Frequently referred to as the Koh Tao of the Caribbean, Utila is a diver’s paradise, offering competitively priced dive courses from beginner to professional level over beautiful coral reefs. It is the smallest of the ‘Islas de la Bahina’ (Bay Islands in English) after Guanaja and another well-known diving island, Roatan. The chain of islands marks the south end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest in the world) that runs along the Caribbean coast of Central America.
The Island boasts several dive schools offering courses from Open Water all the way through to Instructor level. There are various agencies on offer, however like most places PADI still certify the majority of divers on the island. Because of the high volume of certifications coming out of the island standards are regularly checked by agency course directors, and the island boasts some of the best professional training courses around! Technical diving and Tec training is also possible on Utila, as the wall can drop to over 90m (300ft) in some places!
Utila is a small island (11km long and 4km at its widest point) and a maximum elevation of 74m (Pumpkin Hill). The eastern part of the island is coated in a thin layer of volcanic rocks as the island is actually a Volcano, although the date of the last eruption is unknown. There is only one real settlement called Utila Town, which is found on the coast near the eastern side of the island. There are only two real roads on the island, one running through the town itself and another running from the town road up to the airstrip.
Utila is surrounded by a fringing reef, which means the entire coast line has a place to dive. The reef starts shallow and then drops dramatically to the sort of depths that Trimix divers dream of! All the dive schools use smaller boats that hold up to 10 divers each. This gives fun divers a chance to go somewhere really cool, while the Open Water students are on another boat going to a more comfortable dive site. Most schools will offer a basic equipment package in the price of a fun dive or dive course. From what I have seen the gear is kept in good condition, and regularly serviced.
If you want to purchase any dive gear on the island, there are a couple of places to do so, but be warned, it can be considerably more expensive that it would be to buy at home. As it is an island things cost more to get there, and being on an island the shops have a ‘captive audience’ and can charge what they want! It is best to use rental gear, or take gear with you.
Divemaster and Instructors from all over the world have flocked to live on this Caribbean paradise. You can take a course in a wide selection of languages, and most schools keep a ratio of 4 students per instructor. If you have any language needs then check online before you go, or just walk from shop to shop asking what they offer.
Utila is famed for its frequent sighting of the elusive Whale Shark, there is actually a resident one that pretty much circles the island, called Old Tom. Although it is rare to dive with Whale Sharks it is possible to snorkel with them. When the boat captains see birds out to sea they will normally investigate and find a full adult specimen, over 9 M long! They will drive out in front of the shark, everyone is ready with mask, snorkel and fins and then on the word go everyone jumps in to watch this gentle giant swim by. Dolphins are frequently swam with in the same way, again it is rare to see them while diving.
While diving, apart from the beautiful reefs, it is fairly common to see turtles, white spotted Eagle Rays, Giant Morays and, if you are lucky, you might get to see a few sharks! There are plenty of smaller reef fish to pack out the dives, and you may see some Sea Horses, Frog fish, and interesting invertebrates too.
Best Dive Sites
My personal favourite site around the island. This section of wall drops way deeper than recreational divers can go in some parts, and has some beautiful reef formations. On a good day the visibility can allow you to see all the way to the bottom from around 30m, which is a very surreal experience. There are plenty of reef fish around, and if you are lucky you might see some larger pelagic species. This is where you will find the most impressive sized barrel sponges around, some of them big enough to fit a diver in! (Obviously we do not do this while diving)
One of the only dive sites around Utila that is not on the wall itself. Black Hills is a seamount, its shallowest depth is around 10 metres, and it drops down to well over 40 metres. It is a very colourful dive site, and probably has the greatest diversity of fish life around the island. It is common to see huge schools of fish circling the mount, and you will might get to see free swimming morays, queen trigger fish and resting nurse sharks.
The Halliburton is a 30m long cargo ship that was sunk in 1998 to form an artificial reef/ decent wreck dive. It sits perfectly upright, with the hull sitting in 30m of water in the sand. It is a great training wreck for Wreck Specialties and Wreck Adventure Dives. It has been cleared out inside so it is an easy wreck dive. For ‘Wreck heads’ it is not the most interesting dive, but it is worth having a look at, and there is some good marine life around to be seen.
This is a really interesting dive site for divers who are interested in swim throughs. For beginners there are some nice short and shallow swim throughs but for more advanced divers there are some really long and winding passage ways. All the swim throughs are shallow, but they can get tight. For the more difficult ones I recommend using Side Mount configuration, and only attempt if you (and your buddy) have experience diving in overhead environments.
