Roatan - Green Jewel of the Caribbean
How long can you hold your breath? Inhale completely, right now, and time yourself. 30 seconds? One minute? Now imagine you are under 600’ of salt water and kicking your way back to the surface – which might take over 4 minutes to get there! Whew!
This is the world of freediving, where athletes compete to see who can go the deepest or hold their breath the longest. When we arrived in Roatan the AIDA World Championship for freediving was underway, taking advantage of the deep, crystal clear water just minutes from the shore. The organizers had moored a large floating platform just beyond the reef in 189 meters (620’), with an official diving line anchored to the bottom. A target depth is marked on the line, and contestants take a breath at the surface, swim down to the marker and back up.
Several different classes are involved, with or without fins, male & female, and some allow using weights to descend faster. As there is no breathing of compressed air under water like scuba, there is minimal danger of the bends or nitrogen narcosis, but shallow-water blackouts are a serious hazard that can be mitigated by close supervision. As exciting as this sounds, free diving is not much of a spectator sport. There are a few officials and support team around the platform. The rest of us follow along at the dive shops…or the bars!
Welcome to Roatan, the largest of the Isla de la Bahia (Bay Islands), 50 km north of the Honduran mainland. These islands were formed millions of years ago when giant tectonic plates scraped against each other, producing the (mostly) underwater mountain range called Bonacca Ridge. The Motagua Swan Islands Fault is still active, resulting in frequent tremors and earthquakes (we felt a small one).
Roatan has almost no level ground and is covered in a wide variety of vegetation, including oaks, pines, gumbo limbo, mangroves, palms, ferns and bromeliads. The shoreline is mostly rocky with a rugged “iron shore” along some areas, punctuated with picturesque sandy beaches in small bays.
After two days of traveling from central Mexico we stepped off the small twin-prop plane and back into the tropics! Susan, our pet-sitting host met us outside the tiny airport, loaded our gear into the car and off we went. We stopped at Eldon’s, the biggest grocery store on the island, in the municipal seat of Coxen Hole. There was a medium amount of goods to choose from: more than Belize but less than San Miguel de Allende. Prices were higher than Mexico, as everything must be brought in by sea or air.
Arriving home we were enthusiastically met by Beau and his elderly sister Susie, a local Beagle-mix rescue from the Bahamas. Susan showed us around her lovely new 2-story home, and we got acquainted whilst sipping some red wine out on the spacious screened veranda.
It was not long before our typical routine shifted when we realized the sun was coming up by 5:15 am and the doggies knew it! They were ready for their morning walk, which was a beautiful trek along the beach, watching the sunrise reflected in the tranquil water lapping at the shore. Back to the house for doggie breakfast and coffee for us – then off to pickleball.
Driving through Roatan had the typical Caribbean vibe, with small and tiny shops everywhere, interspersed with some bigger hardware and building supply stores, and a couple of Bo Jangles & Pizza Inns! The only other “fast food” was a Wendy’s at the Megaplaza in French Harbor. No Starbucks! Lots of cars, trucks and motorbikes, and many pedestrians on the narrow, winding, mountainous roads and not one stop light on the island. Any car – particularly taxis – would stop in the middle of the road to change passengers, or just to chat. Usually, they would put on their flashers.
Roatan is a long, thin island running 30 miles east to west and 1 to 5 miles north to south. Most of the population lives on the western third of the island, along the north shore and western tip. Traveling east from French Harbor there are smaller communities and some large resorts. The roads deteriorate the farther east you travel, and even the gravel paths disappear several miles before the very end of the island. Outlying eastern islands of Barbareta, Isla Morat and Santa Elena are only accessible by boat.
One of our favorite restaurants was Blue Bahia, right on the beach about 5 miles west of us. We would turn off the main road onto a narrow one lane path that wound through old houses near the beach, and eventually turned into a track along the sandy beach itself, twisting around coral heads, pools and driftwood. Leaving the place we continued driving west along the sand until the path turned back towards the road, and pavement.
The last time we went (in the dark!) the tide was up, putting the water right at the edge of the track. When we left, the water was well above our normal route, so after some anxious maneuvering to turn around, we returned the way we came. The great food and live entertainment were totally worth it. Wednesday was lobster night – yum!
Roatan sits on the southern end of the Meso America reef system – the same that I dove in Belize earlier this year, and Cozumel many years ago. The reef is even closer to the north shore than Belize – anywhere from 100 yards to half a mile off the beach. Amazing varieties of coral, fish and invertebrates have made Roatan a diving destination for may years, causing tourism to overtake fishing as the primary source of income.
