We're in our last week now in Roatán, so it's time to put a bow on our thinking about this island. I'm using the Utila post as a template, so this should look familiar if you read that one. Utila was our first stop on the Caribbean part of these adventures so it is our reference point, at least for now, with a little bit of Ambergris Caye, Belize thrown in for good measure. I should say that this wrap-up is mostly about West End, Roatán where we've been for 6 weeks, but we'll touch on the other parts of the island that we've seen less of.
The things we love here in West End start with the laid-back vibe of the place. It's quieter than Utila, and feels somewhat less busy even in high season. That may surprise people because Roatán is known as a tourist island, but that's what we've found in West End. We have met some great people here, from local Islanders, Honduran mainlanders, and ex-pats. The cost of living is definitely higher here but not outrageous, and the beaches are much improved over Utila. Also, the beaches and waterfront are nice and open here to walk on or walk by, whereas in Utila there was an endless line of buildings (every business imaginable, some houses, some apartment buildings) right on the water, so there wasn't much “walking by the water”.
Garbage/Trash is still an ugly issue but not as bad as in Utila. In this case it seems as soon as it gets picked up, the cans fill to the brim in a day or two allowing the street dogs (and frankly, also dogs from poor pet owners) to snack the rest of the week. But it's only around the trash cans, not sprinkled in every ditch and roadside. Trash collection has been running behind since the elections because money was frozen for it (and for roads) so maybe this will improve. We were told “it isn't the trash people's turn to spend money yet”.
This takes us to the political situation here. Again, we don't understand the politics well, but rioting went on for weeks on the mainland, always threatening but never spilling over to the islands. It did impact us though, as the 30-day Visa extensions were suspended, forcing us to go to Belize to reset the Visa clock. Now as we plan to depart, protests again threaten our departure – it's a good chance that it's just rumors about shutting down the airport, but sometimes that's all we have to go on. Bottom line: this is a black mark on Honduras for us. I note the irony that the US Government shut down last weekend, affecting some tourists but not with the threat of shutting down airports.
Here's the list of considerations for us, for each place we go. As we said before, we don't want to turn it into a number for each place (Place A adds up to X points and Place B is only Y points, so we're going to live in Place A). But we do want to have points of comparison and discussion. So here we go:
Factors for Evaluating Islands
- Personal Safety
- Petty Theft
- Emergency Preparedness
- Food & Drink
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Meats, other
- Coffee, Tea, Beer, Rum, etc.
- Housing & Neighborhood
- Cost & Quality
- Location (close to beaches, shopping, etc.)
- Sights / Sounds / Smells
- Beaches & the Sea
- Number & Types (Sandy, Rocky, Calm, Windy, etc.)
- Water Clarity & Cleanliness
- Shore Fishing / Spearfishing
- People (Friendly, Welcoming, Laid Back, Locals and Expats)
- Public transportation
- Natural Resource Protection
- Balance (over/under regulation)
So, for Roatán, here's where we are on each point:
- Safety – this has been a big positive for us. When we first arrived with the front of the building looking like a prison with razor wire and rebar, we thought there was no way this place was safe. But the people in this building and the surrounding ones have been great and we found no concerns at all. Everyone that sees pictures or video of our place comments on the white vertical bars on our windows, and I understand their concern. I've always said that I didn't want to live in a place that needed bars on the windows, but it turns out to be a comfort knowing that nobody is coming in through your windows! The stores and ATM in West End feel perfectly safe. At the ATM a little farther out of town, inside a gas station / mini store, there are two private guards armed with shotguns. I can also say you feel pretty safe with those guys standing next to you! In town, it feels 100% safe also, it's just a small town feel. In spite of a passing comment recently, “Oh, everybody gets mugged in Roatán”, we just don't see it. Maybe it's just this part of the island that feels this way. We take normal precautions to not become victims of petty theft, but we've had absolutely zero concerns here in West End. We've concluded that if we are to come back to Roatán, West End is where we will come.
