While pouring over lists of the best and cheapest places to scuba dive, a tiny island off the coast of mainland Honduras kept appearing: Utila. I hadn’t heard of Utila before, but it appealed to me as a perfect place to pursue my Open Water scuba certification for several reasons: 1) its reputation for being a budget backpacker destination without having to fly to Asia; 2) warm, calm Caribbean waters with great visibility; and 3) the prospect of seeing a whale shark – the largest fish on Earth – among other marine life! The Honduran Bay Islands sit on the world’s second largest reef system after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef… so I knew the marine biology nerd in me (thank you, senior tech lab) would love it. And I did!
There is nothing natural about breathing under the depths of the sea, where any number of things can go wrong. Your body’s every sense of self-preservation rebels against you for defying gravity in uncomfortable pressures and temperatures. But there’s a thrill in exploring this environment in which humans are guests. A thrill that melts any discomfort into awe-struck wonder, at watching a spotted eagle ray feeding on the ocean floor on your first dive.
I couldn’t find a lot of bloggers writing about recent diving experiences on Utila when doing research. So, having returned from my weeklong trip, I thought it would be helpful to break down my experience into two posts: the logistics of getting there and where I ended up a diving (this post), followed by thoughts on my actual Open Water course experience. I’ll spare no detail for the benefit of my fellow type-A solo travelers!
From the States, the best and safest option is to fly into Roatan (RTB) and then take the Utila Dream Ferry that departs from Roatan at 2pm. The other options involve long bus rides, expensive charter flights, or otherwise unreasonably long travel days with the potential of having to stay overnight on the mainland. For a solo female traveler, none of that is advisable.
I had an overnight layover in Miami where I got to catch up with Heather (and Sully) amidst Hurricane Dorian panic, but thankfully made it out of Miami the next morning. Other nonstop flights to RTB include: American Airlines from MIA, Delta from ATL, United from IAH. (I know this from stressing over whether I should find another flight to avoid getting stuck in Miami due to weather.)
From RTB, I took a $10 USD taxi ride to the Utila Dream Ferry terminal and paid $34 (with my credit card) for a “first-class” ticket. Turns out that first class just means access to the enclosed cabin with AC, and a bottle of water or coke. I ended up sitting in the open upper deck anyway, taking in the salty breeze and watching flying fish break the deep blue water’s surface.
From Utila, the ferry returns to Roatan at 10:15am. I wouldn’t have made my departing flight if I left the same day, so I spent one night in Roatan on my way home. Roatan is the biggest and most expensive of the Bay Islands, with significantly more tourist traffic due to cruise ships. It was definitely pricier and not very solo friendly at all – but I’ll go into that in a separate post.
Currency: USD and Honduran Lempiras are accepted on the island, with cash being king. Bills that are even slightly torn or written on will not be accepted, so if you bring USD make sure to check for rips! Using a credit card or even Paypal comes with hefty fees, anywhere from 4-8%.
Language: Centuries of foreign settlement and influence on the islands is apparent. Locals speak a lilting fusion of “Caribbean English” Spanish, and Creole – but tourists can get around just fine with English. Some basic Spanish will help with taxi drivers and shop owners, but on Utila I found a lot of shop owners to be expats as well.
CHOOSING A DIVE SHOP
This adventure was the first time in my life I’d arrived in a foreign country with nothing booked except for my return flight – which ended up being my only regret (having a fixed return date)!
I had a shortlist of shops from scouring TripAdvisor and following a bunch on Instagram, but interacting with people at each shop and seeing the accommodations with my own eyes made all the difference. Divers I met at the ferry terminal in Roatan unanimously agreed that I couldn’t go wrong with wherever I chose. Their eyes lit up with excitement for me when I explained I was diving for the first time – “It’s going to change your life,” they said. “You’re not going to want to leave.” This palpable enthusiasm was true of nearly every diver I met. Clearly, these were people who would rather do nothing else than teach others to love and protect the ocean. I wasn’t worried about finding quality instruction.
Due to hefty competition on the island, most of the shops have comparable dive certification packages. The PADI Open Water course typically comes with all instructional material, equipment, reef fees, and hostel-style accommodation for at least 4 nights during your course. To be upfront, Utila is not a luxury vacation. If you’re looking for a fancy resorts or expensive restaurants I’d look at Turks and Caicos! If you’re looking for people united by their common passion for diving, Utila is perfect. That said, the accommodations – both included and upgrade options – vary quite dramatically between shops. I highly recommend seeing the dorm or apartment situation, as well as the state of the equipment, for yourself before booking anything. Early September was the start of the low season, so I was told everywhere that I was the only OW student scheduled to start the Monday after I arrived.
