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Beach Bummin’ – Las Flores and Maculis Beaches, El Salvador

The thing about Las Flores Resort on Las Flores Beach near El Cuco, El Salvador is that it manages to satisfy surfers and non-surfers with a perfect learner’s break, nearby point breaks, a gorgeous, bluff-top, open air spa and laid back style.

Las Flores Surf beach El Salvador

Blissful Las Flores Beach in El Salvador.

 

Las Flores Surf Resort - El Salvador

The lounge in the bluff top, open air spa at Las Flores Resort in El Salvador.

 

Las Flores, El Salvador

Las Flores Beach, El Salvador.

It’s a toss up, but we think non-surfers get the better end of the deal at Las Flores, which hosted us for a few days of beach bummin’ so we could write this full review of the resort. Why? Because us non-surfers get to watch the show going on in the sea from the comfort of our private patio, the pool deck or the breezy bar.

Surfing, Las Flores Surf Resort - El Salvador

Taking advantage of the reliable waves at Las Flores Beach, El Salvador.

 

Beach house bliss

Less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) along the coast east of El Cuco is a beach so off-the-radar that it’s not on most maps of El Salvador. This is Maculis Beach, home of Los Caracoles beach house.

Las Caracoles - El Salvador

Shaded hammocks with a view are all yours at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach in El Salvador.

Created and owned by Pascal Libaily and Joaquín Rodezno, the same duo behind Los Almendros Hotel in Suchitoto, Los Caracoles is utterly charming with a fully-equipped, open-air kitchen (bring groceries with you) and living room with a concrete floor inlaid with shells. A round, blue-tiled plunge pool is set into a wooden deck just off the living room. A thatch roof shades a bank of inviting hammocks, gorgeous wood loungers and an outdoor dining table.

Caracoles beach house - Playa Maculis, EL Salvador

The plunge pool at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach, El Salvador.

 

Caracoles beach house - Playa Maculis, EL Salvador

The open air living room and kitchen at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach in El Salvador.

There are two bedrooms with a shared bathroom off the living room and a separate master bedroom, with a palm tree growing in its private bathroom, in “The Annex” a few steps away. Guests are left to fight over who gets to use the outdoor shower with a conch shell for a shower head.

Caracoles Beach House -  Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Beach house bliss.

Maculis, the beach maps forgot

All of this just a few steps from a wide, flat, clean beach you will pretty much have to yourself since, as we already mentioned, Maculis isn’t on anyone’s radar. Another plus? You get to see sunrise and sunset over Maculis beach.

Sunset  Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Sunset over Maculis Beach in El Salvador. The beach is positioned in such a way that it gets sunrise too.

We walked the beach for hours every morning and encountered no one before returning to our hideaway to cook or read (no WiFi!) or cool off in the pool.

We lived in our swimsuits and did precious little for three of the most relaxing days of the entire Trans-Americas Journey, content to be entertained by watching swooping pelicans (instead of surfers) and relaxed by the spa-like effect of the stylish, simple ease of Los Caracoles.

Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Enjoying the last of the light on Maculis Beach, El Salvador.

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From Turtles to Trails – Barra de Santiago and El Imposible National Park, El Salvador

One of the (many) things we like about El Salvador is its easy-traveling combination of diversity and size. It’s got beaches, cities, volcanoeshot springs, coffee plantations and archaeological sites and the place is so tiny you can get a taste of it all in a single day if you want to. This is why it’s possible to be releasing turtles on the beach in the morning near Barra de Santiago and hiking the trails of El Imposible National Park by afternoon.

Turtles run the gauntlet in Barra de Santiago

There are few things as adorable–or doomed–as a baby turtle. Even in protected areas where locals no longer sell and eat the eggs and organizations carefully re-bury and protect every nest, their survival rate is the stuff of nightmares.

Release baby sea turtles - El Salvador

Few things are more adorable–or more doomed–than a baby turtle.

