Roatan: a Caribbean Island in Transition
Oak Ridge was the last turn before the main road became dirt. I steered the truck down the sloping road, past the one story wooden medical center, into the harbor area. A local boatman, Alex, was soon at my window, offering his services.
“Do you want a boat ride of the harbor?”
“No,” I reply. “I am looking for the reef house.”
He appears to be thinking, “I don’t really know how to even tell you how to get there. How about a tour of the mangrove swamp, or I can take you snorkeling out to the reef. It’s $20 dollars for an one hour tour?”
I decline and ask him where the road on my right leads. Into town, he replies, looking rather disappointed. I turn the truck right and slowly accelerate up the hill. Houses appear on my left and right and I make a sharp turn entering a very narrow lane. No room to back up. I inch the truck forward. As a policeman enters his station, I make a motion with my arms, “Is this a road or not?” He either does not see me or chooses to ignore me. Maybe he’s thinking: silly tourist, driving a truck down a service alley.
The lane becomes smaller and smaller. Luckily I do not suffer from claustrophobia. Roofs overhang my truck; two walls of buildings are on both sides of my vehicle within inches of my doors. Now there is a park bench on my right. Tighter. An 18-inch deep drain that now appears to run the length of the alley is on my left. Everything appears smaller, more compressed. The alley is swallowing me. I am very slowly idling past obstacles, with bikes and pedestrians weaving past me, squeezing past the truck and walls of buildings. No one stops for me. It is my obligation to let them past as I inch the truck through. The alley now appears to be a sidewalk in the middle of town. Nylon lines with clothes now appear. Smaller. Tighter.
I enter the main harbor parking area, and there is one final logistical problem before the truck. Finally I am clear. There is a small snack stand on my left, with a lady sitting on a chair in the alley, with a parked car ahead. I must turn left (or more like curve) to avoid hitting the stand, the lady or the car. I pull forward, back up a few inches to clear the car, check my drivers mirror, oh great; I’ll clear the lady by an inch or two. She does not move.
Finally, I am clear, and I mutter to Alex, who is hanging out by the stand, “Well, I have had better ideas.” He begins to laugh.
Seconds later, Alex is at my window, “Let me take you out to the mangroves, it’s the perfect time, the sun is high, you’ll see everything. Twelve dollars for an hour tour.”
This is getting hard to resist. “Well, maybe tomorrow, you’ll be here tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here, I’m here everyday.” He appears crestfallen.
Finally, I relent. It was getting later in the day and I might as well show something for my efforts.
“O.K., 12 dollars for a one hour tour.”
We quickly board his craft, a narrow boat the shape of a large canoe. “It’s 1:50 PM. now,” I announce. “We will be back at 2:50 PM.”
“Oh, you want to be like that,” he says.
“Like what?” I venture.
“You get a 35-minute tour for $12 dollars.”
“Wait a minute, what happened to the hour tour?” I demand.
“You get what you pay for,” he replies.
He makes some noises and I make a few comments. Eventually, “O.K., $20 bucks for an hour tour. You can take me out to see the reef too?”
“Anything you want.”
As the boat cruised the harbor, I noticed all the houses were on stilts. We past a school and a church built on stilts, with a back door that drops down four feet into the harbor. The town has a fish processing plant. A rowboat was collecting weeds, shells and other flotsam.
“What do they do with that?”
Alex replies, “They grow land, lay down rocks, put weeds and shells down, another layer of rocks, until it is compressed. Good way to make backyard.”
Shortly we are traveling parallel to the reef. Suddenly we are in a mangrove swamp, a narrow creek with trees jutting out of a swamp. The ride is very noisy due to the inboard diesel. Conversation is difficult. I think how much nicer this would be by kayak, more of a chance to observe wildlife. I am sure a budding entrepreneur will eventually be renting kayaks out of the harbor.
West Bay Beach and the coral reef
As I waded into the Caribbean Sea, my fins, mask and snorkel were already in place. In thirty yards I found a channel through the coral reef, deep enough to easily swim and examine the coral formations. There were brain coral, sea fans, sponges, objects shaped like shells, fans, globes – all pretty enough to touch. But I dare not, it will damage the organisms. How do I possibly describe everything I see? I don’t. It’s impossible.
Port Royal Mangrove Tour
I turn and watch as colorful fish that had been following me dart away. It’s neat to watch fish nibble on the coral to gain sustenance. As I swim forward, fish are in all directions, some cruising and observing me, others finding a hole or crevice to hide in. I would repeat this snorkel many times during my stay. It is one of the best on the island.
