Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Utila and I: A Love Story

Downtown Utila
What is it about this place that makes me love it? It’s not particularly pretty, and in a few places it’s kind of smelly. There are even hellish sand flies at certain times of day that will motivate you to douse yourself with Deet before even considering hanging out at one especially bad beach. (I’m dabbing cortisone cream on several blistering bites at this very moment.)

Yet from the first time I set foot on Utila, Honduras in December 2012, I loved it. We’re now here for a whole month, giving me the luxury of time to reflect on what appeals to me about this small chunk of rock and mangrove swamp floating in the Caribbean. It’s my third visit here and the longest yet, and I’m still very much in Utila’s sway.

Definitely that big old Mesoamerican Reef that runs right past Utila is Charm No. 1 for me. Snorkelling is my favourite sport, if you can call it sport when you float around like a Macy’s parade balloon gazing at the glorious world of fishes below.

To be able to just pop on your water shoes and start swimming toward a vibrant reef in a warm, clear sea is a luxury that few other getaways can offer. One of my favourite entry points is a homely little bit of rough shore known as Airport Beach, with nary a palm tree or stretch of white sand in sight.

But swim out maybe 40 metres and suddenly you’re in a stunning seascape of coral ridges and peaks, with fish of every colour, shape and size going about their business below. Just beyond the ridge is a dramatic dropoff into blue infinity, and I hold out the hope that one day a whale shark will pass by.

Spiny-tailed iguana, found only on Utila
A short bicycle ride up the road (renting a rusty, poorly maintained mountain bike to is an essential part of the Utila experience) is Coral View and Blue Bayou, a whole other snorkelling experience that begins as soon as you make your way down a couple of steps into shallow waters where a small barracuda is routinely hanging about in search of the tiny fish under the dock.

Swim out barely any distance at all and once again you’re on the line between coral ridge and deep-sea dropoff. There, you might see schools of much larger barracuda, a ray scudding by on the sea floor, a big puffer fish looking up at you with a sour and skeptical face.

So yes, the snorkelling on Utila is a big, big part of its charm for me. But it’s also got this on-land vibe that appeals to me – one of real people going about a real life, happy enough for some tourists to keep the economy flowing but not yet so hooked on what are still fairly scant tourist dollars to make too much of the visitors. (The idea of a holiday in Honduras still seems to scare the hell out of many travellers.)

Getting to Utila generally starts with a flight into San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s biggest city and its commercial centre. Up until recently, San Pedro was known as the world’s most dangerous city for the staggering amount of murders that go on there, but now it’s slipped to No. 3, below Caracas, Venezuela and Acapulco, Mexico. Yay, San Pedro!
Rich people have the best houses, don't they?

At any rate, don’t let that little detail put you off. The violence in Honduras is almost exclusively violence between Hondurans, and a very purposeful violence visited upon those who are: 1. In the cocaine import/export business; 2. In a gang, or living in a profoundly poor barrio in a big city controlled by gangs; or 3. Involved in other criminal activities that sooner or later are going to get you killed by either your competitors, police, or the angry family of a victim that knows better than to rely on the country’s hopeless justice system to settle scores.

Besides, you’re only going to be passing through San Pedro. The airport is perfectly nice, and from there you can hop a bus, hire a private shuttle, or grab a flight to La Ceiba and be gone – bound for a region that feels different enough from mainland Honduras to be its own country. Once in La Ceiba, there’s a twice-daily catamaran ferry to Utila that takes about an hour. (Advice: Bring anti-nausea drugs just in case, or squeeze your eyes shut for the trip like I tend to do.)

Utila has a seriously multicultural history – one that blends European pirates and settlers, descendants of African slaves, and Spanish-speaking mainlanders. In modern times, these settlers have blended into a population of white people speaking their own Creole language - though a traveller will mostly hear it only when walking past groups of locals talking to each other - mainland Hondurans speaking Spanish, and black people speaking Creole, English, Garifuna and Spanish.

The other night we cycled past three elderly white women hanging over their balcony to chat with another elderly woman in a golf cart, that being a main mode of transportation on Utila. We could hear bits of English in their speech, but nothing we could make out. Had we stopped to ask directions, however, they’d have answered in perfectly clear English.

Speaking of directions, no worries that you’re going to get lost on Utila. There’s one main road that’s maybe eight kilometres from end to end, and no more than a handful of looping or dead-end side roads. Transportation is via golf cart, motorcycle, quad, bicycle or on foot. Whatever mode you choose, expect to make way for all those other forms of transport as everyone weaves and dodges along a narrow and poorly maintained road that is a pastiche of cement, interlocking brick, rock, mud and enormous puddles from that morning’s rain.

I think that’s another reason I love Utila and Honduras. Coming from such a rule-bound and regulated land as Greater Victoria, it’s exhilarating to experience freedom once in a while.

International hotel chains have given Utila a miss, but accommodation in every price range is available, or high-end vacation home rentals if that suits you. We rented one of those in 2012 when my son’s family joined us for a week at Christmas, but this time have opted for an affordable $450 US/month apartment at a small hotel. Electricity is on top of that, and will add significantly to the cost if you’re using air-conditioning. For me, a good ceiling fan suffices.
Public beach at Utila, on a "tropical monsoon" kind of day

While I don’t imagine anyone comes to Utila just for the food, the grilled fish at RJ’s is definitely going to be part of our regular diet while here, and was the first thing that one of my grandsons asked about after we arrived for this latest visit. There’s no competing with the vast cultural banquet available to us every day in Canada, so best to prepare for much simpler, basic fare here on the island. But RJs and an ample supply of Honduran bananas keep me happy.

I don’t even like bananas in Canada, but discovered when we were living here for two-plus years that that’s only because I hadn’t eaten a real one before – picked fresh from a tree when actually ripe, available in a dozen different varieties, subtle flavours, firmer textures. It pleased me to no end to stumble upon a small market here that sells manzanas, the small, fat bananas grown on Utila and named for their apple flavour.

And finally, there’s the climate. Officially, Utila has a “tropical monsoon” climate, and a daily downpour certainly appears to be the norm at this time of year. But that keeps the vegetation green and the temperature at a comfortable 25-27 C most days, just right for sitting in a chaise lounge with a good book and a homemade rum drink in between snorkels. (Bottle of Bacardi: $13. Bottle of cheap but palatable vodka: $8. Honduran beer: $1 a can.)
The nightly view from where we're staying.

Oh, and the sunsets. Whatever tropical-monsoon kind of day it’s been, evenings are almost always clear enough to deliver a gorgeous finale. These days, it’s a ritual to head up to a little overlook at our hotel around 5:15 p.m. and spend the next half an hour bathed in tones of orange and pink, thinking: This place.