Utila Honduras

A Postcard from… Utila

The backpacking husband and I are travelling again and it feels wonderful. We’ve returned to the Caribbean Island of Utila. It feels like we’ve come home, because it was right here on this very island, that our fabulous travel adventures first began.

Back then, we’d set out to explore the islands of The Caribbean and the island of Utila was our special find. It felt like not too many people knew about it. It felt like we’d discovered a secret place in the Caribbean.

Since then, we’ve been around the whole world twice and I’ve actually lost count of how many times we’ve zig-zagged back to this island over the past nine years since the backpacking husband and I sold everything – our home, our cars, and all our possessions – to facilitate a life of nomadic world travel and adventure.

There is a saying that once you’ve come to Utila you’ll never want to leave.

But then again… you do have to leave to be able to come back!

And each time we’ve left, we’ve experienced summer culture shock in going back into the first world and it’s felt like we’ve left a little piece of our hearts here.

So, as we’ve now been back on the island for six wonderful weeks, perhaps it’s time I shared with you – in a postcard style travel guide – my own thoughts on this amazing little island called Utila.

A Travel Guide To Utila Bay Islands Honduras
A postcard style travel guide on this amazing little island called Utila.

WHERE IS UTILA?

Utila – Islas de la Bahia – is the smallest of the Bay Islands, just off the coast of Honduras in the Western Caribbean Sea. Utila is a tiny tropical island paradise sitting on the Meso-American reef – the second largest coral reef in the world – tucked away in a bay where the water is bathwater warm and crystal clear.

Utila - Islas de la Bahia - is the smallest of the Bay Islands, just off the coast of Honduras
Utila – Islas de la Bahia – is the smallest of the Bay Islands, just off the coast of Honduras

THE CHARM OF UTILA

I’ve heard Utila being described as ‘a Key West of the 1950’s’ as it certainly has a timeless, laid back, and undeveloped feel.

Life on Utila is simple – I do mean comparatively basic – and so I do realise that it’s perhaps not for everyone.

Utila is not your stereotypical Caribbean Island. It’s the authentic Caribbean lifestyle.

And the people here feel real and authentic too.

Island life here makes me feel comfortable despite being it almost unbearably hot, sticky, and humid.

Life can be lived in your swimsuit or in light cotton clothing and flips flops are optional.

It’s certainly not a place to wear your designer clothes, fancy shoes, or your shiny trinkets.

A hammock on coral beach utila honduras
I’ve heard Utila being described as ‘a Key West of the 1950’s’

On Utila you can just to be who you are… how refreshing!

That’s because you’ll be accepted on this island for being who you are rather than for what you have or what you do or with what or whom you identify with and that’s simply because no one is in the slightest bit interested in all that first world stuff.

The exception to the rule is of course Dr John – Cultural Icon and undoubtably The MOST Famous Person on the island. Doctor John – is the doctor with no T-shirt on – as it goes in the famous song If You Come To Utila. Take a look at the video and listen to the song that made Dr John into the island celebrity that he is today. You can follow Dr John on Instagram!

Travel Guide to Utila Honduras

WHAT TO DO ON UTILA

Scuba Diving: The island of Utila is primarily known as a haven for scuba divers. The very first time we came to Utila was for the scuba diving on the meso-American reef. We stayed three months. Back then, the Backpacking Husband, aged in his mid-50s, was already an experienced and Advanced Diver. While on Utila, he planned to take the PADI qualification of Rescue Diver followed by a PADI Dive Master internship and certification. It was a personal ambition for him to achieve these advanced PADI Diver Qualifications. Later, he also went on to do his PADI Instructor course and then achieve Master Scuba Diver Trainer.

Continuing on, and over a two-year period and while travelling across the Caribbean and through Asia, the backpacking husband worked as an Scuba Diving Instructor and then went on to complete his IDC Staff Instructor training, teaching new PADI Instructors on Instructor Development Courses.

