Honduras: Diving off the Coast of Guanaja

Guanaja Honduras: SCUBA Diving & Serenity on a pristine island
By Sonja Stark

Young Diver helps control the lionfish population
Young Diver helps control the lionfish population

As soon the water taxi settles against the private dock tucked inside a patch of thorny mangroves on an emerald bay, fresh coconut drinks with long straws are handed out. "Welcome to La Giralda" chimes the hotel crew as they help lift my luggage out of the boat. I suck down the refreshing fruit drink with a big smile curious to experience other 5-star resort luxuries here in Honduras.

After a two-flight, roughly two-hour trip from San Pedro Sula and then another 30 minutes by water, I'm finally standing on solid ground on Roatan's lesser known but equally idyllic island of Guanaja (pronounced: gwa-na'-'ha). Both belong to Honduras but are worlds away from the political turmoil and rising street crime of the mainland. And, unlike Roatan or Utila (another popular Bay Island) Guanaja is not nearly as commercialized or developed. There are no casinos, roads, cars, fast food chain restaurants, souvenir shops or thundering hordes of tourists. As they say in the brochure, this refined paradise has yet to be paved.

Little has changed on this unspoiled refuge since Christopher Columbus sailed here in 1503. Swaying pines, dense rain forests, lush mountains, sandy beaches and blossoming orchids welcome minimalists to the "Island of Pines."

The first plunge is always the scariest!
The first plunge is always the scariest! Sonja Stark photos.

While relishing a world class sunset, an army of invisible flying pests described as "teeth with wings" finds my flesh irresistible. But the island of Guanaja doesn't have to turn sour because of a few sand fleas. The helpful staff at La Giralda offer up a can of bug repellent and I liberally douse my legs and arms.

The southernmost peninsula is now lighted by rusty lanterns and the steady incandescent stream of a full moon on the ocean horizon.

It's time for a local favorite, a seafood paella dish prepared by natives at the resort's Casa Grande club house. The restaurant feels like a fanciful tree fort high in the woods with colorful butterflies fluttering about and a repetitive Yellow-naped pet parrot imitating guests' conversations.

Here is where I meet other divers who have come to enjoy a three-day scuba adventure in the world's second largest coral reef. This part of the Caribbean is known largely for its fabled dive options including wrecks, canyons and night dives.

After dinner, three of us share a suite called Villa Cartuja that includes outdoor verandas adorned with swinging day beds and chaise lounges, a stocked kitchen and adorable standup showers built of smooth pink pebbles. The Villa del Ray suite, just a short walking distance away, will take your dreams even higher with two outdoor infinity swimming pools cantilevered off both bedrooms.

Phil navigates cliffs around Black Rock 1 dive site
Phil navigates cliffs around Black Rock 1 dive site off the island's coast.

Owner and celebrated builder Lane Pettigrew and his design firm have been investing heavily at La Giralda. Pettigrew is known as the "Architect Laureate" of the Caribbean, having designed more than 100 hotels and resorts in 22 Caribbean countries. He has garnered lots of accolades and recognition for his work including the 2010 "Best in the World" Sugar Beach Residences in St. Lucia. He envisions growing La Giralda into several private lots with a health spa and fitness and sports center with priorities aimed at natural, green, clean and wired environments.

Do it Yourself Diving

In the morning, we hop aboard a battered old fishing-turned-scuba boat with my new best friend and Padi-certified director, Tina Perkins. She has wisely brought her own gear: fins, BC, mask, snorkel, wet suit, even weights. Because La Giralda is mainly a retreat villa the scuba essentials offered are limited. And, even though forgotten items can usually be borrowed from a nearby resort, why take that chance? Two acronyms to remember when diving from La Giralda: BYO - bring it yourself and DIY - do it yourself.

Tina and I do our traditional pre-dive safety checks then roll backwards off the boat into the warm Caribbean waters. I haven't dove in over a year but the refresher course, wisely taken before this adventure, familiarizes me with the sport.

Our first dive takes us into uncharted territory, a world of volcanic caverns, tall pinnacles and swim throughs. This first dive site is called Black Rock with water temps at 78-degrees, between 70-85 feet deep.

The general consensus among my crew is that our Dive Master is recklessly fast. He dodges in and out of narrow openings between cliff walls and around unique structures reluctant to slow the pace. Given the beauty of the area, I want to linger longer, especially among the remains of a lava flow from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. The flow has matured into a reef dwelling for a variety of sea life including moray eels, barracudas and the invasive red lionfish.

You can see all the heavens from the 5-star La Giralda Villas
You can see all the heavens from the 5-star La Giralda Villas

Albeit beautiful, the lionfish is a troublemaker with venomous tentacles that are poisonous to touch and an aggressive nature. In a few short years the adult population has spread to a point of threatening the diversity of hundreds of tropical species in the Atlantic and Caribbean. It's encouraged that divers eradicate lionfish with a knife or spear gun. (Read more about how some people are fighting to kill these pests in Utila).

