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Boca Chica vs. Roatan: Why Island Life Is Better in Panama

If you’re a would-be expat who has your sights set on an island destination, then it’s likely Roatan, Honduras, has found its way onto your radar.  It’s relatively inexpensive, yet offers a well-developed tourist infrastructure.

And, hey, if some of the globe’s top cruise lines have added Roatan to their list of stops, then surely there must be something there worth seeing, right?

Roatan is great, and its recent spike in popularity has certainly been warranted.  But just in case you’re looking for a little less tourist traps and a little more authentic island atmosphere, let’s see how it stacks up against Boca Chica, Panama.

boca chica vs. roatan

Viva Tropical

Round #1: Accessibility

Winner: It’s a Tie

Thanks to recent and coming improvements in both countries’ transportation options, you’ll find both of these islands incredibly easy to get to.  Roatan, Honduras, is now accessible via direct flights from several major U.S. cities, such as Houston, Miami, and Atlanta.

You can basically hop on a plane and be there in as little as 2 hours.  Not too shabby.  This is a drastic difference from a few years ago when the only way to get to the island was via a ferry to the island or a separate domestic flight from the mainland.

Similar improvements are soon to come to fruition in Boca Chica as well.  While Panama is also already accessible by way of a short international flight, Panama City has historically been the only option for arrivals.

That’s about to change when David’s Enrique Malek International Airport opens its runways to flights from the U.S. and other nations for the first time.  Once you land, it’s only a 30 minute drive and a 10 minute boat ride and you’re on an island archipelago that feels more like you’re hours from civilization.  

So, while Roatan is a slightly quicker trip (for now, anyway), Boca Chica stomps its Honduran counterpart in terms of access to other nearby destinations.  If you need something that you can’t get on the island, you have to take a 90 minute ferry ride to the mainland.

Boca Chica’s islands require only a quick trip in a motorboat.  Once on land, there are a ton of options for everything from shopping and dining to getting your boat repaired or picking up your dry cleaning.  You can also explore nearby places like Boquete, Volcan Baru, and other popular tourist attractions in the Chiriqui province.

Round #2: Consumer Goods and Services

Advantage: Boca Chica

Speaking of dry cleaning and repair shops, that’s another area where Boca Chica wins out over Roatan.  In Roatan you’re pretty much limited to the options available on the island.  Most consumer offerings are located on the west end in places like Coxen Hole and French Harbour.

The options are decent, but the prices reflect the fact that they’ve had to be shipped over from the mainland.  Plus if the island doesn’t have what you need, then back on the ferry you go.

From Boca Chica island, you can motor over to the mainland where the town of Boca Chica has enough to meet your basic needs.  However, if you’re seeking something a little less common all you have to do is drive the half hour to David which is guaranteed to have what you’re looking for.  

It’s so convenient that it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to spend their day out exploring deserted islands in the archipelago, then shower, change, and head into David for a world-class steak dinner.  In the city you’ll also find hardware stores, modern hospitals, government offices, and even a Mailboxes Etc.

boca chica vs. roatan

James Willmore

Round #3: Investment Potential

Winner: Boca Chica By a Large Margin

The fact that you’re at least somewhat familiar with Roatan, Honduras, but may have never even so much as heard of Boca Chica, Panama, should be your first clue as to which has the greatest potential for appreciation.

Roatan is a well-developed tourist destination that’s been drawing international attention for a while.  Boca Chica Island is a hidden gem.  The mainland town of Boca Chica attracts a few tourists, mainly because of its popularity as a sport fishing mecca.  But most of the islands of its archipelago are virtually untouched.

Roatan has a fair share of real estate that’s a little further off the beaten path as well, but its prices still reflect the level of development available on the island itself.  Boca Chica, on the other hand, offers the same (if not better) gorgeous scenery and opportunities for adventure and exploration.  But at rock-bottom prices.

Not to mention, that airport expansion we mentioned is about to cause the entire Chiriqui province, including Boca Chica, to explode.  More and more travelers from all over the globe will begin visiting the area.  Infrastructure will continue to improve.  New businesses will open.  And the result will be a tremendous spike in property values.  

These projections are huge for investors.

Round #4: Atmosphere

Outcome: It Depends

Both Roatan and Boca Chica are great destinations with a really cool laid-back vibe.  They also both have a good bit of variety if you’re willing to move around a bit.  But each excels in a particular genre the other lacks.

In the more populated areas of Roatan you’ll find your typical Caribbean atmosphere.  There are your usual tourist developments and hotels within walking distance of bars and restaurants that offer a vibrant night life.  

Boca Chica doesn’t have that.  There are good times to be had in Boca Chica, but they generally come in a more low-key format, like a relaxed happy hour spent on a restaurant patio.

By contrast, Boca Chica offers opportunities for complete solitude that would make even Robinson Crusoe drool.  You can relax in a hammock on your private patio with nothing but your thoughts and a few howler monkeys to keep you company.  Roatan has a few more secluded spots too, but they don’t compare.

boca chica vs. roatan

Viva Tropical

Round #5: Tourist Infrastructure

Advantage: Roatan by a Landslide

Whereas Roatan has all the activities and tourist offerings you’d expect of any world-class vacation spot, Boca Chica’s options are drastically skewed towards one genre: aquatic adventures.  It’s a great jumping-off spot for deep sea fishing, sailing, and other seafaring activities.  For much more than that, you’ll need to venture to one of the other destinations in the province.

Roatan has a variety of options for dining, lodging, and other amenities.  It’s a well-developed tourist hotspot.  But that also has its drawbacks.  Like the hordes of cruise ship passengers that crowd the beaches every few days or so.

