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Summary: Utila, The Bay Islands, Honduras

10.14.10

A bargain Caribbean Island with excellent, cheap diving engaged in a longstanding culture war that looks likely to further chip away at the island’s otherwise considerable charm.

Pros: Relative ease of access by boat or plane, affordability (including cheap eats), world class diving and snorkeling, lively bar scene, large, lively mixture of North and South American and European transplants and vacationers alongside endearing Islanders.

Cons: Island is diving obsessed; few additional leisure options are present.  Grocery selection is limited and imported items come at high markup.  Electricity is infamously expensive and we experienced outages multiple times a week for hours at a time.  Money access can be an issue.  Growing problem with burglaries and muggings.  Traffic is aggressive, tight and seems dangerous though few incidents are reported.  Mainland Honduras is it’s own set of cons that must be dealt with during in-and-egress.

Distortions: As a tourist town, our experience was greatly effected by the recent downturn in tourism worldwide.   We enjoyed pool access at a nearby hotel, which we took advantage of often and which would not necessarily be available to us if we were to stay on the island indefinitely.  We inherited enough cooking gas to spare us the chore and expense of purchasing any.  The observations here apply predominately (really, almost exclusively) to Utila Town.  Living outside of town along the coast changes things considerably.

The Islanders don’t much like the Mainlanders.  It’s easy to see why; Honduras is atrociously run at the best of times and not run at all during the majority of times.  Utila was already culturally distinct from the mainland, a population of deep creole speaking, pale pirate decedents living an enviable life of commercial and sustenance fishing (and later, tourist scuba diving) amongst a Rockwellesque New England motif of clapboard houses and small town sensibilities.  Talking to the older Islanders is like talking to your own aunts and uncles, though the creole can be a little hard to decipher.  About 10 years ago mainlanders started moving to the island en masse, driven by some semblance of job opportunity and a preferable homicide rate.  It’s easy to see each side’s points, which can be oversimplified as “All of our current problems came over with the Mainlanders” vs “They have to understand that this is Honduras”.  I met mainlanders who spoke fluent English but refused to do so with English speaking Islanders because “they need to learn this is Honduras”.  It can get a little ugly and my impression was the Islanders are losing this fight.  With their way of life will go much of the charm that made this island so attractive, so I hope they prove me wrong.

We rented a two bedroom, one bath house away from the main drag but still pretty thoroughly in town for US$400 a month (pictured below).  We opted for more space rather than less after our miscalculation of personal space in Placencia.  The rent included city water (undrinkable even to the locals), a groundsman who patrolled the property at night and may have included Cable TV.  It didn’t work the first day and we never followed up.  Almost all of the places we looked at were in the US$350-US$450 range (many of which were 2 bedroom), including Sandstone, a nice, out of the way set of condos with strong breezes and nice views.  I initially considered it too far from everything else, but looking back that was probably a mistaken first impression.  We also looked at a cramped windowless spot for US$275 (though that did include electricity) and a distant, quiet and slightly ramshackle cabin for US$300 that would require a bicycle at the very least.  Internet was generally included, though we ended up in a spot without it.  Electricity is about US$0.41 per KwH, which is very, very expensive (US average is well under 1/3 of that).  Efficiency was maintained and we didn’t use any AC, save a couple of hours with one of the two window units when The Girlfriend was particularly uncomfortable.  The breeze between the bay and lagoon, along the main drag, was much stronger and we often second guessed our decision not to rent the slightly smaller second floor unit that we considered our runner up.

Traffic is a real issue in town and as an issue it has grown considerably since my last visit 3 years ago, when it was mostly slow moving golf carts and bicycles.   We were reassured constantly that very few accidents happen (though god knows what the baseline is for that), but that’s little comfort when you feel the breeze and then exhaust of 5 motorbikes on your way down the block.  It became a little less nerve wracking as the month went on, but I don’t think I could ever get used to it.  It’s so bipolar for an island billing it’s self to tourists as a laid back Caribbean escape.  To clarify, there are only a few full sized automobiles on the island (mostly pickup trucks).  What you end up dodging is an onslaught of dirtbikes, quads, taxi trikes and mopeds. The only place traffic enforcement occurs is occasionally the police will crack down on the drag racers at the island airstrip for trespassing; I can’t imagine there’s even a concept of moving violation.

