A Sunny Place For Shady People

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July 10 – August 9, 2019

We had gotten very mixed information regarding what we could expect in Honduras.  From fabulous place to visit with as friendly locals as you could imagine, to sketchy as hell; lock everything and trust no one.

One person’s conclusion: you’re fine for a day… on day two they start making a plan… on day three they come for you.  I’m honestly not sure if that was intended as a joke or not.

Some recommendations had been to bypass the smaller island of Guanaja and clear in at touristy Roatan.  The Port Captain at Bonacca was reported to be a bit shifty. Others had said Guanaja was much easier and not to miss it. There seemed to be a general consensus  that clearing in at La Ceiba, on the mainland, should be avoided, if possible.

We’d just have to make a decision and wing it.

Historically, we’d gone more off the main path…Guanaja it would be.

After anchoring just off Bonacca, we took the dinghy and found what appeared to be the government dock.  A very animated individual directed us to one area, told us not to lock the dinghy (in case it needed to be moved) which would be safely looked after by his colleague, and follow him directly to the Immigration and then Port Captain’s office.

You can always be certain these are not free services which are being offered…

Option #1:  Assume dinghy security is not really an issue, the locations you seek will be able to be found without much difficulty, there will be no language issues, you can save a few bucks and, if anything, the guy you’re talking to is the one to be wary of.  In which case the response to said individual is, thanks for that, but we’re good… repeat process for next individual.

Option #2:   A couple of bucks to have eyes watching your dinghy is not a bad thing.  Furthermore, a local resource to help orient you can, on occasion, be well worth the expense.  It’s just critical to make sure what that expense is, up front.

We opted for the second approach.  

Hondo, a local born on Guanaja who had lived most of his life in the Eastern U.S.,  was definitely helpful with translation when the Port Captain, friendly but entirely mono-lingual, asked some questions we had trouble deciphering.  He also provided pretty solid information about what could be found where.

Though we paid Hondo more to help us out than the $10 we paid to clear in, we were happy to have done it. Still, we already had a sense that Hondo would not be required for future security.

Our clearing in process had been trouble-free, people seemed genuinely friendly as you passed them, English seemed to be more commonly spoken than Spanish, our ATM card worked on the first try, groceries were plentiful and cheap, and beer in the bar was well under US$1.50.  Honduras was making a very good initial impression upon us!

Bonacca truly is a unique community build atop an island not more than about a quarter mile long by maybe a thousand feet wide.  Most of the buildings are on stilts; and small canals criss-crossing the island immediately help make the comparison to a Honduran Venice easy to see.  

The only remaining direction for expansion really could only be up, as most of the ten thousand people living on Guanaja are crammed onto Bonacca itself.  Surprisingly, even though there does not seem to be a spare inch available on the island, it has a remarkably uncluttered and relaxed feel.  If handcarts were not the biggest vehicles on the island, it would have a very different feel.

After clearing in we moved to El Bight, a bay nearby that was much more protected from weather and out of the way of local boat traffic that buzzed continuously around Bonacca. 

Within twenty four hours we had returned to Bonacca by dinghy, also called Low Cay, and headed back to the popular gathering spot Cay Cafe.  We learned that Guanaja has an extensive European and American expat population, and Cay Cafe is definitely one place where they gather to drink and socialise every “Thirsty Thursday”, after shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables which have just arrived on the delivery boat.  Slowly, over the course of the next month, we would meet and get to know a number of these very colourful people.

While enjoying a tasty two dollar lunch and ice cold buck and a half beer at Cay Cafe (after our fruit and veggie purchase at the grocery store – hey, it was Thursday…), we also randomly met Hector and Cart.  Born and raised on Bonacca, Hector owns his own contracting company, and Cart works for him.  We ended up spending the whole afternoon visiting and drinking with these two guys, who turned out to be two of the friendliest people you could meet.  We would see Hector and Cart again and again over the following weeks.

