With a buildup of moisture in our eyes that could have been nostalgia at leaving such a wondrous place, or perhaps just an ocular defense mechanism to protect our vision from the vast clouds of particulates belting out of every vehicle which went ambling past us in the Guatemalan city of Antigua, we made plans for the next leg in our travels: Honduras.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time researching the best (which by this time priortised comfort and space over affordability, the latter having put us through some seriously hellish rides) mode of travel from Antigua to Utila, Honduras, we finally made the decision to fork out a casual US$100 for “executive class” tickets on a Hedman Allas bus. These tickets promised us airline-style travel, with large, plush seats, more legroom, and meals provided on a regular basis. We rubbed our hands together in anticipation for what the 10 year salary of a Guatemalan farming family would get us.
Not as much as we had hoped, as it happened. The four of us (Sandra and Stefan from Switzerland (SSS) having become our constant travelling companions by this point) got up at 3am, made ready for pickup from our hotel, and as we were brushing our teeth and packing our bags were informed by the hotel’s night clerk that our ride had been waiting for us outside for half an hour. Despite the fact that we had been told to be outside by 3.30am, not 3am, the old Spanish ladies already inside the shuttle were not well pleased with our lack of promptness. Once we and a number of others had been crammed in the shuttle, we made the hour long drive to Guatemala City. Here, we filled in a bucketload of paperwork for the border crossing and waited around for the bus which would take us as far as San Pedro Sula, the most dangerous city in the world.
Eventually, we made our way onto the bus and occupied our fancy schmancy executive seats. They were pretty darn comfortable, to be fair, but the rare victory for our bums was somewhat soured by the fact that the bus was almost empty, meaning those who hadn’t paid for the executive seats could essentially recline on 2 or 3 seats at the back of the bus anyway. What’s more, the “meals” were what you would find in a little girl’s model kitchen – plastic hamburger buns, rubbery bits of meat, and strangely fluorescent pieces of lettuce. Luckily, we’d brought snacks along, and wouldn’t go hungry.
The next 10 or so hours went by without incident, the border crossing taking an age as usual but otherwise going smoothly, and we finally arrived in San Pedro Sula around mid-afternoon (keeping in mind that we’d begun travelling at 3.30am, and the distance between Antigua and San Pedro Sula, as the crow flies, is less than 250 miles), whereupon we were thrown out of our bus and left to fend for ourselves until our next bus showed up. Another hour of waiting passed and finally we ascertained via our questionable broken Spanish that it was time to board the bus which would take us our next destination of La Ceiba.
As we drove through the city, we surveyed the scene, wondering if we’d bear witness to yet another of San Pedro Sula’s 3+ DAILY murders, or perhaps just a simple kidnapping or robbery. Happily, nothing of the sort transpired, and we passed out of the city without so much as a limpera (the local currency) stolen or a gun pointed at our stomachs.
As 7pm rolled around, we were finally nearing La Ceiba and we’d been travelling for a casual 16 hours to cover what should rightfully take about 4 with adequate roads and reliable transport. We spent the night in La Ceiba, a town which we had been warned was “a shithole” and was, in reality, far worse than a shithole. The next morning we made haste to get the hell out of there, battling the pouring rain to hail a taxi headed for the ferry terminal. Once here, we spent upwards of an hour waiting in line to buy tickets for the ferry across to the island of Utila, a line which seemed to get larger rather than smaller, as hordes of extended family members sauntered over under the pretext of chatting to those waiting in line, then never left.
The ferry was surprisingly pleasant, aside from the fact that the same extended family, which we presumed was going on their first boat ride, were horrifically loud. There seemed to be some kind of competition going on amongst them to see who would spew first amongst them, and every time it looked like someone was about to throw up they’d begin screaming with excitement and pelting the potential spewee with abuse. I once again busted out my cherished noise-cancelling headphones (the savior of my ears throughout Central America), and all was well.
After another hour and a half of travel, we finally found ourselves on the shores of Utila, our intended destination. Yes, I’m well aware that I’ve spent the last 850 words spouting off about travelling from one location to another, but I felt it was necessary to communicate the level of effort required while travelling in Central America.
