Honduras may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a tropical paradise, especially as it’s often referred to as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. But hidden away in the Caribbean Sea lies the small island of Utila – a diver’s haven that’s been drawing visitors from around the world for decades.
Utila’s clear waters, colourful reefs, and diverse marine life offer an unforgettable diving experience that’s hard to beat. The little island comes with a laid-back vibe, friendly locals and a safe atmosphere perfect for anyone looking to learn diving or joining a nomad community. And as you learn to dive only once, I would suggest you to do it in paradise! And the best part? Utila is one of the cheapest places in the world to do it!
To be honest, I never in a million years thought I’d end up in Honduras. The country’s reputation had me choosing other countries first and anyway diving had never really been on my radar, so I had no real reason to put Utila on my top bucket list.
But as it often goes while traveling, fate had other plans. One night while dining with a new friend in Nicaragua, I learned she was headed to Utila the next day. Suddenly, the idea of exploring this mysterious island piqued my curiosity. I didn’t have any set plans, so why not tag along?
The next day, I found myself second-guessing my impulsive decision, but it was too late. I’d already contacted the Utila dive center and booked a bus to take me there. So there I was, heading to this country I didn’t really know anything about. But hey, that’s all part of the adventure, right?
Where is Utila and How to Get There
Let’s first dive into the details of where Utila is and how to get there.
Honduras is located in Central America, between Guatemala and Nicaragua. And Utila is a tiny island nestled in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of mainland Honduras. It’s part of a group of islands known as the Bay Islands, which also includes Roatan and Guanaja.
Getting to Utila can be done in a few different ways:
*The most convenient option is to fly into Roatan’s airport, which offers direct flights from various major US cities as well as from mainland Honduras and other countries in Central America. From Roatan, you can hop on a quick domestic flight or catch a ferry to Utila.
*Another option is to fly into San Pedro Sula’s Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport on the Honduran mainland and take a bus or private shuttle to La Ceiba, a coastal town where you can catch a ferry to Utila.
*I chose a third option organised by a hostel in Nicaragua: I booked a $80-shuttle from Leon, Nicaragua directly to La Ceiba in Honduras. I was the only passenger that day, so I got to choose between taking a shuttle bus or riding in a 4×4 with a driver. They told me the 4×4 would be comfier, and they weren’t lying.
However, throughout the journey, I couldn’t help but feel like a drug mule as we were stopped at least 15 times at various highway checkpoints. At each stop, the driver rolled down my window so the military could see me, a fair-skinned European woman sitting in the back with no clue what was going on. I just smiled and hoped that was enough. At the border, where I had to get out and get my passport stamped, the border police were actually charming, and despite the stricter Covid regulations at the time, everything went smoothly. We arrived late at night, and I spent a night in a hostel before heading to the ferry the next day.
Is Utila, Honduras Safe
One question people often ask me: is Utila, Honduras safe. Well, I have to say that Honduras did feel pretty “militarized” compared to the neighboring Central American countries, and maybe I didn’t feel quite as at ease. But then again, I’m not the type of person to shy away from somewhere just because it’s labeled as “unsafe”.
Of course, it’s important to take sensible precautions and respect the local culture. But at the same time, it’s also important not to let fear hold you back from experiencing all that the world has to offer. I mean, in my experience, I didn’t feel any more unsafe in Central America than I would in some big European cities at night. So my advice is to exercise common sense, stay aware of your surroundings, and don’t let unfounded worries ruin your trip.
And when it comes to Utila, it’s a whole different story. The island is completely off the mainland, with its own friendly and international atmosphere. There are tons of divers, backpackers, and expats from all corners of the globe. So if I was you, I wouldn’t let any hesitation stop you from joining them to explore this island for yourself.
Diving in Utila
When I got to Utila, I was in for a wild ride! I was running late and had to catch up on all the theoretical courses while simultaneously jumping into practice with the group I was supposed to join. And to top it off, I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about!
But let me tell you, it was totally worth it. Utila is a diver’s paradise, and the first thing you’ll want to do is choose a diving center and sign up for the course that suits your fancy. There are tons of options available, from beginner courses to advanced training, so you’ll definitely find something that fits your skill level and interests. And trust me, once you’re out there in the water, it’s like nothing else in the world matters. It’s just you, the ocean, and all the incredible sea life waiting to be discovered.
Utila Diving Center
There are loads of different diving centres, and I went with Underwater Vision because it’s where my friend from Nicaragua – already PADI certified- was going too. As a complete newbie to diving, I had no idea what to expect, but I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. The resort-like place, the affordable price and the instructors were all incredible!
The fun story: I had a bit of trouble with the breathing part. I mean, come on, how hard could it be to breathe underwater through a regulator, right? Well, apparently harder than I thought. The first time I put my face in the water and tried to take a breath, I panicked and ended up suffocating. I felt like a total amateur, which I actually was.
But the instructors at Underwater Vision were so patient and understanding. They didn’t make me feel like an idiot or anything. Instead, they took their time with me. It was a real breakthrough moment when I finally got the hang of it and was able to take a deep, steady breath without feeling like I was dying. It was all about convincing my brain that it’s okay to breathe underwater. When you think, it’s a good thing my brain was skeptical, at least it still had some life-saving instincts left!
As a quick explanation for newbies, there are different levels in the PADI diving certifications, including:
- Open Water Diver: This is the first level where you can consider yourself as a diver. It takes 3-4 days and teaches you the basics of scuba diving. Once certified, you can dive up to 18 meters with a buddy.
- Advanced Open Water Diver: This course allows you to expand your diving skills and knowledge. You will complete five adventure dives. Once certified, you can then dive up to 30 meters with a buddy.
