Utila: A Hidden Gem

A few months ago I was in need of an adventure. Something to get me away from the daily grind, away from grey skies and into azure seas. I wanted to do something new, experience something I had never done before. Unfortunately it felt like my budget was far smaller than my ambitions.

That’s when I heard of a small island off the coast of Honduras. A friend of mine had gone travelling some months before through Central America. On her travels she had stopped at what looked like something straight off a postcard. Stalking through her Facebook pictures I knew I had to see this place for myself. After a bit of an online catch up I found out it was one of the cheapest places around to learn to scuba dive. The next day I booked two weeks off from work, I was going to Utila.

One month, one train and two nearly missed flights later I landed in San Pedro Sula. I was greeted by a pan flute band playing a hauntingly beautiful version of The Sound Of Silence. The taxi driver I’d organised with my hostel was waiting for me with my name on a sign. With his decent English and my broken Spanish we managed to communicate well enough during the journey. He pointed out a couple of neighbourhoods during the ride and I definitely understood I’d be shot and robbed if I ventured into those. Bullet wounds have never been a souvenir I’ve been keen to come away with.

I had faced the decision of either flying direct from San Pedro Sula to Utila’s airstrip or to neighbouring Roatan and getting the ferry from there. The flights ran on Monday,Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 3pm. At £60-85 for a one way flight I didn’t fancy blowing part of my budget that could otherwise be spent more frivolously.

Instead I chose to stay in San Pedro over night at a hostel. The dorm rooms averaged at £7.50. I stayed at one called La Hamaca and was perfectly comfortable for the night. I caught a coach from the municipal centre at 4am the next morning and paid £11 for a ticket to La Ceiba (having pre-booked the ticket at the hostel). The journey got me there in plenty of time for the morning ferry at 9am (the second is at 4.40pm). Once there I purchased a ticket for the ferry at £17, though the cost for this can vary depending on high and low season (I went in March, just at the beginning of high season).

The ride took a little over an hour, after watching La Ceiba and the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountains disappear I went to the front of the boat to look for Utila. It started out as the thinnest slither on the horizon, then the tallest point, Pumpkin Hill, became clear. The water turned turquoise as the sea bed shallowed and I greeted by boats and quirky water front bars that were soon to become familiar.

Part of the Bay Islands, it’s situated on the Mesoamerican Reef System, second in size and diversity only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Between the 1550’s and 1700’s the area was caught in conflicts between the Spanish and British as they sought to dominate the Caribbean. All the while pirates such as Henry Morgan would use islands like Utila as bases to gather supplies and store plunder. Today there are still plenty of wrecks to be explored, and maybe even some pirate treasure to be found.

I was in pure holiday mode during the first few days, just enjoying eating, drinking and soaking up the sun. The average cost for a four bed dorm was £8 a night and eating out was cheap costing anything from 50p for light bites and snacks to £15 if I really want to treat myself. A bottle of beer typically cost £1. Tuk-tuk taxis were an inexpensive way to get up and down the main strip and some of the back roads.

After the first couple of days I wanted to be a bit more independent and fancied exploring the island more. There were plenty of rental places up and down the main strip with bicycles, mopeds, off-road motorbikes, quad bikes and golf carts for rent. Bicycles cost £7 a day and mopeds average £13-17, although you may be able to get a discount if you’re hiring for a week. Not all places offer this up front but it doesn’t hurt to ask. I got a little moped for a few days which was perfect for zipping up and down the main strip and some of the other roads. When it came to riding down some of the dirt tracks to get to Pumpkin Hill and some of the more secluded beaches it was hard going but manageable. If you’re feeling that adventurous it might be worth thinking about spending a bit more for something more suited to off roading.

After visiting a few diving schools I got a feel for the average prices and what was on offer. For beginner and advanced courses the cost was £210 which includes all of your gear. Some offered free accommodation for four nights while I was learning which was definitely a bonus. I ended up with Underwater Vision which I would highly recommend for the atmosphere.

The teaching was top quality, we were all well acquainted with our equipment and what to do in an emergency before we even got in the water. Our instructors were professional, patient, explained everything in depth while having a sense of fun and adventure at the same time. For someone like myself who was slightly anxious about being in the open water the instruction on this course gave me total confidence being in the open sea.

However, the main thing that concerned me was diving ethically. Just before I left for Utila I read that in Thailand, Maya Bay, made famous in The Beach, had been closed to tourists to allow for the reef there to recover from intensive visitation. Tourism can have a devastating effect on local flora and fauna, especially delicate corals. What struck me about Utila was the pride that the residents take in the beauty of their island. Due to its location plastic and other waste often washes up on the otherwise postcard perfect beaches. It doesn’t stick around for long though, teams of locals will lovingly clean the beaches, tourists can get in on this as well. Dive centres like Underwater Vision do a weekly clean up run with instructors and students taking part. Most of the beaches are protected as well, there are warning signs and heavy fines against those thinking of illegal fishing or removing shells or corals.

When it came to diving itself all of the instructors have a clear passion for maintaining the beauty of the reef. While in the water they remained watchful of their pupils, reminding us to not get too near the coral should we drift too close. Most instructors are against interacting with the wildlife and instead prefer to lead their groups in observing only. An exception is made for the Red Lion Fish, an invasive species which preys upon native reef maintaining animals such as the Cleaner Shrimp. Instructors and locals spear hunt the fish which has become something of a delicacy on the island.

A lot is being done locally to maintain the reef system and islands but as my instructor, Sam Cogin, told me the problem of conservation is a global one.

“I came here for a few dives. I never thought I would stay for a long time. What kept me here was a combination of self improvement in diving, a lot of amazing people and just really the ability to stay away from Australia and meet new people every day and create experiences.

I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching people how to dive. I have made significant changes in my life to try and conserve what we have and being able to show people and explain why its important to reduce consumption. Looking after what’s left while we have it has been really enjoyable and rewarding for me.

My first impressions of the reef were I thought that it was amazing and spectacular. To be honest I think globally more needs to be done in relation to dealing with global warming and the introduction of MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas). I think that addressing this locally will be a short lived adventure. Obviously having Marine Protected Areas in local communities is a great effort but will be short lived long term if the water doesn’t stop getting warmer.”

I spent two very happy weeks on Utila. When it came time to leave I skipped the morning ferry just so I could enjoy a few more hours. Learning to scuba dive was an other worldly experience, one that I’ll be looking to repeat. When your certificate arrives in the post back home it really is something to brighten up the post holiday blues. It was a great way to bond with people, I became quick friends with my dive group. Once the day’s dive is done you’ll probably find yourself headed to a bar with your group like I did. The island has a relaxed vibe to it, no one is in a rush here, everyone is welcoming and I didn’t think twice about walking home alone at night.

Utila is one of those hidden gems, it’s not a five star resort, it’s not a cruise ship destination and that’s part of its charm. The simple life is best here, it wont blow your wallet, most of the bars are wooden shacks, full of character and characters. As for the natural beauty, you’ll find yourself in a hammock, sipping a beer, suspended over clear blue waters wondering why you don’t give the nine to five the sack and stay. There really is love for the island from the locals and long termers, it’s infectious. You might catch it too.cropped-29244070_10156264008364413_1129336078247919616_o1.jpg

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