An island perched on the edge of the Mesoamerican barrier reef (the second largest reef system in the world), encircled by crystalline waters and with an exotic history peppered with pirates, gold and sunken treasure… So far, so very Caribbean. But Utila’s unique selling point in this region where ritz, glitz and cruise ships reign is that it embraces the bare-footed, budget, bohemian crowd – the perfect place to stop the clocks, reset them to island time and slip into a life that’s a little more comfortable…
The third largest of the main Bay Islands, Utila is the hippy sister to popular Roatán and quiet, remote Guanaja – the pick of the bunch for those attracted to living the island life in a land where everybody knows your name. A short ferry ride from La Ceiba, Utila consists of a single, main, high street chock full of bars, eateries, dive shops and rustic places to stay. Stick around for a little longer than the steady stream of backpackers passing by for a few days to dive and party and you’ll discover the line between the residents and the travelers becomes easily blurred. Everyone seems to know everyone else in these here parts and a new face that hangs around for a little longer than usual is bound to inspire curiosity.
One of the big draws of this little island is its reputation in traveler circles as one of the cheapest places in the world to get PADI certification (prices from around $250). Since it was set up in the 90s, the Utila Dive Centre has been on the receiving end of countless awards from international, dive agency PADI for its training programmes but just take a stroll around the island to check out the myriad of dive shops and courses available. Do shop around as each place has its own unique atmosphere and ‘family’ and it can make all the difference to your experience and stay. Who knows, you might even be the lucky diver to discover Captain Morgan’s legendary sunken treasure from his 1671 raid on Panama… Stranger things have happened you know. Like the feeding of the 5,000 or the discovery of penicillin.
It might raise an eyebrow to hear that there is only one public beach on the whole island (the man-made lick of sand that is Chepes beach) but here’s the thing – it’s all about getting in the water. And what with the pesky sand-flies (most bothersome at dawn and dusk or when the air is particularly still), you’ll soon come round to this way of thinking. Besides, the whole of the seafront is dotted with piers. Bars on piers, restaurants on piers, rooms on piers, sun loungers on piers… It’s easy enough to top up your tan. But once you see what’s occurring beneath the surface, you might find it hard to stay up top.
Breaking the surface doesn’t have to be all about the diving either. Hop in a moto-taxi or one of the golf carts the locals use to get around the island and make tracks to Coral View Reef. Pop into the accommodation to rent some snorkeling gear and get free use of the fantastic pier complete with loungers, a sea view to die for and some of the most perfect snorkeling I’ve had the luck to encounter. Paddle around the illuminated underwater kingdom and be sure to swim out to where the coral walls drops and the electric blues and canary yellows fade away to the murky depths where ghostly shapes glimmer in the dark.
Sailing over this spectacle was akin to flying. We spotted a grumpy looking barracuda; a family of squid with momma, daddy and baby pulsing along happily; and a strange, rubbery looking, alien face watching us furtively from a little cave – what we later discovered to be a blowfish. At certain times of the year, magnificent whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) are regularly spotted by divers and snorkelers alike in Utila’s waters. Find out more at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center where you can also organize whale-spotting trips.
Back on dry land
Out of the water there is still some fun to be had. Pop into the island cinema or browse the extensive book shop/exchange attached. Sip a coffee or fruit shake at one of the many sidewalk eateries. Take a stroll up the hill to visit the Iguana Station and learn about the measures being taken to help Utila’s iguana population thrive.
A top tip is to find Rubi’s Inn (west of the pier) and seek out Zorro the fisherman, an entertaining character with such a love for island life that he burned his passport to ensure his wife could never make him leave. He can take you on trips (fishing all the way) to visit sites such as the picturesque Water Cay (take plenty of water and snacks), an uninhabited and gorgeous little cay where a few hours pass in the blink of an eye as you lie in the shallow, dappled waters and soak up the sun. If you come in August, this is where they hold the annual Sun Jam festival – an all-nighter of international DJs and dancing.
Eats and drinks
They say it’s the most important meal of the day so start it off with something tasty. Whether it’s omelettes, pancakes, a continental or an authentic Honduran plato típico (eggs, cheese, plantain and beans) that gets your motor going, Utila caters for all. There are many great options but we did have a soft spot for Munchies thanks to the free coffee refills (“don’t mind if I do!”), friendly service and colonial style, wrap around porch, perfect for watching the world go by.
After all the splashing around later, pick up a lobster baleada (tortilla wrap) or some freshly, picked mango from a roadside stall. A dinnertime favourite was RJ’s BBQ and Grill. Open three days a week, RJs fills up fast due to its offerings of fabulous, fresh, fish dinners with an assortment of sides and homemade lemonade cocktails.
Babalu was another restaurant worth writing home about. The epitome of island dining, Babalu is set up on a pier with seats to watch the sunset, checker boards painted into the tables for a pre-dinner game and a large square cut into the floor so you can feed the fishies. For an after dinner treat pop into Mermaids and try the rum and raisin ice-cream, a dessert fit for a pirate.
Utila has a brilliant selection of bars and the aptly named Rehab is one of the best. Should they try and make you go to this Rehab, the response would most definitely be an enthusiastic, ‘Hell yeah!’ It’s an ideal spot to sit and stare out at the beautiful blue with reggae music giving the bar that authentic, island vibe. The rum and cokes are generous and freely poured into chunky mugs, filled with lashings of ice.
Tranquila is great for a cold beer out on the two-level pier with a lively, sunset crowd and later on, Coco Loco next door cranks up the dancing tunes. If you fancy something a little more chilled, La Cueva (opposite the pier) is a tiny bar with live, acoustic music. Happy hours neatly run into each other so the evening can easily get away from you. Just watch out for the scuttling crabs on the stumble home after dark!
So, if the sound of bohemian, island life appeals to you then drop anchor in Utila and put off those chores to mañana – although in this case that might not even mean tomorrow. Just not today.