Since then, he has worked on reef conservation projects and was awarded Elite Instructor by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). I love how he has been able to use our travel experiences to work towards and to achieve his own personal ambitions as a professional scuba diver.

I’m so very proud of him.

The Backpacking Husband diving Utila Honduras
The Backpacking Husband diving Utila Honduras

Dive Training on Utila: There are over a dozen dive centres on Utila – all along the main street – and so working your way up to higher levels of scuba diver training and certifications with PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) or SSI (Scuba Schools International) is possible here on Utila at the most affordable prices.

The Caribbean Sea: is crystal clear and as warm as bath water and of course it’s all around the island! The sea here has shallow coral reefs teeming with colourful tropical fish, rays, sharks, and turtles and you don’t need to be a scuba diver to see all this amazingly beautiful sea life, as floating, snorkelling, or even freediving, is just as popular a pastime as scuba diving.

I have personally swam with dolphins, eagle rays, sting rays, and pilot whales – and the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark!

 The backpacking husband swimming with a whale shark off Utila. Photo: Dave Thatcher
The backpacking husband swimming with a whale shark off Utila. Photo: Dave Thatcher

Travel Guide To Utila Honduras

Shopping: There are no chain stores and there’s no McDonalds to be found here. Instead, there’s small roadside shacks with thriving local grocery businesses offering fresh fruit and vegetables and other island supplies that come onto the island from the mainland twice a week by boat. There are also a few souvenir shops and local artists selling art.

I like to buy mangos off street traders and to shop in the local shops but I buy fresh fish straight from Zorro the fisherman.

Supplies come onto the island from the mainland twice a week by boat.
Supplies come onto the island from the mainland twice a week by boat.
I buy fresh fish straight from Zorro the fisherman on Utila
I buy fresh fish straight from Zorro the fisherman.

Restaurants and Bars: Dockside restaurants and bars serving delicious local and international cuisine with a rum cocktail or a beer are plentiful on Utila. Many are located on wooden docks over the water to offer a sea breeze as a relief from the tropical heat and associated biting flies and mosquitoes.

You might consult Utila Guide or the 10 Best Restaurants on Utila on Trip Advisor.

Our personal favourite sun set watching and cocktail enjoying spot is at Mango Tango Restaurant, which provides a sophisticated ambiance and truly fabulous fine dining experience on the island.

For an afternoon tea or evening tea infused cocktail The Tea Garden is a fabulous and new addition to the island scene in Sandy Bay offering specialist and traditional tea beverages in quintessentially vintage china and in a gorgeous and tranquil tropical garden setting. Iced Earl Grey anyone? Yes, please!

Another notable restaurant on the island in a beautiful and atmospheric tropical garden setting is El Castillo Caribbean Restaurant serving fresh home produced food in an intimate and romantic setting.

Beaches: Most days on Utila are hot and sunny and the beaches all have palm trees and white sand. You can choose to spend your days lazing on the beautiful curved beach at Bando Beach or at the public beach at Chepes or to take a boat through the lagoon and through the mangroves to reach the beautiful white sand of Coral Beach and Neptune’s Bar and Grill.

Coral Beach on Utila Honduras. Copyright The Backpacking Housewife
Coral Beach on Utila
Beach walk... the Backpacking Husband on Bando Beach Utila
Beach walk… the Backpacking Husband on Bando Beach Utila

Travel Guide To Utila Honduras

I HEART UTILA

I heart Utila
I Heart Utila

I love to go to bed early and wake at sunrise. I love to spend time with friends at the beach and/or at restaurants and bars. I love to spent hours reading in a hammock. I love to sunbathe and then swim in the sea every day. I walk everywhere and that way I get to speak to all the people whom I meet along the route into town or to the beach. I love to fully embrace this island life by truly living in the moment. I love to watch the sun go down every night in paradise and for that I am truly thankful.

I love to spent hours reading in a hammock.
I love to spent hours in a hammock.

