It’s 6 pm and the sky turns to a deep dark blue, the air is thick and warm. We sit on a dock in Utila and browse the internet. Under us, black water laps hypnotically against the dock making us sleepy as if we’re babies in the cradle. Behind us, we can hear the slow dripping of wet suits.
We are sitting in a dive shop on a tiny island in the Caribbean sea called Utila. Utila belongs to Honduras, a country that travellers often skip or feel no need to go to. The ones who do go, most often end up in one of the islands, either on bigger and more luxurious Roatan or smaller and backpacker-friendly Utila.
You’re probably scratching the back of your head now, wondering what the hell we are doing in a dive shop. Did we learn to dive? I have to disappoint you, no we didn’t graduate from the diving university just yet, but as you’ll soon notice, it’s hard to avoid dive shops and divers in Utila.
The Caribbean coast has its vibe. Whether you’re in Belize, Guatemala or Honduras the seaside towns are full of colourful wooden houses that stand on chicken legs, which means that they often miss the ground floor. As we have heard, it’s good to avoid mosquitoes and a bit cooler too. The inhabitants of these houses are usually Garifunas who love to play the drums, sing in the shower or lay in their hammocks.
Utila was no exception.
Next to our guesthouse lived a very fat Garifuna lady who had a laundry business. Under her house, the washing machine ran day in and day out. Whenever we passed her, she threw a large bowl of soapy water over our toes. Chickens, dogs and children were playing tirelessly in muddy water next to her house.
Our neighbour from the other side woke up almost at noon, sang in the shower and fried eggs for breakfast. We were eating breakfast on our terrace and saw the shower water running from his house between the chicken legs. The plumbing here is not the one we are used to in Europe- wastewater here goes straight to the ground.
Differently from all the other Garifuna communities along the coast, Utila is famous for diving. It’s on the edge to the world’s second-biggest barrier reef and it’s cheap to dive. So, a lot of people come here to make their divers’ certificate. Lonely Planet even calls it a diver’s university where everyone is taking classes during the daytime and partying in the evenings.
And it’s true- the island is full of dive shops, offering packages that include classes and accommodation. Accommodation is simple but cheap and they rent it out for non-divers too. So if you want to go cheap you really cannot avoid divers.
On our first evening, we decided to celebrate. We had been together for four years. The occasion demanded pizza and so we stepped into a restaurant located in a hotel garden. With its lush flora, the setting reminded more a botanical garden than a restaurant. After just a few seconds we realised that we were probably the only ones here who didn’t dive. There was a group of American girls in short dresses, legs covered with some kind of white cream. Later we learned it’s an antibiotic cream that you have to smear on cuts. It’s pretty easy to get small wounds if you accidentally touch a coral.
A girl sat at the bar between two older dudes. She had a seahorse tattooed on her calf. Without hearing a word from their conversation, you could guess what they were doing there and how they knew each other.
Divers seemed to be warm people. Or maybe it was just the dive shop Gunter’s Ecomarine where we stayed. At that point, we had travelled six months and during all that time I had not met a local who knew Estonia. Telling someone that we were from Europe, they usually came up with two suggestions: England or France? And there was nothing to be surprised about- surely I would not have been able to name any Central-American countries just a couple of years ago. So you probably understand my surprise when the guy from the dive centre asked me if I was from Tallinn. He had worked in Finland and came to Tallinn for weekends to party and consume a lot of cheap alcohol.
When we were leaving the island a lady from the dive shop told us to come back soon. “You have a family here now!” she said.
What if I don’t dive?
Utila may be the diving university, but it’s worth to visit even if you have never dived before or had no intention to learn. There’s a lot do above the water as well.
1.Cycle to the Pumpkin Hill
On our first day, we walked directly to the bicycle rental. You can also rent a motorbike or a golf cart, but there are not so many roads in Utila to use them. It was our first bicycle ride after half a year and it felt like the first day in spring when you can take your best friend out again. It was lovely to cruise in the quiet streets out of the city.
When the city ended, it was just us, the deep blue ocean and fancy villas. At one point we hopped off of our bikes and ran to check the water. White-capped waves were rushing to the stony beach and I would have loved to take a dip, but it was not a perfect spot for swimming unless you didn’t mind climbing over the sharp coral. So we gave up and continued our journey.
