How to Travel to the Bay Islands on $169 a Day

Most visitors come to Roatan via cruise ship, so there’s little demand for cars and rooms (notice the quiet airport). Even then, it’s mostly divers looking for a place to hang wetsuits. The result: high-end resorts with low-end rates.

Barefoot Cay: About 30 minutes from busy West End are these ocean-view lofts ($215) and beach villas. From the dock it's an easy swim (or kayak) to the world-famous reef. We wore swimsuits to every dinner — the staff is like family. Palmetto Bay Plantation: This palapa is practically on the reef. The villas ($225) sit among coconut trees on a mile-long beach and are almost as serene as the underwater world. There's even a tropical-bird preserve on the property. Anthony's Key: Roatan is to diving what Sicily is to pasta. Everyone who's visiting the island has come to try it. Anthony's Key caters to that singular focus. The room rate ($168) includes three dives and three meals a day. The wallet stays in the safe.S.Jackson

Eat for $1-$45 a day

If the Bay Islands are about diving, we’ll stick to the dive theme with meals too — without resorting to the Hot Dog Hut. Baleadas: When the manager at the Black Pearl Golf Course offered baleadas, I thought he was talking about a special type of ball. No, a baleada is the Honduran version of a light burrito. I wound up eating three of them because 1) they're better than burritos, 2) I was famished, and 3) they cost $1 to $2 around the island, even at the upscale Black Pearl. Machuca: This fish soup made with coconut milk is found on the streets of the island's oldest village of Punta Gorda. It's a quick $5 fill-up — emphasis on "fill." Tropical Fruit: Dining from the trees is truly local and really cheap. We bought two types of mangos and enough sweet pineapple to create a big $3 lunch. Don't eat cashews off the trees. The fruit is edible, but the nut has to be processed so it doesn't scorch the lips.

Play for $0-$20 a day

What you see in this picture explains why a snorkel mask and fins replace Facebook and DirectTV for island entertainment. Use the Sea: It's available 24 hours a day. One night on the dock at Barefoot Cay I saw the phenomenon of bioluminescence — an underwater fireworks show courtesy of glowing plankton. A six-pack of Port Royal beer added to the moment: $5. Find Camp Bay Beach: On one end of Roatan is West Bay, where everything is available: boat tours, Jet Skis, crowded all-inclusives. It's why I made the drive the opposite direction until the island's only paved road turned to gravel and ruts, and landed my rental car on a beach only the locals use. Call it $10 for gas. Go Out for Recess: Bring a bag of books and school supplies for the Sand Castle Library near Sandy Bay (literacy is maybe 50 percent on Roatan). Bring $20 worth of ibuprofen to Nurse Peggy's medical clinic (her affordable care act costs locals about $5 a visit). Do any of this and a soccer game is likely to break out with thankful kids. Did You Know? Champagne flights arrive from Atlanta, Houston, Miami and even Montreal and Toronto. $155 a night is the cost of a private island half a mile from Utila. The weirdest mini-golf course is on Utila.The $6 fee includes a beer. Spare lempiras are collected at the airport to fund local charities.