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We spent a week making our way from Palenque, Mexico across northern Guatemala to La Ceiba, Honduras.
Both San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba were ‘interesting’ places to say. Be cautious and stay safe.
La Ceiba was our target destination … this is where you catch the ferry to the Bay Islands (Utila and Roatan).
We had no accommodation pre-booked on Utila, and we didn’t want to rush and head straight out to Utila that same day on the 4:00pm ferry.
We, also didn’t want to arrive in Utila without an accommodation booking forcing us to compete with weekenders (and, therefore, more expensive accommodation).
So, whilst en route to La Ceiba, we pre-booked 1 night at the Gaucamayos Backpacker Hostel. It was one of the few hotels in La Ceiba that we could afford.
Due to a booking problem, we were upgraded to a big King Room with 2 Double Beds, a Single Bed, Private (cold water) Bathroom, and Cable TV (with some English channels).
Yet again, there was no wardrobe … so out came my washing line.
We paid EXPEDIA US$18 / night (US$14 / night after I applied my EXPEDIA POINTS discount). We extended our stay by 2 nights through to Monday morning (at US$17 / night).
On Monday morning we prepared to head for Utila.
LA CEIBA TO UTILA ISLAND:
The ferry leaves at 09:00am and you are told to be at the port 30 minutes early.
We were on the street by 08:00am. A lady at reception offered to take us to the Ferry Port for HNL150 … we negotiated her down to the correct price of HNL100.
Your main bags are checked in at a baggage counter and you are given a security tag for each bag.
We started boarding at 08:50am. To board, you have to show your boarding ticket and Passport / ID (again).
You run the usual ‘gauntlet’ of waiting Tuk Tuk drivers.
Utila Island (Isla de Utila) is the smallest of the Honduras’ major Bay Islands, after Roatán and Guanaja, in a region that marks the south end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (the second-largest in the world).
The eastern end of the island is capped by a thin veneer of basaltic volcanic rocks, erupted from several pyroclastic cones including the 74 meter Pumpkin Hill – which forms the highest point on the island.
Utila has been documented in history since Columbus’ fourth voyage, and currently enjoys growing tourism with emphasis on recreational diving. It is known as one of the world’s best dive locations. The modern people of Utila are of African (Garifuna), English and Dutch descent.
Archaeological, historical and ethnographic evidence indicates that Utila was inhabited by the Paya well before the Europeans arrived – as long ago as 600AD. The Paya may have entered Central America in the great North to South America migration in 5,000 BC, although to the contrary, linguistic studies indicate that the Paya may have been descendants of South American tribes.
With favourable diving conditions, the island increasingly attracts scuba divers and more traditional international backpackers. There are more than eighty diving sites located around the island including extensive reefs teeming with marine life – including the elusive whale shark.
Utila is also the home of the annual festival Sunjam. Sunjam is the largest electronic music event in Honduras, and one of the largest and most important in Central America. The date is fixed to the first Saturday of August every year. The event attracts world class international DJs as headliners and invites the best regional talent to perform.
AROUND THE ISLAND:
Most of the roads on the island are within a 2 square km area around Utila Town center.
An additional network of roads can be found east of the town center taking you to the Airport and Pumpkin Hill Beach.
AREA A – SOUTH WEST OF THE FERRY DOCK:
This is what you find as you walk back to the Ferry Dock …
From there, it is a short walk past shops of various kinds to the Ferry Dock.
AREA B – SOUTH EAST OF THE FERRY DOCK:
The first place that you come across is the Sea Eye #1. They had 1 bedroom apartments going for US$450 / month and 2 bedroom for US$550 / month. Both excluded electric. But, both included free access to Bando Beach and a weekly ‘quick clean’. They didn’t have any apartments free, so I could not actually see inside one.
AREA C – INLAND:
If you go even more rural you can find yourself fending off swarms of mosquitoes … they even try and get into your ears! We were eaten alive just going to look at 3 apartments. The smaller apartments up here can go for under US$350 / month (exc electric) … but US$400-US$450 plus is more common.
Before you know it, you are back on Main Street.
AREA D – FURTHER AFIELD:
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodation is expensive for GRANDPAckers.
Accommodation-wise, this is typical of what you find … this is for 1 night at the beginning of July 2017 …
HOTELS & HOSTELS (Nightly Rates):
July is the start of high season.
PLEASE NOTE: Hotel and Hostel search sites sometimes display prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. You may have to add up to 22% to the displayed price to get the final price.
VACATION RENTALS (Weekly Rates):
If you plan to stay a week or more, another good option is to use AirBnB or TRIPADVISOR.COM to book a Holiday Rental / Vacation Rental.
Holiday Rentals are usually rented by the week. A comparable search reveals the following … please note that these prices are in US$s …
Vacation Rentals are, usually, displayed INCLUSIVE of TAXES but EXCLUSIVE of any Security Deposit (if required). BUT, the displayed price may be EXCLUSIVE of the host site’s Service Fees (which can add as much as 16%).
In S.E. Asia, I wouldn’t touch AirBnB with a barge pole … in my opinion and experience the accommodation that you find is an absolute rip off. However, in Mexico they are definitely worth a look.
I suggest that GRANDPAckers look for an apartment on / near the waterfront on the Main Road west of the Ferry Dock going towards the Public Beach (Crepes Beach). This offers the best access to everything that Utila has to offer.
