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Published: June 19th 2019
The water is stunning but that's pretty much the depth of the beach. The beaches on Roatan are apparently much better.
I did some research comparing the larger, Miami-esque island of Roatan to the laid-back, backpacker-friendly Utila and decided to go for the smaller, quieter option.
THE FERRY BARF-A-RAMA
Utila is 40km from La Ceiba, and the trip took about 40 minutes on a super-fast ferry, meaning that we were moving at over 32 knots (60 km/hr or 37 mph), which is insanely fast on open Caribbean waters. The math doesn't include the no-wake zones at either end. This translated into basically being stuck on the Bayern Kurve (Pittsburgh reference) for 40 minutes.
When we left the port in La Ceiba I wondered why four crewmen stood around the perimeter of the main cabin. At first the passengers were giggling and making roller coaster whoas in unison when we ramped off sizable waves at that speed. But about ten minutes in it got quiet and the crewmen began their task force. One marinero had a roll of barf bags that he handed out to anyone who raised their hand. Another carried a roll of paper towels to wipe their mouths. The third had a trash bin to throw out the full vomit bags, and the fourth walked around with a
Rock Harbour Canal
The canal is narrow (and only a half meter deep during low tide), but it apparently empties into the sea on the north side of the island, near Pumpkin Beach, even though it doesn't show that in Google maps.
can of air freshener to combat the vomit smell. There were roughly 100 people in the cabin and probably a quarter of them were puking. I was getting queasy myself but made it through, partly because I sat in the middle of the boat. And of course everyone treated the problem as if this was the natural order of the universe- no one suggested that they should simply slow down. Google "Utila Vomit Comet" for more colorful descriptions.
The island has the problem of having too many options. There are hundreds of hotels, cabanas, and resorts, most of which were completely empty, due to "problems on the mainland," meaning the violence and protests. The crash in 2007 also hit the island hard, and it's never recovered, but that hasn't stopped new places from opening - an odd complement to all the For Sale signs on Main Street. But the town is clean and charming, especially with all the ancient, weather-beaten wooden siding on many houses and shops.
The original plan was to stay on the wild/northern side of the island in a permanent tent at Camp Utila Village, but they were closed (add it to my list
Dock at Bando Beach
You apparently have to pay a fee to use the beach, but no one was there, so I didn't go searching for an attendant.
of miscommunications with booking.com) and it was almost dark, so I took a moto-taxi back to town and checked into the main hostel on the island, The Venue. I was the only one staying there, so I expected a quiet night, but there was a nearby club that blasted music till 4AM, so at breakfast at Munchies, I asked if they knew of a quieter option inland and they happened to own the newly-remodeled La Mansión, where I paid $15 a night for a dorm room and ended up having the whole house to myself for the night. The owners, Chris and Ana, are friendly and knowledgeable, and the place is spotless and comfortable. It was nice to get off the main drag and see how the locals, a mix of Latinos from the mainland and black islanders who speak a pidgin English, live outside of the tourist spots.
KAYAKING ROCK HARBOUR CANAL
This was one of the highlights of my weekend there. I went back to The Venue to rent a kayak for a couple of hours, since their dock has access to a lagoon, which leads into a mangrove swamp and eventually to a narrow canal that
It would be much more peaceful if there weren't so many tuk tuks and motos careening down the road. It must be a mess when the island is crowded.
was once used to take coconuts to the north. Apparently the bone fishing is so good there that Jimmy Carter came to visit for several days a few years ago. The canal was shaded and calm, but it was near dusk so the mosquitoes were unavoidable. I took some time to relax and meditate near the middle of the canal, but then the omni-present bass of reggaeton from that same club ruined the peace.
AS PRIMITIVE AS CAN BE
An information kiosk in the middle of town claims that the island was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe. Since no grade school student could have milked the abridged version more than I did - for book reports, projects, etc. - I stopped to read the diminutive print. The writer cites descriptions from the book and applies them to the geography of the island, which seems a bit spurious since many Caribbean islands share similar characteristics, but I nonetheless decided to hike to the top of Pumpkin Hill to see the whole island and perhaps a glimpse of the mainland, as the title character does.
Maybe I would have walked the mile and a half to the
trailhead a few years ago. But Utila was a deceiving 87 degrees. It felt much hotter, especially with the humidity, near-solstice sun and low vegetation, so I flagged down a moto-taxi and as he drove there I arranged for him to pick me up at the trailhead in a couple of hours. The trail to the top is obvious and is no more than a quarter mile long. The views from Pumpkin Hill were terrific, especially since it was breezy and the white-capped waves added texture to the sea, and I really got a sense of how small the island is. There's an abandoned tower at the top and a less-travelled trail heading down the steeper side of the hill, and anyone who knows me knows what decision I made and how it went. The soil was loose and I had a hell of a time scrambling back up the hill, but I guess it proved that someone could hike through the brush sans a trail, since the canopy is pretty thick, perhaps giving some credence to the Robinson Crusoe theory. There is another trail that goes around the hill, but despite the clear signs, the trail was overgrown.
Kayaking from The Venue
The entrance to the Harbor Canal is straight ahead.
Aside from the Vomit Comet and blasting reggaeton, I'd recommend that anyone traveling through Central America should stop for a few days to explore Utila. It was a safe, easy trip. In my next entry, I'll write about Rio Cangrejal and the mountains near La Ceiba.
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