This lends a bitter-sweet quality to the baby turtle releasing process. It’s sweet because you get to briefly hold the excited, squirming hatchlings before putting them on the sand and watching instinct take over as you hope that each perfectly shrunken version a turtle will get the chance to grow into a massive version of itself.

Baby sea turtles - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

Baby turtles ready to hit the open ocean in Barra de Santiago, El Salvador.

Baby turtles - Cocotera, El Salvador

Releasing baby olive ridley turtles at La Cocotera Resort in El Salvador.

Baby sea turtles  El Salvador

Karen holding baby olive ridley turtles.

But as you watch the last straggler disappear under the sea foam where the water hits the shore you know that out of the 100 or so baby turtles in each nest few will live to see tomorrow, let alone adulthood.

Baby sea turtle - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

A baby olive ridley turtle moments before scrambling to the sea.

Baby Sea Turtle release

Hurry!

Releasing baby sea turtle - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

On its way to the waves.

baby sea turtles released in Ocean  - El Salvador

Home at last.

Turtle release - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

Eric shooting video of the baby turtles’ instinct-driven march to freedom.

Still, we never say no to the chance to take part in the release of baby turtles, like the olive ridleys we released while staying at La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge. The six room resort, which generously hosted us for two nights, is wedged between two bodies of water: The Pacific Ocean is on one side and a mangrove-lined lagoon is on the other. Turtles love the location too and nest here every year. Resort staff collect the newly-dropped eggs and re-bury them in a protected place on the resort grounds until they’re ready to hit the water.

Watch the baby turtles’ epic journey into the Pacific in our video, below.

 

Sunset - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

Sunset on the beach in Barra de Santiago, El Salvador.

 

Cool nature and a cool name in El Imposible National Park

El Imposible National Park gets its super-cool name from the extreme and daunting gorge at its heart whose steep, rocky sides claimed the lives of farmers and livestock before the area was made a national park in 1989. However, you would be forgiven for thinking the inspiration for the park’s name came from the “road” which leads to it.

El Imposible National Park gorge - El Salvador

The imposing gorge which inspired the awesome name of El Imposible National Park in El Salvador.

Once you leave the pavement you’re faced with a rough, rocky, steep road that’s so bad in places that locals have actually set football size boulder into the dirt for traction.  We bumped over this brutality for more than an hour before we reached the spectacularly unmarked entrance to the park which covers nearly 15 square miles (38.20 square km) of threatened habitat which is home to exciting rarities like puma and king vultures. It is generally considered the most bio-diverse spot in El Salvador.

Parrots - El Salvador

Parrots in El Imposible National Park in El Salvador, one of the most bio-diverse areas of the country.

Most hikes in El Imposible aren’t impossible but they are steep, slippery, strenuous affairs. When we visited the park Eric was still recovering from his cracked ribs so we settled on a 1 mile (3 km) loop that would at least take us past two lookouts with views down into El Imposible canyon.

We’d already paid US$3 per person to enter the park and another fee to park our truck so when rangers told us it would be US$10 for the mandatory guide to accompany us on what amounted to a little stroll we weren’t having it. Increasingly heated Spanglish was exchanged back and forth and it was finally determined that the US$10 was merely a “suggested” fee and the guide would be happy to accept any tip we felt like giving.Fine. But why the game in the first place?

Still slightly miffed, we hit the trail. We’d completed the mostly-shaded, well-built trail in less than an hour and the final stretches of the loop back to the parking lot took us past some of the park’s three basic but spectacular camping areas. Camping area #1 even has covered tent sites. At US$1 per person per night, the camping in El Imposible is a bargain.

El Imposible National Park - El Salvador

It might be time for a new sign at El Imposible National Park in El Salvador.

