Like so many Caribbean islands, Roatán is one of those places where retired millionaires, optimistic college dropouts, and struggling poets intertwine with the local population to create a culture that is at once endemically cosmopolitan, lazily industrious, and responsibly chaotic. The island’s personality is built on a healthy Honduran foundation, but the influx of European, African, American, and Asian expats makes Roatán feel like a place out of time, caught somewhere between the ages of imperialism and information.
This was our fourth annual dive trip with Steve T., AJ, Steve H. and Shane, having visited Bonaire, St. Croix, and Belize the three previous years. As usual, AJ found an amazing villa for the week and negotiated a very affordable off-season price. We stayed at Vivaro West End and couldn’t have been more pleased with the property, amenities, or location.
Angela and I arrived a day before the rest of the crew and were given the grand tour of the villa by Mark, the property manager. Mark and his wife initially came to Roatán for an three-month trip during which he received his dive instructor certification. Twelve years later, they find themselves making Roatán their home. Because of our own quest to find a new home abroad, Angela and I were immediately fascinated and took every opportunity to speak with Mark about their decision.
But Mark wasn’t the only one with a similar expat tale. We met Darryl, a retired American businessman and the new owner of the Lands End Restaurant and Bar who came to Roatán to “watch sunsets and drink beer.” His staff included Andromeda, a talented mixologist and closet karaoke superstar from Honduras, the always-smiling Mary, who went dancing every chance she could, and Norton, an American diver-turned-bartender who had perfected his conversational Spanish in less than six months.
It was a short but humid walk every morning from the villa to the dive shop at Roatán Divers, passing conveniently by our favorite breakfast spot at Lands End where homemade tortillas, farm-fresh eggs, and locally-grown coffee are standard fare. Mary was there every morning to greet us with island hospitality and encourage us back for drinks after a long day of diving, which we were often eager to do.
The dive shop was, itself, a mini United Nations of sorts. Originally hailing from the U.S. and Sweden, owners Saaya and Karl ran a very hands-on shop. They were happy to answer questions about equipment, dive sites, weather, and general expat life on Roatán. Their multi-lingual crew included Spaniards, Aussies, Germans, and Hondurans, and they couldn’t have been more helpful or encouraging. Even the resident hummingbirds were friendly to the point of almost being tame.
Our dive guide, Angie, was assigned to us for the week, and she did an excellent job throughout from pre-dive planning, to in-dive assistance, to post-dive conversation. I would recommend that you request Angie as a dive guide when considering a visit to Roatán, but, alas, we were there for Angie’s last week as she and her husband were returning to Barcelona so he could complete a graduate degree.
The diving in Roatán is beautiful and consistent, with an abundance of healthy corals, dramatic canyons, and schooling reef fish. We saw plenty of turtles, lobsters, and crabs, and occasionally glimpsed nurse sharks and eagle rays in the deep blue distance. The night dives are not to be missed as eels, octopi, and cuttlefish emerge from their hideaways to hunt in the dark.
The underwater highlight for everyone was witnessing a grouper attempting to catch a cuttlefish. I had just set the GoPro Hero 5 down on a tripod when the scene unfolded. I’m including the video here, with the most dramatic bit slowed down enough so you can see the cuttlefish getting away. Also, watch until the end to see the snapper coming in, looking for scraps and finding none.
Laughably, my own personal diving highlight came when I found a dollar bill on the sand during the first night dive. This is the second time I have found money while diving. Although the amount is insubstantial, there’s a magic in that moment. Where any amount feels like lost Spanish doubloons. Where, in all that vast motion at the bottom of the sea, chance shines on you and delivers up a small treasure.
During the week, property manager Mark stopped by the villa and invited us to attend the annual Diveshop Olympics, benefitting the Sol Foundation of Roatán. At the event, dive shops compete for the highly-coveted Golden Buoy, with all proceeds going to education and public programs in Roatán’s developing communities. Tons of great fun for a great cause. And, as it turns out, the multi-talented Mark was both the organizer and the emcee for the evening.
Moreover, we saw that the individual dive shops were really just members of a larger diving family. Though the competition was fierce, the laughter was real and generous. And I gained even more respect for this quirky little island, feeling the perceptible tug that so many before me had already felt. Those who had given in to the island and decided to stay.
We came to Roatán for the diving. What we found was a melting pot of cultures and nationalities that call Roatán home and, thereby, transform it into something deeper, richer, and far more interesting than just another diving destination.
Expat Evaluation: +1 for great diving, -1 for suffocating humidity, +5 for an established expat community, -2 for proximity to other destinations