Getting from Copan Ruinas to Utila meant crossing the whole of Honduras, some 300km’s from its western border with Guatemala to the eastern coast, then further out to the Bay Islands of which Utila is one. As usual this was achieved by a 5am start, a 6am bus from Copan, and after subsequent changes into a minivan, taxi, and ferry, we were eventually deposited onto Utila’s dock at just before 6pm.
As we stumbled down the pier already somewhat disoriented by a rock n’ rolly crossing, we were immediately besieged by a tanned international mass of guys and girls, all clad in a ‘uniform’ of board-shorts and branded dive-shop t-shirts, and all telling us about the ‘best’ dive shop on the island. Fresh meat straight of the boat for the waiting dive-sharks to circle. The level of attention and persistence was nothing compared to our experiences in India though, and to be fair the description does the guys a bit of a disservice…although all new arrivals were pounced upon the second they crossed the pier’s imaginary ‘go get em’ line, the dive promoters were a genuinely friendly and helpful bunch without too much hard sell about them.
Taking (but ultimately ignoring) our fistful of flyers, we turned right at the end of the pier (there are really only 3 roads on Utila, all of which lead to the ferry). We headed in the direction of two dive-shops for which we’d already had recommendations, most recently from two girls we met at the mainland ferry terminal, just returned from 3 weeks on the island. As we walked down the main drag it quickly became obvious just how completely Utila is dedicated to the dive industry.
Virtually every other building along the ocean side of the main road is a dive school, each with its own pier stretching out into the bay, strung with inviting hammocks. But the dive-shop prevalence is not without good reason. Not only is the stretch of water along the Honduran coast home to the second largest reef system in the world (from Honduras it stretches up alongside both Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsular), Utila is also one of the cheapest places in the World to learn to dive. A four-day PADI Open Water course costs between $250 and $300 USD including accommodation and 2 post-certification ‘fun dives’, which compares to around $350 USD in Belize, and $400+ in the Yucatan. And with somewhere in the region of 100 different dives sites around the Island, 30 degree water temperature and 25m visibility, there really is very little reason why you wouldn’t choose Utila as the place to learn to dive.
After checking out a couple of dive shops, we decided to go with the two girls’ recommendation of Deep Blue Divers, the determining factors being the laid-back feel of the place and the promise of super-relaxed 1-to-2 tuition from Kevin, originally from Chicago and one of Deep Blue’s resident instructors.
The following day, after watching a few DVD’s in which ‘zany’ characters from the early 90’s pranced around in luminous wetsuits telling us that “Scuba divers have more fun. Fact.” (but also giving us the various practical info that we’d need in the water) Kevin gave us a run through of how to set up the gear, and we were soon taking a ‘giant step’ off the end of the pier for the first of our ‘skills’ lessons. Although delivered by Kevin with consummate professionalism and enough gags to keep it light, the pier-side practice of the various skills required for us to make it out into ‘open water’ was really just the stepping stone to greater things on the reef. Thankfully apart from a few issues with flooding and removing of masks underwater, by the next day we were ready to board the boat and head out to the reef.
The reef was where any thoughts of not sticking around in Utila drifted away like the bubbles from our regulators. While the quantity of marine life probably wasn’t quite what we’d hoped (we’ve seen greater volumes snorkelling elsewhere) the variety of species was incredible and the reef itself was spectacular…tall and brightly multi-coloured, covered in both hard and soft coral, conical forms poking up from the floor and giant fans swaying in the gentle ebb and flow of turquoise waters. After a fantastic first 40 minute, 12 metre dive which passed by in a flash, we surfaced to the cry of “dolphins” so we scrambled up onto the boat and quickly headed over to where the fins of around 30 spinner dolphins could be seen cutting through the water.
What followed was probably the best half an hour we’ve ever spent in the water which, for anyone who read of our slightly disappointing New Zealand dolphin encounter, made up for it a hundred-fold. Although never close enough to touch, there were times when we were individually surrounded to either side, below, and (when diving down with snorkel and mask) above, by up to 20 dolphins, just out of arms reach, circling around us, the water filled with squeaks, clicks, and whistles. There really are no words to describe the feeling of looking down as a trio of dolphins swim on their sides beneath you, looking right into your eyes with their permanent smiles mirroring the massive grin protruding either side of your snorkel. Incredible. We all regrouped on the boat exhausted after trying to keep pace with the dolphins, but exchanging exuberant high fives and jabbering over each other about our respective experiences.
We could wax lyrical about our underwater adventures ad infinitum, but suffice to say that we loved it so much that we decided to carry on and do our Advanced Open Water course, which gave us another 7 dives including an awesome night dive surrounded by glowing phosphorescence, and a wreck dive 30 metres down. The latter also resulted the following exchange; Rachael “that was amazing, but I felt a bit sad about those that lost their lives here…how many was it?”…Kevin “well, some dive-shops bought this boat and sank it deliberately for training dives, so, err, none”. I nearly fell overboard laughing.
In terms of aquatic life, during 13 dives and 10 hours spent underwater in Utila, we saw huge spotted eagle-rays, a green moray eel, squid, lobsters, a bright yellow seahorse, barracuda, grouper, lion fish, and dozen upon dozen of brightly coloured ‘common’ reef fish. Oh, and if our first dolphin experience wasn’t incredible enough, the very next day we had a similarly awesome experience with a large pod of bottle-nose dolphins, which as well as being larger than the spinner dolphins, were even more playful and stuck around even longer. Back of the net.
In fact we enjoyed ourselves so much on Utila that we ended up staying for 10 days…more than double the time we’ve spent anywhere on our entire trip. That’s not to say that Utila is the most beautiful, or the most authentic, or the most varied place that we’ve visited, it just has a combination of factors that make it an incredibly difficult place to leave. The superb diving I think we’ve covered, but it’s the overall vibe of the island, the Caribbean feel so totally different to the western side of Honduras that really seduces. Everything is sooo easy. You roll out of bed and straight onto a dive boat. You flop out of a hammock and a few metres down the road to great, cheap cafe’s serving incredible super-baleadas. Then at night you cruise between bars on rickety open-air piers where you can fall / jump right off the end into warm Caribbean sea, and/or shoot fireworks off the top deck out across a star-studded harbour sky. Of the many bars on offer, two highlights include the Alice in Wonderland meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ‘Treetanic Bar’, perched in the boughs of a mango tree, and the always buzzing Tranquila Bar, especially on ‘Tequila Tuesday’ , where free-poured shots cost 10 Lempiras (30p). Ooof.
There are numerous reasons why few people make the 6.20am boat off the island (especially on a Wednesday morning), but after an already extended 10-day stint, that’s what we had to do. It was with great sadness that we got back on the road, but with a route which dictated that we either go over, round, or through Belize, it was with some excitement that we headed towards an unscheduled visit to our 9th country of the trip.
Oh, and a nice idea woefully late in our trip (but I’m going to do it anyway). In Honduras, we have mostly been drinking…