 

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Brand New Brews on the Beach – El Tunco, El Salvador

Of the string of beach towns and villages along El Salvador’s Pacific, El Tunco, a long-time surf mecca, is the most developed. Now, beach development comes in two forms. Bad beach development includes roving Hawaiian Tropic Girls and fly-overs by planes pulling advertising banners for Axe body spray. Good beach development includes hand crafted beer sipped with sand between your toes as you watch the surfers do their epic thing. El Tunco just got the good kind of beach development with brand new brews on the beach.

Welcome to El Tunco surf beach, El Salvador

El Tunco, on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, has been a surf mecca for years and now it’s got micro brews as well as waves.

 

El Tunco, El Salvador sunset

Sunset surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Welcome to a brew revolution

Even before we tasted his beer we thought Andy Newbom was pretty cool. The former coffee importer and roaster (he owned Barefoot Coffee in California) moved to San Salvador with his wife and daughter after falling in love with El Salvador during coffee sourcing trips. But coffee isn’t the only thing Andy drinks. Oh no.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution, El Tunco, El Salvador - Brewing Beer

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy likes beer too and while El Salvador’s Pilsner or Suprema are (barely) passable, he wanted a better brew so he decided to make it himself. A section of the family’s backyard was turned into a beer making area and when we dropped by the house/craft brewery Andy was working on an experimental batch of beer spiked with dried hibiscus flowers. His helpers were three local guys whom he was hoping to turn into home brewers as well.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution Beer Tasting, El Tunco, El Salvador - Barefoot Coffee

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy calls it a Brew Revolution and since we first met him he’s taken his revolution to the people. In June of 2012 he opened a micro cerveceria on the beach in front of Hotel Mopelia in El Tunco. Here he offers six different beers at a time. Three of them are constant including Mercurio IPA, an El Slavador IPA with “all american citrus hops and salvadoran panela,”  Venus Wit, a Belgian tropical wheat beer with local passionfruit and pineapple and Nyx Black Ale, an American Black Pale Ale with a good amount of hops and coffee. Three seasonal beers rotate in and out.

Prices range from US$4 for a 333ml bottle or draft to US$5 for a 500ml bottle or draft. He’ll also be offering special barley wines for US$6 to US$7. Not bad for what certainly appears to be El Salvador’s first craft brew. But hopefully not its last!

If you’re interested in helping Brew Revolution get even bigger and better by the time you get your butt to El Salvador, consider supporting the brand new Brew Revolution Kickstarter Campaign.

Unfortunately, Brew Revolution wasn’t open when we were in El Tunco but we still managed to have a good time. Here are the nuts and bolts of budget travel in El Tunco.

EL Tunco Travel Tips

We weren’t originally headed to El Tunco at all. We had our hearts set on checking out the smaller fishing village of Playa Los Cóbanos but the hostal there, Kalindo, was full. Then we checked out the town of El Zonte and Playa Sunzal which both seemed best suited to surfers on a tight budget, plus none of the accommodations offered WiFi.

Surfer Crossing sign El Salvador

“Slow down surfers in the road.”

We must have looked at 90% of the guesthouses and hotels in El Tunco, many of which were priced beyond our budget. If we’d had a little more to spend (rooms start at US$40) we would have checked into the Hotel Eco del Mar with its chic style, large sleek rooms and little plunge pool. It’s not on the beach but it is appealing.

Instead, we spent our first night in El Tunco in Tortuga Surf Club where we got a decent airy room right on the beach with a shared bath and very, very clean pool for US$30. Still a splurge, but the sound of the pounding surf made up for it.

El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surf report, El Tunco style.

 

Best budget bed in El Tunco

The next morning we discovered the best bargain bed in El Tunco at a place called Papaya Lodge. Now, there are two places in El Tunco with the word papaya in the name. You want the place directly across the street from La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate.

This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms with shared bath. We chose the latter for US$14 a night. Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

El Tunco beach sunset, El Salvador

Another day ends in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Swimmers be advised

Like so many great surf beaches, the beach at El Tunco is not good for swimming because of strong rip currents. The beach is also rocky and covered in uninviting, hot, nearly black sand. Then again, you’ll be too busy enjoying a few craft brewed beers while watching the surfers do their thing to mind!

