The Bay Islands in Honduras are renowned for their scuba diving and sit about an hour’s boat ride from the Atlantic side of Honduras. Utila and the larger island, Roatan, are the two main islands in this region. Roatan is big enough to bring in cruise ships from Florida and has enough people to support a city-like feel. Utila on the other hand is small enough to walk nearly everywhere and has the reputation of the cheaper, younger island.
After a week of Spanish classes, our goal was to take a week of scuba classes so that I could get Open Water certified and Sara and I could both get our Advanced Open Water certification. We’d researched dive shops on both islands and ended up choosing Utila as the less expensive option.
We liked the feel of Utila. You could walk everywhere and after a week on the island you recognized many of the people you passed in the street. The local food (baleadas) was very tasty and cheap and the big bars on the island had some crazy drinks specials such as free tequila shot hour on Tequila Tuesdays. Additionally, the smoothies on the island were outstanding and only a couple dollars. The island had about 15 different dive schools and a handful of solid dive bars (good pun?). English was more common than Spanish and dirt bikes, ATVs, and tuk tuks were the preferred mode of transportation for the island. The island had tons of weird lizards, at least one tarantula, and at least a billion mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were so bad that you could tell how long someone had been on the island based on how many welts and scars a person had on their body. The mosquitoes didn’t seem to bother the local Hondurans but loved Europeans. We spent all time out of the water bathed in deet so we avoided the brunt of those blood-suckers.
Regarding scuba diving, I’d tried to reserve us spots at a dive school before we got to the island but email and internet is not really a concern for folks on the island so I hadn’t had any luck. Additionally, most dive shops offer free housing if you are getting a dive certification with them so we were walking onto the island with no dive school and no place to stay that night. In the end, this didn’t matter because as soon as we stepped off the ferry onto the island, every dive school had folks handing out fliers and shepherding backpackers to their dive shops. Based on websites and online reviews, I had a few schools in mind so we went to Parrot’s Dive Shop first. The place was a bit grungy and the boat looked a lot older than in the picture but the prices were very good. Dive students were hanging out in the common area and seemed to be having a good time. Many of the divers had been there for a month or more and had good things to say. Without a place to stay for the night, our haste to sign up caused us to oversee or reason through a few red flags. Ideally, we would’ve walked to a few more dive shops to shop around prices, lodging, quality of equipment, and teaching style. Everything worked out eventually but it was bumpy.
At $250 USD for Open Water certification and $250 for Advanced, Parrot’s pricing was by far the lowest I’d seen. Most dive shops were about $300 per certification and the standard range was about $280 to $330. It’s impossible to make comparisons and sort out the different prices and options between dive shops. Some offered free housing, others offered more dives after the class, while others had better gear or went to better dive spots. From chatting with a few other divers on the island, it seemed like we got a great deal but just had a bad instructor.
The free housing that Parrot’s offered was a bit scary. Opening up the door to the room, it looked like a scene from The Walking Dead with holes in the mattress, graffiti on the wall, and a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling to cast shadows around the windowless room. Sara and I promptly agreed that we were too old for that and decided to pay the extra $20 per night for a room on the bay in a different guest house that had clean sheets and hot water. At $5 a day, if your only concerns were diving and drinking, the state of your room doesn’t matter much so I recognize the appeal.
Parrot’s turned out to be a party-focused dive shop and happened to share a dock with one of the top bars on the island. Throughout our dive classes and dives, it was very challenging to get information out of our instructor I believe because he never really got out of his hangover during the week we were there. Most of the learning, preparation, and follow through fell to us to figure out which was frustrating but manageable. We dove a few times with other instructors when our primary instructor was “too sick” to lead our dive and we learned a lot on those dives. We ended up leaving right after finishing our certifications instead of going on the free dives we’d accrued because we were fed up with the dive shop.
This was a lesson for us along the lines of you get what you pay for. Next time, we’d shop around and probably pay a bit more for better quality teaching and reliability of the dive shop.
Regarding scuba diving, it’s such a rush that first full breath you take under water. We dove a ship wreck, went on a deep dive to about 110’ underwater, and went on a night dive. I love seeing the ecosystems underwater and surprised myself at how I became that ADD kid who keeps wandering off from the group. I was surprised the assistant instructor didn’t tie a rope to me to keep me on a leash while diving. I just wanted to get close to the little fishes and see the crabs tucked in the coral!
Utila’s reefs were struggling a bit due to overfishing, some pollution, and impact from divers. Nonetheless, there were plenty of fish for me and I don’t have the experience to compare Utila to other dive areas. Utila is known for whale shark sightings which occur all year long. Apparently a couple dive boats got to swim with whale sharks the day we arrived but there weren’t any other sightings during the week we were diving. We’ve got a few more chances to dive with whale sharks in Southeast Asia though!
Another highlight of our week was getting to know a couple we happened to sit next to on the ferry from the mainland to the island. They were around our age and eerily similar to Sara and me. Jess quit her corporate job and left the US 3 years ago to travel and met Matt in New Zealand while he was traveling and they’ve been together the last couple of years. We ended up hanging with Matt and Jess every day and even adjusted our travel plans to head south to Leon, Nicaragua with them for more adventures. I learned that fun people can make a significant impact on your travel experience and it’s refreshing to have some consistency and longer-term interactions in the backpacker lifestyle that tends towards transiency.
My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our belongings and are hitting the road for nearly 2 years. We're blogging about our adventures, lessons learned, ideas, and recommendations. Take a gander at the content, leave a comment, or reach out to us to meet up on the road!