Diving Conditions and Weather
Utila is in the Caribbean Sea and during the summer months you can really feel that! Blue waters, flat seas and clear skies are the prevailing conditions for most of the year. The temperature is usually in the late 20s or early 30s and water temperature is roughly the same. During this period the visibility is usually above 25 metres, depending on the dive site, although it can get much clearer than this!
September or October marks the beginning of the rainy season, during which time hurricanes can hit the island. Temperature drops to the lower 20s, both air and water. Visibility can drop dramatically to less than 10 metres, although I never experienced less than 5 metres, and I was there for both summer and the wet season.
Non Diving Activities
Utila doesn’t offer too much for the non-diver, apart from drinking and partying. There are beaches, however sand flies are a problem, and if you don’t cover up with oils or DEET then you will be eaten alive in minutes. There are some interesting hikes around the island for non-diving days. While hiking to the top of Pumpkin Hill you can see some interesting rock formations and caves from previous volcanic eruptions. There is a crashed drug running plane in the jungle north of the airport, although you can spend a whole day looking for it and not find it (we found a small part of it, but nothing else).
There are fresh water caves on the island (ask around for directions) which are great to explore. You will need to crawl through a long tunnel of bat droppings to get to the real caves, but when you come out into the caves you will be treated to an amazing cave system that you can swim in. Make sure to take water proof torches with you, and don’t attempt to free dive between the different chambers, even though there are lines in place. People have died this way in these caves!
Utila also has a fairly large mangrove coverage, which you can spend a day kayaking around. Make sure to cover up from the sun and get some DEET on otherwise the mosquitos will get you!
SunJam is an electronic music festival held every year starting on the first Saturday of August, and it is the biggest festival of its kind in Central America. Thousands of people flock to the island to party, including famous international DJs. If you plan to visit during this time be aware that the island gets completely booked out so it is a good idea to get your accommodation sorted before you get there.
Getting to Utila
The ferry to Utila leaves from the port of La Ceiba (which is reachable by bus from San Pedro Sula, where the majority of international flights come in). The ferry takes around one hour, but it is not the most comfortable ride in the world, and it is regularly cancelled for bad weather, or just because they don’t feel like running it. It costs around 550 Lempira, or US$28 for a one way ticket, although this price frequently changes so take some extra with you just in case.
To make life easier, and possibly safer (as this is Honduras) you can fly into Utila from many of the countries airports. This service will cost you more, but it can save you a lot of time, considering how unreliable the ferry service can be. It is important to remember that the planes are small so luggage can be an issue. Make sure to check if you are allowed luggage, and what allowance you have before you book.
Staying on Utila
As this is a backpacker island there are many places to sleep, eat and drink, suitable for all price ranges. It is possible to stay in a dorm for under US$5 a night, or if you feel like spending a bit more you can get a room with A/C for around US$40 a night. It is also important to note that most dive courses will provide you with free accommodation for the duration of the course, but the accommodation will probably not be very nice. From experience I can say the Mango Inn (offered by Utila Dive Centre when booking dive courses with them) is much nicer than most others that I had seen, although still very basic.
There is a wide selection of restaurants in Utila town, offering many different cuisines all for relatively cheap. The most common food you will encounter while eating out is BBQ seafood, which is available at incredibly cheap prices. You will also find a lot of Mexican inspired dishes such as Taco salads, Enchiladas and Fajitas. Honduras also has a great fast food called a Baleada, which is kind of like a fajita but has refried beans and Honduran cheese inside. A great street food snack!
Utila is a backpacker island, and drinking is what backpackers do best! Many bars are located along the shore, with docks for seating areas sitting over the water. Happy hours can be found at sunset and you can pick up a beer for less than 1GBP. Later on the party really kicks off with many bars playing loud Reggaeton and serving cheap tequila. One bar highly recommended (even if you don’t drink) is Treetanic. This open air bar is built in a tree, and is a piece of modern art. There are various platforms, swings, a tunnel and a beautiful garden to chill out with, while enjoying the party which goes on until the early hours.
It is important to remember that Utila is a part of Honduras, which is widely regarded as one of the more dangerous counties in the world. Saying that Utila is much safer than the mainland but you still need to keep on your guard. You regularly head about drunk tourists getting robbed while walking around at night, or careless backpackers having their rooms cleaned out when they didn’t lock it. Many hotels employ security so if you are concerned about losing things then book a hotel which offers this service. If you just use common sense such as not walking alone at night, not drinking too much then you should be fine.
‘Utila, Hoduras’ was written by Mike
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