I’ll be honest, prior to departing for this Central America trip I’d never heard of the Bay Islands, or Utila, in Honduras. Once we started planning we read more and more about this paradise for divers and knew we had to go. In addition to the diving conditions being excellent, it’s an awesome place to dive because it’s so cheap! Below I’ve summed up our experience on the island, what we thought of the diving and a few things to consider before you plan your trip!
We arrived in Utila at 5:30pm after two very long travel days from Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. For a comprehensive post on how we got there, read this. Once you arrive at the dock in La Ceiba, there is only one ferry (the Utila Dream). It costs $25 USD each way, runs twice daily and was the rockiest ferry I have ever been on! We knew we were in for a bumpy ride when the crew started handing out plastic bags after departing (luckily we didn’t get sick). There are only two ferries a day (at around 9am and 4pm – check their website for exact times) and no need to book ahead as they are huge compared to the number of passengers.
Where to Stay (and Dive)
It’s pretty surreal when you get off the ferry – nearly every dive shop has a rep there, handing out pamphlets and offering free rides to anyone interested in checking out their dive shop. Needless to say, there is a lot of competition, and a lot of options for divers. We politely declined rides, and set out on our own to walk up and down the strip.
We spoke with almost all of the different dive shops (around 6) to get a sense of the pricing, special offers, when we could begin our course (we wanted to get our Advanced Open Water), and to check out rooms. The prices for the PADI certification ranged from $280 – $310 US pp, and SSI certification was cheaper. Almost all dive shops offer free accommodation while you are diving if you want to stay in a dorm room, or a discounted rate to stay in a private room.
After about an hour and some deliberation, we decided on Alton’s Dive Shop. Their prices were comparable with most other shops ($285 US for AOW, including all taxes, fees and equipment). They came off as professional, let us know we could begin our course whenever we liked, and the group sizes were small (we never dove with more than one other person the entire time we were there). They have a nice beachfront and sundeck and, the biggest selling feature, they had the best accommodations by a long shot. They have recently constructed a new building which has private rooms as well as shared rooms, and this is where we stayed. Of course, the accommodation was also the most expensive at $45 US per night om the days you are taking the course ($55 US when you are not) – but this included A/C (most others were around $20-$30 plus $15 if you wanted A/C), a super comfy bed and a great shower with hot water.
One important thing to note is that ALL of the dive centers were offering the certification (which includes 5 dives + 2 fun dives) for less than what was posted on their website, or even in their office. For example, the AOW cert at Alton’s was listed at $350 US on a whiteboard in their office, but was $285 in reality. So the lesson here is don’t book ahead – you won’t have a problem finding a dive shop that has availability and works for you.
If you aren’t looking to get a certification and just want to spend a few days doing fun dives, it’s insanely affordable. Most dive shops offer a 10 pack for $250 US which includes all your equipment, fees and taxes. $25 per dive!
Dives & Diving Conditions
We had amazing conditions for each dive – at least 30m visibility. The AOW course requires you to complete 5 of 8 dive options. We did:
- Night Diving
- Peak Performance Buoyancy
- A Deep Dive
- Navigation / Search and Recovery
(Other options include Drift/Current, Naturalist Diving and Photography Diving – since there is little to no current in Utila the drift dive wasn’t an option for us. We didn’t pick our electives but didn’t ask either).
The Wreck dive was our first, and probably our favourite. It was pretty funny because we did this one before our ‘deep dive’ at 30m, and the wreck was between 20-30m, so we had technically already crossed off our deep dive!
The Wreck and the Night Dive didn’t require any skills, and the deep dive and navigation had about 5 minutes of skills before we just continued onto our deep dive. Peak Performance Buoyancy was all skill, but it was also a lot more fun than I thought it would be! It was kind of like an obstacle course at 5m depth, and we ended the ‘lesson’ playing with a neutrally buoyant frisbee.
I enjoyed night diving WAY more than I thought I would. To be honest, I thought I would be freaked out swimming around in the dark, but it was even more meditative than most dives. You just focus on your own little space in the ocean, using your flashlight to spot creatures that make an appearance as the sun goes down – like octopus, and lobsters who can be spotted crawling around on the coral. We could also hear/feel heaps of toadfish (it sounds, and feels, like a cell phone vibrating on a table) but weren’t able to spot any.
The highlight for me was experiencing bio-luminescence. Before heading down, our instructor Jess (who was totally amazing btw! Would highly highly recommend her!), told us she didn’t expect a lot of activity due to the moon cycle, but mid-dive we came down to a sandy patch and put our lights away just to see. Jess was waving her hands around, and plankton started lighting up like little stars! We kept our lights off and swam, making big movements with our arms and legs for the plankton to react and I completely had a Disney movie moment – it was very fair godmother-esque!
