Las Islas de la Bahía, or the Bay Islands, are best known for their clear Caribbean waters and their pristine coral reef -- the second-largest in the world. The three main islands of Roatán, Utila, and Guanaja, along with Barbareta and 60 or so other tiny cays, have long been one of the major dive destinations in the world. Although they are no longer the cheapest places in the world to get dive certification, prices remain considerably cheaper than anywhere else in the Caribbean, and package deals for divers are vast. All-inclusive tours that include lodging, food, dives, airfare, and anything else you can throw in can be had for any visitor seeking a deal.
The cultural makeup of the islands has been a tumultuous one. The first pre-Columbian settlers were likely related to the Pech Indians on the mainland, and a few small archeological sites are still scattered among the surrounding hills. Christopher Columbus is believed to be the first European to find the islands, when he anchored in Guanaja in July of 1502. In the following decades, Spanish ships came to take native slaves and set up encomiendas, where, in exchange for Christianization, the indigenous people were forced to pay tribute and labor to the Spanish Crown.
As the Spanish began to loot the New World of its gold and transport the riches across the Caribbean back to Spain, the islands became a hideout for French and English raiding boats. Pirates such as Henry Morgan and John Coxen began to frequent the islands for the next 2 centuries, although they left little trace. War broke out between England and Spain in 1739, and the British took control of the islands and set up forts at Port Royal in Roatán. They were returned to Spain in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, taken back by the British during another war in 1779, and then left uninhabited after Spanish attacks in 1782. In 1797, the British dumped a few thousand Garífuna, descendents of Carib Indians and African slaves from the Cayman Islands, at Punta Gorda in Roatán; many settled there while others headed for the mainland.
In the 1830s, a new wave of white and black settlers came from the Caymans and set up the main towns that remain population centers today. The British government claimed control over the islands during this time, and although Honduran sovereignty of the islands was recognized in 1859, many of the islanders continued to see themselves as a part of the British Empire.
Today, the Bay Islands are at a major turning point in their history. Fishing, which has been the lifeblood of the islanders for several centuries, is quickly being replaced by tourism as the most important trade. Luxury home developments targeting North Americans are creeping onto every island, and slews of Latino workers from the mainland are attracted by the high standards of living and available work, while the native Afro-Caribbean population is getting pushed to the fringes of the islands. Developers are snapping up entire chunks of land, such as the West End in Roátan, and hotels and resorts are replacing the islands' once traditional stilted wood houses. The influx of cruise ships on Roatán has already added adventure parks and tour buses, and there's talk of more ports and bigger ships.
For the time being, however, the Bay Islands are still serene Caribbean hideouts, where English just happens to be the mother tongue and the American dollar is the main currency.
Climate -- The average annual temperature of the Bay Islands is about 85°F (29°C) and fluctuates from the upper 80s in the summer, when the humidity becomes especially high, to the low 80s during the winter (Nov-Feb). Cold fronts at any time of the year can drop the temperature into the high 60s, though they usually disappear after a few days.
Water temperatures here are ideal for much of the year, ranging from 81° to 88°F (27°-31°C). When diving, 3.5mm shorty wetsuits are recommended, though for much of the year, they are not even necessary. High season is almost year-round in the Bay Islands, and it can be especially difficult to find rooms during holiday weeks. Things get a bit slower from January to February and during the hurricane season between September and November, and prices will drop significantly.