Dirt roads took us through the forest and all of a sudden we were in an airport. Well, not at the actual airport. There was just a tiny airstrip in the middle of the greenery. Seeing a little aeroplane take off and vanishing into a thin air just above our heads, I started to feel like Robinson Crusoe. Pumpkin Hill beach was a tiny strip of sand with just a couple of other people – it was all we could ask for. Nothing like the crowded city beach where water was shallow and almost non-transparent.
We spent a couple of hours in this newfound paradise, only disturbed by a lone drone that flew over our heads. It’s terrible to think that even when you go away from crowds to enjoy nature and be alone, you cannot be undisturbed.
When we had soaked up enough sunshine, we moved on to climb a mountain. Okay, the highest top of this idyllic island in the Caribbean sea was no Mount Everest. It was not even Big Egg Mountain, the highest point of Estonia. Pumpkin Hill only stood 74 meters tall. That makes it accessible even for the laziest beach bum. We abandoned our bikes and went to check out the pretty impressive view. Wherever you turned you could see palm trees and the waves rolling on the coast. Around the little hill, there were quite many houses and they were not all just holiday villas. Many of them look like places where people lived and grew their vegetables.
2. Visit the iguana centre (but don’t try to figure out if they taste like chicken)
Next day, when we had to return our bikes, we decided to discover the island on foot. Among other things, we visited the iguana centre. It was all quiet when we got there. “Hello,” we said but there was no reply. Only the wooden fan in the ceiling was doing its endless rounds.
The education room of the iguana centre reminded a mini version of a natural history museum. Its white walls were covered with pictures of iguanas and other wildlife accompanied by lots of explanations. But there was still not a soul. Although we noticed some traces of human activity: desks and chairs, books and papers.
Finally, a young man jumped out from god knows where. He introduced himself as a volunteer from Germany and was happy to give us a tour and explain the importance of the centre.
As it turned out Utila Spiny-tailed iguanas were quite special. This grey reptile with slight turquoise shine does not live anywhere else but here, on this tiny island in Honduras. They love to live in old trees in mangroves. But tourism and rich people’s need for beach houses have endangered their home environment. And so are they. In the station, workers breed these tiny dragons and release the babies into the mangroves.
The iguanas live in cages in the centre’s big garden. Most of them enjoy being in the tubes so that only their tail is showing. There’s one more thing that endangers these poor reptiles. Locals love to make soup out of them.
“I have heard it tastes like chicken,” the volunteer said, but he added quickly that of course, he doesn’t want to encourage us to try it.
3.Kayak to a lonely beach
Tom is obsessed with maps. Whenever he sees one it sets his imagination on fire and he can stare at them forever. What he sees in maps are probably the endless possibilities for adventures.
One day when he was again looking at the map of Utila, he pointed out a slim canal that cuts the island in two. “I wonder if we can take a kayak and row to the other side?” There was no time to lose, we decided to find it out already the next day.
People in our dive shop sent us directly to a hip hostel called “Venue” to ask about kayaks. The worker of the venue smiled brightly and said that kayak for a day cost $30. When we were surprised – after all, it was Honduras and not the US – he said: “It’s really not that expensive, guys!” Since we don’t like when others decide for us if something is expensive or not, we walked out to find a friendly local next door who rented us a kayak for $15.
What had looked like a decent canal on the map turned out to be a narrow stream in a thick mangrove. Mangrove is a funny tree. It grows in salty water and it looks like its roots are not only under but also above the water. The mangrove forest is like a maze of branches. Now add humidity, mosquitos and a funny smell and you’re there.
It’s an exaggeration to say that we were able to row there. There were just too many roots were your oar could get stuck. So what we did was more like hooking the oar between the roots and pushing ourselves forward like gondola men in Venice. When we had passed the mangrove, we finally reached our private little beach.
The strip of white sand was narrow but seemed to go on forever to both directions. We lay down, hugged palm trees and admired the biggest seashells I have seen in my life. These pink seashells were as big as the big cola in McDonald’s. We have seen locals in Caye Caulker selling these things to tourists.
I love seashells, but these were a bit too big to take. So, instead of enriching my seashell collection, we swam a little and rowed back with a kayak full of memories.
ONWARDS FROM UTILA
-Yearn for more Caribbean vibes? Take a bus to the south and check out the laid back coastal community in Trujillo.
-For culture junkies: the small colonial town Copán surprises with beautifully carved Maya ruins.