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The Unexpected Honduras

Photo Damien LeRoy

Photo Damien LeRoy

By Damien LeRoy | www.damienleroy.com

Most of us dream of our next kite adventure being to some untouched, far off destination with pristine waters and constant wind where you feel like the only people around for miles are you and your friends. A lot of exotic locations probably come to mind when you try to imagine this dream location, but I’m pretty sure Honduras isn’t one of them. At least not yet.

Located about 45 miles from the Honduran mainland, the small island of Guanaja might be very similar to that perfect remote location you’ve been dreaming about. Guanaja was Christopher Columbus’s first stop on his last trip to the New World in 1502 and was where he was first exposed to cacao (chocolate). Only three miles wide by seven miles long there are no cars on Guanaja and the only way to travel around the island is by water taxi. The people here have traditionally been fishermen, so Guanaja’s culture is very much linked to the ocean. Most people on Guanaja produce their own food through fishing, raising livestock, or growing personal gardens.

Tourism is still in its infancy on Guanaja and if there are 50 tourists on the island at a time it would be considered very busy. Guanaja is part of Honduras, but is really its own little place that feels completely disconnected from the rest of the country and in some ways the rest of the world.

Photo Dani Burianova

Photo Dani Burianova

Rising out of the beautiful crystal clear Caribbean water to an elevation of 1,500 feet, Guanaja is situated near the end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. The island is covered in rich vegetation and is full of bananas, yukka, parrots, iguanas, wild rabbits, and more.

It features some of the best fishing, snorkeling, and diving you’ll find anywhere. It also happens to be consistently windy here during the summer, which is exactly what we were looking for. Of course, there’s no such thing as the perfect place and I was a little concerned about some of the rumors I’d heard about traveling in Honduras.

Photo Damien LeRoy

Photo Damien LeRoy

One of the first questions people asked me when I said I was going to Honduras was “Is it safe there?” Honduras is considered one of the most violent countries in the world due to its location on the drug transit route and has the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita homicide rate in the world according to the United Nations. The high murder rate can be a huge turnoff for many visitors, but the island of Guanaja is isolated enough that it isn’t affected by this gang-type violence at all.

Most of the crime happens in the three main cities of Honduras – Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and La Ceiba. Guanaja itself has a crime rate that is lower than most small towns in the US. William “Buddy” Thomas is a local legend who has lived on Guanaja for over 25 years. He said, “This island is a unique place that is very different from the rest of the country. It’s completely safe and is very much off the beaten path.”

In the past there have been a lot of political problems in Honduras and Central America in general with multiple civil wars and lots of violence. It was only three years ago that Honduras went through a mostly non-violent coup which resulted in the former President being arrested and forcibly exiled to Costa Rica. Along with most countries in the region Honduras has stabilized in recent years, but there are still two very distinct and separate groups of people in Honduras.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

On one side are the wealthy people who own large tracts of land and on the other side are the poor laborers. There is an ongoing discussion here about how much the government should do to help its citizens, bringing about the traditional arguments of socialism versus capitalism. Protests are common in the larger cities in the country. Guanaja is isolated, but this is very much a real part of life in Honduras.

Guanaja is also not the easiest place to get to for people coming from the US. You can only get here by plane or boat and there are no direct flights from anywhere outside of Honduras. Even though the large airports are modern and convenient, only small local airlines fly to Guanaja.

Photo Damien LeRoy

Photo Damien LeRoy

These small airlines can be a bit of an experience for people that are only used to the large jets that are common in the US and other countries. The small airlines are safe, but the little planes add some adventure to people’s travels. There are three international airports in Honduras offering a good number of connecting flights to Guanaja. By flying in to San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, or Roatan (only 14 miles away from Guanaja) you can easily arrange a flight to the island on Lanhsa or Sosa Airlines.

My good friend Mike Minichiello of The Sweet Spot (www.gotothesweetspot.com) had invited me here and organized the trip for our group. Mike lives in the Cayman Islands where The Sweet Spot is also based and first visited Guanaja in January of 2011 after hearing about it for a few years. A promising sign was that he heard that the fishermen in Guanaja were always complaining about how windy it is. It turns out the windy season in Guanaja is actually the opposite of the windy time in Cayman so now he chases the wind back and forth even though the islands are only about 300 miles away from each other.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

Mike talks to a lot of people about traveling to Honduras and said many are reluctant about coming here at first. “Whenever I talk to people there is always some initial concern about the travel, the language difference, and the potential for crime, but once they arrive all those concerns evaporate into the amazingly beautiful landscape,” he said. “It’s the kind of place that as soon as you leave the airport you are stunned by the spectacular green hills rising out of some of the most beautiful turquoise water you’ve ever seen. Time stands still here and it is very tranquil. Most people think it is one of the most beautiful places they have ever visited. I’ve fallen in love with the scenery and the people who have been extremely helpful and friendly.”

