There are two moments of my life that really shape who I am today, and both moments my friend Doug Barber, co-owner of Minaal (check out their great backpacks!) can lay claim to being the instigator. The first was when I was deciding on where to go on a study abroad program, and he suggested going to Austin, Texas. I didn’t know much about the place, but it had a great Finance School, a great party reputation, and there was extra scholarship money available to go there as it was a new exchange. I was sold, and had the time of my life and remain best friends with the people I met there. The second was when I was planning my ‘lifestyle specialising’ year off of work through the Americas. I wanted to go to a dive island somewhere for 2-3 months to train as a Divemaster. I was originally going to go to Raotan, the largest island in the Bay Islands, or the Corn Islands in Nicaragua (amazing diving both of them) but I hadn’t heard about Utila. He had just come back to New Zealand following a trip through Central America and thought it would be right up my alley.
Well, lets just say he was right!! After doing some research, I decided to start my trip off with a month in the United States, visiting friends in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vegas, Austin and Chicago, before I flew down directly to Roatan from Chicago. I spent a couple days on Roatan before taking a Catamaran over to Utila. Amazingly, my Kiwi friend Aaron, who had also been travelling Central America, had recently left Utila where he had completed his Advanced Open Water Diver course. Upon hearing I was doing my Divemaster at UDC, he changed his plans and headed straight back to Utila to do his Divemaster with me!
Utila Dive Centre – Par Excellence
Let’s be clear from the start. There are a number of quality Dive Centers in Utila. Some of the friends I made when I was there now work or have worked across other shops. Some of the other quality shops include Bay Islands College Diving (BICD) and Underwater Vision – which both have accommodation on-site. But for the best, you just can’t go past UDC. Andy Phillips is the resident Course Director and is an expert Diver of the highest order. He is also a consummate professional – when I was emailing different Dive Shops about visiting Utila, Andy replied the next day – most of the other shops didn’t respond or replied a month later. In addition to responding efficiently the first time, he must have also answered about 20 different emails from me from the other side of the world, always with the same cheerful attitude and detailed knowledge.
The Diving is significantly better than the Mediterranean if you want to see fish, but the South side of the island is heavily used for dive courses and this has had some impact on the quality of the reef. Despite this, there are still some great dives, with the South Side significantly more protected from the weather making diving very comfortable. The Black Coral Wall dive site on the South Side I visited regularly and every time was different.. a memorable time was seeing 5 eagle rays swimming just out in the ocean off the wall, and they followed us for some time – amazing.
There is also a great training Wreck dive site, the Halliburton, which was purposely sunk and sits around 30m deep – meaning it is great to get your Wreck specialty here – I did this in the few days before I left UDC, well worth it!
Depending on whether you have paid for a set of dives or whether you are doing your Divemaster (where dives are free) will depend largely where you go. If you are paying, the boats are more inclined to take you to the North Side of the island, which has a number of amazing dive sites, such as the Maze, Duppy Waters and the Pinnacle. Read more here. If you are doing ‘free dives’ as part of the Divemaster course, you will either be helping Instructors on other dive courses or you will be able to go along on a boat when it isn’t full.
If you are lucky, you may even get the opportunity to swim with Whale Sharks. I planned my original trip from March to May on the island, after doing some research and reading that in this time there is a good chance of seeing them. Unfortunately, there was NO sightings across the island the whole time I was there! I then flew back in early January the following year (of my 15 month trip through the Americas) and the first day I went diving, I saw three! It just goes to show, nature doesn’t discriminate – if you don’t have any expectations you can have the most amazing thrilling experience. And swimming with whale sharks was quite simply the most amazing experience of my life. I don’t have any photos to prove it as I didn’t own an underwater camera at the time, but this kind of adds to the nostalgia.
In Honduras, the Government does not allow you to dive with a tank with Whale Sharks, as this is believed to cause the animal distress. So when one is found, all of the boat captains get on the radio and the boats all head out to where they are feeding. The captain of the boat will drive around and then, when he believes he is in front of the whale shark, will tell everyone to dive in with only their fins and snorkels and masks on. The first time I did this, I was the first in the water – the bubbles cleared from diving in and there only metres away from me was this bloody 10m long fish swimming towards me! I had to quickly swim to the side to get out of its way – simply incredible.
There are many local fisherman who will take you out fishing – I went out one morning after partying all night – I met the local fisherman at 4am straight from the bar – I must have been quite a state! It was a successful fish – I managed to catch the largest Snapper I have ever caught and a Barracuda – these two fish fed me and 12 of my friends for two nights!
If you have come to Utila to dive, as most people do, you will get some nights included free in your package with the Dive Centre you choose. If you are already an Advanced Open Water Diver, you can get a course that covers Rescue Diver to Divemaster. At UDC, this will earn you four free nights at the Mango Inn hotel. Mango Inn is a hotel in a quiet area of town with a big pool – a great place to start, but if you are staying for a few weeks (or months!) it is definitely worth getting your own apartment. There are quite a few options available, it is probably best to talk to your Dive Centre for some local offers.
