Utila, Bay Islands. Experience the Caribbean as it used to be…
As a travel writer, I spend many months of the year exploring and writing about far-flung places but there is a place where I like to settle on occasion and which I now consider home: it’s a small tropical island in the Caribbean Sea called Utila.
When most people think of the Caribbean they usually think of the popular package tourist islands of Barbados, Antigua, St Lucia, and Jamaica. So when I happen to mention my island home of Utila, I’m usually met with a blank stare, a shrug, and a comment somewhere along the lines of ‘I’ve never heard of it’. This always makes me smile because it’s like I know a secret place. A place I call paradise. An island in the Caribbean that is bathed in sunshine, that has soft white sand beaches and swaying palm trees, surrounded by the warmest and clearest waters in the world and is almost untouched by western influence.
I consider it the last undiscovered destination in the Caribbean. I’m not really sure I even want to tell you about it – but on the island I’m known as a writer and people often ask when I’m going to write about Utila – it’s as if by not doing so I’m saying it’s not good enough to feature in a travel magazine. The truth is quite the opposite. I’m trying to protect the secret!
But maybe the secret is already out? The larger island neighbour, Roatan, now has cruise ships calling in and there are luxury resorts popping up along its idyllic palm fringed coastline. Roatan has an international airport with regular scheduled flights from the US and the Central American mainland. So it is really only a matter of time before the world will discover Utila or Utila will catch up with modern commercialism and then it too will begin to change. In just the past few weeks, Utila has acquired a new high speed ferry boat called the ‘Utila Dream’, which is proving very popular and is bringing healthy competition regarding the cost of transport to the island – something that was needed – to drive down fares and bring more tourist money to what is essentially a poor island – as in poor but certainly not deprived – as the quality of life is high.
Where is Utila, I hear you ask? Utila is the smallest of the three Bay Islands situated in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Honduras, Central America. Utila is unique, quaint and unspoiled, some may call it basic, with no chain stores or fast food businesses. There are reportedly less than twenty cars on the island and people get around on foot (bare or flip-flopped) or on a scooter or golf cart.
The infrastructure on the island, electric and internet, is patchy, and fresh water is a precious commodity. Fruit and vegetables are brought to the island by boat from the mainland (Honduras) on a Tuesday and a Friday and shops sell out quickly. There are limited health care facilities on the island; there is a clinic and a pharmacy but anyone needing hospital is taken to the mainland by boat or plane. There is opportunistic crime here, just like anywhere else, so you have to be aware of it without letting it make you edgy. The one small bank on Utila is visibly guarded by armed police both inside and out but on occasion, just like the electric supply, the banking systems are down and you can’t use your plastic to withdraw money. Things happen. Things don’t happen. It’s all part of island life.
On the website Utila Guide.com the island is described as ‘the Caribbean as it used to be’ and ‘Key West of 20 years ago’ and I feel this is a true description as it certainly feels retro and timeless here.
Located on the Mesoamerica Coral Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world (the largest of course being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) Utila is a unique Caribbean island destination. It’s known as a paradise for scuba divers and a hub for whale shark viewing. For many years the local fishermen of Utila knew about a huge fish that swam around the shores of Utila. It was called “Old Tom”, the largest of fish. Today we know it as the whale shark. Utila is now known as being the ‘Whale Shark Capital of the Caribbean’. This is because Utila is the only place in the world where you have a chance of seeing them all year round. That said, the main season is around of end of February, through March and April, and then again around October, November, and December.
The whale shark is the largest living fish in the sea and can grow to over 40 feet (12 meters). The most common size seen in the waters surrounding Utila is between approximately 5 m and 10 m (18 ft and 32 ft), weighing around 15 – 20 tons. Despite its large size, because the whale shark is a plankton eater /filter feeder, it poses absolutely no threat to humans.
Useful things to know about Utila:
Utila is the smallest of the three Bay Islands. Roatan is the larger and more developed of the Bay Islands. Guanaja is the least developed and is lush, mountainous, and covered in tropical forest.
