well but you could also see residents took pride in what they had. The village was a bit more bustling as residents arrived home in the collectivo busses from work at resorts on the west side.
There was so much more to see — Garifuna villages, sleepy beaches — but our decision to get a scooter instead of a motorcycle was coming back to bite us and we couldn’t make it on the unpaved roads. So we headed back to West Bay for the night.
The next day, we woke up before the sun came up. Reason: it was the morning of our last full day in Roatan and we had until 11am to use our scooter… and we wanted to milk every last minute out of it. We headed to a place we had skipped by the day before, the Carambola Botanical Gardens. It took some convincing to get Mark to go after yesterday’s iguana farm disaster but eventually he caved when I pointed out a hike would at least justify the fact that he carried our sneakers across the ocean.
We were the only ones there except for the hummingbirds that taunted me by flying away every time I raised my camera. Mark read me all the plaques while I wandered around the gardens playing with my dSLR, a camera that has been sadly neglected lately since I got my new underwater camera. We had a very vague map but mostly there was a tangle of trails heading in a similar direction and we started off up the mountain trail, grateful for the cooler morning air.
After a moderate hike we arrived at the summit, where on a clear day you can see all the way to Utila! Or so the brochure says, because this day it was drizzling and gray. We could see all the way down to the dolphins we’d admired at Anthony’s Key the previous day. If you come to Roatan I really recommend stopping here. It was a really nice way to start the day and enjoy what this island has to offer.
After a hassle free bike return and a nice long nap (hey, it’s vacation!) we did what exploring we could do on two feet in West Bay. I would have loved to hop on a dive boat but we decided to save the rest of our dive budget for Utila and went for the poor man’s dive: a snorkel off the dock. Out of curiosity we walked to the dock of Stanley Submarines, a one man business run by a submarine enthusiast with no formal education or insurance on his submarine. He claims his insurance policy is that if you sink he’s sunk too. How very reassuring at 2,000 feet below water! Even if we wanted to go, starting at $400 USD a person, those expeditions are more than our plane tickets.
But swimming around the submarine dock was free, and at first when we jumped in I thought we’d be out a few seconds later; it was sandy and there wasn’t much life. Or so I thought. On closer inspection there was so much going on down there! I can’t stay down underwater for even a second to take a photo without starting to float back up, so in fact Mark took most of these:
The best part was right before we were about to get out of the water, I was staring intently at a fish and Mark was trying to get a photo of it, and we nearly missed the MORAL EEL SNAPPING AT OUR FEET! We got such a fright and it took a while for the nervous giggles to die down so Mark could get this great shot:
A nice hike, a great snorkel and even better photos. A great note on which to end our time in Roatan, and get ready to leave the next morning for Utila!