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Island life played a big part in the majority of my destination decisions during my trip to Central America.
Island life and the famous Utila diving was something I had wanted to experience since first reading about The Bay Islands of Honduras in my Lonely Planet.
However, we never planned Utila or The Bay Islands into our original route.
Obviously, during long-term travel in Central America backpacking routes change. The more I read about the islands off the coast of Honduras the more I wanted to visit.
So, somehow I spontaneously ended up on a very long bus from San Salvador, El Salvador to La Ceiba, Honduras with one island in mind.
Island Life in Utila, Honduras
What are The Bay Islands?
The Bay Islands are a group of islands on Central America’s Caribbean coast that belong to Honduras.
There are 3 main islands in the Bay Islands Department. Along with Utila, which is the island I chose to visit there are Roatan and Guanaja. These make up the Islas de la Bahía island group.
Generally the biggest form of income for all of these islands is tourism, so we knew that we wouldn’t be along in our desire to visit.
Guanaja and Utila are the smaller islands in the group. And Roatan, is the biggest of The Bay Islands and extremely popular with holidaying Americans. For that reason alone we decided to swerve.
We chose to visit Utila for a number of reasons but one specifically.
The island is informally known as a driver’s paradise because of the spectacular reef systems in the area and ability to get your PADI for cheap.
The Bay Islands sit on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System which is home to some of the best diving in Latin America.
Utila diving is a very integral part of the island and you’ll come to learn this the second you arrive. Along with diving in Utila the island has an interesting culture and history.
The small island boasts a crazy cultural mix up, a lot of the time you don’t really know where in the world you actually are.
Due to it’s fusion culture and Spanish, English, French and Dutch ancestry Utila feels like a very unique place to visit.
How to get to The Bay Islands?
Getting to Utila
For most arriving on The Bay Islands is a lot of effort, especially from San Salvador, as we learnt.
The Bay Islands and Utila in particular are ‘off the beaten track’ and you have to arrive via either of two cities in Honduras that are regarded as some of the worlds most dangerous.
Remember the names La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula, ex murder capital of the world and where we’d spend a casual few hours in a bus station.
It took us a few long, sweaty busses through central Honduras from El Salvador’s capital to get to Utila. From San Salvador you’ll need to leave early to take a bus to San Pedro Sula through the centre of Honduras.
This journey will take around 7 hours so it is wise to leave in the early hours as we did.
From San Pedro Sula you’ll want to take a traditional chicken bus or organised bus to La Ceiba. This is where you need to be to get a boat to The Bay Islands.
The Ferry to Utila
The easy way to get to to The Bay Islands is by ferry. You can take the daily ferry to Utila from a town called La Ceiba.
Once in La Ceiba take the Utila Princess, which is the regular ferry to Utila. There are other boats and services leaving to the other islands also, but this option was recommended to me.
The ferry to Utila costs around $25 return to be paid in the local currency of Honduran Lempira. It takes an hour and you are likely to vomit so be prepared for that journey.
Utila Princess Ferry Schedule
The below ferry schedule is annual, but please always check during holidays to ensure that the Utila Princess is running.
|La Ceiba||Utila||9:30am||Mon – Sun|
|Utila||La Ceiba||6:20am||Mon – Sun|
|La Ceiba||Utila||4:00pm||Mon – Sun|
|Utila||La Ceiba||2:00pm||Mon – Sun|
We naturally missed the last boat to Utila that departs at 4:00pm so spent the night in La Ceiba before getting the 9:30am ferry to Utila.
Arriving in Utila
Utila is Caribbean island paradise and it differs so much from wider Central America.
The island is small with only around 3,00 locals living on the island all of multiple decent and ancestry. The island is essentially a couple of paved streets and a beach.
Although small, there are enough amenities in Utila for tourists and locals. But note that the lifestyle here is chilled and laid back.
Its funny but because of the strange history of Utila there’s not a piece of colonial Spanish architecture in sight.
Unlike the majoirty of Central America there’s no Central Park or Plaza, no grid like streets, just simple, tranquil island living.
When you explore Utila there are no Catholic churches to see, definitely no markets to explore and no specific stable dish to eat. This means that Utila feels very Caribbean as opposed to Latin or Central American.
There are so many Caribbean influences in Utila, it reminded me of the lazy sunday lifestyle feeling I felt in Cuba.
The island has a whole load of soul and passion, everything going on is unique and filled with purpose.
Every snack bar, every shop and every hostel and although there are tourists everything feels much more long term on Utila and I’m getting to the reason why.
Getting around Utila
There are no cars on Utila. The locals mainly use golf buggies, scooters and quad bikes to get around. Most of the main part of the island can be explored on foot.
