Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that at least three indigenous groups lived on the Honduran north coast in pre-Columbian times, but because of the hot climate and lack of easily cultivated land, habitation was sparse.
The Maya are believed to have extended their influence to western Honduras  around A.D. 300, and although settlements were located mostly in the highlands around Copán and near the Guatemalan border, they did farm land in the lower Valle de Sula. On the coast itself, the Maya maintained several important trading posts, the farthest east at Punta Caxinas near Trujillo . Similarly, Nahuatl traders from central Mexico had outposts on the Honduran coast as far east as Trujillo.
Although Jicaque, or Tolupán, people inhabited the entire north coast region from the Guatemalan border to the Mosquitia, their settlements were almost all in the mountains, and they apparently ventured down to the coast only to trade.
Following Columbus’s first landing on the Honduran coast near Trujillo in 1502, two decades passed before Spanish explorers returned. But when they did, they converged on the country in three opposing factions led by Gil González Dávila, Cristóbal de Olid, and Francisco de las Casas. In the midst of their power struggle, the three factions’ bands of soldiers managed to establish settlements by 1525 at Puerto Caballos, now Puerto Cortés ; Triunfo de la Cruz , near present-day Tela ; and Trujillo .
The nascent colony was briefly ruled from Trujillo, but by the 1540s the seat of government and most colonists had moved to western Honduras . If the lack of gold and quality agricultural land, uncomfortable heat, and danger of disease didn’t scare away most colonists, the pirates who appeared in the western Caribbean by the mid-16th century certainly did. The pirates sacked the relatively unprotected towns of Trujillo and Puerto Caballos with regularity. By 1643, Trujillo had been abandoned and only a small settlement remained at Omoa , near Puerto Caballos.
The first widespread settlement of the north coast  was undertaken by the Black Caribs, or Garífuna, who were forcibly deported to Honduras  from the Caribbean island of San Vicente by the British in 1797. The Garífuna first established a community in Trujillo  and then migrated up and down the coast, building villages from the edge of the Mosquitia as far north and west as Belize. Apart from a few refugees from 19th-century violence elsewhere in Honduras, the north coast remained sparsely populated until North Americans and Europeans developed a taste for bananas.
The development of the modern north coast is essentially the story of the growth of the banana industry. Bananas were introduced to Central America by Spanish missionaries in the first years of colonization but were cultivated only on a small scale for local consumption. Banana exports began in the 1860s, when locally owned plantations on Roatán  started to sell their fruit to passing tramp freighters, which in turn sold their loads in the United States and Europe at a tidy profit.
For the first few decades, Hondurans owned and worked the banana fields, meaning local growers could sell to the highest bidder and make significant profits. By the turn of the century, however, North American exporters realized they could boost their earnings by running their own plantations and set about gaining control of as much of the Honduran north coast as possible. The north coast soon became a virtual North American colony, led by three companies: United Fruit (now Chiquita), based first in Tela  and now in La Lima; Cuyamel, which controlled lands west of Puerto Cortés ; and Standard Fruit (now Dole, but often still referred to as Standard), centered around La Ceiba .
Some land was actually purchased by the companies, but much more was awarded to them by the government in massive concessions, in return for railroad construction and jobs. Although the government was generally in favor of the concessions, wanting to modernize its backward country, the companies took no chances. To help their cause, company officials resorted to bribery and arm-twisting, even fomenting the occasional revolution to ensure a friendly, concession-generous administration.
By the second decade of the 20th century, the banana companies held almost one million acres of the country’s most fertile land, were making huge profits, and unabashedly manipulated government officials to maintain the status quo. One historian writes: “If Honduras was dependent on the banana companies before 1912, it was virtually indistinguishable from them after 1912.”
In the course of building their fiefdoms, the companies completely transformed the north coast. Puerto Cortés  changed from a sleepy seaside village into one of the largest ports in Central America, and Tela  and La Ceiba  were essentially created out of nothing. The companies drained swamps to create plantations, constructed railroads between the plantations and newly built warehouses and docks, and drew migrants from across Honduras  and around the world with the lure of quick money. The country’s first modern banks, breweries, hospitals, and myriad other services were built by the companies to suit their own needs.
Coastal development never strayed far from the direct interests of the banana companies, falling far short of what many Hondurans had envisioned when the generous land concessions were awarded. For example, railroads were built only between plantations and docks, and the companies preferred to pay token annual fines rather than fulfill their contractual promises to extend lines inland, connecting the coast to Tegucigalpa . To this day, the north coast has the country’s only railway lines, and now that the companies use trucks, the lines have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The supposed original intention of the banana concessions, that the railroads would stimulate the Honduran economy, was forgotten long ago.
The industry has fallen off steeply from the glory days between 1925 and 1939, when Honduras was the world’s top producer and bananas constituted 88 percent of the country’s exports. Still, Chiquita (the biggest banana company in the world) and Dole remain the top economic forces on the north coast and have diversified into pineapple, African palm oil, and other fruit products. The two companies are still easily the largest landowners in the country, after the Honduran government, and almost all of their holdings are on or near the north coast.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the north coast has been the most dynamic economic sector of the country, and with the rise of San Pedro Sula  as a major center for light industry and commerce, this trend has accelerated. Although San Pedro is not on the coast, its success is due to the short rail and highway connection to Puerto Cortés  (the biggest port by volume in Central America), and the city’s growth has stimulated the entire north coast. In terms of population and economy, the four coastal departments comprise Honduras ’s fastest-growing region.