- Utilities – I rate this pretty high, I'd guess better than average for the Caribbean. We've learned about the trifecta of water, power, and Internet where you often only have 2 out of 3, and any day with 3 for 3 is a good day! We've had solid tap water the entire time here, and it's higher quality water than the salty tap water of Utila. It isn't for drinking but we also have a nice upright water dispenser which is an improvement over tipping the big blue bottle into a pitcher. Electricity has only gone out four times since we've been here, all short durations, one of which was in the middle of the night, so no real complaints there. We pay for electricity from a standard electric meter; we get charged for our monthly usage instead of having to pay up front like in Utila. We heard that electric rates vary here, from 42-50cents per KWh, depending on what “add-on” you get charged. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me (I'm not even sure it's true), but the number is very high, 4X what we paid in the US.
The big ding on utilities here is the Internet. It has definitely been a downer, but mostly just because of our building. There is no real Internet here, in spite of what was advertised, so we had to lease a mobile Hotspot device. That's fine, it's not very fast but it is quite a bit faster than using our phones as hot-spots, and it mostly works. The problem is the cost, we pay $35 for 5.5GB of data and that disappears at an alarming rate. We have to be very diligent to make 5.5 Gigs last 10 days (one time it only lasted 3 days!). So it's slow and expensive but we believe there are much better options around the island if we were to move here.
- Food & Drink – the food is very good here! Fresh vegetables are available in many good places with a few limitations similar to Utila. The quality ranges from excellent (potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, green beans, cucumbers) to fair (not a lot of rotting food, but some lower quality stuff). Fruit flies are common but not to the extent we saw in Utila. We've found we like cassava root boiled with garlic, salt and pepper, but we're still trying to figure out how to make it less gluey. Pineapples are still excellent, as are the bananas – these have become staples for us. The chicken is also excellent; we've decided that's because it is just chicken, not injected with salt water, etc. like they do in the States. We had some ground beef in pasta sauce, and it was good but with a bit more gristle than I'd like. We bought some shrimp and lobster from a small market and it was all delicious, except for one lobster tail (4 tails cost $10) which was just “off”. I had a whole fried fish at a restaurant for $8, a yellowtail snapper that would have been excellent if it wasn't overcooked. Instead, it was merely good. At another place, the coconut curry chicken special is amazing, served with beans and rice made with coconut milk and no surprise, it's called “coconut beans and rice”. But when we heard a tourist at the next table ask his friend what a coconut bean was, well we got a good laugh. 🙂 There are still some herbs & spices that are lacking, but we can find more variety than we could in Utila. Prices for local foods are very good, but in general food prices are noticeably higher than Utila. In Ambergris Caye, the food was also very good, I would say Roatán and Ambergris are comparable in that respect, a real step up from Utila, but at a higher cost.
- Housing & Neighborhood – this is a mixed bag, as our condo here feels like it has a split personality disorder. The building is ugly (to be truthful) from the outside, with the previously mentioned razor wire, large swaths of black mold from drainage down the outside walls, and the trash area is right next to the steps that go down to our place. The structure wasn't built right from the beginning and maintenance consists of just waiting for things to break (and they do, often) and then fixing them. To wit: there are no less than 9 randomly-placed access panels in the ceiling, to get to the upstairs neighbors' pipes, electrical, etc. These panels have been added over the years as different systems give out. But the living space is dramatically more comfortable and much nicer than what we had for almost 3 months in Utila. Probably the biggest drawback on the inside is that we are on the bottom level which means the back half of our place is in contact with the earth. That means those concrete walls (kitchen, and the spare BR) are damp. And that means mildew odor, and termites. The termites are somebody else's problem, but we have to open the place up and air it out every time we're gone for more than a couple of hours. But it's a modern kitchen with modern appliances, has comfortable couches, a TV, nice ceiling fans, and a balcony that's really great with wonderful sunset views. Surprisingly, there are no screens in the windows but even so I would say the bugs are fewer than in Utila. The neighborhood is nicer than we expected from our first impressions. The neighbors are nice, no complaints there. It's a fairly quiet area and definitely safe, with very little traffic because it's a dead-end road. It's not as nice for the dogs because there is really no place but the edge of the road for them to relieve themselves. It's not terrible, but we're looking forward to a yard that they can go in. The proximity to town is perfect, it's an easy 10 minute walk to the beach and the beach bar! The open trash cans stink just as bad here, but the ditches are just drainages, not the nasty, littered, mini-canals of Utila. The cost for this place is high at around $1500 a month but we knew it was going to be high this time of year. We didn't get a feel for apartment costs in Ambergris, since we were just in a hotel for 3 nights.
