A well-kept secret of the Caribbean is the Honduran island of Roatan. Located just off the northern shore of Honduras, Roatan is part of this affordable Central American country but with the laidback feel of its more expensive Caribbean neighbors. Spanish is the national language of Honduras and English-speakers are hard to find on the mainland. Not so on Roatan, where English is widely used. In fact we used our Spanish so little we often forgot we were in a Latin American country.
Roatan is accesible by direct flights from several US gateways including Houston and Atlanta. At present direct flights run only on the weekends, so be sure to look closely at flight itineraries before booking your hotel stay. You can get to Roatan any day of the week via the Honduran mainland or other Central American countries but those flights are notoriously late (think hours and hours) so a “short stop” could add significantly to your travel time. We opted for a Saturday to Saturday trip to minimize travel time. We (Steve, Beth and 22-month old Grace) traveled from Portland, Oregon direct to Houston, where we met up with my husband’s parents (traveled from Ohio) and my husband’s brother and his wife (from Chicago). From Houston we flew together directly to Roatan, less than 3 hours from Houston on Continental. It was a much easier flight with a toddler than the all-day trek last year from Portland to Turks and Caicos (stops in Dallas and Miami made it a 12+ hour day).
First the pros of Roatan. Roatan is stunning. It’s water is turquoise blue and crystal clear. The fish and coral are brilliant in color and diversity. It’s famed for its scuba diving and snorkeling, in part because both are so good and also because it’s very, very cheap to dive in Roatan compared to just about anywhere else in the world. It’s actually cheaper to become a certified diver in Roatan than in the U.S., although if you’re traveling with little ones keep in mind that someone will have to watch the kids if they’re too young to dive themselves. Travel with non-divers like we did if scuba is on your agenda.
Scubadiving is not the only inexpensive pasttime on the island. Just about everything is affordable including food, hotels and transportation, a real plus for traveling families. The seafood on Roatan is fresh and delicious. There are lots of things for families with little ones to do such as swimming with dolphins, bio-parks with ziplines, interesting animals and flora, glasswater boat trips and of course playing on the beaches with their shallow warm waters and little waves.
It’s easy for families to get around the island as well. Taxis are readily available and affordable, although agree on a price before you get in. Your hotel should be able to recommend reliable taxi drivers and tell you what it should cost to get to a destination. Our taxi drivers were always friendly and most spoke at least a little English, although one spoke only Spanish. Their taxis were well-used and worn, and don’t expect seat belts. We rented a van for part of our stay. It was cheaper than taxis for the days we were doing a lot of driving, since we were such a large group (7 people) plus we could use our portable Eddie Bauer car seat for our daughter. There are several rental agencies on the island and none of them seem to have well-maintained vehicles. One van broke down on us in the middle of nowhere but three different cars stopped to help us, including a taxi driver who took us back to the rental agency for a new, equally decrepit van. Don’t expect luxury in any kind of island transportation, but since it’s a small place you can’t get lost and there’s always someone driving by to help you out.
Thinking about our broken down van brings me to the downsides of Roatan. First, the beaches. There are some beautiful beaches on the island but they are all plagued by sandflies. Our visit to Roatan in November fell at the end of the rainy season, when the flies (and their friends the mosquitoes) are at their peak. They were horrible. So long as we had insect repellent slathered everywhere we were fine, but the instant we went in the water and washed it off the insects were vicious. As I write this post a few weeks after our return I still am suffering from a few itchy bites. We’ve heard they are not nearly so much of a problem during the dry season (earlier in the year) but don’t go in the rainy season expecting to lounge peacefully in the sand.
Another downside of the rainy season was floating garbage in the crystal blue water. As part of Honduras, Roatan is a developing nation and the garbage was a visible sign of the poverty that exists beyond the luxury resorts. Garbage is thrown in streams and rivers and, when heavy rains come, that garbage is washed out to sea and into your resort. Some days there was none, other days the water was full of slicks of plastic bottles and plastic bags. Our resort did a great job cleaning up the beaches on a daily basis but they can’t control what’s floating in the water and it did spoil some attempts at swimming. Again, we heard this problem is almost non-existent during the drier part of the year.
Overall our family loved Roatan. It was the right choice for our small family reunion, with the perfect balance of things to do and nothing-to-do. The people both at our resort and throughout the island were laidback and genuinely friendly. It’s a beautiful place but we recommend it for seasoned developing nation travelers, not for those accustomed only to luxury resorts. Even the nicest accomodation on Roatan can’t shelter you from the realities of it being part of a very poor country. For us this was a plus. It meant an authentic experience and the knowledge that our travel was supporting communities that rely on the income from tourism. But it also meant some inconveniences along the way and a few adventures (such as a broken-down rental van).
Watch for subsequent posts reviewing our excellent accomodations at Barefoot Cay as well as our list of things to do and eat on Roatan with kids.