Utila is a small tropical island situated just off the northern coast of Honduras. With its proximity to the Caribbean comes a unique twist of west indian and latino culture. It’s famed for its world class scuba diving and countless coral reefs teeming with diverse marine life. It’s one of the cheapest places on earth to learn to dive which makes it popular with the backpacker crowd. With that comes a lively party scene and you’ll find an array of bars serving free flowing luminous cocktails late into the night.
We arrived in August 2016 and spent almost two weeks diving, kayaking, horse riding and generally chilling out on the island. If you prefer to avoid banging bars there’s plenty of long pontoons to relax on with a few beers watching the incredible sunsets.
What To Do:
Diving – As advanced PADI divers we were keen to get in the water ASAP and discover what what makes this a world class scuba destination. Most diving schools offer cheap accommodation when you book a course through them. Via a recommendation we booked in with Underwater Vision, one of the main dive schools on the island. Unfortunately the accommodation was a bit subpar with small dark rooms, bunk beds, no windows or fan. It was basically a dorm room with no one else in it. To be fair it was cheap as chips ($5USD per night each if we were diving) but after two nights we couldn’t hack it any more. We found a place right next door at Utila Watersports ($15USD per night if diving) with a huge airy room, air con (!), tall ceiling, private bathroom, balcony AND a kitchenette. Basically a major upgrade and we were much happier from then on.
When it came to actual diving, both schools were great. The equipment was in good condition with a big range of masks, snorkels and wetsuits. They even managed to find me a pair of size 13 fins. The instruction was spot on and both schools felt highly professional and focussed on our safety. Underwater Vision had an older slower boat which meant it took a while to get out to some of the further dive sites. If you’re prone to seasickness this might be something to keep in mind.
Once in the water you can understand why Utila is one of the top scuba destinations in the world. We saw all the major tropical fish players in abundance. There were turtles, moray eels, rays and octopus to be found easily. The water was warm and visibility was good. One particular highlight included following a 2.5 meter grey nurse shark who seemed totally oblivious to our presence. It was by for the biggest shark I’d seen in the flesh (up until we went to the Galapagos Islands).
From a social aspect Underwater Vision is bigger with its own bar, pool table and beach volleyball court which means it’s a natural place to hang out with your fellow divers. However anyone can use the bar so there’s nothing stopping you from popping in wherever you stay.
There’s plenty of dive schools on the island and all have their own flavour. If you’re looking for a party vibe with dirt cheap accommodation then UV is where it’s at. If you like a little more home comfort then you’ll find it next door with Utila Watersports. Make sure you ask lots of questions when booking to find out what’s included and what’s not. Often there’s special offers being touted when you get to the island, especially in low season. Keep and eye out for last minute bargains and you could save big. Always inspect the rooms before agreeing to book as they may look very different to the pictures you see online.
Horse Riding – Utila Watersports offer FREE horseriding tours with a local ranch to anyone staying/diving with them. Just ask at reception and they’ll arrange. It’ll cost $2 for the tuk tuk there (and back) and we tipped the guide a few bucks afterwards. Our horses were a couple of tall well bred mares dying to hit their stride.
We spent for a superb few hours with them patiently trotting through the jungle and beach front. On the way back our guide asked if we were happy to go faster and we nodded. I quickly added I hadn’t ridden a horse properly for over 15 years. He didn’t hear, or at least chose not to. With a wry smile he gave a clack of his tongue and both animals broke into an eager gallop. They’d obviously been raring to go since the start and knew exactly what to do. We held on for dear life as they bolted down the narrow lanes, twisting and turning enjoying every moment. After what seemed an age but was probably only a minute we pulled up abruptly outside their stables, exhilarated and knackered. As a diving alternative it was one of our best experiences on Utila by a mile.
Kayaking – these can usually be scored for free if you’re diving and make for an awesome afternoons adventure. Head out with a snorkel and mask for added fun. We had access to a huge double kayak which kept us entertained for hours in the afternoon. Just remember your sunscreen..,.
Beaches – there’s no jaw droppingly amazing beaches on Utila which is a shame for a tropical island. If you want to laze on the sand for the day you have a few decent options.
1. Bando Beach is a small private beach where you pay $1 for entrance. It’s fairly picturesque with loungers and palm trees for shade. There’s decent swimming and a small reef in front when the tide is high.
2. Chepes Beach is the main free beach on the island. It’s at the top of the main drag and surrounded by bars. Despite that it’s relatively peaceful and surprisingly clean during the day. Unfortunately the sand flies can be a nuisance and we had to leave after an hour due to multiple attacks.
3. Underwater Vision – they have a small gravelly section of sand and a pontoon you can dive off into the sea. There’s a few loungers to lie on if you’re quick enough with your towels. However there was a fair bit of construction going on (just out of shot) when we were there.
Where to Stay:
See the notes on accommodation above. If you’re diving you should be able to get super cheap digs with your dive school. If not there’s plenty of hostels, hotels and higher end options available throughout the island. We recommend Utila Watersports as it was a great deal compared to most other rooms we checked out. However there’s definitely cheaper out there if you don’t mind sacrificing a little comfort.
Where to Eat:
Mama Rosa’s Baleadas – As cheap as they come. You can eat Baleadas (tortillas stuffed with beans and more) here for next to nothing. Our staple lunch while on Utila. Mama Rosa sits watching TV all day in her chair, shouting orders to the staff to get a move on with the food. It’s an efficient system and nothing takes very long. Simple but effective and for less than a dollar you can’t argue with the price.
Che Pancho – It’d been months since we’d had a good steak so we pushed the boat out and paid $10 for the most amazing Argentinian fillet. Rich melt in the mouth grill washed down with a good glass of red cannot be beaten. When you need to treat yourself head here. Or if you’re not on a budget, go here every night!
RJ’s BBQ – These guys know how to BBQ and everything is fresh as it comes. If you’re a seafood lover you can enjoy catch of the day that comes straight in off the boats. Try the Kingfish grill and you won’t be disappointed. Only open Fri-Sun.
Where to Drink:
Skid Row – American style dive bar where you’ll always find someone to chat to. Famous for it’s late night sessions, drinking games and iconic t-shirts. Good for people watching all day long.
Rehab – Probably the best location on the island situated right next to the public beach. During the day you can swing in hammocks over the sea, cocktail in hand. At night things liven up for party time. Just try not to fall into the water after too many jaeger bombs..
Tranquila Bar – The only night we really got ‘on it’ and ended up on the roof shirtless. I blame the free shots we were given on arrival. Good drinks and tunes going late late into the night. Also one of the best spots to watch the sunset.
Utila at a Glance:
Currency – Officially Honduran Lempiras, but most places accept (and welcome) $USD.
Getting there – Generally people fly into Honduras via San Pedro Sula or the nearby island of Roatan. From there head to the port of La Ceiba where you can catch the Utila Princess ferry for around $30 (each way).
Security: Honduras gets a bad rap but Utila is generally safe. Be sensible and keep an eye on your belongings as thefts can occur just like anywhere else. For the record we had no issues at all during our stay.
Diving Prices (variable) : PADI Open Water $260 USD. Fun Dives (2 tanks) $55.