Visiting Isla del Tigre and Amapala

A verdant volcanic peak rises behind a yellow colonial church trimmed in white.

Amapala on Isla del Tigre. Photo © Adalberto H. Vega, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The 316-square-kilometer volcanic island of Isla del Tigre is hardly more than spitting distance from the Honduran mainland, but it has a few decent beaches, some good seafood, and an appealing lost-in-time feel. Amapala is its only town, and Hondurans often refer to the whole island by the town’s name.

Tourism is perhaps the island’s best hope for survival, and so far it’s enticing 1,000 cruise-shippers a year to visit.Amapala was once Honduras’s primary Pacific port, but it has long since been superseded by Puerto de Henecán near San Lorenzo. Amapala is now a decaying 19th-century relic, looking for a way to survive. The primary attraction in the town itself is the well-restored church, dating from the late 1800s. The surrounding water is warm (although rather dark from mud stirred up from the sea floor), and several beaches around the island are worth checking out. Tourism is perhaps the island’s best hope for survival, and so far it’s enticing 1,000 cruise-shippers a year to visit.

Andrés Niño first sighted Isla del Tigre in 1522, but the Spanish didn’t settle there initially. Pirates used the island as a hideout until 1770, when the governor of San Miguel, El Salvador, ordered a town built. For a short time during the presidency of Marco Aurelio Soto, Amapala functioned as the capital of Honduras.

Although subject to the same heat as the Choluteca plain, the island is often graced by an ocean breeze, making the climate more hospitable. Isla del Tigre is six kilometers in diameter, and the volcanic peak is 783 meters high. Until the early 1990s, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) contingent staffed a base at the peak, but now it’s deserted.

A small tourist office at the dock in Amapala can help answer questions about where to go on the island—when it’s open that is (8 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-noon Sat.).

Around the Island

A 17-kilometer dirt road rings Isla del Tigre, so named for one of the island’s long-extinct animal denizens—it makes for a great bike ride, although you’ll need to bring your own bike. Many extremely poor campesino families live in simple huts along the road, scraping a living from little agricultural plots on the mountainside. From Amapala heading southwest (counterclockwise), about 20 minutes from town by foot and just past the Honduran military post, a dirt road turning inland leads to the top of the volcano, the site of the now-deserted DEA base. The walk takes about two hours of hard hiking, and the views, especially in the early morning when the sky is clear, are superb. (It’s also smart to get your hike in as early as possible before the heat really kicks in.) It’s possible to spend the night if equipped with tent, water, and food—sunrise is usually lovely.

About 45 minutes from Amapala on foot, not far past the mountain road, is Playa Grande, a swath of black sand facing El Salvador and lined with several fish restaurants. At the north end of the beach is La Cueva de la Sirena, a bat-filled red volcanic rock cave with two entrances, one on the ocean. Local legend has it that Sir Francis Drake hid a stash of his ill-gotten booty here.

Of the popular beaches, Playa Negra is by far the cleanest, and it’s actually possible to see through the water to your feet if the water is calm. Many other less obvious and usually deserted beaches are located around the island, awaiting exploration. Playa El Zapote is one of the only white-sand beaches on the island (white from crushed shells), and there is a hotel, but there are also a lot of biting pulgas de mar (water fleas). From Playa Caracol on the west side, you can walk across the shallow water to the barely inhabited Isla el Pacar, where you can pitch a tent or navigate around the outcropping to the right for a beach all for yourself.

The waters virtually lap the edge of the restaurants at Playa Grande and Playa El Burro during high tide, so plan accordingly. Avoid swimming at the beaches where fishermen work, as manta rays and jellyfish like to swim nearby in search of fish discards.

Accommodations

The biggest impediment to tourism on Amapala has long been its dearth of decent hotels. Fortunately, there are a couple of newer options on the island that, while still simple, are taking things up a notch.

Waterfront Casa Cangrejo (tel. 504/3278-3172) is set upon rocks edging the sea, with two compact apartments that rent for US$35 per person (US$15 per child, under six free). Each apartment can accommodate up to three persons and has a full kitchen; one has the bathroom inside, while the bathroom for the other is outside of the apartment. They share a porch that looks out over the water, complete with a hammock for swinging in the ocean breeze. Water access is via a little cement dock a few steps down from the house itself. There is a two-night minimum stay. You can hire a lancha in Coyolito to take you straight to the little dock at Casa Cangrejo for about US$8 (per boat, not per person).

