A beach on Roatán

BELIZE FIRST continues to expand its focus beyond Belize to other parts of the Caribbean Coast. Here we meet Don and Janice Rocks, of Portland, Oregon, who are chasing a dream by the sea in Honduras. In this installment, Don Rocks tells how he found and bought a seaview lot on Roatán.

A villa! My villa! Poised atop a sun-drenched ridge overlooking blue-green sea. Open to a warm and tropical landscape. Sound of surf languidly lapping palm-fringed, white sand beach. Fragrant breezes caressing brilliant bougainvillea blossoms. Chaise longue beckoning beside the pool. Of such stuff is my dream. It has long been imbedded in my psyche.

My love for the tropics was formed in Mexico. After early release from the paratroop wing of the army to return to college on the GI Bill, I soon joined a kindred friend in transferring to Mexico City College. Adventure and romance were staples of our existence. We would drive down to Acapulco on the weekends. Once, several of us rented a villa. We were kings on a shoestring. When money ran low - as it invariably did - we would live off tourists who were happy to exchange a good meal at a restaurant of our choosing in exchange for helpful information from charming, colorful collegiate countrymen. In Acapulco, it was fishing widows. In Mexico City we targeted map-studying tourists. After a profligate year of academics and life lessons, harsh economic facts finally forced me back home to finish school, but not before the seed of the villa dream had been planted.

A lot of years passed before I could bring myself to go back to Mexico. I feared that a return would do harm to the memories of youth. It wasn't until I met the irrepressible Janice that I brought myself to go back. We began making pilgrimages to coastal Mexico. Everything had changed since my scholastic sojourn, except the attraction. We began renting villas with friends. Each time, the villa dream stirred anew. Still, it was just a dream. Good sense told me long ago that my villa was out of reach. Too ambitious. Too costly. Too late.

 

So it was until fate, or its brother chance, dealt us a promotional piece for an international travel newsletter. It showed up among the usual welter of unsolicited mail. Tempted as I was, I feared the result of making a unilateral decision. ("You spent fifty bucks on what!") Feigning mild interest, I passed it on to Janice, offhandedly asking if we wanted to subscribe. "Why not," she shrugged. The hook was in, and the check went out. A little fuel for the dormant dream, a form of lottery ticket.

The first issue to arrive featured Honduras and the Bay Islands. We read about coastal lands only recently open to foreign purchase. There were property descriptions and prices that boggled the mind, not the bank balance. Our pulses accelerated. It is fast apparent that Janice shares my villa dream and is running a fever nearly as high as my own. The newsletter goes on to say that it is promoting a staff-hosted trip to Honduras. Readers that sign on will be talking to real estate developers, investment advisors, ex-pats in residence. Visions of gringos with gobs of greenbacks skimming off the best deals dance in our overheated heads. Something tells us that if there is ever going to be a time and place for our villa dream to come true, this may well be it.

No problem finding the time to get away. My early retirement - brought about more by fortuitous circumstance than clever planning - means we can beat the contingent to the proverbial punch. The research phase commences. I arm myself with facts and tips on climate, government stability, economic conditions, and the ins and outs of purchasing property. We don't want to be one of those bilked pigeon horror stories. Janice keeps asking what is taking so long. Each passing day reinforces her belief that I am dawdling. I shift into high gear and soon announce my readiness. I book air. No dry run, this. We both flat out know we are not flying off to Honduras for a casual look-see. If our villa site is there and if it is as affordable as we have been led to believe, we will hand over our 10% down payment in a reggae minute and not look back.

 

We will begin our quest for paradise found on the island of Roatán. At 30 miles long and 3 miles across at its widest point, it is the largest of the Bay Islands and, for our purposes, piles up the most points on paper. The average temperature is between 80 and 85 degrees. Roatán has its own electrical generation plant and a new airport terminal. English is widely spoken, a result of the island's British colonial past. From my Mexico days, I habla Spanish well enough to make myself understood, but the comfort of the mother tongue is a bonus. And, if Roatán should strike us as the wrong place, we can regroup and explore the mainland coast where land is reportedly even less expensive. A third option is to look at the two smaller Bay Islands of Guanaja and Utila. These are more rustic environs attractive to your stalwart, get-away-from-it-all types.

