Roatan Geography and Climate

Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands.  Located in the Caribbean Sea about 65km (40 miles) off the coast of Honduras, the Bay Islands are an archipelago of more than 60 islands and cays, the three largest being Roatan, Utila and Guanaja.  Roatan is approximately 48km (30 miles) long on a west to east orientation, and approximately 5km (3 miles) across at her widest point. A steep ridge reaching elevation of approximately 275m (900 feet), runs lengthways down the island.  When you ask for directions on Roatan get used to hearing the terms west end, east end, north shore and south shore.  They don’t refer to specific places but are key geographical terms by which we orient ourselves.  For example, Crawfish Rock is an islander community on the north shore, mid-island.  West End is an Islander/Gringo village on the north shore, west end. Oakridge is an Islander village on the south shore, east end.  And so on.

Roatan is a uniquely stunning island.  The foreshores vary dramatically.  From powdery white sand beaches fringed with coconut palms to the dramatic volcanic rock formations we refer to as the ‘iron shore’.  The elevation of the central ridge offers magnificent views even, at various points to both the north and south coasts simultaneously, and is covered with dense lush rainforest.  Roatan’s numerous bights and coves support pristine mangrove forests, a vital shallow water habitat which works symbiotically with the fringing reef to form a complex interconnected marine ecosystem.  There is a massive mangrove corridor which joins the east end of Roatan to our closest neighbor, Santa Helene. It’s an incredible environment for exploring by sea kayak or panga.

The Meso-American reef system, in which the Bay Islands are located, is the world’s second largest reef system after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Access to this amazingly diverse underwater world is a key attribute making Roatan so special.  Close proximity of the reef to the foreshores and the geographical orientation of the island to the reef allows for enjoyable hassle-free snorkeling and diving 365 days a year.     

The climate of Roatan is consistent with an equatorial tropical zone.  It is warm year round with little variance between the day time and overnight temperatures.  Brisk tradewinds blow consistently from the East keeping things nice and comfortable although the late summer months of August and September can feel hot and humid to the new-comer. The average daily temperature range is 28C (83F) to 26C (78F) with high temps of 31C (88F) quite common in the summer.

Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from September through November. Because of Roatan’s unique position, nestled in the “L” shaped corner between Central and South America, we rarely get a direct hit from a tropical storm or hurricane.  Tropical storms optically approach from the eastern Atlantic and they usually veer north once they enter the warmer waters of the Caribbean and pass us right by.  Rather than hurricane we are more likely to feel the effects of  northerly storm systems which arrive annually during the winter ‘rainy’ season.

Rainy season varies from year to year but November through December we can reliably expect a few good weeks of rain and cool temperatures (cool for us meaning temps in the mid-20’s C/mid 70’s F).  A ‘norther’ is created by storm activity in North America which drives cold fronts into the southern Atlantic.  When the resulting cool air, high winds and heavy rain arrives on Roatan we simply move our boats from the north side of the island and switch to diving on the south shore. Thanks to the unique geography of the island there is always a leeward side to every storm.  Those of us who live on unpaved roads keep a pair of rubber boots in the bodega for just the occasion and we might dig out a jumper (sweater) and throw a blanket on the bed.  A norther typically lasts from 24-36 hours. After 50 straight weeks of relentlessly perfect Caribbean sunshine we relish these cool rainy days to put on some socks, curl up on the deck with a good book, and watch our cisterns fill to overflowing.

Apart from the delight of year-round flip-flop wearing and diving, the climate and geography of Roatan supports a wide diversity of tropical plants.  Even a novice gardener can cultivate a lush and bountiful garden full of color, fragrance and exotic tropical fruits.  The pleasure of picking and eating fruit straight from your tree never gets old.  Depending on the season you can expect an abundance of guava, mango, avocado, plantain, banana, papaya, pineapple, guanabana and many other luscious things that you never heard of before but will soon wonder how you lived without.