Left: Nick Gregory/Alamy; Right: Woody Hibbard

ROATÁN, Honduras is experiencing tremendous growth — and for some who are trying to preserve the island’s rich history, a few growing pains as well.

The island of Roatán is quite small: a strip of rugged terrain, blanketed by deep tropical green, peeking out from pale turquoise Caribbean waters, 37 miles long and as little as a mile or two wide. From many stretches of the main road that runs east to west along the island’s hilly spine, one can see both the north and south shores.

A map of American Airlines service to Honduras.
Dante Terzigni
Yet this slender vessel, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, contains a dizzying array of diversity, both human and natural. Of all the historical currents that have shaped the history of the hemisphere — indigenous civilizations, European colonization, the African slave trade, the drive for independence from the Old World — none has failed to leave a mark on Roatán.

This diversity shows itself in a number of dualities. Roatán is part of a Latin American country, yet long has been home to an English-speaking majority. Many islanders think of themselves as apart from the Honduran mainland — they often stress how much more laid-back the lifestyle on Roatán is than on the continent — yet they know they must work with Honduras’ federal government to thrive because the island alone isn’t self-sufficient in, well, anything. It is home to considerable wealth, including some impressive private homes, but it also has mud-walled shacks.

Burgeoning development, from new luxury hotels and condo communities to cruise-ship terminals built in the past decade, bring economic promise to the island, but many worry that too much development could harm not only the relatively unspoiled beauty of the island but that of its most marketable offshore asset: the coral reefs.