Culture and History, Past and Present

These areas contain a fascinating fusion of Native, European, and African culture and history, blended with those of others from across Central, South, and North America. It's well worth taking a break from the sun, sand, and water to explore and learn about the local people and history.

Roatán, Honduras

Long before Columbus set foot in Roatán’s neighboring Bay Islands in 1502, there was a sizeable indigenous population living there, thriving off the rich aquatic life that surrounds these magical islands. The Spanish colonized the island, enslaving many of the indigenous residents in mineral rich mines in mainland Honduras. In the following centuries, Roatán was tossed between British and Spanish rule, resulting in a mixing of languages and cultures including the immigration of Afro-Caribbeans, known as Black Caribs or Garifuna, from neighboring St. Vincent. During this time Roatán was inundated with pirates due to its strategic location as a point of interception for the gold, silver, and precious stones leaving the coast of Honduras on Spanish ships. The pirates left behind more than just their legacy though; they unintentionally created fantastic dive spots by sinking the ships they attacked.

The Garifuna that settled in Roatán in the mid-nineteenth century have a strong and vivacious culture that beckons to travelers interested in an authentic and unique vacation experience. For those travelers interested in an adventure beyond the gorgeous beaches, happening nightlife, and fabulous diving, head to the eastern part of the island to get off the beaten path. Experience the Garifuna communities’ warmth and kindness and learn about their seafaring culture as you visit the fishing communities in Punta Gorda and Oak Ridge. Go to the “Discover Places” map on the homepage and select “Community” to learn more about Punta Gorda and Oak Ridge where the openhearted Garifuna communities are located.

Natives of Roatán and their descendants are known as Caracoles (which means “conch” in English), an allusion to their seagoing and island nation culture. With a history of Afro-Caribbean immigration, the legacy of indigenous culture, and the remnants of both British and Spanish colonizers, Roatán is uniquely diverse and considered to be an entirely different culture than mainland Honduras. Due to its history of British colonization, English is the first language spoken on Roatán, with Spanish a close second as increasing numbers of mainland Hondurans settle in Roatán. As tends to happen when cultures and languages collide, the English spoken in Roatán has taken on a shape and sound that is different than non-islander English and occasionally requires a little extra listening.

With its cultural richness, Roatán provides vacationers with more than just a beautiful Caribbean island; it offers the opportunity to expand your horizons and learn more about another culture while soaking up the sun and exploring nature. For an adventurous and unique vacation, be sure not to miss the east end!

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro town was founded in 1826 by wealthy British and Scottish immigrants that came from Jamaica, San Andres and the Providence Islands to avoid taxes from the British Crown. They brought slaves from the West Indies with them and this eclectic group is the reason that many people in the region speak “creole”, instead of Spanish, and go by English names and surnames.  

Soon after their arrival, Bocas became a region where bananas were planted, and the producer known as Chiquita Brands began exporting them globally. Chiquita had their offices in what is now the Hotel Gran Bahía on Isla Colón and, to this day, in the lobby you can still see the huge safe once belonging to the business.

In the 1920s most of the banana plantations were closed, ending that era of prosperity for Bocas del Toro. It wasn’t until this past decade, when the world started discovering this tiny gem, did tourism become a principle moneymaker for the area.

Panama has some of the largest populations of indigenous communities and Bocas is no exception. Here, the primary group is the Ngobe. Taking an afternoon (or even an overnight) to visit one of the villages will transport you to a much simpler time. The Ngobes feed their families by farming and gathering various vegetables and provisions in the forest and fishing from the sea. Their knowledge of medicinal plants helps to treat different ailments and their primary mode of transportation is via "cayuco," a dugout canoe made from the trunk of a tree. The women can even be seen wearing their traditional dress made up of bright colors and patterns.

To carry their products from one place to another, the Ngobe use “chacaras”, sturdy bags handmade from plant fibers. These bags are also created to sell as handicrafts. Women are the ones who make them by first collecting the proper plants, extracting the fibers, and then drying them in the sun. Once the fibers are dried, they are dyed into different colors and designs using dye that is also obtained from different local plant species. The whole process can take days and it is the perfect authentic gift to bring home

the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Jen Frandsen

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