A listing on TrustedHousesitters advertised: “A 2.5-month housesit on the Caribbean island of Roatán with ocean views, private beach access, a short walk along the sand to the coolest part of town, no bills to pay, and just two cats to care for.” Sounds too good to be true right? “It’s perfect for a younger, fit, adventurous and agile couple.” We’re thinking, that’s us…but why do we need to be agile? “It’s not the easiest living, but it’s rewarding.” It turns out everything about that mysterious post was true.
Housesitting a Defunct Resort
We took the gig and moved into a 296-square-foot bungalow in a resort that’s been shut down for nearly a decade, with intermittent power and water (forget about AC or hot showers), a half mile from the nearest road on what is understood to be one of the most dangerous part of the beach. The homeowner told us some of that (once we arrived at her place), but Roatán told us loud and clear with a freshman hazing. In the first couple weeks of our stay, pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did (locust-style bug infestation, torrential rains, renegade-crapping cat, a broken water main, getting sexually accosted, multi-day power outage, and more). Despite our unbelievable ocean view, it was looking a little grim at first, but with two months to go, we just needed to find the humor in it all. No running water…it’s time for a dip in the ocean! Power’s out…let’s play cards by candlelight. Cat’s crapped under the desk again? We’re gonna cuddle with that kitty until he never does us wrong. Once we caught onto these island-style curve balls, we started to see Roatán for the paradise it’s cracked up to be.
Roatán is the most popular and populated of Honduras’ three Bay Islands. Once a pirate haven, a British colony, and a refuge for African slaves, it is unique to the rest of Honduras and feels more Caribbean than Central American. English, Spanish, and Garifuna languages blend with the accents of the expats and tourists who flock to this lush island and major diving destination. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, surrounds the island making for hundreds of dives sites and abundant marine life. Roatán stretches 48 miles long with impressive mountains running up its spine, while sandy beaches and craggy ironshore fringe its perimeter. Coxen Hole is its commercial hub, West Bay and West End’s beautiful beaches and posh accommodations attract most of the visitors, the middle of the island is peppered with fishing villages, and the East End is still largely undeveloped and supremely serene.
Our neck of the jungle and secluded beach cove was closest to West End. Despite having to wade in the water and hug a cliff to get to a main walkway, our little cabana was a mere ten-minute hike to the island’s most endearing town. Lined with beach bars, dive shops, artisan galleries, and guest houses, West End’s got a loveable bohemian vibe. We’d come here twice a week to do our shopping, go scuba diving, grab a bite at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant like Por Que No or a local stall selling baleadas (a Honduran quesadilla meets burrito), and catch a drink at the divey-fabulous Tita’s Pink Seahorse or the expat watering hole of Sundowners.
Diving with Ocean Connections
Living in a premier scuba destination with 500+ species of fish, dozens of shipwrecks, sea walls, underwater caves, and boundless coral gardens, we needed to find ourselves a dive shop. We loved Ocean Connections for their focus on sustainability, wide-range of expeditions, plus they are only one of two outfitters in the Caribbean to offer BOSS underwater scooters which are a hoot. We went on three incredible dive trips with Adam and his stellar crew, starting with Tabyana off of West Bay. The diversity of corals, sponges, and rock formations were mind-blowing. We dove a dramatic coral swim-through and were surrounded by thousands of silverside fish. We gradually made our way up to the gardens of purple fan coral and parrot fish cleaning the reef. Adam emerged with a lionfish on his spear–he makes it a point to hunt this invasive species on every dive. See our Taybyana dive video.
Two-Tanker at The Roatán Banks
Cayos Cochinos is within the UNESCO heritage section of the Mesoamerican Reef and inspires many a snorkel trip, but savvy outfitters like Ocean Connections know the best diving is just before Cayos in the deep seamount of the Roatán Banks. Once a month or so, Adam will put the call out to the dive community for an all-day trip on their 52-foot power cat for a two-tank dive, lionfish ceviche feast, and sunset cruise (for as little as $35). We dropped down 40 feet and there seemed to be every type of coral and reef fish imaginable. Peering into azure barrel sponges, spotting green morays and channel clinging crabs in the crevices of the reef, staring at the peculiar nudibranches, and having a reef shark whiz by us was all a delight! Any scuba driver will tell you that our oceans are warming and coral bleaching is happening worldwide, but when you come to a place like The Banks it gives you hope it’s not too late. For more on protecting this reef, check out the great work by the non-profit and ocean watchdog, Roatán Marine Park.
