[Editors Note: This is an old article and not indicative of the current situation but a lot has not changed too just enjoy.]
It is easy to explain why (the continual return) but it will take a little primer otherwise you might not get it.
I must have been around a young 30 the first time I took off from Miami to Roatan as I had been visiting friends in Miami and had been bored as they were all away working during the day. I took 10 days and a smaller backpack than when I arrived in Miami from the U.K. and I took with me a sense of adventure I had since lost as I had realized I had stopped travelling and had been passing my time back and forth from the U.K. to Miami and Florida for the past 6 months. I had been captured by the beach and the Latin culture that you get in SOBE (South Beach). Also the chicks were damn hot and they loved my British accent. I also loved the nightlife and there was a damn great vibe in my all time favourite (-not by much) backpackers called the banana bungalow on 21st and Collins just up from the heart (on my last visit this place no longer existed). We had a pool, were 200 meters from arguably the best beach in the world and there were an amazing mix of people from want to be and some who were models to Argentinean rich kids escaping the economic crash they were currently experiencing there it was hedonistic…but I digress, I was leaving the glamour and the fake tits behind for a little over a week. What would be in Roatan? I had made a photocopy of a couple of pages of a guide book and realised that I had some ground to cover. $249.00 got me a return to San Pedro Sula the Honduras’ second city. Landing in San Pedro Sula was a bit of a reminder of an earlier landing in Mexico City. It was the multicoloured buildings.
I got a taxi to the centre of town and resisted the urge to just jump in a cab with a couple of crazy germans who were intent on getting straight to Roatan- they wouldn’t have made it but La Ceiba would have been their reward?
I was staying the night found a hotel which was not too much and looked safe enough. I got somewhat settled (and felt that feeling of semi relief) I braved a late-ish walk from my hotel to a burger king avoiding a dodgy lurking local and got back to my hotel tired. I bought some beer from the front desk returned to my room read a bit of photocopy and remarked at how wonderful it felt at that moment to be living an adventure where the next moments were so unpredictable. And then I woke up and felt it again.
I explored the centre in the morning including a nice looking church before getting my bus to La Ceiba where the ferries left from. I managed to get on the ferry after a (long seemingly) chicken bus ride, but it was great all the same with the scenery passing by, I had left the western world finally after a long time away from it. I was hoping Roatan was going to be everything Miami ceased to be for me. The ferry ride was a real bitch and I did better to ride with her playing the waves by standing up and pretending out various scenarios in my head.
Eventually we docked and relief once again poured over me, moments had passed when for example water was running through the down stairs windows with each passing wave.
This was my first time in Roatan and my first time experiencing Coxen Hole was passing through in a taxi. The ride I now do every evening seemed as long then as it did now, I was tired and wanted to just get there. I remember most of the signs still have not changed which adorn the side of the road.
I had a couple of ideas for accommodations and was gearing my brain up for the search. Would I have to battle through locals clawing at my backpack offering me the best rooms for a tip?
The cab was a bit of a mess with cracked windows and non functioning windows but it got us there (I think I was sharing with fellow travellers). I can remember seeing the junction and the sea as we rolled into West End (Actually Half Moon Bay). Little did I know that some charm would start to posses me from that moment on. I was in Half Moon Bay and decided to stay in Chillies which was recommended in the photocopy.
I guess I had about a week in Roatan as I needed to return to San Pedro Sula. Roatan was a different place in a lot of ways then, but some things stay the same, Roatan has a clever way of avoiding tourist development and this is its first charm, the fact that it is like travelling 10 years ago, and today AS I SEE IT, is developing but in other ways; it is predominantly developing to the needs of its biggest visitors the real-estate crowd and the non backpacker tourist.
In this first trip I was a backpacking tourist and took an advanced course with coconut tree divers, Chris Benson was my instructor and I got narked. I also got drunk in mono locos alongside Billy and Femke and Barry and later in the evening we all danced on the tables. Barry now has a seat at sundowners a bar which didn’t exist then. Billy and monolocos no longer exists and neither does dancing on the tables.