The plan of attack is for me to go in first and establish a beachhead. I will arrive some a few days before Janice. As advance man, I will take the measure of the place, scout potential villa locations, chat with realtors, compare prices and relative values, and generally be no man's island fool by the time Janice steps onto the tarmac. Armed with maps, hand-held recorder, note pad and short list of island contacts, I fly off with heavy expectations and light clothing.

My red-eye flight departs a shade past midnight and touches at Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami before arriving in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. From there I board one of several local carriers that make the hop to La Ceiba on the north mainland coast, and then over to Roatán.

Flying to La Ceiba, the so-called festival city of Honduras, I meet a Frenchman who is married to a national. He loves the place. At the La Ceiba airport, I meet a departing Denverite. He is in computer software and has just left Roatán, but not before buying two units of an under-construction timeshare he plans to rent. He is high on Roatán. "Check out the east end," he tells me. I make a note in my ready pad.

My low-altitude pass between San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba gave me a good look at the Honduran mainland countryside. A palette of green hues extends in every direction. Cultivated fields form an agricultural quilt along the coastal plain. Banana country. From the white beach, the farmed plain runs dead level for several miles before rising steeply to a craggy mountain range. Jade peaks jut through cloud cover. I have come smack dab in the middle of the October/November rainy season. I will see the island during what passes for its worst weather.

As we approach Roatán, I watch as the island slowly grow larger. Our airspeed is not breathtaking. I am one of a handful of passengers in a silver DC-3.

Mike, a shoestring wanderer from England, and I decide to share a cab. Neither of us knows where we are going. His interest is cheap, beach-side lodging. We pick a cabbie from the gaggle offering their services. Early Japanese econo box. We settle on being dropped at what our driver calls West End Village, some 10 miles from the airport. One center-lined, two-lane road wanders the length of the island, although the pavement stops well short of both the West End and the east end. Coxen Hole and French Harbor, the two largest towns, have a smattering of tired, paved streets, but smaller settlements are reached by dirt, sometimes gravel, branch roads.

West End is not a resort atmosphere. Flotsam and faded flora litter the beaches. This is what tropical beaches look like before the US$200 a night rooms go up. The village consists of a smattering of dive shops, indoor and outdoor restaurants, rooms, and cabins to let, and a few stores and shops distributed along one side of the beach road. A white-steepled Baptist church sits at the edge of the bay offering song and sermon with a view.

I am slow to be charmed by West End Village, and moving into my accommodations - a US$16 walk up, cold-water flop for which there is heavy competition - -adds to my early disenchantment. Mike has set off down a path that snakes through the coconut palms to see if lodging gets any cheaper. Later, over a welcome local beer at an outdoor bistro (on me), he is pleased to report that he made the US$10 room score he was looking for.

 

Night passes noisily. After a hearty US$2 pancake breakfast under swaying palms, I am back on top and begin to see a bit more charm in my primitive surrounds. Refreshed, it is time to hit the real estate road. I find a stalled cab resting among the potholes, aid its driver with a push start, and we bump forward the short distance to the paved-road zone. At Sandy Bay, I rent a jeep and with my own wheels under me, I am free to roam at will.

My first stop is at one of the island's high-visibility real estate offices. After the pleasantries and having been ID'd as a live one, we are off in my guide's sport utility rig to tour several developments underway toward the less populated east end.

Topographically, I like what I see. Blue surf breaking over the reef about a hundred yards offshore. Rolling hills covered with green grasses. Mangrove stands grow to the water's edge, pierced here and there by white sand beach. Palm trees dot the hillsides. The needle on the charm meter continues to rise. These are the vistas of my villa dream scenario.

Still, being in tow, I feel fettered. I am in pleasant, helpful, and informative company, but the prices are higher than the examples we read about. I fear the dream may be slipping away. Contributing to that feeling is what seems to be the central pitch - buy what you can now and sell later for profit. And if you want to build, your profits can pay all or part of your acquisition and building costs. Some parcels, I'm told, have already turned two and three times. Not what we had in mind. Wise or unwise, we did not come to play the speculation game. Janice hasn't even arrived, and I'm starting to think she may be coming for nothing.

No more developer tours. Time to go it on my own. Smaller real estate sellers give me new hope. Choices increase, and prices decrease. By the third day, I have winnowed the options down to a parcel owned by a Bolivian businessman. He intends, I'm told, to build a place of his own, as does his brother, while selling off some dozen other half-ace lots. Water, electricity, and access road are part of the deal, and the price is about half of what I had been quoted at larger developments. I like both location and view. This could be the place, and I am pleased to have something to show Janice. She arrives the next day, which means flying back to the mainland to meet her when she deplanes in San Pedro Sula.