- Rescue Diver: The Rescue Diver course teaches you how to prevent and manage problems in the water and become a more competent diver. Basically, the course helps you become a better dive buddy and a more confident diver by role-playing what to do in different scenarios.
- Divemaster: The Divemaster certification is the first professional level in the PADI system. It trains you to supervise diving activities and assist instructors in teaching students.
- Instructor Development Course: This is the course you take to become a PADI Instructor.
- Specialty Courses: There are many specialty courses available that focus on specific aspects of diving, such as underwater photography, deep diving, wreck diving, and more.
Obviously, I started with the Open Water certification which cost me around $320 and included the courses, equipment rental, reef tax and even free accommodation. Plus, they threw in two free fun dives once I got certified! The accommodation was basic and usually shared, but it had everything I needed. The atmosphere was really fun, the place was designed to meet people and we all had some great time sharing diving experiences.
Why is Utila Great for Diving
- One of the Cheapest Diving Destinations in the World
For those familiar with Koh Tao in Thailand, Utila is a bit like the Koh Tao of Central America. Diving here is incredibly affordable, not to mention the low cost of living on the island itself. From hostels to cafes to restaurants, everything is reasonably priced. Additionally, you can enjoy diving all year round in a warm and pleasant climate.
- International Diving Community
When I first arrived, I was quite impressed by the international community on Utila. Despite COVID restrictions at that time, I met people from all corners of the world. The atmosphere was so chill and welcoming. The island is small, so you get to know everyone pretty quickly.
And when it’s time to let loose, parties pop up all over the place. If you’re diving the next day, don’t worry, there are plenty of places to relax. Plus, English is widely spoken, so no language barriers to worry about.
- A Fascinating Underwater World
The island of Utila sits right on the edge of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System – the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. The crystal-clear waters of Utila are like a giant, real-life aquarium filled with colorful and fascinating fish – it’s like swimming in a Finding Nemo movie!
With incredible marine biodiversity, you’ll get to see everything from tiny clownfish, to impressive coral formations, to stunning sting rays, and much more. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the majestic whale shark.
On my very first dive, a curious sea turtle was swimming around us, following our every move. Remembering rule number 1, which is not to touch any animals or coral, I was so focused on not getting too close to this little guy that I almost forgot to enjoy the moment.
How Many Days Should you Plan For
The time it takes to complete the PADI certifications in Utila depends on the level of certification you are aiming for and how much time you can commit to the training. Also, most of the people extend once certified and some even call the island their forever home.
Generally, the Open Water certification takes around 4-5 days to complete, while the Advanced Open Water certification takes around 2-3 days. The Divemaster course can take several weeks to a few months. However, these timeframes can vary based on the dive center, your pace of learning, and any unforeseen circumstances that may arise during the training process, so check in advance before booking your way out.
But one general advice: don’t fly directly after your last dive. It’s recommended to wait at least 18-24 hours after your last dive before flying to avoid the risk of decompression sickness, which can lead to serious health issues. Just so that you know!
What Else To Do in Utila
Utila has more to offer than just diving, so don’t be afraid to explore! Apart from the incredible diving locations, you can relish snorkeling and stand-up paddleboarding in the clear waters and gorgeous beaches of the island. You can even plan a day trip to Water Cay, an uninhabited island, to soak up the sun, sea, and sand. Another popular activity is kayaking through the mangrove channel, where you may spot diverse birds and wildlife.
If you want to take a break from being in the water, you can go hiking and explore the island’s lush vegetation and wildlife, or go on a boat tour to discover hidden coves and remote beaches. Want to move around in style? Rent a Tuk Tuk or ATV and explore the island like a local!
Make sure to visit Pumpkin Hill Viewpoint for breathtaking panoramic views of the sea and landscape. And don’t forget to check out the nearby beach, a peaceful and secluded spot that’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and relaxing.
For foodies out there, you can’t leave Utila without eating your bodyweight in baleadas! These Honduran flour tortillas filled with mashed fried beans, cheese, and other yummy ingredients like avocado, plantains, meat, or scrambled eggs are a must-try. Check out Mama Rosa, a local spot that I visited daily and still dream about!
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also rent a private island nearby. Little Cay and Sandy Cay are perfect for a romantic getaway or a unique experience with friends. Get ready to feel like Robinson Crusoe for a night or a weekend!
When is the Best Time to Go to Honduras
The best time to go diving in Utila is typically between March and July, as well as from September to November. During these months, the weather is usually dry, and visibility is at its peak. March–April are some of the best months to spot whale sharks.
However, diving is possible year-round in Utila, even during the rainy season when the diving conditions are still favorable. Good to know: the peak tourism season runs from mid-December to the end of February.
Final Thoughts on Utila, Honduras
If you’re itching for an affordable adventure and want to dive into the stunning underwater world, then you gotta check out Utila! The warm, clear waters are perfect for diving, and the island’s many dive shops offer courses and certifications for all levels. And Utila itself is a treasure trove of fun activities – from kayaking and snorkeling to hiking and paddleboarding, you won’t be bored for a second.
But what really sets Utila apart is the community – it’s like one big happy family! You’ll meet people from all over the world who share your passion for the ocean and love to explore. And when you need a break, there are plenty of beaches and chill spots to unwind and soak up the sun.
So, whether you’re traveling solo, with your crew, or your special someone, Utila, Honduras is the perfect place to create unforgettable memories. It’s no wonder that so many divers and travelers return to Utila time and time again. The island should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list, and I highly recommend you go and experience it for yourself!
See you underwater!