The main reason I came to Honduras was to hopefully achieve my dream of swimming with whale sharks. While I wasn’t disappointed, I discovered a piece of paradise in the Bay Islands of Honduras: Utila. Not only scuba diving is good in Utila and it is one of the cheapest diving destinations but I discovered there were many things besides whale sharks to be excited about when travelling to Utila. I limited the list to 10 awesome facts about Utila but I could have continued the list way longer.
1 – Snorkelling with whale sharks
I’ve been looking for such a long time place to swim with whale sharks. It didn’t happen in Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines, but it did in Utila, Honduras! The small Honduran island is a real hotspot for whale shark sightings.
They can be seen all year long but the peak season is said to be March/April and September/October, although it seems climate change is messing things up.
2 – Swimming with wild dolphins
If spotting dolphins at the surface on your way to a dive site happens quite frequently, seeing dolphins underwater happened to me only once before in Belize. When the captain shouted “Dolphins!” on our second diving day, and we could take some time to swim with a family of 8 including a calf, it was magical.
3 – Scuba diving in Utila
The most famous dive site of Utila is named “Black Hills” but it’s 1 mile away from Utila east coast. It’s supposed to be a good spot to see a whale shark while scuba diving. I didn’t dive the Black Hills but from the pictures I’ve seen, all the other sites I dived were just as pretty. My favourites were “The Maze” on the north side, and “Aquarium” on the east side.
All dive sites were usually made of a shallow coral plateau at 10 m deep before a wall dropping to vertiginous depths. This makes Utila an excellent spot for tech diving training. Most of my dives, we remained in the 20 m area but I did twice at 30 m deep to explore some beautiful walls. For underwater photography, there was no point to go any deeper.
Many dive sites had many canyons and swim through, while you need to be in total control of your buoyancy but it is also a lot of fun. I had great conditions with no current and a water temperature of 28°C at the surface and 26°C at 30 m deep. I was wearing a 5mm full suit but a 3mm full suit would have worked too.
From a marine life point of view, in the shallow part, there was quite little coral but many sea fans and sponges. They were beautiful to take some great wide-angle shots including scuba divers with my new dome for my underwater housing.
At shallow depths, I found many beautiful French angelfish, queen angelfish, a few lone barracudas and cute porcupine fish that were both curious but shy. I only saw two moray eels on my last dive.
Although I was carefully looking, I couldn’t find any nudibranch. However, I saw for the first time Flamingo tongue snails on gorgonians. After some research, I learnt the colourful pattern is a part of the animal covering its shell. When you can’t see any colour, it means the animal is retracted inside the shell as a defensive behaviour. So interesting!
4 – Night diving to see the strings of pearls
On the day of my arrival at Utila Dive Center, it’s the first thing I heard about “Tomorrow evening, we are going to do a dark dive, lights off, it’s going to be like in Avatar! You’re in?” I wasn’t really sure what I was going to see but if anything is out of the ordinary, of course, I’m in! I decided to fully live the experience and do my research later.
This special night dive is only possible on a new moon as you need to be in total darkness to see something. We started our immersion with our torchlights on, the time to make sure everyone was fine and could adjust his neutral buoyancy. During the entire dive, you need to stay close to your dive buddy, control your depth and go as slow as possible.
Once we switched off our lights, the show could start! It takes a few minutes to let the eyes adjust to the darkness. I was surprised I could clearly see my buddy and our dive guide by staying grouped.
It started with a few blue-purple dots appearing shortly. Then the frequency increased. I could see the tiny spots of lights starting to form shapes looking like a descending line or a spiral. I understood this phenomenon was the strings of pearls I heard about. At some point, we could see so many tiny lights that it felt like floating in the Milky Way. This diving experience is so fascinating and poetic that I almost lost my buddy!
After 45 minutes, when we all ascended with our lights on again. Everyone thanked our dive guide with praises for taking us there. I still cannot believe only Utila Dive Center offers such an incredible experience.