While scouting for coffee in Coxen Hole, en route to La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula, I stop at a shop that is combination bookstore and cafe, but the cafe part is not yet ready for business. Still, t'was luck that guided my steps nonetheless. An ex-pat from Houston and former administrative nurse owns the bookstore. The island has been home to her and her husband for three years. They had honeymooned here years before. I tell her my dream. She gives the name of a businessman-islander she rents space from who, she says, is of solid reputation and also sells real estate. I note the particulars in my limp pad and hot-jeep it back to the airport to board my flight.

I rendezvous with Janice without incident. She too is smitten by the look of the Honduran countryside. Her attraction to the island is immediate. I have had the wits to upgrade our accommodations and have reservations at one of the island's several larger, full-service resorts. I may be frugal, but I'm not stupid. Janice does not embrace rude living circumstances.

After settling in, we are off to view the ground I have found. Janice likes the east end. We tell the property owner's rep that we like what we see, but have just one more lot to look at before we close the deal, just to make sure. We meet that afternoon with the man behind the name I got from the bookstore. The site he showed us was not far from the lot we were about ready to buy.

The new site is better. Here is our ridge top. It is a few hundred yards closer to the water's edge, too. The views up and down the coast and in every direction are magnificent. The American owner of the property plans to build a small, two-story hotel down below close to a small private beach. Mangrove thickets frame the bay beach to either side. Another dozen or so lots are to be sold to dreamers like us.

We are the first buyers and have our pick of lots. Access road, electricity, and water are part of the package. We grin like ninnies, shake hands, and slap backs. The next morning we are off to the owner's local attorney to commence the promise of sale contract. It will take a few days before the paperwork is ready to sign. We have been rushing around and can finally relax, lay about, and generally play on vacation. We learn what the rainy season is like too. The sky opens. Rain cascades heavy and loud. Ten minutes later it stops, the sky clears, and the sun comes back a'smiling like nothing happened.

With our business done, we also have time to wonder if we did the right thing. There is much yet to play out. But we are not fretters and set off to celebrate our foresight, wisdom, and good fortune at French Harbor's finest restaurant. At the next table are equally spirited father and son. Our two tables soon become one. They too have been talking about buying land. The father, an M.D., and his youngest son-one of four, all of whom are attorneys-are scouting for a potential family investment in the quarter-million dollar range or better. The year before they explored Costa Rica for the same reason, but thought it too late. Prices, they conclude, had escalated to the point that significant appreciation looked like an iffy proposition.

 

\We came, we saw, we liked, we bought. The price: US$18,000 for a one-half acre lot.

Phase one is done. Whether the island develops quickly, slowly, or not at all, we see ourselves happily visiting regularly and perhaps even settling there one day. The place feels good, the people friendly, the towns bustling, the pace relaxed, but with enough of the elements and trappings of civilization that one doesn't feel isolated. Town entry signs read "A cultured town is a clean town. Our town is cultured." The sentiment, at least, is right on. The standard of living for many, to be sure, is close to the bone, but grinding poverty is not evident here. The closest thing to begging we saw were a few laughing lads selling peanuts in brown paper cones.

And now it's on to phase two: villa construction. We have described our villa dream to our architect and friend, and he has interpreted our dream to a "T." The "T" stands for Temple. Pure sculpture. We have it all on paper - 2,200 square feet of contemporary, concrete villa with generous, tiled patio and pool overlooking those blue-green waters of the Caribbean. Plenty of room for a chaise longue or two. Separate guest quarters are reached along a wide breezeway, roofed with blossoming bougainvillea, of course.

Our dream is tempered by the realization that we no longer have the luxury of simply dreaming about a villa. We must get it built and do justice to the architect's - and our - villa vision. The plans in hand bring with them a big batch of concerns and details to resolve. We begin as soon as the road to the ridge is in. I expect to be on the scene often enough during construction to help minimize the inevitable obstacles, delays, and alterations. May good fortune attend us. And if the construction process doesn't make us crazy, one of those days you will find us lolling on those chaises longues, pleased to have taken the big leap and wrestled our tropical villa dream into reality.

   

 HONDURAS ROCKS! The view from the Rocks' new piece of land on Roatán

 


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