Diving on a Dime in Utila
Off the coast of Honduras is an island offering the cheapest high-quality scuba diving on earth -- but get there before the developers do
Although it's been nearly 300 years since Blackbeard sailed these turquoise waters with the pirate's crimson banner flying from his topmast, red flags still flutter over the sunken treasures of Utila. But these days they signal the exploits of more fun-loving adventurers -- scuba divers exploring the underwater bounty that surrounds this island off the north coast of Honduras. Unlike many Caribbean dive destinations -- including its larger neighbor Roatan--Utila is not an island of fancy resorts or expensive restaurants. There's no beach scene, not a single Jet Ski buzzing across the harbor, and you can count the number of private yachts on one hand. But this 21-square-mile island's spectacular reefs, rustic charm, and low prices are luring travelers -- mostly Europeans -- by the boatload. From the crowded backpacker hostels of Central America to the message boards in cyberspace, the word is out: Utila is one of the cheapest places to dive in the world, and one of the best.
"It's the perfect place to learn to dive," says Jeff Van der Hulst, a Dutch dive instructor who teaches on the island. The water is warm, the visibility good, and many interesting dive sites lie only a short boat ride from the harbor. And though global warming has been killing reefs around the world at an alarming rate, Utila's are still, for now, largely pristine. Bizarre corals, exotic sea creatures, and nearby shipwrecks keep divers coming back here year after year.
Competition between dive shops--there are 11--keeps prices low. Although the cost of a PADI open--water course can dip to $99, the most reputable dive shops charge $171 for a four--day course -- including insurance and (humble) accommodations. Superior equipment, bigger dive boats, smaller classes, and better instruction account for the difference.
Although many divers who come to Utila are already experienced, most of those who step off the ferry have never strapped on a scuba tank in their lives and can barely tell an octopus from a depth gauge. But after a couple of hours of instruction on land, classes shift to the ocean floor, where passing schools of fish seem oblivious to the nervous, bubbling newcomers.
Perhaps because diving is a sport that demands an unusual degree of trust -- in yourself, in your diving buddy, and in your equipment -- confidence and camaraderie bloom quickly here. To the syncopated beat of Spanish--language reggae booming from the dive boats, students from a half--dozen countries are soon dancing on deck between dives, and swimming together in water so blue it seems electric.
Kicking back, apres dive
Later, as the sun sinks behind distant palms, divers gather on the dock of the Tropical Sunset Bar to swap stories and down cold bottles of Honduran beer whose name, Salva Vida, means "lifesaver." And at ten lempiras a bottle (65[cents]), nobody goes thirsty. Friends old and new just savor the evening breeze and watch soaring pelicans dive for fish, becoming mesmerized for long moments that seem impossibly, gloriously perfect.
It's a lifestyle that has drawn people to Utila for centuries. Paya Indians, notorious pirates, freed slaves, and British colonists have all, at various times, called this island home. And although Britain signed Utila over to Honduras in 1859, the place still retains an odd Anglo flavor. Longtime residents speak a lilting English that blends Caribbean rhythms with strangely archaic expressions. In fact, they still refer to people from the mainland as "Spaniards," a relic from centuries past, when English privateers hunted Spanish galleons lumbering home to Europe laden with pieces of eight.
Despite the quiet presence of a few cybercafes, Utila still has something of a lost--in--time feel, untouched by ATM machines, cell phones, or the modern trappings of convenience. Utila Town, as the community is called, flanks one long street that hugs the harbor. This narrow road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass abreast, is lined with a few small stores, dive shops, restaurants, and old wooden houses -- many with broad porches draped in flowering vines.
Utila's spirit of simplicity is perhaps best captured in a little restaurant called Mario's -- a dozen tables under a corrugated roof -- that despite its humble appearance serves up a mean barracuda, shark, tuna, wahoo, conch, or calamari -- whatever the fishermen happen to catch that day. And when the power goes out, as it often does, the waiter just lights some candles and keeps on serving. No meal at Mario's tops 75 lempiras ($5), except for the greatest lobster tail ever prepared. Grilled with garlic, olive oil, salt, and black pepper, it's simple and sublime, and only 180 lempiras ($12).