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Roatán – an Island Christmas

Beer of the Day - a Port Royal by the beach

Beer of the Day – a Port Royal by the beach

After the delights of La Ceiba it was with great enthusiasm that we got up at the crack of dawn three days before Christmas and jumped in a taxi over to the ferry terminal to head over to the largest of the Bay Islands, Roatán. There is a well-organised ferry over there that leaves twice a day, the Galaxy Wave II; or as it’s known to everyone who has sailed on it, ‘The Vomit Comet’. Staggeringly for Central America, the boat left half an hour early, so by 10am, after the ferry staff had valiantly handed out a large number of plastic bags and catering-sized wads of kitchen roll to our fellow green-faced passengers, we slowed and approached the turquoise waters than line the island. Thankfully our sea legs held.

If you’d like to head straight to the pictures, click here!

Roatán is around 48 miles in length, but only 5 miles wide at the widest point. It has a fascinating history, having been claimed by both the Spanish and the British at various different times during its history. Before the Spanish arrived there had been French buccaneers there at one point during the 16th century, which apparently gave one the island’s main settlements, French Harbour, its name. No trace remains of the indigenous population, instead today the island’s inhabitants are a mix of Hondurans from the mainland, particularly the younger population, and older islanders, many of whom speak English as a first language. There are also a large number of people of Garífuna descent who speak a kind of Creole English. As such it was impossible to know whether to speak English or Spanish on the island; in practice most people seemed to speak some of both!

Two local lads fishing - successfully!

Two local lads fishing – successfully!

On arrival we took a taxi from the ferry terminal which is on the south side of the island around half way along, to West End (unsurprisingly, all the way over on the west side of the island). As the taxi slowly meandered along the road through the town, with the beach, blue waters and swaying palm trees just feet away we agreed that we’d made a pretty solid choice for a spot to kick back over the festive period.

Half Moon Bay, West End

Half Moon Bay, West End

One of West End's picturesque bars

One of West End’s picturesque bars

Our lodgings were a brightly painted wooden cabin with a hammock on the terrace and a little kitchen of our own and for the first time in a long while, we actually unpacked! Perfect. Until around 3pm. At this point the sound system at the newly opened bar/club/restaurant complex next door started up. We’re not ones to complain about a little music but as the evening wore on the volume reached the point where the cabin floor was shaking and we couldn’t hold a conversation indoors. We decided there was nothing for it but to head out for a few cold ones to send us to sleep later and hope it had stopped. No such luck. The same thing happened the next day so the choice was to either find some other lodgings or ship out. Luckily, another spot a little walk away had a cabin to spare so on Christmas Eve with a number of apologies to the lovely owners of the previous place, who were very understanding and driven mad themselves by the noise, we moved to our new spot at Hillside Garden Cabins in a secluded spot among the trees.

(A note on this new bar – it’s called El Boské, and is apparently owned by a guy with no ties to the island and large quantities of cash who doesn’t give two hoots that he’s destroying local business and the community. At the request of the owner of our former lodgings I went to speak to him to explain the effect that the noise levels and lack of respect are causing but I got a rather empty apology and a few platitudes saying he would turn the music down but this was a total lie. It just carried on. They have a website and a facebook page with comments sections if anyone who lives there or has been there wants to share their views…)

After this slightly stressful start, things got better from there. We had a lazy day on the beach and working out which bar had the coldest/cheapest beer. Christmas Day dawned, our first away from home and what’s more in the Caribbean…..and it was raining!! Not to be defeated we headed out in our raincoats in search of a bar (just for the wifi, honest) to Skype our families back at home who told us to stop complaining about the rain as Britain was more or less underwater… We rounded the day off with a lovely fish/steak dinner and bottle of red. What more could you want.

Christmas Dinner 2014

Christmas Dinner 2014

It was time though to take advantage of Roatán’s main draw- the excellent scuba diving. The island is surrounded by coral reef, clear waters and a whole host of sea life. My PADI certification was 10 years old so I sought out a refresher session and some fun dives at Reef Gliders. On advice from one of their Divemasters Rich decided that due to his issues with his ears (essentially he can’t equalize them when there’s changes in pressure) diving was out. With credit to the guys at Reef Gliders – they are not in for the hard sell and genuinely want everyone to be safe and enjoy it so don’t encourage people to do it if it wouldn’t be a good idea. The next day I was back in (and under) the water, and for 5 more days after that. The diving truly was fantastic. I saw moray eels, groupers, trumpet fish, giant lobsters and crabs, big shoals of shimmering blue fish, eagle rays and best of all, turtles. So many of them and I could swim just feet alongside them – fantastic stuff. Best of all on the last day I dived with Jason McAnear, one of their Divemasters and an Underwater Videographer who filmed the dive and pulled out some stills for me which are the dive shots on here – check out his series of videos here!