There is one basic “strip” made of sand this still remains and in places is wide enough for a scooter and a taxi, which explains the traffic jams on a Friday evening as the 4x4’s try to pass side by side. This strip runs from the seagrape plantation resort at one end of Half Moon Bay to the junction marking the other end of Half Moon Bay and then leads us into West End which is a bit long to be a bay and thus is not referred to as west end bay. It runs on and on for about a 2 kilometre stretch before kinking onto the beach proper and then to a rave bar called loafers. Further along another .5 K gets us to Lunar Beach.
What of the people of Roatan?
There are a healthy mix of black garifuna and Spanish mestizo on the island and West End was once a Garifuna settlement. The locals are still here and react remarkably with the gringo invasion which has undoubtedly happened. I’m a big believer in cultures-it’s why I travel I think and the erosion is a shame. Globalisation is a major annoyance of mine and I repeat that here it seems to have happened within the local ideals even if a few too many palms have been cleared for the buildings. So long as you keep in mind the problems the locals face and respect them in their place you will encounter smiles and help (They got our ass out of trouble one day in campbay as we set our pickup truck in the sand- a group of young garifuna came round the corner and lifted us out literally!) You can definitely score some weed from the guys and they will also play volleyball with you. If there is a shooting and it happens, it’s not usually a tourist. They are used to living in a sometimes lawless environment and considering the poverty on the island they have respect for property and some kind of law, theft I feel is at a minimum.
There are 4 basic types of businesses and thus buildings which are food, dive shops, bars places to stay and tourist tat. Yes I think that’s all. There was enough for a weeks entertainment give or take a day in west bay (another story and this one is already long enough). I forgot internet shops.. So you can imagine the rest, standard fun and diving however it is probably a good time to mention the fact that people go out late and get up early for the morning dives (which are the better dives) , it doesn’t make for the best situation, but breathing air at 100ft helps a hangover a treat. This makes the bricks and mortar (read Wood) of West End but leaves the best part untold as yet.
That was my first encounter of the Roatan, I returned to England via Miami and finished up my visit there, with Roatan on my mind.
10 Days had been enough to whet my appetite for a divemaster course and I liked the idea of doing it in Roatan. I think though that it took me a good nine months to get back, and I did choose going via Miami but I elected to fly direct to Roatan from Miami. I had stopped travelling again, swapping the travel adventure vice for another, an underwater vice.
Right idea wrong season.
I had picked late November to February for my time this time and the weather was unusually unkind. But it is a busy time here as the poor Canadians are snowed under and the north north Americans too! This place got desperate after a tropical storm halted all but reading for a straight 10 days. It had been good to get back and dive and dive and dive, I loved it when it was bright and sunny. I’m not going in to too much detail suffice to say that coconut tree had some quality instructors on staff and arguably the best divemasters in mickey and ruth, legends to us they were. I made a video of my time and this can be viewed at www.roatan-diving.com. To note; a new bar was born in Half Moon Bay called sundowners, which is good for up to 21:00.
I am now back in Roatan’s West End as I write. I live here a little more permanently now having taken a programming job with Tortuga Digital, through a contact I had made my previous time. I get to dive on week ends and hang out at night. It’s a strange new way of life, Roatan has changed as have I.
Remember I said that the best part was left untold? Well I would have to say the best part of the West End for me is the people. Its really a very friendly place, and the most annoying thing is having to repeatedly say hello and how are you doing. How bad am I? From the longer term residents who are spending some time instructing in the dive shops or others who are considered residents owning businesses to the backpackers I originally being one. Being friendly here is infectious and I haven’t experienced much like it elsewhere.
The Dive Shops Of West End-an alternative to All Inclusive
To wrap this story up I felt it appropriate to write about the different shops in West End.
A brief description of what they offer and how they differ from each other it’s a rough guide and information changes.
Ocean Connections (PADI Gold Palm)
In the heart of west end a brightly yellow coloured building houses their shop with a nice classroom and sits right on the water. Phil the English owner/manager a marine biologist along with Trevor are the core. Phil has been in Roatan 15 years and is a very amiable guy indeed. The most interesting thing they are currently finalising their in house PADI specialty course the reef eco diver. They do 1 tank dives and stick to their side of the island up to the point. Phil also likes to allow the dives to last as long as the air so expect more than a 40 minute dive. Phil said that he wanted to set up a shop in which he would like to dive in, if you have dived with them report your experience on Roatan-diving.com. I haven’t personally dived with them, but wouldn’t hesitate. They also offer nitrox courses and mix their own gas. The demographic which frequent them the most was thought to be Europeans. They have 2 boats allowing flexibility and separation of students with fun divers. They have 2 boats a 28footer the other an 18 footer. They don’t like big groups 6 being enough per boat.