The places I looked at ranged from a tiny shop I thought more suitable for a couple seeking alone time or peace and quiet, to a boisterously energetic backpacker haven with something going on at all hours of the day. Coincidentally, the two extremes were also located on opposite ends of the island. I chose one right in the middle, both physically and socially.
The Bay Islands College of Diving’s online marketing and branding outshined the others from the start, and I thought this might come at the expense of being too commercialized or lacking individualism. This turned out not to be my experience at all! BICD’s much-advertised partnership with the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center was actually something I found really valuable. Since WSORC interns dive with BICD, I learned a lot of random facts about marine life just from being around the interns on the dive boat and asking questions to my heart’s content.
From my research, the main differentiators between dive shops on the island are: facilities, accommodations, class size, and social atmosphere.
Bay Islands College of Diving
Facilities/Equipment: Two things BICD loves to harp on are the fact that they’re one of the few dive shops on Utila with a pool, and the only one with an on-site hyperbaric chamber (for decompression sickness emergencies). Neither were dealbreakers for me, but having our first initial confined water sessions in the pool was helpful to avoid being distracted by passing schools of fish while trying to pay attention to the instructors. The air conditioned classrooms were actually a huge plus as well.
Not all of the boats were operational when I was there, but they were bigger and the nicest on the island, from what I saw. The covered Tiburon fits 24 divers, although we never had that many, providing plenty of room for shade and sun depending on your preference. The dock area was spacious for learning how to put the gear together and care for it after diving. The gear itself was nicer, and more varied than my dive shop in Roatan. For example, we practiced using both weight belts and weight-integrated BCDs, as well as SPGs showing pressure in both Bar and PSI.
The course package also includes a nice BICD tshirt or tank top – an unwritten uniform of students hanging around the lodge. These things alone justified the ~$30 price difference compared to other shops, in my opinion… not to mention the rest:
Accommodations: I got an awesome deal for a private apartment with AC, on the third floor of the college. Since the smaller private rooms were all full the day I arrived, I paid for one night in the small dorm ($8) and then got upgraded to the apartment with a kitchen and private bathroom for my remaining nights. Normally the apartment would have cost more on top of $15/night for AC, but I ended up only having to pay for the AC since no one else was staying in the apartments. This was 1/3 of the price I was quoted for a much smaller room at a different shop!
My one night in the small dorm was spent tossing and turning to find the cool side of my pancake of a pillow, to no avail. I hardly slept that night (the single fan for 6 beds didn’t reach mine), but it made my upgrade that much sweeter. In Apartment 6, I had two twin beds to myself! I could spread my things out without worrying about getting in anyone’s way. In the open kitchen, I only used the fridge as I wasn’t there long enough to bother cooking (and the equipment was questionable looking). The bathrooms didn’t come with soap and ran out of toilet paper, but it was easy enough to remedy that with the office. The little balcony was nice to hang my bathing suits to dry every day as well. Everyone has different budgets and living standards, but I couldn’t complain about what I paid for this apartment setup.
BICD is owned by the same people who run Utila Lodge, a dive resort that caters to more well-heeled divers in Utila. The Lodge, as we called it, is where people gather to drink cheap Honduran beer, watch incredible sunsets every evening…. and use the wifi. In fact, I only ever got internet in the lodge so there’s always someone hanging out there. My first night (and several after that), eagle rays come out to swim by the dock while a group of us were sitting under the Milky Way. That Utila night sky is unlike anything I’d seen before!
Class Size: When I inquired on Saturday afternoon, I was set to be the only student starting Open Water on Monday. Later that evening, they asked if I was willing to start on Sunday morning so I could be paired with another student who became my dive buddy, Hugo. This spread out the class sessions, allowing me two full free afternoons to explore. As the College teaches instructor development courses, you often end up with a lead instructor and one or two assistants. On all our dives, Hugo and I practiced our skills under the watchful eye of a very experienced Staff instructor, a newly minted instructor doing her MSDT (Master Scuba Diver Trainee), and a Divemaster (DM) trainee. I always felt super super safe with this 3:2 ratio!
Social atmosphere: With the number of divers at BICD taking advanced courses and launching their dive careers, I felt a bit out of place at times. Not a day went by that I wasn’t painfully aware of how wildly different the life I had to return to was. Whenever I travel and meet amazing people from around the world who have quit their jobs or have no intention of settling down, I question what I’m doing in an office all day… I know deep down that everyone has a different path and my priorities don’t really align with that nomadic lifestyle, but it is a bit of whiplash every time.