Banking in Utila is similar to banking on similarly sized islands in similar countries; it’s easy to get stuck without cash.  Bring your debit card and you can get no fee cash advances (which is, in effect, a withdrawal) from the local bank, even when the ATMs are out of cash.   Your bank will probably charge you 3% for multiplying by 19, which they’ll refer to as a “conversion fee”.  Don’t be fooled, they’ll charge it to you in Ecuador and Panama too, both of which use US$ as their official currency and require absolutely no “conversion.”

You can eat out for about the same price as cooking at home in Utila; even a grocery store clerk (and possibly owner) told us that most of the locals eat out rather than buy groceries.  You can spend more on food, as we occasionally did, but we ate the vast majority of our meals at Thompson Bakery where a super baleada (kind of burrito like) cost US$1.84 and could pass for dinner in the heat.  It was like having our own kitchen staff, which was awesome.

Speaking of cost of living, we brought in our month at USS$1170 for two people for 30 days.  This allowed us a Friday night at the bars, two or three “better” dinners (RJs, for instance, a highly recommended joint serving up good sized plates of seafood and sides for US$5, go early), and a few drinks at one of Mango Cafe’s movie nights each week.   We also rented a kayak for a day, bikes for a day, split a boat trip to a local island to snorkel and lounge and caught a movie at the local cinema.  Booze weighed in at US$175.9, almost exclusively out. See our full expense data here for the big picture.  Feel free to post any questions to the comments section of this post. We weren’t diving; diving is incredibly cheap in Utila (down to, at times, US$19 a tank), but it will still eat into a tight budget quickly.  We did host friends for 2 days toward the end of our stay and they did pick up a number of tabs, however our spending during this period was akin to our normal baseline spending for that period of time.  So that works out well.  Also, many if not most of the “snack- coffee out” entries were obligatory purchases at cafes with internet access; more than a few beers fall into that category as well.

Infrastructure was one the low side of normal; power and, separately, internet outages were common, occurring multiple times a week.  In Utila you often don’t get what you pay for.  Water outages occurred, though the island is well equipped to weather them via cisterns, private wells and private drinking water providers.  Trash collection was provided by the town and in constant operation; a blessing in the tropical heat and hopefully an effective measure to reduce dumping in the lagoons and countryside.

The momentary tourist population on the island sets the nightlife tone, and during our month we found it lacking.  I can’t help but compare my experience this time around to my last visit 3 years ago, when the island absolutely staggered with joyous drunken energy.  I expect that once tourism regains it’s previous numbers this will once again be the case.

Accessibility to the island can be an issue, though the local airlines seem more or less able to minimize this hassle.  Land travel, though, is often anxiety producing.  The majority of La Ceiba is currently still considered safe; we stayed in a private room at an affordable hostel that we can recommend (US$25.11 for two double beds in a private room with a private bath in a secure property with kitchen and additional amenities, well located in Zona Viva, Hostel Guacamayas, most recent LP Hondruas has outdated address).   Any ground travel through San Pedro Sula, the #2 world murder capital of 2009, should be taken seriously and any unnecessary errands (for food, hotel, shopping, etc) should be thought better of.  If you must spend the night in the city, we recommend Dos Molinos.  Luis, the owner, will arrange to pick you up at the bus station, take you to his hotel (spartan but secure and in a good area with cable and internet to entertain you while you stay in for the night) and return you to the bus station the next day, even at 4am.  Throughout Honduras, have locals (like hotel staff) recommend taxi drivers and other service providers.

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3 Responses to “Summary: Utila, The Bay Islands, Honduras”

  1. c. devine Says:

    I had seriously thought about moving to hondurous, but after reading your blogthere are to many risk factors involved for this single traveler. Thank you for the insight.

    • cgearhart Says:

      I do know plenty of people who live/have lived happily in various parts of Honduras, but to me it’s just not worth the hassle/risk right now unless you have some specific reason to be there.

  2. bill Says:

    roatan is great and I have been there 13-15 times without any problems. The mailand is another story I dont go. I am currently considering cool seasonal living there in a small cabana and spending time in another part of central amercia like panama during the hot months


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