These islands contain a fascinating fusion of Native, European, and African cultures blended together with 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 their local people and their history.
Long before Columbus set foot in the Bay Islands in 1502, there was a sizeable indigenous population living here thriving off the rich aquatic life that surround these magical islands. Known as the Paya, these indigenous inhabitants were used as slaves in mines in mainland Honduras during the Spanish colonization period. The centuries that followed witnessed a power struggle over control of the Bay Islands between Spanish and British rule, conditions which led to an influx of peoples from different parts of the world, most notably enslaved Africans and exiles from the Lesser Antilles. The Bay Island’s strategic location as a point of interception for valuable cargo leaving the coast of Honduras on Spanish ships on route to Europe also prompted a frenzied era of piracy, a theme that still resonates today. For example, Coxen Hole the capital of Roatan, is aptly named after a British pirate by the name of John Coxon.
It was the Black Caribs or Garifuna from the Island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles that settled in Roatan near the end of the eighteenth century maintaining a strong and vivacious culture that beckons to travelers interested in an authentic and unique vacation experience. You can find them in the Garifuna fishing community of Punta Gorda in Roatan’s east end. Click on “Community” on the “Places To Go” menu on the homepage to learn more about this quaint little town. If you want to delve deeper into their food, dance, song, and folklore, go to “Things To Do” and select “Festival Or Event” and choose “The April 12 Garifuna Celebration”, a one of kind cultural celebration that relives an important date in the Garifuna calendar which takes place every year on that same date.
Local Bay Islanders are known as Caracoles (which means “conch” in English), an obvious allusion to their seafaring ways. With a rich history of Afro-Caribbean immigration, the legacy of indigenous culture, and the remnants of both British and Spanish colonizers, the people from the Bay Islands are uniquely diverse and considered to have an entirely different culture than those in mainland Honduras. Due to this past British influence, English is the first language spoken on the islands, with Spanish a close second. As tends to happen when cultures and languages collide, the English spoken in the Bay Islands has taken on a shape and sound that is different than non-islander English and occasionally requires paying extra attention. The English speaking, afro-descendant community has a lesser-known but equally representative cultural celebration of their own, “The Roatan Heritage Celebration” – a series of traditional events that take place in Roatan during the entire month of August and which celebrates their distinctive cultural identity.
With this vast cultural richness, The Bay Islands provides vacationers with more than just a beautiful Caribbean island to soak up the sun and explore nature; it offers visitors the opportunity to expand their horizons and learn more about another culture and its unparalleled history.