All of our dives were actually fantastic in terms of conditions and what we were able to see. Lots of different sites with caves and valleys to swim through. Jess was great at pointing out things that we missed while floating by.
Utila has a whale shark population, which is an added bonus for divers! At Alton’s, it seemed that the captain of the morning dive boat would always spend a bit of time between dives searching for a whale shark. It was totally amazing to James and I, as we have only seen whale sharks in Australia where they use spotter planes to find them. We got lucky on our third and last day, when the captain found one and everyone on the boat got the jump in for a chance to swim with the majestic creature. And the added cost if you jump in the water is $15 US.
What to do on Utila
While diving is the obvious answer for this, if you’re not a diver there are still lots of things to do! But I would expect to spend most days reading in a hammock or relaxing on a sundeck. On our first day, we opted not to dive and rented a scooter for $20 US for 4 hours.
Finding a Plane Wreck in the Jungle
James had read about this plane wreck that was in the jungle, less than 1km away from the Utila airport so we decided to check it out. The road to the airport from Alton’s was a bit rocky, with a few large mud puddles than spanned the road. But we made it successfully to the airport (with only one foot covered in mud). We asked inside the airport if it was possible to access the wreck, and an armed guard told us we could not cross the runway, but could take the trail down and it would eventually meet up with the end of the runway.
We grabbed our scooter and were on our way. We came out on the trail about 500m from the end of the runway. It looked like there was another trail further down, but we just looked both ways and booked it to the other side.
We parked our scooter on a trail that was apparently close to the wreck. James had found step-by-step directions and the GPS coordinates on this blog. Though we apparently followed a different trail, the coordinates proved to be extremely helpful in finding the wreck, and we spotted it in less than half an hour after leaving our scooter.
As we walked around, James told me the story of the (extremely scavenged) wreck. The plane held three Colombians (the pilot and two passengers) and 1.7 tons of cocaine. It was coming from Venezuela in the night, and it was thought that the plan was to stop at the inconspicuous Utila airport to rest and refuel before continuing on to its final destination. But authorities had been given a heads’ up and blocked the runway. The plane eventually ran out of fuel, and crashed in the forest. The pilot died, but the other two passengers survived. Pretty cool story, eh?
We quickly went across the runway on our way back, scanning the sky for planes (and also keeping our eyes peeled for the armed guard). All clear!
Where to Eat/Drink
I’ll be the first to admit, we weren’t blown away by the food options in Utila. The breakfasts and lunches at Alton’s were good, but they aren’t open for dinner so we used these meals to explore what the island had to offer.
We ate at Che Pancho, Mario’s, RJ’s, Mango Tango and Pizza Nut. Looking forward to fresh fish at both Mario’s and RJ’s (which is always packed, and only open 3 nights a week) we found Mario’s drenched in so much butter and salt we couldn’t taste the fish, and our tuna from RJ’s way overcooked (though I will say the meat options at RJ’s looked much better!). Che Pancho was ok; one night we shared a steak which was cooked pretty well. The best part of Che Pancho was their chocolate, banana, peanut butter smoothie (don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s healthy – it’s a milkshake, but it’s freaking delicious). Mango Tango gets great reviews, and one Sunday after we’d finished our dives we headed over for a late brunch (one of the instructors told us they have amazing eggs benedict on Sundays). We arrived shortly after 1:00pm and were given the breakfast menu along with the lunch menu. We didn’t take long to decide, but then the waitress was nowhere in sight. About 15 minutes later she came over saying “I totally forgot about you! What would you like?”. We ordered Eggs Benny and she told us “Oh, I can’t get that for you anymore, we’ve just finished serving brunch. But why don’t you have a pasta?! We have great pasta!”. Annoyed that it was essentially her fault we couldn’t order what we wanted, we decided to try some of their other food anyway since it gets good reviews. We had the marinated cheese and octopus which were just ok, but the service left a bit of a sour taste. All this to say, get there earlier on a Sunday if you want to try their eggs benedict! We ordered a pizza from Pizza Nut after our night dive which was delivered directly to the dock at Alton’s, which was super convenient and the pizza wasn’t half bad!
On our last day, we went to check out Pucker Up, Power Up – a juice bar attached to Freedive Utila, and just a few steps down from Alton’s. We wish we’d gone sooner! The juices and iced teas are delicious, and they also offer salads that sounded incredible. There was also a sign for Jade Seahorse, which we took to be a vegetarian/vegan restaurant but was sadly closed that day. I’d urge anyone visiting to try one, or both, out!
We loved diving in Utila, and I can definitely see us coming back one day (at $25 per dive, how could you not?!).