That said, the fact that this is a dive school made it an amazing place to learn. In the short amount of time since the completion of my course, it’s been painfully obvious how poorly trained some divers can be, mostly at vacation spots where diving is more of a “might as well” activity. My feelings of being a clumsy baby giraffe among experts who take safety and conservation so seriously just means the bar has been set extremely high for any future courses I might take!
Admin: Every dive shop I checked out was a little disorganized, but I chalked it up to island time. The scheduling system for courses, dives, and accommodation was no more than a giant whiteboard that feels just barely manageable for all that’s going on at BICD. I didn’t know who my instructor was until the second day of class (after watching 4 hours of videos) and I witnessed many last-minute schedule changes due to classroom conflicts. I rolled with it because, well, “island time”.
EAT & DRINK
I got tired of the food at the Lodge very quickly, despite the convenience of walking downstairs and having a comfortable place to eat. I always filled up my water bottle and hung around for some chitchat before venturing out to find better eats my first few days. Utila is not known for its gastronomy, but I have some favorites worth highlighting:
Neptune’s at Coral Village: My favorite meal on the island was on my last day, after an amazing morning dive on the North Side. I flagged a tuk tuk to take me to the boat pickup spot for Neptune’s. Everyone hour on the hour, they have a free boat ride through the lagoon to this beautiful private beach with nicely kept facilities and delicious food! The return is every hour on the :30, so I spent a glorious couple hours reading and enjoying my grilled mahi wrap, sipping on an iced coffee with Bailey’s. On the way back, this adorable older couple that was on the first boat with me shared and paid for a tuk tuk to drop me off at BICD on their way to their rental. When they found out I came to Honduras alone, the man said to me, “never lose your sense of adventure.” And I said, “yes sir!”
Bando Beach: Another restaurant with its own beach area, on the opposite side of the island. It’s also a tuk tuk ride from BICD, which I tried to catch in time for the sunset but the clouds were thick that evening. I loved the zucchini boat, which my carnivorous friends from Florida would have nothing to do with 🙂 Utila overall is surprisingly vegetarian friendly, which is great because the first few days I felt like I was just eating carbs and cheese. I would have loved to spend a full day sunning at Bando Beach and playing beach volleyball, but I didn’t have time 🙁
Mango Inn: I never thought I’d be eating pizza in Honduras, but this bar and restaurant is poplar on Tuesdays for its two-for-one pizza. If you’ve done any research on Utila at all, you’ll know that the sand flies are notorious on the island. Mango Inn’s location up a hill and surrounded by trees made it extraordinarily buggy, so bring spray! Other than being eaten alive, this was an unexpected night of great company and belly laughs with BICD divers.
ReThink: Tired of eating caffeinated energy bars for breakfast, I started waking up early in search of coffee and found the best spot on the island. My second morning in a row here, another couple asked if I had sat in this exact spot the day before. Yes, yes… the morning breeze overlooking the turquoise water was so peaceful I couldn’t wait to come back! It was a little tough to find – but from the main street, just turn towards the Utila Brewing Company signs and keep walking toward the water.
Mango Tango: I was told that this was the best restaurant on the island, so I figured it would be a great spot for a celebration dinner with my instructors after Hugo and I completed our course. The location is beautiful with a perfect breeze and romantic lighting – apparently this is where divers take their island dates 😉 The lobster ravioli I ordered wasn’t really what I expected (lobster tastes different here!). It was basically swimming in cheese, and that carbo load combined with the wine made me nearly fall asleep at the table. If I were to go back I’d try one of the salads, but the atmosphere alone is enough to make the shortlist!
Shot challenges: I’d be remiss to write about Utila without mentioning the famous shot challenges at Skidrow, Tranquilla, Rehab, etc. This is definitely a young backpacker/college kid thing to do, but you basically pay for a bunch of shots and perform various challenges afterwards in order to earn the badge of honor that is a tank top bearing the bar’s name. While I wasn’t enough of a masochist to participate in the shot challenges, I did pop into “Tequila Tuesday” at Tranq’s (free tequila shots after 9pm I think) and “Ladie’s Night” at Vinyl (free rail liquor for ladies on Thursdays if you bring your own cup #zerowaste) out of curiosity. Moral of the story? There’s a reason they say there are three lies of Utila: 1) I’m not drinking tonight, 2) I love you, and 3) I’m leaving tomorrow.
I somehow defied that third lie of Utila, dodging the spell that makes people cancel flights to stay for indefinite months. Any time I mentioned I was only staying a week, people raised their eyebrows and laughed, “we’ll see about that.” In a perfect world, I would have stayed for 1.5-2 weeks to add on the Advanced Open Water course, experience night diving, and improve my skills… but I’m counting down the days until I can get my next dives in! Life is short, and the world is wide.