Just off the coast from mainland Honduras, the Bay Islands have been a Caribbean fringe haven since the first pirate needed to hide and disappear. The infrastructure has improved since that time, but where there's a fringe tropical island, you'll always find divers. And, while all the islands that comprise the Bay Islands — Roatan, Utila, Guanaja, Cayos Cochinos — offer great dive options, Roatan has the most selection and variety of diving and dive resorts. Roatan is surrounded by renowned dive sites comprised mostly of sloping reef and walls, and it also has some of the top wreck experiences in the Caribbean. The water is warm and virtually current-free year-round. Nearby Utila is a whale shark magnet. Guanaja is virtually undived and infrequently visited, making it a true remaining fringe dive experience. The waters around Cayos Chochinos were declared a marine reserve in 1994 and the surrounding reef is in fantastic shape. Few people visit the Cayos other than on day trips from the other Bay Islands. What the islands all have in common is that (according the experts who produce fish identification books,) the Bay Islands harbor every single species of marine life found in the Caribbean, so don't expect to be lonely on the reefs. Topside, each island is sleepy and low key. Access to the some of the world's top Mayan ruins is easily done in day trips to the mainland.
Surrounded by a stunning array of great dive sites, Roatan has the most diversity for both undersea and topside options. West End town still features a dirt street along the beach with a nice array of bars.
Long a backpacker haven, Utila Town has a surprisingly active nightlife and club scene. Offshore, you'll find walls, pinnacle and the ever-present chance to see whale sharks.
When to go:
Water visibility is consistently 30 meters/100 feet year round although it can dip to about 27 meters/80 feet at times in the rainy season (January-February).
Marine Life Seasons:
Whale shark sightings are most frequent in the months of February through May.
When to Get the Best Deals:
What to Pack:
3/2 mm wetsuit, sunscreen, insect repellent is especially necessary here for the no-see-ums, DAN card, lightweight clothing.
Seasonal averages: 25°C/ 78°F/ in winter and 29°C/ 84°F/ in summer.
Seasonal averages: Average 27°C /82°F year-round.
Honduran Limpira, US Dollars are widely accepted, as are credit cards
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
What to Eat:
As expected from islands, seafood dominates the menu - fresh fish, shrimp, lobster and conch. A typical Honduran meal includes rice, beans, tortillas, some kind of seafood or grilled meat and a salad. Tostones (or platanos fritos) are crunchy deep-fried plantains often served as a delicious side dish. Try some key lime pie made from locally grown limes.
What to Drink:
The locally made Honduran beers are Salva Vida, Port Royal and Barena. Most cocktails include rum and fruit juices, or you could try a Monkey La La, a frosty, creamy concoction names after the local lizard.
Take a short flight to the mainland of Honduras to explore the Mayan ruins of Copan; On Roatan, the zipline is one of the best in the world. Shop for Lenca pottery, which is black and unique to the region. Wood carved products also reflect the local heritage. Visit a Garifuna village to see the authentic dance. The Sante Wellness Center boasts some of the best massages in the Caribbean.
Customs and Culture:
A mix of African slaves, Garifuna Indians and the Arawak, the music and dance, reflect this. The Bay Islands have always been an edge of the earth escape from the days of the pirates, so this spirit prevails even today.
Electricity and Internet:
110 volts, 60 Hz; Internet is available at the resorts and some towns have internet café's.
Drink the water?
Bottled water is recommended.
National language is Spanish; English is widely spoken on the islands.
Amazing Marine Life
While the "whale" reference in its name refers to its mammoth size (up to 12 meters/40 feet), this spotted goliath is actually the world's largest fish. Utila has year-round whale shark possibilities.
Found in an array of vivid colors, these sponges resemble clusters of conical vases.
This gorgeously colored diamond-shaped fish sports shades of purple, yellow, and electric-neon blue.
Take a close look under ledges and around reef structures for nurse sharks, which tend to loaf around the reefs or under ledges.
