Tropical Thrilla in Utila

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Give me five: reef life in the Bay Islands

TIME WAS THAT on Tuesday nights, everyone went a bit mad on the island of Utila. It was the day when the supply ship made the 20-mile trip from mainland Honduras, bringing oil for the island generators. As a result, the lights stayed on late and the island became one big electric fiesta. The bars—including my favorite, the Bucket of Blood—set up their good sound systems and the dancing and partying (aka "liming") ripped full tilt. The supply ship comes to the island's only town, East Harbor, every day now, which doesn't mean Utilans don't still know how to throw a good lime. But even during the high season, which sees less than a couple hundred tourists at any given time, the action tends to wind down before midnight. Negril it ain't. The reason? Everyone gets up early to dive.

The water averages a mellow 80 degrees Fahrenheit and is as clear as any in the Caribbean when the seas are calm—practically all year, from November to September. On the north shore of Utila are walls where the shallows suddenly drop from five feet to 1,500. On the southeast side, near the airport, are magnificent reefs of soft coral and sea fans. The Bay Islands host a wide variety of aquatic life—from sea horses to sea turtles, and corals such as pillar, elkhorn, lettuce, star, and brain—but they're also a veritable graveyard of ships. The mainland port of Trujillo was once the main shipping point for the Spanish, and Utila and Roatán were the hideouts for 17th-century buccaneers like Captain Henry Morgan. There are regularly scheduled dives to such famous 20th-century wrecks as the Prince Albert off Roatán or the Jado Trader off Guanaja, and I heard it said a dozen times that for the right price to the right pocket, dives can be arranged to some of the old colonial wreck sites.

During the three weeks I spent on Utila, evenings at the Bucket of Blood, followed by early-morning dives, defined my routine. Later each morning, I'd hang out, read, and swim until I washed up like waterlogged detritus on the beach. After a cheap fresh-fish lunch it was time for a hammock nap, and then in late afternoon I'd climb the hill up to the Bucket of Blood for dominoes with Mr. Cliford Woods, the owner, who has since passed away. He'd mutter angrily whenever he saw me in the doorway, so I think he looked forward to it. Still, every afternoon after he'd given me a good whuppin' at the table, he'd say, "So tomorrow you'll be going home, eh?"

Islanders' attitudes—along with a low beach-to-marshland ratio—have so far saved the island from massive tourism development. Twenty-five-square-mile Utila, the islands of Roatán and Guanaja, and some smaller uninhabited and sparsely inhabited cays comprise Honduras's Bay Islands. (In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Guanaja, doing thousands of dollars' worth of damage, but left Utila virtually unscathed.) Most of Utila's 5,000 inhabitants live along Main Street, a narrow road that runs along the crescent-shaped bay of the east side. It's a bike-and-hike island when it's not too hot to move around.
But most of all, it's a dive island. Some of the world's least expensive scuba certification programs operate out of the dozen or so different dive shops along Main Street.

On one of my leisurely dives just a hundred feet from the tiny airport's runway, I fell into a trance among the delicate sea fans, letting the schools of parrot fish, indigo hamlets, rock hinds, and the occasional sea turtle circle but otherwise ignore me as they went about their business. Suddenly, a huge dark shadow came toward me and then, in a flash, passed overhead. My first panicked thought, of course, was that it was the Mother of All Great White Sharks. I swam hard and broke the surface a few yards from land. That's when I saw that the large, looming shadow was in fact a small plane landing at the airstrip.
Afterwards, when I dropped in on Mr. Cliford, I downed a Port Royal and told him of my high adventure. He looked at me as he might a failed vaudeville act. "You know, there's not a day go by I don't wish you tourists would stay home," he said with a long sigh, pausing to move a domino. "Or at least go to Roatán."

Access + Resources

GETTING THERE: The best way to reach Utila's waterfront airstrip is by flying on one of the major carriers into San Pedro Sula, Honduras (American Airlines, 800-433-7300, $840 from New York, $420 from Miami), and then connecting to either SOSA (011-504-425-3161) or Atlantic (011-504-425-3241) for the short $110 round-trip to Utila.

DIVING: According to Troy Bodden, owner of Utila Water Sports (011-504-425-3239), the owners of most of the dive shops on the island, such as Cross Creek (011-504-425-3134), Bay Islands College of Diving (011-504-425-3143), and EcoMarine Gunter's (011-504-425-3350), have cooperatively priced the basic PADI beginner open-water certification—including four to five days of instruction, equipment, and two tanks—at $159 per person.

WHERE TO STAY: There are several clean, basic hotels in East Harbor for under $20 a night, with ceiling fans and occasional hot water. I stayed at the Bayview Hotel (011-504-425-3114) for $14 (ask for the first-floor room facing the bay); I also recommend Hotel Trudy Laguna del Mar ($15, 011-504-425-3103) and Utila Lodge ($75, 011-504-425-3143), which has amenities like air-conditioning and a recompression chamber.

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