Honduras: Utila

Honduras isn’t the type of place that most tourists visit. It, more than most other places in Central America, is quite dangerous, with several of its cities coming with the dubious tag of “murder capital of the world” for some recent year. Utila, a bay island off the gulf coast of Honduras, is not like that at all. Utila is more of a relaxed Caribbean island than a bustling Central American city. The native language there is even English, rather than Spanish like the rest of Honduras, owing to its roots as a British colony long before Honduras laid claim to it.

The bay in Utila.

Last time we posted, we had just arrived on Utila, and were still very much settling in. Since then, we had found an apartment at a lovely little collection of such things near UDC, which is the dive center that Oona completed her studies at. Nearly every day of her time was consumed with some sort of diving, nary a single day off for the entire three months of being there.

Busy rinse bins.

So, our lives were defined by Oona waking up at the crack of dawn virtually every morning and heading off to chisel away at the huge achievement of becoming a dive instructor and technical diver while Ian hangs around the apartment, working from his computer. The routine was a very welcome aspect of our daily lives, as such a thing was nonexistent for so long; the schedule of each day quite familiar.

The dock at UDC.

Most activities on the island are a weekly affair, so it’s quite possible to plan the week’s events out in advance. Tuesday is buy one get one free pizza at Mango Inn, up the hill from the main street, for example, with Tequila Tuesday at Tranquila afterwards for those so inclined. RJ’s is open on Wednesdays, so barbecue is the thing to do that night. Not to be outdone, UDC hosts their own barbecue on Thursday nights with accompanied beer pong and nails, not to mention the infamous snorkel test (you can google it) for graduating dive masters. Oona, for what it’s worth, absolutely smashed hers, no doubt going into UDC lore with her mastery of the task. Fridays and Saturdays are usually pretty quiet, paradoxically, with most people recovering from the week’s schedule. On Sundays, a group of folks congregates to watch football at Skid Row, followed by RJ’s again for dinner (the only night they serve mashed potatoes). Now and then there’s a special occasion and Treetanic, the massive bar in the jungle up the hill, opens for a celebration. They usually only open for instructor exam parties and full moon parties. One such party was in celebration of Oona’s group’s IE graduation.

Dr John’s shot challenge. Don’t ask.
Happy drunk people.
Graduation day!
Dock shots.
The Stickneys’ wedding vow renewal on Fishfinder.

We’ve made quite a few friends on Utila, but the ones we made at the beginning of our stay feel like a lifetime ago. Considering the frequency with which people arrive and depart, it’s hard to keep track of who we’ve met. Lasting friendships have been made with some, while others have drifted into obscurity. We see the other “lifers” ( residents of at least a few months) at any of the above events, so it’s pretty safe to just show up and expect to see a dozen or so other people you know. If you don’t show up, the next day people will be asking where you were.

Beach day.
Lena’s last day.

We hardly explored much of the island though, aside from the main street that hugs the bay and the one inland road that climbs the hill behind it. Nevertheless, the fabric of the main street feels like an integral part of our lives now, considering the frequency with which we walked its length. With considerably more spare time than Oona, Ian took a bit of a walk one weekend up the east coast of the island to the airport (a wide open stretch of concrete with a small building with no door serving as the terminal). A few Cessnas languished in the sun.

Utila beachscape.
The windswept east coast.

It was rainy season for most of our stay, so many days were somewhat sunny interspersed with thunderstorms and torrential downpour. The rain was actually quite welcome though, considering the agonizing heat we were subject to for the first month or so in September. The humidity lasted the whole time, but at least it became slightly cooler with the rain. Electricity on the island is not cheap, either, which limited our use of luxuries such as AC. Electricity is bought in advance, by way of visiting the power company and handing them cash in exchange for a receipt with a code printed on it. The code is then entered into the meter box in each home, which grants the user some amount of kilowatt hours. 200 lempira (about $8) gets you around 25kWh, which lasted about 5 days under our utilization (which is higher than average, since Ian is home most of the day with the light and fan on). The AC was reserved for the hottest of nights, when we absolutely needed to cool down, but it was still shut off after an hour or two. It costs about $0.50 per hour to run, so it will quickly eat up your bill if you’re not careful.

Sometimes it rains.
Independence Day in Honduras.

We eventually settled into a bit of a routine with our best friends on the island. An impromptu communal gathering spot established itself on a friend’s balcony, visible from the bridge into the center of town. A common refrain was something like “we’ll probably see you later!”, and the meeting place universally referred to our communal deck. We would saunter up at a typical socializing hour, regardless of whether or not our friend (and the place’s resident) was there or had invited us. Invariably the whole crew would end up there, and we would play tarot (a French card game to which we all took a particular liking) until a modest hour before retiring for our similarly invariable early morning the following day. The semblance of a normal social life was something we had been missing for a long time, and the bonds we created within our circle were deep; our countless nights on the deck are something that will be dearly missed.

Whale shark Wednesday at Neptune’s.

