The island was formerly known as Ruatan and Rattan. It is approximately 77 kilometres long, and less than 8 kilometres across at its widest point. The island consists of two municipalities: José Santos Guardiola in the east and Roatán, including the Cayos Cochinos, further south in the west.
The island rests on an exposed ancient coral reef, rising to about 270 metres (890 ft) above sea level. Offshore reefs offer opportunities for diving. Most habitation is in the western half of the island.
The most populous town of the island is Coxen Hole, capital of Roatán municipality, located in the southwest. West of Coxen Hole are the settlements of Gravel Bay, Flowers Bay and Pensacola on the south coast, and Sandy Bay, West End and West Bay on the north coast. To the east of Coxen Hole are the settlements of Mount Pleasant, French Harbour, Parrot Tree, Jonesville and Oakridge on the south coast, and Punta Gorda on the north coast.
The easternmost quarter of the island is separated by a channel through the mangroves that is 15 metres wide on average. This section is called Helene, or Santa Elena in Spanish. Satellite islands at the eastern end are Morat, Barbareta, and Pigeon Cay. Further west between French Harbour and Coxen Hole are several cays, including Stamp Cay and Barefoot Cay.
Located near the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Caribbean Sea (second largest worldwide after Australia's Great Barrier Reef), Roatán has become an important cruise ship, scuba diving and eco-tourism destination in Honduras. Tourism is its most important economic sector, though fishing is also an important source of income for islanders. Roatán is located within 40 miles of La Ceiba. The island is served by the Juan Manuel Gálvez Roatán International Airport and the Galaxy Wave Ferry service twice a day.
The pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Bay Islands are believed to have been related to either the Paya, the Maya, the Lenca or the Jicaque, which were the cultures present on the mainland. Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage (1502–1504) came to the islands as he visited the neighbouring Bay Island of Guanaja. Soon after the Spanish began raiding the islands for slave labour. More devastating for Native American communities was exposure to Eurasian infectious diseases to which they had no immunity, such as smallpox and measles. No indigenous people survived the consequent epidemics.
Throughout European colonial times, the Bay of Honduras attracted an array of individual settlers, pirates, traders and military forces. Various economic activities were engaged in and political struggles played out between the European powers, chiefly Britain and Spain. Sea travellers frequently stopped over at Roatán and the other islands as resting points. On several occasions, the islands were subject to military occupation. In contesting with the Spanish for colonisation of the Caribbean, the English occupied the Bay Islands on and off between 1550 and 1700. During this time, buccaneers found the vacated, mostly unprotected islands a haven for safe harbour and transport. English, French and Dutch pirates established settlements on the islands. They frequently raided the Spanish treasure ships, cargo vessels carrying gold and silver from the New World to Spain.
During the War of the Austrian Succession (King George's War in the US), a detachment of the British Army under Lt. Col John Caulfeild (spelt with the "e" before the "i") garrisoned the island from 1742 to 1749. The garrison was originally found from two companies of Gooch's Virginia Regiment, but these were eventually amalgamated into Trelawney's 49th Foot (later the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment).
In 1797, the British defeated the Black Carib, who had been supported by the French, in a battle for control of the Windward Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Weary of their resistance to British plans for sugar plantations, the British rounded up the St. Vincent Black Carib and deported them to Roatán. The majority of Black Carib migrated to Trujillo on mainland Honduras, but a portion remained to found the community of Punta Gorda on the northern coast of Roatán. The Black Carib, whose ancestry includes Arawak and African Maroons, remained in Punta Gorda, becoming the Bay Island's first permanent post-Columbian settlers. They also migrated from there to parts of the northern coast of Central America, becoming the foundation of the modern-day Garífuna culture in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.
The majority permanent population of Roatán originated from the Cayman Islands near Jamaica. They arrived in the 1830s shortly after Britain's abolition of slavery in 1838. The changes in the labour system disrupted the economic structure of the Caymans. The islands had largely had a seafaring culture; natives were familiar with the area from turtle fishing and other activities. Former slaveholders from the Cayman Islands were among the first to settle in the seaside locations throughout primarily western Roatán. During the late 1830s and 1840s, former slaves also migrated from the Cayman Islands, in larger number than planters. Altogether, the former Cayman peoples became the largest cultural group on the island.
For a brief period in the 1850s, Britain declared the Bay Islands its colony. Within a decade, the Crown ceded the territory formally back to Honduras. British colonists were sent to compete for control. They asked American William Walker, a freebooter (filibuster) with a private army, to help end the crisis in 1860 by invading Honduras; he was captured upon landing in Trujillo and executed there.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the island populations grew steadily and established new settlements all over Roatán and the other islands. Settlers came from all over the world and played a part in shaping the cultural face of the island. Islanders started a fruit trade industry which became profitable. By the 1870s it was purchased by American interests, most notably the New Orleans and Bay Islands Fruit Company. Later the Standard Fruit and United Fruit companies became the foundation for modern-day fruit companies, the industry which led to Honduras being called a "banana republic".
In the 20th century, there was continued population growth resulting in increased economic changes and environmental challenges. A population boom began with an influx of Spanish-speaking Mestizo migrants from the Honduran mainland. Since the late 20th century, they tripled the previous resident population. Mestizo migrants settled primarily in the urban areas of Coxen Hole and Barrio Los Fuertes (near French Harbour). Even the mainlander influx was dwarfed in number and economic effects by the overwhelming tourist presence in the 21st century. Numerous American, Canadian, British, New Zealand, Australian and South African settlers and entrepreneurs engaged chiefly in the fishing industry, and later, provided the foundation for attracting the tourist trade.
