Sailing in the western Caribbean has been an eye opening experience. We had absolutely no idea there were so many gorgeous islands and anchorages, so many different and wonderful cultures and best of all…such amazing snorkelling in crystal clear water.
We’ve had many surprises in this part of the world but when we arrived in the spectacular Cayos Cochinos – an archipelago about 15kms off the north coast of Honduras – we reckoned we’d found paradise. They were just magic – quiet, remote and beautiful.
It took us a while to get there as we got stuck for two weeks in French Cay anchorage in Roatan – not our style at all. We are a bit of a rare breed amongst cruisers in that we like to keep on the move…any more than a few days in one anchorage and we get itchy feet.
We had been trying to leave Roatan for some time but had to wait until David’s health improved. We ended up having New Year’s Eve there which was great as we finally caught up with Kiwi buddies Mark and Amanda on Balvenie who’d come up from Panama.
New Year’s Day dawned a cracker, David was feeling okay so we were off. We had a fantastic sail the 20 miles down to the Cayos Cochinos with 12-15knots of wind in flat seas. We watched Roatan fade into the distance – a nice enough island but we will remember it for the wrong reasons – the shingle sanitarium! The Honduras coast is mostly considered unsafe due to piracy but the Cayos Cochinoas are regularly patrolled by Coast Guard and so relatively safe for cruisers.
Within minutes of arriving we had proof of that. The marine park manager arrived accompanied by two young military guys armed with M16s. When we told them that in New Zealand our coast guard (and even our police) aren’t visibly armed, one insisted he pose with me for a photo and I never argue with a man holding a gun. He assured me it was unloaded but still…the false smile is sheer nerves!
We’re getting used to seeing men with guns – they seem to be standard issue in most of Central America. Guards outside all banks have shotguns while it’s common to see security staff in shops with a pistol at their waist. At KFC in San Salvador guards had AK47s.
Only some of the Cayos Cochinos are inhabited. On Cochino Grande there are a handful of holiday homes on the west side and a small village and school on the east. Cochino Pequeno has a marine research centre, a very low key eco tourism resort and the coast guard base.
The locals are incredibly friendly and come paddling out in their cayucos selling fresh coconuts, fish or just wanting to chat. Some speak English but most speak only Spanish (good practice for us).
The snorkelling around the islands here was the best we’d had since Venezuela with some beautiful coral. Only downside were the nasty transparent jellyfish which meant we had to wear rash suits and leggings and cover our faces with vaseline. We still got stung!
We only planned to stay a night but it was so beautiful we couldn’t tear ourselves away. In fact it was only due to rapidly diminishing fruit and vegetable supplies that we reluctantly left. There are no shops in the islands and we would have got awfully sick of coconuts.
One day we motored to the neighbouring island of Cayo Chachahuata, an island about the size of two football fields which is home to 200 people. To say they are crowded is an understatement.
There is no running water or electricity. Water is either collected when it rains or taken from a slightly salty freshwater well. Cooking is done at a communal outdoor kitchen. The two toilets are also communal. The huts are tiny and absolutely basic with packed sand floor and little in the way of furniture – just the odd plastic chair or hammock…yet everyone seems incredibly happy.
Fishing used to be the mainstay but tourism has probably taken over. While we were there two boatloads of tourists (from the mainland) visited with all those on board enjoying a freshly cooked meal of lobster or red snapper and buying handmade turtle jewellery.
We refused to buy turtle products and couldn’t quite understand why they were being sold given the neighbouring island is a protected turtle sanctuary!!…but bought two fresh lobster to cook on Bandit – $10 for a kilo. We felt we’d contributed a little to the island.
The people we spoke to were all incredibly friendly. Wandering through the maze of huts we came across an old couple who were happy enough to converse and allow us to practice our Spanish.
We chatted for a while and when we handed over a small bottle of rum they were delighted – we’d slipped a few such gifts into our backpack. We got some great shots of them.
There seemed to be lots of children on the island (wonder why?)…all very friendly and cheeky “quero un limpero”….I want money!
We could have happily stayed here longer but the weather forecast was good to get back to Roatan and we’d finished the last of our fresh pineapple and papaya. Despite the Cayos Cochinos (and Roatan for that matter) being incredibly lush and green, nothing much in the way of fruit is grown here. It’s all shipped in from the mainland. And the fruit and vege boat gets in to Roatan on Friday……and it was Friday so we reluctantly headed away.