What’s the science behind?
Tiny crustaceans known as ostracods, which are not bigger than a sesame seed, have the special ability to release a bioluminescent liquid. They use it for two purposes: defence and reproduction. If eaten by a fish, they make the fish glow so it can be seen in the dark and be eaten by its predators! By realising bioluminescent strings of pearls which patterns are more intricate than they seem, the male can show off like a peacock and find his perfect match.
5- Enjoying the view from Pumpkin Hill
As I quickly realised most of the action was concentrated on only a few streets around the ferry pier, I became curious about what was beyond. I started to ask questions about the culminant point of Utila, Pumpkin Hills: was it nice? worth the view? how to get there? The answers were always quite elusive and the only interesting answer I got was “if you go in the direction of the airport, you can explore freshwater caves with bats”.
As I shared my quest with Bel, the manager of Utila Dive Center, she popped up the question “Do you want to join the members of our Eco-program? As part of their training, they do a nature hike with the conservation NGO Kanahau, to Pumpkin Hill, a bat cave and a freshwater cave. It’s once per month and it’s tomorrow!”
Lucky me, we swapped my morning diving schedule to the afternoon, and the next day at 8 am, I left for an amazing 4h hike across Utila. I finally left the busy streets where the tuk-tuks slalom between tourists and baleadas carts (Honduran speciality made of a tortilla and red bean purée), to discover the green side of Utila, mainly occupied by cornfields and cattle.
After walking for an hour we reached the research centre of Kanahau. Through their research, documenting the fragile habitat of endemic species, they aim to protect Utila while involving the local population. The path to Pumpkin Hill was just a few meters after their house. It wasn’t such a tough walk, but the sun was high enough in the sky to make it challenging (make sure you bring water).
On our the way to the top, we observed different species of trees and plants, including the “gringo” tree which red bark keeps peeling off! Once on the top of Pumpkin Hill, we enjoyed a breath-taking view, 360° above Utila. We could see the mainland, Roatan and Cayos Cochinos. What surprised me the most was how high the mountains of Pico Bonito were above La Ceiba, Honduras Mainland.
The last part of our walk included climbing a high ladder to then descend into a narrow and humid cave where a colony of bats was sleeping (I personally find them adorable). We then walked to Pumpkin Beach on the north side of Utila where a small freshwater cave was hiding behind the palm trees. It was just big enough to have two persons barely standing but it was perfect to cool down before heading back. Utila may be a small island but it hides many treasures!
6 – Relaxing at Playa Chepes
Utila reminded me a lot of the Florida Keys in terms of topography. Many pontoons all around as there are barely any beach. It was an excellent surprise to find at the west end of the main road the public beach of Chepes which clean and free to access. The beach is supported by the main businesses of the islands as you can see on the different benches.
It’s the perfect place for a nap in the sun or to enjoy a “super baleada”, a tortilla filled with red bean, cheese, lettuce, avocado and any other available ingredient! If you continue a bit further the road you will find Coral View where you can often find pelicans hanging around.
7 – Sunset drinks at Mango Tango
On Utila, the best cocktails are at Mango Tango. Hidden from the hustle of the main street, the yellow house welcomes its guests on the first floor for a breath-taking sunset view from 6 pm.
Obviously, the restaurant is more expensive than most places all over Utila (a baleada costs 20 Lempira on average, less than a dollar). However, for a delicious margarita and two lionfish tacos, I didn’t break the bank by spending the equivalent of 15€.
Mango Tango is one of the restaurants which added lionfish to its menu. The invasive species of the Caribbean Sea is a terrible problem as it has no natural predator. Eating them helps to solve this environmental issue and make a delicious meal. You can enjoy them in tacos, burgers, pizzas or ceviches.
