How to Ruin an Island – Roatán, Honduras

We believe there absolutely was a time when Roatán Island, part of a collection of islands in Honduras called the Bay Islands, was a paradise of white sand beaches, laid back locals, pristine waters and affordable prices. Sadly, those days are over thanks to a few buzz kill developments.

Two words: vomit comet

Of course getting to any island is part of the adventure. But when your transport is nicknamed the “vomit comet,” requires a pass through a metal detector and costs US$28 per person each way (plus $6 a day for parking if you leave a vehicle behind like we did) it’s not necessarily a good adventure.

And that nickname? Not for nothing. The waters between the ferry station in the dingy town of La Ceiba and the island of Roatán can get choppy and the ferry is fast and essentially just blasts through the swells. We have strong stomachs for the most part, but other passengers were doing plenty of up-chucking on our one and a half hour ride to the island.

The crew is prepared, however. Air freshener is sprayed like crazy and there’s a constantly circulating gang of workers toting garbage bags, handing out fresh puke bags and urging the sick to go buy a tummy-settling soda at the on board refreshment stand. We dubbed them the Puke Patrol.

Or you could fly.

Develop a mini Cancun complex

The West End of Roatán, where the aforementioned stretches of pristine white beaches used to beckon, is now built up shoulder-to-shoulder with resorts that range from fairly good to something less than mediocre. Many of them have gone the all-inclusive route complete with wrist bands and watered down cocktails.

Though its estimated that 60,000 people live on Roatán you’d be hard-pressed to find many signs of non-resort island life.

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.


Sell your soul to the cruise ship companies

The very first thing we saw as our ferry finally reached Roatán wasn’t beaches, or the surprisingly high hills and dense jungle on the geographically diverse island. It wasn’t a charming village or even a charming port. The first thing we saw as we approached Roatán was a Carnival Cruise Ship that dwarfed the 37 mile long and five mile wide island.

The second thing we saw was the mini-city that Carnival finished in 2010. Built right at the port it seems purpose-made to disgorge and sequester cruise ship passengers–and there are hundreds of thousands of them and increasing every year.

In 2006, 250,000 cruise ship passengers arrived on Roatán. In the first six months of 2011 430,000 people arrived on cruise ships. That number is expected to skyrocket to 1 million cruise ship passenger arrivals in 2012.

Many of the passengers pass through Cruise Shiplandia–aka Mahogany Bay, a $63 million complex/staging area. From there they can get  on the so-called “magic flying chair” (a chair lift that costs $35 a pop) and travel to a man-made beach. Passengers can also choose to get on buses or other transport which whisks them to the zip lines, butterfly farms and horseback riding operations they’ve paid to take part in for the day.

An entire section of the West End beach has been taken over by an enormous holding area for hundreds of white plastic beach loungers just waiting for cruise ship passengers who prefer suntan oil to adrenaline.

Carnival cruise Mahogony Bay Roatan, Honduras

The Carnival Dream cruise ship dwarfs Roatán Island in Honduras. More than a million cruise ship passengers are expected on the island this year.


There are still some bright spots underwater

At one point Roatán was well-known for its diving too. After being so disappointed with what was going on on dry land we were prepared to be disappointed underwater too but we still gratefully accepted invitations to go diving with two dive shops on the island

We had some decent dives with a professional and well-stocked dive shop called Mayan Divers around the El Aquila Wreck and Half Moon Bay Wall where we drifted lazily with turtles and barracuda. Their dive masters and very comfortable dive boat made the day even better.

Mayan Divers Roatan, Honduras

Getting ready to go diving with Mayan Divers on Roatán Island in Honduras.

On the East End of the island we also did some diving with Subway Watersports, a PADI 5-Star shop that operates out of the not-fancy but surprisingly charming Turquoise Bay Resort. Though it could use a coat of paint, the food was good and we were charmed by the simple rooms each with its own marine theme.

The standout site on this side of the island was a place called Dolphin’s Den, a shallow-water cave where six dolphins became trapped and died a few years ago. What seemed like millions of fish undulated through sun-dappled water in the confined space.

Roatan transportation

Roatán water taxis still retain their charm. 