As mentioned above, both Underwater Vision and BICD have great accommodation on location at their respective Centres. However, while UDC’s accommodation isn’t on site, the dive site itself is very social and there are always quiz nights, games of ‘nails’ and drinks going on there before heading into dinner at a restaurant or drinks at a bar.
There are lots of amazing restaurants on the island, in particular seafood (no surprise!). A higher end restaurant worth visiting is Mango Tango – go for Tapas Tuesday, and stay for the great sunsets. My favourite however was RJ’s BBQ – located across the road from UDC, it is only open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday so make sure to plan a meal here!
Other affordable options include the Mango Inn Grill (at the UDC accommodation), Skid Row (for Pizza and Burgers – try the Guifuiti challenge – a local home brew spirit – if you drink 4 shots of Guifuiti you get the famous t-shirt – I still have two t-shirts!) and La Picolla, a great Italian restaurant. For snacks, you can’t go past the many Baleada stands on the island – similar to an empanada, full of hearty goodness and perfect for recovering from the hangover the night before 😉
Worth mentioning in it’s own right is the Jade Seahorse/Treetanic Bar. This place is amazing, a truly magical place built largely by one couple over many years. There are places to stay in this enchanting resort, a restaurant (B-Leaf Restaurant) and a Bar (Treetanic), which I worked at while I was on the island. The Bar was ranked in the top 5 bars in the world by Lonely Planet a few years ago, and the whole resort/bar/restaurant has to be seen to be believed.
Getting to Utila
There are a few options for getting to Utila, depending on your budget. Most travelers either come overground into Honduras from a neighbouring country or have flown into Tegulcigalpa or San Pedro Sula. With these options, most make their way by bus to La Ceiba and then take the ferry ‘Utila Princess’ from the mainland, affectionately known as the ‘Vomit Comet’.
There are also flight options to Utila from La Ceiba, San Pedro Sula and Roatan, but these are obviously more expensive. If you are heading to Honduras on a 2 to 3 week holiday it makes sense to pay more to minimise travel, however many travelers through Central America are backpacking and aiming to minimise cost.
I flew from Chicago to Roatan, via a stop in San Salvador, and then spent a few days on Roatan before taking a Catamaran over to Utila. The Catamaran is no longer running, but travelling from Roatan option is still available – see here for options. This option gives you the ability to see two of the Bay Islands, and then you can take the ferry back from Utila to La Ceiba and on to your next destination.
On my second trip to Utila, I flew into Tegulcigalpa with United from Rio de Janeiro – while United had pretty terrible customer service, they were generally the cheapest to fly between Central America and South/North America. From Tegucigalpa, I took a Hedman Alas bus to La Ceiba and stayed at Hostel El Estadio in La Ceiba before the ferry ride the next morning to Utila. The owner, Peter, is super friendly and will help you get to where you need to go in the morning.
Be aware that Honduras is not a safe place, so extra precautions need to be taken into account. Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula are high in the list of cities with the most murders in the world. However, travelers can minimise this risk by paying a bit extra for the safer buses – I went on the Hedman Alas bus, which had security before getting on the bus and an armed guard for the whole route.
White water rafting near La Ceiba
If you need to stay in La Ceiba while waiting for the ferry, then consider doing a two day stopover to do some whitewater rafting here. It was a lot of fun, and the lodge is amazing, a great way to relax if you have had a lot of travel to get to Honduras (or after partying in Utila it’s a good place to unwind after!)
Getting to Honduras
I have covered this just above in getting to Utila. If your main goal is to go diving in Utila or Roatan, then I would recommend flying directly to Roatan, it just makes it easier being on the island directly and not having to deal with the buses and ferry from La Ceiba.
The currency in Honduras is the Lempira, or ‘Lemp’ for short. The current exchange rate is around 23 Lemps to one USD. I generally used a 20 to 1 exchange rate for ease. Honduras is cheap, but Utila is more expensive than the mainland. An example of cost is a Baleada, similar to an Empanada, a fulling pastry snack, is 20-30 Lempiras. I would usually have two of these for breakfast – I definitely didn’t go to Honduras to diet!
You can buy local sim cards if you need a phone in Honduras. I did this at first but I found I rarely used it – I generally just connected to the Wifi at the Dive Shops and used Facebook to communicate.
Honduras is a country wracked by corruption and drugs. Tegulcigalpa and San Pedro Sula are considered two of the most dangerous cities in the world. However, Hondurans are incredibly kind and generous people. Utila is an amazing little island with great spirit. But to understand the true fight of the common people in Honduras, and the fight against the Government’s land grabs, it is worth reading the story of Elvia Alvarado in Don’t be Afraid, Gringo.
There are also stories of adventure chasing hidden Mayan cities, in the true story The Lost City of the Monkey God. Doug Preston tells the story of trying to find this Lost City, and upon return being struck down by a tropical disease. An interesting read!