You can pay a dive tour specialist a small fortune, stay at a luxury resort, and enjoy world-class diving on Utila. Or you can put it together for yourself, have twice the experiences for half the money -- and enjoy world-class diving on Utila. Take your pick. I prefer the latter.
Independent travel there is not without its glitches. In the pandemonium of La Ceiba airport, my husband and I missed our 10-minute flight to the island, though we were waiting in the departure hall. Sympathetic staff found us a room nearby, then got us onto a chartered flight the next morning.
Utila's population of 3000 squeezes into one long road along the coast, and within ten minutes of landing at the airstrip we'd found a neat, breezy hotel room for only $10 a night. Choosing a dive shop took longer. Alongside two posh resorts, the island is packed with small operators, from the adequate to the downright scary. Some emphasized rock-bottom prices, others their party-hearty atmosphere; neither very reassuring.
After two passes through town, we chose Utila Dive Centre, one of the largest and longest-running. The equipment looked well-kept, a number of daily dives were offered, and the place positively swarmed with helpful trainee divemasters. And the prices were eye-popping: 10 dives, with all equipment, for US$125!
So, what do you get on a $12.50 dive? No luxurious boats (some days found us doing backrolls from a fishing dory) and certainly no gourmet lunches. But the underwater life was stunning, with black coral in pristine condition, and mobs of obscure fish playing hide-and-seek in the reef.
Utila's dive sites stretch along two sides of the island. The South Side, minutes from the dive shops, is shallow and sheltered. After a dozen dives there, it was impossible to pick only one favorite. Ron's Wreck is home to lobsters, shrimp, a veritable jungle of crinoids and Christmas tree worms and other critters, while Black Coral Wall must be one of the few places in the world where the species is visible at reasonable depths.
The North Side faces out into the Caribbean, with deeper, more rugged sites and some spectacular dropoffs. Blackish Point has a gorgeous overhang, shot through with shafts of sunlight, and The Maze, as its name suggests, is a wonderland of canyons and grooves, home to the greatest variety of fish we saw off Utila.
And then there's Black Hills, near the island's easternmost point. This deep underwater mound is swept by strong currents, purported to bring many unusual species in from the open ocean. I can't say, because I was seasick. Violently. On the boat, at the surface, 100 feet down... I ended up getting a humiliating tow back to the boat from the divemaster--one month after finishing my own Rescue Diver training!
Utila is a very, very small place. I was soothing my stomach with a bowl of soup in a cafe later when the waitress asked, "Are you diving with Utila Dive Centre? I heard a girl got so seasick today their boat had to turn back!" My face went from green to red, until she kindly told me the same thing had happened to her.
New Year's Eve on Utila was quite a celebration. As we passed the town's dance hall around midnight, hundreds of locals and divers were boogying up a storm. On our way to breakfast the next morning, we found them still dancing. By afternoon, the partiers were flagging a bit, but things livened up again after dark. As we headed off for our morning dive on January 2, the party was finally breaking up-- the town's generator had run out of fuel.
Just think of what you'd miss at those boring and expensive old resorts.
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