WHERE TO STAY ON UTILA

There are lots of accommodation options and for all budgets on Utila. There are so many rooms to rent, small apartments, beach houses, beach shacks, backpacker hostels, and accommodation rooms that come as part of the package with dive courses. You can find them all advertised on Airbnb or other accommodation booking sites and also on the Utila Guide Website or various member Facebook Groups that are linked to Utila with lots of useful information on Utila.

We rent a little Caribbean style house under a mango tree that’s close to town. It’s comfortable and beautiful. It’s the same house we’ve rented a couple of times before and this time, as soon as I knew we were planning our return to the island for six months, I contacted our friend and landlady to secure the property again for our visit this year.

UTILA CAYS

Sometimes, we’ll go out on boats with friends to visit the neighbouring island ‘Cays’. The Cays are a scattering of tiny tropical islands off Utila. The Utila Cays are privately owned islands and some have a luxury and private residential home built on them and are not currently available to visit or rent. Others are ‘rentable’ by the day or the night.

We love to take a charter boat and spend a whole day on Water Cay or even a few days and nights on the other private rentable islands of Little Cay and Sandy Cay.

Pigeon Cay. Along the way, we’ll be sure to stop off at the larger municipal island of Pigeon Cay, an island filled with a tight-knit community of local people’s homes and fishing businesses, to buy some fresh fish to barbeque for lunch or dinner.

Jewel Cay. Stop for lunch at Jewel Cay – I recommend the Fisherman’s Plate.

Water Cay is a popular island day trip from Utila and a wonderful place to spend a beach day.

Little Cay: is a private island off Utila that you can arrange to rent with accommodation. The one large house sleeps around ten people with five bedrooms. When our family came out to visit us, we rented Little Cay and had a whole tropical island all to ourselves for several days.

Sandy Cay: This year we’ve already reserved Sandy Cay – another private island getaway – for three nights during August. There’ll be just the six of us (the house has three bedrooms) for three nights and we’ll spit the $175 price per night between us on this tiny island paradise!

Renting these tiny islands is a real and affordable option and a very special desert island ‘castaway’ experience. I mean, where else in the world can you rent a private island so inexpensively?

Note: prices current at the time of writing.

Little Cay private island rental
We rented the private island of Little Cay.

MONEY

Money: The currency of Honduras is The Lempira. Some shops and restaurants will take credit/debit card payment but most don’t. You can use US Dollars here but they have to be in pristine condition and in $10 or $20. For Lempira cash withdrawals there is one bank on the main street and two ATM’s but in my experience they only work/ have cash in them for half the time.

HOW TO GET TO UTILA

I’ll be honest with you and say that Utila is not the easiest island in the world to get to or indeed to get off again. It’s not too bad coming in from Canada (directly or via Mexico City) or from various cities in the USA but it’s a long haul to get here from the UK or Europe.

I remember the first time we came here; we flew from Glasgow Scotland via New York then via Miami onto Roatan (the larger of the Bay Islands). Finally, we took a tiny plane over to Utila because Utila has a small airstrip.

I’d never flown in a Cessna before and I remember being terrified and exhilarated in equal measures.

The backpacking housewife. Heading to Utila for the first time in a Cessna was both exhilarating and terrifying!
Heading to Utila for the first time in a Cessna was both exhilarating and terrifying!

On other trips and this time, we took four flights. First, we flew from Glasgow to London with British Airways. Then, London to Houston Texas with United. From Texas we flew to San Pedro Sula Honduras with United and then from San Pedro Sula over to Utila with CM Air and all the time I noticed the planes were getting smaller and smaller!

So, it’s entirely your choice whether to fly from your origin point into San Pedro Sula and then make your way to the island directly by air or via road transport to the port of La Ceiba and then to take the Utila Dream ferry. Alternatively, fly into Roatan’s International Airport (on the larger of the Bay Islands) and then take a short flight or the Utila Dream ferry from Roatan over to Utila.