Photo Damien LeRoy

Photo Damien LeRoy

Arriving at the Guanaja airport all we found were water taxis and other boats where you would normally find the cars, buses, and taxis at an airport. The airport is very small and is not connected with any roads. It is one of the few airports in the world where you have to board a boat when you get off the plane. I arrived with Mike and Dani Burianova, Curt Palermo, and Virginia Savoia, friends and clients who were ready for our Honduras kiteboarding adventure camp. We grabbed our bags, walked down the row of boats, loaded up, and headed off to our destination for the week – the Hotel Guanaja and The Sweet Spot Honduras Kite School.

Photo Damien LeRoy

Photo Damien LeRoy

Just a few weeks before our trip Annabel van Westrop, Brandon Bowe, and Jan Lucas had explored Guanaja and had told us a little about what we could expect. Brandon Bowe said, “I didn’t know places could be packed with this much beauty and interesting things to do yet be so simple.” When I asked Annabel van Westerop what she thought about her time here she said, “It really was a little piece of paradise. I just never wanted to leave once I got there. We didn’t have great wind every single day, but we enjoyed ourselves the entire time.”

After a short boat ride from the airport we found ourselves at the Hotel Guanaja which is perched on the side of a mountain along the water. As I checked in I realized I could hear the sounds of the wind and waves moving through the rafters of the hotel. No matter where I went at the hotel I could hear the ocean. Just outside of each room there are hammocks overlooking the beautiful blue waters.

This is where I would end up spending much of my down time and I found it really hard to leave my hammock to get in bed each night. As I swung in my hammock I could see a number of the smaller islands that surround Guanaja just off in the distance. It is truly a relaxing and beautiful location.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

The Bay Islands, of which Guanaja is one of, are much more connected with the Cayman Islands than mainland Honduras. In colonial times, England ruled over both groups of islands as one territory. I’ve been to the Cayman Islands a few times and it was really surprising to me to discover this close connection between the Bay Islands and the Cayman Islands. Most Bay Islanders speak English with a very similar accent to the English spoken in the Cayman Islands. The Caymanian accent is really distinctive and unique, so it was almost shocking to hear the same accent in an area where I had assumed I would mainly be hearing Spanish. Also, there is a strong family connection between the two groups of islands with many similar family names shared between them. Almost everybody I met in Guanaja had a family member or friend that lives in Cayman. From my trips to the Cayman Islands I knew the people there to be extremely helpful and friendly and I found the same traits in Guanaja.

Fighting the urge to take a nap in my hammock I decided I needed to get in the water. I was able to walk out my door directly onto the beach and rig my kite right there. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in different places around the Caribbean, but the water here was some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The riding in front of our hotel was unreal as you can ride behind some of the smaller islands off in the distance for completely flat water riding. The bay in front of the hotel is like a big playground as far as you can see. The water is so clear that I had a hard time telling how deep it was. A few times I caught myself just staring down past my feet looking into the water below. It felt as though I was riding on the fishes’ backs.

Photo Damien LeRoy

Photo Damien LeRoy

After our evening session we cleaned up and had a very nice local fish dinner at the hotel as we talked about the week’s adventures to come. Any concerns I had over traveling in Honduras were long gone. The forecast was showing unusually light winds so we decided to capitalize on the conditions in the mornings while leaving our afternoons free in case the wind came up. The next day we loaded paddle boards and snorkeling gear into a boat and headed off to the reef. Here we got to see a healthy live reef that was full of life in crystal clear water.

We swam through caves and got up close to rays, lion fish, lobsters, tarpon, and many other sea creatures I don’t know the names of. In the afternoon light wind began to fill in so we rigged our big kites and worked on new tricks. Our guests started to learn back rolls, front rolls, kite loops, grabs, and more. We also took the time to explore the pristine area around the islands just to enjoy the scenery.

On one day we took a trip over to Graham’s Place. Located right on the water we just relaxed while enjoying a few of the local Salva Vida beers and watching what I could only describe as a marine zoo of sorts. From our table I could look down and see lobster, baracuda, stingrays, all types of turtles, bonefish, tarpon, different types of jellyfish, and more. We also happened to be in town for The Festival of Conch, an annual event that spans nine days and has parades and parties at a different location around the island each day.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

A festival queen is crowned and there are small parades down the beach. There was a lot of music, dancing, and, of course, drinking. Compared to other carnivals the one here is pretty small, but for the islanders it’s a big party. We visited two of the events, but unfortunately we were too busy kiting to go see more of the festival. Also, since there are no roads you have to navigate your way home by boat at night, and after a few drinks that can get a little interesting.