It’s important to note though that Boca Chica’s relative lack of tourist offerings represents another great area that’s primed for growth.  As the number of visitors to the area increase, there will be tremendous potential for entrepreneurs looking to profit by opening attractions like yoga retreats and sport fishing operations.

boca chica vs. roatan

Michael McDonough

Round #6:  Host Country

Advantage: Easily Panama

Outside of Roatan, there just aren’t a lot of expats flocking to Honduras.  With the world’s #1 highest intentional homicide rate (82 of every 100,000 deaths), to say the country has a crime problem is a gross understatement.

Likewise its education system is fair, and its infrastructure is well below average for the region.  You can’t drink the water, and many cities have inadequate wastewater treatment systems.  Health care is also subpar, with only 57 physicians per 100,000 people.

Contrast this with Panama, whose infrastructure rivals that of first-world countries in some of the larger cities.  It has good roads, reliable public transit, and some of the best internet and cellular access in all of Latin America.

There are a number of established expat communities where large numbers of English-speaking immigrants have more than paved the way for newcomers.  There’s also Panama City, a bustling cosmopolitan city that many compare to Miami.

Panama’s schools are good.  Its healthcare is great.  It’s also one of the safest countries in the region, with less violent crimes in a year than New York City has in a day.

Panama’s government is pro-business, pro-investor, and extremely friendly to foreigners. Its pensionado program, with discounts as high as 50% on things like entertainment and travel, is the reason it’s often dubbed one of the best places to retire in the entire world.

Round #7: Snorkeling

Winner:  Roatan

Boca Chica has a few private beaches where you can spend an afternoon snorkeling.  Most notably there’s nearby Islas Secas, which is a 45 minute boat ride away, or Coiba National Park.  It’s one of the largest marine parks in the world, but it’s a good 2-3 hours by boat.

In the waters surrounding Roatan there are over 100 diving and snorkeling sites, many of which are accessible directly from the beach.  And since the island is so popular with cruisers, there are a number of outfits offering snorkeling excursions for tourists.

Round #8:  Diving

Verdict: Boca Chica by a Nose

Roatan does have the benefit of being located near the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which reaches down to the island from Belize.  As a result, it attracts many divers and is great for beginners.

However, Boca Chica lies in close proximity to a spot that offers some of the world’s best dives, according to National Geographic.  Just 27 miles south is Islas Ladrones, which is teeming with schools of jack, snapper, and barracuda.  There are also smaller species like surgeonfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, angelfish, and more that can be seen year round.

You can also spot several species of shark and, at certain times of the year, giant manta rays and humpback whales.  Visibility near the island is 30-80 meters.

Further away, as mentioned for snorkeling, is Isla de Coiba, where you can explore a 330,000-acre reef which contains 60 of the world’s 75+ species of hard and soft coral.  In these protected waters you’ll also find mullet, stingray, puffers, moray eels, and gentle sea turtles.

boca chica vs. roatan

Snowmanradio

Round #9: Fishing

Winner: Boca Chica Hands-Down

Due to the abundance of species represented in Boca Chica, the fishing in its waters is second to none.  A large majority of its tourist accommodations are comprised of fishing lodges, and the number of world record catches that were landed in and around Boca Chica is remarkable.

Most of these were snagged near Hannibal Bank, a world-famous fishing hotspot where the ocean floor rises sharply from thousands of feet deep to a mere 120 feet.  Where this cliff juts out, tremendous schools of inshore fish merge with the offshore species who feed on them.  Marlin in excess of 1,000 pounds and tuna over 300 pounds have been caught in these waters, as well as snapper, amberjack, and snook.

Since the island actually started as a commercial fishing hub (until tourism began to dominate), you won’t be disappointed with the fishing in Roatan.  That is, unless you’ve already experienced the fishing around Hannibal Bank in Boca Chica.  That’ll definitely ruin it for you.

boca chica vs. roatan

Viva Tropical

Round #10: Land Exploration

Verdict: Boca Chica Takes the Round

Roatan has a few areas available for exploration if you’re willing to venture over to the east side of the island and get away from the more heavily touristed areas.  There are botanical gardens and nature trails, but it’s also somewhat of a controlled environment.

By contrast, the jungles and rainforest of the Boca Chica archipelago are absolutely prehistoric.  There’s an abundance of old growth trees and entire islands that are completely covered in dense untouched forest.  There’s also a general attitude of preservation and conservation among the local population, as well as the developers who are starting projects in the area.

Take for example Boca Chica Island, the site of our latest Adventure Colony.  It’s a place where like-minded expats can own their very own unspoiled piece of nature.  It’s a community with a shared vision of living in harmony with the environment, as evidenced by Monte Vida, the world’s first crowd-funded park.

boca chica vs. roatan

Viva Tropical

Grand Champion

Just like many of the individual categories, the verdict of which island destination is the right place to establish your expat home is one that’s best left for you to decide.

If you’re looking for an established spot with amenities already in place and a thriving expat community, then check out Roatan.  If you’re a more intrepid expat who wants to be one of the first on the scene, for both investment potential as well as bragging rights, then Boca Chica might be the place for you.

Map of Boca Chica

Boca Chica Fast Facts

  • Population: About 1,200 (Numbers are hard to nail down, but this is a good guestimate)
  • Typical temperature: From 70 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Nearest airport with U.S. flights: Tocumen Airport. Domestic flights to Panama City, Panama and international flights to Costa Rica depart from Enrique Malek International Airport in David
  • Nearest U.S. consulate: Panama City, Panama

Map of Roatan

Roatan Fast Facts

  • Population: 50,000
  • Typical temperature: From 80 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Nearest airport with U.S. flights: Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport
  • Nearest U.S. consulate: Tegucigalpa, Honduras

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