Rocking a wetsuit...

Rocking a wetsuit…

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Trumpet fish doing a bad job of hiding

Me and my turtle friend

Me and my turtle friend

We did take a day away from the tourist bubble of West End for a day on New Year’s Eve, hiring a moped and setting off up through the island. The main road is a little hectic but once we got past the main towns of Coxen Hole and French Harbour the traffic thinned and the road climbed up to the highest point from where we could see out over the north coast of the island and see the reef out at sea. French Harbour itself was fascinating – a working town, mainly centered on fishing, where most of the houses are traditional Caribbean painted wooden boards, often on stilts. We wound on and on down a dirt track with the promise of a little bar/restaurant called La Sirena at the easternmost point called Camp Bay, passing though remote settlements where life on the island looks as if it’s barely changed for 50 years or more. We finally arrived at La Sirena and were not disappointed, a perfect spot for a cold beer while we chatted to a big El Salvadorean family on holiday on the island. Sadly we had to start back for West End – attempting a 100 mile round trip on a moped was a little ambitious perhaps, and both of us on a scooter is not entirely comfortable for that long!

Houses in French Harbour

Houses in French Harbour

Traditional houses and the reef

Traditional houses and the reef

On our return we started to prepare some dinner at around 6pm when the power went out. Luckily they had a gas hob… After dinner by candlelight we set out into the town with a torch headed for a New Year’s shingdig at our favourite beach bar Sundowners along with half the rest of the town it seemed. The power came back on but went out twice more that night which seemed to entertain everyone, especially after several $1 rum and cokes. An excellent evening all round.

NYE 2013!

NYE 2013!

Our cabin home for 10 days

Our cabin home for 10 days

So that more or less sums up our time in Roatán – diving, beach time, a bit more rain than we’d have liked and a few more rum and cokes that is advisable but it is a great spot. We left a day later than planned due to our taxi not showing up to take us to the ferry at 6am which is the type of thing we’ve been learning to get used to in Central America. Ultimately we’ve got nothing but time!

Waiting to get in the water!

Waiting to get in the water!

Yep, this'll do

Yep, this’ll do


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Journey from Flores Guatemala to La Ceiba Honduras – A pause for thought along the way

When planning this trip, we initially wanted to be in Belize for Christmas.  We fantasised about Island life on one of the Cayes and waking up to a fine Caribbean vista on Christmas morning instead of the gloom that we have faced each of our 29 years in the UK so far (Due to the heavy storms and flooding in Ollie’s hometown this year, I feel we chose wisely when we decided to choose this year as our sweet getaway).  But, like all things we planned, it changed.  But we had left ourselves an evil journey, followed by a hopefully stunning reward in the shape of the Caribbean Island of Roatan in Honduras.  Why did we deviate from our plans?  Money.  Belize was not cheap, and being quite nervous about lodgings, we tried to book in advance finding that most of the accommodation was booked or asking silly money (one hostel on Ambergris Caye asking US$70 a night a room for God’s sake!)

So this left us in a geographical nightmare as we were now in the NE corner of Guatemala and had to journey to the Bay Islands in Honduras which are situated on the North coast.  It’s quite a journey, and we had no idea how long it would take, only that we wanted to do it in one day.  We booked a bus ticket with Fuente Del Norte to take us across the Border into San Pedro Sula, where we catch another ride to La Ceiba.  We started our journey at 05:30…….I started to write a long description of our arduous affair, but you don’t care. (If you do, and want to know the specifics, please email us!)  All you need to know is, that it took 16.5 hours, two border crossings, two bribes of US$3, two taxi rides, 3 buses, 2 helpings of the Fast and Furious franchise dubbed in Spanish, one terrible chemical toilet leaking it’s odorous charms over us and a diet consisting of one small cheese and luncheon meat sarnie, half a pack of biscuits & some pineapple chunks.  It was rough basically and we had to pass through San Pedro Sula (the bus station isn’t that bad) to get to our goal of the port town and doorway to the Bay Islands, La Ceiba.

