Rustic Roatan
Island has Rich History and Diverse Cultures that Visitors Seldom See

June 28th, 2012
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Water is the principal mode of transport for many Roatan communities.

Water is the principal mode of transport for many Roatan communities.

July and August, when US and Canadian schools take vacation, will likely see thousands of visitors to Roatan from North America and Europe. Most will probably not venture far from the tourist and diving enclaves on the western end of the island, all-inclusive resorts or a handful of tourist attractions aimed at them, like the forest canopy ziplines. Most won’t know what they’re missing.

There’s another Roatan out there that long predates, and in places has been scarcely touched by, the tourist development of the last few decades. It is not easy to access for the short-term visitor. Port Royal, once the site of pirate camps and battled over for centuries by England and Spain, lies 5 km beyond the last paved road. Some of the more scenic communities are accessible only by boat. But it is worth the effort for those who have the time.

Garifuna girl in Punta Gorda.

Garifuna girl in Punta Gorda.

Roatan’s population was officially estimated in 2010 at 41,000, but some think it may actually be closer to twice that given the heavy immigration from the Honduran mainland in recent years. Add to that a few thousand expatriate investors, adventurers and retirees, plus thousands of short-term visitors every month. The ethnic, linguistic and cultural mix of the island is evolving rapidly. But pockets of the old Roatan can still be found, primarily on the eastern half of the island.

The people with the deepest roots on the island (the first inhabitants having been wiped out by disease following European contact) are the Garifuna, an Afro-Caribbean people whose ancestors were marooned here by the British in 1797 following a failed revolt on St. Vincent. Today about 5,000 Garifuna live on Roatan, most of them in Punta Gorda.

The arrival of the Garifuna was followed a few decades later by a wave of migration from the Cayman Islands, consisting both of Afro-Caribbean people and people of English descent. The Cayman wave gave the island its anglophone Caribbean character that predominated until very recently. Jonesville, founded in 1852, still reflects the influence of those Anglo-Cayman migrants. The road to Jonesville is in the process of being paved.

A house on stilts at Fiddler’s Bight, near Oak Ridge, typical of those found in coastal communities in Roatan’s mangrove-surrounded East End.

A house on stilts at Fiddler’s Bight, near Oak Ridge, typical of those found in coastal communities in Roatan’s mangrove-surrounded East End.

You can get to Roatan’s East End communities from West End for as little as Lps. 100 each way by minibus if you’re willing to squeeze in for a couple hours and change buses in Coxen Hole. Taxi is faster and more convenient but considerably more expensive; beware the gringo surcharge. [/private]

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