I did several dives with Blue Island Divers, and then five more with our good friend Bob when he and Anne joined us for a while. The water was warm and clear, with good visibility and little current, making for pleasant and relaxing dives where we spotted lionfish, morays, snapper, grouper and turtles.
Diving at night is always fun and this time it was epic! Our boat from Sundivers had two groups of seven, and every diver had their own torch. When diving during daylight hours, the colors get washed out into shades of blue below 30 feet, but the bright beam of the torch brings out the vibrant colors of the different types of coral and tropical fish. And of course every diver’s dream – octopus! We saw four of them! Each was slowly oozing over a coral head, for several minutes, until they decided it was time to hide and slipped inside a tiny crevice. Wow.
Towards the end of the dive, our leader signaled everyone to turn off their light and sit quietly on the bottom at about 30’. Almost total darkness, as there was very little light from the shore, and a new moon. As my eyes became acclimated to the dark I began to see vertical strings of tiny flashing lights. After a few minutes we could see hundreds of strings of descending, pale green-yellow flashes, like a magical fairyland! The locals call these “string of pearls” – a substance excreted from male microscopic crustaceans called Ostracods to attract females. Totally amazing!
Our leader had told us to leave our torches off when swimming back to the boat, to avoid attracting the jellyfish. What? I forgot about that, but as soon as I was climbing up the ladder my legs and arms started burning! Sheesh. Never had trouble before but I was pouring vinegar on myself for several hours before the burning and itching subsided.
Susie found the local pickleball group on Facebook where they shared the location in Flowers Bay for open play every Mon/Wed/Fri morning, 7 – 10 am. The first morning we showed up and met Colette & Rob, who are the organizers that keep the group going, bringing 3 portable nets to the old, run-down basketball court right on the ocean. They bring brooms to sweep off the trash that accumulates daily and painter’s tape to layout the pball lines.
Some days we played with just the 4 of us and on others we had 3 courts full with folks waiting. It will get busier as the winter season approaches. The temperature was in the low 80s to start at 7 AM, but close to 90 by 9:30, with high tropical humidity. Strong easterly winds made for interesting plays!
Colette & Rob were a wealth of information about local events, attractions, eateries, etc. They introduced us to “Sunday Funday” at Beachers West Bay where we would grab a lounge chair under an umbrella, order a Monkey La La and walk out into the crystal-clear water to sip and chat. Maybe grab a bite later on from Burt, who took care of everyone in the beach chairs. We also had several fun game nights with them, playing Michigan Rummy and Mexican Train. And maybe a few drinks….
On Tuesday mornings the "Pill Pushers" (Susie's nickname for them) would meet at a nearby condo to count pills that were donated in bulk to the local hospital. Volunteers labeled small ziploc bags and folks would sit around chatting and counting out 30,000 pills into bags of 30 or 40.
Another excursion took us to the eastern part of the island where a benefit was held for a small herd of rescued horses, selling food, drinks and auction items. Formerly known as Lionfish Louies, the property sat on a lovely waterfront location on the north side. A lively trio played a variety of rock & latin tunes, and I talked to the guitar player afterwards.
Lisandro and his brother (drummer) were from Argentina and he has lived on Roatan for 7 years now, playing solo acoustic & electric guitar at many places on the island. He invited me to band practice at his house to prepare for a few tunes on Tuesday nights at Sundowners.
This turned into a weekly event for 6 weeks, where I would sit in and play bass or guitar for a few tunes, belting out old favorites like Red House, Twist & Shout & Gloria. His brother had to return home but local drummer Deven really kept the beat going, and they were also joined by other guest musos on keys, percussion & vocals. Lisandro is a great guitar player and I can’t thank him enough for allowing me to sit in.
Susie asked around and found a bakery in West End that would bake gluten-free bread and cookies, so we had a couple of delicious breakfasts at Sandy Buns when we would stop to pick up her treats.
Susie discovered a young guy sitting outside the grocery store with fresh fish in a cooler, so we had some nice shrimp dinners several nights. Be sure to watch closely when he weighs out the bags!
Roatan was a very interesting place. Beautiful mountainous island with a tropical climate, perfect for watersports like diving and fishing. Honduras is very poor as a country – Roatan is quite wealthy by comparison, with all the expats and tourists. Crime is worse here than the Mexican cities we have been in, and some homes hire armed guards to patrol the area at night to deter theft. Several people we met had stories of burglaries or gun-point robberies.
And the bugs! My ankles and feet were bitten the first week but I didn’t notice much after that. Susie, however, had bites and welts all over, constantly, despite always slathering herself with bug juice. She’s just too sweet – they can’t stay away!
Just about time for this adventure to give out to the next one. Gonna be a busy couple of days, taking four different flights to get from here to San Jose del Cabo, on the southern tip of Baja California.