Later in the week we had another windless morning so we took a boat over to the leeward side of the island for a waterfall hike in the jungle. I’m used to hikes where you set out on a marked trail, but that wasn’t the case here at all. This hike was literally off the beaten path and surrounded by pristine green jungle. After finding our own way to the top of the first waterfall we found ourselves at the base of the next one. We climbed to the top of that one only to find another one above it. We were completely surrounded by dense forest and it was reassuring to know that there are no poisonous animals on this island to worry about. When Christopher Columbus landed here he called this place the Isle of Pines and it’s easy to see why.

After climbing back down the waterfalls we stopped at the Green Flash, a cool little restaurant on the water. One of our guests was convinced that he needed to try the special local drink of the island. Not really knowing what he was getting into until after downing his mega shot, it turns out this special drink was actually a mixture of alcohol and cannabis. Besides the drink specials the Green Flash is a two-story building situated over the water on pilings and customers are actually encouraged to jump out the windows of the restaurant into the ocean below.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

That afternoon we took a boat ride into the main town of Guanaja, downtown Bonnacca. It was a crazy sight as the town basically consists of a bunch of houses built really close together with narrow little walkways and canals between them. It is built literally on the water and there are no roads at all. There are only a few grocery stores, a handful of small shops and restaurants, and a bank. Since there are no roads people use small boats that they push along the canals instead of cars. To me it looked like a small tropical version of Venice.

During our week-long stay in Guanaja the winds averaged from 15 to 25 knots most days. According to the locals, this was a little light for this time of year, but we still managed to ride almost every day we were there. For learning or working on new moves this is a great destination as you have a massive open water area with no one else around.

The downwinders are magical as you can tuck in behind islands to play in the slicks or stop at Graham’s for a quick beer and then keep on cruising along the chain of small islands while looking at all the reefs and different water colors. During our downwinders it really felt like we were explorers in an unknown area.

Towards the end of the trip we went on a hike at a spot near Sandy Bay. As we climbed through the luscious forest with gushes of water coming out of the ground all around we saw lizards and iguanas running everywhere through the bushes. At the top of the mountain we had a great view overlooking the barrier reef in front of us. Each of the hikes we went on was a unique experience in itself.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

On our way back we stopped at a place called Manatee Bay Pub at Sandy Bay. We enjoyed a couple beers, played a little pool, and threw a few darts. The nice couple managing the place told us stories about Hurricane Mitch of 1998. It came through and rocked the island, demolishing almost everything in the area. The photos they showed us of the destruction were unreal and the stories they told about the storm and the rebuilding process almost sounded like folklore.

When it was finally time to go home I thought back on our week’s activities as I packed my bags. Guanaja has so much more to offer than just kiteboarding including diving, fishing, snorkeling, stand up paddling, hiking, and just relaxing and taking in the beautiful scenery. The whole time it felt like the people in our group were the only ones around experiencing this majestic and beautiful place.

The kiteboarding in itself was incredible and the feeling of freedom was amazing as it really felt like we were very far from the real world. Despite my initial concerns I didn’t feel unsafe at any point of the trip. I know if I ever have the chance I will be coming back here.

Photo Mike Minichiello

Photo Mike Minichiello

Guanaja Travel Facts

Kiteboarding Info:

The Sweet Spot Honduras: www.gotothesweetspot.com

Places to Stay:

Hotel Guanaja: www.hotelguanaja.com
Graham’s Place: www.grahamsplacehonduras.com
La Giralda: www.bayislandhotel.com
East Eden Beach Boathouse: eastedenbeach@yahoo.com

How to Get There:

Find a flight to San Pedro Sula (SAP), La Ceiba (LCE), or Roatan (RTB) and book your connecting flight to Guanaja on Lanhsa (www.lanhsa.com) or Sosa (www.aerolineasosa.hn) airlines.

Places to Eat:

Manatee Bay: German food with a relaxed atmosphere
Graham’s Place: Seafood, steaks, chicken, island food
La Giralda: Gourmet food. Homemade Pizza night on Wednesday, Paella on Friday
The Green Flash Restaurant: “Special” drinks and you can jump out the window into the ocean

Good to Know:

  • The power is 110V with American plugs.
  • Currency is Lempiras, currently $1 US is about 19-20 Lempiras.
  • Most people on Guanaja speak English and Spanish.

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