It was with more than a little surprise that I realised that over a week had passed since I first arrived in Roatan. It wasn’t so much that time was flying – life doesn’t tend to live up to the clichés when push comes to shove – but that the days were being quietly swallowed up by the humdrum minutiae that had framed our arrival here. Finding an apartment, experimenting with a new language, discovering a problem with our visa that resulted in a day-trip to the broom cupboard that is Raotan’s immigration office, locating the one ATM on the island that will accept our credit card, and more generally just getting on with the business of learning new names, new faces, where to eat, where to get your washing done… the list goes on. It was this flurry of pedestrian necessities that defined my first week on the island, so it was a pleasant jolt from what was becoming the tiring business of adjusting to travel when I woke up on my first day off to the realisation that nothing needed doing; the day was free for exploration.
Roatan’s immigration office – no word of a lie. Travel isn’t all sunsets and rainbows.
As luck would have it, four fellow divers had also managed to secure the day off and had hatched a plan to hire a jeep and drive to the mangroves on the other side of the island – would we like to come along? It was a relief to pass over the reins of responsibility to someone else, and James and I gladly accepted the invitation.
Roatan has only one main road to speak of, which circles around the coast. We piled into our beast of a car and set out on the road to adventure – all 40 miles of it. By the time we arrived at the mangroves, we were hot, cramped and sticky, and ready to get out on the water. We hired a boat and began to chug lazily across the expanse of open water, passing brightly painted houses which jutted precariously over the water as we went.
After a while the waterways began to narrow, and we saw the imposing mouths of the mangrove forests home into view. The mangroves stretched out in front of us, their finger-like roots intertwining, reaching downward to suck up the nutritious sea water that lurks beneath them. Above, their arms reach out to clasp one another, meeting in mid air and wrapping themselves in a tight embrace. Boating through these channels, you feel as if nature is encircling you, beckoning you through its eerie tunnels into a belly of branches.
The mangroves of Roatan have been referred to as ‘the Venice of the Caribbean’ but, having been to Venice and experienced the hustle and bustle of tourists trotting up and down the crowded canals, I found it hard to equate the stillness and silence of these strange, natural phenomenons to the pomp and grandeur of Venice’s waterways. Instead, I think the mangroves should be appreciated for the organic wonders that they are.
Mangroves play a vital role in the delicate oceanic ecosystem here on the Bay Islands, acting as a nursery for young marine life. During the journey from the cradle to the open blue, teems of coral reef fish make an intermediate stop in the relative safety of the mangroves, where they can grow and prosper before taking on the big, bad world. The magroves also act as a hardy barrier between the elements and the fragile coral reef. The slightest change in temperature or water composition can have catastrophic effects on coral, leading to death and decay. And if the reefs die, so do all those creatures that call it home. With the mangroves acting as an organic vigil against debris and detritus coming in from the deep sea, the coral reef enjoys a layer of protection. Mangrove conservation is now considered tantamount to the ecological welfare of Roatan’s reef and marine life.
It came as a shock therefore when we were told that we could park up our boat at any point along the waterways and take a walk over the bed of roots. Knowing how hard conservationists are working to protect them, it felt counterintuitive to clamber over the spindly branches and I was worried of cracking and damaging them. But a tentative tiptoe onto a delicate looking root proved that they are tougher than they look and it wasn’t long before we were all scrambling through this living playground, marvelling at the jagged angles and shapes sprawling beneath us.
As we made our slow journey back to the dock, we passed through a clearing. The breeze had dropped causing a soporific lull to fall over the group, and the piercing turquoise water was beginning to look increasingly enticing. Spotting a rope-swing hanging from the higher branches looming over the water was all the invitation we needed, and we spent the next hour hurling ourselves into the refreshing water. Each turn saw us test our bravery a little more, and we egged each other on to jump further, higher, better. In a fit of competitive gumption, I took it upon myself to scale one of the tallest branches but, in my eagerness, I forgot how slippery the sodden roots at the bottom can be: my legs slipped out from underneath me and my thigh took the full weight of my body, slicing open on the jutting roots. I don’t handle blood well so I tried resolutely to ignore the water turning pink around me and flopped back into the boat.
With this fairly abrupt end to our shenanigans, we decided to make a pitstop at the floating restaurant that hailed us on our journey back. With my wound taped up and a moment to catch my breath, we took in our surroundings. Years of graffiti covered every surface in sight, with tables, benches, walls and flooring decorated with the scrawlings of thousands of passing punters. It felt only right that I should leave my own small token of attendance…
Heading back home that evening, I was aching, sunburned and bruised, but happier for it. Travelling in this way – making somewhere remote and alien to you a home for longer than just a few short weeks – allows you to experience its lesser discovered pockets. The mangroves don’t always make it onto the standard tourist routes, with the allure of the beaches and the impressive scuba diving that Roatan has to offer playing the trump card. But just a short drive away, the island shows a different side of itself, an angle that I’m glad I got to capture.