Surfing El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Surfing wipeout El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Sort of surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

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Beyond the Break – La Libertad, El Salvador

Our guidebook warned that “this isn’t an area you want to wander around past dark” and “the overall atmosphere is that of a grimy port town.” That all may have been true in the recent past, but today’s La Libertad offers a revitalized malecon (Spanish for seaside promenade), great cheap eats and even a new surfer-chic hotel.

We almost didn’t stop in La Libertad at all when we traveled from San Salvador to El Tunco. But an ISA World Masters Surf Championship had just been held there and we were curious to see what all the hang-ten hoopla was about.

Surfers are early adopters

In their almost maniacal search for the perfect wave surfers often pioneer awesome beach destinations. Surfers from all over the world have been coming to La Libertad since the 1970s to surf the famous right break at Punta Roca (Rock Point) at the far western end of Playa La Paz. We don’t surf but we take it on good authority that La Punta (as surfers call it) is one of the best right breaks in all of Central America. La Libertad is still on surfer’s bucket lists.

Surf Punta Roca La Libertad El Salvador

Evening beach soccer on the beach and surfers in the water in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Like many beaches that have great breaks, the beach near Punta Roca is not great for sunning or swimming. The sand is mostly strewn with melon-sized rocks and while surfers appreciate the powerful waves they’re too much for enjoyable (or safe) swimming.

But the “new” La Libertad offers something beyond the beach and beyond the break.

 

Investing in tourism

If you’ve got 15 seconds and an internet connection you can find legit travelers’ horror stories about robbery and even assault in La Libertad, mostly fueled by a local drug problem that’s still being battled. But in recent years the government has invested a lot to revitalize the city’s infrastructure, bring back business and take back the streets, waterfront and beaches.

Malecon Ice Cream La Libertad El Salvador

Sweet refreshment on the revitalized malecon in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

A main focus of these efforts is the malecon stretching right to Playa La Paz from an enormous pier. This area is now a paved, painted and pleasant place to stroll and relax. There are benches and vistas and landscaping and open-air restaurants and ice cream shops and families and couples from San Salvador (just 30 minutes away) taking full advantage of it all.

Malecon  La Libertad El Salvador

Looking back at the shops, restaurants and bars on the malecon in El Salvador from the town’s lively pier.

 

A fish market for photographers

The long, partly enclosed pier in La Libertad is a massive fish market with vendors packed in shoulder to shoulder selling fresh and dried fruits of the sea, all of which are unloaded and cleaned on the far end of the pier every morning. At the very end of the pier are two massive cranes which transport the long, wooden fishing boats from the pier into the water and vice versa because the surf is too rough for the boast to enter and exit the water from the beach.

Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Incredibly fresh offerings on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Langostin Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fresh lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling seafood market.

Crab Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Crabs for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

That’s one huge lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Dried Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

It’s not just fresh fish that’s for sale on the pier in La Libertad. Dried fish makes up a good portion of the goods on offer in this photogenic, open air market.

 

Returning boats register their catch with a local cooperative, then go about cleaning and selling it. We saw all kinds of fish large and small being prepped for market. Sadly, we also saw one fisherman with a haul of more than 10 baby hammerhead sharks.

Hammerhead sharks La Libertad El Salvador

We’re pretty sure it should be illegal to bring in these baby hammerhead sharks.

Boat winch La Libertad El Salvador

A boat being winched back onto the pier in La Liberad, El Salvador after a day of fishing.

Fish seller La Libertad El Salvador

He just caught ’em and now he’s selling them on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fresh Fish La Libertad El Salvador

Haggling over the price of fish on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fish cleaner La Libertad El Salvador

This guy made cleaning a fresh catch look easy.

Fishing Pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fishing boats on the pier in La Libertad.

