Trip Report - Roatan, Honduras for New Years Eve
Roatan is the largest and most populated of the Bay Islands off the coast of mainland Honduras. The Bay Islands are part of the second largest reef system on the planet (behind the Great Barrier Reef, I believe). The reef runs from Mexico down to Belize and around Honduras. The reef passes very close to the Bay Islands, very close to the shore. At many points, you can snorkel out from shore and see the reef.
I stayed 1 day in Sandy Bay, 6 days in West End and 1 day on the mainland of Honduras in the city of La Ceiba.
The trip started with flight 026 on Sky Service (5G) on 26 December, 2005 from Toronto (YYZ) to La Ceiba (LCE). 5G026 was an Airbus 319 with 24 rows of 6 seats (3 on the left, 3 on the right). Scheduled take off was 6:20 AM EST, and the flight was in the air close to schedule. We were scheduled to arrive in La Ceiba at 10:42 AM CST.
I was quite impressed with the Sky Service plane. I believe they have increased the space between seats since I last flew them, and the space was similar to economy class on most of the full service airlines. The seats are blue leather and comfortable (though a little sticky on bare skin when getting up). We were served breakfast, but I was asleep and did not eat. I was told it was a standard egg omlete breakie like one would get in economy of a full service airline (assuming they even serve any more).
We arrived over Honduras on schedule and were descending into the airport, probably no more than 500 ft from the ground. The weather was gray and rainy and visibility was low. The pilot powered back up and started to climb again, coming on an explaining that the visibility was too low to land. We circled for about 1/2 an hour and came in for another attempt, which was aborted. Another 30 minutes, another aborted attempt. The captain came on and said that the airport was temporarily closed due to weather, so we were diverting to Belize City to re-fuel and try again.
We arrived in Belize City and they refueled the plane as the passengers stayed on board. After fueling, though, the airport in La Ceiba was still closed. So we were let off the plane and into the airport in Belize City. We stayed 3 1/2 hours in Belize (beautiful day there, sunny and warm), but were not allowed to leave the international departures area. Therefore, most of the plane hit Jet's Bar in the airport. Jet's quite a character, a small man with a big presence. Most people ordered bottles of Belikin, a local brew. About 3 hours later, though, we had drunk Jet out of Belikin. Luckily they called our flight and we were off again.
We arrived back in La Ceiba and landed safely (but a bit bumpy) at 4:30 PM CST, about 6 hours behind schedule. The weather was still rainy and gray. We had planned to head into La Ceiba and catch the ferry over to Roatan (US$ 15), but we had missed the last departure at 4:00 PM. I was looking forward to the ferry, but consoled myself that I would get to take it back on the 1st of January.
So instead, we bought a ticket from Aerolineas Sosa for $US 42 from La Ceiba (LCE) to Roatan (RTB). The departure was scheduled for 5:15 PM CST, but we learnt that plane travel between Roatan and the mainland is more like taking a collectivo than an airline in North America. They go when the plane is full, not according to the schedule. The plane was an LET 410UVP-E, a Czech made commuter prop-plane. The plane had 5 rows of 3 (1 on the left, 2 on the right) and 2 rows of 2 (both on the right, beside the door). The fasten seatbelts sign and the exit signs were printed in both English and in Cyrillic (I assume Czech). The flight was very short, but very bumpy. However, we landed safely around 20 minutes after take off, and were finally on Roatan! There is a $US 1.30 airport tax for domestic flights.
For the first two nights, we had booked accomodation at Judy's Fantasea
in Sandy Bay. We had paid $US 120 for two rooms for two nights, meaning rooms (single or double) were $US 20 a night. Judy's Fantasea is okay. The rooms are nice and there is a nice common area (though you need to pay an extra $US 30 to use the stove if you want to cook for yourself). The man who runs the place is called Sheldon, and is very nice. However, the beach in front of Judy's doubles as the road, and thus is very dirty and covered in tire tracks. And Sandy Bay has nothing in it, no nearby restaurants or bars. You can easily get a cab into West End for $US 1 for a 10 minute ride, but as 3 single guys we wanted to be closer to the action, and so ended up checking out early and staying in West End for the rest of the trip. Judy's would be good for a large group or family that didn't mind not being close to town.
West End is a very lively place. It is a mix of dive shops, restaurants and inexpensive hotels running right along the water front. I was told that there was a rule that no buildings could exceed the height of the trees, so there is excellent folliage coverage and the place doesn't look over developed. The best beach in West End can be found at Half Moon Bay at the north end of town. Nice sand, and the reef is just off the shore and easy to snorkel out to.
We stayed at Pinocchio's
. For the 3 of us, we paid $US 45 a night for a 3 bed room ($US 15 each). It was basic - comfortable beds, a couple of fans, hot water and a hammock on the balcony. It is up on a hill, so has excellent views down to the water. The beach is a very, very short walk away (less than 30 seconds). There is a good restaurant on the first floor that is open for dinner every night except Wednesday.
For other accomodations that are a little more upscale, check out the Mariposa Lodge. $45 for a single room with AC, TV and nice location. Pura Vida also has a nice rooms, but was booked. The location is quite decent.
I had been told that because we were coming during the week between Christmas and New Years, that it would be best to book ahead as places would fill up. That is the reason we had booked the first couple of nights (I'd much rather see a hotel charging $20 before committing to it. Cheap hotels are great, but quality can vary widely). However, we found many places with vacancies once we got there. The owner of Pinocchio's (an Italian woman named Patricia) told us that business was down this year, but that could also be due to the growth of West Bay draining the higher end tourists away from West End.
For food, there are lots of good options. For breakfast, the best I found was at Blue Channel. They are a little less pricey than other places, and offer anything you might want to breakfast. Breakfast at Blue Channel was around $US 4 - $US 6 each.