History of West Bay Beach
West Bay Beach, until about 15 years ago, had been in a totally pristine state. The hills ended not very far away, and there is a large swamp before the beach. As water ran off the hills, it would collect in the swamp. The water would settle and feed the swamp with its multitude of plant life. Evaporation and local village wells would receive a small share. Some water would trickle out of the swamp in little rivulets into the ocean, clear liquid with no sediment. This is very healthy for the corral reef and provided excellent visibility when diving or snorkeling.
Development came to the beach in the manner of two and three story motels and condominiums. Restaurants are very close to the water. Several motels were placed back from the beach, between palm trees. Three or four piers are on the beach to moor boats that provide water taxis to West End. Other boats wait there to take tourists out diving, snorkeling and fishing.
I walked from the end of west bay beach to the town of West End. After passing Bite on the Beach and Las Crocas, there is little development. I walked over the high pedestrian bridge that crosses a man made channel, and observed a beach with hills that come down to meet it, covered with trees, palms, vines, and shrubs. There was thick green and incredibly dense jungle vegetation.
Town of West End
Two story wooden buildings line a dirt road that runs parallel to the beach. It’s fine for sunbathing and a swim, but not nearly as nice or secluded as West bay.
Town of West End
Many restaurants, small hotels and cottages are in town, along with bars and small cafes. Several places offer snorkeling and scuba tours. Most offer classes for scuba certification. It’s an offbeat little town with many tourist services available – including horse rides, rentals of cars and scooters and bikes.
As you walk, you will be offered private fishing and snorkeling tours, signs for $40 dollar hour massages and one bare-chested man who said to me, “Even the King had to wait for harvest day.”
Now this is an interesting comment, one worthy of philosophical debate, but the sun was scorching and it was just too hot and humid for conversation. I keep walking. In retrospect, I should have asked him his thoughts on the matter.
A stop at Anthony’s Key resort is obligatory. I have read so much about it. It’s a beautiful compound, with a private island that has cottages for their guests.
A marine center is on the property, with a dolphin show (closed for renovations). I counted 15 boats that were 50 feet or longer, set up for divers along a pier.
If you are a serious diver, and want an all-inclusive package, you should consider staying here. It is adjacent to the town of Sandy Key.
Across the street is Carambola Botanical Gardens. I began hiking the gardens and then beared right uphill along jungle trails, crossing several wooden bridges that traversed gullies. I pause on one bridge “CCCRRAACCKK” and am now pulling my left leg out of a hole where a wooden board is now missing.
I examine the bridge. Two poles on either end, with no center support to bear weight. My leg is cramping and will turn a nice color of black and blue in a few hours. I end the hike. In the future, I make a mental note to straddle bridges where there are no middle supports underneath.
The search for Camp Bay beach
Camp Bay is supposed to have one of the islands’ most beautiful beaches according to the guide book. I drove for miles, crossing the spine of the island, with views of both coasts. My truck heads down toward the sea. Soon I am very close to the Caribbean, with small pastel colored houses with rusted metal roofs and long piers, boats moored along side. The rutted, narrow dirt lane has thick ships rope, six inches in diameter, lying across the roads at every village, to act as a speed bump.
I stop at a beach with giant spruce trees growing on it. Is this the Camp Bay, I wondered. I am unsure and ask a local. He points up and down the expanse of beach and says it’s all Camp Bay. But how long is the beach? I continue my drive along the coast, briefly heading inland and up a hill and then descending. I catch a glimpse of a very blue sea – I’ll call it lapis blue. Soon a locked gate blocks the road. Is this the route to the real camp hill, which the guidebook had warned was about to be sold and developed?
My final destination for today is Port Royal on the very end of the island. As I drive the very hilly roads, there is nothing but jungle, much to thick to hike with trees and vines and things that grow in these environments. There are pastures with cattle and sheep.
A small 4 in. by 8 in. wooden sign states “Port Royal” in plain lettering, on the crest of a hill. As I drive downward, I see no more than six houses that line the road. I come to a dead end, with two small houses next to each other, with a young boy sitting in the yard. There is a long pier and I amble out to take photographs.
All roads stop here, and if you kept walking, soon you would enter a mangrove swamp, passable only by boat.
The loud engine whine of an approaching boat brings me out of tourist mode. I wonder vaguely if I am trespassing, suddenly feeling out of place. I climb in the truck, shove the shifter to low 4 by 4 and begin the long drive back to West Bay.