Drying Fish  La Libertad El Salvador

High-tech fish drying methods in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

We spent hours each morning photographing the action and trying to stay out of the way as hauls were unloaded, boats were lifted up and down and fish were gutted and sold all around us. It was truly one of the most active, pleasant and photogenic fish markets we’ve visited.

Fish La Libertad El Salvador

It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Pier  La Libertad El Salvador

Cleaning a ray on the pier in La Libertad.

Smiling child La Libertad El Salvador

A smile at sunset in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

From cheap eats to city style

Some of the day’s catch ends up in the hands of La Libertad’s talented ceviche makers. For US$3 we got about a pound (half kilo) of absolutely fresh, sweet and delicious ceviche which we scarfed down on a bench on the maelcon.

Ceviche Baldizon La Libertad El Salvador

All the fresh fixin’s for great ceviche on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

If you want an actual restaurant, there are those too. Large, basic comedors with plastic chairs and blaring televisions are located to the left of the pier (away from Punta Roca). They’re nothing fancy but the fish is fresh (and displayed out front for your approval) and prices are low. Pick your place and enjoy ceviche or cooked dishes and ice-cold beer with the locals.

Ceviche La Libertad El Salvador

Lunch is served.

Ceviche Restaurants La Libertad El Salvador

Seafood restaurants rub shoulders in La Libertad.

Open-air restaurants with style, skilled waiters and higher prices are strung out to the right of the pier. This is where we found Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant which was recommended to us by Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours. Owned by chef Danilo Ortega, the place is tiny and bright with eager staff and great smells coming out of a kitchen the size of a closet. Danilo’s is famous for his powerful but refreshing Muñeco Sour (US$3), a twist on the Pisco Sour made with local Muñeco liquor (think of it as Salvadoran white lightning).

Muneco Sour Libertad El Salvador

The signature cocktail at Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant on the oceanfront boardwalk in La Libertad.

Chef Ortega, who ran a successful bar in San Salvador for years, operates his beach eatery like a city joint, offering things his city clientele look for like hard to find Bucanero Cuban beer, fresh sashimi (US$6), classically prepared fish and signature dishes like shrimp in bacon with bbq sauce and baby back ribs (US$16 for 1.5 pounds).

Sleep here

It’s true that most of the accommodations in La Libertad are still geared toward surfers, ie, they’re cheap above all else. However, a company called Adventure Sports Tours (AST) had opened a surprisingly stylish new option right on the malecon. La Terraza AST Surf Hotel  was designed, rather than slapped together, which you can see before you even walk through the door thanks to landscaping and a waterfall wall at the entrance. Inside, La Terraza features chic earth tones, big bathrooms, A/C, an open-air rooftop restaurant and bar (with surprisingly good food), hammocks and, of course, plenty of room to store your board.

 La Terraza AST Surf Hotel LA Libertad El Salvador

The surprisingly stylish La Terraza AST Surf Hotel in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Opened in 2011, La Terraza is clearly meant for surfers willing to spend a bit more for substantially more comfort and style and for non-surfers who appreciate the hotel’s million dollar view of Punta Roca. The hotel is built so close to the beach that the crashing waves literally reverberate through the building. And since La Libertad has also invested in enormous, powerful flood lights which illuminate Punta Roca at night the break is dramatically visible 24 hours a day.

Local tourism authorities told us the city has plans to add lifeguards, night surfing, extend the malecon even further, renovate and upgrade the comedors and attract more cultural events to the small amphitheater on the malecon.

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On the Rocks – Utila Island & Rocks Cay, Honduras

A sad little ferry (more like a floating coffin) takes you from La Ceiba out to Utila town on Utila Island, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. But the dilapidated craft turned out to be a blessing because, unlike the sleek monster which travels from La Ceiba to neighboring Roatán Island, the Utila ferry is slow.