Back at anchor, around the area known locally as El Bight we could take the dinghy out to go snorkelling, explore canals lining the shore that penetrate back into the mangroves, or check out nearby wrecks; watch our old friends from inside our cockpit – the majestically comical and prehistoric looking pelicans we were so happy to be seeing again; or go ashore and climb two-hundred-something stairs to enjoy the incredible food and spectacular view at Mi Casa Too.

Still, after about four days, we came to the conclusion it was time for a short move.  Just around the corner, about two miles away, sat Graham’s Cay.  The reef that it is a part of is nearly a mile offshore, but it acts as a very effective breakwater for most of the waves coming in from the open ocean.  This meant that, as long as the wind stayed around twenty knots or less, we could anchor comfortably with a much better surrounding view and breeze for belowdecks ventilation.

This put us within dinghy range of Savana Bight, a small shoreside community that connected with Mangrove Bight, on the other side of Guanaja, via one of the only roads on the island.  We unintentionally chose a particularly warm day to make the walk across the island; and, though we had used all of our Honduran lempiras to buy beer in Mangrove Bight, we still managed to get a free return ride from a very kind and sympathetic taxi (tuk-tuk or golf cart would be more accurate) driver who was headed in our direction anyway.

A dinghy excursion to a nearby cay for some snorkelling…

We were anchored on a tiny strip of sand nestled among endless patches of turtle grass grass, at a perfect depth of just under ten feet, just off Graham’s Cay.

Graham’s Place, a resort on Graham’s Cay opened by a Cayman man not surprisingly named Graham over twenty years before, is nearly directly opposite of the property on the main island owned by Annette and Don, an expat couple from Michigan who had been coming to Guanaja for two decades and moved here permanently a couple of years ago.

We first met them in the grocery store immediately after arriving, and spoke with them again at Cay Cafe.  Taking them up on an invitation to stop by their property Sure Feels Good “any time we were in the area”, we stopped by for what turned out the first of many beers (and many visits), enjoying the beautiful property and stunning view with new friends.

Annette and Don also introduced us to Peter, a very knowledgable local dive guide they dive with all the time, who has a small dive company.  We got to come along when they went for a couple of dives on the other side of the island, reminding us how nice it was not to have to deal with the logistics of our own boat when diving…

… especially having someone else dealing with a boat during a squall!

This point would be driven home a couple of days later when we got tagged by a squall packing forty knot gusts while anchored off Graham’s Cay, and found ourselves dragging anchor for the second time in thirty days (ironically, we had never dragged prior to that).

Fortunately, as was the case before as well, the anchor managed to reset itself fairly quickly (a relative concept when your boat is involuntarily on the move), allowing us to hold out until morning before having to relocate and properly reset the anchor… something you don’t want to have to do in the very winds which are causing the problems.

While at Guanaja, we found ourselves constantly perplexed by the weather.  The display on the screen each time we turned on Windy, one of our weather forecasting apps which indicates wind direction and intensity over time, began to look more like a static photo than a streaming video… always east to southeast or east to northeast at 10-15 knots, gusting 25.

And yet, day after day we would watch crazy variations in weather across the horizon.  What was happening directly above us could be drastically changed by the thousand plus foot tall peaks running down the centre of Guanaja, sometimes making for very different weather on the other side of the island.  Or just a few miles in the opposite direction, beyond the protection of the outer reef, the open ocean would also potentially alter the conditions markedly.  It was always a crap shoot whether whatever was just upwind of us would break one way around the other side of the island, stay on course and land on us, or break the other direction into the open ocean headed to the mainland.  Rain catch was a recurring opportunity.

In preparation for squalls and gusting winds, past experience has shown us that it’s better to have forty meters of chain already out than to plan on letting out more if the winds pick up.  You’ve either already prepared for it, and you withstand it, or you go for a ride before having time to deploy more chain in what are now less than ideal, or even dangerous, conditions for such a manoeuvre.

When we began to see forecasts of twenty to thirty knot continuous winds for the near future, we made the decision to sail for the other side of Guanaja, hoping to gain the benefit of putting the island between us and the wind direction.