We left our German travelling companions at the bus stop and journeyed to Hotel Catracho in La Ceiba at 22:00.  After being told they had no rooms initially, we must have looked so pathetic that the receptionist let us take a room supposedly above our budget but telling us not to touch one of the two beds.   We were very grateful until we realized that the room only had two single beds.  This was the first hint we got about how welcome we were in La Ceiba…

We wanted to spend three nights in this town before crossing into the bay Islands to get a feel for Honduras.  By all accounts, there is a beach a bus ride away, the Garifunan town of Sambo Creek and some mountains to hike.  It did not work out this way for us.

That first night we went for a walk at 22:30 at night, in search of beer naturally, and found the place quite seedy and grimy.  Outside our hotel there were abandoned vehicles surrounded by heaps of trash and the whole place had a general bad vibe.  After realizing we were not making a wise decision going for a walk, we quickly returned to watch kids play football in the streets around the abandoned vehicles from the comfort of our hotel with a cold beer in our hands.

We went out to explore this town in the light of day, hoping for a book store we headed to the mall.  This was a poor decision, as not only are there no book stores, or anything deviating from selling clothes, electronics or sickly sweet American fast food, it was also the Saturday before Christmas, which we forgot in our haste.  The town is so run down and poor, but the place was packed with Hondurans spending their money thoughtlessly, much like a shopping center back home at this time of year.  We later found out that some Hondurans get double pay in December which allows them to spend so freely.  After wandering round for the whole of 15 mins we had done the lap, only to look at one another in general shock and bemusement.  We headed out to the parking lot where we noticed the beautiful mountains surrounding the town, barely visible for the Pizza Hut, KFC and other fast food chain signs obscuring the vision.  We took cab back into town, (past a large green area surrounded by traffic, which turned out to be the strangest placed golf course ever) and into the central square area as every other Latin American destination we have visited so far has always had a pleasantly soothing center.  This was not to be, and yielded another disappointment, not seedy or threatening, just dilapidated, ugly, and in need of investment.  We later found out that it had only recently seen a fix up.  Another example, as a local friend put it of ‘alleged misappropriated funds by those in power’.

We retreated to a bar called ‘Expatriats’, for the second time in a day, this time for dinner and watched the Saturday night unfold.  We were the only ‘expats’ in there apart from the owner who told us that it used to have “roughly 140 people in on Saturdays, but now”…he gestured to the bar area where a handful of locals sat and a group at the back enjoying a Christmas dinner.  “Since they built the airport on the Island (Roatan), people don’t need to come here anymore.  Why take a long bus journey then a queasy ferry crossing when you can just fly from the States?”  It appears that his only expat trade is the odd backpacker who lingers more than 12 hours in La Ceiba.

There are handsomely built wooden slatted houses standing in ruin on most streets, some abandoned, some not but all in need of TLC.  Its history is a proud one, with parts of the old railway used by Standard Fruit (Dole) in it’s heyday still visible, but like everything else with a feeling of being forgotten.   So what is the point of this post?  I’m not really sure, I just didn’t want to involve it with our pleasant experience in Roatan.  But, it is one of the things that has since stayed with me along the way and as such, something I would like to remind myself of in the future.

Making our final journey to the port on way to our luxurious 12 nights (we left La Ceiba a day early!), we passed more poverty, bigger piles of trash with kids playing around them and further ghosts of the profitable times of this once great town.  The problems with this town probably go deeper than my understanding and I am by no means claiming to be an expert on the place having spent only 3 days there.

This is the first example we have seen of Honduras, and at the time of writing we have travelled further into the country.  It is a beautiful land, as our further posts will show, but it is also a poor one.  Economically it suffered heavily from British involvement and  many still would blame a time in the 1860’s when some British bankers set up a sham railroad deal  which left the country with less than 100km of usable track and £6 Million in debt.  (Possibly the tracks the Dole fruit company put to good use.)  The debt ballooned to US$125Million over the next half a century.  This, combined with the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 as well as much political upheaval and war with its neighbor, has left a country out of pocket and struggling to recover, only to be hit hard by the recession.  It is a subject I am only just learning about and will endeavour to learn more as we move forward.

In La Ceiba, we also heard of alleged financial discrepancies in the mayoral budget may have something to do with its recovery.  One example of this highlighted to us was a recent million dollar investment in CCTV coverage for city, only to find out that the installed cameras where fake and much of the money had gone unaccounted for.   It surprised me to find out that the deputy mayor was assassinated in January of this year.  For what reason?  It does not say.  Surely this is some hint that there is something not right at the top?  Anyway, another pause for thought on our travels….sorry no pictures this time.  A more cheery note next time I promise.

Thanks for reading.  Any thoughts or further information would be greatly appreciated.