Utila is located off the north coast of Honduras in the Western Caribbean. Though Spanish is the official language in the country, our tropical paradise is predominantly English speaking.
Population: The resident population is approximately 2,500. A former British colony, Utila has now merged a unique blend of Honduran, British, and Caribbean cultures and traditions along with an influx of international travellers.
Electricity: 110 V AC with plug connectors the same as the USA. 24-hour power is generated on the Island by the local electricity company UPCO
Water: Like any small tropical island, water is a precious commodity. It is not advised to drink water from the water supply, instead it is recommended to purchase supplies of bottled water. Bottled water is relatively cheap and can be purchased from almost every local shop, or from one of the two local private water bottling companies, Johnny’s Water or Island Springs, which supply purified and ice made from purified water.
Money: The currency is the Honduran Lempira. There is one bank on the island and two ATMs.
Top Things to Do on Utila:
Diving and snorkelling, or learn to Freedive. There are over a dozen dive shops on Utila. The longest established dive shop on the island is Gunter’s EcoMarine Dive shop – a low key and unpretentious dive shop with a family atmosphere, small classes, and solid PADI instruction.
Visit Utila Cays – tiny tropical islands located off Utila. Relax for the day on Water Cay. Visit a traditional fishing village on Pigeon Cay. Sandy Cay and Little Cay are two small private islands and both islands are available for rent and offer a true island experience at incredibly affordable rates. Each small cay has one house and they make a truly ideal getaway.
Relax and Unwind. Find a hammock. Visit the public ‘Chepes’ beach or catch the scheduled boat and spend a day over at Coral Beach and Neptune’s (air-conditioned) bar and restaurant.
Activities: Kayaking and canoeing. Windsurfing. Kitesurfing. Horse Riding. Nature and wildlife tours. Explore the mangroves. Climb Pumpkin Hill. Explore the freshwater caves. Learn about the endemic Spiny Tailed Iguana or ‘swamper’. Enjoy street food. Explore the side street shops and driftwood art. Discover yoga at Yoga Utila. Visit Utila at the annual Carnival time or for the Sun Jam Music Festival.
Bars and restaurants. There are many bars and restaurants on Utila catering to all tastes and budgets. Some, like Skid Row, Jade Seahorse Bar and Treetantic, are interesting in their own right. Many, like Rehab Bar and Mango Tango are out on the water on their own dock and benefit from a sea breeze and fabulous views. Restaurants like beautiful El Castillo are open at weekends and offer amazing island cuisine. The Mango Inn is open every day for food and drinks and have a traditional style pizza oven – they often do two-for-one pizza nights. You certainly won’t go hungry or ever run short of somewhere to go for a night out on Utila!
Have I whetted your appetite? Check out these YouTube videos – as they show off the island of Utila from the fun to the amazing!
Fun video on why ‘I Love Utila’
Dancing happy peeps on ‘Happy Utila!’
Tiny tropical islands off the coast of Utila ‘Utila Cays’
Craziness in this now famous Marty and Ginsky video! ‘Come To Utila’
Take a look at Revolutionary diving with Gunter’s Ecomarine Dive Shop – ‘Revolution’
Fabulous Whale Sharks of Utila video by ace underwater photographer Dave Thatcher.
The Essence of Utila: I’ve travelled extensively but I’m pretty sure there is nowhere in the whole world quite like this beautiful crazy laid-back piece of paradise. Utila is addictive. Sure, there are nuisances, like sand flies and electric outages, but none of them can ever compare to the bliss of truly living in the moment, of waking up to sunshine every day. Things happen. Things don’t happen. It’s all on ‘island time’. It’s all part of island life. It is said that once you have experienced life on Utila you will never want to leave. You will have to leave of course, when your 90 day visa expires, although it is possible to get an extra one month visa extension. Many ex-pat residents do a quick visa run to Florida, Mexico or the Caymans and back again, so that they can stay on Utila for longer. So what’s stopping you? The secret is out. Come to Utila and see how the Caribbean used to be!