Located about 40 miles off the coast of Honduras, Roatan is the larger of the 3 Bay Islands that also include Utila and Guanaja. Although it is the larger of the three, it still only measures about 48 miles long by 5 miles across. Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1502, but not much is known about the previous inhabitants. Soon after Columbus’ arrival, the Spanish began raiding the island for slave labor. As a result of this, along with several epidemics the natives had no immunity to, the original inhabitants of the island were completely wiped out. The majority of the permanent residents of the island originated from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, a heritage that is rich on the island. Roatan was briefly under British rule, but it was handed back to the Spanish in 1859 and became part of Honduras at that time.
The island also became a haven for pirates that would raid Spanish ships making the voyage from the New World back to Europe with their treasures. Dutch, French and English pirates all found the vacated island to be the perfect place to hide out and wait for their spoils to pass by. It is estimated that by the middle of the 17th century, 15,000 pirates were living on Roatan and the Bay Islands, the famous Blackbeard being among them. By the late 1700s, the Spanish had taken back the island from the pirates, both by killing them and selling them into slavery. Not long after, approximately 2000 Black Caribs were dropped on Roatan by the British. They established the settlement of Punta Gorda on the northern coast of the island. The Garifuna, as they became known, live in Punta Gorda to this day. If you are on the island in April, you can catch the festival celebrating the anniversary of their arrival.
The diverse culture on the island is a mix of its European, Carib and African heritage. English is the dominant language spoken on the island, but Spanish is becoming more frequently used as people move to the island from mainland Honduras. If you visit Punta Gorda, you will hear the traditional Garifuna spoken.
Roatan lies on the southern edge of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. Unchecked tourism over the years has put a strain on the reef and requiring measures to be taken to protect the reef. As a result, all reef systems are protected by local and central government. Weekly clean ups are now undertaken to ensure no trash or metals make their way to the reef. The major dive shops on the island are also doing clean ups, most of them daily after dives. The large amount of expats that are settling on the island, along with the Islanders themselves, have begun to take measures to ensure that the reefs stay protected. The Roatan Institute of Marine Science and the Roatan Marine Park are also making great strides in demonstrating the importance of conservation on the island.