The backpacking housewife and husband heading to Utila from San Pedro Sula Honduras
Another time… heading to Utila from San Pedro Sula Honduras

THERE IS NOWHERE IN THE WORLD LIKE UTILA

We immediately fell in love with this island and its people. We became intoxicated (sometimes quite literally as the rum is delicious) with the no news, no shoes, snoozing/reading in a hammock and never really knowing or caring what day it is, kind of island lifestyle. For us, drinking rum cocktails and watching spectacular sunsets starts at 5.30pm.

For yogis, yoga on the dock is available to all at sunrise and sunset.

During our world travels the backpacking husband have now been around the whole world twice and we’ve visited 39 countries (see my List of Travel Destinations) and so I suppose I’ve always expected to find another island something like Utila somewhere else in the world.

Maybe amongst the islands of the Seychelles or those tiny islands in the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Malaysia?

Or perhaps off Thailand amidst those verdant jewels in the Gulf of Thailand or on the Andaman Sea.

And, if not there, then surely somewhere beyond Bali in Indonesia?

But no…. from what I can see there is no other place like it.

This must be the place Utila Honduras
This must be the place….

CHANGES ON UTILA?

It’s been four years since we were last here on the island and so we expected to see some changes, especially since the pandemic. These days, there is a new touristy ‘I Heart Utila’ sign and an oversized beach chair and a huge Instagramable ‘picture frame’ on Chepes beach that looks to be very popular for those essential ‘Insta’ holiday beach shots.

The BIG beach chair on Chepes Beach Utila. The backpacking housewife.
The BIG beach chair on Chepes Beach Utila

I see there are several more local grocery stores and that our own favourite store on the island has moved 200 yards down the street to occupy a slightly larger space. That’s great progress for our shopkeeper friend, Wardy, from whom we like to buy our fruit and vegetables. But you should also know that wherever you choose to shop on the island you have to be quick to buy what you need as the supply boat only comes in twice a week on a Tuesday and a Friday!

Our favourite dive shop Gunter’s Ecomarine Dive Centre changed hands last time we were here four years ago. This change, for us and for our Ecomarine family, felt like the end of an iconic era.

We were ‘The Ecomarines’ and our mantra was ‘Freedom Rules’ (I have the T-shirt!). Right now though, sadly, our beloved Gunter’s Ecomarine Dive Shop, the very first dive centre on Utila, is unmanaged and closed down.

I’m not normally one to resist change and so I just feel incredibly privileged to have known Ecomarine Dive Shop back then, and to have been here during what was for us ‘the special years’ when life on the dock was especially sweet. When days were spent out on the ‘Salva Vida’ dive boat or on Ecomarine dock, hanging out with friends or spent reading in a hammock or taking a swim in the warm sea, or even taking turns to grab and swing the fun rope swing.

The sultry evenings at Gunter’s Ecomarine were filled with open air movie nights, beers, rum, BBQ, fish fries, parties, music and dancing. It was all so incredibly special. Gunter himself is also special – he’s a much loved personality who set up the first dive centre on Utila and so he has a long diving history on the island – and I do love to see him riding along the street on his bicycle with an air tank strapped on his back when he’s heading out diving!

Ecomarines Utila The Backpacking Housewife
We were ‘Ecomarines’ and our mantra was ‘Freedom Rules’ (we have the T-shirt!).

Scuba Diving on Utila

This year, the Backpacking Husband has found a brand new dive shop at Tank’d Pro Dive Centre at Odyssey Resort on Utila.

This year the Backpacking Husband has found a brand new dive shop at Tank'd Utila
This year the Backpacking Husband has found a brand new dive shop at Tank’d.

There are famously over a dozen dive centres on Utila and they are all on the main street. Tank’d Pro Dive Shop is at the top end of the street almost at The Point and is affiliated with SSI. It’s a new and friendly dive centre with a brand new dive boat and top-end new dive equipment. It’s a great set up for divers both new, novice, experienced, and of all age groups.

Tank’d is run by friendly and professional people. There is also accommodation on site, a bar, and a restaurant. We would recommend you check out Tank’d Pro Dive Centre if you are looking to dive with a new professional dive shop on Utila.

