July 16, 2011

Scuba Diving Honduras: Utila is where the backpackers go

I had first heard about the islands of Roatan and Utila back in 2003 when a former boss and Dive enthusiast told me how close they were to the United States. Great reefs, affordable accommodations, and cheap dives.

Since getting my dive master certification in Thailand a couple years back, I needed to make sure that I was diving about every 6 months or so in order to keep my skills up to date. I did some research on flights and figured it would be really easy to take off for a week dive trip to Roatan and Utila. Continental Airlines flies direct to the island of Roatan several days a week, and also to San Pedro Sula on the mainland of Honduras.

A couple of friends have made the trek via San Pedro Sula. A good cheap option is to catch a morning bus from the Central Terminal in San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba on the coast. It takes about three and a half hours on the direct and private Hedman Alas bus (approx $23 USD). You can also take a local Directo bus for about $5 that is a little slower. From La Ceiba, you can catch ferry aboard the Utila Princess which takes about an hour to get to Utila (two departures daily and approx $21 USD).

I decided to fly direct from Houston to Roatan, so that I could dive both islands. The only problem with this option is that you can't get to Utila directly from Roatan. I needed to take the Galaxy Wave ferry from Roatan to La Ceiba (two departures daily and approx $21 USD), and then change to the Utila Princess. It adds an hour and fifteen minutes to the trip (plus transfer/wait time), but it's not that bad.

In Roatan I spent a night and a day in the area of West End, not to be confused with the more upscale West Bay. This is where the more affordable housing is located, everything is walkable, and there are a good number of dive shops and restaurants to choose from. Most of the dive shops on Roatan and Utila offer accommodation for divers and this is usually the best and cheapest option. I chose Native Sons for two morning dives (about $25 a dive) and got a nice private room for $20 USD for a night. Both Roatan and Utila's reefs are protected as marine parks where a small daily fee must be paid for diving. Roatan is supposed to have the better preserved dive sites. I enjoyed both islands and found the reefs to be in decent shape, but lacking an abundance of marine life (although the area is famous for its whale sharks). Then again, I've been spoiled by diving Sipidan. I think this is due to overfishing in the area, even if the reefs are supposed to be protected. Unfortunately it's something I've encountered all over the world. Fishermen have been fishing these reefs for generations and it's their livelihood.

After two morning ferries from Roatan, I made it to Utila in the afternoon. Utila is a perfect backpacker town. No cars are allowed on the island, and you can walk/bike everywhere with ease. Accommodations, food, and drinks are cheap, and the diving is probably the best value in the Eastern Hemisphere, comparable to Koh Tao in Thailand. Some might call the island a scuba factory, but my feeling is that it offers travelers a chance to become certified divers without breaking the bank. You can get your PADI or NAUI open water certification plus four nights accommodation in the dorms for under $300 USD. A steal if you ask me.

It can be a little overwhelming when first getting to Utila. There are tons of dive operators and accommodations to choose from. My friend Alex from Spain recommended Alton's Dive Center. Alex trained me as a dive master and I trusted his judgement since he worked for Alton's as a DM the previous year. Other options on the island include Utila Dive Center and Cross Creek Dive Center (awesome lodging across the creek!). From the moment I got to Alton's I knew I would have a great week. The owner Mitch was extremely welcoming and generous. I signed up for a week of fun dives mixed with my wreck specialty certification. I paid about $25 or so for fun dives, and a little more to get my wreck specialty, which included two days of learning how to navigate around sunken ships safely. My private room (although sparse with a shared bathroom) was as whopping $10 USD per night ($5 if I wanted a dorm bed). Except for having about 3 different instructors take me through my wreck certification, I had a great time diving with Alton's. All the instructors and dive masters were friendly and I was able to get visit some good sites for the week.

If you're looking for beaches, these are not the islands for you. Actually, if you're not really into diving at all, I might steer clear of Utila. There aren't really any beaches for laying around, and most dive centers have docks set up with hammocks and areas for chilling out, reading, and sun bathing. Aside from diving and relaxing, there isn't much else to do on the island itself. If you do find yourself visiting, then definitely take four days to get your open water certification. Two other must do's while visiting is a fish dinner at RJ's (across from Alton's) and drinks at Treetanic, a bar that is perched up in the canopy of several massive trees. It's like drinking in a huge outdoor tree house, and definitely one of the coolest bars I've visited on my travels. Ah, I wish I was there right now.

Here is a link to my photos of Diving Utila and Roatan.


Simon Lee said...

I have never try scuba diving in my life, but i will be going to bali and will definitely try there to experience the underwater life:) Thanks for the share:)


Parrotfish Journey said...

Good info . Like that you add prices to your story .. Makes more sense to the people visiting place sin future !