Pirates and pillaging to partying and polygamy, washed up adventures to wistful backpackers, shipwrecks to ship dives. Utila is an island with a fanciful past of swashbuckling escapades which has slowly morphed into a paradise for bright-eyed travellers and the children of teenage Hondurans. Utila, or “The Rock” as it’s lovingly referred to, is as unique as it is enchanting, and it quickly stole my heart. Here’s what I learnt about my new favourite Caribbean Island..
The Present: We arrived in Utila around 8pm off a small boat which tumbled over waves in the darkness and delivered us to the docks feeling lucky to be alive. Our first few days were spent figuring out the lay of the land and getting used to the dangers of the chaotic main street. While there are not many cars there are rickshaws, quad bikes and motorbikes all speeding down one small path, narrowly dodging the many pedestrians. Utila is presently known as the cheapest place to become dive certified in the Americas (which may have been true at one stage but our certifications in Taganga, Colombia were actually cheaper.) so there are many dive shops, most of which offer free or cheap accommodation as a package to dive with them. This attracts enthusiastic divers hungry to learn more about the hidden world that lies beneath the shimmering surface of the ocean. The usual duration of the dive masters cert is a month or more, so there are a huge number of long term travellers with time on their hands who are either drinking themselves into oblivion, working part time in hospitality, or chipping in with local charities to help the environment.
Over the last decade or so the population has grown from 1,500 Utilians to over 3,000 and the influx has mostly been a mixture of wealthy American Gen Xers and mainland Honduran’s. While on The Rock we had the pleasure of spending time with local personality Shelby MacNab. His grandfather was one of the original Utilians shipwrecked on the island many years ago, so his family own a decent chunk of the land. He employs a lot of mainland Honduran’s as “they’re great labourers and hard workers.” He told us the influx of extra hands is helpful as tourism on the island grows. He also said it’s had another interesting effect on the population, ”You know, of the 3000 or so residents, over 700 are students in schools on the island” he told us.
We also made fantastic friends with a very fun and charismatic young school teacher who we will call “Veronica”. She explained that this high percentage of children may be because some of the parents she’s spoken to look at their offspring as glimmer of hope in a future otherwise shrouded in poverty. Using this logic they produce 6 or 7 of these little lottery tickets to increase the odds of success.
So the present energy on this little rock in the Carribean is being fed by smiling authentic Utilians from British and Carribean decent, environmental backpackers keen to make a difference, retiring Americans with a salty hippy vibe and young mainlanders working hard, desperate for a break. This energy makes the island buzz with hope and is very healing to bathe in.
The Past: We heard plenty of fantastic tails of bygones past during our two weeks on The Rock. Apparently, hundreds of years ago Utila was a pirate Island where ships would drop anchor, spilling a cargo of rum filled sailors who would go ashore and run amok. It’s believed that the infamous Captain Morgan himself spent some time off from raping and pillaging to recoup and restock here. Another famous long term visitor is theorised to be Robinson Crusoe. A few years ago an expert on the tail visited Shelby Mac in search of Crusoe’s fabled Island. Together the two men scoured the island for the clues Crusoe left in his diaries and found uncanny matches in geography leading to the conclusion that this was most certainly the spot that the lonely survivor was washed ashore all those lifetimes ago and where he spent 26 years surviving off the land.
The Future well that’s impossible to say but it’s an interesting question. With regards to the environment things are positive. The dive centres are working hard to protect the reef and we spoke to a woman whose organisation is aiming to abolish single use plastics on both Utila and Rotan as a start on a wider project. Shelby has beautiful visions of a holistically well future and is working with a church group to build a huge wellness centre where a new type of tourist will come to rebalance their life. “Veronica” has plans to start a childrens charity to prepare the hoards for their respective futures and I have confidence she will increase the odds of having popped out a winner.
With the number of people we met who have fallen in love with Utila and have a genuine passion for making it a better place I think there is great hope for sunny sailing into the future, but here’s hoping they put a plan in place for that chaotic main road before these kids all turn into teenaged hoons with their own motos.