Utila… Then and Now

Traffic On The Island: Until fairly recently, there were no cars on the island of Utila and traffic was just a few bicycles, motor scooters, electric golf carts and, of course, lots of speedy little taxi tuktuks. These days, however, residential areas have expanded outwards and into the inner island and to other coastal areas and so traffic noise and pollution has increased.

Shock – I’ve even seen a couple of small cars!

More and more people – even school kids – are now using scooters and motorbikes to get around instead of walking or cycling. Those that live further out and have to take the roughly surfaced roads into town are favouring off-road quadbikes.

All this ‘progress’ makes walking down the street a little hazardous, noisy, and smelly, for pedestrians .

Real Estate Developments on Utila: There are many new properties being built on the island, especially on the beachfront areas at The Point and Tradewinds, on South Shore and at Pumpkin Hill. The new properties all look very lovely – a dream Caribbean home for those building them – but I can’t help but wonder how eventually the infrastructure of such a small island will manage in the long term with such an influx of new residents.

Water: Fresh water is always going to be an important commodity on a tropical island. It is a matter of concern to islanders that the rainy season is becoming shorter each year. You cannot drink the tap water here and so several methods of water purification are used on the island and there are two companies providing and selling safe drinking water to the population.

But of course, many local people and especially those in the poorer community, are reliant on drinking filtered spring and well water, which is now becoming increasingly polluted with incoming seawater.

Refuse: Rubbish is an issue here and dumping is a problem. Despite some progress and expansion of the population, the island struggles to deal with garbage and burning landfill is a serious and smoky issue here.

Electricity is becoming increasingly expensive here. Utila is said to have the highest electricity charges by the KW in the entire world! Isn’t that crazy in what might be considered to be a developing country? The island is powered by a private company using diesel generators and power outages (although fewer than I remember from the very first time we were here) are still unavoidable and regular occurrences. The power shuts down sometimes for scheduled maintenance and sometimes because of a fault, a fire, or just a usage overload.

Power outages are not too much of a problem or an inconvenience on the island in the daytime, when you can perhaps escape to a breezy dock or take a swim in the sea to cool down, but a power outage at night is, in my own experience, very uncomfortable in such a hot and humid and tropical place. Sundown is at 6pm and then no one has any lights other than candles and torches and more importantly, access to a fan or air conditioning.

Internet: Generally, the internet is good on the island, but because the electric power is unreliable that also means of course that internet access can also be sporadic. Perhaps Utila isn’t the best place to be a ‘digital nomad’ but there are indeed people who work online here successfully and whom I believe manage to overcome this issue using various devices they have brought in to help facilitate a more reliable independent connection.

Heat: Did I mention the blistering heat and incredible humidity at least once already?

Wildlife: Much of Utila is actually mangrove swamp which is environmentally important. Huge swathes of it has been cut back and destroyed in the past but now there are efforts to conserve and replant. The Utila Iguana (Ctenosaura bakeri) also known as The Utila Swamper is the unofficial mascot of Utila and there are ongoing efforts to conserve it.

On the beaches the sand flies are an irritation here – see my post on coping with sand flies and no’see’ums – and mosquitoes are also troublesome. Scorpions, snakes, tarantula spiders, large iguanas, are harmless albeit scary creatures but thankfully there’s nothing on Utila that’s fatally venomous.

These days, I’ve even become a calm and gentle dab-hand at removing large hairy tarantula spiders from the house and putting them ‘out to play’ with their friends rather than having a screaming fit – as I did when I first saw one crawling across my bed here on Utila. Here, the tarantula is your friend!

You can kind find out more about the indigenous wildlife at Kanahau Wildlife Conservation on Utila.

Noise: It has to be said that in my experience Utila is a paradise but it is often a noisy island. Barking dogs, crowing cockerels, and music is often loud, relentless, and disruptive. Except for the Cays, I’ve yet to find a quiet place anywhere on Utila!

Travel Guide to Utila Honduras

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT UTILA

The best time to come to Utila depends on the main reason for your visit. There are only two seasons in this part of the world and that’s high summer season and low rainy season.

