For the modern traveller, the strain of life in the concrete jungle, with its never-ending stress, commutes and technology, has many seeking travel that offers more. More connection, more adventure and more soul. Ecotourism offers the opportunity to deeply engage with a destination’s environment — and experience it to the fullest. The largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras, Roatán is a natural treasure trove waiting to be explored.
Ecotourism has been growing in popularity all across the globe, as more and more travellers are growing not only in their understanding of the value of conservation, but in their desire for fuller, more enriched travel experiences. In essence, ecotourism is travel with the purpose of exploring a destination’s ecosystem, culture and history in ways that preserve the natural environment and benefit the local community.
Irma Brady is the director of the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), a nonprofit that has been leading conservation efforts and community outreach in the Bay Islands since 1990. She expresses the importance of infusing intentionality and awareness into one’s travels. “The advice to all tourists is to take the time before they visit any destination, just like they search to find the hotels that meet their needs,” she says. “Try to go a little further and learn more about the type of ecosystems that are fragile and need special attention, and then learn sustainable practices to conduct [yourself] in those destinations, whether it’s a cloud forest or a coral reef.”
And it’s the coral reef that has divers from all over the world absolutely amazed. Roatán lies on the southern edge of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest barrier reef in the world, known as the jewel of the Caribbean. A prismatic world awaits, with an exquisite array of marine life, including whale sharks, eagle rays and spiny reef lobsters. Whether one is a shoreline snorkeller or on the hunt for shipwrecks and shark dives, the waters of Roatán offer a breathtaking panorama.
Local nonprofits and community-based organisations stand at the forefront of Roatán’s conservation, such as the Roatán Marine Park (RMP), which was established in 2005 by local businesses hoping to turn the tide on reef degradation in the Sandy Bay-West End Marine Reserve. The RMP seeks to educate and empower both locals and tourists alike through various initiatives, including reef patrols, beach cleanups, recycling programmes and mangrove replanting.
Though a significant amount of the park’s funding comes from grants from organisations such as The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, a large portion is also generated from snorkel rentals and the sale of products from their eco-store, providing an opportunity for tourists intent on eco-friendly travels. With a plethora of snorkel and dive shops to choose from on the island, investing in a business at the helm of conservation creates a trifecta of sorts, simultaneously satisfying the traveller’s experiential desires, whilst also helping to support environmental initiatives and stimulating the local economy. It’s this intentionality on not only experiencing more but also giving back that sets ecotourism apart from simply a day at the beach.
Over on land, biodiversity is found crawling, climbing and stretching towards the sun. The Carambola Botanical Gardens consist of 40 acres of ferns and fruit trees, which are home to a rich diversity of species, including the green-breasted mango hummingbird, guatusa rabbits and green and black iguanas. For a closer look at the island’s reptilian residents, head over to Arch’s Iguana and Marine Park, where more than 2,000 iguanas inhabit the grounds. The park staff actively works to return the iguanas from their sanctuary to other natural spaces on the island. Another beloved attraction is Daniel Johnson’s Monkey and Sloth Hangout. Guests seeking close encounters with Roatán wildlife can experience such at this animal sanctuary located in French Cay, home to sloths, capuchin monkeys and South American racoons.
The Institute for Marine Sciences is another local organisation working to preserve the island’s natural world through research and education and has maintained a long-standing reef monitoring project, maintaining a database on the status of Roatán’s reefs and the creatures that inhabit them. The facility is visited year-round by students from abroad to study the centre’s surrounding reef, mangroves and seagrass, providing the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the environment and culture of the island.
A full immersion into the culture and history of a destination is another value that stands at the core of authentic ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society highlights the importance of incorporating education and interpretation into one’s travels, both on the part of guests and the local businesses that offer ecotourism experiences. The Roatán Museum, located in Sandy Bay, offers travellers a glimpse into the history of the Bay Islands, of ancient civilisations and tales of sunken treasures. It houses one of the most esteemed collections of pre-Columbian artefacts in Central America, discovered from over 50 sites throughout the islands, including pottery and ornaments from the Payan Indians.
In Punta Gorda, guests have the opportunity to dive into the flavours and creative works of Roatán’s Garifuna community. The Flamingo Cultural Center aims to celebrate and preserve the Garifuna’s cultural identity through art and dance workshops and community education. Their Garifuna Cuisine Eatery showcases ancient Garifuna recipes, modernised for contemporary diners. The centre also offers snorkelling and boat tours, introducing guests to the history of Garifuna culture and the value of sustainable tourism.
And just as ecotourism minimises one’s environmental impact on a destination, it simultaneously instills a soulful effect that is sure to maximise and ascend one’s travel experience to much more than just a vacation. You could certainly spend the entirety of your stay lounging on the seashore with an umbrella drink in hand and come home with only a suntan and a couple of trinkets for family and friends. Or, you could return from your travels with tales of swimming side by side with green turtles amidst coiled pathways of coral, soaring through brilliant flora on a zip-lining adventure, and having a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the community that calls this destination home.
As more travellers flock to the world’s most pristine destinations, it is ever more crucial to do so with great insight and reverence. Brady states that over the years she has noticed an increase in visitors who are eco-aware and reinforces the value in connecting with and treasuring the wild. “There’s nothing more wonderful, if you are snorkelling, and a ray comes cruising by, you really don’t understand or envision the enormity and beauty of that animal till you see it underwater,” says Brady. “There’s nothing better than observing nature in its own environment. As humans, we have to learn to observe, appreciate and enjoy.”
Whether your travels to Roatán call for diving the reef, observing the island’s exquisite bird species or simply being camera-ready for whatever adventure comes your way, our baggage allowances make it easy and affordable to transport your gear. In addition to one’s carry-on, guests can enjoy two free checked bags on every flight, up to 55 pounds each.
Visit this destination with Cayman Airways
Cayman Airways offers connecting flights to Roatán via Grand Cayman from miami, tampa, new york and kingston. To book your flight, call 345-949-2311 or 1-800-4-CAYMAN, contact your local agent, or visit caymanairways.com.
Author: Jessie Gilmartin