I recently returned from my first trip to Roatan -- and it was amazing. No regrets. I would definitely go back.
BUT. One thing I really wish I'd known before booking my flights is that Roatan is not Bonaire.
As an experienced scuba diver (and, laughably, a PADI-certified Boat Diver :P), I generally prefer shore diving to boat diving. I am capable of planning and navigating my own dives, I don't mind a 30-minute surface swim (how do you think I managed to do the manta ray dive in Kona, Hawaii, 7 times, for $0?), and my air consumption is almost always better than everyone else's.
I love the independence and extra bottom time I get while shore diving -- not to mention massive savings from not having to hire boats and dive masters.
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And that's a huge part of the reason I loved Bonaire.
Renowned for its world-class shore diving, the deal is basically this: you go there, you rent your gear (if you need any), you rent tanks with unlimited refills for the duration of your stay, and you put them in a pickup.
Then, you drive along the coast, stopping at whatever dive sites you want to visit.
Finding your way around is easy. Maps of the island and of dive sites are free and easy to use. Nitrox and air cost the same price, extending your bottom time. The only drawback is that it's pretty common for thieves to break into cars, so you're advised to leave the doors unlocked and the windows down. That means you can't bring anything with you when you go out.
I absolutely loved my trip to Bonaire, a Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela. I took a lionfish hunting class at VIP diving (who, weirdly, also has the best coffee on the island), which allowed me to spear and eat as many of these invasive monsters as I wanted (though, at the time of my certification, and likely still today, you could only spear with a local dive master).
I loved how amazingly affordable the trip was (I stayed in a hotel the first week and and AirBnb the second week, both of which were under $100 a night, and probably closer to the $50-$70/night range; renting the tanks was about $25/day, which included free nitrox; food costs what you're willing to spend, with cheap and expensive options, and is free if you're down to cook your own lionfish).
I loved the independence of diving at my own pace, on my own schedule.
I loved that the island is small enough that you can see all of it in a week. You don't have to stress about planning, and you won't experience fomo (fear of missing out).
And I liked that, although the island is in the Caribbean, they tend to be less affected by rainy seasons and hurricane patterns.
Drawbacks? There aren't many. If you're a diver, it's paradise. If you want to do lots of activities other than diving, your options are limited. The island is much drier than other Caribbean islands I've visited. There is a limited amount of hiking and some cool towns and historical sites to visit. You can also kitesurf or windsurf -- it's world class there.
After that epic, amazing trip (during which I even had the chance to watch fireworks... from 40 meters below the sea), I kind of expected my time in Roatan to offer similar affordability and independence. However, that was definitely not the case.
It's very hard to find a dive shop that will rent you a tank. They all want to take you out in a boat.
"Why don't you rent tanks?" I asked one shop.
"Because," the dive master replied snarkily, "This is a nature preserve. We don't want people going out on their own and doing whatever they want."
Some of the all-inclusive resorts (often called AIs, which confused me, because, to me, AI definitely means artificial intelligence) allow you to take out tanks for shore diving on their property. I've heard that CocoView has "meaningful shore diving." I've also heard that the reef is less healthy there than it used to be. I didn't make it there, myself, but I found this video on Youtube that was posted in August 2018:
It looks nice!
That said, one thing I found super interesting and amazing about Roatan was the reef structure. Every dive site had an incredible diversity of holes, tunnels, overhangs, swim-throughs, and walls.
I have no complaints about Bonaire. The reef there is healthy and gorgeous and everything about that dive trip was super easy. But, if I'm being perfectly honest, I basically could wake up at any given dive site on the west side of the island, and not be able to distinguish it from any other. Again, no complaints. It was gorgeous and every dive was breathtaking.
But that's probably the biggest difference between diving the two islands.
However, the resorts that offer unlimited shore diving (CocoView, Anthony's, and a few others) also offer some number of boat dives per day, so even if you went all-inclusive (err... AI), you would still experience the diverse reef structure.
Other than that, I found one dive shop that offered tank rentals. It was Infinity Divers on West Bay, and they were asking $22 per tank. For reference, boat diving is $30-$35 per dive, so the savings really aren't that significant. Especially since, in order to see multiple dive sites, and not just the one right off the shore, you'd need to hire a cab or rent a car and drive back to the shop to swap tanks between dives.
Another option for those who are committed to shore diving is to ask the locals around town if they can get you tanks. They'd rather sell you something expensive, like parasailing, but I had a guy offer me two tanks for $25. Whether he was getting them from a credible source or somewhere janky, I do not know. It was my last day at that point, so I never took him up on his offer.
I did, however, take him up on a different offer...
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That's another difference between Bonaire and Roatan. As mentioned earlier, Bonaire basically has two activities: scuba diving and windsurfing (with some cultural, hiking, and kitesurfing opportunities).
Roatan, with its larger size, rainy season, and spot on many cruise ship itineraries, hosts a larger variety of activities, from ziplining to flyboarding to petting monkeys and holding sloths (in preserves and rescues, though -- you won't see them in the wild).
It's less desert, more rainforest. Driving around can be riskier due to dirt and badly-maintained roads.
To better highlight some of these differences, here's Bonaire:
And here's Roatan:
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Despite Bonaire being more desert-y... I would say it had more and more interesting wildlife, including flamingos, donkeys, and huge iguanas (apparently the iguanas in Roatan got eaten).
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Other, much smaller, differences:
The Odyssey in Roatan. It's a fun little wreck to penetrate, because it's on a slant, so it feels sort of like being in one of those tilty fun houses. I used notrox on this dive to get more bottom time.
The Hilma Hooker in Bonaire. Also somewhat deep, I did it several times, both during the day and at night. Nighttime was trippy, because it was so dark that I sometimes temporarily lost track of whether I was inside or outside of the ship.
Tarpon and juvenile bar jacks in Bonaire. If you shine your dive light on the juvies at night, the tarpons will swim up to them and go CHOMP, so powerfully, you can kind of feel the percussion in the water.
If you're a cool, experienced diver, you're supposed to be fascinated by super tiny little crabs and nudibranchs and stuff. Me? I'll always prefer the big stuff, like parrotfish, turtles, eels, cuttlefish, and octopuses.
So. Now you know.
I'm not saying, "Don't go to Roatan." I'm saying, "Don't go to Roatan for shore diving," because that's probably not the experience you'll have there. But hopefully the information and photos in this post will help you make an informed decision about which island is more your speed.
Or maybe they're both your speed. I would eagerly and happily return to either. Forced to pick, right now, I'd choose Bonaire. But... that could very well be because I was just in Roatan two days ago.
Want to know more? Check out:
Or, if you already know it all, please share some of your favorite dive destinations in the comments -- especially if it's shore diving, because that'd totally my thing.
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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