Why go to such effort to get to a mere island off the coast of Honduras, you might be asking? Well, by all accounts, Utila was no mere island. It was just short of the greatest place on earth, according to one friend who had been there a few months before us, and we would absolutely positively love the shit out of it. There was a vibrant party scene, food was good, the people were chill, and, most importantly, the scuba diving courses were cheap as chips. Myself and my travelling companions were dead keen to get our PADI Open Water diver certification so that we could go diving unattended and take lots of super cool pictures of ourselves being badass underwater, so Utila was a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, Utila was also in the throes of a chronic rainstorm – one which had been pounding the island for weeks and which showed no sign of letting up in the weeks to come. As such, as we stepped off the ferry, every single item we owned was almost instantly drenched. We met with a dive instructor of Parrots Hostel, who we had prearranged via the owner of Parrots to take us to our lodgings and get us settled in. We trudged along the single rain-drenched street with our clothes and other possessions getting even more saturated, arrived at the hostel, were told that our rooms wouldn’t be cleaned for another 6 hours as it was Saturday (apparently a religious day for the cleaner and various other island residents), and left to our own devices. We looked around our soiled room, prodded our squelching suitcases, and wondered why the fuck we’d come all this way.
Things went from bad to worse when we went down the street for a late lunch. Finding what we deemed to be a suitable establishment, based on a relatively inoffensive décor and 2 good GooglePlus reviews, we sat down and made our order.
It turned out that this was the restaurant from hell, with the waiter proceeding to mess up every single thing imaginable, and throw in a few unwanted extras to boot. In the words of Liivi’s review, “This place is disgusting. Disgusting food – there were chunks of weird stuff in the meat. The staff made three mistakes with our order and didn’t try to correct them. They didn’t care at all. There was an old man peeing with his bits out in front of the bathroom. Horrendous place, would never recommend that you waste your time or money here.”
Now, having spent a number of months in Central already, we’d had our fair share of horrendous eating experiences. But this was next level horrendous. The “chunks of weird stuff” were in Stefan’s burger, which I unfortunately made the mistake of examining closer, concluding with a shudder that the mysterious item appeared to be rubbery yet meaty, with thick black hairs sprouting out of it. My conclusion was a large black rat, or some sort of malformed swamp being. Either way, thanks but no thanks.
So. We’d been travelling for a trillion hours through some of the most dangerous locales on earth, all our worldly belongings were completely satched and it continued to positively piss down, we’d been fed things which a hungry street dog would refuse to eat (or WAS it street dog that we had been fed? Hmmmm), and our accommodations were awaiting the attentions of a cleaner who had made up a story about how Saturdays were religious days, in order to get an extra day off. Utila was not putting on the most welcoming of receptions to a squad of fatigued travelers.
Noting that a dive course might require us to remain on the island for some time, we endeavored to find more favourable accommodation. Squelching back and forth along the sodden main (and only) street, we eventually happened upon Utila Water Sports. Having visited and been somewhat disappointed by the sales pitch down at Underwater Vision (where the who’s who of cool travelers went to get their drink on, under the pretense of obtaining their diving cert), Utila Water Sports (UWS) was our last resort. And we were pleasantly surprised – we received the undivided attention of not one but two competent managers, received a super polished sales pitch, were shown around the property and given a look at the dive equipment we’d be using and the rooms we might be sleeping in, and given a price which wasn’t too much more expensive than that offered at Parrots or Underwater Vision. UWS operated under a mandate of quality and slightly classier living, and we respected that.
So, we forked out the US$320 pp for 5 nights of accom and the 4 day PADI Open Water diving course, and moved our stuff from the derelict rooms of Parrots into the much nicer (and cleaner) digs at UWS. Being good pals, we elected to stay in the somewhat unfinished, more remote “Pilot Room”, and let Sandra and Stefan stay in the finished, more central normal private room. Which was fine, apart from the lack of hot water (a hot shower after being saturated for 12 hours was looking pretty darn fine by this point) and lack of wifi. So yeah, it wasn’t great, considering we’d just paid for the island’s closest thing to luxury accommodation.
Sub-par accom notwithstanding, the next day dawned bright and sunny, offering the opportunity for us to prevent all of our clothes and travel documents from becoming excessively moldy. Plus, it was day one of our dive course, and we were keen to get started. We had chosen to complete all of the theory part of the four day course in one sitting, rather than a bit each day, in order to get out diving and make the most of a small forecasted break in the shitty weather. The day passed without incident, and we learned a few pointers on how not to die while 18 metres underwater.
