|Roatán (Spanish pronunciation: [ro.a.ˈtan]) is an island in the Caribbean, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) off the northern coast of Honduras. It is located between the islands of Útila and Guanaja, and is the largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras.
The island was formerly known as Ruatan and Rattan. It is approximately 77 kilometres (48 mi) long, and less than 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) across at its widest point. The island consists of two municipalities: José Santos Guardiola in the east and Roatán, including the Cayos Cochinos, further south in the west.
The island rests on an exposed ancient coral reef, rising to about 270 metres (890 ft) above sea level. Offshore reefs offer opportunities for diving. Most habitation is in the western half of the island.
The most populous town of the island is Coxen Hole, capital of Roatán municipality, located in the southwest. West of Coxen Hole are the settlements of Gravel Bay, Flowers Bay and Pensacola on the south coast, and Sandy Bay, West End and West Bay on the north coast. To the east of Coxen Hole are the settlements of Mount Pleasant, French Harbour, Parrot Tree, Jonesville and Oakridge on the south coast, and Punta Gorda on the north coast.
The easternmost quarter of the island is separated by a channel through the mangroves that is 15 metres wide on average. This section is called Helene, or Santa Elena in Spanish. Satellite islands at the eastern end are Morat, Barbareta, and Pigeon Cay. Further west between French Harbour and Coxen Hole are several cays, including Stamp Cay and Barefoot Cay.
At an impressive 40 miles long, Roatan attracts every type of traveler, from the luxury cruise-shipper to the budget backpacker. Most are united by a passion for scuba diving—the island is bordered by the second-largest barrier reef in the world.
Part of Honduras's Bay Islands (which also include Utila and Guanaja), Roatan has endured centuries of shuffling under British, American, and Spanish influence. Add the island's indigenous tribes and afro-carib settlers, and it's no wonder Roatan's people are some of the most diverse in Central America.
Get Your Bearings
Because Roatan is so long and skinny, most of its resorts and luxury hotels are located on private beaches outside of the island's towns. But that's where the island's life and flavor are found! Roatan's principal communities include:
Coxen Hole: The capital of the Bay Islands is Coxen Hole, Roatan's largest city and the first place you'll see—both the boat dock and the airstrip are located in Coxen Hole. Though travelers don't tend to remain in the city, it's the island's center for politics and commerce.
Sandy Bay: Most of Roatan's cultural attractions are located in Sandy Bay, such as the Institute of Marine Sciences and the Carambola Gardens and Marine Reserve. Sandy Bay is just across the narrow width of the island from Coxen Hole.
French Harbour: Lively French Harbour is the core of Roatan's fishing trade. Several of Roatan's most exclusive hotels are located here, as well as the island's only Iguana conservatory.
Punta Gorda: The only Garifuna settlement on Roatan, Punta Gorda boasts a dynamic culture that has remained largely unchanged since the late 1700s. Travelers are welcome. Many of Roatan's other local villages are found on this part of the island, like Jonesvile, Oak Ridge, Port Royal, and Camp Bay.
When to Go
Roatan's temperatures consistently remain in the 80s year-round. The winter rainy season begins in October and lasts until January or February. June and July can also be quite rainy.
Tips and Practicalities
It pays (literally) to exchange your money for Honduran currency, the lempira, at a bank in French Harbour or Coxen Hole. Prices in US dollars are usually hiked a bit.
When Columbus landed on Guanaja, Roatan's sister island just 10 miles to the east, in the early 1500s, he wrote: "I have never tasted sweeter water of better quality." As much as we'd like to believe him, we always recommend drinking bottled water in Central America.
Americans already know the basilisk lizard by an intriguing name: the Jesus Lizard, named after its amazing talent for walking (or running, rather) on water. Yet its name on Roatan is even funnier: the Monkey Lala! Keep an eye out for these harmless little dragons.
Roatán’s diverse blend of cultures and traditions is enough to charm anyone. But its mangrove forests, dense jungles, and swaths of white-sand beach will make you want to stay forever. Divers and snorkelers from all over the globe flock to the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands every year see to the world’s second largest barrier reef firsthand. Roatán cruises provide access to laid-back beach towns and secluded shores. On the Big Island, you can mingle with monkeys and “Jesus” lizards, snorkel with stingrays, and zipline through rainforest canopies. If it’s culture you crave, the island’s unique and vibrant blend is more than satisfying— made up of ex-pat sun seekers, Hondurans from the mainland, descendants of European settlers, and Garífuna, whose Afro-Carib-Arawak heritage still flavors centuries-old communities like Punta Gorda.