- Beaches and the Sea – this is another step up from Utila, in some places a very significant step up. There are more beaches to choose from, and they are prettier. They still have trash problems in some places, and seaweed constantly washes ashore this time of year, but the efforts to clean them up in town and near the resorts do not go unnoticed. They still don't compare to the Florida beaches or the Bahamas, etc. but some are pretty nice. Actually, West Bay beach (a two-mile beach walk for us) is spectacular with clear water, nice light sand, plenty of services, and the reef is only about 50' off shore so snorkeling from the beach is easy. It's easy to see why there are so many people there, it's a very busy beach not only with people but also tour boats (snorkel/sail/scuba/party). Not West Bay, but many beaches still have the turtle grass I complained about on Utila, as does Ambergris Caye, but that stuff feeds Green Sea Turtles so I really shouldn't whine. We haven't snorkeled in Roatán because of the weather, and because you'd need to take a boat trip to the reef from our home beaches in West End. But like Utila, no spearfishing is allowed in the Bay Islands (except Lionfishing with specially marked spears), and line fishing from the shore is catch-and-release. The water is beautiful from the shore or from a restaurant pier, and watching the waves crash out on the reef in high seas is nice from the relative calm inside the reef.
- People - We've met some very nice people here in Roatán, a mix of tourists, expats, local Islanders and Honduran mainlanders. The Islanders we've met (only a couple) have been very nice and are rightfully proud of their home. The Honduran mainlanders that have moved here seem to have a real appreciation for what they have. I think their lives are better on the island vs. the mainland, they know it, and they really appreciate where they live – that shows. Our pet/house sitter is an ex-pat from the States and she's got a good island attitude of going with the flow and seeing where life leads you. We've met a few tourists here, although no cruise-ship tourists – they tend to travel in groups together and all seem to have something to go and do. On this island with our short stay (6 weeks total, with one of those weeks in Belize) I'd say we really fall into the tourist category. Canadians seem to come down for longer stays, 2 months or so, since it's the middle of their winters. We met a couple from the California mountains who came down to warm up. They had an intro to Roatán that was similar to ours – in their first 2 days they compiled a long list of “fixes” for the rental agency. So we had something in common, and they were appreciative of our help with a couple of small things. In Utila, with the help of our landlords, we met a wider variety of people that were over-the-top friendly and interesting, so they may hold the edge in this category, but Roatán is still quite welcoming. Ambergris Caye may be the best of all, I was very impressed with the friendly people there. PS. I realize with the small sample of time and people, this is a very subjective analysis, but that's all we have.
- Transportation – the transportation here seems to be good, but we haven't figured it all out yet. A taxi ride to Coxen Hole and the Airport can be $35 US, or $3, depending on how you go about it. We've paid $35 and $20 for the same ride, and still don't really know why. There was a joke on the local FB page about “make sure you get a cab that has a meter in it”, and people starting asking about that. Eventually they found out there are no meters, the price is whatever you agree to with the driver. But in West End, you need no taxis, cars, or even bikes, although bikes might be helpful. If we were to live here, we'd get a car I think, or some sort of transportation. We still love walking and that's how we get around here, like every other place we've been. The only drawback is when I want to haul 2 six-packs of bottled beer along with the other groceries up our very steep hill. It's a workout, but it makes you feel like you've earned the beers. Bottom line, transportation is fine here – all the needs are met and if you want more you just have to buy it.
