I’m Leaving Tomorrow
“I’m leaving tomorrow.” This is the big lie tourists in Utila, Honduras tell, insisting they will leave the next day while the lure of the island pushes the next day further and further back, sometimes until months have passed.
Utila is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, the closest of three main Caribbean islands to the Honduran mainland. A short plane ride or an hour boat ride will take you from the bustling cities to a scuba diver’s dream. Utila is known for having the least costly diving in the world and a high likeliness for spotting a whale shark, the biggest fish known to mankind.
In some ways, Utila is a typical Caribbean island – sapphire oceans, exotic fruit easily plucked from trees and smiling islanders who end their sentences in a drawn out “man”. However, Utila is set apart from the rest of the Caribbean by its unique people, culture and history.
Information about the island is hard to find from outside of it. The Internet offers minimal information that is often outdated. Websites describe a car-less island with a dirt patch for an airport and no electricity after midnight. The Utila these sites describe is the Utila of the past. The new Utila has 24-hour electricity, Internet hubs everywhere and an airport with a runway (which makes landings much smoother).
While in Utila, there is a simple way to find out about it – ask. Ask for an islander’s history and you will get a tale over many continents full of truth and exaggeration, a historical fiction that has been greatly romanticized over time.
The island’s proximity to the mainland and its location in the Caribbean has made it a destination for travelers throughout its history. Some stores bear the name of the famed sailors and pirates who are believed to have visited Utila like Captain Morgan and Blackbeard (rumored to have left his treasure behind).
Those who arrive on Utila with little knowledge of the island will be surprised to regularly hear both Spanish and English. As a former British colony, Utila is historically an English-speaking island. A recent influx of Hondurans from the mainland has meant an increase in Spanish speakers and the merging of a unique blend of Honduran, British and Caribbean culture and traditions.
These traditions often shine through at communal events, overlooked by islanders who are increasingly accustomed to fused traditions. Hondurans instruct their children to bite into their birthday cake for luck, gently pushing the child’s face into the cake when they attempt to bite down. The Holy Week, the period between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, has slowly been transformed into Semana Santa as Utilians toss aside select English words for their Spanish equivalents.
These traditions remain a mystery to older Utilians, confounded by frosting-covered children. However, they have become natural to the younger generations who have easily incorporated such traditions into their own.
Utilian tourism is expanding rapidly and more amenities are available for travelers. Increased tourism has led to a shift in Utilian life. More money enters the island, jobs in construction and service have grown, and the presence of foreigners influences local culture.
As tourism in Utila grows, Utila is increasingly split into two worlds – that of Utilians and that of tourists. Despite the small size of Utila, these two worlds often do not intersect in a meaningful way.
Tourist’s first encounters with Utila are in the water, where they learn to live amongst the fish. They observe the glittering tropical fish and enormous, waving purple and green sea fans that inhabit the second largest coral reef in the world.
The majority of islanders have never entered this world; diving remains a mystery to them. While scuba divers descend into the depths of the ocean, they miss out on Utilians’ daily lives, resurfacing only for the nightlife. Those travelers who rise from the depths of the ocean to truly experience Utila are able to navigate between two worlds. These privileged few see the island in two lights, piecing together different worlds, which together give a well-rounded view of Utila.
It is easy to begin to feel like a part of the Utilian community because of the openness and hospitality of islanders. Almost immediately, you will start to recognize people on the island, who will offer a friendly wave when you go past.
There are many things to do in Utila besides scuba diving. While the ocean offers a slew of diverse plants and animals, the land also boasts rare species, like the Spiny Tailed Iguana. The Iguana Station is offers educational exhibits and tours of different parts of the island to observe some of these species in their natural environment.
Trips to the cays are a nice change of pace. A short boat ride from Utila will bring you to smaller islands, each of which offers something unique. For a fantastic view of the island, climb Pumpkin Hill, Utila’s only mountain. While navigating the freshwater caves, you will be more likely to find natural wonders than the rumored pirates’ treasure, but these natural wonders are treasure enough to make the caves worth visiting. A tour guide can be hired for a low rate for such excursions.
There are only a few places to go out at night, but this means you are bound to run into those who you have befriended earlier in the week. You may happen across a live band or two or just enjoy an evening of dancing and chatting with friends from around the globe. If you are lucky, you will be in Utila for a full moon, which means dancing by a bonfire at an all-night beach party.
Every Friday, Bar in the Bush opens and is bombarded by people, islanders and tourists alike. All day, people ask each other the routine question: “Are you going to Bar in the Bush tonight?” knowing very well the answer is yes before a response is even uttered. Bar in the Bush is only open on Fridays and Wednesdays, but on Wednesdays is usually more of a volleyball attraction than a club.
Yearly events like Carnival, Sun Jam (a techno festival on the nearby Water Cay) and Semana Santa bring hordes of tourists and Utilians living abroad to the island for parades and parties.
Never show up on time to these events because in Utila, on time is too early. Things never start on time there, after all, it is still part of Honduras, a country that is frequently referred to as “mañana [tomorrow] country”. Relax and adjust to island time and soon you too may utter the words, “I’m leaving tomorrow,” knowing that tomorrow is more than a day away.
There are numerous places to go out to eat, ranging from quick bites to full course meals, all at reasonable prices. Don’t be afraid to buy freshly baked goods off the street; you will likely be in for a delightfully tasty surprise.
Utila’s size makes waits for taxis short and walking or bicycling around the island possible. Golf carts, four-wheelers and bicycles are available for daily rental.
Sosa and Atlantic airlines make several flights daily to Utila at the same cost. A ferry runs from La Ceiba and is significantly cheaper than flying.
When to go
The rainy season spans from October to February. Although some travelers prefer the rainy season, most favor the dry season. The period between May and June is a great time to catch annual celebrations. For these events, be sure to book a hotel in advance. Ordinarily, it is not difficult to find a room for a short-term or long-term stay with little to no advance notice.