Roatán loves a party. Samana Santa (the week leading up to Easter) draws people from across Central America to the island. Then there’s the Pirate’s Fair, Shrimp Festival, an International Fishing Tournament, and their very own Carnival, celebrating the arrival of the Garifuna people on April 12, 1797. We were fortunate enough to catch “Roa Fest” which happens Columbus Day weekend. Hundreds of Garifuna in traditional dress, singing songs in their local language and playing drums and maracas, paraded up West End Road. A Honduran marching band followed and the finale was a dance party with all the spectators.
East End Road Trip
The week before Roa Fest, we took a road trip to the East End and got stopped by two more parades—this time with kids leading the charge in sequined costumes to hand-painted dresses. We welcomed the traffic jam and took the opportunity to chat with the proud parents and cheer on their kids. After dipping down into the fishing village of Oak Ridge (the “Venice of Roatán” with narrow streets, hand-carved canals, and waterways), we made it out to Camp Bay. The pace of life slows waaaaaay down out here and is celebrated with long afternoons watching the waves and sipping Salva Vida beers from the floating palapa bar of La Sirena.
Mangroves and Pirate Coves
Oak Ridge piqued our interest, as did its stories of their pirate tunnels through the mangroves to Jonesville. With our expat friend Julie behind the wheel, we set out on another East End Adventure. Marvin, a water taxi captain and keeper of local lore, took us out for a “mangrove tour.” In sync with the scenery, he regaled us of stories of the 16th-century pirates hacking the gnarly roots into secret passageways and corrupt shrimping tycoons losing their fleets to mismanagement and the corrosive sea. In addition to the beautiful lagoons and a half-sunken shipwreck named “Twitter,” a highlight of this $10 tour was a stop at the Hole in the Wall bar. We sailed along the cliffs of Jonesville Bight and this divey oasis appeared. Floating planks, picnic tables, a ceiling covered with old t-shirts, and a tiki bar manned by Ed (a Republican in a hippies’s body). Order a rum punch or smoke a joint with him, just don’t mention ”her emails” ;). Watch our mangrove tour video.
Catamaran to Port Royal
To round out our East End pirate and sailing experience, we needed to take a catamaran trip to Port Royal. This is where Captain Henry Morgan, the legendary British pirate (and the guy on the rum bottle), positioned one of his forts to attack the Spanish galleons and also where you can find some of the best snorkeling on the island. We set sail with Amavi Charters, the only sailing outfitter with Nat Geo’s Go Blue sustainability certification on the island and by far the most luxurious. Run by a pair of savvy New Yorkers, they’ve elevated the typical sailing experience with chic lounge areas, gourmet food, tropical drinks, quality gear, and local guides who know the secrets of the reef. In their 40-foot Fountaine Pajot Catamaran, we sailed around the islets and stopped to snorkel the coral gardens and a shipwreck. After our final flips and cannonballs off the top deck, we lounged on the bow’s net and watched the water rush below us as we sipped beers and swapped stories about following our dreams. Watch our video from this sailing trip.
If living in a run-down beach resort in the middle of a jungle taught us anything, it was resourcefulness. From patching tattered screens with duct tape to sharpening our machete skills for coconut water, we definitely honed our inner-Tarzan and MacGyver. The crowning achievement? Homemade kayak paddles. Mike spotted an Ocean Kayak under a pile of palm fronds beneath an old bungalow but paddles were nowhere to be found. While he was hunting for hearty branches to make a shaft, I spotted a hard plastic barrel. Add nails, a saw, and Mike’s gumption and you’ll have a pair of oars in about an hour.
Our Local Watering Hole
Our kayak’s maiden voyage was to our favorite beach bar, Tita’s Pink Seahorse. Not only does she have the most incredible palapa, decorated with decades of tchotchkes, she’s also got the best volleyball court on the island. We were here to celebrate the 40th birthday of our friend Tim (a charismatic island DJ with the cutest Caribbean accent) and toast our last weekend in Roatán. We played volleyball until sunset and danced on the court until midnight. With a bit of a buzz and total darkness, paddling home was made all the more interesting with the Bay Islands bioluminescence. With each stroke, the phosphorescent plankton would emit their glow as if we were paddling through a galaxy. Our 10-minute paddle home turned into 20 as we splashed around in circles and giggled in awe.
Our two and a half months on the island flew by and the things that once seemed annoying, like wading through the ocean to get our groceries or having geckos scurry past our desk, had become endearing. Roatán may have hazed us like a Frat Boy, but when it realized we could hang island style, it took us in like a brother.