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History & Culture

Roatan Then & Now

The Bay Islands are located approximately 40 miles north of the coast of Honduras and offer a very different world from mainland Honduras. They consist of three main islands, Utila, Roatan and Guanaja, as well as numerous cays. Roatan is the largest, measuring 36 miles long and 5 miles wide. The islands’ history, which includes many disputes between the Spaniards and the British during colonial times have given the islands a unique heritage.

The pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Bay Islands are believed to have been related to Paya, Maya, Lenca or Jicaque, which were the cultures present on the mainland. During the Maya reign in Central America (between the 4th and 10th centuries), the Paya Indians populated the Bay Islands. The Payas were a smaller and less advanced group than the Mayans. Their civilization was characterized by simpler housing and tools. Payan artifacts (pottery, jade, and shells) are often found in Island burial and ceremonial sites and are referred to by the locals as “yaba ding dings.”

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Europeans discovered these islands. For almost 200 years Spanish conquistadores and British pirates battled for control of these islands, for the most part ignoring the Indians. In contesting with the Spanish for colonization of the Caribbean, the English occupied the Bay Islands on and off between 1550 and 1700. During this time, pirates found the vacated, mostly unprotected islands a haven for safe harbor and transport. English, French and Dutch pirates established settlements on the islands. They frequently raided Spanish cargo vessels carrying gold and other treasures from the New World to Spain. European pirates like Henry Morgan, Coxen, Morris and Van Horn used the island as a base for raiding Spanish ships beginning in the 1600s. They took refuge in the many hidden ports on Roatan, spending time hunting and fishing and lazing about in the tropical sun.

After the Spanish eventually left the islands, the Bay Islands were re-settled first by the Garifuna, who settled in Punta Gorda on Roatan, and later by British-descended settlers from the Cayman Islands, who set up colonies in Utila, Roatan and Guanaja. The Garifuna story began to unfold a thousand years ago when the Arawak, a South American tribe of hunters and gatherers, moved up the Orinoco River, through Honduras and into the Caribbean Sea, where they traded with the Caribs. The mixture of Carib and Arawak created a new people who came to be known as ‘Island Caribs’.

The British eventually established control of the Bay Islands, until the early 1960’s when control of the Islands was officially returned to Honduras.

You’ll receive a warm greeting from our friendly, bilingual (English & Spanish) population whose ancestral origins are a combination of the eight separate cultures that both fought and flourished here during the past 400 years. In the 1970’s divers discovered Roatan’s pristine reef and the tourist industry was born. Over the past 15 years Roatan has experienced increased development that allows current visitors to enjoy paved roads, well-stocked supermarkets, medical clinics, phone and wireless internet access but the island is still a small, tropical paradiseā€¦and one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean.

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