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.
Amapala was once Honduras’s primary Pacific port, but it has long since been superseded by Puerto de Henecán near San Lorenzo.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.
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.