And Roatán is the only island we’ve ever been on where you can go down in a homemade submarine. Karl Stanley built a submarine, named it IDABEL and now takes passengers with him into the deep. He’ll take you down to 2,000 feet if you want…

Perhaps the thing we liked best about Roatán is that in 2011 Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa created a permanent shark sanctuary which encompasses 92,665 square miles (240,000 square kilometers) of Honduran waters, including Roatán, and aims to reduce the number of sharks killed each year.

Oh, and something else on the plus side? The town near the ferry terminal on Roatán is called Coxen Hole. Yep.

Palmetto Bay - Roatan, Honduras

Karen’s cool office at Palmetto Bay Resort on the quiet side of Roatán Island.


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20 comments on “How to Ruin an Island – Roatán, Honduras

  1. That’s very unfortunate. In the mid- to late nineties my dad had a house down there. It was stunning beach front property and everything (all at the very competitive price that you could get back then). But I think a huge part of why he sold it many years ago is because of the development which you write about… It’s hard to find a balance between a place being manageable to travel to and still somewhat undiscovered.
    Heather recently posted..Luang Prabang in PhotosMy Profile

  2. I try not to disparage the way anyone chooses to travel (because at least they’re going out and TRYING to see the world). But cruise ships– and the people who choose them– have definitely been something of a bane of my existence. The problems that crop up around cruise ship ports of call in developing nations seem to be the same everywhere. Since cruise business is booming, I just avoid them like the plague. Glad you were able to find some things you DID enjoy!
    Bret recently posted..10 Off The Beaten Path Ecotourism DestinationsMy Profile

  3. I used to own land in Roatan and fully intended to build a house and move there at one point. That was before the cruise ships arrived. When the first ships started to arrive (before there was hardly a lick of development), I decided I didn’t like the way things were going and eventually sold the land. There are still nice places on the island, but you have to look for them and as you mentioned, one of the best things about Roatan is its reefs, especially along the northwestern shore, most of which were long ago protected with the insight of some visionary foreigners who worked with the locals and helped them to understand the jewel they had. I can honestly say that the underwater colors in and the health of the reef in Roatan are the best I’ve ever seen.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..PHOTO: Intricately Sculpted Church Facade on Jiron de la Union, Lima, PeruMy Profile

  4. How long were you in Roatan? From your post it seems that you spent most time in the developed part and even in a comfortable “resort” owned by a foreigner. I have been there many times and there are so many unspoiled parts that with the help of locals, 4×4 and time you can discover.

    Look at how many people above said they would skip Roatan just because of your opinions, though it would be “naive” (a PC word) for anyone just to skip a place based on a commercial blog opinion. If I did that I wouldn’t have visited most of the 86 countries I have traveled to.

    You can’t expect developing countries to hold back on getting revenue for the sake of backpackers (who hardly contribute to the economy anyway) or expats wanting a different lifestyle and living off the locals. Don’t go to far, look at Costa Rica. What about Thailand? You will see it in every part of the world, but if you look closely enough and spend time in locally owned places you will find the charms in every place. True the foreigners might know more about marketing, and PR and that’s how you end up with them.

    I have been following your blog for a while and most of it is good I believe, I realise that you tend to favor more places that pay you for hotels, tours, etc, making it a bit tad commercial. I don’t mind negative opinions in blogs which are just to blog for the sake of blogging but when it’s done as a means of subsistence I can’t help but analyse it deeper.

    • Hi Aoife,

      Thanks for reading our post and for leaving your thoughtful comment. To be clear, our blog is not commercial. We make NO money off our blog. If and when we are comped at a hotel or anywhere else it’s because we are on assignment for one of the many other travel publications we freelance for–and we are a bit irked (to use a PC word) at your implication that press comps influence our opinions/coverage. For example, all of our accommodations during more than a week on Roatan were comped as we were on assignment. Many of those accommodations (some locally owned) were disappointing and we said so–on our blog and to hotel management. We also honestly expressed our opinion about Roatan overall. So there goes the “we only like things that are comped” theory. We agree that developing nations have the right to make money anywhere they can, including through tourism. But we think you’d agree that tourists have the right to know when a destination seems to have made financial gain, not sustainabiity or a rich visitor experience, the main goal. Roatan is absolutely not the only destination guilty of this (your examples of Thailand and Costa Rica are spot on). But this post was about Roatan and it’s our job on this blog to express our honest opinion. We hope you continue to read our blog.

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