In the midst of a downpour with seas churning we piled into the craft, then every single one of the windows and doors were sealed (not for the claustrophobic). We set off at a  leisurely pace which meant that the ferry captain was able to negotiate through the chop, swell and white caps rather than blasting through them as the Roatán ferry does with puke-inducing effect. After about an hour we reached Utila town with just one barfer.

Cooling off on Utila, Honduras

A typical fisherman’s home on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, about 20 minutes away from Utila town.

 

Bargain no more

Let’s get one thing straight. If you’ve got a notion in your head that Utila town is a great place to chill on a beach for cheap you’re wrong on two counts. There is no accessible beach (save for two sorry man-made bits of sand) and food and lodging on Utila is no longer cheap.

Breakfast can easily set you back US$4 and while there are some nice places to stay on the island bargains are hard to find. For example, we were hosted at Mango Inn which has rooms of varying sorts arranged around a lush garden and somewhat murky pool. But with rates starting at $55 it’s not exactly backpacker friendly.

Fish Burgers Restaurant, Pigeon Cay -  Utila, Honduras

Fish Burgers Restaurant on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, in Honduras.

Lodging does get more affordable if you sign up for SCUBA lessons. The island is littered with dive shops (several owned by the same company) and dive instruction is often bundled with free or subsidized basic accommodation while you’re studying.

Which leads us to another misconception about Utilia. The island used to be one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive. Some claim Utila once held the dubious honor of certifying more PADI divers than any other place on the planet. But the island is no longer a PADI bargain with open water courses averaging nearly $300 and most of the dive shops working together to maintain a minimum price and discourage undercutting.

Water Cays Utila, Honduras

Small, mostly uninhabited cays dot the waters around Utila in Honduras.

 

Whale sharks for free

One totally worth it bargain is the free nightly whale shark talk at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center in Utila town. This not-for-profit group recently resumed activity, including hosting this laid back lecture which is meant to provide basic information about whale sharks and the work the group is doing to study and protect them.

The night we attended the talk it was lead by John, a marine biologist from the UK who was on the island working with the org. He was smart, funny, informative, interactive and the beer and rum and cokes flowed for just 25L (US$1.30).

Whale sharks are fairly commonly sighted around Utila and the underfunded org is trying to establish research and protection efforts. When we were there organizers were trying to scrape together the resources needed to build a fake whale shark which researchers could use to practice their tagging techniques before attempting them on real whale sharks. If you have some spare change this is a good group to donate it to.

Life on the rocks

Approaching Long (Pigeon) Cay - Utila, Honduras

Approaching Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, about 20 minutes from Utila town. 

Nonplussed by Utila, we got on a water taxi and headed to more tranquil and affordable digs. When we read about tiny Rocks Cay, a private island about 20 minutes from Utila town, we knew we had to stay there and owners Henry and Victoria Karpinski, kindly agreed to host us in the house they rent on the island.

Rocks Cay is a private island, but it’s not the deserted kind. It’s s half acre of rocky coral separated  from Lower (or Pigeon) Cay and Upper (or Jewel, or Suc Suc) Cay by a narrow channel with a foot bridge over it.

Rocks Cay - Utila, Honduras

Our home on Rocks Cay, a private island about 20 minutes from Utila in Honduras.

The four bedroom, two bathroom house on Rocks Cay has a full kitchen and is spread over two buildings which take up most of the hunk of land. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s peaceful and comfortable and a great place to hang out with family and friends.

And at US$120 a night for up to 10 people it’s the biggest accommodation bargain in the area. Just be sure to arrive with all of the supplies you need. There are a few small shops on Lower and Upper Cay that stock the basics (ketchup, beer) and you can sometimes buy fresh fish but if you need something else you’ll be faced with a $25 boat taxi trip back to Utila town to get it.

Market Pigeon Cay - Utila, Honduras

What passes for a “super”market on Lower Cay, aka Pigeon Cay, one of the many small islands near Utila.

