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To get to Utila, it takes me about seven hours. I get up early, throw on my backpack and head out to the street to catch a bus going to San Pedro Sula’s bus terminal. From there, I spend four hours on a hot bus to get to Ceiba, which drops me at a dock. I pay what to me feels like a lot of money in Honduras to get the hour-long ferry to the island of Utila. The minute I step on the boat, I leave the Honduras I’m used to and escape from my everyday life.
If you’re looking for the traditional Honduran mainland experience, Utila is not it. Yet I make this pilgrimage several times a year because, although I love Honduras, Utila is the perfect vacation spot. Utila is this completely unique island community. The locals are Honduran and all speak Spanish, but they firmly state that their primarily language is English. The English is thickly accented, part Caribbean, part Scottish left over from years of colonization. The accent is so strong that I often ask my Utilan friends to speak to me in Spanish so I can better understand them. They also all speak Creole, or “Island English,” which I cannot understand a single word of.
The island population is small and there are a large number of expats who have made their homes in what isn’t too far from a paradise. It is also crawling with backpackers from all over the world who come for the cheap scuba diving. Because a large portion of the economy comes from tourism, there’s a lot of what you would expect. Every other building is a hotel or hostel, there are tons of cute cafes and restaurants, and you can find full clubs and bars almost any night of the week. There is scuba diving, snorkeling and trips to the cays nearby.
What keeps me coming back to Utila? The natural beauty and the unique cultural mix that constantly surprises me. Utila is not unaffected by the changing world. Locals have told me about years past, when sea life came right up on the public beach and just a few feet into the water you could see giant stingrays and tons of different fish. Because of the increasing population, tourism and pollution, this is no longer true.
Walking along the main road I have found the most amazing variety of food and culture, variety that is missing in much of Central America.EF
However, around the much less travelled and less populated back part of the island there are ocean views, rocky cliffs and untouched beaches. A local friend took me on the back of a golf cart, whipping down a bumpy dirt road through tropical forests and past mansions and even one actual castle with a moat (built by wealthy expats). We sat on rocks above the ocean, looking down and watching sharks swimming below us.
To snorkel, I head up to the tip of the island (again, away from the densely populated areas and tourists). From the dock, I can wade in for a while before I have to start swimming – and am immediately in the middle of a coral reef. From there, when I’m feeling brave, I swim a bit further out and am looking down into the deep, dark ocean as the reef drops off. Even the public beach is beautiful. I love to go in the mornings, when it’s generally quiet, to relax in the clear, blue, warm water.
Walking along the main road, I have found the most amazing variety of food and culture, variety that is missing in much of Central America. Within a fifteen minute walk on the main road, I have enjoyed typical Honduran fare (pupusas, baleadas, pastelitos), crepes, Israeli food, organic smoothies and juices, traditional American-style breakfast, the best pizza I’ve ever found in Honduras and an amazing plate of fried chicken and tajadas from a place called Gordo’s (I prefer to eat at places where you can tell the chef really, really enjoys his product).
There is a constant, rotating group of tourists – meaning I have met fifteen different people from fifteen different countries in the same day. The foreigners that come and choose to stay add their own footprint to Utila and bring a new bit of culture to the island. It has led to a complete intertwining of the local cultural and foreign influences. While in some places, this leads to clashes and erasure of the local cultural identity, that hasn’t happened in Utila. The minute I arrive, I feel and see the strong local identity that’s enhanced by new ideas and flavors.
Getting back on the ferry to go back to the “real” Honduras is always bittersweet. I love the mix of cultures in Utila, the beach and the relaxed feel of the whole island, but after a week, I’m pretty ready to go back to my reality (no post travel depression for me). I like the lifestyle of the mainland, and while Utila is great for getting away for a few days, I always end up missing home.