Located 35 miles north of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea is one of the country’s top tourist destinations: the Bay Islands. Also known as the Islas de la Bahía, the string of three islands consists of Roatán, Utila, and Guanaja, which all include clear-blue waters, abundant marine life, and some of the best water conditions in the region. The combination of these characteristics have transformed this former remote location into a major international travel destination known for its water activities that range from diving in the Caribbean Sea’s largest barrier reef to swimming and snorkeling just feet away from white-sand and untouched beaches.
Much like many of the Caribbean islands, the Bay Islands were also originally inhabited by indigenous tribes until the Europeans arrived. In this case, Christopher Columbus claimed the islands in the name of Spain during his fourth voyage to the area in 1502. For the next two centuries, the British and the Spanish battled for control of the area and used the islands for safe harbor, supplies and slave trading, which eventually caused a substantial drop in the indigenous population due to their forced involvement. By the mid-19th century, both the Garífuna people (who left the island of St. Vincent after a rebellion with the British) and the former slaves arrived on the islands in an attempt to begin a new life. Today, this combination of cultures combined with the overall relaxed atmosphere is what makes the Bay Islands special. When visiting, you will find many Americans and Europeans who had originally planned to stay for only a week or two but ended up staying there permanently.
The island of Utila is the smallest of the three major Bay islands and it can be walked lengthwise in less than 30 minutes. It is also one of the best places to dive, snorkel or swim due to its calm waters, which remain generally calm throughout the entire year. It is far less crowded than its larger neighbor of Roatán, and most people come to the island to just relax.
Travel to Utila
Most visitors generally travel to Utila by air or by boat. Within Honduras, there are four daily flights to Utila from the city of La Ceiba on the northern coast of Honduras. The flight time is a short 20 minutes and it arrives at the small airport located approximately two miles north of Utila Town. There are flights from Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula but they make a layover in La Ceiba. Ferry travel from La Ceiba to Utila Town is a reasonable one-hour journey on the 118-foot Utila Princess. The ferry departs twice a day at 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. and costs approximately US$16 each way. As always, double check the schedule because it can change or be cancelled at any moment.
The island’s primary town is Utila Town, also known as East Harbour. It includes the largest population on the island, which is only rivaled by the number of dive schools and eager divers who come in search of the island’s best sites. The only activities on the island are water related with most of the focus on diving, snorkeling, and swimming. Before heading out to the water, make sure to stop by Munchies (pictured to the left). This historic restaurant is a one-minute walk from the dock and it offers freshly made breakfast and lunch specials. When asked, many visitors say that they make the best breakfast on the island.
Diving – Even though each diving school has their favorite dive spots, the most recommended locations are generally Blackish Point and Duppy Waters off the northern coast and Black Coral Wall and Pretty Bush, which are both off the southern coast. Most dive courses charge approximately US$250 for five-day PADI courses but recreational dives go for as little as US$25. The best part (other than SCUBA certification) is that most of the schools provide free accommodation during the course. There are at least a dozen different dive schools but I recommend the following: Utila Dive Centre (www.utiladivecentre.com), Cross Creek (www.crosscreekutila.com), and Alton’s (www.altonsdiveshop.com).
Snorkeling and Swimming– The most recommended spot for swimming and snorkeling is at the Blue Bayou, which is roughly a 20-minute walk west of Utila Town. The water is clear and you can enjoy the relatively quiet beach without any distractions. Snorkeling gear is conveniently available for rent for about US$2 per hour.
For more water activities away from the town, there are the 11 outcrops located off the southwestern coast of Utila. Known as the Utila Cayes, it includes several inhabited settlements (Suc Suc Caye, and Pigeon Caye) that offer an even slower pace than Utila Town, which is difficult to imagine. Small boats from the dock at Utila Town are always ready and willing to take you there.
Finally, after a day in and on the water, make sure to visit the Jade Seahorse Bar and Restaurant. Located on the Cola de Mico Road, it is owned by an American artist who has added a colorful atmosphere and style along with the good food and drinks. Note the colorful display created from beer bottles in the photo to the left.