Utila Island, in the Bay Islands of Honduras made a name for itself as one of the cheapest places in the world to get your SCUBA diving certification. Those days are over, but we found other reasons to explore this changing island and neighboring cays.
A sad little ferry (more like a floating coffin) takes you from La Ceiba on the mainland out to Utila town on Utila Island. In the midst of a downpour and 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 ferry to Roatán Island did, with puke-inducing effect. After about an hour we reached Utila town with just one barfer on board.
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 notably 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 US$55 it’s not exactly backpacker friendly.
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 US$300 and most of the dive shops working together to maintain a minimum price and discourage undercutting.
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
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.
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 US$25 boat taxi trip back to Utila town to get it.
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 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.
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.
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) 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.
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 Village.
Created by a group of mostly female friends from the US, the 16 room Utopia 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.
Read more about travel in Honduras