by Alex Gatenby, The Telegraph, March 19, 2019
Colourful houses line the streets of Utila’s rustic town centre, locals chatter on their porches, the smell of street food wafts through the warm air, and tuk-tuks bustle past. Geographically, this corner of the Caribbean Sea could hardly be further from Thailand, but the combination stirs nostalgic memories of my very first dive experience in Ko Tao.
Like Ko Tao, Utila is tiny. Just seven miles at its widest, it is the smallest of the Honduran Bay Islands. Both islands have also gained reputations for providing low-cost diving opportunities and spectacular marine life, with the chance to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish at up to 60 feet from nose to tail, one of the biggest lures.
Understandably, therefore, I anticipated similar experiences when I visited earlier this year. But what I found in Utila was distinctively different diving, thanks in part to its geological structure. The Bay Islands mark the southern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world after Australia’s underwater wonder. This unique placement means Utila is wrapped in a continuous fringing reef, allowing diving along the entire coastline, with drop-offs to depths of more than 50m. Conversely, Koh Tao’s dive sites are isolated from one another; underwater islands separated by grand stretches of sand and lengthy boat rides. Taking the plunge anywhere along Utila’s coastline is like entering another world, a never-ending coral exhibition which engulfs you in its beauty.
The coral displays are stunning, but what struck me first was how few fish there are. There are no great schools like you’ll find in the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. Instead, Utila has unique reef formations and extravagant cave systems that attract a wider array of rare species, albeit unpredictably. The combination of shallows and plummeting depths mean you can never anticipate what might rise from below or suddenly appear above, and during my 10-day trip I met visitors who had been lucky enough to swim with both pilot and sperm whales.
Tourism here is all about the water, but Utila has far fewer dive centres than Ko Tao; around 12 to Ko Tao’s 80+ and rising. It’s another big plus for visitors. With never more than two or three boats on one site, it feels almost exclusive. Twice I swam with large pods of dolphins, something I doubt would have been possible had the waters been busier.
In many ways Utila offers a glimpse of what Ko Tao was before the rise of the gap year: a dive island without the negative effects that come with overtourism. The island retains its cultural roots and authenticity, there are no foreign franchises, and it is refreshingly cheap. All of which has earned it a loyal following; members of the vibrant dive community come back time after time.
Remote and under-developed dive locations come with a laid-back charm that is usually lost in luxurious dive resorts and over-subscribed options. What Utila might lack in sophistication, it makes up for with its warm welcome. There is an air of conviviality between locals and tourists; nobody feels a newcomer for long – and many come back.
How to get there
Norwegian and Spirit Airlines offer flights via the US to San Pedro Sula, the closest international airport to Utila. Fares from £577 return.
From San Pedro either take a flight to Utila with CM airlines or, for a cheaper alternative, a bus and ferry. The bus leaves from the Main Bus Terminal (Gran Central Metropolitana) to neighbouring city of La Ceiba and a ferry can be caught from there.
When to go
Peak whale shark season is March and April, but they are frequently seen throughout the year. Generally speaking, January to April is the dry season in Central America. From May, rain can be heavy but sunny spells are frequent. The wet tails of hurricanes strike – and occasionally lash – the Caribbean coast between June and November. Prices rise at holiday periods, including Christmas and Easter.
Where to stay
A short walk from the dive centres, the wooden rooms of the Mango Inn are hidden away within a beautiful tropical garden. Their deluxe cabins offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of the town. There’s a bar/restaurant and pool to hang out in after a day’s diving and the two-for-one pizzas on a Tuesday are definitely worth checking out. If you book a 10-dive package with Utila Dive Centre, accommodation is provided at the Mango Inn for free, otherwise a standard room costs £55 per night.
Who to dive with
Utila has a wide range of dive site depths, while low currents make it the perfect place for first-timers. The cost per dive is remarkably cheap considering the high standard of instruction and diversity of courses available.
One of the island’s original outfits, founded nearly 22 years ago, Utila Dive Centre is a top option. It offers more than 20 specialist courses, and its picturesque pontoon and bar is a hub of social activity. Want to try scuba for the first time or become a master tech diver? Here’s the place to do it. Fun dives start from £29 per tank.
Head to the Iguana Research Centre to learn about the Ctenosaura Bakeri species endemic to Utila.
Step into the weird wonderland of Jade’s Seahorse, a wacky restaurant/hotel created from tiles, bottle caps and stained glass.
For eco-conscious foodies, the Mango Inn’s lion fish ceviche is a must. This spectacular predator is decimating other fish species around the Bay Islands so locals now hunt them in a bid to contain numbers – and restaurants serve them up. You can even take a Lionfish containment course with a dive centre and hunt them yourself.
Where to eat
Mango Tango provides some of the best food on the island, as well as cocktails. It has a cosy interior and beautiful views.
Munchies occupies one of Utila’s oldest buildings (1864) and has a charming atmosphere and varied menu: everything from homemade hummus to burgers.
ReThink is tucked away off the main street in a colourful building surrounded by turquoise waters and stunning views. Eco and health conscious, their dishes are vegetarian/vegan and locally-sourced.
Shima offers sushi, including lion fish caught on the island’s shores.