Alternatively, look in / around ‘The Point’ … but only if you can find accommodation that offers free access to Bando Beach (e.g. at the Sea Eye Hotel).
Based on online accommodation prices, many GRANDPAckers would be put off coming to Utila.
But, don’t be discouraged … read on …
Accommodation on the usual online search engines was too expensive for our GRANDPAcking budget. Even a bunk bed in a dorm was going for US$24 / night!
We knew that we would have to just turn up and take a chance … there are, almost always, cheaper (unlisted) hotels to be found.
Back in La Ceiba, we started sending emails off to all of the budget accommodation that we could find. We asked for monthly (apartment) as well as daily (hotel) prices.
The Margarita Hotel offered us a Double Room for US$20 / night. This gave us enough confidence to turn up on Utila without a booking. We found the Margarita on AboutUtil.com. It was not listed on the normal search engines.
On arrival in Utila, we found the nearest cafe and settled in. One person looked after the luggage whilst the other went out to have a look around. After spending 1.5 hours looking at numerous hotels (on the main road west of the ferry dock), we concluded that Margarita’s was the best value for money.
Margarita’s had made a mistake. Their normal nightly rate was US$26 and they had only offered US$20 / night because they thought that we were staying 1 week … but, they honoured their quoted price.
We got a spacious 2 Double bed Fan Room with hot water ensuite. It even had a little wardrobe!
The hotel has a pleasant balcony but no view of the sea.
Less than 50% of the apartments that we email replied. A couple were under US$400 / month but most started at US$400-450 for a 1 bedroom apartment.
We spent the rest of our first day wandering around town, following up on ‘apartment for rent’ signs and asking people. There are a lot of very ‘average’ 1 bedroom apartments being advertised in the US$400-450 price range.
We were given a couple of ‘leads’ and one person put us in contact with Mike: phone 32675439. Mike offers an ‘apartment finder’ service. He has lived on Utila for 12 years and knows most of the apartments around. He met us and showed us what he had available (that he considered safe and secure). He charges a % from the landlord for this service … you do not pay extra on your rental.
It had rained heavily only 2 days before. This hatched the mosquito eggs and the mozzies were out in force. We visited 3 inland apartments set in nice floral grounds. We were bitten to death just walking to them.
There was no way that you would be able to sit outside on a balcony comfortably. We decided to limit our search to places nearer the waterfront.
On our first night we celebrated our arrival down the Skid Row over a few beers. We met some expats who had lived on Utila for over 3 years. They suggested that we get on to Facebook and join the ‘Buy and Sell Utila’ Group. This puts you into contact with a big group of locals. There, we posted a request for an apartment (within our rice range) and waited for responses.
We got a few responses but most were inland, up the hill, in the mozzie infested area of town.
And, it came with good wifi and Cable TV (with many English speaking channels).
We paid US$450 / month excluding drinking water and electric. They required an additional US$100 security deposit. This was all paid up-front in cash.
There was already a credit on the electric meter that we had to buy for HNL400. At the end of our rental period, they will refund us any electric credit that we leave behind.
They provided a 5 Gallon Bottle of drinking water for HNL35. When it was empty, you just left the bottle outside your front door with HNL35 under it. When you came home, you had a new bottle waiting.
Have a look yourself:
You can walk everywhere.
You should pay about HNL20 for a Tuk Tuk to take you anywhere around town.
I had already purchased a TIGO Honduras SIMcard in San Pedro Sula. It came with 100MB of data for 1 day. I added a 1 week promotional internet package (for new users) for another HNL100 which came with 800Mb of data, unlimited Whatsapp, some free texts, and 300 minutes of TIGO-to-TIGO call time. Later, I found that they had also given me 500Mb of free data for 2 weeks.
On Utila, the signal was very variable. In my apartment, sometimes I got not signal at all. Out on the streets, it varied between ‘H’ and ‘4G’ depending on exactly where I was. I got the best and most consistent signal east of ‘The Point’ (east of Bando Beach).
Most Hotels and Restaurants / Bars provide free WiFi but the quality of that WiFi various considerably: from almost unusable to video streaming speeds.
If you rely on mobile communications, then you will (probably) want to consider a Data Plan … otherwise, you should be able to survive on the free connections that you get around town.
YOUR HEALTH & SAFETY:
There is no reason to feel unsafe here. But, as always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Central America.
Choose accommodation that is secure. Break-ins are fairly common (especially with un-secured apartments / houses).
The Bay Islands have a Sandfly problem: come prepared with repellents (DEET) and ointments. The mosquitoes can be a problem too.
There is 1 bank on Utila: Banco Atlanta. It is located near the Ferry Dock.
You get your normal banking services as well as Western Union.
The Atlanta allows a maximum transaction withdrawal of HNL4,000. UniBank HNL5,000.
I advise you to get your HNL at a BanPais ATM in La Ceiba. You can withdraw up to HNL10,000 in a single transaction.
WHEN TO GO:
As the rains hit the whole of Central America in June, the Bay Islands are one of the few places to take refuge.
Rain on the Bay Islands from June through September are half of what they are on other parts of the Caribbean Coast and a third (or more) of the rains inland.
I will provide more Information about day-to-day costs in my next post.
As a ‘heads up’, Utila is at the top-end of what GRANDPAckers can afford … if you come here, you will need to bend ‘GRANDPAcking Standards‘. However, once done, it is possible to live a decent lifestyle here if you are careful.
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