8 – Stumbling upon the Jade Seahorse art garden
Who said tropical island and art cannot go together? Jade Seahorse art garden proves the contrary. Being a constant work-in-progress piece of art, this complex also includes a bar and a few bungalows where you can stay.
The treehouse bar “Treetanic” only opens a few nights a week where newly graduated scuba diving instructors go to celebrate their new career.
9 – Utila is a budget-friendly diving destination
To make it short, Utila is to Central America what Koh Tao is to South East Asia: a mecca to learn scuba diving on a shoestring. The soft rates for training, fun dives and accommodation attract a lot of American, Canadian and German divers to pass their open water diver or even their instructor level. Same as on Koh Tao, getting free accommodation while you are on training is part of the deal.
Open water packages with Utila Dive Center start from 334 USD (about 315€ / £270) including 5 free nights at the dorm of the Mango Inn and 2 free fun dives at the end of the training.
In my case, I stayed for 4 days in Utila and dived for 3 days during which I did 7 dives including a night dive. You can dive both morning and afternoon, but I preferred to dive only half a day as I wanted to explore the island at the same time.
As a fun diver, although Utila Dive Center is a busy diving school with many courses going on from open diver to tech diving, every group has its own locker room for gear. I had a specific gear room, the “Resort divers room”, where I could store my babies with all the other divers who had also their own gear. No messing up possible with rental gear! So it was busy but perfectly organised.
The three boats, Tristan, Martini and Old Tom leave on time so don’t be late. For the morning boat, you need to be there at 7.30 am and you’ll be back at 12 pm. On the main deck, Utila Dive Center has a bar where you can grab a cup of coffee before your morning dives. For the afternoon boat, you need to show up at 1 pm and you’ll be back around 5 pm.
I stayed in a double room above the swimming pool of the Mango Inn, the hotel which works in partnership with UDC. The room had a comfy bed, plenty of storage space and a large shower.
The hotel is not by the sea but in the heart of the village near the Jade Seahorse art garden. Its swimming pool, garden and restaurant make it a perfect place to stay in Utila.
10 – Utila is only a 1h ferry ride away from the continent
If like me, you like to make the most of your scuba diving trips by exploring the country, here are some good news: the Utila Dream Ferry is linking Utila to La Ceiba on the mainland of Honduras twice a day.
La Ceiba itself has unfortunately not a lot to offer except the Paseo de Los Ceibeños which is maybe one of the most beautiful places I’ve been for sunset with its cute wooden pier where families eat sweets with their children and the mountains in the background drawing a majestic view.
If you have more time, Pico Bonito National Park is less than an hour away from La Ceiba by taxi. You can stay there in one of the charming eco-lodges longing Rio Cangrejal for some hiking and rafting. If you want to see more, you need to know that Honduras is, like Mexico and Guatemala, the home of fantastic Mayan ruins in the region of Copan.
Travelling to and around Honduras was cheap, safe and comfy thanks to the bus network of Hedman Alas. There are many solutions to fly to Utila or Roatan, but the cheapest way is to fly to San Pedro Sula and travel by bus to La Ceiba. For less than the price of the return flight San Pedro Sula/Utila, you can travel around Honduras. La Ceiba is 3h away from San Pedro Sula by bus. The buses were not the fanciest I’ve seen but the seats were really comfy, I had a snack and a drink each time, and the staff was helpful. Just don’t forget to bring something warm to cover yourself, the air-conditioning was too cold for me.
Hedman Alas website is entirely in Spanish but you can contact them by email and they will organise your entire trip for you in English. For 1000 Lempiras, you can get the Promodias card with Hedman Alas, it will give you a special discount (up to 25%) on your bus and ferry tickets, scuba diving with UDC, accommodation at the Mango Inn and many restaurants of Utila.
Do you want to learn more about travelling and scuba diving in Honduras? Have a look at the following articles:
- Whale shark diving: how my dream became true in Utila, Honduras
- 2 weeks in Honduras: my ultimate itinerary
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