Lower and Upper Cay are home to fishing villages full of tightly packed houses. The locals are more Caribbean than Honduran. Their Spanish sounds almost creole and there are references to Louisiana are everywhere. The boat docked at Rocks Cay is called the Who-Dat (a common greeting that originated in New Orleans). Men walk around town wearing Saints t-shirts. Fleur de Lis are everywhere. You can buy Zatrain Cajun spices in the shops. Apparently, many residents of Upper and Lower Cay have spent time working in Louisiana and they’ve slowly brought back bits of the south.

Who Sat - Utila, Honduras

The boat behind our house on Rocks Cay was called “Who-Dat,” just one of many Louisiana references in this part of the world.

Fun sign at Purple Pelican Grill on Utila, Honduras

Playful sign at the fresh water shower at the Purple Pelican Grill.

Henry and Victoria have lived out here for years and are a wealth of local information. They also run Harbor House on Lower Cay which offers two rooms for rent, a small cafe plus internet access if you must have it. They’re also building gorgeous custom homes at Mariners Landing and they run tours.

One afternoon we got into Henry’s boat and sped along the gorgeous coastline nosing up to other small cays (including Water Cay where the Sun Jam music festival is held every year) before arriving at the Purple Pelican Grill, a bar and restaurant on a postcard perfect bit of beach which is only accessible by boat.

Otherwise, we spent five blissful days on Rocks Cay doing nothing much besides cooking and eating, doing yoga on the dock, snorkeling right off our own back pier and lounging in hammocks.

 

Mermaid alert

Utopia Dive Village - Utila, Honduras

Utopia Dive Village in a remote section of Utila Island.

Beach - Utila, Honduras

Utopia Dive Village , which is only reachable by boat, is on one of the only true beaches on the island of Utila.

SCUBA diving Utopia Dive Village - Utila, Honduras

Karen and Eric’s brother, Jeff coming up after a dive with Utopia Dive Village. 

We left Rocks Cay before we got too deep into the do-nothing island life, however, and headed to a remote section of Utila for some SCUBA diving with Utopia Dive Village.

Created by a group of mostly female friends from the US, the 16 room Utopia Dive Village is not exclusively for women but the place does benefit from a woman’s touch with full-length mirrors, flattering skylights and SCUBA gear designed to fit women–features not always found in the usual dive resort.

Utila is home to world-renowned dive sites which delivered a fairly rich underwater world of colorful coral, schooling fish, feeding turtles and nighttime creatures like octopus. Whale sharks are even regularly seen here too but not, sadly, during any of the dives we got in before it was time to say goodbye to Utila.

Cooling off on Utila, Honduras

Karen and Eric’s brother Jeff cooling off in the ocean with Angelika Lukacsy (right), one of the creators of Utopia Dive Village. Angelika likes to wear nail polish in a color called Mermaid.

 

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How to Ruin an Island – Roatán, Honduras

We believe there absolutely was a time when Roatán Island, part of a collection of islands in Honduras called the Bay Islands, was a paradise of white sand beaches, laid back locals, pristine waters and affordable prices. Sadly, those days are over thanks to a few buzz kill developments.

Two words: vomit comet

Of course getting to any island is part of the adventure. But when your transport is nicknamed the “vomit comet,” requires a pass through a metal detector and costs US$28 per person each way (plus $6 a day for parking if you leave a vehicle behind like we did) it’s not necessarily a good adventure.

And that nickname? Not for nothing. The waters between the ferry station in the dingy town of La Ceiba and the island of Roatán can get choppy and the ferry is fast and essentially just blasts through the swells. We have strong stomachs for the most part, but other passengers were doing plenty of up-chucking on our one and a half hour ride to the island.

The crew is prepared, however. Air freshener is sprayed like crazy and there’s a constantly circulating gang of workers toting garbage bags, handing out fresh puke bags and urging the sick to go buy a tummy-settling soda at the on board refreshment stand. We dubbed them the Puke Patrol.