Right in town is Casa de las Gárgolas (tel. 504/2795-8529), a white stucco building overseen by a pair of gargoyles, with a nice swimming pool (which is key, since this is the one hotel not on the water). The single rooms are quite small, but reasonably priced at US$32. Double rooms are US$63 (up to four people), and triples are US$95 (up to six). The family room is by far the most comfortable, essentially an apartment with a full kitchen and two bedrooms, but it’s a hefty US$126. The windows close with lovely wooden slats, but the lack of screens means that it’s impossible to keep the windows open from dusk onward in order to keep the mosquitoes out, and the heat means that you have to use the air-conditioning even if you’d prefer the ocean breeze.

The remaining options on the island tend to be fairly run down. Mirador de Amapala (tel. 504/2795-8407, US$53 d, including breakfast) is a few minutes’ walk from the main dock. Mirador means lookout, which is a bit deceiving, since only one or two of the 30 rooms have a view of the sea just across the street. The modern-style hotel, with air-conditioning, TVs, and hot water, also has an adequate (if slow) restaurant, a murky pool with a slide, and free transportation via mototaxi to and from Playa Grande (imperative, given that the beach right at the hotel is unswimmable). Room prices seem to vary according to how much business they have.

Directly on Playa Grande is the Hotel and Restaurant Dignita (tel. 504/2795-8584, US$24 s, US$32 d). The two simple rooms come with two double beds, air-conditioning, and private bath. No view of the sea, but the beach is just steps away, and the seafood soups at the restaurant are outstanding.

There are a couple of places to stay at Playa El Burro. Aquatours Marbella (tel. 504/2795-8050, US$53 s/d) has humid rooms with two double beds, private baths, and air-conditioning. They also charge nonguests US$2 a person to use their “entertainment center,” which consists of a cloudy pool, broken-down patio furniture, billiards, music, raggedy hammocks, and beach games. The next-door restaurant, Veleros (tel. 504/2795-8040, US$21 s, US$24 d), has three simple but tidy rooms.

You may be able to find a less expensive room by checking with the network of guesthouses (casas de huespedes) that has been developed on the island.

Locals also claim that the island is safe enough for camping right on the beach, if you should be so inclined.

Food

Dignita on Playa Grande has the best seafood in town, with excellent seafood soup and “lobster” (more like giant prawns) (US$6-12). There are also a number of shacks along the beach selling simple and cheap dishes like fish carnitas.

El Faro Victoria (lunch and dinner Fri.-Sun., dinner only the rest of the week), next to the dock, has decent burgers, fish, chicken, shrimp, and lobster for US$3-10 per meal.

Veleros is a good restaurant serving sandwiches (US$1.50), fish (US$3-6), and lobster (up to US$18 for the largest), with a deck right on the beach at Playa El Burro.

Information and Services

There isn’t a bank in town, but most businesses will accept dollars if you don’t have anything else. It’s often a good idea to bring a lot of change in lempiras, as breaking big bills on the island can be a problem. There are two Internet shops in town, one of which (by the health clinic) does international telephone calls too.

Getting There and Around

To get to the island by public transport, get off a Choluteca-Tegucigalpa bus two kilometers west of San Lorenzo to the dirt road turnoff to Coyolito. Here, hop one of the hourly buses or hitch a ride the 30 kilometers to Coyolito. Alternatively, you can get a bus to San Lorenzo and catch a Coyolito-bound bus from the center of town. Colectivo boat rides from Coyolito to the main dock at Amapala cost US$0.80 (US$8 for a private boat ride). Colectivo boats to Playa El Burro are also US$0.80 (around US$3 for a private boat). These same boats charge about US$26 for a half-day tour around the island, or varying prices to specific destinations (other nearby islands, mangrove forests, etc.). For more information, check with the Capitanía del Puerto in Amapala (tel. 504/2795-8643). One direct bus goes to Tegucigalpa at 3 a.m. each day, but it’s easy to take a bus to the main highway and catch a passing bus to either Tegucigalpa or Choluteca.

One bus circles the island each day early in the morning, and there’s some traffic in the morning—good for hitching rides—but in the afternoon, it’s usually deserted. Pickup trucks stand in for taxis on the island, and rides can cost US$3-7 depending on the destination.


Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Honduras.

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