Getting Oriented in Roatán and the Bay Islands

The Bay Islands form a chain that runs more or less parallel to mainland Honduras's northern coast. The westernmost Bay Island of note is Utila, the smallest of the main three islands and just 29 km (18 miles) from the mainland port of La Ceiba. In the middle is Roatán, found 48 km (30 miles) from the coast, and to the northeast is Guanaja, also roughly 48 km (30 miles) from the nearest mainland point. The world's second-largest coral reef envelops the islands and makes for top-notch diving and snorkeling. On shore, deep green tropical forests and waterfalls offer great hiking and panoramic views of the Caribbean. The Cayos Cochinos are closest to the coast and due south of Roatán; the archipelago is a protected reserve with restricted tourism and welcoming Garífuna villages.

Roatán. Diverse neighborhoods give this increasingly popular island a lot of variety beyond its infinite dive sites. There's the sleepy Garífuna village of Punta Gorda up north and the fascinating Venice-like boat town of Oak Ridge. West End and West Bay have pristine beaches; canopy tours; and the island's best restaurants, resorts, and nightlife options. Sandy Bay has dolphin dives and breezy pine forests, and the best shopping is in Coxen Hole.

Utila. Low-key dive resorts, casual eateries, and waterfront bars in the town center are all accessible on foot or by golf cart. Backpackers are drawn to the town's affordable diving and youthful vibe, while travelers with bigger budgets rent beachfront properties tucked into private coves on the north end. Diving is king here, although there's plenty of snorkeling, fishing, and lounging to be had.

Guanaja. Undisturbed crystal waters surround lush mountains and dozens of tiny cays on this least frequently visited of the main Bay Islands. Guanaja Town, or Bonacca, is a concrete labyrinth crammed with thousands of residents, but the rest of the island is hardly inhabited at all. This island is hardest to get to, so fewer tourists make the journey, leaving Guanaja with a sense of luxurious tranquillity.

Cayos Cochinos. The archipelago is part of a protected marine reserve, which divers say makes it one of the top scuba and snorkel spots on the entire reef. Turtles lumber along the shores and snorkelers abound on the Cayo Mayor and Cayo Menor islands. Garífuna communities on the Chachahuate Key offer lodging and fried fish lunches.

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