Whale Sharks: If like lots of people you come to Utila to swim with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea, who famously migrate through the waters here throughout the year but typically in March – April – May and in August – Sept – Oct then visiting during those summer months will give the best chance to see a whale shark during your stay.

Summer High Season: the summer starts on Utila in March (tail end of Rainy Season) and lasts through to the end of September when the weather is increasingly hot, dry, and still, mostly because the east wind stops providing its welcome cooling effect across the island.

I’ll be honest with you, we’ve often been on the island during August and September and the temperatures can be punishingly hot, humid, sweaty, and utterly stifling. Not for the faint hearted!

Low Rainy Season: From early October through to the end of February is the low and rainy season on Utila. It doesn’t rain the whole time, of course, but the humid air is cooler and the bugs / mosquitoes can be so bad and so I would personally suggest coming at a different time.

That said, many local residents say they love rainy season, as they can get things done during the cooler months that in the intense heat of the summer would be very difficult indeed .

Temperatures: Daytime temperatures on Utila in the Summer are fairly consistent and usually range in the mid 80s Fahrenheit and mid 30s degrees Celsius but do be warned that in the high humidity here the ‘real feel’ temperatures are MUCH higher and so a seemingly managable 34 deg C WILL feel like a blistering sunstroke inducing 40 deg C!

As a tip: I so recommend you top up your electrolytes every day here to stay hydrated.

Sea Temperatures: The sea is pretty fabulous and consistent 27 – 29 deg C here in the summer months so only slightly cooler than the air but that makes for fabulous swimming!

Hurricane Season: Hurricanes are rare on Utila because The Bay Islands are considered to be below the ‘hurricane belt’ but they can happen on occasion. See my post entitled ‘There’s A Hurricane Coming!‘ on preparing for a hurricane on Utila. The official hurricane season is from June to the end of November but the majority of storm activity in this westerly area of the Caribbean area is usually confined to mid-September to the end of November.

Highdays and Holidays

The island of Utila hosts several festivals throughout the year and this is when the island gets very busy indeed with fun-loving international tourists and holidaying Honduran people from the mainland (only 20 miles away). It’s probably because of these festivals at certain times of the summer that Utila has gained a reputation as a ‘party island’.

The first of these festivals is Semana Santa or ‘Holy Week’ which is always celebrated during the week coming up to Easter. The island is always incredibly crowded and busy during this time and accommodation on the island should always be booked in advance to avoid disappointment and having to sleep on the beach with the sand flies.

Utila Carnival: Utila carnival is such a fun celebration. The streets are decorated with flags and tickertape and many of the dive centres and businesses on the island decorate tuktuks and golf carts and trailers to enter into the themed floats street parade.

From the carnival floats, bead necklaces and sweet candies are thrown into the cheering crowds that line the street.

The passing parade is often accompanied by people dressed up as Pirates of the Caribbean or just in colourful fancy dress.

Carnival day on Utila is always a spectacular day on the island!

Utila Carnival The Backpacking Housewife
Utila Carnival is always a spectacular day!

Music Festivals: The island or a neighbouring ‘cay’ often host music festivals in the summer months and of those ‘Utila Live’ and ‘Beyond’ and the famous ‘Sunjam Music Festival’ is probably the most popular. And – whether it’s electronic, house, rap, reggae, or classic rock music – the island is literally rocking during these festivals and there is no getting away from the sound!

I’ve happily attended many of these island music festivals myself and still have the programmes and the t-shirts!

Utila Live Music Festival

WHAT’S THE VERY BEST THING ABOUT UTILA?

In my opinion… it’s the friendly people.

It’s our lovely friends on the island who remember us and welcome us back.

Our Utila Family at Water Cay
With Our Utila Family at Water Cay

SO, I GUESS WE COULD BE STAYING A WHILE!

Where in the world is your special and secret place?

Have you ever been to Utila or the Bay Islands?

Do share in the comments or get in touch via my social media!

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