After appealing to the Dive Master, he finally lumbers to a descent pace so we can admire rays of light bouncing off chiseled towering spires. The scene is breathtaking but unless you own a superior DSLR camera, one that can fire strobes via a sync cord, images from below impossible to capture.

Upon surfacing, small snacks and refreshments are offered from our extended dive crew that have aligned their boat with ours. They have observed a hammerhead shark, several parrotfish and even an octopus on their first dive.

Exploring the Jado Trader

There are roughly 38 popular dive sites surrounding Guanaja and each offers something unique and exciting. Our next excursion explores the Jado Trader freighter, a 240-foot ship scuttled in the late '80s to form a rich artificial reef.

She rests quietly on a sandy shelf and though the biodiversity isn't teeming, the murky visibility offers adventure and mystery. Exploring the shipwreck is ideal as a second dive and is reachable between 80 and 100 feet.

The Jado Trader is one of the most popular places to dive
The Jado Trader is one of the most popular places to dive

This being one of the more popular dive sites, others line up at the helm to explore the guts of this coral-laden leviathan. Unlike shipwrecks from Classical, Hellenic or Roman times, there are no priceless antiquities here but, rather, the submerged is home to marine life like the occasional shark, several sponges, small crabs and gobies.

While sightseeing around the obscure freighter, unknowingly, my BC bladder begins to inflate and I start to ascend without equalizing. This is not good. When you dive your buoyancy always changes depending on your BC or BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device). A BC is like a life jacket but with a multi-functioning system of hoses, add-ons and accessories to keep you balanced.

My scuba buddy Tina along with another diving cohort named Phil grabs me by the arm and helps me fight my unanticipated rise to the surface. Panic is not an option and I use the dump valve or pressure release valve on the inflator hose to let air out. Slowly but surely my weight comes under control and I'm back to floating comfortably without danger.

Living like Robinson Crusoe

The definition of a World Heritage site includes "a masterpiece of human creative genius." Dunbar Rock is not considered a World Heritage site but it should be. You'll catch sight of the whitewashed Greek-like villa built on a soaring boulder facade long before you dock.

Dunbar Rock - before the helo pad and infinity pool were finished!
Dunbar Rock - before the helo pad and infinity pool were finished!

The rocky outpost was once used as a mooring for the notorious English pirate Blackbeard and local legend has it that buried treasure still exists. 15 years ago, when the owner of the island was constructing the villa, he discovered a hidden cave along with several pieces of pre-Columbian era pottery and ceramic vessels.

My Scuba Buddy Tina removes the salt and sand at Graham's Place With a modern diving boat to enjoy on day two, rather than take to the water again, I decide to suntan on the surface. That's the beauty of vacationing here - options are varied like bone and deep-sea fishing, hiking, horseback riding and day trips to a tiny town literally built on stilts called Bonacca.

After enjoying the picnic lunch on a breezy beach oasis, Denis's helpful 10-year son leads us on a manageable nature hike straight to a small waterfall. It's not Big Gully waterfall which resides to the north of the island but rather a smaller treasure with crystal clear drinking water raining down over jagged precipices into a shallow basin.

My third and final day here lends just enough time to discover two more top-rated destinations; Graham's Place and G&G's Clearwater Paradise. The first is a quirky and simple cabana retreat owned by salty character Graham Thompson who collects debris washed up on his shores and turns it into recycled art. Some of his more colorful pieces include a hurricane detector made out of beer bottles, a "Payless" shoe tree and a political jab at Obama's gun laws with a piece of drift wood potmarked with tiny holes (not sure what that means).

Multi-colored satellite dishes turned upside down create shaded umbrellas for picnic tables while a series of round fish-imprinted cement discs provide a sidewalk from room to room. Kite surfing, kayaking and the Tiki bars are popular with families and big parties.

Ginger with her supposedly friendly pet Scooter
Ginger with her supposedly friendly pet.

G&G's Clearwater Paradise is the homey abode of George and Ginger Peel along with two dogs, three cats, cages of parrots and one coatimundi by the name of Scooter. The clean, affordable and pet-friendly vacation spot was recently awarded by Trip Advisor with a 2013 Certificate of Excellence for consistently high reviews. Leave the kiddies behind as the cozy rooms and exotic dishes that Ginger prepares with ingredients fresh from her garden are the perfect combination to celebrate an anniversary or honeymoon.

For more information

Honduras Guide: http://hondurastips.hn/
La Giralda: http://www.bayislandhotel.com/
Dunbar Rock: http://www.dunbarrock.com/
Graham's Place: http://www.grahamsplacehonduras.com/
G&G's Clearwater Paradise: http://www.clearwaterparadise.com/

Sonja Stark is the owner of PilotGirl Productions, offering video production around the US. Read more of Sonja's stories on GoNOMAD

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