The north side of Guanaja is much more sparsely inhabited.  At Michael Rock, where we anchored, we found ourselves alone and out of sight of any buildings along the coast.  Now on the lee side of the island, we could tuck right up next to the beach.  We had nearly perfectly calm surface conditions and found ourselves sitting directly on top of our anchor on more than one occasion.

The only people in the area were intermittent boats passing by, oftentimes on the horizon rather than right next to us; people making short term visits to nearby beaches; and the unfortunate squads of dickheads on jet skis who came from far away to zip around us at top speed before blasting off into infinity… nothing’s perfect.  Quoting the timeless wisdom of Jake and Elwood Blues:  Whadda want for nothin’…rubber biscuit?

Michael Rock, Guanaja

Our anchorage was a bit farther east than we were when we had previously dived with Peter, but the reef system ran the entire length of Guanaja, and there were bright orange mooring balls identifying dive sites all along the reef.  This made it easy for us to run out in the dinghy, still in view of Exit at anchor near the beach in the distance.

One dive marked a very unique encounter with a two meter nurse shark.  After thousands of dives, hundreds of those with sharks, very few things surprise us, and we consider ourselves to be rather levelheaded diving around sharks.  While I would prefer to word the imaginary headline describing that dive: Being Continually Photo-Bombed By A Nurse Shark, I would guess that it would more often read as Persistent Shark Stalks Divers.  

What started as a brief nurse shark sighting, turned into a seeming curious interest on its part, after which it seemed to be approaching us around every corner, followed by a number of close proximity fin scratches on the shark’s chin, eventually requiring a deliberate kick of the fin to turn the pesky guy away.  

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In retrospect, it seems that this highly irregular shark behaviour (anything other than a brief, elusive view for a diver)`is the result of divers being associated with food, either because of spear-fishing or dive shops feeding the sharks.  The most accurate imaginary headline probably should have read Opportunistic Animal Learns To Beg For Scraps. 

While we never felt in any danger, it is easy to see how things could end very differently with different sharks or different divers.  

In the case of spear-fishing, it’s sharks stealing someone else’s catch.  In the case of recreational diving, it’s the baiting of sharks to enhance the customer’s experience.  Very different scenarios, yet both with a lot of potential for bad outcomes.  

This was our first experience with such a persnickety marine creature.  It will, no doubt, be a story to weigh in on future discussions of shark feeding.

Dunbar Rock was obviously the big gun dive shop/resort in the area.  The Villa at Dunbar Rock is a rather imposing structure built atop Dunbar Rock which we anchored close to in El Bight.  While I’m sure there are quite mixed opinions regarding its benefits or shortcomings, we have nothing but compliments for them.  They installed and maintain the dozens of dive site moorings (not meant as overnight moorings but well done nonetheless) around Guanaja; and they happily filled our tanks on the spot for US$3 each when we asked.  Most of the time it looked like their resort was empty of guests.

After four nights enjoying the calm conditions while at anchor at Michael Rock, we headed back to El Bight. The final days of the week long Carnival celebration at Guanaja were coming to a head, and we wanted to catch the big parade at Bonacca.  

Lots of Salva Vida beer, kids prowling about in masks and costumes asking for one Lempira notes (less than a nickel) like a capitalist version of Halloween, and a community parade made for a festive afternoon in Bonacca.

Carnival, Bonacca

As well as the beach finale for Carnival’s last day, complete with a Columbus landing reenactment… good times for all… historical accuracy be damned. 

Don might justifiably argue that his rights to anchor at the Carnival beach were impeded by the Honduran Army in a way that would certainly have disappointed Columbus (hehehe… inside joke).  In the end, however, the Honduran Army acquiesced that not everyone was going to fit on the dock that they wanted everyone to use.

Ironically, this meant that Columbus simply had to cope with the locals once again as he made his reenactment landing.