- Environment – there are some groups working on protecting the natural environment here, but we haven't had a chance to meet those people or learn a lot about it all. Like Utila, the reefs are getting increasing tourist traffic which can damage them, but there is some effort in this area. The beaches get cleaned of seaweed and plastic trash, but much of it is done for aesthetics. Pretty beaches mean happy tourists. But there is a benefit as the plastic is removed. I'd have to rate this area as Incomplete, based only the shortness of our stay and our inability to learn about it.
- Weather – the weather during this time period has been incredibly wet and sometimes cool. We've been told this was the worst rainy season in many years, and it's not over yet. There was over a foot of rain in the first 5 weeks here and to get that it has to rain pretty much every day. The temperatures got a bit cool for a few days but generally have been in the mid-70s even through most of the rain. The locals are FREEZING and talking about electric blankets and coats, but we're still going around in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops almost every day. We even popped over 80F a few days. We always manage to get out between storms and have been stuck indoors only a little bit. We don't mind it too much but a break would be nice too. The weather has kept us from taking a water taxi ride to neighboring communities, but we'll either get the break we need or we won't - we're not going to sweat it. Again, we've only had a small slice of time, over the holidays and through January, but we've been impressed with the strength of the Central American rainy season. I suspect the summer is every bit as hot and humid as the rainy season is cool and wet. This experience underscores the idea that you need to be somewhere for a long while before deciding if you love it or hate it.
- Intangibles – the intangibles are the final factors in deciding whether a place is really for us. The feelings we get are a blend of all the other factors listed above. This doesn't happen overnight and to be honest, I don't think we've spent enough time here to decide whether we would want to stay. Although the initial drive through town was encouraging, we pretty much started with a “what have we done?” feeling when we saw the place we were living. But we got things fixed up, got used to the strange building and things were looking up. The town is laid back, cute, friendly, and an easy place to live. The beaches are much better than Utila, but we also know there are better beaches elsewhere in the Caribbean. The country of Honduras continues to annoy us with riots on the mainland, rumors of riots on the islands, and changing rules based on riots. If we were living here as residents, that stuff would not affect us quite as much or not in the same ways. We said before “you start to get an honest feel for a place after about 6 weeks there, which is why we won't be deciding to move somewhere after a cruise stop, or a 2 week vacation”. I'll modify this a little, based on the sheer size of this island. It's too big to get a great feel for it in only 6 weeks. A smaller place like Utila works in that much time I think, but not this big island. And before deciding to live somewhere longer term, we would first have to live through all four seasons: dry season, rainy season, dead-hot-and-muggy season, and tourist season. The intangibles here are positive, there just aren't enough of them yet.
We've said that we are looking for a place we can't leave. The summary on Roatán is this: we can't make the final call on it yet, not without some more time here (and that will have to happen later). We get positive vibes from the towns and the people, negative vibes from the political landscape, and are little mixed on the beaches. We may decide to move beaches up the priority list because we keep being hopeful for better beaches. The time's been too short in Roatán, but we've really had a good stay here, enough to want to see more.
Roatán was our second real landing point in these adventures (and Ambergris Caye barely counts). We have grown more comfortable living abroad and learning how to live with different and fewer conveniences. So, until we meet again Roatán, don't ever lose your Caribbean meets Central America vibe, and take care of your special island. Hasta luego!
TODAY'S SPECIAL: "Where Bananas Grow", by Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band. We're working on our potassium levels!
We're off to Vieques, Puerto Rico next (Yay!), our original goal when this hair-brained scheme was launched before last hurricane season. The island of Vieques (and mainland PR also) is still in recovery mode, so this is a gamble but we're really just dying to get there and see some world-class beaches. If we're out of touch for a while, it's because we're struggling getting Power, Internet, etc. Or, there's a good chance we're just at the beach. Anyway, with a little luck we'll catch you on the other side of the Caribbean!