A slight, weather-beaten lady stands before me. To her side sits the eldest son, a Pink Boa snake dangles loosely around the boy’s neck. The little lady smiles whilst hoisting her plastic tub of coconut bread up towards my face so that my reddened nose can smell this freshly made island delicacy. “Deme dos por fa” – “give me two please” I say. As she does I casually turn and take in the sheer beauty of my surroundings. The white sand on which I stand separates centuries old jungle from the crystal clear, light blue ocean out beyond. Tropical birds soar overhead, their mixed songs gently vibrating from the countless palm branches. I take the bread and await their price. ‘Diez mi amor” she says with her kind smile glistening. Ten Lempira (around 40 pence) for two buns of homemade coconut bread on an isolated desert island in the Honduran Caribbean Sea.
Los Cayos Cochinos are an untouched, relatively unknown and without doubt – unforgettable paradise. Having being selected as one of the top 10 destinations to be visited around the world, their allure is that they belong to the world’s second largest barrier reef, forming an archipelago of 13 coral cays of origin and 2 volcanic islands. Populated solely by small self-sustained ‘Garifuna’ communities, they maintain an undiscovered romance for each and every visitor. The name itself can be literally translated into English as “The dirty cays”. “Cochino” is a Spanish word for something ‘dirty’. In English though, these hidden Caribbean gems are known as “The hog islands”. The history to these names in both languages – being utterly intriguing.
During the age of discovery, around the 16th and 17th centuries, these exotic islands became the domain of British pirates or ‘Buccaneers’. Ironic perhaps, that such a truly splendid and beautiful chain of islands should have become the haunt of violent, avaricious rogues. The Pirates themselves being a collection of thieves, murderers, rapists and fortune seekers – captained by men such as the infamous Henry Morgan. Such characters being titled as ‘Privateers’ – royal subjects armed with the Queen’s blessing to plunder all Spanish ships, towns and ports in the ‘New World’. The Pirates used these cays as a base whereupon they introduced the hogs that they kept for food. They then became known as ‘The hog islands’ whilst the Spaniards knew them as ‘the dirty cays’ on account of the ‘dirty’ cut-throat Buccaneers lurking within them.
The Cayos consist of two small islands (Cayo Menor and Cayo Grande) and 13 more small coral cays. The zone is situated roughly 30 kilometres northeast of the large coastal city La Ceiba on the northern shores of Honduras. Despite their being geographically separate, the Cayos belong to the Bay Islands department (Róatan, Utila and Guanaja). The tiny population numbered only 108 on a 2001 census. Managed by the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation, the entire zone is a Marine Protected Area. The coral reef being part of the world’s second largest and subsequently known as the Meso-American Barrier Reef. A scientific research station is located on Cayo Menor, which is the smaller of the two main islands.
On entering the domain of these gorgeous cays, one escapes everything. This is without any doubt one of the few places within the world where someone can quite simply leave all behind. There exist no roads, cars or even bikes. The exclusive Resort within the Cayos is Turtle Bay Eco Resort (Turtle Bay Eco Resort – Cayos Cochinos – Honduras). If one opts for this kind of visit – of a more luxurious sort, spacious and comfortable accommodations can be obtained with all modern amenities. Fully stocked bars and fine dining featuring with an all out ‘gringo’ tourist’s itinerary of Diving, Snorkeling, Kayaking and Paddle Boarding. Guided tours of the islands are naturally offered as well by the Resort. Small trails connect residences to the beaches on Cayo Grande. A lighthouse stands on the highest point of this particular island. The hike takes one through the most scenic and entirely untouched jungles, home furthermore to the only pink Boa Constrictors in the world. Moving onto the inhabitants of these islands, only two fishing villages exist – named ‘Chachahuate’ and ‘East End’. The inhabitants or rather the Garifuna people are of an extraordinary sort.
More often than not referred to as ‘Garifuna’, they are truly called ‘Garinagu’ whilst the culture and language themselves are ‘Garifuna’. The epic story of the Garinagu begun during the early 1600’s on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In 1635, two Spanish ships carrying Nigerian slaves sank directly off the coast of St. Vincent. The surviving slaves swam ashore and found shelter within Carib Amerindian settlements. Over the next century and a half, these two peoples intermixed and eventually fused into a single culture – the Black Caribs or Garinagu. A series of wars between the French and British on St. Vincent culminated in a final battle on June 10th, 1796. The French and their Carib allies where ultimately forced to surrender and leave the island.
It was then the British who simply marooned Caribs on the island of Roatan, Honduras. Shortly after, the entire marooned population migrated to the mainland of Honduras and allied with the Spanish in the fortress town of Trujillo. However, a brief civil war in 1832 found the Caribs on the wrong side and once again many were forced to flee to neighboring British Honduras – now Belize. The Garifuna of the Cayos arrived reportedly from the nearby Bay Islands in 1965. They have been there ever since – greatly contributing to the unique charm of these cays. Tourists can stay in these communities, with the Garifuna providing accommodation such as their traditional Palm-thatched huts. The food provided as part of the tours is always local Garifuna cuisine and sometimes small shows are put on whereupon historical dances are performed. Spanish is the primary communication language of these residents yet many are impressively bi or trilingual.
Tours to the Cayos can range from $40 upwards with tourist packages such as 2 days and 1 night at Cayo Chachahuate going at $70 per person. The tours begin generally in the city La Ceiba and from there one is transported to the Garifuna coastal village of Sambo Creek. From this point of departure, one boards a wooden ‘lancha’ or speedboat for the breathtaking ride to the islands. The boat whips across deep blue waters leaving the mighty mountains of the Honduras coastline behind. Turtle Bay Eco Resort offers its own transportation as part of its packages – these being available for charters directly from La Ceiba. There are in fact daily trips from La Ceiba, small boats also leave from the Bay Island Utila and charter companies exist on the other island of Róatan. A good website is Honduras Tourist Options for more information. Travellers landing in Honduras can take direct buses to La Ceiba from the San Pedro Sula international airport with safe, reliable companies like HedmanAlas – Hedman Alas.
To the soul that seeks an extraordinary adventure in one of the worlds last few, isolated beauties – Los Cayos awaits them in its crystal paradise. A Garifuna guide told me in Spanish “tenemos algo muy especial aquí”. His simple words capturing it perfectly as “we have something very special here”…
By: Ben Anson