Although part of the Roatan Institute for Marine Science, open water dolphin encounters are thrilling nonetheless and available off Roatan.
Mottled in scaly patterns of reds and browns, the scorpionfish can blend easily with polyp-encrusted rocks, but its venomous dorsal spines render this beauty a danger.
As its name suggests, this coral forms plates, which resemble lettuce leaves.
This little crustacean tries to camouflage itself by collecting various odds-and-ends on its shell, giving it a rather eccentric appearance.
These friendly, striped grouper are becoming a rarity in many other Caribbean destinations. Off the Bay Islands, many come up to divers and almost demand a chin scratch.
Hawksbill turtles can be found swimming in leisurely fashion or napping under ledges on most reefs.
Top Dive Spots
The crack in this shallow reef leads to the outer wall, where you can see vase sponges, sea fans, brain coral, thin-leaf coral, schools of silverfish, and sometimes a shy toadfish. Look toward the deep for barracuda, hunting jacks, and permits.
This channel from the lagoon to the barrier reef has a cathedral-like feel to it, with the side walls arching above and light filtering through. The channel itself is filled with the low-light corals that are usually found at greater depths. Also look for lobster and sea stars.
Barbareta Wall/Morat Wall:
Three miles offshore from Roatan, this uninhabited island boasts a 1.6 kilometer/ one mile long wall, decorated with coral gardens and often haunted by pelagic visitors such as tuna, turtles, sharks, whale sharks (mostly seen in January and February), eagle rays, and barracuda.
Noted as a night dive, this site offers glimpses of octopus, reef crabs, lobsters, scorpionfish, yellowtail damselfish, red-spotted hawkfish, golden-tail moray, red-lipped blennies, and flounder among the elkhorn, staghorn, and lettuce corals.
Hole in the Wall:
A sand chute at 12 meters/40 feet leads divers through the "hole-in-the-wall" opening at a depth of 30 meters/100 feet. An advanced diver can continue to the edge of the Continental Shelf, just 9 meters/30 feet further down, and contemplate the deep dark blue of the open ocean. Slowly ascend the wall, watching for creole wrasse, blue tang, eagle rays, turtles, sweepers, spotted scorpionfish, king crab, and silversides. In the shallows on your return, "Swiss-cheese" rock formations offer swim-throughs, caverns, and canyons to explore while off-gassing.
This wall literally drops off into the deep Bartlett Trench, so pelagic encounters are not uncommon. The wall itself sports staghorn coral, pillar coral, boulder coral, black coral, vase sponges, corkscrew anemones, tube worms, brittle stars, crinoids, arrow crabs, and deepwater lace. Look for seahorses, turtles, queen and ocean triggerfish, filefish, jacks, tobacco fish, hogfish, black-cap basslets, and black durgeons, as well as the occasional shark cruising by.
Noted for a deep volcanic crack extending downward 29 meters/95 feet, this reef features rope and tube sponges, sea fans, black coral, glassfish, chubs, creole and bluehead wrasse, spotted drums, seahorses, yellowtail snapper, silversides, horse-eye jacks, silversides, and nurse sharks.
This 42-meter/140-foot tanker is encrusted with corals and sponges, and can be penetrated by experienced divers. Look for pipefish, seahorses, squid, moray eels, arrow crabs, eagle rays, southern stingrays, silversides, and nearby garden eels.
This deep wreck of a 64-meter/210-foot cargo ship rests at 30 meters/100 feet on a sandy flat full of garden eels. Descend into the ship's open compartments to look for hiding fish and moray eels.
The Canyons, Utila:
Surrounded by fringing reefs and a 600-meter/2,000-foot drop-off at the Continental Shelf, Utila is famous for whale shark sightings in February through May. Also look for barracuda, jaw fish, octopus, spotted drums, sea turtles, moray eels, scorpion fish, crabs, hog fish, lizard fish, stingrays, eagle rays, corals, sea fans, sponges, and lobsters which can exceed 9 kilograms/20 pounds.