One day, Canadian Mickey Charteris decided to go to Honduras and, in particular, to the Bay Islands (Roatán, Utila and Guanaja) and indulge in his favorite pastime: diving. "I came down for a two-week vacation and I’ve stuck around for 18 years," says Charteris, who also spent a good part of his life in South Africa.
His nearly 20 years in the Caribbean roused in him the passion for the study of marine life and coral reefs. His addiction was such that one day he found the inspiration to write a field guide to the coral reefs of Roatán.
His "Caribbean Reef Life" is one of the two most important books published on this subject in the world. Now based in Roatán, Charteris enthusiastically remarks: "There are so many species in these waters, that if I’d set out to photograph all of them I would never finish up the project, not even in two lifetimes.”
What Charteris discovered two decades ago is what many are just finding today.
Located 25 miles off the Honduran coast, Roatán, known as the "magical coral island," won the 2017 TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Award for the top beach in Central America and one of the 25 best in the world. Along its 48 mile-length, with almost eight of width at its widest stretch, loom imposing hills covered with lush vegetation. In August, it was the first place in the Americas to host the Freediving World Championship.
The ease of diving in the Islands is amazing. In just 5 or 10 minutes a boat will ferry you over to the best spots. The layout of the reef is just perfect for all levels of diving, and the diversity of coral is so great that it would take many weeks or even months to see half of the species.
Jenny Myton, Field Manager of the Roatán Marine Park (RMP) is also a member of the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a nonprofit international organization based in San Francisco, California, that partners with local reef communities around the world to protect coral reefs. She points out that "the island has the healthiest reef in Central America". This is due in large part to the constant surveillance that’s made it possible to grow the number and sizes of fish and turtles, "which are the main attractions for those who practice diving and snorkeling," says the Honduran environmental engineer with more than 15 years of experience.
Tourism is at once a social and environmental issue in Roatán. The website goblueislands.com was created with the support of the National Geographic Foundation, making the Bay Islands a "responsible destination.”
Roatán is the largest of the three islands and far from offering just a paradise for photography or a dreamlike sunset, it’s also remained largely unspoiled from development, unlike most other Caribbean islands.
The essence is not lost
Honduran-born Antal Borcsok, who owns and operates two diving operations in Roatán, says that "when one chooses to travel to an island in the Caribbean, you’re probably looking for beautiful natural beaches, tall palm trees, coral reefs for diving, a friendly welcome, and good food". However, "today, at many Caribbean destinations, people are finding out that the charm has been replaced by commercial enterprise and premature development. That hasn’t happened in Roatán."
Newsman Leonel Vides Jiménez, owner and director of radio station Super K Karakoll 101.5 FM, came to Roatán for the second time in 2002, and stayed. "I used to work here back in 1975 when everything was more difficult, but now things are looking up, especially when it comes to communication and infrastructure."
According to Vides, part of the island's great attraction is that its “lush nature and security are ever-present elements which we take for granted.” Then he points out that another relevant feature lies in the absence of towers and tall buildings, because "there is a law that restricts the maximum height of structures to three stories.”
"I arrived here with 1,180 Lempiras (about 50 dollars), and today I can say that this is my paradise, because I lead a quiet life and work in what I like most, managing my own radio station," says Vides.
The growth of Roatán as a tourist resort has been such that President Juan Orlando Hernandez stated: "The Bay Islands and the Honduran Caribbean will soon link up to push the most aggressive tourism campaign in Central America."
A submarine out front
This development has to do with the diversity of entertainment, like the submarine Idabel, which can carry up to three people to a depth of 820 feet. This contraption was built by its owner, Karl Stanley, an American born in Oklahoma who has lived in Roatán for 20 years.
When it comes to his passion for diving and owning his own submarine, Stanley says the most rewarding aspect of his life on the island “is the privilege of having it parked in front of the house and being able to pilot it and dive down to a depth of 820 feet out at sea. I am the only person in the world who boards his own submarine to go to work and then drives it back home, while my dogs wait for me at the end of the pier."
Today in Roatán, Charteris continues on to photograph everything from sharks to killer whales. Borcsok teaches tourists of all nationalities how to dive; Stanley is still running his underwater shuttles down to the coral reef and back; Myton is tireless in her endeavor to protect the reef; and Vides keeps on playing rhythmic music from his radio station. That’s life in a Roatán that hasn’t lost its Caribbean charm.
Diving: The eco divers can take you to three incomparable destinations: West End Wall, Texas (where everything is big) and Half Moon Bay Wall. All in the West End and West Bay.
Canopy: South Shore Canopy, between West End Road and West Bay. The tour starts out on a high hill and ends at the beach.
Catch and Release: A practice within the recreational fishing on the island intended as a conservation technique. After capture, the fish are unhooked and returned to the water.
Music: At the Mixx Roatán Beach Club, on the beach near the surf with a restaurant and bar.
Hotels: Infinity, Henry Morgan and Anthony’s Key, with the first dive center in Roatán and the second largest in the world.
You should know
This is one of the few places in the world where you can swim alongside reef sharks for a reasonable price.
It is the only place in Honduras where English is widely spoken and the U.S. dollar accepted.
The whale shark, (the largest fish in the world) is a regular caller around the reefs.
American Airlines flies to Roatán, but you can also get there by ferry from La Ceiba for less than US $50, round trip.
The Oasis Restaurant, located in the West End of Roatán, has authentic Caribbean cuisine. The owner, Loren Welbourn, recommends these typical dishes:
Cauliflower soup with mint and parmesan cheese, a popular local recipe.
Roast lamb on a bed of vegetables or rice and chimichurri.