Utila – Hangover in Paradise

As I concentrate on the island, I try to fool my stomach into the back seat and attempt to convince it that I am too excited to be seasick. That was the first time I saw Utila, through blurred eyes, swaying on the slippery deck and trying fiercely to focus on one spot as the horizon rose and fell with the lolling of the ferry. Nearly there, I think to myself, You’re gonna make it. Then I remember about the tequila.

It had been a long, two-day journey from Guatemala, and looking around at my companions I could see that they were just as exhausted as I was. All of us looked forward to some days of serious relaxation, dying for just a few mornings where we wouldn’t have to lift those heavy backpacks. We all hoped that the nearing piece of land, resting on a colourful and sparkling combination of sunrise and water, would provide what we were looking for. None of us were disappointed.

Two days ago we had been on another boat, cruising down the Rio Dulce on a small six-seater heading slowly but purposefully from the depths of Guatemala towards the sea and the Belizian border. Our sleepy captain lazily steered us along the slow moving green water of the river, and for spells all we would see was the lush, dense rainforest lining the bank. Then a thatched cabana would come into view; outside a woman might be hanging clothes or washing plates in the river. Every so often the laughing and shouting of playing children joined the constant shrill calls of the many birds, and as we turned the corner they would appear, waving at us and splashing each other in the shallow water near the bank.

We stopped at hot springs where the eggy sulphur smell filled the air. As I dove into the warm river, it occurred to me that this was the first heated water my body had felt since I left home, after many, many cold showers. Half an hour later the river spilled us out into the Caribbean. Here we had a choice: left towards Belize, or right towards the border of Guatemala and Honduras. A game or cards or the toss of a coin normally would normally decide on options like this, but we were in Belize last month, so right we went.

The boat dropped us at the busy town of Puerto Barrios, where the usual crowd of hustlers, hotel owners and dealers were awaiting us. By now however we could deal with them. A rapidly growing knowledge of Spanish was aiding us in situations we had found hard to handle when we first arrived. Shaking off the last of the stragglers, who had been trying to get us to stay at their hotel or offering to drive us to the capital, we arrived at the hostel we had chosen that afternoon. A dinner of stewed chicken, refried beans and rice, a few bottles of coconut rum, a noisy street outside our room � and suddenly it was the next morning.

Honduras’s economical diversity is shockingly evident. Passing through many dirty and poverty-stricken villages that day, it was obvious that we were in Central America’s poorest country, but then the bus would struggle through bustling towns with huge hotels and banks, and the glowing advertising signs of American fast food chains illuminated the streets. The history of the original Banana Republic is swamped with American influence and its fascinating and tragic past has always mesmerised me.

La Ceiba is the gateway to the Bay Islands which we had heard so much about and come so far to see. It was there, after a day of three buses and an hour on the back of a speeding pickup truck, where we read about the three islands named Utila, Roatan and Guanaja, which lie on the second-biggest coral reef in the world. It was there that we drank ridiculous amounts of tequila and then that we decided to go to Utila. This decision was based mainly on financial reasons, because although Roatan and Guanaja have become swallowed up by the booming American tourist industry, making them expensive and less accessible to most people, Utila has avoided that. Maybe because it’s the smallest of the islands, but probably the backpackers that make their way there keep the place cheap and fun.

That was how I found myself, leaving the ferry, white and shaking with half my stomach floating somewhere in the Caribbean sea and a rancid taste of old tequila on my lips. Later it crossed my mind that maybe this was the reason I never wanted to leave, too chicken to try that crossing again, but, no, I knew it was much more than that.

Utila revolves around diving. Supposedly it’s the cheapest place on the planet to learn, and it’s this shared passion that makes the island what it is. Small and friendly dive shops line the main street, running safe and small classes out to a wonder of coral life starting only 10 minutes off shore. Years ago the mayor of the island set minimum course fees, as a deterrent to the diving shops undercutting each other and risking safety. This is also a rule in place which prohibits hustling or even promoting a business on the street, a factor which adds to the relaxing lifestyle of the island, and relaxation is what you feel as you soon as you even place foot on Utila.
Laughing, friendly Creole voices are everywhere; they make you feel at home and genuinely welcome you to their island.

Utila may be famous for its diving, but it boasts so much more. The food, for example, is incredible. The huge plates of seafood they serve in the restaurants overlooking the Caribbean are the best I have ever tasted. Then there’s the night life; with maybe four or five bars on the island, there is always a party going on. I won’t start on the beaches; just believe in crystal blue water gently rolling onto perfect white sand, quiet and alone.

We stayed in Utila for nearly two weeks, longer than planned and even then I didn’t feel that it was time to leave. I even thought about staying and working. Maybe I was too scared to put my shoes and shirt back on, but this was at the beginning of my travels, and I had so much more to see. I think by the time we left we knew most of the locals by name and all of them by face – glowing, laughing faces that come about from a way of life that side-steps technology and busyness, a people that fully understand and believe in the speed that life should go at.

More reading: Island Life in Utila, Honduras from Over Yonderlust

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