If you plan on visiting more of the island you can hire a bike, scooter or use one of the many tuk-tuk style taxi services on the island.
Most of the time you’ll be on foot as all of the places you’ll want to see are accessible this way.
Where to stay in Utila?
There are no shortage of places to stay in Utila. Whether you decide to dive or not will depend on where you stay.
Most dive schools in Utila offer free or discounted accommodation if you plan to do your PADI. We chose to stay at Captain Morgans Dive Dive Centre in Utila. This is also where we chose to have our Utila diving experience and gain our PADI qualification.
Most other accommodations can be found along the main street. Many take walk ins and a private room will cost you $20-$30 for two people and a private bathroom with air-con.
Anyone visiting Utila needs to understand that diving in Utila and The Bay Islands is very popular and a prominent way of life.
So what does this mean for backpackers? Like certain destinations in Thailand and South East Asia. Utila is located on a very popular reef system. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.
This not only makes Utila diving popular with new comers but seasoned pro’s who teach or just enjoy staying at one of the many dive centres.
Utila dive centres
There are dive schools and dive centres located across the island of Utila and it is not very difficult to find one that suits your needs.
All dive centres offer PADI qualifications up to all levels but prices vary from centre to centre.
We chose Captain Morgans Dive Centre, this decision for us came down to cost and the social element of this particular dive centre.
Captain Morgan’s offers free accommodation in the form of a dorm bed, for divers getting a qualification. It is a great social place to be, there always activities, BBQ’s and beer pong going on in the garden.
There is a kitchen that offers tasty food options for budget travellers along with well priced drinks. The other lure for people to Captain Morgan’s is the private beach!
It’s the only dive school on the island with a private beach and you know how I feel about beaches.
PADI Open Water Dive Certification
Our course included two free fun dives once all the course had been complete which was also a bonus.
Diving wasn’t something I had considered although several people along the way had prompted us to at least think about it. After spending a few hours in Utila, diving became an option and we took the plunge (literally).
The course is made up of 1 or 2 days of classroom learning and educational videos supplied by PADI.
Then you take 1 exam after the educational classroom learning days and take part in an equipment intro.
The next stage is 1 day of confined water training with exercises to be complete such as mask removal and a swim test. Don’t worry about the swim test as it is not timed.
Upon completion of the confined water training and exam, you take 2 dives to pass your certification. These dives do have some testing elements, but are mostly very fun and a great experience!
My dive master has now opened up his own dive school in Playa del Carmen.
My Utilia diving experience
Although initially a little frightened of diving and the open ocean generally my Utila diving experience was incredible.
During any dive session you visit more than one location. Each dive lasts as long as the tank of oxygen which is usually around 45 minutes for most people.
With the PADI certification you get a certification card and are technically qualified for life. Although, if you don’t dive regularly you may need to do some refresher courses at a later date.
You can also plan to do the Advance Open Water Dive course and further certifications if interested. These are all available at Captain Morgan’s.
Swimming with Dolphins
Along with our Utila diving experience during our free fun dives we had the most incredible encounter. Swimming with Dolphins in the open ocean!
Whilst on route to our second dive locations our trusty dive boat captain found us a pod of 100+ dolphins. This was an incredible experience for me as I got to do something I thought I never would.
Ethical animal encounters are really important when travelling and I had always wondered if I’d ever get to swim or snorkel with Dolphins.
Snorkeling among Dolphins in the ocean is pretty spectacular but also quite scary, I’m pretty much scared of everything at this point though. There was a small cost to pay for this experience.
We were told that in the event of finding Dolphins we would be expected to pay a tip to the captain of the boat. This was a small price to pay for a once in a life time.
Things to do in Utila
Along with Utila diving and diving in the Bay Islands Utila is home to a lot of great things to do.
The island is ideal for walking and exploring. There are no cars on the island so most of the bars and places to eat in Utila can be found on foot. Here are some of the must experience things to do in Utila;
- For drinking and the best bars check out Treetanic. Once you hit The Bay Island remember this name, ask around, find out where it is and you won’t be disappointed.
- Visit the locals bars. Slightly out the way from some of the more popular bars you’ll find wooden bars with live music and rum flowing.
- Hummingbird watching is a must. Utila is home to some several specicies of hummingbird and the locals all feed and protect the wildlife in the area.
- Hiking and walking. As mentioned Utila is very small but there are some great walks and short hikes you can go on across the island.
- Eat the fusion foods. Because of Utila’s history the food is fusion and fun. Try to eat local when possible.
Obviously no trip to Utila is complete without experiencing the famous Utila diving. You would be crazy to venture to this little piece of Caribbean paradise and not partake in some diving.
If, like me, you are a little scared don’t be! You’ll want to ensure you add Utila diving to you bucket list for Central America.