In 1998, Roatán suffered some damage from Hurricane Mitch, temporarily paralysing most commercial activity. The storm also broke up the popular dive-wrecks Aguila and Odyssey.
The Caracol people are an English-speaking people who have been established in Northern Honduras (specifically, the Bay Islands) since the early 19th century. They are chiefly of European and British-Afro-Caribbean descent. "Caracol" is Spanish for "conch, snail or shell", and relates the people of the Bay Islands to their unique environment and their seafaring culture. In its current usage, the term "caracol" refers to all people born in the Bay Islands region, and their descendants. The term "caracol" has also been deemed offensive by native Islanders and the term is only used by Spanish-speaking "mainland" Hondurans who have a long-standing rivalry with native Bay Islanders because of their differences in culture, language, beliefs and ideals. All native islanders regardless of race, creed or colour prefer the term "Islanders" when being referred to. The region of the Bay Islands encompasses the three major islands of Roatán, Útila and Guanaja, the Hog Islands as well as the smaller islands or cays. These people are also called "Islanders", especially locally.
English is the first language of native islanders regardless of race and Spanish is spoken second, whereas mainland Honduras is Spanish-speaking. It remains this way because of the islands' past as a British colony with descendants of the British Isles. With the steady influx of mainland Hondurans migrating to the islands, Spanish language use has increased. Because of the tourism and cruise ship industry that supports the islands, English continues to be the first spoken and dominant language among all native island peoples. Over time, the form of English spoken by the Caracol has changed. The language differs mostly in morphology but also in pronunciation and accent and, to a lesser extent, in syntax and vocabulary, from the English of the other British Caribbean colonies, as evidenced by the usage of a wide variety of old standard English terms and words throughout the islands. They are similar enough to be mutually intelligible and understood throughout the entire Bay Islands. The language can also be learned, although it is not taught in the general sense, whilst the accent derives from the wide variety of expatriates living and working on the Islands from North America and Europe.
Roatán lies on the southern edge of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. Reef systems are very delicate and have experienced massive damage and degradation worldwide. On Roatán, unchecked tourism development and an increased population are putting a strain on its natural resources. Deforestation, run-off, poorly managed waste treatment, and pollution are the main threats to the terrestrial and marine environments.
The capital city of Coxen Hole underwent a major reconstruction between the years of 2003 to 2005 adding new black water and septic lines as well as fresh water lines to accommodate the growing business sector and population. These lines are used in conjunction with the new water treatment plant and a waste management plant that recycles waste which are adjacent to the Roatán International Airport.
A similar project has been completed and now serving West End Village (the Island's tourism, social and diving hub) with even greater success than its predecessors. Although the project was initially met with some scepticism and anger at a tax hike proposed to help fund the project, it has turned out to be an overwhelming success with a new state of the art road, pumping station, sewer lines and drainage system. The project and its facilities are currently maintained and operated by ACME sanitation and solutions. It was not that long ago where "sanitation" was provided by hundreds of out-houses located at the ends of short boardwalks over the water. In the smaller communities, this "system" may be still in use.
The Roatán Marine Park was the main force behind introducing recycling to the Island as well as the popular "Coastal clean up" projects that have become very popular among schools, residents and expatriate communities on the Island. The Marine Park is led by a team of professional divers, marine biologists and oceanographers.
The Roatán Marine Park (RMP) is a grassroots, community-based, non-profit organization located on Roatán. The organization was formed in January 2005 when a group of concerned dive operators and local businesses united in an effort to protect Roatán's fragile coral reefs. Initially, the RMP's goal was to run a patrol program within the Sandy Bay-West End Marine Reserve (SBWEMR), to prevent over exploitation through unsustainable fishing practices. Over time, the organisation expanded the scope of their environmental efforts through the addition of other programs to protect Roatán's natural resources, including patrols and infrastructure, education, conservation and public awareness.
The Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS) was established in 1989 with the primary objective being the preservation of Roatán's natural resources through education and research. RIMS is located in Sandy Bay, specifically in Anthony's key, in northwest coast of Roatán with over 30 miles of fringing and barrier reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and shoreline. Over the past twenty five years, RIMS has established itself as a teaching institution and is visited by colleges as well as universities from abroad to study tropical marine ecosystems and the bottlenose dolphins.
All reef systems throughout the Bay Islands are protected by the local and central government with help from charitable donations and those on the front line. Through local donations to the Marine Park and the many causes along with a concerted effort from the resorts on the island weekly clean-ups are undertaken to insure no metals or plastics litter the reef system and beaches as well as all major dive shops doing clean-ups on most of their daily dives. There are still obstacles to be defeated but the Islanders and expatriates living on the islands have taken a united stand to conserve and educate.
The Juan Manuel Galvez International Airport (RTB) on Roatán is one of four airports able to receive international traffic that is in service in Honduras. The other airports in Honduras are the Ramon Villeda Morales International Airport (SPS) in San Pedro Sula, Toncontin International Airport (TGU) in Tegucigalpa, and Goloson International Airport in La Ceiba (LCE).
The island of Roatán airport has a terminal that is served with nonstop flights to Roatán from Houston, Atlanta, Miami, New York City (Newark International Airport), San Salvador and Milan. During the winter months, the island also receives flights to Roatán from Montreal and Toronto.
On 9 September 2011, EasySky started operations in Honduras, serving the mainland City of La Ceiba and the island of Roatán in the Western Caribbean using a Boeing 737-200.