Sueno Del Mar (PADI Resort)
Jurgen and Arturo Instruct here in English German and Spanish. This is the only west end shop selling an extensive range of dive equipment. They have 3 boats all Skiffs of the following lengths 32, 28 and 18 feet long. They dive from the point to the Odyssea. The resort is sizable catering to 16 double rooms. Ray Lopez runs the business with 16 years of experience. The rooms are on their very own small private beach but the sand flies are not excluded! There is also a great volleyball court. They run airport transfers and seem to be catering more for the tourist who likes things more organised for example they offer shore excursions and arranged diving excursions for the cruise ship visitors. They have a good demographic of Americans and Canadians and probably wouldn’t get too many backpackers diving here. They could put 30 divers in the water at any one time though this would not be their aim. They must do something right as they get good repeat visitors and get a lot of new customers from the internet. If you have experienced diving with sueno del mar please let the surfing public know on www.roatan-diving.com. If you wanted an organised holiday they would probably be a good bet.
Pura Vida (PADI Gold Palm Resort)
I spoke with Chris who has been with them for 4 years from the beginning and is one of the 2 IDC staff instructors. They are proud to offer diving from Pablo’s to 4 sponges using their 3 boats the biggest a 33 footer with 2x200hp outboards. The variety of boats gives the divers more choice. They mix and teach nitrox and can turn you into an Assistant Instructor plus all the regular specialties. They have a nice big deck but the classroom is also here so it might not be so quiet to study here. They have a strong latin culture among the instructors and this possibly shows in their customer demographic. They get other customers from the states and French Canadians too.
Chris (Spanish and English)
Serena (Italian French English and Spanish)
Esteban (Spanish, English)
Tana (Spanish English and Italian)
Liber the other IDC staff instructor (Spanish and English)
They carry OXYGEN on their boats which is always good. This is also a resort place so you might like to check up on an organised week or two.
Reef Gliders (PADI Gold Palm)
Reef gliders are small and like it that way. 4 fun (or not do fun) divers per divemaster and 4 students per instructor is ideal for them, what about you?
They adhere to the standards necessary to be a PADI Gold Palm for example testing their air every three months. They can teach Nitrox but don’t mix it. They have 2 boats one a 26 footer and the other a 22footer, they wouldn’t have more than 14 divers in the water at once and this figure is more to give an idea of their capacity, I asked the question.
They teach everything up to and including divemasters. They will do any site that is within the marine reserve. Like Ocean Connections they sit right on the water in the heart of west end. So if you did your DMT here you might not get such big shoulders from carrying tanks so far. At the time of writing they are limited to teaching English and Scottish only. They are two Alexes and a Cameron. The shop is owned and managed by an English couple with 2 years experience Barry and Sarah. The shop likes to provide a more personal experience with their small groups and if you have an experience of diving with them let the www know by telling the world on Roatan-diving.com.
Coconut Tree Divers (PADI Gold Palm)
I have done my advanced and divemaster course here and know the shop and its managers well. I like the space the one boat “bottom time” gives however I get frustrated at the amount of dive sites covered and this is due in part to them having the one boat.
They are currently working on a new boat. They offer two tank dives in the morning and this is rare in west end. They cover Pablo’s place to the odyssea, OXYGEN is available on the boat.
Will offers the new PADI tech deep course here and this is unique. They also mix and teach Nitrox, and all the other specialties including A.I.
Mark a marine biologist has taught me a lot about the reef here (and I’m sure will one day be a course director) has a wealth of experience and contributes to the forums on www.roatan-diving.com- go there and test him. This shop is a fun and young -oh no wait we have Pinot who is fast becoming a legend after he was forced to leave Utila. None of that last sentence was true except his age but I like him. Crazy Kate is just that and a lot of fun, then we also have lock up your daughter Hugh and Beckham look alike Irish Barry.I should also mention Tree Gaynoor and PJ who manage the place. A nice deck, beer cooler and sizeable shop means that there is a healthy after diving atmosphere most evenings I think this is what I like most about this shop. They have a great air conditioned classroom as well.
