Ever heard of Utila? Me neither. Utila is a tiny bay island off the coast of Honduras, less than 7 miles long and 3 miles across – at its widest. The population of 5,000 (including 1,000 to 2,000 tourists at any given time) resides primarily in Utila Town, off the protected southeast harbor.
Our trip to Utila began with a three-hour flight from Atlanta to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. While gathering our luggage I saw a large, healthy man struggling to remove a gold chain and cross. He accepted my help and told me crime is rampant in the city. After noticing that I was one of only a few people wearing jewelry, and that my diamond ring was getting a number of looks, I stashed all my jewelry away safely.
Delayed and canceled flights are the rule rather than the exception with TACA, the local airline. They've earned their nickname, "Take A Chance Airline." Rather than spend the night in crime-ridden San Pedro Sula and Take A Chance with TACA again the next day, we opted for a four-hour bus ride to La Ceiba (locals just say "say-ba").
After an overnight in Ceiba, we used the Utila Princess the next morning for the one-hour ferry trip to Utila. It, too, earns its nickname – the Vomit Comet. TACA has flights to the island and we will Take A Chance next time and avoid the ferry.
Once on the island, though, surrounded by mellow, laid-back SCUBA divers, hippies and hippie-divers, you'll hear a mish-mash of English and Spanish spoken as well as a multitude of other languages. People from all over the world, many of them in their 20's, flock to the island to attend the least expensive dive certification courses in the world at one of the island's many dive shops. I put my jewelry back on as crime is all but non-existent.
Although Utila is a Mecca for divers, surrounded by dive sites and coral reefs, snorkelers are not left out. At the west end of the bay 30 Lempira "lemps" (two and a half dollars) buys dock privileges for the day, and the reefs are just a few moments of swim away. You can also rent equipment and buy lunch off the grill, as well as other snacks and drinks.
With narrow, congested roads, cars are a rarity. Most of Utila Town gets around on foot or by bicycle, scooter, motorcycle or golf cart. All are available for rent on the island.
Do not let Utila's infamous sand flies scare you away. I saw plenty of pale people with the telltale red welts up and down their legs, but with proper preparation you can avoid this. Just bring repellant and use it. One long-time resident swore by a heavy coating of baby oil.
Hotels and rooms-to-rent are everywhere and unless you arrive during the August Sunjam festival, you can wander Utila Town until you find suitable accommodations. Most budget hotels geared towards the backpacker-dive crowd. If you are looking for a full-service upscale resort, go to neighboring Roatan Island, not Utila.
Restaurants are also everywhere and sometimes take some detective work to find. Structures along the waterfront are often three deep. A street-side store, a bar on the water and an open-air restaurant nestled in-between. Signage is often missing or out-dated. Indian Wok, next to Tranquila Bar, was good and Munchies Café was always busy.
Nightlife is abundant. Only a certain number can stay open late each night, so the bars coordinate around themselves to even the playing field. I recommend Coco's (formerly Coco Loco) next to the Passenger (ferry) dock.
It was at Coco's that I met Sara, and there my Utila adventures began in earnest. Sara recently purchased Coco's and I offered to go with her to Shelly Mac's, the plant nursery, to help choose plants for hanging baskets. There I met Shelby, the owner, who invited me to visit him on his 14-acre farm north of town.
The next day, I walked up Pumpkin Hill and found Shelby's farm. I wandered around calling for him until one of the young men tending fruit trees pointed me in the right direction. Shelby did not warn me about his guard goose and my left thigh sported quite the blood blister for some days!
After a quick snack of fresh bananas and mango, we toured the farm. I admire Shelby's many fruit trees, medicinal plants, and so much more, including pineapple, bananas, mango, papaya, limes and lemons … never turning my back on the goose.
Shelby anchors the daily news for Utila's only cable television station, HQTV. He asked me if I would be his co-host that night. The miracle fruit bushes were in full fruit and we would film my first experience with them as well as interview people on the street. How could I refuse such an adventure?
I sampled the miracle fruit and then cut up a lime. Miracle fruit changes your taste buds for several hours, rendering even the sourst tastes sweet. The lime tasted like limeade – delicious!
I hopped on the back of Shelby's little motorcycle and we drove back to Utila Town, where we invited passers-by to sample miracle fruit followed by slices of lemon or lime, talking to them and taping the whole time. That night, we watched my Utila television debut at the Mango Café bar.
Too soon, another ferry ride back to mainland Honduras was imminent. We ferried one hour and twenty minutes on the Galaxy Wave to Roatan, which is three hours from Atlanta by air. It too, has earned the nickname of The Vomit Comet. Although now without appetite, we sampled one of Roatan's all-inclusive beach-side resorts for the night and dreamed of Utila.