The next day we geared up with tanks, buoyancy vests, wetsuits, snorkels and weights and embarked upon three days of underwater trials. Our instructor, Dave, was the perfect mix of hilarious and authoritative, ensuring we had an enjoyable time but also ensuring we didn’t suffocate, drown, or damage the defenceless coral surrounding us during our underwater practicals. Liivi had a bit of a hard time making the first plunge into the water with the dive gear on, tears were shed, and I was forced to remind her that this happened every time we did something overly adventurous and she always got over it and always had a fantastic time. Bravery prevailed in the end, and we all sunk to the bottom as one.
We were put through all manner of insane tests, ranging from simple procedures for equalizing our ears as we descended, to getting our regulators (the thing that goes into your mouth, makes you look ridiculous, and gives you air) ripped from our mouths and having to replace them in our mouths with a controlled arm movement, to having our regulators AND mask removed and forced to swim 10 metres without air or sight underwater. Fun times. Some of it was a little alarming, but mostly it was super fun and I for one felt pretty darn cool – I was breathing underwater, bitches!
On round two of our practicals, we had an unfortunate departure from our group. Liivi had been having issues equalizing her ears as we descended underwater, and eventually reached a point where it was too painful to keep doing it. Her heart was in it, but apparently her auditory canals weren’t. Our group dropped to 4.
Then, all of a sudden, it was over. We’d passed every test with flying colours, and it was time to celebrate with Dave over a rum or three. We hit the “town”, following along on the nightly migration of divers from the bar at Underwater Vision to Skid Row to Tranquila, and then on to an electronic festival on the outskirts of the island. It was good times, although the electronic music was utterly atrocious. We had a few nights like these during our 10 day stint on the island, but nowhere near as many as the “younguns” over at Underwater Vision, who were probably boozed off their faces even when they were underwater doing their dive training. Where they got the money to drink 24/7 was beyond us – drinks and food were actually quite expensive by Central standards. Mummy and daddy, probably. Plus, lets face it – they probably weren’t halfway into a 13 month tour of the world either.
Once PADI certified, we were rewarded with two free “fun dives” – exactly what they sound like really, just diving and having a good time without any instructor yelling at you or ripping off your life-giving regulator. We were lucky enough to get a nice enough day to head around to the north side of the island, where the diving was reportedly infinitely better and there was a chance of spotting the Moby Dick of diving – whale sharks! Alas, we didn’t see anything too exciting, possibly on account of our guide, who was a self-declared sea slug enthusiast and was more interested in slimy slithery things on the sea floor than cool big things with teeth. We still had an awesome time though, and I spotted a moray eel, a lionfish hideout, hundreds of cool exotic tropical fish, barracuda sliding ominously by, a seahorse, and some stingrays. Not a bad lineup, despite the lack of whale sharks.
Other than spending an inordinate amount of time under the water or under the influence of watery alcoholic beverages, we spent time hunting around for the best spot to eat (there being only two small food markets to buy “fresh” produce from), working on our laptops on the large porch which surrounded our accommodations and watching the hummingbirds flit from hibiscus to hibiscus, chilling in the sun by our own private dock, or heading out for a spot of paddleboarding. Paddleboarding was particularly fun, as we could borrow the boards for free any time we wanted from UWS and just bring them back whenever. They also offered some very cool wildlife spotting, including multiple Tarpin sightings and a number of cool eagle rays gliding around directly under our boards.
By this time, we’d been on the tiny island of Utila for 10 days, and it’s hospitality was starting to wear a little thin. We debated with our Swiss traveling companions as to whether we should press on to Nicaragua, or go and sample the slightly more sophisticated delights of the nearby island of Roatan.
Eventually, Roatan came up trumps, and we made plans with Captain Dillard of the Lady Julia to ferry us across to the settlement of West End on Roatan. Since the organized ferry service had been discontinued some years back, the only way to get between the islands was to either fly direct for a hefty sum, take the normal ferry all the way back to La Ceiba then another ferry to Roatan, or charter a boat. For US$45 each, this seemed by far the best option, and I was actually pleasantly surprised when we strolled up at 6.45am to find a spotless boat and one, to my landlubbers eye, which was not likely to get us or our bags sopping wet. This was off to a good start.