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Again and again, throughout our stay, we were blown away by the quality of snorkelling and diving throughout Guanaja.  Still not incredible numbers of fish, but much healthier variety; as well as really impressive stretches of very unique hard and soft coral; and breathtaking expanses of sea fans more reminiscent of SE Asia than the Caribbean. 

We heard from more than one person that all of the promotional advertising footage used for world famous Roatan’s diving is actually photographed in Guanaja.

Those same individuals added that people can use whatever Guanaja photos they like as long as they don’t send cruise ships from Roatan to Guanaja!

Fair enough.

The kinds of things we have seen snorkelling have been pretty stunning.  Reef and flasher scorpianfish, stingrays, an amazing number of octopus, as well as smaller crabs and big lobster.  

The numbers of lobster has been especially dumbfounding.  

Hondo told us on the day we arrived that Guanaja has an exclusive contract with the Red Lobster restaurant chain.  Either all the Red Lobster lobster come from this area, or all of the lobster in this area go to Red Lobster (I can’t remember which one it is).  In either case, it amounts to a shitload of lobsters.

Even more amazing is how many of these lobsters are caught by scuba divers.  A local commercial  fishing boat may have sixty people aboard who take smaller dories out and dive all day breathing off scuba tanks, each diver wracking up potentially a dozen dives to depths of a hundred-plus feet.  The nitrogen loading they expose themselves to in doing so many dives is ridiculous.  Cases of bent divers are common, and fatalities are not rare. 

Considering how dangerous the job is, it might be very difficult to find someone still alive in the industry that has been diving long enough to say firsthand how adversely lobster populations have been affected by the fishing practices over the past few decades.  It might not be far off to say it’s more risky to the divers than to the lobsters.

While apparently most local boats have made the transition to using traps instead of divers when fishing out at the lobster fishing banks, we still saw commercial boats at port with dozens of dories stacked on deck and hundreds of scuba tanks piled in a cage.

I try to very consciously limit my takes from the ocean; but I couldn’t help indulging myself once in thirty days…

As the time that we have been at Guanaja reaches one month, we are still trying to wrap our heads completely around this unique and enigmatic place.  

Hector and Cart were perfect examples of as friendly and embracing locals as one could hope to meet.  Even though Cart referred to Hondo (the guy who corralled us when we first arrived) as a hustler, he went on to say, but that’s not all bad.  Even though the hustler may not be the guy who can help you, he knows the guy that can…

Expats continually stepped forward to offer advice and help.  In particular, Annette and Don have been as welcoming and shown as much hospitality as anyone we have ever met.  The rides they provided in their boat, invitations they extended, and activities they included us in went above and beyond again and again.  Gaining new friends is always one of the most rewarding benefits of visiting new places.

And yet, there seems to be an underlying something going on between the locals and expats.  We have been unable to put our finger on it.  No tension. No hostility.  Certainly no sense of security concerns.  Still, something… a subtle feeling of separation or an uneasiness of respect…?  Unsure.

Nevertheless, we couldn’t be happier having stopped at Guanaja before proceeding to Roatan.  It has unquestionably made for a smooth transition into Central America for us.  The month has slipped by more quickly than we could have imagined.  Honestly, I don’t see how Roatan is going to hold a candle to Guanaja.  We’ll see.

We haven’t met the any of the shady people who supposedly live in this sunny place.  

The phrase came to me through Jim – an eighty one year young American expat who has lived on Guanaja longer than most of the locals have lived here.  I think Jim just fancies the title A Sunny Place For Shady People.  A retired ex-Navy brass helmet diver and demolitions expert/commercial saturation diver/competition hang gliding pilot/pot grower now turned herbalist,  Jim can (and mostly likely will) tell you what it feels like to experience two hundred knot winds.  He was already living here when Hurricane Mitch flattened Guanaja over a five day period more than twenty years ago.  

Unique people?  Absolutely.  

Captivating?  Without a doubt.

Intriguing?  Sure.

Shady?  Nah.

A Sunny Place For Shady People sounds more like Florida, to me.

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