For lunch, check out the Hot Chili Restaurant. Decent meals at a good price, and a location right on the water that can't be beat. If you head over to West Bay, try the Lobster Sandwich at Bite on the Beach for $US 9. It's amazing!
For dinner, the Argentinian Grill or Fosters both have good meat and seafood dishes for US$ 10 to US$ 20. Les Bouchiniers is a good meal for $US 20 to $US 25. The Seafood Soup there is amazing, and includes a full tail of lobster, a half a crab and lots of shrimp and fish for $US 21. For cheaper and decent local food, try the Lighthouse bar.
In general, though, there are lots of good places to eat. The only place that I wouldn't recommend is the Philly's Sub Shop. The fried bananas were good, but the subs were soggy and not worth the $US 5 price.
For nightlife, start at Sundowner's at Half Moon Bay. A great beach bar that is the place to be for Apres-dive. Get there early to get a seat around the bonfire. The place closed as 11, but people start leaving after 9 to head to either the Twisted Toucan or Purple Turtle. The Purple Turtle has a laid back vibe and a lot of the dive masters and ex-pat business owners hang out there. The Twisted Toucan is more lively with dancing and partying (almost like an episode of E!'s Wild On Roatan).
The nicest beaches on Roatan I am told are at West Bay, which is around 4 km from West End. You can take a cab, but if you feel up for it, the walk along the beach is interesting and you see a lot of deserted beach (though it's covered with a lot of drift wood and seaweed). The beachs are amazing in West Bay - beautiful sand obviously cleaned every morning. However, the place is much busier than West End, and when there is a cruise shipped docked in town, the place is a mad house of tourists trying to get some sun.
I don't dive, but my friend does and said the diving was incredible. He said that dives he did there were nicer than the dives in Cozumel or any of the Caribean islands he's been to. The coral reef is amazing and beautiful, almost untouched. The only problem he noted was the lack of sea life - there aren't too many fish around, which we were told by a local was due to increasing temperatures in the sea water and local fishing. It is apparently a very inexpensive place to dive, with a tank going for $US 30 or two tanks for $US 50. PADI open water certification (4 days) can be gotten for around $US 250.
English is very widely spoken on Roatan. There is little need for any Spanish.
The only complaint I have about Roatan is that the bugs are awful. I have never been bit more than on Roatan. I never really used bug spray in Costa Rica unless going into the jungle, and never on any Caribean island. So for the first two days, I didn't use any bug spray and my arms and legs soon looked like I had chicken pox. The DEET definately helped (spray both yourself and the bed), but you'll still get bit. There are mosquitos in the air, no-see-ums in the sand and bed bugs in the sheets.
After 6 days on the island, it was time to start heading home. On the 1st of January, we headed from West End to Coxen Hole to catch the ferry over to the mainland. Unfortunately, the ferry was not operating on New Year's Day, so we had to fly. Only one airline was operating on New Year's Day - Islena, the national airline of Honduras and associated with TACA. The flight that morning at 1 PM was full, but they put us on stand by. We missed the first flight, but so many people were on stand by, they full a plane over from the mainland to take us all before the next scheduled flight at 5 PM. For $US 42 we flew a Shorts SD-3-60, with 33 seats (11 rows, 1 on the left, 2 on the right). A short flight without issue. For some reason, though, the flight attendant took out the seat belt extender and life vest like she was going to run through the safety procedures, but then decided against it. No big deal, right? Everyone knows the drill up and down. However, upon landing, the girl in front of me didn't know how to undo her seat belt. I guess those safety briefings are worth something!
We spent one night in La Ceiba. There was not much going on, as it was a national holiday (January 1st). We stayed at the Gran Hotel Paris in a triple room with AC, hot water and cable TV for $US 58 a night. The Hotel Paris has nice rooms, a good location, an excellent pool and a pool side bar. The restaurant cannot be recommended, however. My friends got filet, which was overdone, and my calamari was salty and chewy to the point of being unedible.
Next morning we set off to the airport in La Ceiba for Sky Service 027 from LCE to YYZ. The plane was scheduled for a 10:45 departure. We arrived just before 9am to find a massive line-up at the Sky Service counter. Most of the Sky Service passengers were staying at a local all-inclusive resort, and thus were brought via bus to the airport 3 hours ahead of time. We were close to the last in line. There are a number of lines to go through to leave La Ceiba. First you line up to have your checked bags searched. Then you line up for a boarding pass. Then you line up to pay the airport tax ($US 32). Then you line up in the immigration line. Then you line up for security. Then you line up to get on the plane. Immigration was very slow, and the plane ended up leaving about an hour late because it took so long for everyone to clear immigration.
Due to arriving later than the majority of passengers, my friends and I were not seated together (after 8 days together, that was fine with us). I was seated in front of a row with 3 adults and 2 infants in hand. The flight attendents told them they would have to split them up due to their only being 4 oxygen masks. There was much complaining, but eventually they agreed. I switched from a window to an aisle beside two of the adults. The babies were very well behaved (they couldn't have been more than 6 months old), so it was a decent flight. Because of my "sacrifice," the flight attendant was very nice to me, offering me a free headset and a full can of diet coke. Not much, I know, but the gesture was nice.
5G027 was otherwise without issue. The captain pushed the plane a little faster, and we ended up getting into Toronto only 40 minutes late. A veggie lasagna was served for lunch, which was surprisingly good for airline food. It came with a bun, cheese and crackers and a brown betty for dessert. A movie was shown (headsets $CDN 5). We arrived back in Toronto to a monsterous line up for customs and immigration and a mad house in the baggage area. Why is it that a great vacation has to end with a crappy experience like customs and overcrowded baggage areas? There must be a better way to end a vacation, no?
...to see some pictures, please check out my travel blog