Or you could fly.

Develop a mini Cancun complex

The West End of Roatán, where the aforementioned stretches of pristine white beaches used to beckon, is now built up shoulder-to-shoulder with resorts that range from fairly good to something less than mediocre. Many of them have gone the all-inclusive route complete with wrist bands and watered down cocktails.

Though its estimated that 60,000 people live on Roatán you’d be hard-pressed to find many signs of non-resort island life.

Roatan white sand beaches - West End

The white sand beaches of Roatán Island in Honduras are at risk from all-inclusive resorts and increasing numbers of cruise ship passengers.

 

Sell your soul to the cruise ship companies

The very first thing we saw as our ferry finally reached Roatán wasn’t beaches, or the surprisingly high hills and dense jungle on the geographically diverse island. It wasn’t a charming village or even a charming port. The first thing we saw as we approached Roatán was a Carnival Cruise Ship that dwarfed the 37 mile long and five mile wide island.

The second thing we saw was the mini-city that Carnival finished in 2010. Built right at the port it seems purpose-made to disgorge and sequester cruise ship passengers–and there are hundreds of thousands of them and increasing every year.

In 2006, 250,000 cruise ship passengers arrived on Roatán. In the first six months of 2011 430,000 people arrived on cruise ships. That number is expected to skyrocket to 1 million cruise ship passenger arrivals in 2012.

Many of the passengers pass through Cruise Shiplandia–aka Mahogany Bay, a $63 million complex/staging area. From there they can get  on the so-called “magic flying chair” (a chair lift that costs $35 a pop) and travel to a man-made beach. Passengers can also choose to get on buses or other transport which whisks them to the zip lines, butterfly farms and horseback riding operations they’ve paid to take part in for the day.

An entire section of the West End beach has been taken over by an enormous holding area for hundreds of white plastic beach loungers just waiting for cruise ship passengers who prefer suntan oil to adrenaline.

Carnival cruise Mahogony Bay Roatan, Honduras

The Carnival Dream cruise ship dwarfs Roatán Island in Honduras. More than a million cruise ship passengers are expected on the island this year.

 

There are still some bright spots underwater

At one point Roatán was well-known for its diving too. After being so disappointed with what was going on on dry land we were prepared to be disappointed underwater too but we still gratefully accepted invitations to go diving with two dive shops on the island

We had some decent dives with a professional and well-stocked dive shop called Mayan Divers around the El Aquila Wreck and Half Moon Bay Wall where we drifted lazily with turtles and barracuda. Their dive masters and very comfortable dive boat made the day even better.

Mayan Divers Roatan, Honduras

Getting ready to go diving with Mayan Divers on Roatán Island in Honduras.

On the East End of the island we also did some diving with Subway Watersports, a PADI 5-Star shop that operates out of the not-fancy but surprisingly charming Turquoise Bay Resort. Though it could use a coat of paint, the food was good and we were charmed by the simple rooms each with its own marine theme.

The standout site on this side of the island was a place called Dolphin’s Den, a shallow-water cave where six dolphins became trapped and died a few years ago. What seemed like millions of fish undulated through sun-dappled water in the confined space.

Roatan transportation

Roatán water taxis still retain their charm. 

And Roatán is the only island we’ve ever been on where you can go down in a homemade submarine. Karl Stanley built a submarine, named it IDABEL and now takes passengers with him into the deep. He’ll take you down to 2,000 feet if you want…

Perhaps the thing we liked best about Roatán is that in 2011 Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa created a permanent shark sanctuary which encompasses 92,665 square miles (240,000 square kilometers) of Honduran waters, including Roatán, and aims to reduce the number of sharks killed each year.

Oh, and something else on the plus side? The town near the ferry terminal on Roatán is called Coxen Hole. Yep.

Palmetto Bay - Roatan, Honduras

Karen’s cool office at Palmetto Bay Resort on the quiet side of Roatán Island.

 

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