Oona did eventually finish her tasks at UDC, which culminated in a 101.8 meter dive the day before we left. For those who aren’t divers, this is incredibly deep. Most recreational diving standards typically go as deep as 40 meters, at the very most, with 30 being a much more common bottom-end. Needless to say, many dives don’t even exceed 20 meters. Oona discovered her interest in tec diving (diving with specialized breathing gas and equipment, aimed towards going deeper and staying down longer than conventional recreational diving) while completing her instructor training, and basically crushed the course over a couple weeks. The tec instructor at UDC agreed to accompany her on her 101.8 meter dive, he himself only having gone to those depths twice before in his career. At this point, Oona is a full-fledged PADI dive instructor with a serious tec diving hobby. We’ve already determined that her next accomplishment will be tec instructor, allowing her to teach the techniques she’s become so passionate about.

Deep dive.
Tec room at UDC.

Finally, the day did come for us to leave. It was with a heavy heart that we bade farewell to the friends we had made over our three months on Utila. At this point Oona was practically a local legend, with people she had never even met before congratulating her on the day’s dive; word does travel fast on Utila, it seems. We started off the evening with a dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, Mango Tango, with a handful of our closest friends. After that we slowly migrated to Skid Row, picking up others as we went, and ended up with a sizable group congregated there. We eventually parted ways with the intent of leaving the island on the afternoon ferry back to La Ceiba the following day, from there picking up private transport for the haul to San Pedro Sula.

Our last night, at Skid Row.

For the week or so prior, mainland Honduras had been going nuts, to put it lightly. There was an election, the victor of which was claimed by both candidates shortly after the ballots were in. This led to suspicion that the election was rigged by the incumbent, and people took to the streets. San Pedro Sula, where our departure flight left from, was in flames, with people looting and rioting and robbing banks. Footage on TV showed masses of hooded protestors obscured by clouds of tear gas. We were hoping things would calm down by the time we left, just as the military and police declared a dusk to dawn curfew. The curfew didn’t really apply to Utila or the Bay Islands –the citizens of which don’t care much about mainland politics and certainly had no interest in revolution– so we fortunately dodged that bullet. The repercussions from the madness had farther-reaching effects though, and Google informed us of our flight’s delay as we were well on our way to the airport.

This was no ordinary delay, with our miserable scheduled departure of 1:55am being pushed back to 11:20am. While a welcome change in principle, not hearing about it until the 11th hour put a bit of a kink in our plans; where were we to stay that night, for example? And what of our missed connection in Fort Lauderdale? The Spirit Airlines desk was closed when we finally reached the airport at about 7:30pm, so we spent the next several hours on the phone (this is not an exaggeration) with either Kiwi (the booking agent) or Spirit (the airline), with both of them blaming the other for the gaffe. Spirit cited civil unrest as the cause of the delay, and indeed checking FlightAware confirmed that the same daily flight for the week prior was similarly delayed. Kiwi insisted, contra Spirit, that they never got notification of the delay from the airline, and therefore didn’t relay any information to us. As such, nobody was willing to pay for our hotel for the night since apparently it was nobody’s fault.

Finally leaving Miami.

Concurrently, we were working towards a solution to get to our actual destination, which was Martinique, with Kiwi. The hold music was punctuated by self-aggrandizing statements like “Delays and cancellations affecting your trip? Kiwi has you covered with our unique Kiwi Guarantee!” What this guarantee actually consisted of was offering us a single alternative, which we could either take or leave, the latter would refund our ticket. The alternative was laughably inhumane, leaving Fort Lauderdale at around 9pm on the 9th, arriving in Montreal (!) a little after midnight on the 10th just in time for an eight hour layover before a five hour flight back to Fort De France (considerably farther south of not only Montreal, but also Fort Lauderdale, mind you). Needless to say, we declined their offer, and took the refunded second-leg instead. There were no reasonable options from Florida to Martinique on the 10th, so we booked a direct flight from Fort Lauderdale on the 11th, giving us two nights rather than one in the Miami area.

Big breakfast was needed.

We finally badgered Kiwi into admitting some sort of fault, and were at least able to submit a request for a refund for our hotel room, although we’re not certain how that will turn out. As it is, we’re left dealing with the considerable fallout from the fiasco, including trying to reschedule our booking on Martinique and adjust our rental car period there. This is not to mention the botched money on a hotel room we had booked for our original 5am to 2pm layover in Fort Lauderdale, a kindness we afforded ourselves to at least get a bit of sleep before our onward flight.

We did finally end up in the Miami area, and spent our two nights in Coral Gables. It was uncharacteristically cold in Miami, dipping below 12°C (!) at night, much to our displeasure. We rented a car and tended to some necessities and took a day trip out to the Everglades. While we would have rather been in Martinique, it was lovely to see the Everglades before finally catching our flight back to the Caribbean.

Sunset in the Everglades.
A pond in the Everglades.

6 thoughts on “Honduras: Utila

  1. Love you two! CONGRATULATIONS Oona!!! Not just dive instructor but magna cool Sperm Whaleish deep tech diver. I see a dandy future making underwater documentaries for Nat Geo or the BBC or collecting weird samples from the depths for research labs. Sounds like a really fun time having a lengthy stay in one place and socializing…excellence all!
    tally ho!


  2. My gosh, what a rich and exciting life you two are enjoying! I am so envious!! And CONGRATS to Oona — that’s a fabulous achievement. The “101” on your dive watch is really eye-popping. It must have been really nice to settle for a while, but then to get caught in that riot and civil unrest is really scary. We can’t wait to see you again!


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