The Bay Islands of Honduras are made up of eight islands and 53 smaller cays. More commonly, they refer to the three principal islands: the largest and most commercial Roatan, the mountainous and less touristic Guanaja and Utila – an island with a strange yet undeniable hold on young and adventurous travellers in search of a budget-friendly, dive-all-day, party-all-night lifestyle.
Pirates, parties and scuba
Utila has a long and storied past of native populations being enslaved and massacred by European explorers who, in turn, were ran out by marauders of the Caribbean Sea. In the late 16th century, Henry Morgan took over and claimed the territory as a pirate settlement. The pirates used the island as a base from which to pillage the passing European treasure ships.
These days, locals on the island are a mix of the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna, local Hondurans, wayward backpackers who never found the will to leave and, of course, many who claim their swashbuckling buccaneer heritage proudly. It’s the potpourri of characters that adds to the je ne sais quoi allure of Utila.
And that inherent allure is important because the island has its drawbacks. It’s hot here. Like really, often unbearably, hot on this island. It’s not uncommon to overhear travellers commenting to each other as they pass, “Wow. I didn’t know it could get this hot,” or “I’ve never been this hot in my life.” It doesn’t help that sandy beaches on the island are hard to find and often plagued by sand flies.
Utila isn’t for those in search of tropical paradise. Utila is for those searching for adventure and something unique, not unlike the pirates that landed there so long ago. Although, the treasure has changed a bit. Scuba diving is what brings most of Utila’s visitors and it’s why many of them stay much longer than anticipated. The scorching sun isn’t a problem beneath the calm turquoise and crystal blue Caribbean waters. Utila is located along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the second largest in the world; some would argue the most vibrant.
The main street’s waterfront property is lined with dive shop after dive shop, all competing for the never-ending flow of wannabe dive masters arriving to the island daily. Diving prices are already among the cheapest in the world so they sweeten the pot in other ways: free rum punch, boat trips to the smaller, uninhabited cays and free accommodations for course enrollment.
In the early morning, Utila is alive with dive students hurrying to grab a bite and get to the boat on time. And once the boats come in from a long day at sea, the afternoon breeze starts to roll in and the dockside bars and restaurants start to come alive, and the revelry doesn’t dissipate until the early morning hours.
Utila no longer promises sunken treasure chests of gold and precious gems, and it doesn’t boast the white sandy beaches of other Caribbean destinations. But after a few days roaming its sandy streets and exploring the real-life aquarium off its shores, it’s no wonder why so many visitors hang around long enough to become locals.
Where to stay
The ferry dock is crowded with locals vying for the attention of the new arrivals fresh off the boat. Within minutes of the ferry’s arrival, the dock is empty as travellers are ushered to various hotels and dive shops to set up their stay on the island. And it pays to look around a bit as air-conditioned rooms are at a premium and free rooms at the dive shops fall on a vast spectrum: waterfront ensuites with AC to dorm-style barracks and broken fans.
The Underwater Vision (La Punta Calle Principal, Utila) dive center is a top-notch establishment known for attracting high-quality dive instructors and its beachfront property. The property has its own sandy beach where volleyball matches go down every afternoon. There’s a cafe for quick eats and fresh smoothies, but guests also have access to a shared kitchen to whip up something on their own. The accommodations and amenities, which are free while enrolled on a course, are unmatched by any of the other dive shops on the island.
For travellers who want to take a day or two before deciding where to get their diving certificate, Hotel Bird of Paradise (Center of town, Utila) is a darling, albeit simple option. A small cottage is divided into guest rooms with shared bathrooms and a private ensuite on the top floor. They’ve got a kitchen and living room in the basement where guests can cook dinners, watch movies and play board games. Bird of Paradise is close to the ferry dock and Main Street, but the hustle and bustle is drowned out as soon as you step through the gate and into this charming establishment.
While Utila may be a backpacker’s paradise, that doesn’t mean there aren’t resort-level hotels to be enjoyed. Mango Inn (Lozano Road, Utila) is here to compete with the best. The entire complex is built from tropical hardwood and designed to make the most of the Caribbean breeze when it blows. Great open rooms, huge wooden porches with hammocks and a swimming pool make it all the more difficult to arrive on time for your afternoon dive. The tropical garden encompassing the hotel lends an atmosphere of island paradise that is a welcome oasis from the bustling town.
If peace and quiet are top priorities, Rubi’s Inn (Main Street, Utila) is a sure bet. Tony and Rosa have been running this place for years and more welcoming hosts aren’t easily found. The rooms are sufficient with beds, private bathrooms and refrigerators to keep drinks cold. But it’s the view from the lounge chairs that keeps guests satisfied. Rubi’s sits on the water with excellent sunset vistas.
Dive bars and upscale dining
Skid Row (Main Street, Utila) is perhaps Utila’s most notorious establishment. Before arriving on Utila, most people have lived their lives having never heard of guifiti, a local Garifuna liquor. Skid Row’s mission is to change that – all who visit are invited to partake in a 5-shot challenge. If successful, a Skid Row t-shirt is the reward. The shirts are worn as badges of honor across the island.
After dinner and into the early morning hours Tranquila Bar (Main Street, Utila) fuels the island’s party vibe. This bar sits on a big, open, two-story wooden deck over the water. DJs change nightly but no one seems to care much as to what’s on the speakers as long as something is keeping them dancing. The crowd is full of hip, young people from all over the world and the night is often punctuated by someone jumping from the top terrace into the warm waters below.
Take a break and disconnect without having to dive underwater by having dinner at Neptune’s Restaurant and Bar (Coral Beach Village, Utila). A short ferry ride is required to arrive at this resort village located south of town, but the modern fusion of American and Caribbean fare is worth the trouble. The menu is a welcome variation from the offerings in town.
Venture off Main Street a bit and you’ll find yourself dropped into a work of art. Treetanic (Cola de mico, Utila) is a masterpiece more than a decade in the making; a winding labyrinth of tunnels, secret hideaways and treehouses all meticulously carpeted in vibrant mosaic that glistens in the moonlight. The bar resembles a ship that got carried away by the winds and nestled into the highest branches of a lush island tree.
As Utila is popular with travellers on a budget, there comes a time when a person needs a big plate overflowing with comfort food. RJ’s Barbecue (Main Street, Utila) fills that void. The daily menu changes depending on what’s cooking on the grill. At RJ’s, it pays to get there early as they often run out of many items as the evening wears on.
Diving the reefs of Utila
To talk about Utila and not dive into the scuba culture would be irresponsible. This little island is known internationally as one of the most economical places to become a certified diver. But the low price does not reflect low quality. Dive shop owners and instructors take their craft seriously, and it shows.
There are more than 60 established dive sites for everyone from beginner to master. Shallow reefs teeming with dancing coral and tropical fish tucked into every crack and crevice. Lobsters glare from their hiding holes and crabs scurry across the sand seeking refuge in the coral as tarpons and spotted eagle rays glide overhead. Octopus jump from rock to rock and lionfish lie waiting for their next victim. Don’t touch, their spines pack a punch!
On land, Utila visitors are drawn to the uninhibited good times, but the real party is beneath the waves. Early morning or after dark, diving the reefs and wrecks here is a once in a lifetime experience.