Tyll’s Dive- Independent.
Tyll’s dive for me has one of the most unattractive fascias for a dive shop in West End. This is due to it being set back on the wrong side of the road and it being a rather white concrete structure with no sign but a painted wall instead. It feels enclosed and these small things might stop me diving there true it is and what a snob I am!
I want now to dive with these guys since getting to know them more and it has nothing to do with them having some hot DMT’s right now. I had a wonderful conversation with Uwe and Dorte at Ilias’ BBQ one evening and I really feel that they were my kind of people. On with the show, they have 2 boats able to take 12 and 8 divers. Interestingly they use a drop tank on their deep dives which is very good. What they DO have is a passion for diving and in all their staff this is important to Uwe and Dorte the owner/managers. Their instructors need to commit to a long duration of work to work there.
The current core is Uwe, Dorte, Tanguy, Jimena and Sarah (with Marcus the boat captain) covering English, Spanish, French, German and Danish.
They always have DM’s and DMT’s on dives and they set up your equipment for you if you are not on a course. I’m not sure where I stand on that, now I can do it I’m happy to have someone set up my equipment but it has been only through practise that I can do that! They have a maximum of 4 students per course and there is no rush for a student to finish a course, a very good thing I think. Their range is from Pablo’s to Spooky channel but would arrange special trips. They don’t do Nitrox. They will also do SSI and NAUI referrals. In all it reminds of a very European operation. They get their divers from being listed in the lonely planet from walk-ins and they have a good word of mouth and repeat custom. Tyll the original owner no longer has anything to do with the shop.
Seagrape divers are a bit off the beaten track but they are situated in one of the better accommodation spots for backpackers. All new equipment and two very good boats they can boast. They could accommodate 30 divers at a time! The speed of the boats mean that they can offer a trip per week to Barbaretta with a BBQ there as well. I could not ascertain the price. They have a better range of dive sites than most but would need the divers to make it worthwhile. They currently don’t sell marine park tags but do intend to.
A well established shop, now run by a young fun crowd. They have 3 boats the biggest “BAD BOY” is usually always rented out and they make use of the popular skiff type boats, they have 19 sets of regulators if needed. Their dive site knowledge is very good and they know their Macro’s, something you’d better appreciate diving in Roatan. They dive the usual spots and are good supporters of the marine park and attend ALL the meetings. They get their customers from the internet and network with a few hotels in West End and a lot from walk in trade. Their staff include Shirtless Nick (manager), Luke, Anders and Mel.
Native sons- Independent.
With a clientele of 60% vacationers and 40% backpackers Native sons operates alongside their accommodation business called Chillies. They are locally owned and operated.
They have 2 boats and a capacity of 24 Regulators but would normally dive with smaller groups of on average 7 per boat. They get around to the other side with at least 6 divers to Mary’s place a great dive site and further around the north side than most for example to Steve’s dream.. Their boats are a good comfortable size.
They have a relaxed atmosphere in their lovely garden in Half moon bay. I did a night dive one time so know first hand how it is. I felt they had a shortage of suits but a combination kept me warm in the end. I had to sort out my tank band as well, and would not have mentioned this but there were a couple of loose tanks other than mine. No big deal RUINS is for Releases and straps. They can teach nitrox but can’t blend their own. They can teach in Spanish English and German through Ryan, Andrea, Mel and Mark. Safety is of great importance to them and they have OXYGEN on board.
I didn’t interview Happy Divers but have spoken on several occasions to their current instructor Leo. They get their tanks filled at Native Sons. They didn’t have the best image but are working on correcting things I’m told. They are well located in Half Moon Bay and could do much better and are working on that.
The other options for diving on Roatan are the all inclusive places or the shops up in West Bay.
If you feel this story has come to an abrupt end I would have to agree with you. I couldn’t really summarize things and I’m intent on getting some food. If you read this I never changed the ending! ;-)