But as soon as the good captain and his sons/first mates fired up the engines, things went downhill fairly quickly. The noise from the engines was absolutely deafening, to the point where Liivi and I were forced to retreat to the much rockier front cabin to escape the noise and I was required to wrap a t-shirt around my head, bandito styles. It wasn’t nearly enough, and I was tormented both by the knowledge of my noise cancelling headphones calling to me from within the ships hold, and the fact that the captain had his own protective earmuffs but failed to mention that we might need the same. This, along with sizable swells on the open water, made for a moderately unpleasant 50 minute commute.
With a vast sense of relief and an alarming ringing in our ears, we eventually made landfall by 8am and began to explore our new island. We instantly got a feeling of welcoming which had been missing from Utila, and it was definitely more “relax mon” than the previous island, possibly owing to a slightly more discerning tourist base and far nicer beaches (what beaches Utila did have were either overrun with locals or festooned with rubbish, and in most cases both). Everything seemed better here – the streets were clean, the shops were tasteful, the markets were closer to supermarkets than the sad little stores in Utila, and the restaurants actually served good food and even made the occasional foray away from the typical fish, rice and beans that Utilans seemed so fond of.
The downside was that things were a little more on the expensive side, with your typical meal costing roughly the same as it would in the US. But we were happy to fork out for some half-decent cuisine. Hotels and hostels were also a trifle more expensive than Utila, but not excessively so – after walking across town for a few hours trying to find the perfect accommodations, we eventually settled on a “family suite” at the Coconut Tree Cabins for US$100 per night for the 4 of us. Not too bad, considering it was spacious and had a small, horribly furnished kitchen.
We spent our first day on Roatan settling in and relaxing by the beach. I had managed to get the upper half of my body horribly burnt the day before while paddleboarding shirtless, so my trip to the beach involved rapid forays into the water followed by coordinated retreats into the shade of the palm trees. Despite my disfiguration, the water was fantastic.
The next day dawned bright and hot, so we decided to jump on one of the many local fishing boats and head for the tourist mecca of West Bay, apparently one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We had heard that all you had to do was walk out onto a dock an one of the fishermen would shout you over and offer you a ride to West Bay for around $3 pp, and that was exactly how it went. 10 minutes later, we stepped off into purported paradise and began looking for a place at the beach to while away the hours.
West Bay was positively crawling with tourists, probably on account of the large cruise ships which we could see looming on the horizon. As such, it was a tough job finding a place to relax on the beach that wasn’t in direct sunlight, with the only shady areas being paid loungers under umbrellas. We walked with Sandra and Stefan to the only ATM on this side of the island (of the three ATMs in West Bay, 1 was broken, 1 was decommissioned, and 1 was out of cash – the classic case of “you can only pay for things with cash, but we don’t actually have any cash for you to pay with”), then parted ways with them and used some of the cash to pay for a couple of chairs for the day. They were $10 each, but it was the only way to get a good spot on the beach, so it was kind of a no-brainer.
We spent the rest of the day swimming, getting tacos delivered to us from the restaurant which owned the chairs, and doing a beach-themed photoshoot for Liivi’s online profile. At one point, our taco server must have freaked out when he saw us walking away with the camera and some of our bags, and ran about a kilometer down the beach after us thinking we weren’t going to pay him. We tried to explain that we left our towels on our chairs for a reason, but the concept of walking more than 20 metres from one’s chair was completely alien to him.
The following days were spent huddled inside, as an inopportune thunderstorm decided to move in and stay put over the island of Roatan. Our accommodation had long ago ceased to be waterproof, and literal bucketloads of rainwater came gushing in through all the window fixtures, creating indoor swimming pools and seeking to saturate our bedding.
2 days later, as we made ready to take the taxi across the island to Dixon Cove and catch the ferry back to the mainland, it was still pouring down, and our chances of actually getting on the ferry were uncertain. Having arrived at Carl O McNab Sr. Maritime Terminal, we were forced to wait outside until they officially announced that the ferry would indeed be leaving. Relieved, we purchased our tickets, enjoyed a relatively uneventful boat ride back to mainland Honduras, jumped in a shuttle headed for Leon, Nicaragua, and that was it for ponderous Honduras.